The status of Muslims in the city has improved, but politically they are still irrelevant, and although high rise buildings with American names have sprouted throughout, its ghettos still continue to exist.
One can land in Ahmedabad’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport only after 6 pm – and before 10 am – something one would not expect to happen on the prime minister’s home turf. The runway of the airport is undergoing repair and since international flights land and take off during the night, the airport can remain closed only during the day.
Hence, I landed in the city late in the evening – 11 years after I had left.
Friends had told me that the city had changed beyond recognition. The chock-a-block traffic and the glittering lights that greeted me bore eloquent testimony to what I had heard. With a bus rapid transit system in operation and with malls all around, this was not the city that I had left behind.
However, it is not the dazzling lights that surprised me the most. Housing societies and gated communities had come to ‘Amdavad’ much before they arrived in other cities, but what was unique about them was their local name. The Satyagraha Chavanis and Amaltas Bungalows had given way to Mondale Heights and Le Jardin Apartments, testament to the growing foreign influence.
Even though Gujarat Fisheries have hawked their wares in places as far as Delhi, the people of the city had become increasingly vegetarian in the 1990s. It was almost impossible to find a neighbourhood shop that sold eggs, and several hotels only had a vegetarian or Jain food section at their buffets. Non-vegetarian dishes were out of the question and in order to buy fish one had to cross the Sabarmati river to go to the Muslim-dominated quarters in the old city.
But things are now changing. The city’s main streets are dotted with restaurants and food trucks that serve non-vegetarian dishes.
A decade ago there were laaris (push carts) selling omelettes on the road – the only non-vegetarian food that was tolerated. Now, even places like Karnavati Club, which is frequented by the well heeled, serve non-vegetarian dishes to the guests, but only in their rooms and not in the restaurants, lest other diners get offended.
My friends pointed to a five-star hotel where a Japanese buffet is laid out on Sundays – a sign of growing cosmopolitanism. Even though prohibition still looms large in Ahmedabad, the friendly neighbourhood bootlegger home delivers anything you desire, hence making a mockery of the whole exercise. The loss to the state exchequer is estimated at Rs 4,000 crore, an amount it would have earned through excise if liquor was sold legally. Locals, however, say that the earnings from the illegal liquor trade keeps everybody happy, hence comparatively controlling other crimes. With a state like Bihar imposing prohibition, the law enforcing agencies have also become stricter on the issue.
These cosmetic changes apart, the ghettos in Ahmedabad continue to exist. All those who arrived in the city in the later years, like the Muslims who came in 1990s, were not allowed to buy properties or rent in the upcoming western part of the city. Irrespective of their social standing, they could only stay in the old city or in a huge ghetto called Juhapura, which is located at the end of the new city. The Hindus and Muslims had no personal relations, although they did do business with each other and maintained working relations. The riots of 2002, however, broke this fragile working relation too.
More than a decade later, this relationship has been restored, but the ghettos remain. Hanif Lakdawala, a social activist, said, “Muslims and Hindus still stay in different quarters and Muslims are confined to Juhapura.”
At the time of the 2002 riots, Juhapura was portrayed by the Hindu rioters as a ‘den of anti socials’ and a ‘mini Pakistan’. Such open hostility has now disappeared and Juhapura’s physical infrastructure has also improved.
“There are some bright young architects and some nice houses have been designed,” Lakdawala added. Behind this is the economic betterment of the Muslims. “I won’t say that this betterment is dramatic but improvement there is,” a senior government officer said.
In the wake of the 2002 riots, many establishments refused to hire Muslims, but now that’s a matter of the past. Muslims have taken complete advantage of the industrial and economic growth and have been given several jobs. “The Muslim and Hindu elites have reconciled with each other and there are studies to prove this,” analyst Rajiv Shah said. “But at the lower economic strata there is a significant amount of apprehension amongst Muslims.”
With elections to the state assembly just a year away, it is interesting to see how these apprehensions will work out. Political analysts in Gujarat claim that Muslims in Ahmedabad have resigned to their status and have no political clout, and will thus continue to be irrelevant politically. They point out that the challenge to the ruling BJP will come from the Patels and the Dalits, who had previously been staunchly behind the saffron party, which has been in power in the state since 1998.
The main comfort to the BJP will come from the divided ranks of the Congress, which is not in a position to capitalise on the disenchantment amongst the masses after Narendra Modi migrated to Delhi. “Not all Patels seem inclined to vote for BJP this time. The middle-class Patels are upset although the rich Patels are standing behind the BJP,” said Kalpesh Patel, an IT engineer. He further added “The middle-class Patels reason that they have not been gainers in the rapid growth in the last 15 years.” The Dalits are also upset due to the same reason and incidents like Una, where a group of Dalits were flogged by cow vigilantes, have served to alienate even them further. Traditionally Congress supporters, the Dalits had largely moved to the BJP after 2002.
Modi has also realised that this erosion of the BJP’s support base may cost the party dearly and has increased his visits to Ahmedabad and the state. “Narendrabhai’s image in Ahmedabad and Gujarat is, however, intact. Most people see him as their very own man steering the country and his presence assures the ruling party of victory,” said a Congressman who did not wish to be named, in what is another example of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
Kingshuk Nag is the former resident editor of The Times of India in Ahmedabad. He is the author of several books, including The NaMo Story: A Political Life.