Ahmedabad: As Manik Bhai, a travel agent and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, came out of the party’s booth-level meeting in Ahmedabad’s Ellis Bridge area on November 21, he had a clear plan.
“Logon ko batana hai ki har Muslim is taak mein baitha hai ki Congress ki sarkaar aaye aur woh dangon ka badla le sake (We have to tell people that Muslims are waiting for a Congress government in the state to get their revenge for the 2002 riots),” he said with palpable assurance.
Is this true? Why would Muslims unnecessarily disrupt peace?
“The party has information and we go by it. We know Muslims harbour an inherent dislike for the Hindus,” he said.
The conversation was a trigger for Manik Bhai to continue talking – and gradually but excitedly he revealed his sentiments.
“Today, you see, so many women walking along the Sabramati riverfront even at 2 am. This was not the case before 2002. Cities in Gujarat were not safe. Muslim men formed bike gangs only to assault women walking on streets.”
“After the 2002 riots, they were shown their place. But I would say the riots helped them too. Modi ke dar se sab kaam mein lag gaye (Muslims have started working because of Modi’s fear). Muslims do not believe in educating themselves. But even then, Gujarat has given them employment,” he said smugly.
What employment? “In garages or soldering workshops mostly,” he replied.
But haven’t they been in these businesses before 2002 too? “Yes, but now they work at an early age. No loaferbaazi (hooliganism) is allowed.”
Manik Bhai then sipped his tea in a hurry as if he had missed a point. “In the last few years, these people have got into the construction industry. Now they are richer than the Hindus,” he said as his brows furrowed scornfully.
“If you go to Juhapura (a Muslim-dominated colony), it is like mini-Pakistan. They have made mansions inside those narrow lanes,” he muttered.
But didn’t a majority of them move to Juhapura after the riots? “Yes,” came his quick reply. Will they be allowed to live in the new Ahmedabad, I ask. “Never, the Gujaratis will never allow them to stay. There is no point in selling a Muslim a flat in a new society. No Gujarati will buy a flat in that society if he gets to know a Muslim has bought a flat there.”
What Manik Bhai said in Ahmedabad was not unique. Many other BJP activists, supporters, and sympathisers echoed similar thoughts in various other regions of the state. Woven into local contexts, these narratives found their way into conversations more than one would normally expect.
“The credit for making Gujarat a secure place for women goes to Modi alone. There have been no riots here since 2002. We can all walk freely,” said 22-year-old Sharika, finishing her post-graduate degree in analytical chemistry from the Anand-based Sardar Patel University. She took pride in the fact that she never had a Muslim friend despite living in the city where a substantial number of Muslims stay.
“Modi is a strong leader. He can take decisions quickly. See how he showed Pakistan its aukaat (status),” Manorama Kundariya, a middle-aged woman in Rajkot said, while talking about about the army’s surgical strike on a terrorist camp across the LoC as one of Modi’s achievements.
Bashing Pakistan and defaming Gujarati Muslims almost always happens together, as if they have some sort of organic linkage. A large section of middle class Hindus base their understanding of nationalism on huge doses of Islamophobia, a campaign aggressively pursued by the Sangh parivar, especially in urban Gujarat.
“I was travelling with a Muslim businessman once. He stopped at a customs office and came back only after three hours. He was completely hassled. Then he started narrating his story. He said that the excise officers were unnecessarily harassing him and had blocked his container despite him having all the due permissions and legal papers. I started wondering why they would do that,” Manik Bhai said.
“Then he said his textile container had come from Pakistan. These people, however much they earn here, will transact only with Pakistan. Why couldn’t he buy his textiles from Surat or anywhere in India,” he said, sounding satisfied with the custom department’s response.
“2002 ke baad dange nahin huye. Ek ghante mein police Musalmaanon ko line pe le aati hai (No riots have taken place after 2002. The police control the Muslims within one hour these days),” said Jitesh Pandya, a Rajkot-based journalist.
So the murders, rapes and loot carried out against them was right then? “No, I am not saying that, but some drastic measure had to be taken to control the Muslims,” he said without any hesitation.
What Pandya said was a common refrain whenever one heard Hindu voters praise Modi. The most important part of the reasoning for Modi’s popularity in Gujarat, according to many, was the muscularity he displayed against Muslims.
In reality, however, Muslims began to ghettoise themselves in isolated colonies, like Juhapura, in the outskirts of Gujarat’s cities out of fear, minimising their interactions in the aftermath of the riots.
As the benefits of the Gujarat model failed to trickle down in the last 22 years – much of its reflection is seen in the rising number of community agitations in the state – such contempt for Muslims has seeped deep into the Hindu middle class psyche.
Yet, a large section of Muslims have been fighting these prejudices in their own unique ways.
For instance, across north Gujarat, Muslims have entered the hospitality business in a big way. A strict adherence for cleanliness in their restaurants and rooms have turned these hotels into the best pads for business travellers.
“We see to it that we achieve the highest quality in our service. Here, if people see a person with a beard at the reception desk, they refuse to enter. But now we (Muslims) have the best hotels in Palanpur and adjoining areas,” said a motel owner, who feared being named.
Similarly, Dawood Sheikh (name changed), a medium-level builder in Ahmedabad told The Wire, “The construction quality of buildings made by Gujarati Muslims are better than even some big corporates. People who are looking for quality housing are now coming to us. It was difficult for us earlier, people did not trust us easily, but the situation is slowly improving. The young people of Gujarat are interested in a good deal, not religion.”
In Kutch, Md Ismail has led a group of Dalits and Muslims to form a mega-cluster of Kutchi handicrafts. “Modiji ignored us when he was in Gujarat but as the PM, he has shown interest in reviving the handicraft industry. I want to tell him that we are there to help,” he said.
The prejudices against Muslims have become a talking point in the run-up to the polls. The Sangh parivar has been fanning communal sentiments as is reflected in Modi’s recent speeches. He recently equated the Congress quest for power with “Aurangzeb raj” and has frequently been using Islamic symbolism to attack the party.
Similarly, Adityanath’s inflammatory statements invoking Hindu pride and justifying the demolition of Babri Masjid have come at a time when the BJP has been trying to use religious polarisation to stem dissent. Videos playing on Hindu insecurities, like the one in which a young Hindu woman reaches home scared amidst the voice of azaan emanating from a neighbouring masjid, have already been inviting a great deal of criticism.
Whether or not these will eventually succeed in harnessing the widespread feeling of contempt for Muslims in Gujarat is yet to be seen. On the political front however, the lines are clearly drawn.
While the BJP has tried to cement prejudices against Muslims, the Congress has been trying to puncture the narrative, although only indirectly.
“Why is Gujarat ranked third in women trafficking, fifth in acid attacks and tenth in the rape of minor girls… Why are the two most important cities, Ahmedabad and Surat, ranked among the top ten in crime against women in India?” Congress president Rahul Gandhi claimed in a tweet.
A senior Rajkot-based RSS leader, who is otherwise an in-house critic of Modi for his pro-corporate stance and what he alleged was his “self promotion”, appeared convinced that the BJP’s campaigns would surely have appeal, and not just electorally. “Look, if democracy has to survive in India, it has to remain in the hands of Hindus. The Sangh ensures only one thing – if a Hindu goes to vote, he should remember that BJP is his party and the Congress, at the end of the day, is for Muslims.”