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Divide and rue

In strife-torn ‘border areas’ of Ahmedabad, where high walls mark deep divides, an uneasy peace descends. A peace that took some work — and some fear. Kiran Wadhwa & Stavan Desai report.

india Updated: Aug 03, 2008 01:13 IST
Kiran Wadhwa & Stavan Desai

It winds its way along the narrow streets of Jhuapura and Vejalpur, watching the mohallas and bastis, the skullcaps and the Gujarati saris. It looks on impassively as people on either side of it go about their everyday lives with an air of normalcy. But within its core lurks a gnawing fear, a dread that Ahmedabad has lived long, troubled years with.

<b1>It is the four-kilometre long wall that divides the quiet but sensitive residential areas of Jhuapura and Vejalpur into two very distinct worlds that locals refer to as the ‘M-class’ and the ‘H-class’. The wall came up 15 years ago, after the Babri Masjid riots, when both sides decided to put up a concrete division between their worlds. They built the wall themselves, brick by brick.

Though Jhuapura and Vejalpur are administratively defined as one locality, the two areas have separate approaches, shops and schools for residents on either side. Those from one side do not venture into the other’s bylanes unless necessary.

The ‘M-class’ doesn’t live or buy property in Vejalpur just as the ‘H-class’ can’t do so in Jhuapura. (The story goes that when Abdul Kalam came to Ahmedabad long before be became President, he could not find accommodation in Vejalpur.)

The Jhuapura-Vejalpur area is one of Ahmedabad’s ‘border areas’ sections so divided across religious lines that their borders and battle lines are clearly drawn.

Ahmedabad has seven such border areas that came up after the 1969 communal riots. As the violence ebbed away, people started moving out to ‘safe zones’, where members of one religious community dominated. And the ghettoisation only grew stronger over the years and riots.

The border areas
Dariyapur and Kalupur
Gomtipur and Rakhial
Bapunagar and Naroda
Nagoriwad and Baluchawad
Jhuapura and Guptanagar
Jhuapura and Vejalpur
Narol and Danilimda

Scattered like dormant volcanoes across the heart of a city that has seen 53 people lose their lives in 21 serial blasts, these border areas were the hotbed of the 2002 Godhra riots. Their residents now pray nervously that the blasts of July 26 do not trigger another massacre.

As with all border areas, security is stiff and each area has about four police chowkies. After the blasts, the Rapid Action Force has been deployed at these places to ensure there are no flare-ups.

“On one side of the road are Hindus; on the other, Muslims. It is almost like two different countries with a line of control,” says Aziz Gandhi, member of a local peace committee. The 65-year-old grocery store-owner, who has devoted 35 years of his life to bringing peace to this troubled area, is now going from home to home, assuring frightened families that the nightmare of 2002 will not be repeated. These families are mostly middle- class people who own shops, or work in banks, hospitals and the service sector.

“After the Godhra riots, we wanted to move home, but no one would buy our property even for Rs 2 lakh,” says Shanta Banker, the wife of a retired bank official who has been living in Vejalpur for the last 22 years. “I have never been on the Mohammedan side,” she confesses, “though it is said to be safe. Now, of course, because of the blasts, people from this side are not going there.”

“It is not the residents, but political forces who instigate people to create chaos. We live in harmony here. Yes, there is a border but we can cross it freely,” says Ashfaque Ansari, who runs a travel agency at Bapunagar on the ‘M-class’ side. Ansari’s words are remarkable when you consider that his shop was burnt during the Godhra riots. When he repainted his shop, he did not plaster the hole in his roof as a grim reminder of how a peaceful area can suddenly turn hostile. “Many of my customers are Hindu. But when there is a problem, everything turns ugly,” he says.

There is one man, though, who disregards the wall and all other boundaries — Nalin Dholakia, the only Christian in Vejalpur, who has been living there for 22 years now. “I visit the other side of the border every day. People are warm and peaceful on both sides. It is only during such times that things get uncontrollable,” he says. Dholakia recalls the difficult days of 2002: “During the Godhra riots, we couldn’t leave our homes for three months. When we stepped out, stones and fireballs greeted us.”

It is also a Christian institution that offers a meeting ground here as all divides converge at the Don Bosco High School, 10 minutes from Jhuapura. Every morning at 8.30 a.m., students from both sides of the divide gather here, because as principal Ellsa George puts it, “All borders dissolve the moment our students enter the campus.” George, who has taught at the school for 24 years, admits, “It does get difficult during riots and blasts because, understandably, parents panic. They all rush to school afraid that something will happen to their children.”

The school conducts awareness programmes every month to ensure the peace is not disturbed within its walls — and hopefully, outside them too.

Other peacemakers like Aziz Gandhi stand squarely at the border, defying the LoC as they work towards unity. The notorious localities of Dariyapur and Kalupur, where there would be a riot every day, have now calmed down considerably and the Peace Committee, which has members from both religions, is given some credit for that.

There have been other triumphs too. This year, after a 20-year gap, Muslims participated in the rath yatra of Lord Jagannath on July 4. “We are working hard to ensure that everything is peaceful this time,” says Gandhi. “We all aspire to live in harmony.”