Dear Rahul Gandhi, Sixteen years ago, on the morning of Monday, 7 December 1992, I called my father from our little shop in Surat’s Bombay Market. I told him nobody seemed to be showing up and could I lock up and return home. Father, always suspicious, grumbled that I could wait, but then relented.
My bike was stopped once on my way back; I was asked my name, told not to return that way. By the time I was home, thin columns of brown and grey smoke could be seen rising over the Surat skyline from our eighth-floor flat. Around us, Muslims were getting paid back for...having their mosque pulled down.
Surat had not seen much violence in Gujarat’s earlier riots: Ahmedabad and Vadodara are the two most savage cities in India. Surat isn’t like them, for reasons that I will write about another time. But in 1992, Surat’s Muslims did not escape. We call them riots, but they’re actually the slaughter of Muslims. Six hundred people died in Surat that week. That was the first time I heard of Muslims being burnt inside their homes, of men who stood naked outside Muslim homes, stroking themselves and asking the women to come out. "You’re going to die anyway," the men laughed.
The newspapers reported on a gang rape videotape doing the rounds. It was being passed around as pornography. My friends claimed to have seen it. We lived directly behind Ambika Niketan, the largest temple in Surat, on the southern bank of the Tapi river. It was a Hindu area, far from Muslim ghettos, but it had a few Muslim businesses.
Rahmat Ali, my barber, who had moved from Mumbai and whose wall had a picture of him shaving Dilip Kumar at the Taj (hotel), lost his shop. Farry’s, the video library at the mouth of our lane, was torched with kerosene. The flames blackened the first-floor flat of a neighbouring Hindu, upsetting him: "Maro shun vaank (How was it my fault)?" he was shouting at some people as I passed by.
There was no work for me for the next few days because the market was shut. On Tuesday night, the neighbourhood was aflame with the rumour that Muslims were preparing to come up the river in boats and attack the temple. The men were asked to come out and be on guard. I unscrewed my pull-up bar, the only weapon I could think of, and walked up and down the temple road twice. After that I felt I had done my bit and went back upstairs.
Newspapers the next day were full of pictures of bodies, burnt, bloodied, decapitated. On Wednesday, Shaheen aapa (sister), our neighbour on the ninth floor, came down with an ancient gun in her hands, and her two little daughters by her side. She was pregnant with her third daughter, the last child she would have with Kadir Pirzada, the handsome Congressman who was once the youngest mayor of Surat. "Will you protect us?" she asked, and handed the gun and two cartridges to me.
I looked at my mother, who came out of the kitchen and asked me to go up. I walked up to their flat and sat on the steps outside the door, with the gun on my lap, terrified. I was 23 and had never held a rifle (or shotgun, I cannot say what it was) till that day, and haven’t held one after that.
In the middle of that riot, leaving his family alone in a Hindu neighbourhood, Pirzada had gone off to calm the city. He returned in the afternoon and was surprised, and I think alarmed, to see that the gun had been taken out. He took it from me, had a meal and went off again.
I left Surat soon after, but that afternoon my prejudice against Muslims ebbed. Since then, every time I have felt it surge, switch off my thoughts and take over my emotions, I have been shamed by the memory of that day, and the dignity of that family.
In the years after that I would sometimes see a mention of Kadirbhai in the news. Once, during the Ganesh Visarjan in the Tapi, being interviewed on television and reassuring people about the arrangements for drinking water and lifeguards. Another time, I read in The Indian Express of a fatwa passed against him by maulvis because he was the chief guest at a Navratri celebration and had stood at the aarti.
When his father died in the village, 150,000 adivasis (tribals) came to the funeral. The Pirzadas are Sufi Muslims.
After the riots of 2002, in an interview, (chief minister) Narendra Modi told Rediff.com how the Congress was threatening to act against Pirzada because he had organized a group of 15,000 Muslims to beg for peace with Modi at a function. They were being butchered; what did the Congress expect him to do? Hit back?
Asked why he had joined the BJP after the massacres in Gujarat, Arif Mohammed Khan, a very fine mind, said, "You cannot fight civil society." I thought about that for a long time.
Kadirbhai did not join the BJP. He has been with the Congress for 30 years. He has been out of power for most of that time because most Gujaratis will not vote for the Congress any more, leave alone a Muslim. But he believes in the party. In any part of India, this man should be an asset to the Congress. In Gujarat, he should be treasured.
The last time Gujarat sent a Muslim to the Lok Sabha was in 1984: Rajiv Gandhi’s landslide victory. Gujarat has 26 Lok Sabha seats and Muslims are 9% of the population. Modi did not field a single Muslim candidate in any of the 182 assembly seats in the 2007 election, or the one before that.
I have no quarrel with Narendrabhai. He represents an aspect, the bitter resentment, of Gujaratis, and he does it well. I have family and friends who respond to his bigotry; I can no more hate him than I can hate them.
My problem is with the Congress. It has rolled over and died in a state where it should stand up and fight against this hatred from the inside, like Gandhi would have done, and Patel.
Sitting in the Rajya Sabha since 1989, Ahmed Patel of Bharuch, the last Muslim Lok Sabha MP of Gujarat, must decide whether to give Muslims their token one ticket in this election. Many in the Congress believe it is pointless. Many are saying that only Hindus should contest because that’s what most Gujaratis want.
Even if this is true, something larger than the election will be lost by the Congress, and by Gujaratis, if they do this. They might not be able to win, but when men like Pirzada cannot even fight an election, all of us lose.
Dear Rahul, both of us will be 40 in months. Middle-aged and closed of mind, as the men you see about you. Hemingway said, "The world is a beautiful place, and worth fighting for." I don’t think it’s a beautiful place. But I think we should fight anyway.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.