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Ghetto blasters

Individual acts of resilience cannot be confused with collective harmony. Ahmedabad is physically and psychologically divided by walls of hatred, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Aug 07, 2008 09:46 IST

On India’s terror map, Hansabehn Makwana will probably not even be a footnote. As she battles for survival in the burns ward of Ahmedabad’s civil hospital, the 50-year-old woman’s determined face suggests that she hasn’t given up on life. Instead she has only one desire: to get back to work in the hospital’s trauma centre that was the target of the most potent of the city’s 21 serial blasts.

In her voice, there is no hatred, no recrimination, even though she has every reason to be very angry. After all, her husband had just dropped her at the hospital gates when the bomb exploded, grievously injuring the couple. What can be more bestial than the targeting of a hospital? At the hospital, young surgeons and resident doctors, whose colleagues were killed in the blasts, have been working round the clock to save lives. Their fortitude, like that of Hansabehn, is quite remarkable.

Indeed, the stoic manner in which Ahmedabad has faced the aftermath of the blasts raises the question: is this the same city that saw more than 800 lives being lost in the post-Godhra riots? Have the scars from a cycle of violence and retaliation finally healed?

Unfortunately not. It would be a gross misreading to confuse individual acts of resilience with a sense of collective harmony. It makes comforting television, for example, to highlight stories of heroism, of victims whose agony cuts across the religious divide, of a city that has not succumbed to any call for vengeance. But the power of a TV image cannot hide a chilling reality: Ahmedabad is a city that is physically and psychologically divided by walls of hatred. It may seem outwardly peaceful, but it is a peace that now survives on fear and mistrust.

Mixed neighbourhoods have given way to religious ghettos with an increasingly shrinking space for inter-community relations. After the 2002 riots, a number of families from both communities moved out to ‘safer’ areas, safety being defined by their desire to stay with their co-religionists. Invisible ‘borders’ have been drawn with clear rules of engagement: members of either community will not cross into the other’s territory unless absolutely necessary. It’s almost as if Hindus and Muslims have accepted that the only way to coexist is to stay apart geographically.

Travel to Hindu-dominated Maninagar — Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency — and there is sullen anger. Five of the bombs exploded here, some injuring or killing VHP workers who had gone to donate blood at the hospitals. There are no open cries for revenge — VHP chief Praveen Togadia has shifted his ire to Jammu and the Ram Sethu. But there is growing impatience with a law enforcement machinery that appears impotent when confronted with the merchants of terror.

On the other side of the divide is Juhapura, a 300,000 strong highly congested area, often described as a ‘mini-Pakistan’. In its craggy bylanes, there is anger against the State too, but of a slightly different kind. Younger Muslims in particular seem to nurse an acute sense of grievance, convinced that the State is unjust and discriminatory. “No jobs are given to the M-class,” is a common refrain, one that only spurs a victim-complex and a complete lack of faith in the Indian State being an honest arbiter in any reconciliation between communities.

In this complex cauldron of anger and alienation, there has always been a simmering tension. In the past, Ahmedabad’s bloody history of communal conflict was limited to stone throwing and stabbings; 2002 changed all that: young children being thrown into the fire, the wombs of pregnant women being split apart, the violence acquired a brutal edge. The terrorist has brought another diabolical dimension: precision bombings designed to cause maximum damage. Moreover, we need to stop living in denial. The terrorist is not some unseen ‘foreign hand’, but could be the religiously indoctrinated professional next door. There is little doubt that with 21 blasts in 70 minutes, only a well-entrenched local network could have been responsible for the carnage.

Rebuilding the social fabric of one of the country’s fastest growing cities is then a huge challenge for the State and civil society. In the aftermath of the riots, a clutch of NGOs espousing communal harmony have sprung up. Many of them have bravely soldiered on despite being confronted with a hostile state machinery, but a few have also fallen into a trap of political correctness, unwilling to confront the minority community with the grim reality of being both victims and perpetrators of terror. The task for these NGOs isn’t easy: in a deeply polarised society, they need to protect minority interests and reach out to the majority community.

Ideally, this is a role that the State should be performing. But the fact is that Gujarat government is still seen as partisan and anti-minority. Some of the criticism may be unfair. After the blasts, Modi was the epitome of restraint and responsibility. Not once did he seek to demonise a particular community, nor did he resort to any incendiary rhetoric. This may well have been politically expedient. After all, if Modi is eyeing a larger role for himself on the national stage, he needs to shed the tag of presiding over the 2002 violence.

And yet, Modi needs to do much more to connect at an emotional level with those who have been virtually ostracised by the state. In his first reaction to the blasts, he struck a statesman-like pose, emphasising that the only way to defeat the terrorist was to further speed up Gujarat’s economic development. He may be right. Gujarat’s great strength lies in its economic engine. Arguably, no other community can match the spirit of entrepreneurship shown by the Gujarati. Even Modi’s worst critics will concede that his government has been a catalyst for double-digit growth.

But amid the shimmering malls and smooth highways, here’s a sobering reality: Juhapura got its first ATM machine only four weeks ago and the CM has never visited the area even once in the last seven years. Clearly, ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ needs to cut across Ahmedabad’s ‘borders’ to be truly meaningful.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN network