“Walk as much as you want, all that land is yours.”
With the flourish of an emperor, an elderly man in Gujarat’s Anjar town asked his guests to begin walking through his dense, 82-acre orchard. The guests — including Mahmood Madani, general secretary of the Jamiat ulema-e-Hind, walked 12 acres and then stopped.
This was enough for their purpose — building an orphanage and school for quake-hit children in the town where 425 children had died.
How much should they pay for it, the visitors asked.
The elderly man – a Hindu trader — said: “If you are talking of paying for this, please leave.”
That was the summer of 2001. Today, the sprawling complex houses dozens of children orphaned in the Gujarat earthquake and the 2002 riots, a college of pharmacy and a large school for students who study the Quran as well as Humpty and Dumpty.
In a state where Hindus and Muslims live in religion-based enclaves in several cities, where Hindus and Muslims do not buy property in each other’s areas and in some places are barred from doing so by law, the Shah Zakaria Haji Peer Public School defies religious faultlines.
“If a Muslim wants to buy a home in a Hindu colony, he is not allowed to do so under some pretext or the other. The same happens to non-Muslims in Muslim areas,” said Madani. “Both sides have the same mentality now. Our challenge is how to bridge the gap.”
Some such bridges were built in 2002, when several Hindus risked their lives to shelter Muslims at their homes amid the riots.
In Anjar, days after the devastating earthquake, the Jamiat set up a relief camp on a large piece of farmland, but were soon asked by its Muslim landowner - from a different sect - to vacate. So they packed up - with nowhere to go.
Across the road sat the lungi-clad, chain-smoking Naveenchandra Ballabhdas Bhatia. Educated only till Class V, Bhatia ran a transport business. Within 48 hours, he destroyed his own orchard - cutting down guava, coconut and mango trees. From the remaining orchard, he sent the first crop of fruit to the Jamiat-run school every year.
The next year, the riots broke out. "Bhatiaji was deeply upset. He was in Bombay but he used to call every Muslim he knew, every day, to ask how we were," said Maulana Haqimuddin, who manages the complex. When Madani became a Member of Parliament last year, Bhatia bought rasgullas in Anjar and distributed them to people. He died last year on New Year's Eve. His beloved horse died within days.
"His family is carrying on Bhatia ji's work," said Haqimuddin.
The school has changed hundreds of lives. At the entrance of a classroom, two pieces of paper pasted at the door read: "Eid Mubarak" in Urdu, and a poster with two diyas said "Happy Diwali".
Need one say any more?