In exactly 37 days, Gujarat will vote. Yet, there is little evidence of the impending elections on Godhra’s streets. No life-sized posters of smarmy, khadi-clad politicians, no loudspeakers playing Bollywood-ised paeans to political parties and no cars brimming over with party workers exhorting people to vote. It would seem like it is almost a foregone conclusion that the Narendra Modi administration will, once again, return to power.
There’s even less to point to the fact that Godhra was the epicentre of a carnage that has repeatedly shocked the nation. No streetside arguments about the merits or demerits of the recent Tehelka sting operation, or the Eral riots judgment that has indicted 11 people. Here too, there are foregone conclusions — the Tehelka operation is nothing to worry about and nothing wrong happened in the 2002 post-Godhra riots.
“That (the sting) will only help the BJP win. Only you people think they’ve done something wrong. And none of this is new to us. We’ve always known the state was complicit in the riots,” smiles 24-year-old businessman Jyotish Sutar, at his shop in Godhra. The suave young Sutar is equally confident about Modi’s victory. “Of course he’ll win. He has done wonders for the state — there is no corruption any more.”
And even as the Hindu Right appears almost celebratory over the confessions caught on tape (“we’ve shown the world that we’re brave enough to admit to what we did. This is a matter of pride for us,” says Rajendra Tiwari, a BJP cardholder and lawyer for most of those chargesheeted for the riots in the Panchmahals area), Gujarat’s Muslims are far from pleased with recent developments. “This is a political conspiracy by the Modi government to bring Hindutva back into the limelight,” believes Mehboob Yusuf Dedki, 30, a riot refugee who now lives in Godhra, 200 km from his ancestral village of Ranipura.
Dedki’s home is located in a poor suburb of Godhra, which, with its jumble of squat homes, has turned into a relief camp of sorts. It is ironically called Aman Park. As we talk in the fading evening light, there is an azaan call in the background. But Dedki is in no hurry to offer namaaz. He’s just happy to have a patient audience. “The communal tension has waned in the last two years. But media attention on the riots will rake up the Hindutva issue again. This will just make things difficult for us,” says the private school teacher.
Just about six years ago, Dedki’s family owned three businesses, including a prosperous flour mill. After the riots, he attempted to go back to his village to rebuild his family home, but was threatened by the local Hindus. He then approached the court and won, and is waiting until he has enough money to return. He now writes letters and petitions to the local government asking for water and electricity supply for Aman Park.
Activists here say those like Dedki are a new kind of Gujarati Muslim — poor but more determined than ever before to fight for their rights. “They’re more alert and politically conscious. They realise that they can’t ask for anything as Muslims, but want to fight as citizens of the country — nothing more, nothing less,” says Jahnavi Andharia of the NGO Anandi. Even amidst the rubble then, the riots have spawned activists like Latifa Bano Getali, the Nobel-nominated housewife who started an education and charitable trust called Al Fazl.
According to Latifa Bano, incidents like the Bilkis Bano case — in which the police distorted the gangraped woman’s complaint because of her illiteracy — has created an impetus for the Muslim community to educate its daughters. But awareness and activism have come at a heavy price — Latifa Bano’s husband, M.Y. Getali, was forced to spend a year in jail because of his wife’s activities.
After much campaigning, Getali managed to get out. But others continue to languish in prison. Four kilometers from Godhra town is another poor locality called Sadr. On February 27, at 5.30 p.m., some 10 hours after the Sabarmati Express’ coach S-6 was burnt, the police descended here. With their faces covered with triangular pieces of cloth, they barged into homes and picked up men at random. “‘Just come and show your faces at the thana,’ they told us,” says 60-year-old Nafisa Anwari Ansari. She didn’t hear from her sons for the next three months. “Finally, we got a letter saying they were in Sabarmati jail,” wails Ansari. Her anguish is almost unbearable — I have to look away several times.
When I remark that there is an unusual absence of men in this area, Rehana Hussain, 25, tells me: “Fourteen men were picked up from this lane alone.” She gets to see her husband only once every six months. With POTA charges having been filed against these men for being part of a “criminal conspiracy” of arson, it has become impossible for them to get bail. This is obviously a story these women have recited before, but they don’t mind narrating it again — in the hope that things might change this time around.
In the distance, the auburn buildings of Godhra glow like burning embers. The next morning, I meet Tiwari, who, fittingly talks about the festering anger and fire in the hearts of the state’s Hindus. Through all his rhetoric about not caring about the rest of the country’s opinion, and the awakening of latent Hindu courage, only one statement stands out. It’s his prediction for the state of Gujarat — “I don’t see Hindus and Muslims living peacefully at any time in the next 10 years. Not until the Muslims convince us of their good behaviour,” he says.