United face of Godhra: they fight well, co-exist even better | india | Hindustan Times
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United face of Godhra: they fight well, co-exist even better

india Updated: Dec 03, 2007 02:00 IST
Neelesh Misra

They are again talking about the town where it all started — where a train burned with passengers trapped inside, leading to a carnage that killed thousands.

Godhra has returned as a poll issue for the BJP. The party stated in newspaper advertisements this week that the UPA and the UC Banerjee Commission had “rubbed salt on the wounds of Godhra”, where 58 people were burned to death in 2002.

But even after the burning of the train, there were no riots in Godhra. This is a town that has lived and learned to live with divisions. And nowhere does it show better than in the heart of Godhra, at a roundabout where two sleepy policemen sit on a stone bench under a tree.

“Hindus live this side. Muslims live that side. This is the Jain neighbourhood. Over there are the Bohras. And where the policemen are sitting, that’s the border,” said Ramesh Shah, whose house marks the beginning of the ‘Hindu territory’.

“Godhra was communal right from the beginning. But even during the days of curfew, people of both faiths reached out to each other. They fight well. But after that’s done, they co-exist even better. After the riots, they are together again,” said Bhupendra Nath Gandhi, the former principal of a local college who worked for the district gazetteer.

This is also the place that has witnessed rebellion and momentous twists-in-the tales for much of the 20th century.

This was where Congress legends like Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mohammed Ali Jinnah (then still a Congressman) and Babasaheb Khaparde came together in 1917 at the first Gujarat Political Conference.

It was here that they struck off the phrase “We are loyal to the British government”, used at the end of standard Congress resolutions. Everyone was asked to speak in mother tongue, not English. At Godhra, even Jinnah switched over to Urdu.

This was also where Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel started his legal practice and began shaping his political career. Mahatma Gandhi held the first “conference of untouchables” here, also making Godhra a pioneering place for Dalit schools.

Skirmishes began in the 1920s over disputes that flared up at the ghats where washermen from both religions came every day. Muslim hardliners and Hindu Mahasabha leaders were often accused of stoking tension.

In 1930, thousands in Godhra and nearby, who could not participate in the Dandi March, found another way to protest. At least 5,000 people courted arrest by going to the Kalol forests, where they cut grass from government land in a ‘Jungle Satyagraha’.

Religious tension became more marked with the arrival of the Sindhi Hindus after Partition. They would turn out to be the most influential community in Godhra.

Riots took place almost twice every decade. From October 1980, a part of the town was actually under curfew for an entire year.

But it is hard for the different communities to be apart.

Hindus and Muslims are entwined in business enterprises and trade in the town of 120,000 people and century-old businesses. At least 73 per cent people are literate, higher than the national average of 65 per cent.

“Unity is strong,” says Y.A. Athada, 30, a local businessman. “After all, we have to do business together. We are tied together in so many ways, like Muslim farmers who sell to Sindhis, so both are dependent on each other for their livelihood.”

Seated on his motorcycle, he adds: “At election time, people divide us.”