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Gujarat polls: 15 yrs after riots, Cong tries soft Hindutva, BJP eyes Muslim votes

Communal polarisation is a defining feature of Gujarat politics, and Godhra is its prime example. Godhra, a town of 150,000 people, has never been known for Hindu-Muslim harmony. In Part 1 of our series on the Gujarat polls, we look at how political parties in Gujarat are playing the communal card.

india Updated: Jul 12, 2017 08:42 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times, Godhra
Relatives pay homage to those killed at Gulbarg Society following the February 2002 Godhra train incident, which sparked communal riots that year, on the ninth anniversary of the incident in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2011. (AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

The line dividing Hindus and Muslims in Godhra has never run deeper. Darshan Soni can’t remember the last time he stepped into the Muslim territory as himself.

An active member of Godhra’s leading cow vigilante group, Soni only ever crosses into the Muslim area posing as a Muslim — skullcap placed firmly on his big, bald head – to pick up leads on the movement of cows.

Soni has never willingly spoken to a Muslim in 24 years. “We don’t talk to each other in Godhra; we never have.”

Godhra, a town of 150,000 people, has never been known for Hindu-Muslim harmony. “Since before 1947, every year an incident drove the communities apart,” said a Muslim trader who didn’t want to be named.

And 2002 sealed it forever, when on February 28, 59 Hindu pilgrims travelling in the Sabarmati Express were killed in a fire that engulfed their coach near Godhra station; nearly 2,000 people, a majority of them Muslims, were killed in the subsequent riots that singed 20 of Gujarat’s 25 districts.

Godhra, Ground Zero of 2002
  • 2017 marks 15 years of the communal riots that tore through Gujarat
  • According to official sources, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, and as many as 100,000 Muslims and 40,000 Hindus were rendered homeless.
  • According to civil rights and Muslim groups, more than 2,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs.
  • Earlier in 2017, all 28 accused in a post-Godhra riot case were acquitted by a Gandhinagar court citing lack of substantial evidence.
  • Muslims, who make up 22% of Godhra’s 2.13 lakh electorate, feel alienated from the political mainstream in Gujarat.

Communal polarisation is a defining feature of Gujarat politics, and Godhra is its prime example. In the assembly constituency of Godhra, where Muslims make up about 22% of the electorate, the Congress has defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in six of the 12 assembly elections held so far. The coming elections in November will be a test for both parties as they struggle to hold on to their constituencies in the city as well as the state.

Read more | 15 years after Godhra, we still don’t know who lit the fire

Muslims, 9% of the state’s population according to Census 2011, see the BJP’s renewed focus on cow protection as a bid to consolidate the Hindu vote bank.

However, the electoral dynamics are more complicated this time. A section of Gujarat’s Muslims feels disillusioned with the Congress’ perfunctory patronage. The party hasn’t made any significant moves to rebuild the community’s trust. In March, Gujarat Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki, said, “I will be most happy if Lord Ram’s temple is rebuilt in his birthplace.” In June, the party’s youth wing demanded the central government declare the cow as national animal.

If Congress is toying with soft Hindutva to win the Hindus back, the BJP too is trying to woo the Muslims. In May, the party’s minority cell kicked off a series of Muslim meets with an event in rural Gandhinagar where, it claims, around 2,000 members of the Congress’ minority cell joined the BJP.

Read more | A year after Una, Dalit ire may not be able to dent BJP prospects in Gujarat polls

But as the fight for votes kicks off, issues related to safety and security continue to weigh heavily on Muslims of Gujarat.

In Godhra, local meat shops shut down for a week after the BJP government’s announcement of life term for cow slaughter, to avoid trouble.

“Nearly 70% of the community lives in fear that they will be implicated by police if trouble happens,” says Sophia Jamal, vice-president at the town municipality.

“Nothing has changed in the 15 years. When our kids are picked up over suspicion and sent to jail, they keep rotting there until a court decides in their favour. No investigation happens,” she adds.

Compared to the Hindus, Muslims in Godhra are cautious on the subject of Hindu-Muslim ties. Says Haneef Haji. “Hindu-Muslim relations are perfectly fine. We freely go into each other’s neighbourhoods. We get together at every wedding.”

Read more | 15 years after Godhra riots: The politics of hate still divides us

They find it easier to blame police and politicians for their troubles. “All this drama is to provoke riots,” says Haji. “BJP people are running maximum butcher shops in India. You tell us that your religion doesn’t allow the killing of animals — then what are bulls, buffaloes and goats?”

There is only one exception to Godhra’s Hindu-Muslim segregation. Harin Patel and Sajid Khan Pathan have been business partners since 2007. They run their motor company from an office space burnt down in the 2002 riots, even though they live across the line of separation.

“There should be tuning between two people. That’s the important thing in business,” says Patel. “Ek dum close relation hai. Family relation hai. Har cheez mein (We are very close, like family),” says Pathan.

It seems like the perfect story. Business beats religion. There is one catch, though. Pathan happens to be a vegetarian: “Why eat beef at all? Not like it’s a good thing. Some people are just being stubborn—that’s all.”

In a few months, PM Narendra Modi’s home state goes to the polls in what is being billed as one of the most important tests for the BJP before the general elections in 2019. HT travels to five of Gujarat’s most important cities and through them examines some of the issues that are shaping the poll campaign.

First Published: Jul 11, 2017 07:36 IST