As Godhra votes today, town's Muslims still grapple with chasms created by 2002 riots

Narendra Modi is viewed with anxiety in the town that is synonymous with the riots that set him on his path of prominence and noteriety.
Photo Credit: Shweta Desai
If caste was actually the most important factor in swinging a victory in the elections, the Muslims of Godhra would be rallying in support of Bhartiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi.

For, like the majority of the 60,000-plus Muslims in this town, Modi belongs to the Ghanchi community, which has traditionally been involved in manufacturing cooking oil. The community includes both Hindus and Muslims, divided into 154 sects.

“Today, a person from our Ghanchi community and that too from Gujarat is being tipped to become a PM and this would be a joyous occasion for us,” said businessman Yusuf Rasool.  “But the man in question is Modi, so we can’t support him.”

Some of Godhra’s older Muslim Ghanchis actually have faint memories of their community member from 1970, when Modi spent a decade in the town’s Rani Masjid as a young pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Samiti. Twenty years after he left, Modi’s rise to national prominence – and notoriety – started in the town, when coach S6 of Sabarmati Express caught fire on the morning of February 27, 2002, right outside the Muslim Ghanchi settlement of Signal Falia.

Fifty-nine Hindu pilgrims died in the blaze. The incident triggered retaliatory attacks on the Muslims across Gujarat. The violence claimed more than 1,000 lives, the majority of them Muslim. More than 150,000 people were displaced from homes to which they have still not been able to return.

Though the incident in Godhra was the ostensible trigger for the pogrom, the dusty town in Panchmahal district was largely untouched by the pogrom that engulfed the rest of Gujarat. But the violence established the fault lines between Hindus and Muslims that still mark the town.

In the months after the train burning, the police arrested just over 100 Muslims for allegedly being involved in the attack. Among them were all Sugrabibi Badam’s four sons – Siddique, Shaukat, Hanif and Bilal.

“They are all innocent,” 78-year-old Sugrabibi said. “They never burnt any train.” She recalled nightly raids, long curfews, extended power cuts, the sirens of police van and the banging on the door. “The police would come to our house and destroy everything,” she said. “They would point at me and say, ‘what kind of mother are you to gave birth to such aatankwadi (terrorists). Dheere dheere sab ko le gaye. They eventually took all my sons.”

Sugrabibi says Modi’s leadership since 2002 has completely divided the town’s Hindus and Muslims. Her house in Polan Bazar marks an entry point for the Muslim quarter beyond which Hindus rarely step any longer. “He has spread poison and crossed one community against the other,” she said. “It is very important that Godhra votes for Congress.”

A few kilometres away, in a sprawl of shanties near Saat Pul, Najmabibi, who dropped out of school after the arrest of her father, will cast her vote for the first time today. “If I vote, it will make a difference,” she said. “Maybe the new government will release my father.”

Her father, Siddique Mohammed Modia, an illiterate 40-year-old bhangarwala (scrap dealer), was arrested a year after the train burning, while drinking tea at a roadside stall. For the last 11 years, his family of nine, which includes six daughters, has survived meagrely on a Rs 2,500 monthly handout from a Muslim charity.

In 2011, a special court acquitted two-thirds of the accused men and convicted only 31 people for setting the train afire. Sugrabibi’s four sons and Modia the scrap dealer were among those found guilty. The others – elected corporators, advocates, small businessmen, college students – have quietly retreated from the public eye, attempting to recover the nine years they lost in jail.

The arrests have left Godhra’s Muslims with a fear of being singled out for being members of the minority community. Just last week, Hanif Kalandar, a young farmer and activist who has spent last 12 years helping families of men accused under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, was beaten while talking on phone as he travelled on a train between Vadodara and Godhra. “I answered asalam aleikum, and suddenly two saffron-clad activists caught me and started beating me.’’ He filed an FIR at the local police station naming the two Bajrang Dal activists, but neither has been arrested.

The divide between Godhra’s Hindus and Muslims is also infrastructural. Shoaibhai Sheikh, a one-time independent member of Godhra Municipal Corporation, said that during his five-year tenure which ended in 2010, he failed to push through development proposals for the town’s Muslim localities. They remain deprived of basic facilities like garbage collection, roads, water and electricity, residents complained.

When Godhra goes to the polls today as part of the Panchmahal constituency, many of the town’s 1.5 lakh people are likely to support sitting MP Prabhatsinh Chauhan of the BJP. Muslim Ghanchias, though, are likely to favour Congress candidate Ramsinh Parmar, chairman of Amul Dairy.

But despite their antipathy to Modi, there has been nervousness about campaigning against him. Instead, the head of Ghanchi community mosque in Godhra, Maulana Ibrahim (who asked for his name to be changed to protect his identity), has been putting up posters across the town, appealing to Muslims to cast their vote for this important election.

“According to our religious texts, voting is evidence that the person in whose favour the vote is caste ‘is of good values’”, the poster says. “Not participating in the voting process is an attempt to ‘hide this evidence’. And those who hide this evidence, despite knowing the truth, are committing the biggest crime.”

The Maulana said, “This message is enough for the Muslims to think about whom they should not vote for.”

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