In the spring of 2002, a ferocious mob not only rampaged and destroyed his home in Vadodara, it also broke his heart, leaving wounds so deep that he could never heal. Almost exactly 20 years later, in this city that he loved and gave his life to, JS Bandukwala, retired professor of nuclear physics in the University of Baroda, breathed his last. A man of immense gentleness and grace, a steadfast humanist, his life was a mirror to what is finest in India’s civilisational legacy.

In the spring of 2002, Bandukwala was speaking at a programme about VD Savarkar, the founder of the Hindu Mahasabha. “The country has only two choices,” he had declared. “Gandhi, whereby every Indian child would feel the country belongs to him or her. Or Savarkar, with whom many an Indian child would feel unwanted, and the country would suffer.”

Just 12 hours later, a train compartment went up in flames in Godhra, tragically killing 58 people and setting off one of the most brutal communal massacres that independent India has endured. After the Godhra train burning, the burnt bodies of those who died in the train were publicly paraded, with slogans calling for revenge igniting across Gujarat a frenzy of hate violence.

A mob attack

A mob marched to Bandukwala’s home, and set afire his car that was parked outside. His Hindu neighbours intervened with the rioters, pleading with them that they spare his home and family. “I was feeling very proud that here was a very fine illustration of communal harmony,” he recalled in an interview later to Barkha Dutt on NDTV. “To my horror they became absolute targets, their houses were being targeted, they were even physically assaulted just for helping me out. I don’t know where this is going to end? At one stage, I was even thinking of coming forward to them and telling them, ‘Friends, if you just want my life then take it but don’t harass others, this is not proper. We are after all human beings; we have to live in this country together.’”

But the next day, an even larger crowd marched to his home. The targeted first his Hindu neighbours who had tried to protect him a day earlier. They then ransacked his home, smashed and looted everything. All that was left was the four walls. He said it was a miracle that his life was spared, and that of his daughter. (His wife had died in 2001.) Recalling the attack to me later, he once confided that what most broke his heart was that he spotted in the crowd the faces even of some of his students.

Many bitter ironies surfaced. One of these was that his daughter wanted to marry a Hindu Gujarati from Vadodara, and both sets of parents had given their blessings to the couple. He continued until his death to love his Hindu son-in-law. “So much for so-called love jihad,” he said. Both his children lived and worked in the United States. They tried to persuade him to migrate with them to the United States; they would be safe, and their children would be able to take care of them.

He refused. His country and his community needed him, and he would go nowhere else. He had made the same choice decades earlier after he studied nuclear physics in the United States: he had refused to live and work there, he loved India too much to spend his life elsewhere.

His family and friends then tried to persuade him to shift at least to the safety of a Muslim majority ghetto like Juhapara. Once again, he was stubborn in his refusal. “Ultimately one of the aspects of cultivating a national mainstream is that all people should live together,” he declared. “The tragedy of our urban landscape, particularly in cities like Baroda and Ahmedabad, is it is completely ghettoised.”

Even before the 2002 carnage, he had chosen to live in a mixed neighbourhood. “I was one of the first to move into this locality. I could easily have bought a very good house in a Muslim locality but I moved over here because I wanted to inculcate a sense of integration at the societal level, at the grassroots level – that Hindus and Muslims must learn to live together. Unfortunately, the extremists seem to be attacking that very theme that there should be no Muslims in Hindu localities and vice versa.”

Because he believed in an India in which Hindus and Muslims live together, as neighbours, as friends, as brothers and sisters, how could he accept a changed India in which he was safe only among Muslims?

After his home was destroyed in 2002, he requested the university administration to allot him a flat. He moved into an apartment at the edge of the university. But all his other neighbours, all Hindus, in the three flats that were part of the same apartment complex moved out, leaving him alone.

The pain, he admitted, often rankles. “Strangely, there was a shortage of staff quarters at that time,” he said. “Yet, no one wanted to live near me. I felt the pain of an earlier Vadodara resident, Babasaheb Ambedkar, who found it impossible to hire a place to stay at one century earlier.”

A broken heart

Bandukwala immersed himself headlong in trying to bridge the chasms that separated the two communities. He frequently spoke of the ties that bound Islam and India. “Prophet Muhammad would often remark on the fragrant breeze that blew into the Arab world from Hind,” he wrote in the Indian Express.

He added: “Kerala and the Arab peninsula had trade links. The first mosque in India was built about the time the Prophet passed away...Some of the greatest Islamic saints had Indian links, such as Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and Nizamuddin Auliya. In music, poetry, spirituality and architecture, the flowering has been the best in the world.”

Of course, he recognised that there were basic differences between Islam and Hinduism. “But the Quran was revealed to the Prophet in a period of over 20 years,” he wrote. “Similarly, Hinduism is a religion based on revelations to many rishis over centuries. The core of both faiths stress peace, compassion and brotherhood.”

He was bitterly critical of Partition, what he called “Jinnah’s folly” for which we are still paying the price. “His demand for Partition inaugurated a tragedy for the Muslim that continues to this day,” Bandukwala said. “The violence spawned religious hatred and revived old conflicts concerning mosques and temples. In a sense, this religious madness has paralysed our country all these 73 years.”

Tragically, he wrote, “we are still producing more...politicians” like Jinnah.

How do we prevent such tragedies in the future, he would ask? “On the Muslim side, they have to accept the reality of Partition,” he wrote. “Equally, our Hindu brothers and sisters must accept that Muslims are a part of this country.”

He devoted his life after 2002 to two causes. One passion was to promote education among indigent Muslim and Hindu children, and he raised money for hundreds of scholarships each year. “

The sensible way out for Indian Muslims,” he believed, “is to turn their energies inward, provide young Muslims with the best possible education in good schools and colleges. The poor students of the community should be provided scholarships and poor Muslims who attend municipal and panchayat schools should receive special coaching.”

For this, he established the Zidni Ilma Charitable Trust, which caters to the poor and lower middle class children. The funds came mostly from ordinary Muslims, though a few rich Muslims helped as well.

But he was critical of the role of most elite Muslims who, he said in an article in the Indian Express, “live in a world of their own, cocooned from mohalla life”.

The other cause for which he lived was to promote harmony and goodwill between Hindus and Muslims. He was a trustee for many years of Aman Biradari, with which I am also associated, and was enthused by any initiative that brought the two communities together.

After the 2002 carnage, he struggled for reconciliation. “Clearly, reconciliation will only occur if the aggressor displays genuine remorse and the victims of the carnage forgive them,” he observed in an article in the Indian Express in 2007.

But he also lamented the failure of the majority community to express remorse. “(W)e have, over the last six years, repeatedly urged Gujarati Hindu religious leaders, intellectuals and business tycoons to come forward and apologise for the events of February/March 2002 so that the process of uniting both communities can begin,” he wrote. “By and large the response has been just stark silence.”

Faced with this reaction, the only way forward out of this impasse, he concluded, was for Muslims to consider unilateral forgiveness. Such forgiveness by victims, he believed, “conforms to the highest traditions of Islam. It enriches the victim, rescues the aggressor and pleases Allah immensely.”

Forgiveness, he said, “would release Muslims from the trauma of the past. It may also touch the conscience of Hindus, since the crimes were committed by a few fanatics in the name of Ram. Most important, it may give Gujarat a chance to close the tragic chapter of 2002 and move on with confidence, into the future.”

A respectful disagreement

This was the only time during the two decades that I was privileged to know Dr Bandukwala that I respectfully disagreed with him, both in private and in public debates. There can be no authentic reconciliation, I argued to him, without justice. I feared that what he proposed as forgiveness without remorse by the perpetrators and without justice, was only a disguised surrender.

“It is only when the crimes of the past are acknowledged, and atonement made with public expressions of genuine remorse, when the state, the perpetrator and survivor all join hands to rebuild broken lives, and when justice is done and seen to have been done, is it possible for those who suffer to forgive, to heal, to trust and possibly to even love again,” I wrote in response in The Hindu.

I will never forget a conversation with JS Bandukwala many years ago. “I feel profoundly alone these days,” he said to me. He explained: “My Hindu friends tell me – you are so nice, Dr Bandukwala, you are almost like a Hindu. They don’t understand when I reply, Why can’t I be fully Muslim and still ‘very nice’? And to my Muslim friends, I say, we must give up the idea that ours is the only path to God. It can be the best path for me, but can I in righteousness reject every other path to God as inferior or invalid? I ask them one question. In the jannat or heaven to which we all aspire, would Mahatma Gandhi have entry? And if your answer in no, then hear also my reply. In a jannat into which Gandhiji is denied entry, I too do not want admission. But they too don’t understand me. That is why I feel so lonely these days.”

He died with his heart broken at 77. We, the Indian people, have failed Bandukwala in so many profound ways. When will we rebuild ourselves into a country that deserves a man like him?

Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander.

Corrections and clarifications: This article had been edited to note that JS Bandukwala’s wife died before the Gujarat riots.