His grandparents had emigrated from Kutch to Tanzania and his parents had moved to the US in the 1970s. He had visited Tanzania frequently and now wanted to learn about his Indian heritage. At the same time, he was also beginning to feel uneasy in the US.
"It was a few months after 9/11 -- a horrific event but also one that caused a significant backlash for people with my skin complexion and with Muslim names," he said. "The problems had existed before, but 9/11 heightened them -- this idea that I could be only a Muslim. My whole identity was compressed."
But less than a fortnight after he landed in Gujarat, he found himself witnessing something unimaginably more brutal than subtle racism. Riots broke out all over the state on the night of February 27, after a Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims when it stopped at Godhra, a town 136 km from Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city.
The next morning, Janmohamed saw a Hindu mob coming down his street shouting "Jai Shri Ram". "They were looking for Muslims," he recalled.
He began working in the relief camps that had begun forming almost immediately afterwards, eventually returning to the US in mid-July when his visa expired. "For the riots to happen within 12 days [of my arrival], it was very disturbing," said Janmohamed, who had worked with Amnesty International in the US. "It really shook me. You had these children who were orphaned. Those images really stuck with me. The riots left me with something that hasn't gone."
Unable to forget what he had seen, nine years later, in March 2011, he quit his job working in the US Congress to come back to Ahmedabad to understand not what had happened in 2002 but the legacy of the violence. After three years of living in Juhapara, an area in Ahmedabad to where most Muslims fled after the riots, he is now heading back to the US to write a book on what he learnt about the aftermath of 2002.
"The more time I spend with people, the more I see that the story is so complicated," he said in an interview earlier this month.
What changes did you notice in Ahmedabad when you came back?
The city was polarised. Even before the 2002 riots, a so-called "mixed" locality in Ahmedabad had a row of Muslim homes and then a row of Hindu homes, but Hindus and Muslims didn't live in the same building. So the word "mixed" has always meant something very different in Ahmedabad, from, say, in Mumbai.
Even today, Ahmedabad has some "mixed" areas, but flats there are difficult to get because there are very few, very expensive and the waiting list is really long. So, while Ahmedabad has had many riots, it has never been as divided as it is today.
For the first six months, I was living with a dear Hindu friend. He said, "You can stay with me. Just don't use your real name." So, I was using the name Sanjay. It was humiliating.
People also said, "If you are a Muslim and want a flat, you have to live in Juhapara." At the same time, they disparaged Juhapara, saying things like, "It is an area where a lot of criminal activity goes on. It's dangerous."
Rickshawallahs wouldn't take me there. Even just getting to Juhapara, I began to see that I would have to take two rickshaws. I would take one to the border, cross the border, then get a Muslim rickshaw and go into Juhapara. Part of the reason for this is that people are afraid. But it's also because Hindus and Muslims don't interact much economically.
What is the focus of your research?
Although I know that 2002 was a horrific experience that I wouldn't wish on anybody in this world, I'll let people in Delhi and New York argue about what to call it -- ethnic cleansing or a genocide or a pogrom or a riot. These questions are not interesting to me. I want to talk about what Gujarat is today. To me what is much more interesting is: 12 years after the riots, what are the conditions?
How has Juhapura changed after 2002?
In 1973, it was an area called Sankalit Nagar, which had Hindus and Muslims living next to each other, sharing courtyards and bathrooms. But after the 1985 riots, Hindus began to move out, Muslims began to move in. After the 1992 riots, lots more Muslims began to move in, while Hindus began to leave or were pushed out. In 2002, this was much more so, with many Muslims fleeing to the area.
Today, Juhapara has about 400,000 to 500,000 people. Only about six, very poor Hindu families remain. Otherwise, it is all Muslims.
So, it's a ghetto in the sense that people have been forced to live there, but it is not all impoverished. It has run-down areas, but very well-to-do Muslims also live there: people who have Audis, drive Mercedes cars and own really nice bungalows.
Juhapara became a way for me to examine the aftermath of the 2002 riots. For me, the story about 2002 isn't just about what happened during that tragic period but also its legacy, the legacy of all these riots.
What is the legacy of the riots?
One theory about preventing riots is that when Muslims and Hindus interact people are safer. Yet the one chilling, disturbing and dangerous lesson of the 2002 riots for Muslims was that if you want to feel secure, you have to ghettoise yourself, that you are most vulnerable when you live next to Hindus.
In 2002, when Muslims lived isolated, away from the majority community, as in Juhapara, they were safe. Muslims were the most brutally attacked in so-called "cosmopolitan" areas such as Naroda Patiya, Gulbarg Society and Paldi. So, even Muslims who have money to live in a nice part of Ahmedabad prefer Juhapara, because if a riot happens again, a Hindu mob will find it difficult to get in.
Also, the scars are still very deep because you have people who not only haven't been given justice but haven't been given space to talk about it. This includes Hindus who have been pushed out of Juhapara and whose stories I am following because that is also an important part of the whole picture.
But what are so much of the discussions around 2002? They're either what was it -- a riot, a pogrom -- or should you talk about it or not?
When I interview people, I never ask them those questions. I don't even ask them about 2002. I say, tell me about life and about your challenges. What is it like being a mother, a father? What is it like not having a father? Tell me, how have you gone on with life? Those are much more interesting questions.
How have people gone on? Is there a huge amount of post-traumatic stress?
That was one of the reasons I went back, because I suffered a great amount of post-traumatic stress. The one thing that people here don't talk about is trauma and what it does. Maybe in US we talk about it too much. But it had a big impact on me -- seeing women's bodies, mutilated.
How did you deal with it? How did the survivors deal with it?
I've dealt with it through speaking a lot about it, lecturing, writing. I also went through PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] therapy as well. But coming back to Gujarat has also helped.
I used to work for Amnesty International, where we routinely dealt with torture survivors, and I always advise others to never belittle someone's trauma. The other thing I learnt is never to compare two people's traumas; it's not a competition about whose pain is greater.
What has still not happened in Gujarat is that people have still not talked about 2002. Editors and people who read my articles say, "We're kind of tired of reading about 2002." I disagree. We have heard a certain type of story about 2002, which is, this is what happened and Modi is culpable. We have to move beyond that and ask, how did people cope? What is the long view of a tragedy?
What concerns me is that the issues that I have seen are going to exist long after the election, regardless of whether Modi wins or not -- issues such as when I go to the bank and open an account and tell them I live in Juhapara, all of a sudden they give me these looks. Or the fact that during Diwali or Navratri, a lot of Muslims don't feel comfortable going out. Or the fact that some friends won't drop me off in Juhapara but only at the border.
Have particular stories gripped you?
I'm increasingly interested in the stories of women. I'll tell you one. I'm writing about this single woman, we'll call her Fatima. Her family lost their home during the riots. She is 30 years old, which means that she was 18 when the riots happened. She saw so many women losing their husbands and struggling to work. So the riots taught her that women need to stand on their own feet. She began studying really hard and now she's a school teacher.
But the problem is that after 2002, the state hasn't provided services in Juhapara. There's a lack of roads, there's a lack of schools, there's a lack of basic infrastructure. There's a long way to go before Juhapara catches up with the rest of Ahmedabad.
Secular NGOs, for a variety of reasons, have not helped out much either. So Muslim NGOs have filled the space, such as the Tablighi Jamaat and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind. They have dominated Juhapara.
So, while she's had this awareness about the importance of women working, she's constantly feeling restrictions from these very strong Muslim groups in the area, from her family, from society and her employers. Her parents are trying to fix her shaadi (marriage), but the proposals are coming from men who don't want her to work. There isn't any place for her to meet other women. One of the challenges is that people have become more conservative, partly because they feel immensely insecure.
She also feels this loneliness. Whom is she going to talk to about it? Journalists will come and ask, "Was Modi responsible or not?", "Was it a pogrom or not?" When I interviewed her, [I realised that] that no one had asked her what 2002 was like. She was 18 years old. That's old enough to remember. She remembers it with incredibly vivid clarity.
What are the consequences of untreated trauma and exclusion?
I interviewed this Muslim who is a member of the BJP. He hates living in Juhapara. He's a big supporter of Modi but he doesn't have a paved road. So here's a man telling me how Modi is going to do good things for Muslims, but yet as soon I go to his place, I have dirt all over my feet, because there is no paved road. Even he can't live in a better place. These contradictions reveal so much. Muslims are being forced into a position to make this choice. It's Juhapara or Juhapara.
What about anger?
There is a bit more discussion about exclusion [than about the trauma of 2002], but yes, it still manifests itself in anger -- because I do think that Muslims have an anger about their mistreatment even though they're not able to articulate it. Why shouldn't they be angry? There are 2,000 children in Juhapara who are not able to go to school because of a lack of facilities.
There is such a narrative about the angry Muslim man, about Muslims being ungrateful, about Muslims being run by mullahs -- all these stupid stereotypes about Muslims that exist in India. So, most Muslims are not going to speak openly about it. Supposing I take you, as a journalist, around Juhapara for a day, everyone will be like, "Everything is great. We love Hindus. We love everything."
But there is anger. People are asking, why don't we have better lights, why don't we have better schools, why don't we have roads?
Also, there is a tremendous amount of fear. I am renting a flat from a Hindu-Muslim couple who have left the city because the Hindu wife did not feel comfortable in Juhapara and the Muslim husband doesn't feel comfortable in Gujarat. He shifted his business and family to Pune. Ahmedabad has always had divisions but the 2002 riots has also left a wide swathe of people, not just Muslims but mainly them, with a lot of fear. The election is not going to banish that.
The rickshaw driver who refuses to take me to Juhapara, the bank woman who makes disparaging remarks when I tell her my address, the police officer who mocks me for living where I do, the fact that Muslims are still under pressure to forget about 2002 without really having talked about it or about what their condition is today -- all this is not going to disappear.
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