Situated in the Saraspur area of Ahmedabad is the beautiful tomb of the 32nd spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohras, who was executed for heresy in 1648 on the orders of the then governor of Gujarat, Aurangzeb. The structure is made entirely of white marble, with gilded finials topping its five domes. Just a few feet from it, though, spanning the road which runs in front of the structure, is a rather ugly brick wall. It is quite apparent that the wall has been constructed recently and in haste, its bare grey bricks and craggy cement fillings providing a jarring contrast to the serene whiteness of the tomb complex.

The wall, built on April 17, represents the fulfilment of a  five-year-old demand by the Dawoodi Bohras, a prosperous Shia Muslim sub-sect of traders, to take over a road which ran though their property, with religious structures on either side. This move has, however, inconvenienced the residents of the area, who resorted to stone pelting to vent their anger last Friday.

Sajjad Heera, officer on special duty to the Dawat Property Trust, a body which manages the tomb, said that the location of this road had caused significant difficulties to the visiting worshippers. “The area would get flooded since there was no government maintenance of the drains. Moreover, we have a mosque on one side and the tomb on the other side of the road. The heavy traffic on it was a hindrance to our visitors, who often needed to cross against heavy traffic,” explained Heera.

As an alternative route to the now blocked road, the property trust has already constructed a new public road along its northern perimeter using its own land.  "We have spent Rs 2.5 crore constructing this new road and laying the drainage. Moreover, the land area we’ve donated for this detour is twice the area we’ve received," Heera said.

File photo of water logging outside the shrine Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP

Locals inconvenienced

The tomb is situated in a low-income area with shanties all around, the main population of which consists of Dalits. The locals here claim that cutting the road off has greatly inconvenienced them. Poonambhai, a resident of the area, said that the “new road triples the time that it takes our children to get to school and it’s also unsafe for women at night since it’s quite deserted”.

“The Vohrajis [Bohras] have unfairly taken over a public road,” Poonambhai complained. “They are rich and have bought the road from the administration”.

The act is approved by the government although Sajjad Heera dismisses any suggestion that road was bought. On April 16, Gujarat Chief Minster Anandiben Patel met the current leader of the Bohra sect, Mufaddal Saifuddin and approved the transfer of the road to the community. Within a day, a wall had been constructed and the road added as part of the tomb’s property.

This comes in the backdrop of increasingly close ties between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Dawoodi Bohra community, after Narendra Modi’s victory in the General Elections of May 2014.

The five lakh-strong Dawoodi Bohras are a wealthy, mercantile community hailing from Gujarat. The small religious group is highly organised and functions under the leaderships of a Dai, who handles its religious as well as secular affairs. The current Dai, Mufaddal Saifuddin, has close ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi in particular, and has often expressed this support publicly. In October 2014, at a religious function, Saifuddin praised the Modi government for its leadership and schemes such as the Swachh Bharat campaign and Ganga cleaning project. In January 2015, Saifuddin addressed the Bohra community and said that he would “pray that he [Modi] stays in good health always”.

Close Bohra-BJP ties

The Bharatiya Janata Party has reciprocated these feelers. In January 2015, Modi tweeted a picture of him meeting Saifuddin. Later on, in April 2015, the Modi government even made moves to award the Padma Shri to the previous leader of the community, who had passed away recently. The Bohra community, however, declined to accept the award.

This rapprochement comes after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, where Bohra businesses were badly affected and distrust of the Bharatiya Janata Party was high. The then Dai, however, started to work towards a change of attitude. Reasons for this move include pragmatism on the part of a largely business community which cannot afford to antagonise any government as well as a genuine belief that Modi’s pro-business policies will help the mercantile Bohras.

On the Bharatiya Janata Party’s part, this show of support from a Muslim sect helped ameliorate its anti-minority image.

In spite of this rapprochement between the small Bohra sect and the BJP, actual ground conditions in Ahmedabad for Muslims at large remain poor, with the city entirely split up into watertight communal zones. In fact, more than a decade after the pogrom, the Gujarat government still classifies almost 40% of Ahmedabad city as communally sensitive under the Disturbed Areas Act. This law prohibits a Muslim from selling, leasing or transferring his property to a Hindu, or a Hindu to a Muslim in a “disturbed” area without the permission of the state government. The Disturbed Areas Act makes Ahmedabad's communal ghettoisation unique in the country in as much as it is enforced legally by the state.

Even 11 years after the riots, in 2013, the Gujarat government under Modi was tagging fresh Muslim-dominated Ahmedabad neighbourhoods under the Act ”since the said areas was disturbed for a substantial period by reason of riots and violence of mob”. And this is not limited to Ahmedabad city: in 2014, the Anandiben Patel-administration extended the term of the Act in Vadodara till 2019.

Communalised dispute

This communalised atmosphere has, in fact, had its effect even on this seemingly minor and localised dispute. Since the low-income areas affected by the the road being cut off, consist of Hindus, the issue has taken on communal colours, this in spite of the administration backing the Bohra trust.

Chimanbhai, a resident of the area, not only supported his arguments using utilitarian reasons such as increased commute time, but also bought up the existence of a historical vao (step-well), access to which, he claimed, had now been cut off. “This historical vao is holy to the Hindus of the area. How can the administration first sell a public road and then sell off a religious structure?” he said.

Matters came to a head on Friday as the inhabitants of the area resorted to stone pelting after which, residents claimed, the police lathicharged them, leading to injuries.

Sajjad Heera, however, denied the existence of any such vao. “If there was a historical or religious step-well, as claimed, then there would be government records for it, but there is nothing. This is simply someone creating mischief,” he argued.

In the normal course of things, a vao, even if it did exist, might have been a non-issue. However, in Gujarat, given the religious composition of this dispute, it has already made the papers. Gujarati weekly, Jansahayak Samachar, last Friday, ran the story with this headline: “The 11th century vao in Saraspur’s Bohra mausoleum has disappeared”.