Gujarat elections

Interview: ‘Muslims must stay out of politics as it helps Modi polarise society’

Gujarat social activist JS Bandukwala says the poll-bound state’s people are tired of the BJP and have realised Muslims are not to blame for their woes.

Dr JS Bandukwala, a Muslim social reformer who taught nuclear physics at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara till he retired in 2007, witnessed a mob burn his house down in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Bandukwala and his daughter were lucky to escape with their lives.

The communal clashes were triggered by a train fire at the Godhra railway station in which 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed. The state-wide violence left over 1,000 people dead, the majority of them Muslims.

In an interview to ahead of crucial Assembly elections in the state in December, Bandukwala narrates how he defied conservative Muslim leaders and did not acquiesce to the Bharatiya Janata Party, and why he believes Muslims should not enter politics.

Excerpts from the interview:

Your life seems to have had two distinct phases. In the first, you encountered stiff opposition from Muslims. For instance, you were excommunicated from the Bohra Muslim community. Why did that happen?
After completing my studies in the United States, I returned to India in 1972. I chanced upon the Bohra Syedna [spiritual head of the Bohra sect of Muslims] in Vadodara. He was praying in a garden. I stopped to pay my respect to him, and started talking to two of his family members. I was dressed in pants and a shirt. When they heard that I was a Bohra, they aggressively asked me how I could come to meet the Syedna in the clothes I was in.

When a Bohra meets the Syedna, he is supposed to wear the traditional Bohra dress, stand and approach him in a particular way. They said, “You are supposed to be Abde Syedna,” which means the slave of Syedna. My response was that it was not possible for me to be the slave of anyone but Allah. They tried to pressure me but I was not willing to compromise.

Was an order on your excommunication issued?
They put up a board at a prominent dargah in Vadodara asking the Bohras not to interact with me as I had been thrown out of the community. I was young, I did not bother. But they started doing foolish things. They started an agitation at my university, the Maharaj Sayajirao University, that I should be thrown out of its faculty. They also started contacting non-Bohras and telling them to boycott me.

For how long did your boycott continue?
It stopped in 1983. This was because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave me an appointment to know why communal riots were taking place in Gujarat. When it became known that she had called me, the Bohra leadership’s attitude changed. They stopped bothering me. But I did not go to them but to attend a funeral prayer of a family member.

I left the Bohras, but I was accepted by the much larger Muslim community.

But didn’t non-Bohra Muslims also turn against you because of your stance on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?
In 1989, I pointed out that what Salman Rushdie had written was wrong, but so was the treatment meted out to him by Muslims. I told them that when the Prophet walked down the streets of Mecca to offer prayers, a lady would throw garbage on him. But the Prophet never responded. One day she did not turn up. The Prophet enquired where she was. He was told she was sick. He went over to her house and prayed for her. I said the incident illustrated the true nature of Islam.

Yet it prompted Muslim clerics to issue a fatwa against you.
My remarks triggered an uproar in Vadodara. A fatwa, signed by the Muslim religious leaders of Vadodara, was issued saying that I am a supporter of Rushdie and an enemy of the holy Prophet.

But you were not harmed, were you?
In those days, I used to write articles asking Muslims to practise family planning, educate girls, send their boys for higher education.

It seems Haji Mastan read and liked these articles. He was a gangster who preceded Dawood Ibrahim, but he also had a streak of Robin Hood in him. When he came to know that a fatwa had been issued against me, he said he would come to Vadodara to fight for me. I thought it was a big joke.

To my surprise, Haji Mastan actually came to Vadodara. He addressed a public meeting where he spoke very strongly in my favour. He told the people they should let Bandukwala do what he is doing. Mastan said, “He has seen the world, you all haven’t.”

It was his last sentence that saved me. He said, “Bandukwala par haath uthaya nein, to main aap ko chhodunga nahin.” [If any of you lays a hand on Bandukwala I will not spare you]. After that, no Muslim leader in Vadodara, in fact in Gujarat, has ever challenged me, although I largely stayed away from politics.

Considering that you neither behaved as nor was perceived to be a fanatical Muslim, the attack on your house in the riots of 2002 must have been a big shock?
I am a strong believer that Muslims have a right to live wherever they want. It is tragic that Muslims all over India are not permitted to live in most areas. It is particularly true of communities like Jains. In all of my 45 years in Vadodara, I have always lived in non-Muslim areas. It becomes easy to target me, more so because I am a social activist. There have been four attacks on my house so far.

The first attack took place in 1981. There was an anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat. I was the hostel warden of Maharaj Sayajirao University. I thought it was my duty to protect Dalit students. To give them support, I sat on a three-day fast in a Harijan locality. As soon as my fast was over, my house was attacked.

The second attack took place a year later. Jaspal Singh, who was the police commissioner of Vadodara at that time, was biased against Muslims and would refer to their localities as mini-Pakistan. That year there were clashes on Muharram, and Muslims who were arrested were treated brutally. I publically voiced my opposition to it. When riots broke out, my house was attacked. I remember the incident because they tossed my refrigerator from the first floor of my apartment.

Where were you staying then?
On the university campus. The third attack took place in 2002. On February 26, at 8 pm, I spoke on the life of [Hindutva ideologue Veer] Savarkar. I was approached by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders who said, “No Muslim ever speaks on him, and we want you to do it on February 26.” I did speak, but the last sentence of my speech did not click with them.

What was the last sentence?
I said, my friends, bear in mind that India has two choices before it – one is the path of Mahatma Gandhi, the path where every child feels he or she is a part of India. I said that in contrast, Savarkar’s path will have many Indians feel they are not a part of India. It will affect India’s unity.

Eight hours after my speech, on February 27, the Godhra train incident took place. My house was one of the first to be attacked. I had built a very fine house.

So you were no longer living on campus?
I was living in the house I had built on an 8,500-square-foot plot. It was partially destroyed. But they attacked again the following day. Allah alone saved me.

Your neighbours came to your help, right?
During the first attack, they stood with me. But they did not the second time. They were all told to keep away or they too would be attacked.

Were you in the house when it was attacked the second time?
I was in the house with my daughter. She was only 22 years old then. My wife had died of cancer, and my son was in the United States. It was a non-Muslim neighbourhood. I tried to contact the neighbours, but there was no response from anyone.

Because of the first attack, the police had posted two constables at my house. It was god’s grace that three young couples, all non-Muslim, came from the university and they said, “Sir, do not worry, we will look after your daughter.” They quietly slipped out with her.

I went to a neighbour’s house. They were a Brahmin family. They were nice enough to open their door, take me inside and hide me in the bathroom. It was then the attack took place. There was a lot of noise. They were breaking everything. I heard one of the police constables tell the mob, “You have 15 minutes. Do what you want.” Fifteen minutes later, a police van came and the mob went away with the goods they stole.

Did you rebuild the house?
It was destroyed. They had come with gas cylinders. They released the gas and set it on fire. It was unlivable.

The 2002 Gujarat riots left over 1,000 people dead, the majority of them Muslims. (Credit: Sebastian D'Souza / AFP)
The 2002 Gujarat riots left over 1,000 people dead, the majority of them Muslims. (Credit: Sebastian D'Souza / AFP)

Where did you shift thereafter?
The police took me to the police station. A Muslim family offered to take me in. My daughter and I shifted to their place. A little later, we went to the United States where my son was. I returned three months later. I requested the Maharaj Sayajirao University to give me a staff quarter. I was assigned a flat in a block of four apartments. When I shifted there, the other three families left.

University people did that?
Yes, no one wanted to stay near me. I spent three years all alone in that block, which was at the far end of the university. It was very lonely and frightening.

Wasn’t your daughter with you?
She had married by then. She wished to marry Maulin Gajjar, whose very name is Hindu. After my house was destroyed, she said, “Papa, I will only marry him.” It was a big crisis for me at that time. My wife had died, I had no other family in Vadodara, in fact in Gujarat. I got in touch with the boy’s family. Maulin’s father assured me that I should not worry as they would treat her as their daughter.

The only condition I put was that they should both go to America, not stay in India. They went to America and I followed them. I performed their nikah ceremony. This was in Texas, there was no question of a maulvi coming there. Their marriage certificate has my name as the bride’s father as well as the person who performed the marriage.

This was my answer to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which keeps harping on love jihad. Why don’t they take up the case of my daughter’s marriage and how I handled it?

Your narrative shows that Gujarat has changed tremendously from how it was in 1972, the year you returned from the United States.
Gujarat has changed completely. In 1959, [Jawaharlal] Nehru invited Martin Luther King to India. From Delhi, King flew to Ahmedabad. On the plane he told an American journalist accompanying him that he had come to India as a tourist, but he was going to Ahmedabad as a pilgrim. Can you ever imagine anyone now saying he is going to Gujarat as a pilgrim?

Why do you say that?
It is because of what the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Narendra Modi have done to Gujarat. They have completely polarised and divided society.

Is it true that you were once requested by a television channel to ask a question to Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat and whom they were interviewing?
After I came back from America, a channel wanted me to ask the last question in their interview of Modi. I was not in Vadodara but in Mumbai, where I was visiting my brother’s ailing wife. They tracked me there through [activist] Teesta Setalvad.

On the day of the interview, the channel called me and told Modi that the last question would be asked by Dr Bandukwala from Mumbai. But before I could open my mouth, Modi jumped on me.

Jumped on you?
Yes, he began to taunt me, “So you have run away from here to Mumbai?” I responded, “Modi, tum mere quam ke liya kuchh baqi rake?” [Modi, have you left anything for my community?)

Has the situation for Muslims in Gujarat changed after 2014, the year Modi became the prime minister and shifted to Delhi?
In the 12 years that Modi was here [in Gujarat], he successfully communalised Gujarati society. There is no Muslim voice left. Even today, there are only two Muslim MLAs even though the community’s population is 10%. Gujarat has not elected a Muslim MP in the last 25 years to 30 years.

There was a time when Muslims had many Hindu friends. But the number of such relationships has gone down. Every Eid, people would come to my house and share food. Now hardly anyone comes.

But the problem of communalisation of Gujarat goes beyond Modi. Mahatma Gandhi was an exception. Almost all Hindu leaders of Gujarat after him had a Muslim bias to some extent. Even Sardar Patel got into a communal tangle. KM Munshi was appointed a regent in Hyderabad. It was under him that the Police Action was launched [which led to Hyderabad’s accession to India]. It is called Police Action, but my estimate is that anywhere between 25,000 and 30,000 Muslims died there. We should not forget all this.

I think it is a mistake to call Gandhi a Gujarati. He was a giant of our time. But it is fortunate that we – I and many others, Hindus and Muslims alike – have lived and faced up to Modi without bowing our heads.

How come Muslims have not produced a leader like Hardik Patel or Jignesh Mevani?
This is deliberate. Modi’s politics operates on targeting Muslims to unite Hindus. That is why we have gone out of our way to ensure no Muslim leader comes out. I, anyway, have always been saying that our focus is education and the social transformation of the community. We are not interested in political power.

You wouldn’t want Muslims to stand in elections?
I am against Muslims standing in elections. Though I must say I myself contested one election.

Really, when?
In 1989, I contested on the ticket of a Dalit-Muslim party. But our purpose was to ensure that the Congress did not take Muslims for granted. The Congress thought Muslims were its pocket-vote. But today, I would rather be a pocket-vote than come out to fight against Modi, to let him turn the election into a fight against Muslims.

He might still do that.
His major campaign in Gujarat will begin from November 20. He will try to communalise Gujarat. A team of the Muslim Ulema Council from Uttar Pradesh is already here. It consists of the BJP’s Muslims. These people are moving around to provoke Muslims. Fortunately, nothing has happened so far.

So you would want Muslims to just go and vote on election day this year.
Yes, I want Muslims to stay out of politics because it only helps the BJP polarise society. They should not come into politics just now.

Many observers feel there is a change in the mood of Gujaratis. Is it because of economic reasons or do you think people have become tired of the Hindu-Muslim business?
The BJP has been in power for close to 25 years now. It is inevitable for people to get tired of them. People can see that corruption has continued under BJP governments. You cannot always put the blame [for misgovernance] on Muslims. They are living in ghettoes and have no visibility in public life. This has made people realise that Modi has taken them for a ride, that Muslims are not to blame for their woes. Whether or not they will vote for him, I do not know.

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