Living under Modi’s shadow

Ten years after the 2002 riots, what is life like for Gujarat’s Muslims?

Zahir Janmohamed January 20, 2013
Ten years after the 2002 riots, what is life like for Gujarat’s Muslims?

A few hours after Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi won his third election on December 20, 2012 I walked down the street in my neighborhood of Juhapura on the outskirts of Ahmedabad to interview survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Once a mixed Hindu Muslim area, Juhapura with 300,000 residents and counting, is today one of the largest Muslim ghettos in India. In my two years of conducting research, I have managed to find only six Hindu residents in Juhapura.

Most people in Juhapura moved here after the 1985, 1992, or the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Others, like me, came to Juhapura because they could not find housing elsewhere in Ahmedabad due to anti-Muslim housing discrimination.

Just off the main road in Juhapura is Siddiqabad, a colony of 200 homes built for survivors of the Gulbarg massacre, when a Hindu mob attacked the neighborhood and set it on fire. 35 people including Ehsan Jafri, a former Congress MP, were burned alive in the attack. Everyone in Siddiqabad lived in the relief camps after the 2002 riots, some for as long as ten months.

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Help finally came from a local Islamic NGO run by a leader of the Tablighi Jamaat. Residents were re-settled into Siddiqabad and each family was promised a two bedroom home, a functioning school, and a gutter line. Instead they were given cramped one bedroom flats, a tiny classroom now filled with goat droppings, and no drainage system.

When I asked a local leader of the Tablighi Jamaat, he said that Siddiqabad (which means “place of friendship”) was never meant to be a permanent home — it was just a transitional location. But that “transition” has lasted ten years. Now anger has turned inwards, as it is wont to do if ignored, and residents tell me it is the Islamic NGOs — not Modi — who have failed them.

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And yet each time Modi wins, resentment against him resurfaces and Muslims are reminded of the grim reality in Gujarat: that Modi is popular because of the riots — not despite the riots.

As a TV flashed the news of Modi’s victory, I asked a 33 year old rickshaw driver in Siddiqabad whose home was burned down in the 2002 riots what he thought of Modi.

“India does not know who Modi is,” Imran said shaking his head. “But we know who Modi is.”

I took my camera out and started filming.

“It is no use,” he told me. “People do not listen to us or want to talk about those days. For them, he is Bhagwan.”

I have become used to the use of abstract pronouns in Juhapura: “them” is Hindus, “those days” are the riots, and “he” is Modi. Modi’s biggest achievement may be just that: he is the default “He” in Gujarat.

Modi may have become “God” but now he wants something perhaps more powerful—the role of India’s next prime minister. But the problem is: does Modi know who Modi is?

It does not appear so.


At times during this past election it seemed like Modi was not running against the Congress party but against his former self. But the more he tried to pivot, the more he kept tripping up and showing flashes of his old (and true?) self.

Earlier in 2012, he launched a three day Sadbhavna fast for communal harmony. This past Ramazan he hosted an iftar and spoke during the election about Muslims being his “brothers.” But during this past election, the BJP failed to give a single ticket to a Muslim candidate, despite the rising number of Muslims who now support the BJP in Gujarat.

Modi has even flipped flopped over an issue that some Gujaratis find central to their identity: hatred of Pakistan. According to an NDTV poll, only 30% of Gujaratis want to see improved relations with Pakistan, compared with 72% in Punjab and 42% in neighboring Rajasthan.

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After the Godhra train fire in 2002, Modi was quick to blame Pakistan for its role in the attack. But as he prepared to host his biennial Vibrant Gujarat Forum, he rolled out the red carpet to welcome a visiting delegation of investors from Pakistan and has even talked about easing visa restrictions for Pakistani business leaders.

Even Modi’s election victory speech was filled with contradictions. For a man who has come to embody Gujarati identity, it is telling that Modi chose to venerate his Gujarati supporters in Hindi.

“I only think about Gujarat, Gujarat and Gujarat,” Modi said in Hindi as an adoring crowd shouted back, “PM PM PM!”

“I just have one dream, Gujarat,” he said and then a few moments later added, “The BJP victory was for every Indian whether they are in Assam or Kerala or Jammu or Kashmir.” He praised himself for running a campaign that was not “spicy or against anyone” but then made a jab at the Congress party when he said Gujarat is “moving past the violent days of the (Congress ruled) 1980s.”

The once media-shy Modi has often said he has nothing to apologise for but in his victory speech he did just that. “There may have been a time when I hurt someone or when I made a mistake,” Modi said. “I ask my 60 million Gujaratis to forgive me.”

None seemed pleased with his apology. Hardline Hindutva supporters felt betrayed by Modi’s softening Hindutva during the campaign and Muslims wanted a more explicit reference to the 2002 riots in his apology.

This is the paradox Modi faces: to win in polarised Gujarat, it is Modi’s communalism, his neglect of Muslims, his Gujarati chauvinism that makes him revered among most. Yet it is these very things that Modi knows will be his liability outside of Gujarat. This may be his undoing. He is used to crowds swooning for him, and as he prepares to move to the Centre, he will be forced to compromise as he attempts to please Indians from other states.

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Compromise is, after all, antithetical to the project that Modi has been building for so many years. His greatest achievement may be that Gujarat is now, and may be for generations to come, a one party — or I should say one man — state. Sure you can criticise Modi but do you really want to disbelieve in “God” in as religiously charged a state as Gujarat?

For Gujarat Muslims, it is a question of choosing the least worst option. Sabir Kabliwala is a former Congress MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) who recently contested the election from the Jamalpur-Khadia district in the old city of Ahmedabad. Jamalpur is completely Muslim; Khadia is entirely Hindu, and that too, an RSS stronghold.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, the Congress party extended the ticket to Sameer Khan, a 20 something municipal corporator whose father, Vazeer Khan, is the Gujarat Congress Party minority cell president (and as Kabliwala claims is also a well known bootlegger in Gujarat, which is a dry state).

Modi was so keen for Kabliwala to join his campaign that when Kabliwala’s son got married, Modi showed up at his son’s wedding — twice.

After Kabliwala was denied the Congress ticket, he opted to run as independent, to see if there is a way to carve out a new path for Muslims in Gujarat. This ended up splitting the Muslim vote and the BJP candidate, Bhushan Bhatt, pulled off a victory.

I asked if Kabliwala will now consider Modi’s offer to join the BJP or if he will petition to rejoin the Congress. He smiled. “In Gujarat, you just have to chose: do you want the knife in the front or in the back.”

Is it true, I asked him, that some Muslims — especially wealthy business owners — support the BJP out of fear? The talkative Kabliwala, one of Ahmedabad’s wealthiest Muslims, was unusually short in his answer: “yes, it is true.”

I asked him to elaborate but he just kept repeating: “yes, it is true.”

Across town I went to meet another one of Gujarat’s wealthy Muslim business owners, who I was told has a large photo of Modi in his office. I sat in an oversized plush leather chair as his assistant brought me a plate of khari biscuits and chai.

He agreed to meet on one condition: I could not use his name.

A few minutes into the interview I asked him why he supports Modi and he lashed out at me. “It is easy for you to say these things. You do not have a wife or kids in Gujarat. Your factory was not burned down in the riots. You do not have to live here.”

Before I could finish my chai, he asked me to leave. As I walked towards the door, I put my hand on my heart and apologised for my question.

He held the door open as I left his factory.

“Do you think I want to put up this picture of Modi in my office?”

Zahir Janmohamed is writing a book about the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. He previously served as the Advocacy Director for Amnesty International and as a Senior Foreign Policy Aide in the US Congress. Follow him on Twitter @zahirj

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 20th, 2013.

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Raja | 8 years ago | Reply Sorry, Zahir, there are too many contradictions in your essay that will take a lot more time to bare open your obsessive bias against Modi than I can spare. Good luck with your book; try to keep it balanced.
sushilpershad | 8 years ago | Reply

When They Are Close Nit Communities They Always Find Difficulty In Mixing With Others If Allowed To Become Very Strong A Feeling Of Discontent Arises Some Time Leads To Hate And Violence Which Brings Misery To All Concerned.We Should Learn To Change With Time From Old Traditions That Have Out Grown In The New World Were Communication Has Made Mixing Of Cultures Imperative Therefore A Great Change Is Required In Socioeconomic Thinking,Unless This Comes About There Will Always Be Discontent Hate And Misery.!!

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