Saddam, Sohaib, Shahrukh and Yusuf fled their respective villages to survive gruesome violence in 2002. They now live and work in Ahmedabad. This month they will be voting for the first time. But only one of them knows who he wants to vote for. The rest of them are debating their choices. Or the lack of them. Their election issues are simple. They expect very little. And they seem to have lost a sense of what they truly deserve.
Yusuf Pathan is looking at the clock anxiously as he gets ready to go to work. He washes cars at a service station and was due to report half an hour ago.
We are sitting in a room near the ‘border’ that separates Juhapura, Ahmedabad’s infamous Muslim ghetto from the neighbouring Hindu colony of Vejalpur. 19 year old Yusuf has been living here since 2003. Ognaj, the village he was born in, was hit badly in the 2002 pogrom against Muslims after a train carrying kar sevaks was burnt in Godhra. All 20 Muslim households in the village were destroyed and the entire Muslim population of the village fled. After eight months in a relief camp they were resettled in Ahmedabad. Most of them are now housed in these squalid quarters built by the Relief Committee and given to them for Rs 10,000 each. ‘Ekta flats’, as the rooms in ‘Rahat’ colony are called, allude to harmony and relief incongruous with these oppressive, desolate surroundings. Yusuf was born in happier times.
Niyaz Malek, 58, remembers the ease with which the 5000 odd Hindus in the village lived with the small Muslim population, eating in each other’s homes, participating in each other’s ceremonies. But all of that began to change in 2001.
“The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) started holding weekly meetings on Saturdays in a hall adjoining the Hanuman temple on the outskirts of the village,” she tells me. “They would incite Hindu men against Muslims. The propaganda was vicious.” Slowly the character of the village began to change. “If a Muslim girl or boy was doing well in school, the Hindu boys were encouraged to harass them and ensure they fail. Boys our children used to play with started using the word Bandiyo (a slur against Muslims in Gujarati) when calling out to them.”
The simmering tension came to a boil in February 2002 when the riots broke out. “For three hours we resisted the attacks, holed up in our homes. It was like how it was in Mahabharata,” says Malek. Yusuf remembers little except that he was hiding in a room with other children.
Among them were the Ansari brothers- Shahrukh, 20, and Sohaib, 18. They had only recently moved to Ognaj from Udaipur. Their father, a marble carver, had taken up a new job in the village that he lost when the riots broke out. He did odd jobs after they were resettled in Ahmedabad before he found another placement as a stonecutter. Five years ago he passed away from a lung-disease caused by inhaling marble dust over the years.
Shahrukh and Sohaib both work. Shahrukh as a shoe salesman and Sohaib in a garment factory. Between them they support a family of five. Yusuf supports a family of seven. His father works as a casual labourer as and when he finds a job. All the three boys make between Rs. 5000 and Rs. 7000 in a month. All three of them are school dropouts.
Studying was not an option because they had to earn. But even if they wanted to, the closest government school at the time was in a Hindu area. “After 2002 we were afraid to let our kids go into a Hindu area to study,” explains Malek. And private schools were unaffordable.
If they had their way, Sohaib, Shahrukh and Yusuf would have studied. They keep telling me that over and over again. They would have studied and they would have started their own business. “But for that you need money. I don’t think we will be able to save enough to start something of our own,” says Sohaib. “What about loans?” I ask. They look at me incredulously. “No bank will give you a loan if you say you are from Juhapura!” says Sohaib. “We never say we are from Juhapura. We are on the ‘border’ so we say we are from Vejalpur,” adds Yusuf. “If the cops catch you anywhere in Ahmedabad and you say you are from Juhapura do dande aur padenge (they beat you more).”
“Even if we could get a loan, what would we offer as security? We own nothing. Not even the houses we live in,” says Yusuf. The cramped two room structures allotted to these survivors have not been transferred to their names. They could lose their dwellings at any time and they are acutely aware of this.
“It is not like we want to live here,” Shahrukh tells me. “If we could earn some money we would want nothing more than to leave Juhapura. To move to an area like Sonal (Sonal Cinema, near Sarkhej) maybe.” Yusuf and Sohaib nod in agreement. “Is that a Muslim area too?” I ask them. They look incredulous again. “Of course. We have to live in a Muslim area only no?” Shahrukh replies. “That is how it is here. I have heard that in Delhi and all Hindus and Muslims live together but here, hardly so.”
Housing and finance are not the only counts on which these young men feel vulnerable. There have not been any major riots in the city since 2002 but the fear of violence has not entirely gone away. “A couple of years ago there was an incident in Delhi Chakla. A Hindu died and within hours a mob surrounded our building. They were pelting stones and screaming. It was terrifying,” Yusuf tells me. “2002 could happen again. It should not. But it could,” adds Shahrukh. Yusuf recounts another violent event from 2011. The brutal murder of Nadeem Saiyed—a Congress worker and a witness in the Naroda Patiya massacre case—inside Juhapura.
The families from Ognaj have found it hard to fit into Juhapura. The boys tell me that their guardians don’t like them mixing with the children who grew up in Juhapura. “Most of them drink, gamble, abuse and pick fights. Many of them don’t even contribute to running their households,” says Shahrukh. “Our children did not grow up in slums, like theirs. We used to live well,” explains Malek.
She is very bitter about the riots. About how their friends and neighbours turned against them. About the rapes and the murders and the arson. She is agitated when she talks about it, and she talks about it often. “I feel very angry when I see Modi on TV nowadays. ‘Beti Bachao, Desh Bachao,’ he says. Where was he when our daughters were raped and burnt alive?” she asks.
In contrast, Yusuf, Shahrukh and Sohaib tell me they almost never speak of 2002, either with their friends or amongst themselves. All three of them would like to leave it behind. If only they knew a way forward.
On the 30th of this month, the three young men will cast their votes for the first time but they haven’t decided who they will vote for.
“Modi ne ek baar karwa diya, karwa diya. Ab shayad nahin hoga,” says Shahrukh. “Now I hear he wants to take Muslims along. He has said so himself. I read in newspapers also that Muslims are doing better in Gujarat under his rule than they did under the Congress rule.”
Yusuf adds: “See whoever comes they won’t do anything for us.” “Our vote does not really count. Even if we all voted together, there are more Hindus in Vejalpur.” “We cannot decide who will come to power,” says Sohaib.
“BJP is bound to come so we should make peace with it. And there is no harm in it. No political party will do anything for us but if Modi brings development to the rest of the country it might also benefit us,” says Shahrukh. “Besides they only organise riots when they fear they will not come to power. It is better if they come to power.”
Shahrukh does not expect much. “If there could be more schools here and maybe a college,” he says. “And water. The government only started giving us water two years ago after a lot of efforts were made by the residents. Our water should not be taken away,” he adds.
There is another thing he is worried about. “If Modi becomes PM he will make Gujarat like Bombay. Property prices will also become like Bombay. We will never be able to buy a house no matter how much we save then.”
All three of them are polite and pragmatic to a fault. I find no sense of outrage or injustice over what happened to them in 2002; not even a hint of anger. It is as if they know they are second-class citizens and have accepted that reality. They only want to make their corner more livable, if they can.
The conversation shifts to religion. “We don’t keep beards or wear topis. It makes people uncomfortable at work,” says Shahrukh. His seth (boss) who is also a Muslim has had his shop burnt down thrice in three separate riots over the decades. “We have to be careful.”
Shahrukh prays at a mosque close by. Until recently it had no electricity. “We used to pray in the dark,” he tells me. “2002 ke bawaal mein shaheed ho gaya tha na masjid (the mosque was destroyed in the riots),” he explains matter of factly. “When we tried to rebuild it, the police stopped us. So we just pray in the broken mosque.”
Shaikh Saddam does not like talking about 2002 either. He does not like talking much at all, in fact. I meet the 19 year old in the footwear store he works in, in Sodagar ni pol. The shop is owned by 49 year old businessman Mukhtar Shaikh. Shaikh’s iron foundry and house in Halol were burnt down in the riots but instead of counting his losses he immersed himself in relief work. He adopted Saddam in 2002 and has brought him up since.
Saddam was born in a village called Randhikpur. When the riots broke out the Muslims in the village tried to escape. A mob surrounded them on the way. Saddam climbed a tree to hide. He saw his siblings and parents being murdered while he sat there. He also saw his first cousin Bilkis Bano raped repeatedly. He has deposed in court as a witness for all these incidents.
“It was hard. I did not want to go. I did not want to talk about it,” he says softly. Saddam is barely audible and very nervous when he talks. He clams up at the simplest of questions and keeps biting his lower lip all through our conversation. He dropped out of school because he was not “interested in studying,” he tells me.
Someday he would like to have his own shop but for now he is happy to help Mukhtar bhai out. On Sundays he goes to CG Road, one of Ahmedabad’s posh areas, to window shop. Someday he would also like to be able to buy clothes from one of the many shops that line the road. But for now, he is grateful for what he has. He complains even lesser about his circumstances than Yusuf, Sohaib and Shahrukh. He wants and expects even lesser. Like them he will cast his vote for the first time on the 30th of April. But unlike them, he knows who he will vote for.
“I will vote for Congress,” he tells me. He does not know the name of Congress’s MP candidate from the area. Nor does he know that the candidate, Ishwar Makwana used to be in the BJP. I ask him what he and his friends want from these elections. “Sirf shaanti,” he replies. He believes every one else will vote for peace too. “Modi won’t become PM. How can he after what happened in 2002?”
(First published in DNA, April 27th, 2014)