Facing fanatics’ wrath for saving Muslim lives

Ramdas, Laxmiben Pillai, business persons, Kisanwadi, Vadodara

The Muslims of Kisanwadi will always remember Ramdas Pillai, Laxmiben Pillai, Ramdas’ brother and a friend named Kanubhai, who opened their doors to them on the frightful night of February 28, 2002. About 500 Muslims took shelter with the Pillais that night. Together with an auto-rickshaw driver and a tractor owner, Mohanbhai Savalia, they helped to whisk the Muslim residents of Kisanwadi away to safety. Were it not for the Muslims’ timely removal from Kisanwadi, the murderous mob may well have burnt them alive.

Kisanwadi lies in the eastern part of Vadodara and encompasses several slums and lower middle-class housing societies. There are 94 slum pockets occupied by approximately 10,000 families, mainly from Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim and other socially and educationally backward sections. Approximately 125 Muslim families, poor, peace-loving and simple folk, lived here.

In 2002, around 120 Muslim homes were destroyed at Kisanwadi after residents’ belongings were looted but there was no loss of life, thanks largely to the efforts of Ramdas, Laxmiben and others who kept them safe through the night of February 28 at great risk to their own lives and reached them to the relief camp at Qureshi Jamaat Khana the next day.

A young man of around 35 years, Ramdas Pillai does construction jobs. Originally from Kochi, Kerala, his family moved to Kisanwadi three generations ago. Ramdas’ wife, Laxmiben is a Gujarati. They have four children. Pillai’s four brothers also live in the same neighbourhood. The family has been involved in social work among the poor of the area for several years. In 1986, Ramdas and Laxmiben fought against slum demolition and for the housing rights of Kisanwadi’s residents. During the 1993 floods, they collected and distributed food grain worth Rs. 5.5 lakh. In the Kisanwadi area they are well known for their service to society and respected by the poor of all castes and creeds.

Although Kisanwadi lies adjacent to ‘Purva Vistaar’ (the eastern part of the city), considered to be a riot-prone area, the Kisanwadi slums had never witnessed communal violence and several slum pockets in this area had a mixed population where people had always coexisted peacefully. However, in 2002 things were very different. Tension started building on February 27 itself. As fear cast its shadow over this poor locality of Vadodara, there was unease in the neighbourhood and rumours abounded.

At about 5.30 p. m. on February 28, Nizambhai, a local resident, came and told the Pillais that there were strong rumours that the Muslims would be attacked. Immediately, Ramdas and Laxmiben, together with some Muslims from the area, went to assess the situation. By around 6 p.m. several people had collected and half-an-hour later they all decided to walk to the mosque. They sat at the mosque for a while and then proceeded to attend a wedding in the neighbourhood. At around 7 p.m. when they were all having dinner there, there were shouts of "Aaya, Aaya, Aaya!" (‘They’ve come!’) A large mob of around 250-300 persons approached Jhanda Chowk and started clambering onto the mosque. Ramdas Pillai stood in front of the mosque and tried to reason with them. He kept telling them that whatever happened at Godhra was done by other Muslims; do not punish these people for others’ wrongdoings. They managed to prevent people from damaging the mosque on that occasion.

The mob then dispersed and started moving into the by-lanes of the bastis. Carrying dharias and talwaars, they roamed the narrow streets, their numbers continuously increasing.

Fearing for their lives, the Muslims left their houses in a panic. About 500 Muslims took shelter at Ramdas Pillai’s home and at his brother’s house. Kanubhai, a friend of Ramdas’, also sheltered his Muslim neighbours in his house. Among the affected persons was a panic-stricken woman who had rushed out of her house leaving her three-month old daughter behind. Kanubhai went to her house and brought the baby safely to her mother. There were people crammed into every corner of the shelter houses until the following afternoon. The next day, on March 1, Pillai and his family gave the refugees tea and also arranged for lunch. According to the residents of Kisanwadi, they tried to contact the police when the incidents began but the phone was constantly engaged.

Ramdas tried to contact the police control room once more on March 1 when a woman officer answered the call. He told her that the situation in Kisanwadi was bad; that, as a woman, she should sympathise since there were Muslim women there who were vulnerable. This woman police officer responded and informed the police station. PSI Baria, PSI Solanki, Shri Damor and D Staff PSI Parmar came to Pillai’s house but they refused to provide any vehicles and Pillai had to request the local councillor, Mohanbhai Savalia for two tractors to transport the refugees to relief camps. The councillor warned him that if the tractors were damaged it would be Pillai’s responsibility. Finally, Pillai took the Muslims to Qureshi Jamaat Khana. For some of the remaining people, he arranged a bus.

Despite the presence of some policemen on the bus, it was stoned and attacked and one Rasoolbhai was hit on the head by a stone. A mob of 2,000 surrounded the bus and began pelting it with stones. The bus driver was smart; he kept on driving and managed to save his passengers’ lives. Otherwise, they would all have been burnt alive in the bus.

Several victims recognised the leaders of the mob as workers of the Bajrang Dal, whose office was located nearby. Many affected women said that these were boys who had grown up in their midst. The mobs made repeated trips to Muslim houses, looting or destroying whatever they could lay their hands on: vessels, clothes, tape recorders, TV sets, refrigerators, etc. They burnt clothes and stole any money that they found in the cupboards. The attackers stole and destroyed painstakingly collected belongings, jewellery and money belonging to poor daily wage earners.

Putting himself at great risk, Ramdas Pillai saved several people in the neighbourhood. A knife-wielding fanatic was about to lunge at Suleman, one of the residents, when Ramdas grabbed hold of the attacker and thrust him aside. A traumatised Suleman sat frozen in his chair. An old woman had been left behind in her home when her family fled to safety. The next evening Ramdas found her alone at home and took her to the Jamaat Khana.

Even two weeks later, when a team visited the area on March 14, Kisanwadi wore a haunted look, with broken down homes and shops, and burnt laaris and auto-rickshaws. The Muslim areas had been completely gutted. At Hussaini Chowk, Jhanda Chowk and Indiranagar, all that was left of their homes were smashed TV sets, shards of glass and crockery, and sewing machines, cycles and fans twisted out of shape. The mosque/madrassa had been razed to the ground. People living nearby said that it took the mob 2-3 days to break down the mosque completely. They had set fire to it the previous day but Ramdas Pillai had managed to put out the fire. The mobs then went back and attacked it a second time.

The steady looting of doorframes and windows from Muslim homes continued for months thereafter. The looters sold the material as scrap, while the police refused to intervene. In Pillai’s words, "The Muslims of Kisanwadi had no protector, they were as orphans." On several occasions during this period, Pillai had personally tried to contact Vadodara CP, DD Tuteja but received no help or favourable response.

Months after the incident, Muslim residents of Kisanwadi were still being threatened with dire consequences if they tried to return. Young women in particular were threatened with rape. Even two years after the attacks, in 2004, there are only 10-12 Muslim families living in the area. And they are too poor to find any other alternative. Most others have left the area permanently.

Today, apart from the Muslims, people like Ramdas and Laxmiben, who supported them, are also facing threats and economic boycott. The police is said to have been under a lot of pressure from members of the BJP and VHP to ostracise the Pillais. Persons who stand for peace and humanity seem to endanger the BJP-VHP project the most. The police, in turn, have tried to put pressure on Pillai to remove the names of accused mentioned in FIRs. They are targeting Pillai because of his humane behaviour and have launched a harassment campaign against the entire Pillai family.

On April 4, 2002, PI Kanani picked up his brother, Krishnamurthy Swaminathan, on a false pretext and subsequently arrested him on charges of attempt to murder (Section 307). Police officer JD Rana was heard pressurising Muslim complainants to identify Swaminathan as a perpetrator even though the Muslim complainants kept insisting that Swaminathan was in fact one of those who had saved them! Pillai believes that the police want to implicate his family because of their empathetic behaviour towards the minority community.

The family members hear of threats, second and third hand, every other day. Their daughter’s tuition teacher asked her to tell her family that he had heard a group of 10-12 men at the paan-shop saying "Ramdas ko pata do! Miyan ko bachaya!" (Kill Ramdas! He has saved Muslims!). Others heard similar rumours at the vegetable market.

In the immediate aftermath of the violence, Ramdas Pillai’s construction business came to a standstill. Two years have passed since but he has been unable to regain his original financial position. People who had been supportive and had worked with him in the past no longer support him; they avoid meeting him. He says they did not kill him because of what his family has done for many over the years and the goodwill they have earned in the area but he can clearly see the disregard in their eyes. The Pillais know what people say behind their backs: "Why should Pillai, a Brahmin, support and save Muslims? Being a Brahmin he may not kill them but why save them?"

The family is very disturbed by this attitude from people who were once close friends. It is particularly difficult for their children to come to terms with this changed social and economic status. Sometimes they do not even have enough money to pay tuition fees for the children who study in expensive English medium schools.

Laxmiben says, "It is difficult to make children understand why they should suffer for the humanitarian work their parents chose to do." Although the Pillais do not in any way regret what they did, they cannot conceal their frustration and disappointment at the response they received from more progressive people. As Ramdas says, "We do not expect any rewards from the poor Muslims whom we helped. They themselves are in a very bad way. But even rich Muslims and their institutions, or human rights institutions, have not acknowledged what we have had to sacrifice. They only felicitate prominent and well-known people but no one has ever bothered about ordinary people like us. It is difficult to sustain humanitarian activities in such an atmosphere."

Today the Pillais face threat, social ostracism and economic hardship. But notwithstanding the disappointments they have undergone, they have not stopped the good work. Laxmiben is in the forefront of the forum for communal harmony set up by a local women’s organisation and even encourages her teenage daughters to participate in their activities.  

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2004 Year 10   No. 98, Cover Story 14



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