His compassion fetches him a rich poll harvest

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Hareshbhai Kothari, Municipal Corporator, Memdavad, Kheda

Memdavad in Kheda district is a town with a history of Hindu-Muslim amity. Even Partition in 1947 could not create a rift between the Hindus and Muslims here. The year 2002 proved to be different, as the town was rocked by the first episode of communal violence in its living memory. However, there was still an area that did not allow itself to be swept away by this tide of communal hatred, thanks mainly to the efforts of Hareshbhai Kothari.

Hareshbhai is an independent corporator from Khadia ward of Memdavad Municipal Corporation. He lives in Desai Pol, which has 200 Hindu families and a lone Muslim family, that of Mehmoodbhai Sheikh. Sheikh’s family has been living here for the last 70 years. In March 2002, when widespread violence rocked Gujarat and even Memdavad, Mehmoodbhai’s family went through some tense moments. One day, influenced by the atmosphere of hatred around them, some Hindus from the Pol threatened Mehmoodbhai’s family and asked them to leave by the next morning. However, the family had faith in their neighbours and decided not to go.

When Hareshbhai learnt of this threat, he went to Mehmoodbhai and told him that the protection of Mehmoodbhai’s family was a matter of honour for him. "Hareshbhai assured us that if there was any danger to us, he would take us to his house," recalls Firdaus Bano, Mehmoodbhai’s daughter-in-law. Next, he called a meeting of the Hindu residents of the Pol and impressed upon them the need to protect the Muslim family. He pointed out that if Mehmoodbhai’s flat was targeted the neighbouring flats would also be damaged. It was better to set an example of communal amity for the rest of the city. This argument clicked with the residents and they decided to ensure the safety of their Muslim neighbour and his family.

The very same people who had threatened Mehmoodbhai now worked to protect him. Hindus ran errands and did the groceries so that his family members would not have to step out and be exposed to danger. And his grandchildren were taken to school and back by his neighbours. When Mehmoodbhai had to be taken to hospital for a medical emergency, Hareshbhai drove the jeep himself and, along with another resident, ensured that he got timely medical aid. As a result, Mehmoodbhai still lives in Desai Pol even today. Firdaus Bano says that they live like a family with faith restored as never before.

Across the road from Desai Pol is Dhakadi Wada where about 50-60 Muslim families live, surrounded by Hindu families on all sides. When trouble started in Memdavad, Muslims residents here were worried, but "Hindus assured us constantly that nothing will happen here," recalls Bashirmiyan Ahmedmiyan Sayyed, a resident. Hindu neighbours gave constant support to the Muslim residents with their presence and Hareshbhai sat on guard every night from midnight to 3 a.m. for a month, to ensure the safety of these families. As a result, the area remained completely calm throughout the month-long period of communal tension. No one was harmed and no loss of property occurred.

When refugees from Kanij village and from the neighbouring slums poured in, the Muslim residents of Dhakadi Wada provided them shelter and protection for 20 days. None of the Hindu neighbours objected to this arrangement. In another Muslim-predominant locality behind his Pol, Hareshbhai again ensured that no one was harmed. He also helped to rescue many other stranded Muslims with the help of the local police.

There was tremendous pressure on Hareshbhai and the other Pol residents to throw Mehmoodbhai’s family out. The fanatic fringe also wanted the Muslim-owned bakery in the neighbourhood to be burnt. Bangles were sent to Hareshbhai as a mark of his ‘cowardice’ but he stood firm. For his efforts, the Hindu right-wing distributed pamphlets, calling him Hareshbhai Malik, indicating that he had become a Muslim. Undeterred, Hareshbhai continues to work for communal harmony.

It is apparent that people appreciate his efforts for, in the next municipal elections, he was re-elected from his ward with a larger margin than ever before. Hareshbhai firmly believes that the violence was instigated by outsiders and that, had it not been for these outsiders, Memdavad would have once again bucked the trend and remained peaceful as so often in the past.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2004 Year 10   No. 98, Cover Story 6



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