Losing my identity

Diary: Touring Modi’s ‘vibrant’ Gujarat

My plane landed at Ahmedabad airport in the wee hours of the morning. As I emerged from this splendid airport I was surrounded by a herd of taxi-drivers all asking me to get into their taxis. One of them picked up my bags as another literally pushed me into his cab, each compelling me to travel with him. It was a surreal feeling.

I had planned to visit several places in Gujarat on this tour and according to my schedule I was to leave for Anand the same day. I could go either by local train or taxi and I had been advised to use a taxi. The problem was however that while I sat in one taxi my luggage had been loaded into another. This hijack only confirmed that although I was travelling into Narendra Modi’s progressive Gujarat, in fact I stood helplessly in no man’s land.

Last year, under Narendra Modi’s leadership, the BJP won the Gujarat assembly elections with a thumping majority. The BJP’s mega success and absolute majority in the state assembly has already made Modi mightier than his party. As a leader, he ‘helped himself’ and the BJP to retain success. He now rules the state for yet another term, making it four consecutive terms for the BJP.

Following his victory at the polls, Narendra Modi declared that his win was a triumph of the sentiments and prestige of five crore Gujaratis (sic) "including its 50 lakh Muslims". It is however a shameful truth that the Muslims of Gujarat are still outcastes in their own land.

Why did Modi win with a complete majority? Political pundits and analysts in the media have their own explanations for this; the media always seems able to justify ‘worshipping the rising sun’. According to popular opinion in the fourth estate, it was Gujarat’s social, political and economic development under Modi’s "able leadership" through the preceding decade that rewarded him with yet another term in power.

Five years down the line, many media hypotheses and views, voices that the media once espoused, seem to have subsided as many lie forgotten. The one fact that everyone seems to agree on today is that Modi won thanks to the social, political and economic prosperity of his state. Yet his win owes much to his religious chauvinism, his bigotry being a major factor in scripting his "success story". A state that had long been experimenting with religious dogmatism, Gujarat soon turned into a boiling hotbed of Hindu fanaticism. The carnage and riots of 2002 was the chosen battleground where thousands of Muslims were slaughtered, their women brutally raped and murdered, in a genocide that was condemned worldwide.

Ironically, this time around, Narendra Modi was praised for his "statesmanship". Hindutva’s new poster boy for victory made history for the win-win mechanism of Hindu fanaticism. Interestingly, the media seemed to forget his many misdeeds.

As a devout Gujarati, Narendra Modi has developed infrastructure in his state. He appealed to non-resident Gujaratis to maintain ties with their state as true sons of the soil. He has improved the distribution and supply of electricity in Gujarat and supported industrialisation for sustainable growth. But as chief minister he can pick and choose which areas to look after and which ones to avoid. Upon closer analysis it appears that Modi deliberately overlooked Muslim dominated areas of the state, which are instead being looked after by NGOs. Functioning within their own limitations, these NGOs are unable to formulate feasible plans for development; especially without the governmental support they are denied. The very idea that they work for a particular religious group is reason enough to arouse bias against them. Where then do Gujarat’s Muslims and their supporting NGOs fit in such a scenario?

My musings come to a halt as I zero in on a taxi that could drive me to Anand. Appearances speak louder than words, they say. I applied this wisdom to the dilemma at hand, looked deeply into the faces of both taxi-drivers and concluded that one of them was a Muslim. He sported a beard and his typical attire, a salwar khameez, confirmed his identity. I chose to take his taxi because I thought it would be safer travelling in a Muslim’s taxi – my misgivings had transformed me into a communal peer.

Guessing my intentions, the other taxi-driver played his final card. Hoping to change my mind, he used sound fiscal logic to lure me into his taxi instead. Sir! How much are you going to pay that mian (Muslim) chap? It isn’t safe to travel with a Muslim in Gujarat nowadays.

My appearance disguises my religion and I wasn’t easily distinguishable as a Muslim, rather I have often been mistaken for a Hindu.

You ride with me and pay me 100 rupees less than what you would have paid that mian, he said.

Perhaps it would be an adventure to travel in disguise. I chose the taxi driven by Hirabhai Patel, the Hindu taxi-driver, and instructed him to take me on a tour of Ahmedabad before I left for Anand. The architectural beauty of this historical city evoked its golden past, highlighting a bygone era. Its splendid buildings and monuments surpassed my musings. This was no idle reverie.

I had to be careful when I answered incoming calls on my mobile phone, choosing to say “hi” instead of “salaam” to my Muslim friends when they called. I did this not out of fear but because I wanted to hear more of these outbursts from an ordinary if communalised Hindu who had been poisoned by hatemongering

As we traversed a busy city street, Hirabhai Patel asked me my name. Asif Anwar, I replied. He repeated it aloud, with some modifications: Ashish Anup. Yeah, I said, and began to talk of something else. But I was not afraid. So you are a North Indian Brahmin. Would you please shut up and take me to some monuments, I rebuked him. Sure, sir! A little later, Hirabhai’s words, uttered as we drove through another crowded street, grabbed my attention. Sir, look at that place. This is where the biggest ever dhamal had happened. Dhamal! What do you mean? I don’t understand. You wouldn’t since you are a "non-Gujarati Hindu". Dhamal is a riot where devout Gujarati Hindus killed Muslims and showed them their rightful place – the graveyard.

I couldn’t weep. I should not. Apart from anything else, I could have been taken for a Muslim.

A few hours’ journey had suddenly become an exhausting experience.

From my seat in the taxi, I looked out anew at the city’s monuments. To my eyes, most of them seemed to be stained with fresh blood. I looked at Hirabhai who was now driving along in silence. People like him had turned into Hindu chauvinists. But who can blame him for the mischief he gave voice to? He had his arguments. Thousands like him had been instigated to choose the path of hatred.

I toured all of Ahmedabad city in the space of two hours. I was shown each and every temple in the city. I visited a grand temple at the army base camp. Each devotee, including ‘me’, was checked through security. I ate prasad. If they could have, the security guards would have checked my ‘religion and my intentions’ and found that I was not a worshipper but, unfortunately for them, they could not. I didn’t visit a single mosque in Ahmedabad. And I admired the towering architecture of its temples.

By evening I had arrived in Anand. Hirabhai was happy that I was a "devoted Hindu" from North India. Still, he contended, Gujarati Hindus were unsurpassable in their devotion. North Indian Hindus cannot even begin to conceive of what Gujarati Hindus had done. This was all thanks to the "able leadership" of a man of Narendra Modi’s stature, he said.

I kept nodding in mute agreement, yeah, yeah. I was in no mood for a discussion on such weighty issues with a taxi-driver. I had to be careful when I answered incoming calls on my mobile phone, choosing to say "hi" instead of "salaam" to my Muslim friends when they called. I did this not out of fear but because I wanted to hear more of these outbursts from an ordinary if communalised Hindu who had been poisoned by hatemongering.

History flashed back through the centuries, years and years through which Gujarat has encountered the Hindu hatemonger. Viewed against this backdrop, Narendra Modi was no more than an ‘active’ puppet of Hindu fanaticism who deliberately advocated the ‘cause of Hinduism’. One cannot but recall the Gujarat riots of 1714, 1715, 1716, 1741, 1750, 1941, 1946, 1965, 1969, 1982, 1984, 1986, and the more recent ones of 1992, 1993 and 2002. The seeds of hatred have spread unbridled among leaders here.

On entering the precincts of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand, which I was visiting on an official assignment, I paid the taxi-driver’s fare. As he was leaving, he invited me to come back to Ahmedabad and hire his taxi again, saying that it was really nice to have toured his Gujarat with a "North Indian Hindu". By this time I had decided to clarify Hirabhai’s misconceptions. I told the poor chap, enough is enough. Do you know my identity? I am a Muslim, and a devout Muslim. Now, please leave me alone. I had grown increasingly short-tempered.

Hirabhai Patel was plainly stunned. He sped off the campus, probably convinced that he had been deceived by a Muslim – an experience he wouldn’t forget in this lifetime. One that could turn him into either a true Hindu or a full-fledged hatemonger.

I don’t know what happened with him. But a minute or two later when I received a call on my mobile phone I answered the call and, as usual, said salaam.

Hirabhai had reconfirmed my identity. He had disconnected the call.

I had toured Modi’s vibrant Gujarat.

Archived from Communalism Combat,  February 2008 Year 14    No.128-Cover Story 3



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