Gujarat's Muslims and Hindus need to meet each other head on, breaking the walls of prejudice built since 2002.

Will anyone have the guts to bring the families of those who died in coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, face to face with those who were acquitted of the crime last week? Lost in the joy of the men freed after nine years in jail was the suffering of the families of those who died on the train. But there was at least one Muslim I spoke to who mentioned the Hindus who met a horrible death that morning. “Please, no celebrations, there are victims on that side too,” Saeed Umarji pleaded with the media thronging his home to meet his father, Maulana Husain Umarji, acquitted of the charge of being the mastermind behind the so-called train-burning conspiracy.

His plea to journalists was ironic because it is thanks to the media that the 70-plus maulvi became the monster that he remains now in the eyes of most of those who lost family members on the Sabarmati Express. The acquittal of 63 accused in the train burning case has annoyed them, but it is for the Maulana that they reserve their anger, citing his “role” in inciting the mob — as reported by the media. The tragedy is that the role played by the Maulana was exactly the opposite. It was only he who, after the burning of the train, expressed regret on behalf of his community, repeatedly and publicly. Again, he alone restrained the young Ghanchi Muslims whose blood boiled at the sight of raped and battered Muslims pouring into the relief camps in Godhra during the massacres which followed the Godhra train-burning, and who itched to retaliate against the police for their continuous combing operations in Muslim localities after the incident.

Convey Saeed Umarji's message of sympathy to Harishbhai Dabhi, who fell ill with shock after his 69-year-old mother Jeeviben's burnt body was brought home from the Sabarmati Express, and all you get is a cynical retort about the Maulana's “wealth” — quoting the media again. Mr. Dabhi is so upset with the Godhra judgment that he threatens self-immolation if all the guilty are not punished. “What happened to the rest of the mob?” he asks.

Used and ignored

Used by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, ignored by the Congress, Mr. Dabhi's anguish stems from the knowledge of his own powerlessness. “Shouldn't we have been kept in the loop in this case?” he asks angrily. “But we were told nothing — how the inquiry was conducted, who testified … This old man,” he pauses, pointing to his 82-year-old father, “would vote for a donkey if it stood on a Congress ticket. The Congress thought all those returning from Ayodhya on that train were BJP supporters. They forgot there were Dalits among them too.”

It's not just the Dalits the Congress forgot. It forgot even its own votebank. When Muhammad Husain Kalota, the Congress Mayor of Godhra (now acquitted), was arrested four days after the train burning in an obviously political move, the party kept quiet. Its silence became deafening when Maulana Umarji was arrested a year later — he had ensured that the party got the Muslim vote in Godhra in the crucial December 2002 Assembly election. But in the next elections, the Congress was back to its games. Its State president, former RSS man Shankarsinh Vaghela, declared in Godhra that the VHP had burnt coach S-6. In one stroke, he delivered the Hindu vote to the BJP and ensured that Gujarat's Muslims would never acknowledge their co-religionists' act of arson. Indeed, the theories propounded by them about the incident would be funny if they weren't indicative of a dangerous state of denial. Either those burnt inside S-6 — by the VHP, of course — were already dead, corpses from some morgue were piled into the train by the VHP, or, they were just beggars picked up from here and there, for, the conspiracy theorists declare, not a single kar sevak died.

Continuous propaganda

At the other extreme is the VHP's continuous propaganda that the burning of S-6 was a conspiracy aimed at Hindu passengers. But though the fast track court judgment upholds this theory, the VHP is fuming since for it, Maulana Umarji remains the mastermind. The Maulana avoided the media after his release; and in a meeting with this writer a few days later, spoke only about his life in Sabarmati jail — Baba Ramdev's yoga classes; the Gita recitations that would go on alongside those from the Koran; the scrupulous medical attention he was given. Nothing political was remotely touched upon. Yet, the VHP now spreads the canard that the Maulana thanked the UPA government as soon as he was acquitted.

If at all any role can be ascribed to the UPA government, it was that its Central POTA Review Committee recommended in 2005 that the incident was neither a conspiracy nor an act of terrorism, hence POTA could not apply to it. This opinion was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008 and, more importantly, the Gujarat High Court in 2009. And, despite POTA being revoked, very few of the accused got bail during these nine years. Many of their children had to give up dreams of college to support their families.

Perhaps if the families of the Sabarmati victims met Inayat Jhujhara, picked up on his way home from his government job on February 27, 2002 itself, with his office keys in his hand; or tea vendor Siddiq Bakr who was assaulted by the VHP passengers at the Godhra station for his refusal to say ‘Jai Sri Ram,' and whose complaint the police refused to lodge, they would accept the innocence of those acquitted. Perhaps if Ahmedabad's Muslims were to venture into their city's neighbourhoods and meet Kirit Kumar Sukla, a giant of a man who developed blood pressure after his ‘Ba' was burnt on the Sabarmati Express, or the soft-spoken Prafullaben Soni, who cried all day on February 22, not on hearing the judgment, but because it was on that day nine years ago that she last saw her husband and son alive (both were burnt on the train) — they would know the enormity of the crime committed at Godhra on February 27, 2002.

But who would want this wall of ignorance between the two sides demolished? Saeed Umarji would, but his priority is to see his father closeted in his family, away from the heavy burden of leadership Godhra's Ghanchis are waiting to place on him. Dr. Sujaat Vali, Godhra's well-known gynaecologist, would but his priority is to build bridges first between his own town's Hindu and Muslim youth, something he's been doing tirelessly since 2002. There are far more powerful players in Gujarat who can only gain from strengthening this wall.

Fortunately, other walls are crumbling. The VHP's 2002 plan to boycott Muslims economically failed in Godhra; business partnerships between the two communities are as strong as they were before 2002. “We realised there's nothing to fight about,” said BJP supporter Kishorilal Bhayani, wholesale grain merchant, whose business depends on the Bohra traders. The town's Muslims, mostly in the garage and transport business, used to gripe about their area being singled out for load-shedding. Today, Godhra gets power from the newly set up Madhya Gujarat power company, which ensures uninterrupted power supply and decentralised payment of bills. Muslim business is booming. As all over Gujarat, in Godhra too, Muslims are today determined to educate themselves; even the families of those arrested are sending their children to school.

Finally, in a master stroke, Narendra Modi chose Godhra to celebrate Republic Day in 2009. Not only did the neglected town get new roads and a huge sports complex, on the night of January 26, the politician hated the most by Muslims drove through Polan Bazar, Godhra's main Muslim area, shaking hands with the crowds that can be found there every night.

Did this gesture wipe out the fear that has ruled the town's Muslims after 2002 – the fear of being picked up if they spoke out for their community? Did it make their ‘leaders' stop bending over backwards to please the VHP? No. It did, however, make them feel, for a brief while, that they belonged.

(The author is a freelance journalist.)

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