Of a Wedding and a Ghetto

We are in a colony in central Ahmedabad watching a Hindu wedding ceremony. By the groom Jayesh Bhabaria’s side, are a group of women, all Muslims. They are his neighbors, people who practically raised Jayesh from the time he was a little boy. “They regard my father as a brother. After he died they pretty much adopted me and I wanted them by my side today. I will look after them until I die.”

It’s a rare friendship on display. A sight and sentiment virtually unseen and unheard of in a city where religious partitions run deep. Since the 60’s Ahmedabad has witnessed some of the worst communal riots. With every riot, residential areas in Ahmedabad kept getting divided on religious lines. But after the riots of 2002, even the mixed areas, the so-called blurred localities, where Hindus and Muslims lived together, have virtually disappeared.

“2002 was the watershed year,” says Gagan Sethi, founder of Jan Vikas, an NGO that has been actively fighting for justice for 2002 riot victims.  “It was the completing year for the process of ghettoization, the separating of Hindus and Muslims. Earlier people could risk living together. That is now over.”

The divide, he goes on to add, is not just in residential spaces. “Even occupation has coagulated on religious lines. ‘Earlier there would be Hindu fruit traders buying from Muslim wholesalers. Now Muslims wholesalers will have Muslims as their buyers.”

Most worrying is that even schools have divided on religious lines. With even well-to-do Muslim families preferring to opt out of schools in mainstream areas. They feel safer sending their children to schools closer to home.

Dr Hanif Lakdwala, head of Ahmedabad-based NGO Sanchetna, which works among urban slum dwellers, minorities and women, sees this as a disturbing trend. ‘Since the physical segregation has happened, the Gujarat government has not set up schools in Muslim areas. So the community has started private schools to educate their children. Muslim children study only with each other and when they grow up they don’t know what Hindu religion or culture is. In the same way Hindu children have no awareness about Muslims. Both sides are growing up with negative stereotypes about each other.”

I head to Juhapura, a colony in Ahmedabad, where the largest ghettoization of Muslims happened after 2002. Referred to as chhota-Pakistan by many locals. I am here to meet 32-year-old Nazim Qureishi, an IT professional who works in a school. In 2002, Nazim was in college. “I will never forget the help my Hindu friends gave me during those days”, he says. “They took me into their homes, made sure I could focus on my studies and I was able to take my exams.”  Has that changed since, I ask. “At an interpersonal level, the emotions are as strong as they were,” he responds.

Nazim grew up in Jamalpur, which until 2002 was a mixed locality. I ask him why he chose to buy his house in Juhapura. “There are not too many places in Ahmedabad where a Muslim would be given a chance to stay”, he says simply. “I can afford a flat in a prime area; I would not be given a place there.” Does he see things changing?  “It will. It has to”, he says. “Education is key. That is why I want to start a school where all children will be taught  religious tolerance, about accepting differences. Things will change.”

Nazim’s words, like Jayesh’s offer a glimpse into the lost Ahmedabad; its legendary calm even during the brutal Partition riots. Perhaps someday Ahmedabad will return to that. But first, justice has to be done. Justice for the thousands of riot victims who even today live in relief camps, their plight, unacknowledged by the state government.