2006, Baroda, Reportage, Tehelka

The Secular Lies of Vadodara

Sankarshan Thakur visits a torn city whose communal neuroses go beyond Narendra Modi and recent riots. First published in Tehelka on May 20, 2006.

The driver’s saying, no way, his taxi isn’t going any further. He is shaking his head and looking as if to say, “You must be mad even to ask.”

Champaner Gate? “Nai saab, apun kaa jaan kaa bhi to fikir hai; biwi, baal-bachcha hai, nai saab, yahin chhodo.”

We walk the teeming rivulet lanes of the old town, a crazy baroque of medieval finery embossed with coarse masonry; carved timber held together by garish tiling, a block of cement smothering evidence of a fallen balustrade, a rusty water-cooler rammed into what was once some refined Parsi’s gable, style choked by substance.

We return late afternoon near-swayed by the intransigent driver’s reason. Champaner Gate isn’t so much the opening on a wizened town breathing through layer upon layer of coexistent time. It is more a gash cleaved in the minds of its people. 1969. 1971. 1978. 1982. 1983. 1987. 1991. 1992. 1993. 1995. 1998. 2000. 2002. 2002 again and again. 2005. April 2006. The tear has been ripped too oft, too savagely for sutures to work.

Old Baroda isn’t a town; it’s an eruption of seething frontiers mined with malevolence. Prejudice, hatred, anger, suspicion, distrust, vile and vicious myth — the first thing a Muslim child is taught is to slaughter a cow; Hindus are bent and devious, that’s why they only produce spinners — and, most of all, memory, a festering sore if ever there was one. Start a conversation in the Muslim mohalla about what happened last fortnight and they begin with 1969. Start a conversation in the Hindu quarter round the bend in the gali and they take you to Somnath and that “ma******* Mahmud Ghazni” whose wicked progeny all Muslims are. Put a step wrong and you could trigger a cluster explosion that’s forever short on fuse.

A week after the latest blaze — sparked by the ill and premeditated razing of the teeny shrine of Sufi Rashiduddin Chishti that stood in the lee of Champaner Gate — a peace march briefly trickled through the embers. Relations of a slain Muslim, relations of a slain Hindu. Community leaders window-dressed to their dhotis and skullcaps. Candles in their palms, slogans calling halt and peace on the placards. A group of twenty-odd in a city of two million, a pinhead in a cannonhole, doves blundering in a slaughterhouse.

Ask JS Bandukwala, professor of Physics at the Sayaji Rao University and surely Vadodara’s most scarred veteran of good sense, what it feels like to plead the middle ground. “Peace and harmony and non- violence and Gandhi are such misnomers for this place. Look at me. Hindus hate me just because I am a Muslim. Muslims hate me because I don’t cry their apocalyptic slogans and because my children are free to marry Hindus. There are fires on both sides. Our lives are not stretches of normality interrupted by violence, they are stretches of violence interrupted by normality. At least two generations have no memory of peace or harmonious living. Mayhem is normal.”

So the flattening of the mazaar of Rashiduddin Chishti — the site has been macadamed, a scene of crime blackwashed, and an armoured carrier of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) is parked atop — only became occasion for the latest blisterburst. Vadodara’s maladies are quotidian, they don’t make daily news but they are silently proliferating all the time. Often, as very early on the morning of May 1, they will froth to the surface. They will bring a fanatic to the faultlines.

Vadodara’s BJP mayor, Sunil Solanki, arrived at the Champaner Gate mazaar well before light on May Day. His men had alerted select mediapersons the previous night; be there early, dhamaal hoga. Dhamaal, popular local for bloody tumult. That evening had a whiff of Chronicle of a Death Foretold; everybody seemed to know of murder coming other than the murderee.

Vadodara’s Police Commissioner, Deepak Swaroop, is believed to have struck caution in a meeting the day before — this isn’t the time to do this, emotions are involved, it is a delicate time. But Solanki and his men were taking aim at the shrine piggybacked on the requirements of development. The road has to be widened, the mazaar must go, what’s its value anyway, who goes there, in any case there is a court order.

There was the issue of the mazaar’s age; it was a century old, probably much more, it definitely shows up on official Gaekwad-era court maps of 1911. It qualified as a heritage site, untouchable. But Solanki wasn’t listening. “If the police and the corporation will not do it,” Solanki is reported to have said, “our boys in the Bajrang Dal will do it.” Ayodhya’s loyal bigot bent on battering.

Eventually, they dragged three earthmovers covered by policemen firing teargas and bullets, to demolish a structure as little as a pillbox. By mid-morning, the mazaar of Rashiduddin Chishti was a pile of rubble and the old town was riven afresh by a diabolical design. Enemy had sighted Enemy again, the battle between Us and Them had gone back to the trenches.

Ishaq Chinwala’s third-floor window in Mughalwada is a handy viewing gallery on old Baroda’s siege within. Not least because chilled mango panna from the Chinwala kitchen comes with the viewing. The drink is a godsend in the ochre inferno of May, the view is quite another thing. A hectic, almost leprous spread of concrete rising, gorge-like, from the maze of lanes. Kalupura (Hindu), Fatehpura (Muslim), Nawabazar (Hindu), Yakutpura (Muslim), Hathikhana (Hindu), Dargah (Muslim), Baajwada (Hindu), Chaukhandi (Mixed), Mandvi (Mixed), Ladwada (Hindu), Dosumian Ki Chal (Mixed), Suleimani Pole (Muslim), Jehangirpura (Mixed). Jowl biting cheek. And how are you to know one from the other from atop here? Of course, the obliging Ishaq Chinwala is there to mark them out but help isn’t a requirement. They put out flags to mark territory and frontier, tied to bamboo poles and poked high into the sky — the green standard for Muslim neighbourhoods, saffron for the Hindus. And quite often, almost merged with them, the rising spires of mosques and temples, competing for numbers, competing for stature on the skyline.

Chinwala, 70, says he has lived constantly aghast these past decades, but that’s not unusual. He is a dyed-in-the-khadi Gandhian who would die clutching his principles if he had to. “I probably will have to, the way things are, and I will probably die alone, but I cannot comprehend the world around me,” he says, “Everyone is becoming more fundamentalist. Down in the streets, they are asking Muslim women to shun saris because Hindu women wear them and Hindus are telling each other to build a temple in each home because they are greater in number. Everything has gone to the mullah and the pandit, Gods are doing culture police duty, Gods are turning landlords.”

Mughalwada is probably the biggest Muslim neighbourhood in old Baroda — close to 50,000 people, “all Muslim”, Chinwala regretfully informs us. “There used to be mixed localities, there still are, but they are getting emptied out quickly, everybody is getting more ghettoised. The Hindus of Gaurav Society nearby have been selling their houses one after another. One sale prompts another, what we call an incident becomes incentive. Dabli Falia is another locality fast becoming entirely Muslim. Little kids I know wanted to become suicide bombers after the pogrom of 2002, this is a place pushing itself into madness. I used to reason with both Hindus and Muslims but I stopped. Nobody was listening. I keep mostly to myself.”

Q: Why did violence erupt again?

Chinwala: Politics, perhaps. Elections are near, (Narendra) Modi wants the pot simmering. The politics of communalism breeds on blood and hatred.

Q: But the big actors don’t come to kill. They make ordinary people do it. Why would people held together by geography and
commerce kill?

Chinwala: Passion, surcharge, the madness of the moment. And, for Muslims, the frustration of being up against a partisan State. But good question — why does neighbour kill neighbour? I’ve been pondering myself.

Chinwala is another voice of reason rebuked by current temper. Muslims think he is half-Hindu, which, in their book, is worse than being a kafir, a non-believer, a turncoat. Hindus think he is Muslim anyhow, so what if he wears khadi, eats vegetarian and talks Gandhi? In the violence fanned by the demolition of the mazaar, two of Chinwala’s establishments — a stationery shop and a storehouse — were looted and burnt by a mob. “I know who did it, I know they did it because they knew the places belonged to a Muslim. How am I to react? Can I be sane even if I desperately want to be?”

Prakash Vyas, a young manufacturer of ac compressors, believes he has installed a pocket of sanity in this crazed mirror-hall of animosities. Ladwada. Two hundred Hindu families plonked in the heart of Mughalwada. “Since 2002, not a single incident, we live together, we have to, we have resolved not to kill each other. For what?” Bashir Kachchi, fellow businessman and neighbour, is nodding agreement. “We have formed a peace committee, we are constantly in touch, we decide what steps we must take, we do not listen to outsiders. It works.” Vyas is blunt about why it doesn’t work in other parts of town. “In every community, four percent people are lunatic bastards, the rest are okay. It is not the lunatic bastards who are responsible, it is the others, because they do not stand up and speak. Communities suffer because their majorities are silent and will not undertake responsibility.”

But examine Ladwada’s micro-demographics and you might wonder if peace rides on Vyas’ rhetoric alone. Ladwada. Two hundred Hindu families in the heart of Mughalwada. That’s the big picture, Ladwada from the outside. Look at Ladwada, minus its surroundings. Ten Muslim families plonked in the middle of 200 Hindu families. Peace here could be about equilibrium. Touch a Hindu from Ladwada and you put the 10 Muslim families at risk. Brutal. But true. And it works. It’s not secular sanity eddying in a little corner of the divided town. It is sheer arithmetic, and a bit of pragmatism. Vyas himself gives the truth away as he expands on Ladwada’s secular spirit. “We are together, down to cricket. We play matches regularly and together, we have teams of boys and men and tournaments and prizes.” Hindu and Muslim boys in different mohalla teams? “No, no, can’t take it that far,” he says, a little embarrassed that his definition of secularism was straining at the ends. “No, no, what I mean is Hindu teams and Muslim teams, they can’t be part of the same team, come on, but they often play.”

Vadodara by night. Sayaji Rao’s still quite splendid city. Lit up in the neon of liberalisation. Sprawling gardens, the magnificent sandstone façade of the university midtown. Other grand remnants of old architecture (mostly Parsi and Maratha) still holding up to spruce malls clad in glass and granite. Gujarati bhujiya and khamand akimbo on the fast food chain, giving McDonalds’ and Subway the run. Gainda Circle, a rhino crafted from scrap and mounted atop a roundabout: art, the signature of the city of Ghulam Sheikh and Bhupen Kakkar. A throng at Crossword Bookstore: a blotch of culture. The Vadilal parlour: a scoop of ice-cold bliss in the sweep of a late evening breeze. Old Baroda is three kilometres away but it could be so far-flung, consigned to its own neuroses, its own recurrent wretchedness, its own mind-gashes and migraines.

There are few clues to Old Baroda in Vadodara. It’s a function of schizophrenia, a symptom of the shut-out, shut-in mechanism that forgets, forsakes, stops to care. There’s no sense of a curfew. No tremor of tension. No immediate evidence of blood and fire. There is often smoke visible, but thank the Westerlies, they blow the smell and soot away. Old Baroda is off the mind’s map, so off even the taxi driver won’t take you.

We are skirting along Alkapuri, hub of Vadodara’s newmoney glitz, secure haven of the classes — the faux-royal, the politician, the bureaucrat, the industrialist, the stockbroker and contractor, even the lofty spokesman of civil society. An old friend and a liberal who would not be named — “Strictly, please, I cannot risk getting involved in this mess, please” — points to a row of abandoned shopfronts and broken vends. “Look, Jetalpur. This is where I would get my mutton and chicken from. Muslims, good stuff. But now I merely whiz past, and they’ve run away in any case. Further down is Akota, another dangerous locality, avoid.” Dangerous? “Muslims, trouble.” She is a liberal on the university campus, dogged advocate against communalism in what she preaches and writes. “Sure,” she says, opaquely, “Sure, but what’s that got to do with where I feel secure and where I don’t.” She has chosen to make home on the southern fringes of the city, safe, entirely Hindu, ghettoised by the builders of its many housing societies; they wouldn’t accept applications from Muslims, they got better rates from Hindu clients. “Safety chhe ne, double safety chhe.” (It’s doubly safe.) “Yes, and so? I have a family, school-going children, why would I want them to pay the price for my principles. I don’t want my son caught in a riot, I want Hindus around me in a riot, it’s true. I carry a Hindu name; in trouble, I feel safer among them.” She goes quiet. Tomorrow’s news from Old Baroda will probably outrage her again, but she isn’t heading that way, no way. Just like the morning’s taxi driver.

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