Islands of Sanity
-- By Raheel Dhattiwala
The slums of Ram-Rahim Nagar along with the slums of Khanpur Darwaza and the middle-class residential apartments of Khanpur are the only three localities which have yet remained relatively untouched by the virus of communal polarisation that has infected the rest of Ahmedabad.
“Hope Floats… …When Gujarat burned, there was unshakeable peace at Ram-Rahim Nagar. It was an unmatched picture of communal harmony… I wish a bright future for all of you and hope that your example of togetherness will help in bridging differences in this country.” – Lakshmi Mittal, in a letter (translated from Hindi) to the residents of Ram-Rahim Nagar Jhopdawasi Mandal on March 10, 2005
The slums of Ram-Rahim Nagar along with the slums of Khanpur Darwaza and the middle-class residential apartments of Khanpur, are the only three localities which have yet remained relatively untouched by the virus of communal polarisation that has infected the rest of Ahmedabad. Hindus being next door neighbours to Muslims may be an alien notion to Ahmedabadis, but not to the residents of these localities. And more than the communal amity, what strikes you the most about these localities is their economic status.
The much written about Ram-Rahim Nagar Jhopdawasi Mandal is a 23,000-strong slum dwelling of impoverished Hindus and Muslims. Impoverished to such an extent, as to make the president of the Mandal, make a rather acerbic remark, evidently directed towards the media and the NGO brigade: “We welcome the appreciation, the awards and the visits of intelligentsia to Ram-Rahim Nagar. But would anyone care to help us with some money as well?” .
But before we take a look at these exceptional cases, a peek at the extent of ghettoisation in Ahmedabad…
Ghettoisation – the shifting of communities from areas inhabited by the dominant community – is almost total in Ahmedabad. The seeds of ghettoisation in the city had sprouted during the riots of 1969 itself, the year which marked the RSS and Jan Sangh’s Hindutva experiment in Gujarat. But it was only after 1990 that communal polarisation took hold of entire Ahmedabad, including the walled city (old Ahmedabad), the industrial mill areas (mainly comprising Dalits who lost employment following the closure of textile mills in Ahmedabad in the 80s) and the middle-class and elite localities.
Again, until 2002, ghettoisation was only residential; thereafter it also became commercial with the total wipeout of Muslim commercial establishments in the western (Hindu-dominated) side of the city.
In terms of residences, while the posh western Ahmedabad is totally Hindu dominated except for a few pockets of Muslims (which too have become unsafe for the community since 2002), eastern Ahmedabad is home to a majority of the Muslim population (82%: Wiscomp survey*. The remaining 18% are restricted to the Muslim pockets of Paldi and Navrangpura Muslim Society in western Ahmedabad).
Take for example, Juhapura – arguably the largest Muslim ghetto in India with a population of over 2 lakhs today. Till 1992, it was looked upon as a down-market area by elite Muslims living in posh western Ahmedabad localities like Law Garden, Paldi and Navrangpura. By 2002, the population of Juhapura shot up to over 2 lakhs.
Similarly, till 1985, the now Muslim-dominated areas of Jamalpur and Raikhad had a 60% Hindu population. It was after the anti-reservation riots of 1985, which had taken a communal turn, affluent Hindus started moving out of ‘lower middle-class’ areas in eastern Ahmedabad (walled city) like Jamalpur, Raikhad, Kalupur, Shahpur etc to classy localities in western Ahmedabad. For the growing population of Muslims who had no choice but to stay back, these areas started getting more cramped.
Apart from the experiments of Hindutva that the Sangh Parivar regularly tried out in Gujarat, the rapid economic progress in the state (termed as “lumpen capitalism” by noted labour researcher Jan Breman) and impractical laws made by the government like the Disturbed Areas Act (termed “unworkable” by noted city-based human rights activist and advocate Girish Patel), failed to curb ghettoisation.
I. Ram-Rahim Nagar: A Paradigm Case
It’s a slum dwelling of around 23,000 destitute and mostly uneducated Hindus (40%) and Muslims (60%), estimated to have one unemployed person per house. Its claim to international fame is its incredible track record of maintaining absolute peace during communal riots, four times in a row – 1969, 1985, 1992 and 2002. These were riots which otherwise had the whole of Ahmedabad and Gujarat baying for the blood of “the other”. As Natwarbhai Rawat, president of the Ram-Rahim Nagar Jhopdawasi Mandal (the governing body comprising a 21-member executive committee), says, “We don’t have degrees that they (the rest of Ahmedabad) have, but we have humanism which they don’t.”
The genesis of humanism in the Mandal perhaps began the day it was established in 1973 by three men of three different faiths – Madar Singh Thakor (Kshatriya Hindu), Amar Singh Gandhi (Sikh) and Gulabbhai (Muslim). Since then, there has not been a single instance of communal disharmony amongst the residents. A Hanuman temple right opposite a dargah, stand witness to their fortitude. “During riots, we barricade the slums to prevent outsiders who might incite our people. We organise entertainment programmes during curfew hours to avoid vulnerable minds from getting distracted,” says vice-president Abdulrazak Badami. The post of president of the Mandal alternates between a Hindu and a Muslim every year. Badami further adds, “Our shops are open even during curfew hours to cater to the needs of residents in the vicinity.”
Sociologists term the peculiarity of Ram-Rahim Nagar as a case of strong economic inter-dependency. However, what’s more striking about the slum dwelling is its composition and level of education (the lack of it, rather).
Dalit-Muslim Bhai-Bhai in 2002 too:
Of the 40% Hindus residing in the slums, only 8% belong to the upper-caste; the rest are Dalits. Most of the Dalits worked in the textile mills of Ahmedabad until they were rendered jobless following the closure of the mills in the 1980s. Half of these marginalised workers got employed with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation as safai kaamdars, around 1985.
Nalini Trivedi, professor of Sociology at the city-based H K Arts College did an extensive study in 1985, on the composition and character of Ram-Rahim Nagar. “Communal amity amidst a Dalit-Muslim population was not unusual till the 1980s. However, that the slums remained peaceful even in 1992 and 2002, is remarkable.”
A quick look into history will throw light onto Trivedi’s statement.
Dalits were victims of anti-reservation riots in Gujarat in 1981 and 1985. However, by the mid-1980s, Dalits along with STs and OBCs were lured by the BJP under its Hindutva campaign, because they formed 75% of the state population, hence a potential pillar of support to the BJP. Subsequently, in the riots following Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, Dalits and OBCs were set against Muslims.
Dalits had all the more reason to become the lumpen elements under the Sangh Parivar’s umbrella, considering that they formed the chunk of marginalised workers who lost their jobs following the closure of textile mills in Ahmedabad in the 1980s.
As Pyar Ali Kapadia, former president of the Mandal points out, “The Dalits here could have easily got enticed by monetary rewards, as did many others. But somehow they knew we all had to stick together.”
‘We don’t need no education’:
Pink Floyd couldn’t have got a better example for their classic. The residents of Ram-Rahim Nagar don’t quite understand the logic behind education making us human beings any better. And somehow you are enticed into believing them.
Leelaben, a vegetable vendor and mother of two, doesn’t send her children to school. “They work in a gas agency. We can’t afford to educate them,” she says. President Rawat has studied till class 4 and ex-president Kapadia till class 10. The 23,000-populated dwelling has just one school, run by the municipal corporation. “We use common sense rather than theoretical knowledge and bookish values. Common sense tells us that living together is profitable to all,” says Kapadia, while Trivedi observes, “Illiteracy is high, but the economic interdependency of both the communities on each other has made them realise the importance of humanism without having studied it in books.”
At the same time, they do realise the inevitability of degrees in getting a square meal. “If we had some money, we would make sure that our children go to nearby schools,” says Rawat, hoping to get financial help some day.
II. khanpur darwaza slums
They may not be as remarkable as their Behrampura counterparts, yet do give a lesson in inter-communal living to the rest of the city.
Khanpur Darwaza is one of the 12 fortifications of the city, established by Sultan Mahmud Begada in the 15th century. In the 17th century, Sayyed Hasankhan Barcha, an official of Emperor Aurangzeb, established the Khanpur village on the Sabarmati river be, which gave the darwaza its name (ref: Ratnamanirao Bhimrao’s Gujarat nu Patnagar: Amdavad). Over the years, the ‘village’ (now slums) became home to migrants and citizens belonging to the lower economic strata.
Today, the 70-year-old slums comprise around 15,000 residents, all Muslims except 35. Says Salimbhai, a house painter, “The poor understand each other, therefore live in harmony.” A more practical rationale is given by Pravinbhai, the care-taker of the solitary temple inside the dwelling, who says, “We steer clear of trouble.”
Economically as well as educationally, they are a shade better than their counterparts at Ram-Rahim Nagar. Since the slums are located in the upper middle-class locality of Khanpur, a lot of women find employment as domestic help, whereas most men are auto rickshaw drivers, daily wage labourers or employed in private companies as drivers, peons, etc.
A bal anganwadi has been running inside the dwelling for the past 20 years. Around 25% people send their children to school, most municipality-funded, some private. The locality has examples like Khwaja Shaikh, a driver in a private company, who has left no stone unturned in educating his six children. “One of my sons is an MBA, another, a pharmacist, third a mechanical engineer. Both my daughters attend English medium schools,” says the class 9-passed Shaikh.
The irony of Khanpur is that it is part of the Shahpur ward of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation – an area known to break into a riot at the drop of a hat. However, the tiny locality of Khanpur is considered to be one of the safest in the city, and cosmopolitan. Well, relatively at least. While it is slowly becoming Muslim-dominated (since Shahpur is a violence-prone area, and now Muslim-inhabited as well), a substantial number of Hindus, Christians and Parsis who have been living together along with Muslims in the apartments of Khanpur, have no desire to move to another locality.
Take the majestic 1966-established Firdaus Flats, for example. Of its 68 members, 54 are Muslims, 7 Parsis, 3 Hindus, 2 Christians and 1 Jain.
Kantilal Gaekwad, a retired employee in private firm, has been living in the building since 1969. “I have seen all the major riots of Ahmedabad. Yet, the thought of shifting has never occurred to me, as I always wanted to live in a cosmopolitan culture,” says the 62-year-old, who has a Dawoodi Bohra family as his next door neighbour.
Jasmine Flats, placed right next to Firdaus, is now largely Muslim inhabited (a couple of Hindu doctors have clinics here, so does a Jain chartered accountant). Till 1992, Jasmine was also home to an equal number of Hindus, as Muslims. “Hindus shifted to western Ahmedabad because they had progressed economically and wanted bigger homes. It had nothing to do with safety because Khanpur has always remained unharmed during riots,” says Naushad Lightwala, secretary of Jasmine Flats.
Most of these residents can be placed under the upper middle-class bracket, some fairly opulent as well. Therefore, the rationale of living together being the functional need of people belonging to the lower economic strata, gets substituted by various others.
Closed Doors: “It’s a peculiar area,” says Patel, “Somehow the secluded nature of the apartment culture, led neighbours belonging to different communities remain disinterested in each other.”
This reason may not be entirely true, as the apartment culture in the rest of the city remains fairly interested in whether neighbours belong to a particular faith, whether they eat non-vegetarian food etc.
Hotel Hub: Others feel that being a ‘hotel haven’ (around 6 premier hotels, including Le Meridien, a five-star hotel and Cama Park Plaza, a four-star hotel, are located within stone’s throw), Khanpur has not been affected even during the 2002 carnage. Top-level officials in the hotel industry attribute the invincibility of the locality to the likes of Mumbai-based Usman Balwa (owner of Le Meridien) and Jehangir Cama (owner of Cama Park Plaza), whose clout had forced the otherwise-absconding Gujarat police to make security arrangements in the area. Since people have not felt insecure, they have stayed put.
Multi-ethnicity: But it’s the third reason, as given by women’s rights activist Sheba George, which seems to make most sense. Multi-ethnicity. George, a Christian, is married to a Muslim; both live in the Hindu-inhabited locality of Bodakdev in western Ahmedabad. “Our neighbours are Punjabi, Maharastrian and Rajasthani Hindus. I think the multi-ethnic character of the place, combats communal sentiments,” she says.
In the case of Khanpur too, this reason seems to hold water. In Firdaus Flats itself, of the three Hindus two are Maharastrians, including Gaekwad. Likewise, the Muslims are an almost even mix of Dawoodi Bohras, Khojas and Sunni Bohras. Jasmine Flats, which adjoins Firdaus, is largely Muslim inhabited but houses clinics of a couple of Hindu doctors (one Gujarati, another Bengali). Then there’s the Hindu-dominated Royal Apartments right opposite Firdaus which again has a couple of Christian families.
Indeed, Hindus are moving out of the locality “not out of fear, but because they have options” says a Hindu resident of Khanpur. The rest, like Gaekwad, prefer to “live together”.
* Endnote: The Wiscomp survey was conducted among Muslims of Ahmedabad. The sample size was 50; males 27, females 23. Age groups included Below 18 (8%), 19-25 (18%), 26-40 (26%), 41-60 (44%), Above 60 (4%). Sunnis in Gujarat (and Ahmedabad) account for the majority in comparison to Shias. This was reflected in the cross-section of the sample, which comprised 80% Sunnis, 20% Shias. 58% were married, 40% unmarried, 2% others (widow/ widower/ divorced/ separated).
In terms of occupation, the sample includes businessmen, professionals, teachers, students, housewives, religious teachers, government servants, private servants, self-employed and in-service skilled workmen (mechanics, drivers etc) and unemployed youth.
[This study was undertaken by Raheel Dhattiwala, a Scholar of Peace Fellow with Wiscomp (Women In Security Conflict Management and Peace)