Is Gujarat setting an example of Muslim discrimination?

News Desk: In February 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire near a junction in Godhra, a small city in India’s western state of Gujarat. Dozens of people were killed, and local Muslims were held responsible, setting off three days of violent communal riots across the state that left over 1,000 people dead and displaced thousands more.

Tandalja is a run-down neighborhood in Vadodara, the third largest city in Gujarat. Following the 2002 riots, Tandalja was designated as a resettlement location for Muslim refugees, and tensions in the community remain.

“People look at us with fear when we tell them we live in Tandalja. It’s viewed with fear and mistrust by authorities and other locals,” Azhar (name changed), a local resident, told DW.

The situation is similar in Ahmedabad, a city 110 kilometers (68.3 miles) to the north. Local resident Niyaz, who lives in a house provided by an NGO after mobs drove her family out of their village in 2002, told DW that Muslims face constant discrimination.

“Life has gotten worse after 2002. Boys living in the resettlement area don’t get jobs because they are Muslims. The Hindus who live across the road call my area Pakistan and their side Hindustan. When we protested against the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, stones were pelted at us from across the road.”

‘Second-class’ citizens

In Godhra, a Muslim-majority city in Gujarat where the 2002 violence began, a local doctor told DW that the Muslim community there has accepted its status as “second-class” citizens.

“The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a right-wing Hindu organization) and the police are linked together. If any Muslim boy ever gets caught by the cops, then no local or lawyer can dare come forward to help him,” said Shujaat Wali.

Saeed Umarji, the son of the man accused of setting the Sabarmati express coach on fire in 2002, said his father was prosecuted under false pretenses.

“My father apologized on behalf of the Muslim community in Godhra after the train burning incident, but he was picked up as a scapegoat by the police almost a year later,” he told DW, claiming that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat quickly passed anti-terrorist laws in 2002 specifically to prosecute those they considered responsible for the train fire.

“Our religion is being used to target us, which is why I no longer want to hold onto my religion, as it opens me up to harassment and discrimination.”

Modi’s ‘Gujarat model’

Gujarat is the home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and several political analysts told DW it is where the BJP first began experimenting with inciting communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims for political gain.

Dev Desai, a Gujarat-based social activist, told DW that Modi’s “Gujarat model” of “violence and communalism” has been taken from Gujarat to the national level.

Iftikhar Khan, a former professor in the Department of History at the MS University of Baroda, told DW that Modi’s rise to power from chief minister of Gujarat to prime minister in 2014, came from the subtle manipulation of tension in Gujarat between Hindus and Muslims. By responding to violence with a policy of law and order, the BJP was allegedly able to use communal tension as a political rallying cry across India.

“The intelligentsia of Delhi didn’t have the political imagination to understand the process that was unfurling. They missed the trajectory of the BJP’s advance under Modi’s stewardship, and were taken by surprise,” Khan said.

Vinod Jain, a media convener for the BJP in South Gujarat, denies claims that Muslims in Gujarat are treated differently. “Narendra Modi has always said that all residents of Gujarat are members of his family. We have provided all zones in Ahmedabad with electricity, water and gas; there is no discrimination. Muslims are not discriminated against in Gujarat; their businesses are thriving, and their incomes are growing,” Jain told.

Mob violence steered by politicians?

Suresh Mehta, former chief minister of Gujarat before Modi, believes there are similarities between the BJPs response to Gujarat in 2002 and the response to the 2020 Delhi riots.

“In the event of a riot, like we saw in Delhi this year, the BJP pulled the strings like it did in 2002. It manipulated the institutions of power like the parliament and the police and it orchestrated the riots, despite claiming otherwise,” he told DW.

Mehta claims that during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, BJP-affiliated politicians also helped incite mob violence.

“Who mobilized the crowd, handed them their weapons? Why did the police stay silent while people were butchered? All those who spoke up against the administration are either jailed or live in fear. This fear peddling has now reached a national level, because evidence against those in power were simply removed from the public forum,” added Mehta.

India’s Muslims and Hindus divided

Right now, Muslims in Gujarat are concerned about a law that demarcates separate neighborhoods for Hindus and Muslims.

Under the Disturbed Area Act, authorities can designate a neighborhood as “disturbed,” based on the history of communal riots in the area.

If an area is declared “disturbed,” residents are not permitted to sell their house to someone from a different community.

“The act intends to prevent profiteering from riots because riots can cause an exodus of people and force them to sell valuable assets at rock bottom prices,” Saurabh Chaudhary, a New Delhi-based lawyer, told DW, adding that how the law is actually implemented may differ from how it is written.

In 2017, 10 localities in Godhra were placed back under the Disturbed Area act, 15 years after the riots. Several parts of Vadodara and Ahmedabad, which haven’t seen communal violence for a significant period of time, continue to remain under the act.

Human rights activist JS Bandukwala said the act has simply demarcated areas of residence for Muslims and Hindus, amounting to a new divide and rule policy.

“The current political situation will eventually mandate for a disturbed area act on a national level, and eventually Hindus and Muslims will live in separate areas. Many people outside Gujarat don’t see it coming, but we do,” he told DW.

But BJP’s Jain says that the Disturbed Area act is meant to maintain “peace and order.”

“There are 3,000-year-old temples in Surat’s Gopipura area. If Muslims come to this area and eat meat, it is insensitive to vegetarian Jains and Hindus,” Jain said, arguing that the act prevents conflicts in the areas.