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The Secular Lies of Vadodara

Sankarshan Thakur visits a torn city whose communal neuroses go beyond Narendra Modi and recent riots. His report

Bigotry’s Byproduct: Among May Day’s remains at Champaner Gate
Vadodara’s maladies 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
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.”

Blown In The Wind: The Vadodara peace march
Hindus and Muslims put out flags to mark territory, green for Muslims, saffron for Hindus. And quite often merged with them, the spires of mosques and temples, competing for numbers and stature
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.”

May 20 , 2006
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