Guess who keeps Gujarat Muslims' riot wounds open...

It’s increasingly becoming clear that even if Muslims, who were scarred by the 2002 riots in Gujarat, want their wounds to heal, there is a dedicated cottage industry that is hell-bent on keeping their memories alive for far longer than is good for them.

A televised interaction during the post-poll analysis in Gujarat on 20 December, when the results confirmed a hat-trick of victories for Narendra Modi, offered evidence of this curious streak among some activists.

On one such panel, Zaraf Sareshwala, a Bohra Sunni Muslim who owns a BMW showroom in Ahmedabad, was asked if Muslims felt politically excluded from Gujarat since the BJP under Modi had not given even a single ticket to a Muslim. Did it signal an arrogance of power, and of the irrelevance of Muslims in Modi’s political world, he was asked.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AP

Not really, Sareshwala said. In fact, Muslims like him preferred to have the space to grow their businesses without governmental interference (or patronage) – which comes with secular all-round development – rather than have token representation in the Assembly which doesn’t serve their real needs.

Now, Sareshwala isn’t a rent-a-quote Muslim who has been bought over by Modi. After the 2002 riots, he had actively campaigned to bring Modi before the International Court of Justice, claiming that his government had failed to protect Muslim lives during the riots. But over time, he has come around to appreciating the view that rather than waste a lifetime seeking political vendetta for what was admittedly a horrid crime, which would effectively keep their wounds from healing, it was better for Muslims to take ownership of their lives and make the most of the economic opportunities that were undeniably to be had in Gujarat.

Sareshwala, in fact, noted that it was in 1986,during a time of Congress rule, when there was some token Muslim representation in the Assembly that arguably one of the most perverse laws in Gujarat – the Disturbed Areas Act – was passed. The law, which is somewhat unique to Gujarat, effectively prohibited Muslims from selling, leasing or transferring property to a Hindu - and a vice versa - in what areas classified as "disturbed".

Intended to prevent distress sale in times of communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, the law effectively formalised the ghettoisation of cities. (More on its perverse provisions here.)

Sareshwala’s point was that Muslim interests would be best served not necessarily by having token (and ineffective) Muslim representation in the Assembly but in secular policies that were truly non-discriminatory – and allowed the space for entrepreneurship to flourish.

Yet, Sareshwala’s lived experience was dismissed and scoffed at by another panellist – who said his views were not representative of Muslims.

As Sareshwala feistily pointed out, this amounted to a dangerous mindset among those who claimed to be speaking up for Muslims, but who knew nothing of the aspirations of Muslims in Gujarat today. And it also found expression in the criticism directed at cricketer Irfan Pathan, for instance, for appearing on the election platform alongside Modi. Why should Pathan be seen only through the prism of a Muslim, he wondered. If Sachin Tendulkar accepts a Rajya Sabha nomination, should he be seen as a Hindu?

As on-the-ground reports (such as this one) ahead of the elections revealed, Muslims in Gujarat today say they want the narrative of “eternal suffering, victimhood and persecution” to change. “A development-oriented state that supplies 24X7 electricity to all is also a state which does not hand out sops or special privileges. This paradoxically lessens the dependency trap and lessens the vested interests of victimhood. In 2002 there were 260 Muslim educational trusts; today there are more than 800 - all running schools in a single-minded focus on acquiring quality education. The Gujarat example shows, ironically, how dynamic a community can become when the state hands out ‘benign neglect’ and forces independence and enterprise.”

Writing in the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta too points out that while there is no way Gujarat’s Muslims are "moving on" from 2002, they are "making a reassessment of their lives" and have learnt to rebuild their lives. And they are, he writes, concerned rather more with their day to day grievances—like the absence of paved roads, municipal water, garbage collection—than in retributive justice. In short, better lives for themselves matter more.

But for that to happen, the ambulance chasers hell-bent on doing good for Muslims, but who end up inserting hot rods into old wounds, must make their peace.