Gujarat Muslims still wary of Modi, but some want to move on

Ahead of the last Gujarat Assembly elections in 2007, Adil Bagadia was a moving portrayal of the angry young Muslim, full of venom against Narendra Modi. A civil engineer by training, Bagadia runs his own construction company. He had taken to growing long beards to emphasise his Islamic identity. He said the 2002 riots gave him an identity he was not very conscious of earlier, either by education or upbringing.

"I have grown a beard to make my identity clear and thus dare them - harm me if you can," he had told this writer in 2007, and which he confirmed again this time. He spoke at length of the discrimination he had faced while trying to set up an upmarket colony at Arshad Park in Juhapura, a Muslim-dominated ghetto in Sarkhej.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Come the winter of 2012, Adil still has the beard. "It is the identity I have got since 2002," he told Firstpost, but the anger against Modi seems to have diminished and the feeling of being targeted by various organs of Ahmedabad’s civic bodies because of the community he belongs to is no longer that apparent.

Officials from the civic body, in fact, landed at his doorstep after he filed a complaint at chief minister Modi's website. This does not make him a Modi fan, but he now says: "Let’s try and do something better. It's been 10 years since the post-Godhra riots. How long can you not move on from that mentality?"

When we asked him who he will vote for this time, he is clear: "Congress," he says, but adds a warning, "if they field a good candidate." The problem, he says, is that while Modi and the BJP may be complacent about their victory in the state, "the Congress takes Muslim votes for granted in the belief that we don’t have any other option but to vote for them."

Adil is not an isolated example. Contrary to the public perception outside Gujarat, perpetuated by a variety of NGOs and "liberal" intellectuals, the Muslim mood in Gujarat is not uniformly negative. The voices of anger, injustice and discrimination are still there, but their numbers are shrinking. Muslims may not vote for Modi yet, but there are no visible signs of hostile voting against him either. A very small minority could even vote for the BJP.

Mufti Asad Munshi, an Islamic scholar who is associated with madrasa education in Gujarat, says: "Our views may not be in sync with Narendra Modi’s views on a variety of issues but then there is this undisputable fact that he has been the chief minister of this state for the last 10 years and we are part of his subjects. It is his duty to engage with us and for us to have a dialogue with him. We wanted to place someone else, or a party of our choice (in power), but that didn’t happen. If we remain closed to him just because of that it would not solve our problem. Whether he is the culprit of 2002 is an issue for the courts and judicial processes to decide. The fact is the riots took place during his regime, and this is a blot on him. But when he wants to correct that and (does) certain other positive things, should we not move on? We have to live for the better."

Munshi, along with other Muslims, had met Modi six months ago over long-pending issues relating to madrasa degrees. Based on his pleas, Modi promised to give serious thought to the issue. The growing enrolment of young boys from the Muslim community in schools and institutions of higher learning in the state is also helping change perceptions.

A visit to Juhapura, a low-income area, gives one the impression that most Muslims are still not convinced of Modi’s laboured sincerity in trying to portray his administration as non-discriminatory in its treatment of the community. Asrar Baig terms all talk of Modi as farcical. "The riot-affected people have still not been given justice. He is trying to deceive innocent people from the community."

Others express similar thoughts. Sentiments relating to the riots are there, but the community’s current gripes relate more to the lack of civic amenities in the vast stretches of slums in the area.

Besides the lapse of time since the riots a decade ago, four things seem to have contributed to this small—but significant—change in Muslim outlook.

Firstly, Gujarat's overall economic infrastructure development has helped percolate the benefits of growth to the Muslim community – even if the scale is not large at this point.

Economic growth and fast-paced urbanisation have helped Anwar Khan expand his taxi service from one vehicle to many taxies. Usman, a humble auto driver in Ahmedabad, has managed to increase his earnings. "Even if our women and children move in the city at night, there is nobody to bother them. Riots are a sad chapter of history, and we need to move forward," he says.

Others point to the growing number of retail outlets run by new Muslim businessmen coming up near the posh Sarkhej-Gandhinagar Highway and other developing commercial centres in Ahmedabad. The expansion of business activities enabled Javed Ali to get his children employed in a small but growing enterprise at Ellisbridge.

Secondly, around 200 convictions involving the riots, and especially that of former minister Maya Kodnani, have given many Muslims the feeling that justice is beginning to prevail, even if does not bring a final sense of closure to those who were directly affected by the violence.

Kodnani’s conviction was a significant development for Muslims. While it brought gloom within the ranks of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP, it restored the faith of the Muslim community in the judicial process. Never before in the history of this riot-torn state has a person as senior as Kodnani been convicted and sentenced.

Thirdly, under the Modi regime, there has been a complete marginalistion of the rowdy elements of the VHP-Bajrang Dal combine. This has come as a huge relief to the community as the latter's brazen anti-Muslim approach had turned Muslims entirely off the BJP. Modi may have stamped out the VHP-Bajrang Dal rowdies for his own convenience, and to let everyone know that he only mattered, but it has helped. Their virtual banishment has earned Modi the ire of important sections of the Sangh Parivar, but its default beneficiaries have been the people from the minority community.

Fourthly, Modi has made conscious efforts to change his image through programmes like the Sadbhavna fast. Though the media merely saw this as an eyewash, the Gujarat administration was sent a signal that it should not put spokes in the wheel when it came to issues relating to individuals or groups from the minority community. The Sadhbhavna events, however, also brought some intra-community conflicts into play, and did not yield Modi the desired image benefits.

Modi still has a long way to go before Muslims accept him for what he is. But things have started changing on the ground that people outside Gujarat are unable to perceive.

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