India, Oct. 25 -- Imagine a crumpled piece of cloth. Stretch it and pin it on all four corners to a tackboard. It looks acceptably smooth, doesn't it? Now remove the pins and the cloth will shrink back to its original crumpled form. Peace in Ahmedabad after 10 years of a brutal pogrom is just that. Botoxed and laminated.
Everybody is happy, there is "progress" for all, and 'sadbhavna' is in the air. Remove the pins and you see the reality, the creases. Indeed, there has been no large-scale communal violence in riot-prone Ahmedabad since 2002. One good reason is because it is not politically required-of course we all know that.
Recently, out of curiosity, I visited the "country's first-ever Muslim property show" held in Ahmedabad. This was a realty show organised to advertise and book housing and commercial properties exclusively for Muslims of the city. The attention that the event has received in sections of the national media is understandable. In Ahmedabad, way before 2002, Hindu and Muslim segregation had become institutionalised, even "natural" as a young lady at one of the show's swanky stalls told me (most stall-keepers were Gujarati Hindu girls).
"We are vegetarians, they are non-vegetarians. Naturally we cannot live together". If so then how does the Bengali banker who relishes machher and murgir jhol every third day live in the 'Hindu-only' area in my neighbourhood of Gujarati Hindus, I asked. "Bengalis are not Hindus," she told me impatiently. Maybe it was not a good time to tell her that all Bengalis are not Bangladeshis (therefore, godforsaken Muslims). What was 'natural' to me was that the residential divide in Ahmedabad is religious and has little to do with food habits; non-vegetarian non-Muslims are not refused housing in the city's upmarket Hindu-dominated western areas.
I will return to the event. Indeed, it was incredible. For the first time, Gujarati (mostly) Patel builders teamed up with Gujarati Muslim builders to create upscale residential and commercial complexes exclusively for Muslims - of course, all within existing Muslim ghettos and enclaves. It is well known how Muslims were forced to detach from Hindu partnerships after 2002 for their names made them easy targets for attackers. Today, 10 years later, Gujarat-and the worst affected in the violence, Ahmedabad-seem to have risen from the ashes. It looked like Chief Minister Modi's white flag to the Muslims had gone down well with his Hindu fans, seeing the coming together of both communities at the property show.
This is a positive development that could do without cynicism, I thought. But there was something amiss. It was not a Hindu-Muslim reconciliation; it was a reconciliation of Muslims to the apparent reality of perpetual segregation. I realised this when my conversation with a Hindu builder went on a little too long and his Muslim partner suddenly came up to me and asked me to leave if I had no intention of buying. I wouldn't say he was polite. Not at all. He in fact screamed at me. It was very clear that he was uncomfortable, perhaps scared. Finally the Hindus are re-partnering with Muslims and here was I, some busybody, trying to sniff out a controversy. What might have upset him is my question to the builder on the possibility of Hindus and Muslims ever living together and his answer being no. This fear came out quite clearly in the words of three Muslim youths from Juhapura, the city's biggest Muslim ghetto arguably home to around 3.5 lakh Muslim: "There was a time when we dreamed of living in the western area someday. Although we were always refused houses, we hoped that one day with economic progress there would be a will to intermix. That dream is past now. We have reconciled to the reality that we will live and die in our own ghettos, so why not invest in making them liveable?" Gujarati Hindu builders were candid - yes, this was a fantastic investment opportunity and no, Hindus and Muslims living together will always be a fantasy.
The question that is often asked in Ahmedabad, and now increasingly in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai, is: why is there a problem with community-specific living? The Parsis won the right to create a cooperative society based on religious membership in the Supreme Court, didn't they? Firstly, there is a difference between restricted-membership cooperative societies and ghettos. Ghettos are an aberration. They are ethnic enclaves formed as a consequence of exclusionary practices. They not only isolate a community geographically but also socially. Secondly, neither of the two is socially healthy. Segregation may lead to less violence but increased prejudice. It would not be wrong to assume that this prejudice would one day translate into violence. That is why it is frightening to see Muslims reconciling to the bitter truth of having to live in enclaves and ghettos forever. This reconciliation was reflected in the 2010 municipal elections in Ahmedabad. Because delimitation of boundaries obliged municipal governments to provide civic facilities to former nagarpalikas, Muslims in ghettos like Juhapura have now become indirect beneficiaries of facilities not intended for them. This patronage is largely a reason why many Muslims had supported (not necessarily voted) the BJP in 2010. One can't be sure if the same would happen in the assembly elections this year, for patronage politics tends to be more effective at the municipal level where politician-citizen interaction is more likely.
There can be no 'sadbhavna' unless there is freedom to live where you want without fear. I am aware that many of those who are reading this blog post will exclaim, "What about Kashmiri pandits!" Sure, them too and anyone in this (yet) fully-functional democracy. I live in Ahmedabad so I'm talking about Ahmedabad. If at all Narendra Modi has genuine feelings of 'sadbhavna' and becomes Prime Minister in the future he might like to consider the thought that harmony cannot be manufactured. The fear that I might disrupt peace if I show dissent or demand the fundamental right to live with dignity is as frightening as violence.
Before I end, let me establish the fact that I am a Muslim myself living in a posh 'Hindu-only' area of western Ahmedabad. This became possible because I am married to an Indian Jew and moved in with him. But even today I continue to hide my identity as long as I can help it, even from my domestic help. What if she spreads the word... My parents having been refused houses in western Ahmedabad in the past, this fear is not completely irrational. It is this 'what if' existing in the hearts of many Muslims in Ahmedabad and Gujarat that clouds the genuineness of Modi's 'sadbhavna'.
(The writer is a doctoral candidate in sociology in the UK. The views expressed are personal.)
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.