Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Delhi's gated communities are worrying but different. In Ahmedabad and Baroda these are walls of fear and hate

Bringing Down Walls of Hate and Fear

Don't let mafia goons masquerading under the garb of religion create a permanent divide.

By B G Verghese

Sahara Times, June 14, 2006

A visit to Ahmedabad after the dreadful events of 2002 is a saddening experience. Outwardly there is all the evidence of a bustling city, with a new skyline, an international airport, malls and other symbols of a consumerist, upwardly mobile society. All that until one sees the wall along what is called “the border”!

Delhi’s gated communities are worrying but different. In Ahmedabad and Baroda these are walls of fear and hate. I saw the wall that divides Vejalpur from Juhapura, the one a well-lit middle class Hindu colony with three and four storey buildings and the other a crowded, poorly lit quarter with pot-holed streets and minimal services, home to some 3.5 lakh Muslims herded together in a ghetto. Vejalpur residents built the wall and raised its height further with more brick and mortar topped with barbed wire. They have left no exit to the street that once connected them with Juhapura, involuntarily consigning themselves to living in a ghetto of another kind.

The “border” marks a line where safety and camaraderie end and fear and hate begin. Muslims suffer an economic and social boycott. Juhupura reportedly does not have a single bank or public office. A well-known Baroda professor, Juzar Bandukwala, who would be an ornament in any society, recounts the not uncommon experience of wanting to live in a cosmopolitan locality only to be rejected time and again as soon as his Muslim identity is revealed. Housing agents plead that real estate values would fall and they would be out of business should they breach this unwritten code enforced by fear and hate.

There are fundamentalists and mafia goons on both sides of the “border”, some cloaked in religiosity. Yet there are many more decent, civilised people but they have been unable to confront the hate-mongers who control state and civic power and their ideological mentors. Unfortunately the Gujarat Opposition, trade unions, academia, Gandhians, religious leaders, the corporate world, even the media and civil society have collapsed, barring some notable exceptions.

The Nanavati-Shah inquiry plods on its weary way. Zahira Sheikh had been sentenced for perjury. In other cases, FIRs remain to be filed and compensation paid. Many known and named perpetrators of violence roam free while witnesses are afraid to come forward. Those assisting with legal aid have been threatened. Livelihoods have not been restored. The recent demolition of Rashiduddin Chisti’s roadside dargah in Baroda has sent out another chilling message, adding more bricks to the walls of hate and fear.

A National Rural Employment Guarantee survey conducted by the Indian Express shows that Muslims have been deliberately by-passed in six Gujarat districts all of which witnessed communal violence in 2002 leaving many Muslims without any livelihood. In several villages, reporters found that Muslims were not informed about the scheme and that when they made inquires these were ignored. Central funding for the NREG scheme involves Delhi, which cannot remain a silent spectator.

Amidst this darkening gloom in Gujarat, there are rays of light. I saw one such in Ahmedabad, a touching act of faith in humanity undertaken by the Society for the Promotion of Rational Thinking (SPRAT). This is inspired by a former banker and modest industrialist, Mohammad Hasan Jowher, and quietly supported by a band of men and women of goodwill and some corporate houses. Rather than turn away in anger and despair, Jowher determined to build bridges across the communal divide. Where better to begin than with children right on the “border” across the road from Vejalpur on a couple of acres of open land leased from the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority in Juhapura. NID and School of Architecture faculty have lent support.

A mixed faith/mohalla advisory committee across Vejalpur and Juhapura supervises the scheme, which has got off the ground, overcoming several community and parental objections and anxieties on either side. An appeal was made to corporate houses to donate discards and junk. Old pipes, cables and used tyres in many sizes have been put together or fabricated into simple yet ingenious swings, slides, tunnels, ladders, ropeways, climbing walls and other apparatus to test skills and educate children in scientific principles. The facility is designed in three sections for kids up to six, those between six and 12 and for older children. Underprivileged children are beginning to mingle and overcome the fear or even a sense of the “other”. The first, tentative home visits have commenced. The park, still incomplete, is called Muskaan and has restored a fugitive smile to the face of those whom it has brought together.

SPRAT is also running a network of multipurpose empowerment centres in five cities called Caravan; basic literacy courses called Taleem with the assistance of Gujarat Vidyapeeth; Shirkat savings and credit groups; tiny, self-help livelihood generating units called Azmat; Basera or child-care units; and Sahara, a micro-credit scheme. A working women’s hostel and an ITI-like skill development institute are proposed. The objective is to rebuild shattered lives, bring hope, promote Fraternity and bring back that lost smile to so many children in Gujarat who surely deserve to grow up in a better world.

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