Communal harmony must be stressed by Hindu religious leaders as well: Ahmad Shaikh

Ahmad Shaikh is the secretary of the Legal Cell of the Gujarat unit of the Jamiat ul-Ulama-i-Hind, a leading Muslim religious organisation, based in Ahmedabad. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about the communal situation in Gujarat today and on the Jamiat’s efforts to secure justice for the victims of the state sponsored genocide of Muslims in 2002 and on its efforts to promote communal harmony in the state.

YS: Three years after the genocide in Gujarat how would you describe the communal situation in the state today?

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AS: Although communal violence has stopped, Muslims in Gujarat are still being harassed in different places. The poison of communalism still runs very deep, and Hindus and Muslims are still very sharply polarised. I fear it might take an entire generation to undo the damage that the 2002 genocide has caused in terms of Hindu-Muslim relations. Today, there seems to be a semblance of peace in Gujarat, but this is largely because Hindus and Muslims know that they are economically dependent on each other and that violence cannot be sustained in the long-run. Yet, this does not mean that communalism as an ideology is being countered in any major way, at least directly and openly.

YS: What efforts is the Jamiat making to help improve inter-community relations in Gujarat?

AS: Ever since its inception in the early twentieth century, the Jamiat has been in the forefront of the struggle for communal harmony. We stiffly opposed the Muslim League, its so-called ‘two nation’ theory and its demand for Pakistan. We remained committed to a united India even when the Congress finally agreed to the Partition. Despite the fact that Muslims in Gujarat are a relatively poor and educationally backward community, some Muslim groups, including the Jamiat, have tried to work for other communities as well so as to help promote better inter-communal relations. Thus, for instance, in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Kutch in 2001 the Jamiat provided relief to a number of Hindus and Dalits there and helped rebuild their homes. In the aftermath of the 2002 genocide the Jamiat also provided some relief to Dalit victims. We have also tried to rebuild good relations with Dalits, many of whom were used by the Hindutva groups to attack Muslims in the recent carnage. The prominent Dalit leader Udit Raj visited Gujarat and held a joint rally with Jamiat leaders calling for Dalit-Muslim unity. But, to be honest, I must say that although Dalit and Muslim leaders routinely call for such unity precious little has actually been done in this regard.

YS: Ahmedabad has, for some decades now, witnessed periodic riots, in which several hundred people have lost their lives. How was the 2002 carnage different from previous riots?

AS: I have witnessed numerous riots in Ahmedabad, including the 1946 riots just before Partition, but never before have I witnessed violence on such a scale, so carefully planned and abetted by the state, though of course many of these earlier riots were planned by Congress leaders. Never before have I seen how deep the Hindutva ideology of hate has entered into the psyche of so many people in Gujarat. That said, I must also state that I personally see no difference between the Congress and the BJP as far as Muslims are concerned. This is my personal opinion, not that of the Jamiat. Hundreds of Muslims were killed in violence instigated in Gujarat by the Congress in the past and now the BJP is doing it. So for Muslims, as I personally see it, the BJP and the Congress are two sides of the same coin, one an open enemy and the other a hidden foe.

YS: Do you discern any significant shift or change in the Muslim leadership in Gujarat in the wake of the 2002 carnage?

AS: Gujarati Muslims hardly have any leadership worth the name. We have not a single charismatic leader whom people are willing to follow. We have few modern educated leaders, and most of our small middle class have little or no involvement with the Muslim masses. Some of them, including those associated with some NGOs, talk of Muslim problems, but in the comfort of hotels and conference rooms, not in the slums and the villages where the vast majority of the Muslims live. For some people these conferences take the place of actual grassroots action.

As for the religious leaders, they are still sharply divided on sectarian lines. There have been some efforts to bring the ulema of different maslaks (sects) together on issues of common concern to all Muslims, but these have not been very successful as some people have a vested interested in perpetuating sectarian rivalries because that is the only way in which they can maintain their claims to authority. I suppose they see that unity among the different maslaks will force them to close their own petty shops that they have set up in the name of religion. They don’t mind if disunity damages the Muslim community at large, provided their own little shops remain intact.

That said, I must also say that the events of 2002 have forced many Muslims in Gujarat to take the issue of modern education much more seriously. Even Islamic organisations, like the Jamiat, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-i Islami, are now making efforts to promote modern education along with religious education. For instance, the Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Society, run by people associated with the Tablighi Jamaat, are opening modern schools, and the Jamiat is working with a non-Muslim NGO, Jan Vikas, to introduce the teaching of Gujarati, Mathematics and Environmental Education in a number of maktabs in Kutch. We realise now that modern education is necessary if we are to struggle for our rights and combat the systematic marginalisation of the community, which appears to be the current state policy in Gujarat.

The events of 2002 have also made Islamic groups here realise the importance of working with Hindu and secular groups concerned about democracy and secularism. It is important to work with such groups, to stress the point that not all Hindus see Muslims as their enemies, that there are several Hindus who did support the hapless Muslims in the carnage and helped them with relief, rehabilitation and in protesting against state brutality and persecution of innocent Muslims. We need to reach out to such people, and to counter the feeling that all Hindus are necessarily anti-Muslim. The Jamiat tried to do this in its own small way, by organising public meetings addressed by Hindu religious leaders such as Morari Bapu and a representative of the Akshardham temple, the same temple that was unfortunately attacked by some terrorists, where they spoke on the need for communal harmony. Of course such gestures are important, but the point is that the need for communal harmony must also be stressed by Hindu religious leaders when they address audiences consisting of their own followers, and the same holds true for Muslim religious figures as well.

The carnage has also led to a growing awareness among Islamic groups in Gujarat of the need to dialogue with secular NGOs, several of whom helped out in providing relief and arranging for rehabilitation to thousands of Muslim victims. Once the violence died down, many NGOs who were working for rehabilitation withdrew, and only a few, such as Action Aid and Jan Vikas, stayed on, continuing to work among Muslims, to empower them and to promote justice and communal harmony. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Although a few NGOs and leftist trade unionists have taken up a couple of legal cases, of innocent Muslims killed, raped or jailed, there are more than three thousand cases that have not been taken up, and no one seems to have any idea about what is happening with them. Most of these involve pathetically poor people, whose families cannot afford to prohibitively high lawyers’ fees and whose hopes for justice are almost nil.