Supriya Sharma reports on Hindu and Muslim slumdwellers in Ahmedabad who joined hands to win a battle against eviction, but then decided to live separately
AS HE FINISHED an animated anecdote-filled account of how they wrested a two-room apartment in return for bulldozed homes on the banks of the Sabarmati, Rajendra Nathalal Choudhary turned towards a middle aged man and said, “This is all thanks to Mohammad bhai. He inspired us to unite and fight for our rights. If not for him, we would have been homeless.”
Mohammad bhai blushed, in the way a middle-aged man would. The 49-yearold bangle maker had turned into an iconic hero for thousands of slum residents along the river in Ahmedabad, ever since a riverfront project began taking shape in 2003, threatening to displace thousands, and triggering an unexpected outcome: a coalition of Hindus and Muslims in a city still debilitated by communal violence. They shed the hate and suspicion of the Gujarat riots to unite as poor slumdwellers to fight eviction. The coalition was called Sabarmati Nagrik Adhikar Manch. Mohammad Pathan Aliyar Khan became its president and Kalyan Singh Thakur its vice-president. The two men biked along the river, spreading the message of the impending displacement, canvassing for support and simultaneously engaging a lawyer to fight a case for rehabilitation. Seven years later, their solidarity has both won and lost.
Recently, on the orders of the High Court, random draws were held to allot new flats to 3,585 families. Armed with chits of paper with a scribbled flat number and address, the families went to the rehab colonies for a glimpse of their new homes — but returned agitated. Not because the houses were not good — two rooms, a kitchen with granite slabs, they were better than expected. What was unexpected was the sudden hostility.
“People pelted stones and chased us away,” recounts Bashir Shaikh, who went with his wife and sister-in-law to the Vivekanand Mill colony. It’s is still under construction in the compound of an erstwhile Mill in Saraspur. “We heard cries, that Muslims should stay away,” he continues, evenly and calmly. But the women turn hysterical: “Kaat dalenge tumko agar yahan aaye, unhone aisa kaha (We will slit your throats if you come, they said).”
Faced with the hysteria, Mohammad bhai looks beleaguered. His small, dark office in a slum at Khariwadi gets darker as visitors pile up at the doorstep, blocking light. The talk turns darker too. “Mariam bibi cried when she went to Vivekananda Mill and saw the spot where her father had been brutally chopped up in 1969,” says a young man, part of a delegation from Khanpur. “That site saw horrific violence in 1969, 1995 and 2002. Today, you will not find a single Muslim family in that area. Now they want 140 Muslim families from Khanpur to move. How will that be possible?” asks Mohammad bhai, feebly.
If Muslims don’t want to live in Vivekananda Mill and Wadaj, Hindus have blacklisted Ajit Mill, part of a Muslim belt. Ranchod bhai, a flower seller, puts it obliquely, “We are out for work all day, we can’t leave our children there.” Soon he spits out the real concern: “Humara koi insaan hi nahi hai wahan (None of our people live there).”
If the colonies had come up along the river, mixed slums could have been upgraded to mixed colonies
They categorically reject each other, but chat with complete civility. As chai passes around, both Hindus and Muslims agree the fuss is needless. Kalyan Singh, wearing his saffron scarf in a room dominated by skull caps, finally speaks up: “Why can’t they give us separate colonies? This problem would not have arisen if the riverfront corporation had stuck to the promise of rehabilitating us along the river itself.”
But that was asking too much from a project wrapped in opacity, along the banks of a monsoon river, teeming with slums and chawls. In a brutally divided city, they are the only mixed localities. Initially, the riverfront corporation marked out three rehabilitation sites along the riverbank. But they were finally made inside the city — in some cases, 20 km away — where people are scared to live in mixed groups surrounded by unknown hostile neighbours. If they had come up along the river, mixed slums could have been upgraded into mixed colonies, some feel.
“We did not know each other. But we joined hands for our common cause. It is one thing to fight together, another to live together,” says Kalyan bhai. “Yeh quamwaad nahi hai (this is not communalism),” rounds off Mohammad bhai. “We are being practical.”