AHMEDABAD, Gujarat -- As we wrapped up our conversation one evening a couple of days ago, Mujahid Nafees placed a bet in jest. However, I was convinced he'd lose. While I was trying to book a taxi from some of the popular cab aggregators, the 35-year-old political activist from Ahmedabad challenged that if my driver turned out to be a Hindu, he would not pick me up from this house in Juhapura, seven kilometres away from the main city.
In the 15 years following the communal riots that ravaged Ahmedabad, Muslims of all stripes have flooded Juhapura. Notwithstanding their economic status, scarred Muslims started descending upon the locality presumably out of fear and the desire to stick together in case of contingencies. Once a moderately populated neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, the area is now home to over 400,000 Muslims. Locals call it the largest "Muslim ghetto" of Gujarat. While there are conflicting accounts of the exact population of pre-riots Juhapura, it is unanimously agreed upon that it burgeoened after 2002.
As I struggled to get a cab to come to Juhapura and multiple requests to various cab providers got rejected, Nafees sipped his tea and occasionally smiled. Then, as I found myself in the midst of a heated exchange with a driver who refused to come to the locality, he broke into a bout of laughter.
The activist had won the bet.
As we flagged an auto-rickshaw down half an hour later, he added, "I'm not saying no Hindu driver ever comes here, but a majority of them in our experience don't. Most of them call this locality 'Pakistan', this is our reality."
As the auto-rickshaw left Juhapura and made its way into the Hindu-dominated locality of Vejalpur, Nafees joked, "You've just crossed the Wagah border. You're in India now."
They say our neighborhood is Pakistan. This is our reality.
Disillusionment with Congress
In Ahmedabad, the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims is not only chiseled into its geography, it also finds its way into every conversation. There has been no concerted political effort to bridge this chasm. Instead, the Bharatiya Janata Party has for decades thrived on the religious polarization in the state. And in this poll season, probably inspired by the stupendous success of BJP's strategy not just in Gujarat but also in the country, Congress seems to have embraced the idea that they only need the support of the Hindus to win an election in the state.
Marking a departure from their usual poll strategy, the Congress seems to have completely buried the memory of atrocities perpetrated on Muslims in the state. The party which ruffled more than just a few feathers when Sonia Gandhi called Narendra Modi 'maut ka saudagar' (merchant of death) during the 2007 assembly elections, has gone eerily quiet on issues faced by the community in this year's campaigning.
While their manifesto has a line about implementing the Sachar Committee report and promises to work towards the development of all minorities, it doesn't specifically address issues faced by marginalized Muslims in the state.
In contrast, Rahul Gandhi has set out on a temple-visiting spree, clearly designed to find him favour with the Hindu majority in the state.The party has fielded six Muslim candidates, one less than the number they fielded in the 2007 and 2012 polls. Interestingly, while the BJP has fielded zero candidates, local Muslim leaders say that the Hindu nationalists have held more meetings with them under the radar than the Congress. BJP has never given a ticket to a Muslim candidate from the state since 1995.
BJP has never given a ticket to a Muslim candidate from the state since 1995.
Six candidates are hardly representative of a community that constitutes nine percent of the state population. In contrast, the Congress has fielded at least 35 candidates from the Patel community, which constitutes 14 percent of the state's population.
Dealing with political marginalisation has become a way of life for Muslims in Gujarat. Every election, a majority of them have voted for Congress in the hope of beating the BJP. But the 2017 election is quite the turning point -- of an unpleasant sort -- for them. Being ignored by both the national parties has acted as a wake-up call for several young Muslims in Gujarat.
In the age of competitive Hindutva, the younger generation of Muslims has realized that they have to come up with an alternative strategy to battle political redundancy. With the rise of Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani from the Patidar and Dalit communities respectively, who have challenged the status quo in the BJP bastion, young Muslims are asking how their own community can throw up such leaders.
In the age of competitive Hindutva, the younger generation of Muslims has realized that they have to come up with an alternative strategy to battle political redundancy.
Nafees, who leads an initiative called the Minority Coordination Committee, tells me, "The question now is how can we get into the mainstream when both political parties have pushed us to the fringes. This is an extreme situation. Imagine if this model -- the model of tossing us aside-- actually works for political parties. Then where does it leaves us? It is beyond imagination."
While Muslims have for decades smarted at the step-motherly treatment meted out by the Congress in Gujarat, they had no one else to turn to and the party was marginally better than BJP, evident from the handful of people they'd nominate from the community.
The number of Muslim lawmakers in the state legislature has dwindled from 12 in 1980 to two in 2012.
Essentially a two-party state, Gujarat never produced strong regional parties of the kind that emerged in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Even the Aam Aadmi Party, which received significant support from the Muslims when it entered Gujarat, quickly ran out of steam. Arvind Kejriwal's party drastically scaled down its efforts in the months leading up to the election.
Waqar Qazi, a human rights activist who lives in Juhapura, tells me, "I don't make a distinction between the Congress and the BJP anymore. Soft, hard, Hindutva is Hindutva. It doesn't matter that the Congress that is fielding a few more candidates than the BJP. It is about treating us like equal citizens and no party is doing that."
How can we get into the mainstream when both political parties have pushed us to the fringes.
'Rights not religion'
The younger generation of Muslims look at politics very differently from their parents and grandparents.
While all three generations have been touched by communal riots, young Muslims are moving beyond issues like rehabilitation and justice which have been the sole preoccupation of their elders. They want more from politics than just defeating the BJP. They also want future leaders from their community to do more than just distribute blankets, build houses and organize weddings.
During the course of our conversation, Nafees' wife, Azeema, who is a lawyer, tells me that she wants her political future to be defined by rights not religion. "We have decided to talk about our rights not our religion," she said.
Nafees chimed in, "Who do you think of going to when you want to know about the Muslim community. The Mufti or some religious leader? Today, there are hundreds of religious organizations in the Muslim community but not one that is working on civil rights. Why is that? How can we change it?"
"If someone burns a Koran, you will have every Muslim in the country coming out on the streets to protest. But people don't come out for their rights or to protest discrimination," he said.
If someone burns a Koran, you will have every Muslim in the country coming out on the streets to protest. But people don't come out for their rights or to protest discrimination.
When it comes to the much-touted "Gujarat Model" of development, economists are divided on its success and whether its fruits have trickled down to poorer sections of society including Muslims. Contrary to the rosy picture which has been painted about the state for over a decade, the state is lagging in key areas of health and eduction.
The one department in which the BJP has earned praise even from Muslims is law and order, but there is not denying the community's systemic exclusion from governance and administration. Not only are Muslim lawmakers absent from the ruling party, there are hardly any bureaucrats and police officials from the community. Also missing is a Ministry of Minority Affairs and a State Minorities Commission.
Nafees tells me, "This isn't just about Muslims. There is not a single clerk to be of service to 11 percent of the population."
There is not denying the community's systemic exclusion from governance and administration.
The "platform" that he launched in April, the Minority Coordination Committee, is meant to mobilize Muslims around a host of rights-based issues ranging from education to unemployment.
Over the summer, Muslims from Gujarat's 33 districts flooded the state government with over one lakh postcards carrying eight demands which included the setting up of a ministry of minority affairs in the state, allocation of funds for minorities in the annual budget, a state commission for minorities and establishing secondary schools in Muslim-dominated areas.
"We want a stake in a governance system. Politics is one part of it. For the past five years, our only demand has been that Muslims should get tickets to contest elections. That is very important but how can it be the only demand from a community that is so behind in areas such as employment and education," said Nafees.
We have decided to talk about our rights, not our religion.
Starting from zero
The rise of Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani from the Patidar and Dalit communities respectively has impressed young Muslims. While Patel has channeled the anger of a struggling section of Patidars over unemployment and agrarian distress, Mevani mobilized Dalits after seven members of their community were beaten up for skinning a dead cow.
Waqar, the human rights activist from Juhapuara, tells me that he too has toyed with the idea of entering politics. "Muslims would also like to see a Jignesh or even a Hardik come up from our community but it will take a long time. It is hard to come out of a blanket of fear. The Muslim middle class especially wants to protect itself," he said.
It isn't just fear and systemic exclusion that is holding back Muslims in Gujarat. Both Patel and Mevani have platforms from which they were able to launch their respective movements. Patel draws strength from an affluent community which knows how to articulate its demands and wield power. Mevani draws strength from a social movement that spans over 100 years, forged and fortified by reformers like Jyotirao Govindro Phule and BR Ambedkar.
Mevani draws strength from a social movement that spans over 100 years, forged and fortified by reformers like Jyotirao Govindro Phule and BR Ambedkar.
Young Muslims in Gujarat believe they have to start from "zero."
Shakeel Ahmed, a social activist from the Muslim neighborhood of Vatva, tells me, "Dalits feel casteism and they want to do something about it. They at least have the Atrocities Act to fall back on. Muslims have no social movement. We have a really long way to go."
Nafees, however, is optimistic about it taking less than a century. "We have to start from zero whether it is today or five years from now. But this is the 4G generation. We can fast track it."
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