Hindu, Muslim ghettos arise in Gujarat

India's government finds increasing polarization in the state still scarred by the riots of 2002.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

With shackled feet and closed eyes, pilgrims walk toward the tomb of Pir Imam Shah Bawa, a Sufi saint. If the shackles disentangle on their own as the devotees take their first few steps, the faithful here – Hindus and Muslims alike – believe their prayers will come true.

"Faith can move mountains," says Mohan Majhi, a resident of Pirana in India's Gujarat state. He says his chains disentangled thirteen years ago, and his prayer for a son was granted. Now, kneeling on the dusty floor of the 600-year-old syncretic shrine, Mr. Majhi is praying for peace between Hindus and Muslims who are fighting to control this religious common ground.

Eager to slough off the shrine's Muslim identity after the Gujarat riots of 2002, Hindu devotees of the saint built a barbed-wire fence between the shrine and the mosque that was originally built in the same complex. Muslims and Hindus then accused each other of stealing religious items and are now locked in a bitter court battle, each claiming the shrine is rightfully theirs.

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The divisions over the shrine are a microcosm for the polarization within Gujarat, where religious segregation is expanding not only to places of worship, but also neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. At the entrance of some villages, gaily painted message boards have sprung up since the riots that read: "Welcome to this Hindu village in the Hindu nation of Gujarat."

Expressing concern over this increasing polarization, a recent report by a high level committee from the Indian Prime Minister's office, to be tabled in the Indian Parliament in October, states that Gujarat still hasn't recuperated from the riots in which over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The committee noted that several Gujarati cities and towns are sharply divided into Hindu and Muslim ghettoes. Muslims, a minority in the state, face social and economic boycott from society at large. The committee also observed that dropout rates of Muslim girls have risen. And there's a dismal representation of Muslims in public-sector jobs.

"There's a state of fear and insecurity among Muslims," says a member of the committee. "The state government has done little to end the state of alienation."

Parts of Gujarat where Hindus and Muslims reside in equal numbers have been largely untouched by communalism. But for Hindu-majority areas scarred by the rioting, the divide has hardened, according to activists working for communal harmony.

Rahimanagar, a Muslim ghetto just outside the town of Anand, sprang up right after the riots. The ghetto is now home to many Muslims who are afraid to return their villages. One of them, Sattar Ghani Ibrahim, lost his transport business in the riots after all his vehicles were incinerated. Since then, without a job, Mr. Ibrahim finds it hard to feed his family of 15. "Only the H-class [Hindus] land jobs now-a-days," he says bitterly. "It isn't as easy for the M-class [Muslims]."

Back in his home in the small village of Navli, his decrepit house bears the scars of arson. Mr. Ibrahim's father, Haji Ghani Ibrahim, braved coming back after the communal flare-up was quelled, to tend to a grocery business. The only customers are the few Muslim families who have returned.

"This state," Haji Ibrahim says, "is ruled by Hindus and for Hindus. Muslims don't exist for them."

The Indian Express, a national daily, reported last month that Muslims are being sidelined from the Indian government's ambitious antipoverty project that promises the country's rural poor 100 days of employment every year.

"Where the communal divide was hardened, where violence led to murder and widespread arson ... Muslims are nowhere on the employment rolls," the newspaper reported after touring six districts within Gujarat where the scheme is being implemented. Not just are there information blackouts, even those Muslims who enquire about jobs are turned away, the report said.

In response, Bharat Barot, Gujarat's minister of state for rural development, said that in villages "the majority community called the shots." The state was probing whether the alienation of Muslims was deliberate, and, if so, "it'll be fixed immediately."

Chandrakant Pandya, a member of the ruling political party in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), calls the committee's report a vicious attempt to defame Gujarat. "We're for the development of all Gujaratis – and Gujaratis includes Hindus and Muslims," he says.

Mr. Pandya points out that according to a 2005 report by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, a think tank led by BJP rival Sonia Gandhi, Gujarat emerged as the number one state in India in the economic freedom of its people. It also topped the nation in terms of development, administration, and curbing corruption.

"Such rapid industrialization and economic development wouldn't take place if such prejudices existed," says Pandya.

However, most of the data used by the foundation came from years prior to the 2002 riots. Activists say the situation has since deteriorated.

Social scientists point out that intercommunity dialogue is the only way to make acrimony between the religious groups subside.

Rahil Subedar runs a computer class for poor slum dwellers in a ramshackle apartment on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Besides imparting knowledge about computers, local Hindu and Muslim kids are made to intersperse and participate in plays and cultural programs.

"When you participate in cultural programs together, you forget what religion your colleagues belong to," he says. "Integration will heal wounds."

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