Three days before February 27, 2003, Godhra station is like any other early in the morning. The swarming policemen have gone. The food-stalls do brisk business. What is more, Muslims from Signal Falia, the area that grabbed the world’s headlines last year after a mob from the area surrounded and allegedly set fire to a coach full of Hindus, can be seen relaxing on the platform benches, or picking up the morning newspaper.
There are not too many policemen visible in the town either. “The rapid action force is gone, now only the state reserve police remains. And Harish Bhatt,” quips a Hindu rail employee triumphantly. “Now there’ll be no headaches from ‘them’.’’
The bushy moustache of Bhatt, the newly elected Bajrang Dal member of legislative assembly, bristles with delight on hearing this. But the smirk changes to a frown when you tell him the story the Muslims of Signal Falia relate. They called him once to get the electricity to their mosque restored. He told them to check if the bills had been paid. When they called back to say they had, his reply was: “What do you expect from me' Did you vote for me'”
“I didn’t say that, I simply asked them what they expected me to do if they didn’t pay their bills. The electricity board officials are themselves Muslims. Do you think they’ll cut their electricity at my bidding'” asks Bhatt angrily.
The town is thick with rumours that Bhatt intends to demolish Signal Falia and parts of the Muslim-dominated Polan Bazar. “Yes, we need to build a road from the station to the market. We have to expand the road outside the station too. For both, demolition of encroachments will have to be done. No one has dared to do it till now,” says Bhatt indignantly.
The MLA’s first priority, however, is to celebrate Shivaratri with a grand procession, a first for Godhra. “I suggested this as a way to unite people and bring them closer to us.”
That this programme can only bring one community closer to him does not bother Bhatt. He is in no hurry to “embrace the Muslims”. “Can I forget their gaddaari (betrayal)' They called a boycott of my election meetings. Just because I’ve become an MLA, don’t I remain a human being'”
Nor does it worry him that the two communities in Godhra have absolutely differing perceptions of him — one things of him as a protector and the other as destroyer. Indeed, this fits in well with his theory of co-existence. “The two communities can come together only when there is love between them, not fear. You need a shakti (power) which sends the message to wrongdoers that their mischief won’t be tolerated. Once they fall in line, the other community will stop fearing them. Seeing that, they too will shed their fear and come forward with love. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi is that shakti.” Undoubtedly, in Godhra, he is.
Already, he points out, this process has begun. After a five-day bandh which was restricted to their areas, Godhra’s Muslims gave up their protest against the arrest of their leader, Maulana Husein Umarji, who is being made out to be the mastermind behind the train burning. “They realized they could not support someone who had done such things.”
It is an indication of the chasm between the two communities that many influential Hindus too give this reason for the lack of any long-drawn out or violent protest by Godhra’s Muslims at the arrest of their chief maulvi. But in the now deserted, sprawling maze that makes up Signal Falia, or in lawyers’ chambers, the only talk is of Umarji’s innocence. The mood, however, is one of defeat. The threat of the Prevention of Terrorism Act being imposed on their spiritual leader, the sight of him sitting at the back of a police jeep surrounded by policemen and hobbling without his walking stick, has not been a pleasant one.
What has made things worse are the headlines in the Gujarati press about the maulvi’s so-called “admissions” to the police during interrogation, which include his alleged links with Mullah Omar. “Only bin Laden’s name is missing,” says a lawyer wryly.
Umarji was picked up at 3.30 am after another accused in the train-burning case named him as its mastermind. It is common knowledge now why Binyamin Behera, a petty criminal, named the maulana.
The maulana was providing Rs 1,500 a month to the families of those arrested in the train incident, if they were in need. Already, Behera’s brother had been jailed on the same charge. After Binyamin was picked up, his mother met the maulana and asked for more money, and also to requested him to get Binyamin released. There was a row, and soon, Behera named the maulana.
The maulana’s family has a slightly different take on this. It is Modi’s revenge, they say. When the maulana met Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Godhra, he refused to hand over to Modi the memorandum he was carrying for the prime minister. And during the recent elections, he ensured that his entire community voted for the Congress.
But Godhra’s Hindus are not buying any of this. Thanks to the Gujarati press, the maulana’s arrest has confirmed their worst fears about Muslims: that they are, by virtue of their religion itself, fanatic and violent. In India and specifically in Godhra, they are financed by Pakistan and other Islamic terrorists. The burning of the train was an international jihadi plot. All those stories about the misbehaviour of Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers at the Godhra station were concocted by Muslims and spread by the English media. “Why are all of you not reporting his confessions'” they ask. “Too grief-stricken'”
“There are dark clouds all around,” sighs the veteran Gandhian, Parmanand Rawal. He was one of the few Hindus who had visited Godhra’s relief camps and had been at the forefront of the first peace march in the town, barely six weeks after the burning of the train. “I’m in a hurry to continue with the peace process started by the former collector. But things are at a standstill. After the maulana’s arrest, the Hindus are saying: ‘Enough. It’s time to stop dealing with these people.’ So far, first thing in the morning, the Godhra Hindu had to call up his Muslim counterpart if his business had to run. Now, they have begun to think of finding ways of not being dependent on them. If the Hindutvawallahs fuel this feeling, the Muslims will be ruined. And they won’t take it lying down.”
Rawal describes the revelations in the Gujarati press as “explosive”, but does not want to probe too much in case he is branded. Muslims too, are wary of signing petitions in the maulana’s defence. As for the Congress, no Muslim has any hope that the party can help in this matter.
Amid this gloom, there are a few signs of hope. The same Hindu who waxes eloquent about Godhra’s deshdrohi (traitor) Muslims, admits that he has gone back to sending his children to school in the care of a Muslim rickshaw-driver. “My old rickshaw-wallah ran away because he was afraid of being implicated in the burning of the train, poor fellow; his substitute is a good man.” And though Signal Falia’s garages wait in vain for their old Hindu customers, deep inside the maze, four Hindu families continue to live, too poor to move out perhaps, but obviously at peace with their neighbours.