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Gujarat’s children of a lesser God

Ahmedabad, March 12: If your name has a Quereshi, Alam, Hanif, Jamal or something similar in it and you live in Gujarat, chances are that you will hear about it one way or the other.

Like Aftabbhai Quereshi, who heard from his six-year-old son’s school, Don Bosco.

“After the riots, we were told by the authorities in Don Bosco they would not be responsible for the security of our children. We didn’t have any option.’’

Aftabbhai took out Ahmed from the school he so loved and put him in a “predominantly Muslim” institution called the National School. Ever since, precocious Ahmed has been wondering why.

Don Bosco, that had 250 Muslim children on its rolls before the riots, which followed the February 27 Godhra train attack last year, today has none.

Welcome to Gujarat’s version of apartheid. Few, however, would dare to acknowledge it exists. Circumstances, most people would exclaim and say: “What can we do' We can’t help it.’’

The blacklisting — of communities and localities — has reached alarming proportions.

Scores of Muslims say it is becoming increasingly difficult to get a house, a loan, a cellphone connection or almost anything that can be acquired only after verification — of name, address and source of income.

A senior AT&T employee says the company received a circular from the home ministry asking it to strictly monitor what a Muslim customer does with his cellphone — who he talks to and what about.

Another directive, from the anti-terrorist squad, politely asks the company to try and “avoid” memberships of Muslims.

An executive at Hutch denied there was any “discrimination”. But she said a prospective Hindu customer’s credentials would be verified by just one agent though a Muslim customer would get “three or four” agents after him. The documentation process, too, is more rigid for Muslims.

If cellphones have stopped ringing for some, loans and insurance cover are drying up for others. “IFFCO Tokyo flatly refused to go in for my insurance,’’ says Nayoombhai. “They told me I could do what I wanted but they just would not touch my case, even with a bargepole.’’

Jaffer Alam’s monthly income of Rs 1 lakh is no enticement for credit card companies who prefer to keep their distance.

“I know of Standard Chartered Bank refusing to give credit cards to my friends,’’ he says. “The problem gets compounded if you stay in Muslim localities in the walled city.’’

Localities like Sarkhej and Shah Alam, perceived to be “Muslim”, have been blacklisted by credit card companies.

Sab cheez mushkil ho gayi hai (Everything is so difficult now),’’ says Hanif Lakdawala, a well-known social worker from Gujarat.

Lakdawala needed a flat to set up his office. But every time he said who he was, flat owners backed out.

The founder-director of Sanchetna, a non-government organisation, then did what he knew would work. He told a flat owner one of his Hindu trustees wanted to buy the property. Within no time, the flat was his.

“It is true we couldn’t get a house in our name,’’ Lakdawala says. “So we got it registered in the name of Sanchetna and put up the name of one of our Hindu trustees.’’

Autorickshaw driver Mukhtar Jamal, 30, can’t even cover his head now, not even on Fridays. “Topi pehenta hoon to Hindubhai log nahi chadte meri auto mein (If I wear a fez, Hindus don’t board my auto),’’ he says. “Topi utardi phir (I did away with the fez).’’

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