Ahmedabad, Nov. 21: The bloody riots of February-March have riven Gujarat’s communities. Now an expressway between Ahmedabad and Vadodara threatens to formalise that schism, spooking the people belonging to either community who are trapped on the wrong side of the divide.
Nowhere does fear stalk the dusty road as brazenly as in Ramul, a tiny hamlet on the fringes of Ahmedabad city parallel to the national expressway. Its dubious call to fame: 11 persons who died in the ill-fated S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express that was torched at Godhra station on February 27 were from this village.
Life for both communities has changed drastically since. “Pahle itna pareshani nahi hota tha. Dango ke baad thoda sochna padta hai (Earlier, we weren’t troubled by the communal tension in other parts of the state. After the riots, one has to be careful),” said Govindbhai of Ramul village.
The expressway — designated NE (national expressway) 1, but really is the second because the Mumbai-Pune route was finished first — is a driver’s delight. It has access control stretches which means both sides are barricaded so that people and cattle from nearby villages do not stumble on to the highway. There are overbridges and underpasses every 2-3 km to enable the people who live on the two sides of the expressway to cross over.
So the cars can zip, as the villagers stew in fear.
Ramul is a village of about 20,000 people; the Hindu majority lives on the right side of the expressway as you travel from Ahmedabad to Vadodara; the Muslims on the left.
But there’s a small group of Hindus who live on the side where the Muslims outnumber them.
The problem is that the road to the underpass at Ramul snakes through a Muslim ghetto. One of the Hindus said: “Danga hoye to hum kidhar se bhagenge. Sarkar to sadak bana diya par hum sadak ke udhar paar nahi kar sakte. Main road ka rasta to Musalman basti se nikal kar jata hai. Hum ko ek alag rasta chahiye (If there’s a riot, where will we run' The government has made a road but we cannot use it as it passes through a Muslim-dominated area. So we need a separate road.)
The demand made by the village leaders — Sangram bhai and Govind bhai of Ramul village — to the officials of National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) is an articulation of the fear that has gripped the two communities of this village since the riots.
Attempts to secure a reaction from a few members of the minority community in Ramul are stonewalled with a shrug, a smile and stoic silence.
Ramul, the villagers claim, has had no history of a communal riot. Except for a few skirmishes on local issues, the two communities lived in complete harmony till February this year. A temple and a mosque that date back more than a hundred years within a distance of 50 metres bear testimony to this fact.
“Roads, highways and expressways are built to join not only cities but also bring people closer to each other and spur growth of the economy. But the NE 1 connecting Ahmedabad and Vadodra seems to have done just the opposite — at least in the case of people,” said a senior NHAI official wryly.
The NHAI cannot build another approach road for one community to skirt the other because, it fears, one such move will trigger demands from many villages where a similar situation exists. It is already burdened with several demands for overbridges and underpasses from MLA and MPs.
“The villagers have been told that they should approach the local MP or MLA to sanction the funds for the road that has been demanded,” said an NHAI official.
Every such road will spread the schism to the hinterland of “people-dividing” NE 1.