Bhavnagar, Dec. 3: Godhra is nearly 400 km away from Bhavnagar — and the distance showed when the train burned.
The Hindus of this former port town south-east of Saurashtra found it a bit difficult to relate to the images of blood and gore that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s campaign evoked.
So a local context was sought and with a population of over 20,000 Muslims — considered “huge” by Gujarat standards — it was easy to find one.
Raju Bhupat Vaghela, 20-something and unemployed, said Godhra was a “reflection” of “Muslim terrorism” which existed in Bhavnagar “since the time of our fathers and grandfathers” and the Hindus did the “right thing” putting it down.
Although the rest of Saurashtra remained an oasis of calm in the post-Godhra phase, Bhavnagar was an exception. “Yes, I helped the rioters because it was my duty,” he added.
A man named Arif was the local equivalent of Godhra’s Ganchchi Muslims who allegedly set fire to the coaches of the Sabarmati Express.
“He lived here,” said Vaghela, pointing to the Muslim colony of Sandiawad adjoining his area of Kapara.
“He wore a bullet-proof jacket, the kind your Delhi politicians wear and had a stockpile of AK-47s and acid bombs. Once he was arrested but he was released and now he’s at large. We had to ensure before he surfaced, the Muslims were taught a lesson,” he added.
So, last March, Bhavnagar — which had an unbroken record of communal amity —saw Muslim shops, houses and mosques going up in flames after the familiar round of looting.
The “logical” (politically speaking) corollary of this violence should be a sharp Hindu-Muslim divide and a big gain for the BJP, which had anyway bagged all the seven Assembly seats last time.
Curiously enough, that does not seem to be happening. Even diehard BJP supporters admitted that the party could lose two or three seats, including one in the town. Vaghela, with a pronounced hatred for Muslims, appeared indifferent to voting. “In tangible terms, I have gained nothing from the BJP. So I may not vote,” he said.
As down-to-earth were the other Hindus who are much more worried about their financial security than Narendra Modi’s return to power. “Our future is not safe in the BJP’s hands,” pronounced M.B. Ulawa, a class IV employee.
He talked of how the local newspapers on an average reported one incident a week of entire families committing suicide because they went bankrupt. “The riots and the ensuing curfew have finished off small business. Even vegetable sellers were not spared,” he said.
The BJP-controlled municipal corporation went on a demolition spree four months ago, said Ulawa, flattening out jhuggis and jhopdis and roadside kiosks.
Arvind Parmar, an out-of-work Dalit, spoke of how groundnut oil cost Rs 58 per kg. “Six years ago, a BJP minister, Ashok Bhatt, expressed his unhappiness over the same oil costing Rs 24 per kg with a symbolic gesture when he visited Bhavnagar. He put puris in water instead of oil. Two months ago, when Bhatt was here, I reminded him of his act but he pretended not to remember,” said Parmar.
For the Congress candidate from Bhavnagar (South), Shaktisinh Gohil — who won the seat thrice but did not contest last time — Hindutva did not exist. “What’s passing off as Hindutva is Moditva and he doesn’t appeal to all Hindus,” Gohil claimed.
Sunil Oza, his main contender from the BJP and the sitting MLA, was careful not to mention Hindutva or Godhra. But quizzed about the problems the locals talked about, Oza turned dodgy and harked back to the familiar theme. “Before 1998 (when the BJP returned to power), whenever people went to file complaints with the police, they were turned away,” he said.
Asked if the complaints were against Muslims, he merely smiled. “You draw whatever conclusion you want to. But today my government has given instructions that if the police don’t record a complaint people can go to the revenue mamlathdhar,” Oza said.
“The local Congress terrorism is finished because when we arrest people under PASA (Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act, which is Gujarat’s equivalent of the Prevention of Terrorism Act) they are not released,” he added.
Not surprisingly, Muslims and Hindus said the majority of those booked under the Act were the former.