The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The months of discipline have paid off. Even after the pre-dawn arrest the week before last of Maulana Husein Umarji, the chief maulvi of Godhra, this sensitive town hasn’t gone up in flames. Not even Signal Falia erupted, where the maulvi lived, and which became notorious last year after 59 passengers were burnt alive inside coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express, just outside the settlement. The protests against the maulana’s arrest were almost Gandhian: a bandh, a peaceful demonstration and some memoranda.

Maulana Umarji would be proud. For weeks he had kept his flock in check, as they saw and met the raped women, injured men and distraught families pouring into the relief camps he had been forced to open in private schools in Godhra. These were people from villages and small towns surrounding Godhra, victims of the “retaliation” on innocent Muslims by the Bharatiya Janata Party for the burning of the Sabarmati Express. Asked the maulana: “If you are angry at what happened to the Sabarmati, kill a hundred Muslims from Godhra. Why attack the villagers who don’t even know what a rail coach looks like' These are simple people, dependent on the mercy of the landlords. What was their fault'”

In a town where Hindus and Muslims live separately but work in close dependence, the relief camp stood out as one community’s wound, just as the burnt coach of the Sabarmati Express did in the rail yard. But there was one important difference: for the crime of burning the train, the maulana had apologized on behalf of his community more than once in peace meetings called by the collector. Influential Muslims of Godhra had condemned the burning. But for the continuing crimes being committed by members of their community, no Hindu in Godhra had apologized, or even condemned them. As the maulana put it, “Peace-loving Hindus are so cowed down today that they dare not come out openly. They don’t come to the camp nor do they phone us. First I felt bitter about it, but after a few days I accepted this too.”

At the same time, almost every two days, there would be some dignitary from outside visiting the camp, and Maulana Umarji would be their host. Among these, it was Swami Agnivesh’s words of compassion that had managed to pierce the maulana’s bitterness, though he admitted he did not believe Agnivesh’s reassurance that “all of Bharat is with you”. And it was the prime minister’s grim face that had disheartened him the most. The prime minister, who went to Godhra almost five weeks after the burning of the train, had first seen the burnt coach and then met the citizens’ delegations, and according to the maulana, the anger never left the former’s face. “Normally when you meet a lot of people, you don’t show your anger. You smile. But there was no smile on the prime minister’s face. He didn’t change his expression throughout,” said the maulana to this reporter a few hours after the prime minister left.

The maulana had expressed regret over the burning of the train and asked the prime minister to help resettle the villagers who continued being threatened every time they tried going back. The prime minister’s silence on this had confirmed to the maulana that he was right in feeling that his community could “expect neither protection nor justice from this government.”

What hurt Maulana Umarji most was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s depiction of his community as anti-national. “Do they know that 14,000 ulema had been hung from the trees of Delhi for fighting for the freedom of our country'” he asked angrily. “My own guru, Fakhruddin Saheb, was in jail in Malta for six years. All those years he kept his roza without iftaar. The British promised him freedom and a lot more if he only gave up Gandhiji. He refused.

“Yet these people call us traitors. I fear the country is not safe in their hands. It will break into pieces, it will be ruined: Hindustan ka naam log zillat se aaj le rahen hain. (People today take the name of India with disgust).”

But despite his despair, it was the maulana who prevented hot-headed young Muslims from taking on the police during the nightly raids on Signal Falia. How Herculean this task was can be understood from one example: fed up of being confined indoors night after hot night, specially when they were used to feasting from open-air food stalls till after midnight, some Muslims stoned the police when they attempted to enforce the curfew strictly one night, forcing the police to fire in the air. Asked about the incident the next day, a few youngsters in the relief camp laughed it off as a “boyish prank”. This was in the first week of April, when all around Godhra and almost in all of Gujarat, Muslims were being targeted with the connivance of the state.

It was to this community that the maulana in his Friday sermons preached peace, patience and restraint. And, three days after the depressing meeting with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the maulana, and three leading lawyers, issued an appeal for peace. The appeal condemned the burning of the train, asked for punishment of the guilty, offered condolences to the families of those who had died and prayed for their souls. The appeal also requested the administration to adhere to the rajdharma which Vajpayee had advised Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, to follow, and provide a safe return home to all affected citizens.

This stand was even more remarkable, given that sometimes, in the company of trusted friends, the maulana’s own patience would give way and he would ask, as news of yet another massacre of fleeing Muslims in the presence of the police came in, whether there was any place for his community in this country.

This question must have echoed in his mind when the police came for him at 3.30 am on February 6, and branded him the “mastermind” behind the burning of the train, on a statement made by a criminal in custody for the same incident.

Interestingly, the maulana had his own explanation for the burning of the Sabarmati. “It’s worth thinking,” he said, “so many trains pass through Godhra. For 150 years, no Muslim hit or even abused any passenger. Then how could they do this' If the starting point had not been there, if the badmaashi had not begun from Faizabad itself, would they have broken this 150-year record'” But was this enough to burn anyone alive' “What do you do when the devil takes over' Shaitaan sawaar ho gaya tha, donon taraf. (The devil had come over the men, on both sides.)”

Godhra’s residents explain the maulana’s arrest as Modi’s retaliation against Signal Falia having turned out in strength to vote against the BJP in the assembly elections. They say there had been talk about the arrest a couple of days before it actually took place, but no one had believed that Maulana Umarji could be arrested. The maulana’s close circle of friends will now have to ensure that the devil doesn’t take over their side too. But the most frightening thought is: will it be the same Maulana Husein Umarji who will finally come out of police custody'

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