|( From top left) Firdos Kothi, a replica of the burning S6 coach of Sabarmati Express in Godhra and Narendra Modi
Godhra, Nov. 10: Firdos Kothi has pulled off a political miracle by turning Godhra from a symbol of sectarian hatred to one of communal harmony and hope.
But ask him how he was able to do what no politician could and the 48-year-old businessman has a simple explanation: his lifelong hatred of politics. It helped him think out of the box, he says.
That thinking has resulted in 18 newly elected Muslim councillors from Godhra ' Kothi’s hometown ' dramatically pledging unconditional support to the BJP.
“We felt that to shed the devilish image that the minorities in Godhra have acquired we need to send a message that we are changing and that we are not fanatics who cannot do business with the Hindus,” Kothi said.
What makes the man so different'
For one thing, he comes from a family that has always thought differently from others. In 1948, when most Ghanchi Muslims ' the dominant sect in Godhra ' emigrated after the riots, his parents, too, had boarded a Pakistan-bound train. But someone at the station told his mother that her father and brother had just been killed by a rioting mob.
At that moment, when they should have felt ever more justified in leaving, his parents did a strange thing. They decided to stay back and jumped off the moving train, Kothi’s four-year-old elder brother in their arms.
Kothi, born nine years later, always had an independent perspective on his hometown, seen by the rest of the country ' and its politicians ' as merely the site of the train carnage that set off the Gujarat riots.
The reality he saw was this: nearly 10,000 Muslim youths, struggling without education, jobs or hope for the future, drawn inevitably towards petty crime. Cynical politicians fuelling divisions ' between Hindus and Muslims as well as between Ghanchi Muslims and Bohras ' and selling their votes to parties that offered the highest bid. A small-town community without development, trapped in a ghetto mentality, letting its leaders lead it by the nose.
In short, a symbol of the problems facing Muslims at many places across India.
Kothi himself could easily have been sucked into the cesspool. He had been expelled from school as an 11-year-old, after his father died, because he couldn’t pay his fees. Yet he had risen to become Godhra’s richest steel-maker, running a unit that employs 200 men.
“I had no doubt where the solution lay ' in giving hope a chance; in shedding the ghetto mentality, suspicion and bitterness,” Kothi said.
Luckily, the time seemed just right. The town’s 70,000 Ghanchi Muslims were virtually leaderless after the powerful local cleric, Maulana Hussain Umarji ' alleged mastermind of the train carnage ' was arrested early in 2003. Municipality chairman Mohammed Kalota and many other councillors also were behind bars.
Kothi’s status as a wealthy, self-made man meant people of the community were increasingly turning towards him for advice. And going away with their minds in a whirl. Gradually, Kothi grew in stature and came to be accepted by the Ghanchis as their leader.
Six months ago, the businessman floated the Godhra Ghanchi Panch ' a social organisation ' with fellow businessmen, professionals and government employees. Politicians were banned.
Members of the group ' Kothi was the obvious choice for president ' began to ask why the community’s condition was so bad and how it could lift itself out of it.
The cue came from chief minister Narendra Modi, hated by most Muslims as the architect of the 2002 pogrom against the community.
Modi had been talking about “samras” (harmonious) villages, offering incentives to those that elected their sarpanch unopposed. Kothi jumped at the idea.
He suggested that each of the six Muslim-dominated wards of Godhra would elect its three councillors uncontested. Community leaders would nominate the 18 councillors. “But some aggressive, ambitious candidates didn’t allow that to happen,’’ Kothi said.
But all 40 candidates who filed their papers were made to sign an undertaking that they would keep away from corruption and serve the community. Any councillor seen violating the agreement would face social boycott. The Panch also got them to sign resignation letters, to be forwarded if they breached the community’s trust.
After the election, the councillors had no choice but to follow the community decision ' guided by Kothi ' to join hands with the ruling BJP so that stalled development programmes would be sped up.