On July 1, Chief Minister Anandiben Patel reached a three-storey, 18th-century watchtower in the Muslim-dominated Old Ahmedabad area of Jamalpur to inaugurate a museum in honour of two Gujarati icons of communal harmony.
On the same day in 1946, Vasantrao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani had staved off hordes of rioters during the annual rath yatra from Jamalpur’s Jagannath Temple — the former protecting Muslims, the latter saving Hindus — with both losing their lives in the fight.
Looking on as Patel opened Bandhutva Smarak, housing personal effects, such as sandals, and glasses, and paper clippings and jail records related to the two heroes, were the family members of Hegishte.
And the Lakhanis? They had long gone, shifting to the US and Canada after being targeted in subsequent riots, scared to even acknowledge their link to Lakhani.
So much so, that his nephew Rashmin, formerly known as Rashid, told The Indian Express over phone from the US: “We decided to change to Hindu names, change our religion and hide our relation with Rajab Ali Lakhani.”
Wary of disclosing details of his whereabouts, Rashmin said that among those who stayed back was Lakhani’s younger brother Ramzan Ali — but he too converted after his family was attacked in their home in Naranpura, and changed his name to Ramanlal.
Ramanlal was a journalist with a local newspaper, and died three years ago. His wife died a few weeks before the inauguration of the museum.
All of this came to light only when the families were tracked down by Ahmedabad-based historian Rizwan Kadri who wanted to invite them for the inauguration of the museum, located 400m away from where Hegishte and Lakhani were killed — they refused.
The museum was conceived by Ahmedabad crime branch to calm tempers and project the “softer and secular” side of police. This year, the rath yatra is scheduled to be held on July 18, and is likely to clash with Eid.
Rashmin (76), the son of Rajab Ali’s elder brother Vazir Ali, converted to Hinduism in 1965, married a Hindu from Bhavnagar, and moved to the US. “There were more than three attempts to kill the Lakhanis in the 1969 and 1977 riots, because of which we decided to change,” he said.
“Both my children did not know their father was a Muslim till they were 18 and 19 years old,” said Rashmin, adding that he was divorced.
Subhan, the eldest son of Ramzan Ali Lakhani alias Ramanlal, lives in Canada and goes by the name of Sam Lakhani, but has not formally converted.
Speaking over phone, he said: “The 1969 riots were almost like the pre-partition riots, nearly 10,000 Muslims got killed. Our family had to go from one place to another to live safely. In my case, I already left for the US but my brothers and sisters had to change their names.”
Lakhani added that he had wanted his parents to move with him to Canada “for safety”. “They came in 1986, but could not stand the cold and went back,” he said, also wary of discussing details of the family’s location.
“(During the 1969 riots) we were moving from one place to another— to Gandhi ashram, to Mumbai, then Nadiad, and then back to Ahmedabad and finally adopted the Hindu religion and Hindu names,” said Sam. The rest of Ramzan’s children live in western Ahmedabad, completely cut off from their past.
Rajab Ali Lakhani was a Khoja Muslim born in Karachi on July 27, 1919, and the story of the Vasant-Rajab sacrifice has long been part of Ahmedabad’s folklore.
Both Rajab and Vasant, who was born in Ahmedabad in 1906, had joined the Congress Seva Dal. “They were separated only in death, as their bodies were taken out of the Congress house,” wrote Vasant’s younger sister Hemlata Hegishte, in the commemorative book Vasant-Rajab which was compiled by Gujarat’s famous poet Zaverchand Meghani in 1947.
Over the last few years, their death anniversary has also been observed as ‘communal harmony day’ by groups of peace activists and those seeking justice for victims of the 2002 riots.
But the two families never stayed in touch, said Nita, wife of Hegishte’s nephew Uday, who was at the inauguration.