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Sunday, May 22, 2022

The city against itself

Savage riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Ahmedabad. The rioting originated in the fashionable part of town in a high rise apartm...

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
July 1, 2002

Savage riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Ahmedabad. The rioting originated in the fashionable part of town in a high rise apartment, between members of the same family. Lokesh Patel, a Hindu, was playing rummy with his brother-in-law Muhammad Latif, a Muslim, when the two began to accuse each other of cheating. Word of the discord spread like wildfire throughout the apartment. The Hindu members barricaded themselves in the kitchen. Armed with knives, they attacked the Muslims cowering under the dining table. A savage battle raged, the Muslims destroying the Kali idol in the puja room, the Hindus retaliating by burning the last chapter of the Koran. Finally using clubs made from furniture legs, the Hindus smashed the heads of the Muslim in-laws, careful to save the carpets from blood. The Muslims reacted by beating the Hindu women. The Muslim maid attacked the Hindu cook. The cook took on the Christian mali. In the melee, the children of mixed parentage rushed about in confusion. By nightfall seven family members — two Muslims, one Christian and three Hindus — lay dead.

I am a Hindu, the product of a mixed family. If a riot were to break out in my family I’ll need no voter list to single out my Muslim uncle, identify my Sikh aunt, hunt down my Christian brother-in-law. During a Hindu-Muslim riot I, myself, wouldn’t know which side to support, as indeed I didn’t during the Hindu-Sikh riot of 1984. But what would I tell the mob when they came to my door with their canisters of kerosene? That I am the product of a Hindu father and a Muslim mother (who converted to Hinduism after marriage)? That my sister’s husband is a white Protestant Christian? That on my father’s side are a range of Sikh relatives, and that when Uncle Latif, my mother’s brother, visited Delhi, he used her Hindu prayer-room for his own Muslim prayers? That when the whole family sat down to eat, except for Buddhism and Judaism, all the major religions were represented at the table? And that my journalist father at the head, like a family Kofi Annan, held the group together with his balanced, tolerant — perhaps slightly edited — views?

Or, I could tell them about my grandmother, who took great pains to explain, often to complete strangers, that the Bhatias descended from Bhatti Rajputs and were therefore high up on the caste ladder. Or, of my father’s insistence that that was probably untrue and more likely we belonged to the Bania caste; but it didn’t matter. And that beneath the ritual of religion and caste, we were all the same — vulnerable, loving, caring, and far more wary of things like inflation and malaria than of religion or background.

Maybe, the family would be torched for its excessive tolerance.

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The Indian city, once caught up in the drive for variety, has today produced an unfortunate modern corollary: diversity has led to the creation of separate enclaves

Sadly, the formation of the Indian city, once caught up in the drive for variety, sharing and living amongst diverse peoples, has today produced an unfortunate modern corollary: diversity has become reason enough to create separate enclaves. It is a curious Indian paradox that in order to be recognised as individuals, every individual must also belong to a collective — to a family, caste, religious community, professional peer group, political party or social club. The banding together of individuals is even given its unmistakable public stamp of identification. In Delhi, journalists form professional alliances to acquire land and live together in landlocked Press Enclave. Lawyers do the same in Niti Bagh. The Bengalis carve out their own niche in Chittaranjan Park. Jews in Cochin, just a few hundred, still preserve their identity in Jewtown. In other places, religious rivalry produces housing subdivisions. In Ahmedabad, housing projects built in the last ten years are oriented inwards and, like the traditional Pol houses, have turned a blind wall to the streets around. The insularity of their design is based on the mistaken belief that the isolation will produce the best quality of life. Not far from them, in the old city and using the same ideology, the Muslims are now permanently housed in the Yusaf Latif camp; the Hindus in Hindu Navrangpura, Hindu Atira and Hindu Usmanpura. As a result, cooperation has come to mean cooperating with people whose close proximity is unlikely to produce cultural, economic and ethnic ripples. A married, orthodox, Bengali Muslim chartered accountant is not likely to live next to a Jewish South Indian couple. It is a much safer bet living with a neighbour who is racially, spiritually and economically your equal, than attempting to savour the uncertain benefits of diversity.

Certainly, economic, ethnic and religious polarisation is not new to the layout of the Indian city or village. Outside our home in Ranikhet, are two villages — one belonging to the Thakurs, the other to the Brahmins — each with TVs, satellite dishes, and rituals so distinct and archaic you would hardly believe possible in the 21st century. Yet the very structure of life there necessitates and indeed encourages a healthy mixing of communities.

Take Delhi. There is a mosque in an essentially Hindu neighbourhood; a group of Buddhist monks is attending a peace conference at the India International Centre. A Sikh kirtan is in progress at a local gurudwara. Life goes on. The passive individual among these, given to the daily rituals of secularism in his own life, becomes occasionally fanatical and vents his collective rage in unambiguous ways — killing a Hindu, burning a Christian, maiming a Dalit.

Sure, these are heinous crimes. But then, aren’t these merely difficult but natural reminders of excessive tolerance in an open society? Aren’t a couple of caste-related murders, odd cases of ethnic cleansing, people shot in trains, far better than the kind of institutionalised cleansing murder and rape that Gujarat witnessed? In fact, given the proximities and social overlaps and indeed the daily infringement of one community on the life of another, it is surprising that there are so few incidents. And more people don’t kill each other just because someone doesn’t like the shape of your nose, or the smell of your food or the outline of the building you pray in…If the mob does enter the house, I know I’ll be safe, knowing full well that every one of them is also of mixed background.

(The writer is a well-known architect and author of the recent book,‘A Moment in Architecture’)

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