Fifteen years ago, my life took a drastic turn. Yet, it all started one day before the Godhra train burning. I was a guest of a Vadodara body honouring Veer Savarkar at 8 pm on February 26. The speech was well received as I recalled the sacrifice of Savarkar at the Andaman jail. My concluding remarks were that the country has only two choices: Gandhi, whereby every Indian child will feel the country belongs to him, or Savarkar, with whom many an Indian child will feel unwanted and the country will suffer.
Twelve hours after these comments, the Sabarmati burning took place. The communal temperature rose to a frightening level. In Vadodara, the first attack took place on my car which was burnt down. The second day, a more organised loot and destruction of my house occurred, in the presence of the police who actually told the mob: You have 15 minutes, do what you want. Only a miracle saved the lives of my daughter and myself. Oddly, my daughter was to soon marry the Gujarati Hindu gentleman she loved. So much for the BJP’s “Love Jihad”.
The intensity of the communal polarisation was scary. In my own case, a friendship with a Gujarati writer suddenly turned hostile. A man who would publicly praise me as an ideal Muslim now saw me as a symbol of all that was rotten with Indian Muslims. He would end up writing about 40 articles over the years, lambasting me for alleged links with terrorists and bahubalis of Uttar Pradesh. After an initial fright, I just laughed at his crazy comments.
But the pain often rankles. After losing my house, I requested my university for staff housing. They gave me a flat in a four-flat block, at the edge of the university boundary. My three neighbours soon left or asked to be shifted — I ended up living all alone in the entire block. Strangely, there was a shortage of staff quarters at that time. Yet, no one wanted to live near me. I felt the pain of an earlier Vadodara resident, Babasaheb Ambedkar, who found it impossible to hire a place to stay at one century earlier.
We human beings are often forced by fate to confront the worst features of society — 2002 turned out an eye-opener for me. I realised the pain of being a Muslim in India. Most elite Muslims live in a world of their own, cocooned from mohalla life. For example, such a distinguished figure like our late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam would visit Gujarat almost once a month, to meet students at IIM or a Swaminarayan Gurukul. About 10 years ago, a Vadodara Muslim school, Zenith, organised a state-level science fair for school students. Being a trustee at that time, I contacted Dr Kalam, asking him to inaugurate the fair, arguing that it would send a good message for this school had Muslim and Hindu students and staff in about equal proportions. As it involved youth and science, his presence would send the right message of reconciliation and would lower polarisation in Gujarati society. Dr Kalam refused, arguing, through his secretary, that he couldn’t come to Gujarat time and again. Imagine my shock when he attended a Swaminarayan function at Rajkot just a fortnight later.
I mention this incident more in sorrow for if Muslims are to integrate into Indian society, the role of elite Muslims is of prime importance. They are rightly suited to act as bridges between the mohalla and the outside world. The same can be said about Bollywood stars. They carry great influence among our people; but you rarely see the Khan trio accepting an invitation to a Muslim charity.
I am lucky that 2002 forced me to go back to my roots. The Muslims are in a sorry state in education, health, business and modernity. Most Muslim mohallas are over-crowded with poor water and sanitation facilities. The fear of riots is so paralysing that most professional Muslims prefer to stay within the safe confines of these ghettos. This only widens communal polarisation. Leadership is confined to within the community. This breeds a sickening characteristic among Muslim leaders; contemptuous of the Muslim public, overly submissive to non-Muslims. This has done considerable damage to Hindu-Muslim relations and to the larger cause of secularism in India.
Another odd feature is the high proportion of Muslims in jails, especially in Gujarat. How do we explain this fact? Could it be that the police structure is deeply biased against Muslims? Or could it be that the courts are not sensitive to a Muslim’s plight? Just a week ago, a group of Muslims were found innocent of criminal conduct — but after languishing for over 10 years in jail. Who is responsible for these unfortunate people and their families losing so many precious years of their lives? Incidentally, no arrests were made for the attack on my house in 2002, even though a police party was present at the spot. Why this glaring discrimination?
A lack of jobs, especially in government service, rankles in the community. But Muslims are not Patidars, Jats or Marathas. They may end up as the only community without reservation. However, we cannot blame our plight on others. Jinnah’s Partition reduced Indian Muslims to a state of orphans, with no jobs, no good education, in a sense, no future — the message of 2002 is that Muslims have to stand on their own feet. We have to create conditions where a Muslim doctor or engineer is the best in town. This alone can solve the Muslim question.
With this objective, in Vadodara, we formed a body named the Zidni Ilma Charitable Trust. It is named after the Quran command: “Wa Qur Rabbi Zidni Ilma.” Translation: Oh my Lord, enrich me with knowledge. Zakat and lillah are collected during Ramzan. These are contributions a Muslim makes from his wealth and earnings to please Allah. This year, we collected 57 lakhs, to be used solely for quality education among Muslims in Gujarat. Although the amount is high, it pales in comparison to the demand for scholarships, for education in Gujarat is substantially commercialised. Fees are high, making it difficult for even middle-class families to send their children to good schools or to private engineering or medical colleges. The trust uses the funds collected almost totally for supporting these bright students. There are almost zero operating expenses, with members paying or offering to for essential services like office costs, electricity, etc. The trust president triples up as a clerk and a peon.
This year, we were able to reach about 320 boys and 120 girls studying for medical or engineering degrees. These future doctors and engineers may be the ultimate answer to the problems we are facing today, provided they are the best in their fields. More vital, after their success, they must support those below them. That chain can lift the community to be the hope for a better India and a better Muslim world. As Rabindranath Tagore would say, better light a candle than curse the darkness.