Godhra puts its troubled past behind and eyes development
The small town in eastern Gujarat has long buried its ignominious past.
The narrow streets that wind through the busy wholesale market on the Gidhwani Road in Godhra is clogged with traffic and sweaty men. Trucks filled with swollen sacks of rice and onions callously rattle past rickety bikes and rickshaws wheezing in the dusty, hot weather.
"Now we are entering the Muslim area of the market," my driver matter-of-factly announced as we skimmed past a few crowded lanes.
This compartmentalisation of Hindus and Muslims has become a common feature in many parts of India. But in Godhra, it is a more delicate subject that invokes awkward memories.
The small town in eastern Gujarat has long buried its ignominious past. At least, it pretends so and its people do not appreciate when someone tries to dig the old wounds. "It is people from outside who still look at us as Hindus and Muslims. We are all Indians," said Abdul Hakim, who runs an eatery next to Kesari Circle in Polen Bazar Chowk where Muslim traders and small businessmen of the area hoists the tri-colour flag every day since many years.
"This area has remained largely peaceful. Hindus and Muslims share good relationship. They are even business partners. Past is past. We don't think about it anymore," said Abdul Hakim.
People here are hesitant to talk about the communal riots that Godhra spawned 17 years ago. The little known town shot to infamy in 2002 after two coaches of Sabaramati Express were allegedly torched by a Muslim mob. The train was carrying Hindu pilgrims, who were returning from Ayodhya, which was at the heart of a simmering Hindu-Muslim conflict over the disputed Babri Masjid site. A total of 59 people were killed in the fire, and led to a brutal Hindu retaliation that killed nearly 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.
The communal carnage widely seen as a state-sponsored Muslim pogrom, remains till date the biggest blot on the political career of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the then chief minister of Gujarat. The SIT verdict has absolved him of any wrongdoing in the absence of irrefutable evidence to prosecute him.
But Godhra and Modi's role in it is routinely milked by his opponents (this election is no different). In an election where Modi is seeking a second term as Prime Minister of India, Godhra's Muslim residents say their politics and votes are centred around development.
"We don't care who comes to power. We need a government that will fulfill its promises and fights corruption," said Junaid, 52, a trader who was hesitant to give his second name.
When insisted who he is rooting for, he said Congress. "BJP has done no good to people. We are fed up with their false promises."
Younis Aslam was even more vocal about his support for Congress. "BJP is bad for the country. Everyone in this area is supporting the Congress. We got badly hit by demonetisation and GST. Prices of essentials have shot up. Attacks on Muslims and Dalits have increased under Modi. Why would we vote for him?" About 40 per cent of Godhra's around 200,000 people are Muslims. The town falls under Panchmahal Lok Sabha seat, which is currently a BJP-held seat.
Though Congress is emboldened by their win in the 2017 assembly elections, some residents say they are pro-BJP because their lives have improved in the last many years.
"Everyone says they want to vote BJP out. But I don't understand why? You should have seen how we lived ten years ago and now," said a Muslim woman, who requested not to be named.
"I was 17 when Godhra Kand (riots) happened. 17 years have passed and the lives of Muslims have only got better. We have water and electricity. Our roads are better. All these were done by Modi Saab."
A few kilometres away at an abandoned rail yard, the charred wagons of the Sabarmati Express are parked as grim reminders of the Godhra ghost. Outside the railway station, a handful of autorickshaw drivers are waiting for passengers. They are upset that the railway station has no toilets and they have to relive themselves in open areas.
"There are lots of talks about shawchalay (toilets). Modi built thousands of toilets. But this railway station still does not have one," complained Javed, an auto driver.
Javed says he has always voted for the BJP and will do so this time too. "No big politician cares to come to Godhra. May be they are embarrassed. I hope Modi Saab (sir) will come back and build a toilet here."
His friend Irfan (name changed on request) says many Muslims are voting for the BJP because they know the party will come to power at the centre. "What is the use if we vote for Congress and BJP forms the government?"
For these men who earn a living from the spot that was once the epicentre of the Gujarat communal riots, revisiting the Godhra ghost is an anathema. "This place gives us our bread and butter. We don't even like to talk about it. We were kids when the riots happened. We have moved on," said Javed.
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