I first came upon Vatva as part of an enthusiastic team of volunteers for the Aman Ekta Manch – an umbrella-NGO initiative setup in the wake of the Gujarat carnage of 2002 to oversee relief and rehabilitation work in the affected areas. Spread on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Vatva is an industrial wasteland that was once a village.
We arrived in Vatva after it had been ravaged by the violence that had consumed much of Gujarat after the unfortunate and controversial ‘Godhra incident’ of 27 February 2002. The colonies, buildings, shops and streets wore the telltale marks of communal frenzy: burnt remains of beauty parlours, ruins that were once mosques, rubble that was once residences.
As we settled into our work at the Qutb-e-Alam Dargah refugee camp, we were wary of our curiosity, having been warned by supervisors against developing the tendency of ‘riot tourism’. But we heard the stories, nonetheless – from the residents and from the landscape. Our work was limited mainly to three colonies in Vatva, centred around the tomb of the Sufi saint Qutb-e-Alam. These colonies were religion- and caste-specific ghettos – Saiyidvada and Navapura were Muslim; the residents of Vaghrivaas were Vaaghris; and Bharwaadvaas was a colony of Bharwaads.
What rendered these colonies different from the usual idea of ghettos was the ‘soft borders’ where they met. To the outsider, their limits and boundaries seemed invisible. I remember walking towards the camp from the rubble that was once Navapura and ten minutes later, running into a wall that displayed half torn pictures of Hindu deities to discover that I was in Vaghrivaas (see picture). And yet, these unseen boundaries exercised a definite constraint on the colonies’ residents.
Facts and conjecture
Vatva’s experiences during the riot were unusual. It was one of only a handful of places in Ahmedabad that reported just a few deaths, despite large-scale destruction of property. What took place in Vatva was not horrifyingly sensational like the massacre that took place at Naroda Patiya, but it also was not ordinary. There were no clear victims in Vatva. Or, maybe everyone was a victim.
There are some uncontested facts about the events of those four days in the end of February 2002, beyond which verification is difficult. On the morning of 28 February, a huge Hindu mob of about 2500 people attacked Navapura. The residents fled to other Muslim colonies, while the mob torched and looted all of the houses in Navapura.
But Vaghrivaas was burnt as well. That’s where the line between victim and perpetrator blurs, where the numerous narratives emerge.
A reconstruction of the events, culled from multiple accusations, suggests that Navapura was attacked by a Hindu mob that consisted not only of ‘outsiders’, but also of members of the local branch of Bajrang Dal. The Muslims claimed that the Vaaghris – bribed with money and liquor by the Hindutva-oriented Bajrangis – attacked their neighbours and participated in the looting. On being asked why Vaghrivaas was also burnt, many Muslims feigned ignorance. A few, however, stated categorically: “If they had stood by us, we’d have stood by them. But if they attack us, we are forced to retaliate.” For their part, the Vaaghris claim that the Muslims are simply lying; they describe the ‘unprovoked’ Muslim retaliation as an attack on an easy target. At the same time, however, they also see the attack as punishment for associating with Hindus, blaming the Bajrang Dal for deserting and betraying them.
Colleges reopened and we returned to Delhi, leaving the camp in Vatva to a new set of volunteers, and leaving the new volunteers to a leaky tent and the same confusions we ourselves had found.
I returned to Vatva in 2005, on the pretext of a research project. Together with another ex-volunteer, we came in search of signs of violence hidden in the rebuilt landscape of the once-ravaged colonies. Instead, we stumbled upon the memory of a ‘golden age’ of religious syncretism and communal harmony.
While investigating the history of inter-community relations in the colonies, we discovered a curious, 700-year-old parallel, legendary history, explaining how the settlement came to be. While each community had its own version of the history, these stories converged at some points and reflected a collective memory. All three communities – Sayyid Muslim, Vaghris and Bharwaads – traced the beginnings of their settlement in Vatva to a Sufi saint named Hazrat Sayyid Jalaluddin Bukhari-Makhdum Jahaniyan- Jahangast.
Makhdum Jahaniyan, who lived between 1307 and 1383, was part of the Suhrawardi order of Sufis. Born at Uch Sharif in present-day Pakistan, he was widely travelled and came to be known as jahangast, or world traveller. During his travels, we were told, he arrived at what eventually would become the Vatva gaam (village), where he performed miracles and won the respect and aid of the resident Bharwaads. He told the Bharwaads that two peedhis (generations) later, people would come from Arbastaan; these people would be jodidaar (partner) to the Bharwaads. The Arbastaanis were the Sayyid Muslims. The locals were also instructed to serve Qutb-e-Alam, Jahaniyan’s grandson, who would come to settle in the Vatva area. With Qutb-e-Alam came the colony of Sayyid Muslims that still live in Sayyidvada. The Vaaghris themselves claim to be the descendents of a brave tribal hunter, who was invited by Qutb-e-Alam to settle in the area and protect the Muslims.
That the Sayyid Muslims once owned the land of Vatva gaam, upon which these colonies are today found, is well-known and accepted. The Sayyids were the maalik landlords and the Vaaghris were the khedut tenants. This arrangement seemed to have continued for centuries, until the abolition of the Inaamdaari system (a land tenure mechanism similar to Zamindari) in 1952. With the arrival of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), which acquired the farmlands of Vatva in the early-1960s, the gaam’s agrarian culture began rapidly to disappear.
Old and new
The presence of industries attracted a migrant population of prospective workers from within the old city of Ahmedabad, as well as from eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar. The migrants were both Hindus and Muslims, who settled in numerous community-specific colonies in Vatva. Navapura is a mixed settlement of migrants from the inner/old city, as well as from outside Ahmedabad and Gujarat. Interestingly, many residents also pointed out that it was after the 1969 riots in the old city of Ahmedabad that many Muslims migrated to Vatva – then still fairly agrarian and peaceful.
From 1969 into the 1980s, Vatva saw a steady influx of new population (navey log) and the settlement of new colonies, like the Muslim Navapura and the Hindu Aasopalay. The jooney log, on the other hand, are the area’s original inhabitants – the Bharwaads, Vaghris and Sayyid Muslims. This new-old divide emphasises a shared history, a shared material past, a shared living space, and a shared life that have all been shattered. That this divide goes beyond religion and caste is best illustrated in the way in which the views of the jooney Muslims, Vaghris and Bharwaads converge on the issue of the navey Muslims and Hindus.
When speaking of this evolution within their areas, all members of the original communities tend to emphasise a lost golden age, where peace prevailed together with friendship and communal harmony. It is noteworthy that this remembered utopia was both agrarian and pre-industrial – a pastoral idyll from before the GIDC acquired lands in Vatva. As such, industrialisation, urbanization and – almost coincidentally – communalisation are simultaneous and overlapping phenomena in the collective memory.
In our discussions, nearly all jooney residents agreed that it was with the coming of the new migrants that relations between communities began to fray. All of the three original communities independently spoke of their amicable relations with each other. It is also notable that while both of the original Hindu communities (the Bharwaads and Vaghris) had friendly and frequent interactions with the original Muslims (the Sayyids), they had almost no relations with the new Muslims of Navapura. Meanwhile, contact between the Sayyid Muslims and the new Muslims have been cordial and friendly, particularly so since the events of 2002. Religious faith, memories of violence, and feelings of being a minority are strong unifiers. But the Sayyid Muslims are clear in their opinions that, apart from the Bajrang Dal, the new Muslims have been largely responsible for the all-around worsening of relationships in Vatva.
It is remarkable that these recollections – independently recorded among the Sayyids, Vaaghris and Bharwaads – match so perfectly. To the last one, each respondent was of the opinion that the old residents were ‘okay’, and that it was the migrants from the big city who had brought with them their prior experiences of suspicion and violence. The navey log were quite alien from the communitarian rural ethos. Some Bharwaad men recalled how, during the 2002 riots, members of the Sayyid community assured the Bharwaads of their support and cooperation, but made it clear they would not be able to vouch for the new Muslims.
Reviving the ethos
This transition of social relations from pastoral harmony to an urban experience of extreme tension can also be seen in governance. The residents recall peaceful times, when the affairs of the village were in the hands of the Gram (Gaam) Panchayat, as well as the competence of the elders in matters of intercommunity conflict. In 1969, when the city of Ahmedabad had burnt in communal rage, the Panchayat decided that there would be no fighting in Vatva. To back up the decree, a village defence committee was formed, comprised of 25 Hindus and 25 Muslims. The Hindu patrol paraded in the Muslim areas, ensuring that no Hindu miscreants entered; a Muslim patrol did likewise in Hindu localities. Thus, even while the nearby city core was under curfew, life in the village continued as normal.
In the mid-1980s, as the urban expansion continued apace, Vatva came formally under the jurisdiction of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. Apart from the general decline in the civic administration of the area, the period when Vatva came under the municipality marked the beginning of the steady fraying of intercommunity relations, as reflected in Ahmedabad’s 1992 riots following the desecration and destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. While there was no overt rioting in Vatva proper, the mutual strategising for peace, which had marked the 1969 affair, was replaced by tension and mutual suspicion. While there were still defence committees, the patrols of one community would no longer visit the other’s locality.
Uneasy peace reigns in Vatva today. On the surface, everything seems back to normal. Most houses have been rebuilt and the original residents are back. NGOs have setup projects in the colonies and are working extensively with the youth. But so is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the country’s largest extreme right-wing Hindu organisation. The Vaaghris now regularly visit a local RSS shakha.
The riot was a reminder that the culture of Vatva gaam, one of tolerance and coexistence, is lost – and yet, an intangible kind of faith survives, especially in the older generation. It is a faith based on more than memory: one that believes that the violence ended because it came from ‘outside’, and that if the ethos of the village is taught to the young, then the spirit of Vatva gaam may yet return.