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Ram-Rahim Nagar: Oasis of peace

By Anosh Malekar

After four major Hindu-Muslim riots, Ahmedabad is a divided city. There is a ‘Muslim Ahmedabad’ and a ‘Hindu Ahmedabad’. Except for Ram-Rahim Nagar, a slum where Hindus and Muslims have lived together and worked together to ensure that the riots leave them untouched. What is the secret of their success?

After the 1969 riots, the slum-dwellers decided to keep away anti-social elements and came together to form the Ram-Rahim Nagar Welfare Committee

A history of communal riots has altered the geography of Ahmedabad. There is a ‘Hindu Ahmedabad’ and a ‘Muslim Ahmedabad’. There are no visible barriers like the erstwhile Berlin Wall. But Muslims feel safer in traditional ghettos like Juhapura and Shah Alam, while Hindus prefer the modern suburbs on the western banks of the Sabarmati. 

Standing mute witness to this artificial divide is the magnificent dargah of Shah Alam, a 15th century mystic whose soul may draw some solace from the fact that though most Hindus and Muslims in the city are now sworn enemies, no one entering his shrine forgets to light a lamp in memory of his friend, the Hindu saint Narsinh Bhagat. Residents of the historic city believe that Narsinh Bhagat once wondered how their friendship could be made an example of communal harmony, and Shah Alam said every person visiting his dargah would have to light a lamp in his Hindu friend’s memory. 

This syncretic shrine continues to be a symbol of Hindu-Muslim amity despite its location in a ‘sensitive’ area of Ahmedabad. Scholars like Asghar Ali Engineer uphold its symbolic value, while others like Yoginder Sikand are sceptical about its social utility, especially after the destruction of several dargahs and mazars during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, and the subsequent marginalisation of the Muslim community, socially and economically. 

Divisions in Ahmedabad are now so sharp and all-pervading -- taking hold of the whole of Ahmedabad including the walled city, the outer industrial areas and the new middle class and elite localities -- that the friendship between Shah Alam and Narsinh Bhagat now appears nothing more than a myth from the past.  

Unless, of course, you also visit a Hanuman temple and a dargah of a nameless pir standing next to each other at Ram-Rahim Nagar, a slum pocket in the eastern part of Ahmedabad called Dani Limda. This is a living example of communal harmony in the torn city. 

Ram-Rahim Nagar has a population of over 20,000, of which 60% are Muslims and the rest Hindus -- a delicate demographic composition that has remained undisturbed for the past four decades despite major riots in 1969, 1985, 1992 and 2002. The slum stretches roughly half a kilometre in the densely populated textile suburb, and was originally known as Gulab Bhai no Tekro, or Maharaj na Tekra. It was inhabited mostly by migrant workers from Banaskantha in north Gujarat, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  

After the 1969 riots, the slum-dwellers decided to keep away anti-social elements and came together to form a welfare society called Ram-Rahim Nagar. The year was 1974, and the men behind this initiative were the late Ghazi Bhai and the late Kashi Maharaj. “They were security guards at a textile mill. They finalised the name -- Ram-Rahim -- as a tribute to the fact that a Hanuman temple and a dargah stood cheek-by-jowl at our slum. Nurturing mutual respect and communal harmony ever since has helped us withstand every communal riot that hit Ahmedabad,” says Kanhaiyalal Parmar, a resident. 

Ahmedabad’s residential areas have always been divided along caste lines. Within the old walled city, different communities lived in separate enclosures called ‘pols’. As Ahmedabad expanded, Hindus moved out of the walled city and the communal divide became sharper in the suburbs. Muslims and dalits were denied housing because they ate non-vegetarian food.  

This mutual exclusion and poverty brought the Muslims and dalits together. “People here are not concerned with mandir-masjid because they know they will be the ultimate sufferers in the event of communal disturbances,” says Parmar.  

The residents say they keep a 24-hour vigil during disturbances in Ahmedabad or elsewhere in Gujarat, to prevent any mischief by 'outsiders'

Ram-Rahim Nagar has not experienced riots ever since the Ram-Rahim Welfare Committee came into existence. The committee comprises 21 members headed by a chairman, a post that rotates between a Hindu and a Muslim every year. If the chairman is a Hindu, his deputy is a Muslim, and vice-versa. Members are drawn equally from the two communities.  

The Muslims comprise Sheikhs, Ghanchis and Sunni Bohras, while the Hindus are predominantly dalits. Many of them have been jobless since the mills closed and eke out a living as street vendors and casual labourers. Every family has a young man without a job.  

There are two madrassas, two masjids and five temples in the locality, and none has ever been vandalised, boasts Gulab Khan, a dealer in waste material who shifted here from another locality in Dani Limda after 2002. “There is so much trust between the communities that even babies are left in the custody of neighbours, irrespective of their religion. We help each other in moments of crisis without bothering about religious affiliations,” he adds.  

The residents say they keep a 24-hour vigil during disturbances in Ahmedabad or elsewhere in Gujarat, to prevent any mischief by ‘outsiders’. “Many of us have lived here since 1968 and know each other well. We want our area to be riot-free and ensure that the 30-odd lanes and bylanes are blocked to outsiders in troubled times,” says Khan. 

One fortunate part, says Valjibhai Parmar, an elder, is that politicians visit the slum only during elections and not when riots take place. But he is proud that many scholars and other important people have visited them to study their success. 

Social scientist Ashutosh Varshney, in his book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, notes: “If organisations serving the economic, cultural and social needs of the two communities exist, the support for communal peace not only tends to be strong, it can also be more solidly expressed.”  

Industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, who visited Ram-Rahim Nagar in 2005, wrote to the local committee: “When Gujarat burned, there was unshakeable peace at Ram-Rahim Nagar… I wish a bright future for all of you and hope that your example of togetherness will help in bridging differences in this country.” 

Sociologists may describe the communal harmony in Ram-Rahim Nagar as a case of strong economic inter-dependency, but mutual victimhood could also have played a role. Dalits in Gujarat were at the receiving end during the anti-reservation riots in Gujarat in 1981 and 1985. But then, many dalits have also joined the saffron organisations since. 

“Our biggest challenge is to keep our youth in check even as we stand guard to keep out troublemakers,” says elder Natwarbhai Rawat, adding that their skills were sorely tested during the post-Godhra riots: “Immediately after the Godhra incident we called together all the youth, especially the dalits, and asked them not to fall prey to outside propaganda.” 

It has not been easy. Residents say groups of saffron activists have been targeting the slum ever since. “They taunt the Hindu men by throwing bangles at them,” says Parmar. But the 20,000-odd residents who barely manage to eke out a living put up a united defence every time Hindu-Muslim riots break out in the city. At the first sign of trouble, committee members abandon everything else to maintain peace. 

Ram-Rahim Nagar’s reputation as an oasis of peace has resulted in the slum’s population growing manifold over the decades. From a little over 700 dwellings in 1969, the slum now has about 5,000 dwellings. While Muslims like Gulab Khan are moving here for security reasons, a large number of poor Hindu families too are coming on similar grounds. Residents say the composition of the once-Muslim-dominated slum has changed to equal members from both communities. 

The most pressing problem for the residents here is the large-scale unemployment arising out of a combination of the closure of old industry and illiteracy which renders them useless for new industry. “The fear is that if fundamentalist groups begin to sponsor jobs and offer money to the boys here, then all our efforts will be in vain,” says Rawat. 

Ram-Rahim Nagar feels that if there is anything they should fear, it is the media attention and visits by NGOs. “They keep coming and going like tourists. They are well-meaning people all right. But will all the focus help us survive?”  

(Anosh Malekar is a senior researcher with www.infochangeindia.org and Infochange Agenda)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009