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Cracks in the citadel of peace

By Raheel Dhattiwala

Inaccessible education, unemployment and fear of displacement are threatening the peace in Ram-Rahimnagar, the settlement in Ahmedabad where Hindus and Muslims have kept the peace over four major communal riots. This is a disturbing picture of a settlement that is celebrated as a model of communal harmony

Oasis of peace. Island of sanity.  The Hindu/Muslim-inhabited slums of Ram-Rahimnagar in Ahmedabad have basked in the glory of these monikers for four decades. In a city where ghettoes are long-accepted infrastructure and communal violence is as common as its multiplexes, Ram-Rahimnagar’s achievement of maintaining absolute peace during the four major Hindu-Muslim riots of 1969, 1985, 1992-93 and 2002 is, indeed incredible.  

But umpteen awards, media headlines and corporate pats-on-the-back later, the gloss on this impoverished paradise is fast wearing out. Seen as a miracle best left untouched, the ‘well-wishers’ have isolated the residents to regulate their unique peace mechanism on their own.  A big mistake apparently, because it seems that unless intervention is made to resolve its growing crises this legendary oasis of peace might become a mirage the next time a wave of communal violence hits. 

Three months ago, Pyar Ali Kapadia, the sexagenarian resident of Ram-Rahimnagar who was among the firsts to engineer the peace story in these slums, passed away. Kapadia belonged to the 21-member elected body of Hindus and Muslims — the Ram Rahimnagar Jhupdavasi Mandal —since its inception in 1969. About 70 years old when he passed away, it was members of his generation who spearheaded the Mandal’s mission of humanism across four decades. “Most of us have not studied beyond class 7. But ours is a generation that saw leaders of integrity, like Gandhiji. We did not need to be taught lessons of humanity through books,” Kapadia had told this writer in 2005. His uneducated crew of Natwarbhai Rawat, Abdulrazaq Badami, Ismailbhai Sheikh, Karamat Sheikh  – who also passed away recently – were among the ‘elders’ of the slum, whose word was law for youth and children alike. “The moment they would hear of a riot breaking out in the city, the elders would rush to each house in the slum and appeal for calm. They would assure the residents of food even during curfew hours and mobilise us to barricade the slum borders to the outside world,” says Iqbal Hussain, 34. 

Retired from  government service years ago, the sole purpose of these pensioners was maintaining the ethos of the Mandal. They had no need to cross the borders of their slum where they could be tainted by the ethnocentric ideology of the present day.  But now, the next generation is on the threshold. Dwindling jobs since the textile mills closed in the 1980s, the inaccessibility of affordable education, the exposure to a hate ideology outside the borders of the slum where they are compelled to go in search of employment and the fear of losing their homes because of the mega-budget Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, seem to be generating unrest among youth.  “It’s good to have peace, but it would be better to have jobs too,” 20-something Sikandar Pathan had told this writer two years ago. The situation remains unchanged today. “We don’t get jobs because we are less educated. We cannot study further because we are forced to drop-out after class 7, as there is only one municipal school here up to class 7 and we cannot afford to go to a private school thereafter. It’s a vicious cycle,” says Rasheed Khan, 24. 

Even before Kapadia’s death, the pressure of an increasing generation gap and of a growing body of politically affiliated and disgruntled youth was beginning to grow. The situation has worsened, says a slum elder, after a local MLA pushed through the appointment of Bababhai, a 35-year-old Youth Congress worker, as President of the Mandal in place of Kapadia. Too busy with his political activity, Bababhai is not interested in even opening the Mandal office regularly, the elder adds. There is a strong whiff of unrest against Bababhai in Ram-Rahimnagar but no one can do much because of his political affiliations. “We are asking him to resign because he has no time for the Mandal. But, like many of our youngsters today, he has good political backing. Our hands our tied,” said two residents. While most youth still claim to be interested in taking up the Mandal’s responsibility in future, elders call it empty rhetoric. In fact, human rights organisations like Aman Samuday which worked with the slumdwellers after the Godhra riots, found the ideology of hate seeping into young minds even as the elders tried to keep peace. “The politics of hate was too potent to be prevented,” recalls Samuday convenor, Hozefa Ujjaini. 

Despite the knowledge of the peace citadel developing cracks a long time ago, the absence of social activists in these slums today is all the more disturbing. Aman Samuday wound up in 2003 because of “cutbacks in funds and staff” while a senior officer at ActionAid admits that NGOs themselves are unclear about their geographical sphere of operations. “We announce to one another that we work in these slums, when we don’t,” he says.  Disillusioned and angry with glib-talkers, residents of Ram-Rahimnagar cringe each time they see a newsperson, municipality official or social activist.  “They click our pictures, make funds in our name. But funds have never reached us,” says Ismail Sheikh, the Mandal treasurer. “A local NGO promised us free education years ago. We have not seen them since,” he adds.  

The lack of a methodical study of the mechanism of peace in this area is also puzzling.

Sociologists in the past have called this success story of peace a consequence of the economic interdependence of the two communities, but there is little explanation why economic interdependence in other Hindu-Muslim localities of Ahmedabad, such as Gomtipur or Ramol, has not led to inter-communal peace as in Ram-Rahimnagar. 

The latest crisis is the fear of losing their homes. The Rs 1,200-crore Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, implemented by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), will displace an officially estimated 8,000 households on the riverbanks. Social activists claim the figure could go up to 25,000. Acting upon several petitions filed to seek a rehabilitation package, including one by the Sabarmati River Nagrik Manch, the Gujarat High Court ordered a stay on eviction in 2005. But neither activists nor residents of Ram-Rahimnagar themselves know if, when and how many homes they would lose.  While Ram-Rahimnagar does not figure on the AMC’s draft “eviction list”, the president of SRNM, Mohammed Khan Aliyarkhan Pathan, advocate and human rights activist Girish Patel who is fighting for the rights of the affected and a very senior AMC official claim “uncertainty” about the displacement status. The case continues in court. 

For residents of Ram-Rahimnagar, this could mean a no-win situation. “If some of the 2,200 houses here are evicted and rehabilitated elsewhere, Ram-Rahimnagar would break into pieces. And if we are not evicted, our peace will depend on who comes to live in the houses being built by AMC right now in neighbouring Santoshnagar,” says Mandal elder, Abdulrazaq Badami, hinting at the disruption of the peace mechanism which was enhanced by cooperation from neighbouring slumdwellers in the past. 

“Sometimes we feel it’s better not to maintain peace during riots. Had we been victims of violence we could have got some compensation and as rioters too we could have earned a good sum. All we get now is lip service,” says Bhimjibhai Kovatia, a 35-year-old resident. The thought of this becoming a reality one day is chilling, even as a young Sanjay – one of the few youths who have the privilege of a college education – reassures you, “As long as we are here, that will not happen.” 

But just then one notices two young boys, around six years of age, come to buy toffees at Badami’s shop. One asks the other: "Are you Hindu or Muslim?" The second kid seems apprehensive about answering. "You are Hindu, aren't you?" the first boy urges again. "I am Gujarati. Makwana," the other boy says, with a hint of pride. 

This is the new generation. 

(Raheel Dhattiwala is a journalist and researcher based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. She is presently an Open Space Fellow in Ahmedabad, working to promote dialogue between polarised communities in her city) 

Also read:Ram-Rahim Nagar: Oasis of peace

Infochange News & Features, September 2009