A history of 'anti-national' activity is being woven for Godhra putting together a series of incidents from the past. David Hardiman, a well-known historian, shows how a new history is being brazenly invented for Godhra by the Sangh Parivar to suit its current political agenda.
The Gujarat home minister, Gordhan Zadaphia has recently announced that he has ordered the preparation of a dossier on the long-standing 'anti-national character' of the town of Godhra. What he means by this is that the Muslims of the town have always sought to undermine the Indian nation state, and that their murderous attack on a train
on February 27, 2002 was merely an extension of this malign history. Zadaphia asserts that: 'The anti-national history of Godhra will definitely form part of the charge sheets to tighten the noose against the culprits'.
Zadaphia lists one such case of 'anti-national' aggression from the pre-partition period: "1927: One P M Shah was killed by Muslims after a scuffle." The next incident is said to have occurred in 1946, after which there were six incidents before the tragedy of 27 February. In all cases, the focus is entirely on violence by Muslims against Hindus. Here, I shall examine the first of these 'incidents' so as to show that once we place such events in a context, the culpability is by no means so one-sided as Hindu communalists like Zadaphia try to make out.
During the 1920s, 'one P M Shah' was indeed killed by some Muslims in a skirmish. It was however in 1928, not 1927. Shah is clearly a baniya name, and Zadaphia's insinuation is that a member of this mild-mannered caste was murdered by aggressive and fanatical Muslims. In fact, Purushottamdas Maganlal Shah, a pleader, was the president of the local branch of the Hindu Mahasabha. Since 1917 he had, with Vamanrao Mukadam, a Maharashtrian brahman who was a teacher at Godhra high school, also led the Indian National Congress in the town. Mukadam published a local newspaper called Vir Garjana that persistently maligned the Muslims of the town. From 1923 he was also a member of the legislative council in Bombay, where he carried on his anti-Muslim harangues. The local Congress received its strongest support from the baniyas of the town, a socially reactionary group that had been very upset with Gandhi after he visited the dalit quarter of the town in 1921. All those who had come into contact with the Mahatma afterwards took bath. Of all places in Gujarat at that time, Godhra was perhaps the strongest hotbed of Hindu nationalism.
Godhra had at that time an unusually large Muslim population for a Gujarat town, over half the population being of that religion. In the past, the chief tension had been between the ghanchis, who were Sunnis, and the Daudi Bohras, who were Shias. In 1855 there was even a riot between these two groups. By the 20th century, however, the rivalry that had come to split the town was between the ghanchis and the baniyas. The ghanchis - the single largest group in the town - were an enterprising and prosperous community that had dominated the carting and carrying trade in the region. The coming of the railways in the late 19th century undermined this business, causing difficulties for many. A good number had nonetheless diversified into buying up land in the district, which they cultivated in a highly efficient manner and profitable way. Some also lived from shop keeping and usury. They also dominated the leather-tanning trade of Godhra. They had a reputation for being an assertive community, and the British always had considerable difficulty in making them pay their taxes. Their strongest local rivals were the baniyas, who were thriving through their trade and usury. In the early 20th century both groups began to embrace fundamentalist values as a means to legitimise their local rivalry - the ghanchis purifying their Islam and the baniyas moving towards the Hindu Mahasabha. This created an increasingly explosive and poisonous atmosphere in the town. Politicians such as Mukadam and Shah exploited this to build up their power base amongst the baniyas who, in owning the largest amount of property in the town, controlled its property-based vote.
On September 18, 1928 matters came to a head when, it was alleged in colonial police reports, some ghanchis attacked a procession of Jain baniyas. Mukadam and Shah were on their way to inform the collector when they were ambushed and beaten with lathis. Mukadam's left arm was fractured and Shah received a head injury from which he died next day. Although 20 Muslims were arrested and tried in December of that year, all were acquitted, as it was impossible to prove a case against them.
Although this incident was minor compared to the mass slaughter of February 27, 2002, there are parallels between the two cases. In both, the hostility was rooted in pernicious but local political traditions, requiring only a spark for there to be a sudden and tragic escalation of violence. It should also be noted that the violence on one side was by ghanchis, not the Muslims of the town as a whole, for the Daudi Bohras have had little in common with their co-religionists and have often been strong rivals. While none of this
excuses the actions of the ghanchis on either occasion, it needs to be stressed that they were at both times reacting to severe long-term provocation by right-wing Hindu nationalists. In their malicious and deliberately divisive activities, such nationalists have continued to stoke a deeply destructive violence. It is in fact fundamentalism of all sorts - whether Hindu or Muslim - that is the national enemy. Gordhan Zadaphia might like to ponder this fact and consider where the real culpability lies before he and his henchmen pass their one-sided judgment on who has acted in an 'anti-national' manner.
Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly, May 11, 2002
(i) 'Latest from Gujarat: Godhra anti-national, it will help our case',
The Indian Express, April 30, 2002.
(ii) Information on the riot from the fortnightly report for Bombay
Presidency, December 1928, and Bombay Presidency Police Abstracts of
Intelligence 1928, pp 621-22.
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