Gandhi ji’s state is now Godse’s Gujarat 

In what can be described as great irony, an exhibition displaying the history of Bapu’s Harijan Ashram was opened in 2017 by Narendra Modi, who is yet to utter a word to condemn Gandhiji’s assassin

Getty Images
Getty Images

Nachiketa Desai

Mahatma Gandhi is being assassinated almost daily in his home state. Instead of exclaiming “Hey, Ram!” in disgust, many of the generations born after January 30, 1948, are lustily cheering “Jai Sri Ram!” and cracking vulgar jokes about Bapu.

I have seen this brutal murder of the Mahatma and all that he lived and died for, over the last three decades I have been reporting from Gujarat for various newspapers and news agencies.

The communal virus seems to have entered the very DNA of people of Gujarat. Just scratch any man on the street, out will pop up a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jain, a Brahmin, a Patel, a Dalit or an Adivasi. Barring a handful hard core ‘secular’, the virus has not spared anyone, not even the so-called ‘educated’.

I would like to cite a few incidents from the three decades of my Gujarat reporting experience.

In 1985, an anti-reservation agitation by upper caste Hindus had turned into a spate of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. The walled city of Ahmedabad was placed under curfew. The city woke up to a sensational report in all the Gujarati newspapers which said a Muslim auto rickshaw driver had locked up over a dozen school kids in a room and was about to burn them alive when timely intervention by the police saved them. The story was given to journalists by the city police and carried prominently on the front page of all the local Gujarati newspapers.

The story turned out to be utterly false. The auto rickshaw driver, on sensing trouble, had in fact taken the trouble of providing shelter to the school kids in a safe place, and then called up their parents to come and fetch them.

In times of communal violence, the Gujarati press sheds its yellow to don a deep saffron, fuelling communal passion and inciting hatred against the minority community. My Gujarati journalist colleagues, not happy with my unbiased reporting, had started calling me “Muneer Ahmed” and used to taunt me saying, “Aa to Haj jayi ne aavyo chhe” (He has returned from Haj”).

I had been allotted an apartment in Akhbar Nagar, a residential colony constructed by the Gujarat Housing Board for journalists. Since I had moved to Gandhinagar, the state capital, to head the Indian Express bureau, I wanted to rent out my Akhbar Nagar apartment to someone with a transferable job. My real estate agent found a young Muslim couple who had recently come from Lucknow to take up a job in a private company. The couple had paid me three months’ advance rent and moved into the Akhbar Nagar apartment.

The new tenant had hardly moved in when their next door neighbours, two journalists working with the Times of India, drove down all the way to Gandhinagar on a scooter to meet me. “Of all the people, you found a Muslim couple as your tenant! Just tell them to leave. We will get you a better tenant and a higher rent as well,” they told me.

“I am happy with my tenants. I won’t tell them to leave,” I told the visitors firmly.

Next week, the Muslim couple came to me to hand me back the possession of my apartment. “Sir, we cannot live there without water. We are moving out. You keep the advance rent,” my tenant said. The residents of Akhbar Nagar, all journalists, would not allow the Muslim couple to draw drinking water from the common tap by which drinking water was supplied by the municipal corporation twice a day, morning and evening.

I bowed my head in shame and returned the three months’ advance to the couple.

I have seen this brutal murder of the Mahatma and all that he lived and died for, over the last three decades I have been reporting from Gujarat for various newspapers and news agencies

This was in 1985, seven years before the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground by a zealot mob of self-proclaimed Ram Bhaktas.

During LK Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya Ram Rath Yatra, the communal cauldron came to a boil once again leading to a series of riots in various parts of Gujarat.

I was returning home one day around lunch time when I saw a heap of household goods such as sofa set, refrigerator, fan, pressure cooker and other utensils piled in the middle of the road. “Ek Miyaano saaman chhe,” (These belong to a Muslim). A mob had broken open the door of the rented apartment in which another young Muslim couple was staying.

I rushed home and telephoned the police control room. A police van flashing red light and hooting siren arrived in about 10 minutes. By this time, all the belongings of the Muslim couple was set ablaze. On seeing the approaching police van, the Hindu vandals took to heels and hid behind the compound wall of Akhbar Nagar.

The policemen, armed only with sticks, entered the campus of Akhbar Nagar shouting challenge at the unseen arsonists. All the doors and windows of Akhbar Nagar were promptly shut by the residents. Even the neighbourhood dogs were not to be seen. There were only two of us—my colleague Saibal Dasgupta (at present the Beijing correspondent of the Times of India) and me.

“I have called the police. The miscreants are there hiding behind the compound wall,” I shouted from the rooftop, addressing the police sub inspector who was leading the group of policemen. The policemen thumped the ground with their stick in mock action. The arsonists dispersed one by one. No one was arrested.

A few hours later, I went to the paan shop on the main road opposite which the bonfire was made of the household goods of the Muslim couple. There were the same familiar faces at the paan shop who had broken open the couple’s door, dragged out their belongings and set them on fire. They looked at me sheepishly.

The BJP had not yet come to power in Gujarat in 1992.

After 2002 riots, a bad situation gets worse

Ten years later, in 2002, Gandhi was banished from Gujarat and the followers of Godse had taken over command. I was in Bombay, planning to come back to Gujarat to be with my family in Ahmedabad. I told Aabid Surti, my friend and local guardian in Bombay, that I planned to shift to Ahmedabad. Aabid, eminent cartoonist and author of several Gujarati novels, is a known figure in Gujarat.

“I want to come with you,” Aabid expressed his desire to me.

I called our common friend, Chetan Raval, an Ahmedabad-based journalist, to inform him about our plan to drive down from Bombay to Ahmedabad.

“It is dangerous to come with Aabid and put him up with you in Akhbar Nagar,” a panicked Chetan said over the phone.

“Even I was stopped by a mob when I was going on my moped just because I sported a beard,” he said. “It was only after I recited the Gayatri Mantra that the mob got convinced of my claim that I was a Brahmin and let me go with a warning, ‘Kaka, shave off your beard’.”

I made arrangement for Aabid’s stay in the guest house of Gandhiji’s Harijan Ashram at Sabarmati.

In what can be best described as black humour and great irony, an exhibition displaying the origin and history of Bapu’s Harijan Ashram was inaugurated on June 29, 2017 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is yet to utter a word to condemn Gandhiji’s assassin, Nathuram Godse.

The writer is a senior journalist

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday

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