Not War, But it’s Uneasy in Baroda
I was excited to be in Baroda. This was my first visit to Gujarat. While there, I wanted to check out everything I had heard about Gujarat. Better roads, better markets...well, I’m not so sure. Roads as good as those in Baroda exist in other parts of the country as well. The same goes for markets. What does stand out starkly in comparison to cities in Uttar Pradesh, for example, is the lesser number of people in public places. In Baroda it does feel far from the madding crowds of north Indian cities.
Women talk of feeling safe travelling here even late at night and most citizens enjoy undisrupted supply of electricity and water here. That is a huge thumbs-up for Baroda and, I am told, for the rest of Gujarat’s cities as well.
Luckily for me, I also got to spend time in a middle class, all-Muslim neighbourhood in Baroda. There I met a Tamil friend who was born in Mumbai and brought up in Baroda. She is married to a Muslim from Lucknow. They have a young daughter with a beautiful smile. We greeted each other with the typical Lucknawi salutation of ‘adaab’.
As I write, I wonder if I should reveal the names of these friends and of the neighbourhood. I am unsure if my fear is real or imagined, but I feel that if someone with power, means and a cruel ideology does not like something I write here, they may try to harm my friends in Baroda.
That is one thing I don’t want ever to happen. The idea is simply to share here everything that I was told about the way life is in Baroda today.
My friend said that daggers have remained drawn between many people from the Hindu and Muslim communities for eons. There is perhaps no parallel way of life here like the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Uttar Pradesh where the majority population does not recall only with hostility having to live alongside people of other faiths, particularly Islam. Here there has always been little appreciation of each other’s religion, culture and way of life.
Here the name of Mahmud Ghazni, the Turkic warrior from almost 10 centuries ago who looted many riches from this land, is evoked as reason enough to continue to hate many present-day Muslims. The endless wars, treachery and deception practised by one house of Hindu rulers against another house of Hindu rulers throughout time is neither remembered, nor mentioned.
Only those legends that heighten resentment amongst Hindus and Muslims are repeated and recalled even as life seems usual on most days. This is because members of both communities have taught themselves to lead separate lives.
“In this all-Muslim neighbourhood, once two Hindu families lived here but life was made so difficult and unpleasant for them that they were forced to find a home elsewhere,” said my friend, adding that the attitude of many Hindu and Muslim Gujaratis towards each other is one of unnecessary distrust.
“It seems that members of both communities will twist history and make up stories so that they can continue to resent each other,” feels this friend who spends a lot of time in Lucknow, visiting her in-laws, and notes that this kind of intense hostility amongst Hindus and Muslims does not exist in that city.
During the horrific riots of 2002, my friend was afraid for her safety and that of her family. The extreme violence and killing did not reach her neighbourhood but she could see smoke and fire lapping up other parts of the city. From her rooftop she saw Marathi immigrants living in slums under a highway nearby waving swords and raising a nti-Muslim slogans.
Supposing this all-Muslim neighbourhood was attacked and most of the residents murdered, the empty homes would surely be occupied by the slumdwellers. Who knows?
This is the kind of fear that often spills over in conversation with people here, leading to feelings of extreme insecurity and a desire to seek shelter in a ghetto. Although my friend has lived in Baroda for long and feels happy here, she also warns that the age-old suspicion between the Hindu and Muslim populations of the city can boil over anytime tragically, as in 2002.