I suppose it is where you have lived for most of your life that shapes your instinctive response to the word ‘curfew.’ If, like me, you have lived in a city like Nagpur, ‘curfew’ could have an exotic tinge to it. This is because Nagpur has mostly been a quiet, tolerant town pretending to be a city.
It was in 2000 that I joined The Times of India at Ahmedabad. Barely a month in there and it was ‘curfew time.’ A fall-out of some Hindu-Muslim thing, some parts of the town were more affected than others. The police had virtually taken over those ‘more affected’ parts. Such were the tidbits of information I gathered at the office from colleagues who had years of experience and network in this city. But I was also told that despite the khaki
presence, unease continued to prevail.
Harmony, they say, hardly ever makes headlines. And every reporter wants to be where the action is. The chief beat assigned to me as the newest entrant in the team was the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA). So I was not really sure whether I had any role in reporting the curfew.
I timidly asked my then Chief Reporter Bharat Desai (now Editor of the same edition), whether I could go around 'those parts' and see if I could lay my hands on anything worth reporting. When new to a team, you don't want to make enemies out of colleagues just because you transgressed inadvertently into someone else's territory.
My blue Bajaj Super scooter too had travelled from Nagpur to Ahmedabad. I kick-started it and slowly made my way towards Khadia. Slowly, because it was absorbing how merely 24 hours could make such a difference to the sounds, smells and sights of a city. Shutters were mostly down on otherwise bustling shops; people were visible but obviously in safe confines; the uniformed presence, hardly noticeable otherwise, was on this particular day palpable and only a few stragglers could be seen loitering on a suddenly seemingly wide road.
Khadia was then synonymous with BJP leader Ashok Bhat. Bhat, who later became the Speaker of the Gujarat Assembly, was the identity, the mood and the toast of Khadia. Khadia was a 'pol.' A 'pol' is a cluster of houses which comprises many families linked by caste, profession or religion. A 'pol' is a typical urban centre in Gujarat, especially old Ahmedabad. It is understood that the Ahmedabad 'pol' came into existence as a measure of protection from communal riots dating from the Mughal-Maratha rule (1738-1753). A 'pol' is usually replete with secret entrances as well as beautiful architecture.
I had chosen Khadia for my curfew-update for two reasons. The first was journalistic. I had been told that the 'bandh' was total there. The second reason was personal. Khadia was amongst the few areas I had managed to familiarise myself with till then.
Yet, Khadia was a shock. It was as though everyone and everything had died and gone to heaven! As I turned into the area from the main road, I could see a few policemen. But after a short ride inside, even they seemed to vanish. There was not a soul in sight. The streets were eerily deserted. Every door and window was shut tight as though even letting the air in through a crevice could spell danger. There was no give-away sound which could reveal that there was flesh and blood hiding behind the closed doors. No inquistive face, friendly or otherwise, peered out from anywhere!
Soaking in this atmosphere, I moved through the narrow, intricate lanes. I could have been forgiven for thinking that I was god's only living creation! But suddenly, as I turned into yet another meandering lane, I was face to face with a group of boys. They seemed completely relaxed, lounging easily against an old wall which had obviously witnessed many such curfews. I don't know who was more shocked -- them or me. A couple of them regained their composure and quickly sprung into action. The others followed. They intercepted my scooter and asked me to stop.
With the narrow lanes, I had no option but to do their bidding. The group quickly surrounded my vehicle in a circle. No exit was the idea. I looked around uneasily. No cop. No possibility of any help. One of them asked something in Gujarati. I was yet to really learn the language. A frisson of fear also ensured that whatever little grasp I had of the language was also lost. So I simply told them, "Hindi, Hindi." Another guy made it simple: "Hindu or Muslim?" I answered, "Hindu," which I thought would be my passport to freedom.
Innocent and ignorant of the ways of communal inquisition, I did not know that my trials were far from over. "Jhoot mat bolo," said the one who was convinced that I was lying. The others quickly bolstered his supposition. One of them turned the key of the scooter and switched off the ignition. That left me more helpless. I looked all around to see if there was any chance of help. But except for tightly shut doors, windows and stoic walls who refused to be moved, I saw nothing. I suddenly thought I had a brainwave and told them my name thinking that it was an obvious Hindu surname. A smart aleck was quick to point out, "If you are a Hindu, why are you not wearing kumkum
? You have to be a Muslim." The others laughed out loud, certifying that their friend had hit upon one of the brightest logic of the times.
It was good they laughed. If till then I was a little scared, somehow that collective raucous behaviour just infuriated me. I told them a little haughtily that there was no particular reason why I did not apply kumkum
. Till then, they were heckling me so much that I was barely allowed to talk full sentences. Another one of them hit upon an even brighter logic to decide this Hindu or Muslim dilemna. He said, "If you are a Hindu, why can't you speak Gujarati? Only Muslims speak Hindi."
For the others, this was a weighty argument. But my irritation gave me the courage to tell them that I had only recently landed in Ahmedabad to work at The Times from Maharashtra and my scooter was with its still intact Maharashtra registration. This, I told them, was also the reason why I could not speak Gujarati. I realised that the boys had by now comprehended that I was telling the truth, but they did not want to face the ignominy of backing off without the right noises.
I sensed their reticence. I had been balancing the scooter by my feet while continuing to sit on it as they gheraoed me. Now as I continued to talk to them, I got off it. I pulled it on its stand. They did not stop me. Quite realising that I was a Hindu, slowly they were giving me space as they loosened their circle around me. I even pulled out my visiting card from my bag and gave it to one of them, asking him check on me. I then turned on the ignition that they had switched off. None of them objected.
As I kick-started, they kept issuing half-hearted threats, while not really stopping me. As I pulled off, one of them shouted just for the effect, "If we find out that you have lied to us, we will come into The Times of India and find you." Mostly people feel that mediapersons enjoy immunity. That may be true, but only partially. The immunity is certainly not absolute. Like in this case, they were not bothered whether I was a journalist or not, what mattered was my religion.
A couple of months later, local elections happened. The most colourful campaigns would happen in Khadia. So I took to coming to the area often to cover them. And in the process I made friends with quite a few people here. Interestingly, three or four of those boys who had intercepted me that day, were also part of the team which was the life and soul of this campaign trail. In this changed scenario, they were polite, courteous, wanting to ensure that I got the best campaign stories. My professional camaraderie with them even saw a couple of them act as sources for one of my more important stories.
It was towards the fag end of this campaign, that during a relaxed moment, I asked them laughingly about the day when they had 'gheraoed' me. I was stumped when they completely denied having done such a thing. "Not us, you must be mistaking us for someone else," they said without batting their eyelids. I tried my hand at humour to get them to loosen up about the incident. But nothing I said budged them from their steadfast denial mode. May be, I was looking for some answers which could explain how otherwise such nice people could have really done something like that. But I did not get any answers.
Unfortunately, this was not the first and last time that I had to witness or report incidents of communal disharmony. Such threats, such 'gheraos,' such pseudo-bravery I got to see aplenty. It is 17 years since that incident, but there have been so many stories where I have relived that incident. It is barely a couple of weeks back that I have had to once again report how a huge mob of goons, secure in the sanctuary of collective hooliganism, ransacked and attacked two Hindu houses. But this litany has crystalised one crucial thought within me -- that if there is anything that communal violence sorely lacks, it is religion.
About the author: Sarita Kaushik is a senior journalist with ABP News.
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