Teesta Setalvad


I was born in a family of Gujaratis, of Gujarati lawyers to be precise. Gujarat was always a part of me, though we were proud migrants to Bombay. My great grandfather left his government job in Ahmedabad within four days of taking his post to study law in Bombay. My mother, who was related to my father prior to their marriage, had a paternal uncle in Ahmedabad, who was the Advocate General of Gujarat for twenty-six years. Once or twice a year, we would visit Ma’s mama and mami.


Lawyers surrounded me during my childhood. My father – Atul – was also a lawyer. He would sometimes visit Gujarat for work at the High Court, flying down while we took the overnight Gujarat Mail train from Bombay Central to Ahmedabad. My mother would take us (my sister Amili and me) to the wholesale garment bazaar – Dhalgarwaad – within the old city. But my father would not ignore the delights of Ahmedabad while he was with us.


A keen and committed non-vegetarian, he would never return home to Juhu without a few dozen kuccha samosas from Famous in the old city. They are mutton mince samosas with minutely chopped green chillies, onions and mint leaves – delicious and memorable.


That Gujarat – of lawyers, garment bazaars and samosas – seemed distant when I came back to report for The Daily and later Indian Express and Business India. In July 1991, I did a statewide report on the surge of entrenched communal conflict in Gujarat. The BJP had, at that time, taken out the Rath Yatra – the chariot of LK Advani that threatened violence and desired votes. I visited six or seven cities within the state, taking the intra-city trains. One conversation on one of these train journeys has remained with me.


It was with a Gujarati Hindu businessman.


He was gleeful at the growing popularity of the aggressive and violent organisations that owed their allegiance to the ideology of Hindutva and the Hindu Rashtra. They have removed the fear within the Gujarati to fight and kill, to take to violence. “That is good’, he said. He was referring to the unashamed espousal of and use of arms and violence against the imputed “minority enemy”, the Other of Gujarat.


An incident from 1991, while reporting for Business India, remains sharply in my mind. Following my father Atul’s lead, I wanted to return to Bombay from my harrowing ten-day sojourn with some of Ahmedabad’s famous mutton samosas. I had a final interview with Rauf Waliullah in the old city. We talked at length about the challenges before the Muslim community, whose rich role included contributions to business, economic exchanges, artisan trades and other professions that had been crudely stereotyped as “criminal”.


For instance, Raufsaab explained how, despite the fact that there were Muslims among professionals, artists and academics in Gujarat, the fact that some political parties patronised the infamous smuggler-lord Abdul Latif (who won elections even while in prison) became an easy way to stigmatise an entire community. He was passionate about the need for a questioning, rational leadership from among Muslims who would demand their space as a matter of right, not patronage. It was a long and valuable conversation that helped me understand the details of life in urban Gujarat.


As I was leaving, I said that I wanted to get some of the famous Bera samosas. Raufsaab was thrilled: I had to be a real Ahmadavadi if I knew and loved those samosas, he said. He had an interview scheduled with the BBC just after mine. I left the old city and drove to the airport. It is merely a forty-minute flight to Bombay. I landed and reached home, just 20 minutes away. In the hour and twenty minutes that it took me to get from Ahmedabad to Bombay, from the interview with Raufsaab to my house in Juhu – a life ended. The phone rang and I was told that Raufsaab had been shot dead.


It seemed as though a sane and moderate voice who challenged the way things operated and who defied stereotypes could not be tolerated.


This wider understanding of what was happening in that state and its society, came from what Raufsaab told me and other experiences and conversations that focused my mind on the issues within Gujarat. Between the businessman’s words and Raufsaab’s death, I detected a strong undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment in Gujarat. It was far cruder in the state than anywhere else in the country at that time.


Gujarat is my heritage. And yet, because of our migratory history, my family was unashamedly Bombayite. A popular family narrative speaks of how the Setalvads preferred the cosmopolitanism of Bombay to the parochialism of Amdavad. I speak better Marathi than Gujarati, though thanks to my paternal grandmother, Vimla Setalvad – also a writer of short stories — I am familiar with the Gujarati script. This familiarity came in handy as I ploughed through First Information Reports (FIRs) and Charge Sheets related to the investigations into the massacres of 2002.


Part of the explanation for the palpable anti-Muslim sentiment in the 1990s can be found through the methodical work of the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad from the 1980s onwards.


The RSS and the VHP build on all kinds of false resentments to generate an anger of the Hindu middle-class and sections of the Hindu working-class. One of the issues they played on was the obvious business savoir-faire of the Bohras and the Khojas – only a fraction of the ten per cent-odd of the state’s Muslim population – because they had a visible hand in the commercial world. Their success made them objects of social and political envy. Such an explanation though is not sufficient to fully describe the growth in anti-Muslim sentiment.


In April 2000, I had published a story in Communalism Combat – the journal Javed and I began in 1993 – to offer a richer explanation for this cultural turn. We called that cover story – Face to Face with Fascism. The details of the abuse of state power and the linkage between the RSS-VHP thugs and elected officials tell the story. Here is an extract from my article:

The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has cancelled most non-Hindu holidays. It was forced to restore the Good Friday holiday last year after an outcry from the Christian community. Muslim children studying in several schools in Ahmedabad city, (The Vishwabharati, Naujeevan, Karmasheela, JP High, BR Somani and Prakash High schools are some examples) have to routinely give examinations on the day of Ramzan Id or Bakri Id; Muslim teachers, too, are compelled to remain present for invigilation! At the Hindu-managed VR Somani and Bhakta Vallabh schools, where 95 per cent of students are Muslim but teachers are Hindu, the teachers have adopted a unique technique of getting at their students: they just do not teach.


Bakri Id on March 17 this year was used, as it has been over the past couple of years, by the BJP-RSS-VHP squads to provoke the Muslim minority by deliberate emphasis on the Cow Protection Act. The commissioner of police and the municipal commissioner issued a joint appeal to all citizens asking them to be mindful of the provisions of the act. The VHP and Bajrang Dal members decided to act as informants of the police.


Despite a clear message from the state government that the question of dealing with any violation of the law should be left entirely to the police, VHP men in Ahmedabad forced nakabandis on Muslims taking animals for slaughter. In one such incident on the night of March 15, a young Muslim narrowly escaped the swords and lathis of the VHP.


But another Muslim boy, Yasin Mohammad, was attacked by the VHP team with knives and swords, simply because his domestic servant, the pillion rider on the scooter, was carrying a bundle of grass. Yasin Mohammad collapsed on the spot. Policemen present did nothing to prevent the murder. It resulted in a Muslim and Hindu mob gathering at Dariapur and communal tension growing. Rajendra Vyas, a VHP worker, was present when the murder took place.


Now – since 2014 – we have entered the age of the Gau Rakshak or Cow Taliban. What is happening across India was pioneered in Gujarat sixteen years ago. It is where the Cow Taliban mastered its acts of targeted violence.


Excerpted from Foot Soldier of the Constitution: A Memoir, Teesta Setalvad, Leftword Books



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