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After Riots, Some Muslims Fear for Their Future in India

22 Mar 2002

After Riots, Some Muslims Fear for Their Future in India

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

HMEDABAD, India, March 20 — The mobs set fire to the lobby of the Signor Hotel but left the Opel car dealership next door untouched. Just below the charred shell of the Neeltop Hotel, a sweet shop is doing a brisk business. Under bright white lights, dinner is served at Vaibhav restaurant. But the Topaz next door is incinerated and another once-popular restaurant upstairs is black with soot.

A drive through this city reveals the design of the mobs that went on a violent rampage here three weeks ago. Hindu-owned businesses have been spared. Muslim-owned businesses have been burned, and their blackened hulks dot the landscape. Their smashed windows stare out like so many gouged-out eyes.

The violence began when a Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying hard-line Hindus. The fire, near a station 95 miles north of here, killed 58 Hindus on board. The next day Hindu mobs took to the streets here with pistols, knives and cans of kerosene. By the end, more than 600 people had been killed across the state, most of them in this city.

More than 60,000 were displaced from their homes into makeshift relief camps. The vast majority of them are Muslims.

Among the hardest-hit Muslim establishments here are those that served some of the city's most observant Hindus. Owned by a small, prosperous Muslim community called the Cheliyas, they were a string of what are called "pure vegetarian" restaurants, establishments that cater to the most particular of Hindu vegetarians.

The Cheliyas took pains not to stick out in the Hindu-majority parts of the city. No posters of Mecca and Medina hung on their walls. They employed Hindu cooks. The names of their restaurants contained no trace of Islamic identity. One was called Tulsi, the Hindi word for the holy basil used in Hindu ceremonies. Another was called Annapurna, after a Hindu goddess.

"We have to live here, we have to die here," explained Ismail Heera, a Cheliya Muslim who owns the Signor Hotel and has a share in several vegetarian restaurants in town. "This was just to mix with the rest of the people."

The urge to fit in turned out not to be enough. According to the state hotel federation, police reports have been filed on behalf of 72 hotels and restaurants that were destroyed, all but one of them Muslim-owned. Statewide, a total of 147 Muslim-owned properties have been destroyed to date. Others have yet to file papers with the police, a federation official said. By Mr. Heera's count, about 35 of the properties were owned by residents of his village in the Mehsana district just northwest of here, which is home to the Cheliyas.

Exactly how their hotels and restaurants were identified as Muslim-owned businesses remains a mystery. Many of their patrons said they realized only after seeing the charred remains that their owners were Muslim. Mr. Heera and his fellow Muslim merchants suspect the leaders of the rioters had done research on their targets some time ago.

If the Cheliya Muslims were singled out at the top of the economic ladder, their compatriots lower down also have not been spared. Auto-rickshaw drivers dare not leave the borders of the city's Muslim enclaves. The same is true of scrap recyclers and vegetable vendors.

Auto mechanics, factory workers, and mattress stuffers all languish in relief camps across the city, chased from their homes in Hindu-majority areas. Women who made their living doing sewing in their homes say they have no idea when they will be able to work next.

The mobs did more than kill and loot, said the Rev. James Dabhi, a Jesuit priest who has been active in the relief camps. "They have been able to demolish the livelihood of these people," he said.

In recent days, fliers have circulated advising Hindus not to patronize Muslim-owned establishments or work at them. "It will be impossible for them to live in any corner of this nation," read one pamphlet, signed only by "a true Hindu patriot."

Violence has continued to simmer throughout the state. Two people were killed in police shootings here today. Four were gunned down in nearby villages on Tuesday.

In the Muslim parts of the city, where Muslim-owned businesses still stand, commerce has ground to a halt. Iqbal Tadha's place, the Royal Hotel, is empty. Some of his Hindu workers have stayed on, but some are too afraid to venture into the area.

During the riots, Mr. Tadha said, he hid the last of his guests, a


The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail info@alliancesouthasia.org

28 Jul 2007

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