Within an hour of the terrorist attack in Ayodhya, SMS messages probably originating from the RSS and VHP were sweeping across the cell phones of Ahmedabad Hindus calling for preparation to riot and retaliate against Muslims. Two days later as bombs were ripping across London, both Hindus and Muslims in Ahmedabad were still on edge about the looming threat that violence might erupt across the tense city in a repeat of the 2002 riots. The text-messaged hadn’t stopped, and the news of London would only make matters worse. On that day, I was in what many consider the safest corner of Ahmedabad, surrounded by both Muslims and Hindus, probing into the secret of the harmony that left them blissfully untouched and at peace when their city became bloody three years ago. I was in Ram-Rahim-no-tekro, a slum on the banks of the Sabarmati river whose very name contains both Hindu (Ram) and Muslim (Rahim) words for God. This is the story of of that day.
Shivana and I left Gandhi Ashram by rickshaw to visit a street school (where drop-out kids on the street are given basic education) run by Manav Sadhna. We were to meet Anil, a ‘graduate’ of the street school who had made it back into the mainstream school system, who was to be our guide to his neighborhood: Ram-Rahim-no-tekro. On the way to his neighborhood, he explains that he didn’t go to school today because he woke up late, and because he was worried about communal riots around his school. On arrival, his slum seemed to be swarming with flies and saturated with greater filth than what I’ve seen inside Ramapir-no-tekro, the other slum I’ve visited. His community is much smaller than the other slum: 5000 people vs. >100,000 people, making them less able to trade their collective votes for promises of basic services from the campaigning politicians like the residents of Ramapir. Thus greater filth; greater poverty.
We head straight for a unique site within the neighborhood: a temple-mosque complex. We find the place hosting both a temple to Rama and Hanuman, as well as an open-air mosque. At the mosque, we we meet Raju Pathan, a muscular Muslim man who tells us peace prevails here because everyone lives together like neighbors. He shares a story of how he gave refuge to Hindus during the riots, but plays it off so non-chalantly that its tough to make a “wow” story out it. It was just natural, they way he’s always lived. Born in this neighborhood around 35 years ago, he’s always had Hindu neighbors and was told from an early age by his father that Hindus and Muslims are the same people and should be treated equally. Later, I learn that his morning routine is to visit the mosque we’re at for prayer, after which he offers prayers at the adjacent temple, proceeding to two other temples before he begins his daily work: making liquor. By the word of the law, and by the court of public opinion, this makes him a criminal. Though alcohol is technically illegal in Gujarat, alcoholism isn’t hard to find, and he’s one of the main suppliers in this area, earning him Rs 3000 – 4000 daily ($25K-$30K USD annually). Yet Raju Pathan’s case isn’t so black and white: though he engages in an illegal trade, he employs five of the poorest Hindu men around him in his ‘business’, allowing them to make enough money to feed and clothe their families. Just as I was about to think that this was simply exploiting poor Hindus to do his dirty work, I learn that despite his relatively HUGE income, he’s penniless by the end of the day, everyday, as he’s constantly giving money to those in dire need within his neighborhood regardless of their religion. Strangely enough, alcoholism in this slum is lower than in most: only 10% of the adult men compared to sometimes greater than 30% in other slum. Ironically, part of that is because Raju makes sure that the alcohol doesn’t get consumed by his neighbors, though he himself often is mildly inebriated. He doesn’t say that this is for ‘quality control’ but his grin tends to betray that impression. The man with a Hindu first name and a Muslim last name defies my ability to classify him in any way. He’s a man just as unique as his neighborhood.
I move on to the house of a Hindu woman who’s lived here for 15 years. In the village that she came from, there were no Muslims, so it was easy to demonize them. They were supposed to be cruel and butcherous defilers of all things that Hindus hold dear. When she arrived here, she found herself renting house surrounded by four green houses, a favorite color for Muslims. At first she didn’t speak to them, though they were friendly. Her icyness quickly melted as she opened her eyes to the fact that they were just like her. She thinks that if she had never gotten to know them, she would have continued to hate them. Instead, they’re all like members of her own family. I ask her whether there are other places where Hindus and Muslims are neighbors. She tells me about another neighborhood in Ahmedabad that also has both Hindus & Muslims, but is at a loss to explain why they murdered one another during the riots. She thinks its because the Muslims were the minority, whereas here they’re about 50% of the local population. Conventional Hindu wisdom says that the moment Muslims have a majority in an area, they harass and terrorize their Hindu neighbors to drive them out and make the place 100% Muslim. In the case she mentions, it was Hindus who started the violence on the Muslims, losing some of their own as the Muslims defended themselves but took major casualties. So much for conventional Hindu wisdom.
We push on to Anil’s house where I spend the next hour talking to him and his mother about what makes this area work. It all seems so improbable that Hindus and Muslims would spontaneously be kind to each other just because their neighbors, or because the name of the area combines holy names from each religion. Its at Anil’s house that I learn that there is an unelected council of five ‘pramukhs’ consisting of members of both religions that oversee Ram-Rahim-no-tekro. They’re older men who are respected by Hindu and Muslim alike. When violence erupts somewhere in India or the world, they send a handful of boys and men to walk the narrow lanes and inform the residents of what has taken place and to tell everyone that they should strengthen their love for their neighbors. If the Muslims are fearful, Hindus have them over for tea and let them spend the night at their homes. When Hindus are afraid, their Muslim neighbors calm their fears by affirming their brotherhood with the Hindus. The pramukhs also have played a role in organizing local relief efforts designed to increase harmony. In the 2002 earthquake, there were many Hindu homes in this neighborhood that collapse. The pramukhs suggested that Muslims help the Hindus rebuild. And they did, though the hardly needed to be told to do so. The culture of love and cooperation is so infused in this slum that Muslims and Hindus are constantly helping one another, affirming their brotherhood and common humanity.
Though this place seemed like an anomalous bubble, it was clear that the violence on the outside was a manipulation of greedy men who incited violence for their own gains. The incorruptible leadership here did just the opposite: spend their energy and influence to create lasting peace and brotherhood. I plan to talk to the pramukhs here next week to find out more about this place and their approach to its governance. As I was leaving Anil’s house, I thought of how it would be so magnificent if Hindus and Muslims from here spoke to people of their own religion in other parts of the city to sew the seeds of peace. Boarding a rickshaw in front of the local pramukhs office, I saw a blackboard with a hastily chalked message in Gujarati: Al Qaeda attacks London. Remain at peace with your brothers. Ram-Rahim is great.
Ram-Rahim is great.