I was sitting in the examination room of Dr. Hasan’s office in Ahmedabad, Gujarat when I received an email that the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had been uninvited to speak at Wharton. I was euphoric but it did not last long.
As Dr. Hasan examined my friend, he asked me what I, an Indian American born and raised in California, was doing in Gujarat.
“I am writing a book about the 2002 riots,” I said.
Dr. Hasan put down his stethoscope and pulled his chair next to me.
“This office was burned down in 2002. I lost everything. My wife is also a doctor. Her office was burned down too,” he said, staring at the ground.
“Sir, do you think I can come back and interview you and your wife?”
He put back on his stethoscope and faced his patient. “I don’t see the use. No one really cares. Nothing will change.”
As a fellow Gujarati Muslim, it is easy to agree. On February 15, 2002, I arrived in Ahmedabad and began working with a non-governmental organization in a Hindu slum. My grandparents left Gujarat in 1925 for Tanzania and my trip to Gujarat was the first time anyone in my family had returned since. Twelve days later, a train carrying Hindus was tragically attacked in the Gujarat city of Godhra.
I will never forget that first day of the riots, February 28, 2002. I watched a mob walk down my street and burn down a Muslim owned business as the police watched. Not even the tomb of the celebrated Muslim poet Wali Gujarati was not spared — it too was attacked and razed. Suddenly in the state my family called home for generations, I no longer felt comfortable saying my unmistakably Muslim name.
When I returned to the United States after the riots, I began speaking at universities, mostly to Indian-American audiences. But most did not want to listen. It was not that the crowds were anti-Muslim or pro-Modi — they were just unwilling to hear that India might be different than they imagined.
I can relate to those who want to defend India and all things Indian. As one of the only non-white kids growing up in Sacramento, California, I knew what it is like to be teased for bringing “smelly” food to school or for having a “funny sounding name.” I wanted to believe that there was an ideal place away from America — Tanzania, India, anywhere — that I could call “home” without anyone questioning if I belong, as many did about my place in the United States after the Gulf War and the 9/11 attacks.
I knew so little about India, yet it was and still is still an integral part of who I am. This is why it pained me so much to face rejection in Modi’s Gujarat and this is why I returned to write my story.
Today I live in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura, home to 350,000. Most live here, as I do, because they have no choice — few will rent an apartment to a Muslim in Ahmedabad.
I have only six hours of running water a day, something unheard for comparable apartments in Hindu areas of Ahmedabad. Juhapura is surrounded by police stations on each side and the road delineating Juhapura is known as the “border.”
There are only six high schools here and 85 percent of children go to low tuition private schools due to lack of government schools (compared to the Gujarat state average of 25 percent). The Indian central government has earmarked special scholarships to uplift minority students but the Modi government refuses to release these funds on the grounds that it is discriminatory.
Others have also suffered in Gujarat. Violence against women has increased, farmer suicides have gone up, unemployment levels have been stagnant for 23 years and malnutrition continues to rise. Yet few speak up.
Some, like Dr. Hasan, feel it is useless. But others — both Hindus and Muslims — tell me they afraid of criticizing Modi, given his cult-like following here.
When Penn professors and students wrote a letter critiquing Modi’s invite to Penn, I cheered because they did something many fear to do in Gujarat: raise their voices.
Yes — it is important to promote free speech and to hear all viewpoints. But it is one thing to invite a speaker who believes the Gujarat riots did not happen and quite another to give a platform to the very chief minister who failed to act as his own citizens were being killed. Raising opposition is not about muffling free speech. To the contrary, it is to exercise one’s own free speech. This should be celebrated, not jeered.
Modi may well become India’s next prime minister, yet he is a man who has shown no public remorse for his inaction during the 2002 riots. To speak against him is not to criticize India. It is to argue that India deserves someone better, someone who wants to uplift all Indians, not just Hindus.
This is what a group of professors and students at Penn have done and I salute and thank them. Their actions may not change conditions here in Gujarat but at least people like Dr. Hasan will know that somewhere, someone finally cares.
Zahir Janmohamed is writing a book about the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. He previously served as a senior foreign policy aide in the U.S. Congress and as the advocacy director for Amnesty International.
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