Friday, March 26, 2021

1969 riots made me adult

1969 riots made me adult 

I was 9 years old. INC was divided into Congress (O) and Congress (I). Late Hitendra Desai was a popular Chief Minister sided with Morarji Desai who was the leader of Congress (O). It was a Gandhi Shatabdi year. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation elections were scheduled in September 1969 and the assembly elections were due in 1971. The opposition Jansangh was making their ways for the coming elections. There was tension in the environment of the city. 

Suddenly, some violence occurred at Jagannath Temple, Jamalpur. Rumours were spread. Muslim said that Hindu disturbed their Urs and Hindu said that Muslim killed their cow. Hindu Dalits and Muslims were the textile mill workers living side by side in the slums of Ahmedabad. Many Dalits were working in Throsal-Spinning department and few Muslims were working in Weaving department. However, in mills, the workers were mostly Hindus. 

We were living in Natvar Vakil’s Chawl at Rajpur Tolnaka. Ours was the first chawl of the seven chawls directly facing the Muslims basti of Maniavada. Hindu Dalits were easily moving into the area of Muslins and were buying meat, bakery and liquor. Muslims were moving into Hindu area and buying ration, milk and vegetables from the Hindu shops. Their Kabab-Samosa-Gola-Pan-Tailors-Hair cutting saloon-Kite-thread shops-carts-hawkers were flooded with Hindu consumers. The bootleggers after one or two murders established themselves as headstrong goon of the area. Police as usual was raiding and adjusting with the inbuilt hapta system. PI like Vasvani were rare. Gambling was played with dice. Cards were common play for all age group. Some workers were spending their salary on liquor and gambling and were not allowing the families to come out of the poverty. Water and alcohol were their drinks. 

It was September 1969, we were preparing for our midterm school examination before Diwali holidays. Always a tense event of the city, Rathyatra went off peacefully. We had enjoyed the moong and jamun prasad of the yatra from Saraspur. The Hindu and Muslim communities otherwise living in harmony came under tension because of rumours spread out after Jagannath Temple incident. The harmony suddenly turned into hatred. The chawls population otherwise remained under the positive command of the respected persons like my father, suddenly went into the hands of the anti social elements. The unemployed or underemployed youths otherwise were useless for the families came in front of the situation and took a lead of the attacks. If one party started throwing stones and breaking and burning shops, other would respond. Ultimately, whether willing or not all in the community had to join the bad act for safety and security of their families. Arson and loot started. Pipes, sticks, dhariya (cutter), kerosene, cycle tires and tubes, etc, were commonly available in all houses. Building wastes and rubbles were available in plenty. The metal bowls were available as helmets. Community fights apart, it was an opportunity to break and loot the shops (irrespective of whether Hindu-Muslim). They started stone throwing and looting and burning the shops. Seven Hindu-Dalit chawl from north side and many Hindu-Dalit chawls from the south east side sieged the Muslim basti in between. Gomtipur forward hindu basti to the east remained silent. West was a railway track. There used to be two attacks one after the breakfast and one after the lunch. Police couldn’t do anything, therefore Army was called. Curfew was imposed and orders for shoot at sight were issued. 

As there was a rail line behind our chawl, people broke the compound wall of the railway and open the way to flee by train by a short cut. All the female members of the family were sent to the native villages with whatever wealth (ornaments, utensils and clothes) they had. As the mills were closed and pockets were empty without money, they travelled without tickets. Females had gone, who will cook? Males started learning cooking. Each house did have some stock of potatoes and onions. Making vegetables was not difficult but making chalati was a very difficult task. Some managed cooking khichadi. As milk was not available, the day would start with black tea called Kawa. 

When curfew was relaxed, people got a chance to buy daily needs, but where was the money to buy? One day when the curfew was relaxed, my father told me to go to his friend Baluram Vaishnav’s house to borrow ₹5. He was living in Hiralal’s chawl to the other end across the Muslim basti of Maniarvada. Hardly a four feet height boy, I walk down the footpaths very cautiously. While passing Maniarvada, I could hear the fast beats of my heart. Once I crossed the Muslims, I felt relaxed and went to Baluram’s house and requested him to lend ₹5. But he denied. I was annoyed. He was uncle of my mother. I didn’t understand that he might had the same problem like us. I returned empty handed. But as soon as I reached to the cross road of Bhogilal chawl, the rioters of Hindu Dalits came out of the chawls with pipes and cutters and started breaking the clothes and other shops at the cross road. They looted all the shops and put the door woods and other material on fire on the road. As the road was blocked because of the violence, I couldn’t move and had to stand at a corner watching the inhuman play of humans. The police came rushing and started disbursing the crowd and in that gap I managed to cross the corner took a right turn, increased my speed of walking and crossed popatiavad corner. But fear increased in my heart as I had to cross Maniarvada again. Luckily, before that basti opened up for arson and loot, I reached safely to my home. By that time the youths of my chawl were ready with their bowl helmets, pipes and cutters in hands. They looted the two ration shops of Girdhar Marvadi and put the firewood shop of Manga Bhaiya under fire. Wheat and rice bags, oil tins, woods and tins of the firewood pitha were looted and brought inside the chawl.

Army, thereafter became very strict. Anybody who broke the curfew were punished badly. Their nose were rubbed on the ground. Army started patrolling and inspections of the chawls. Our chawl had collected rubbles and stored in front of Gangaram Bhagat’s house at the corner of a small play ground of the chawl. It was suddenly covered with the bed sheets. The Army team came,  show it and inquired. The old and wise men came forward and replied: potatoes and onions stocked for the meal during curfew. I was surprised with the untruth but understood the necessity of the time. By that age I knew the story of नरों वाँ कुंजरों वाँ। The Army team smiled, didn’t open the cover and went away. I started moving with them in all the chawl of our side and as the fear largely broke out after my visit to Hiralal Chawl, took chance to move out and see what the curfew is. My mind was opened up and thinking process started on the subjects of communal violences, religious hatred, victims and beneficiaries of the riots, and the politics behind such events. 

The people killed in violence and police firing were mostly the Muslims who had also  suffered larger property loss.

The communal violence of 1969 made me adult and put forward in public life thinking about community issues, communal problems, politics of elections and the role of public administration. I emerged. 

27 January 2020


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