Sanjay and me: Zahir Janmohamed


House of a Naroda Patiya massacre survivor. Photo by Zahir Janmohamed

It was 2002. The week before I left for India, my father invited his Gujarati Hindu colleague Rupa Aunty for dinner at our house in California. When I was a kid, I tied the rakhi brotherhood bracelet on her son. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, Rupa Aunty was the first to spend the night with us at the hospital.

“If you need anything at all,” she told me just before I left for India, “my family is from Ahmedabad and we will be there for you.”

I grew up in California mispronouncing names of Gujarati dishes like thepla and my trip to Ahmedabad in 2002 was the first time anyone in my family had returned since my grandparents left Gujarat for Tanzania in the 1920s. This – my father kept reminding me – was my trip “home”.

Twelve days after I arrived as a service corps fellow with the America India Foundation, a train carrying Hindus was attacked in the Gujarat city of Godhra on February 27, 2002. The Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who may well become India’s next prime minister, was quick to blame it on terrorists.

The next morning, a Hindu mob carrying swords, torches, and kerosene filled bottles walked on my all-Hindu street in Ahmedabad looking for Muslims – Muslims like me – to kill. They made us shout names of Hindu deities that my parents taught me to say with reverence. In the distance I could see a lone business, owned by a Muslim, up in flames. When the mob passed, I ducked into an internet café and passed the front desk, hoping I would not have to sign in with my unmistakably Muslim name. But a young man stopped me.

“Sir, your good name, please?” he said, handing me a clipboard.

“My name,” I told him, “is Sanjay.”

I closed the curtain in the internet booth and held back tears as I emailed my parents the lie I needed to tell them: yes mom and dad, I am safe.

My father, a devout Muslim whose fondness for Mahatma Gandhi and Hinduism prompted him to give up meat as a young man, kept calling me during the riots.

“Have my friends contacted you? Have they offered to help?”

I did not need to tell him the answer. He knew.

“Just come home,” my father pleaded. India was suddenly alien and would never again be called “home” by anyone in my family.

During the riots I worked in the relief camps of Ahmedabad where tens of thousands of displaced Muslims fought for space and food in spaces half the size of a soccer field. I will never forget 12 year old Sadiq who watched both of his parents burned alive. In my six months working in the relief camps, I never heard him say a word. No one did.

When I returned to the US, the Gandhi picture my dad gave me when I graduated from high school was no longer hanging in my childhood bedroom.

“Gandhi is dead,” my father said.


All I wanted do after the riots was to talk about the riots. I traveled across the US for a year giving lectures. Everywhere I went I carried a small yellow plastic bag filled with newspaper clippings and photos of the homes, mosques, and lives I saw destroyed. When people doubted me, I would open up my bag.

“Here, this is what I saw. It really happened.” But many chose not to listen.

I grew distant from my friends. I stopped watching basketball. I started taking anti-depressants. My smile, friends kept reminding me, disappeared.

I switched my career to human rights and spent nine years working in Washington DC, mostly at Amnesty International. But I kept wondering: what happened to all those children I met, children like Sadiq, who saw so much? How do they – and how do I – move on?

In March 2011, I quit my job as a foreign policy aide in the US Congress and returned to Gujarat for the first time in nine years.

When I arrived, Hindus would not rent an apartment to me because I am Muslim and Muslims – now more insecure after the riots – told me they did not trust me. I ended up staying with a Hindu friend of mine. But there was one condition: I could not use my real name in the apartment building. Sanjay was back.

I begun conducting interviews and when I explained to Muslims in Ahmedabad that I returned using my own funds to write about the riots – and that the riots filled me with a loneliness that has not yet disappeared – some laughed.

“You are writing about 2002? Write about 2011.”

They have a point. Muslims I interviewed say they want more than justice. They want an end to employment discrimination. They want paved roads. They point out that in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura where over 350,000 live, there are only six high schools.

But above all, Muslims in Gujarat told me they desire to be treated and viewed by their fellow Indians as Indians.

Last year, I interviewed a man named Nadeem Saiyed who organised survivors of the Narodya Patiya massacre to bear testimony to what they saw. A few months after I interviewed him, he was fatally stabbed 28 times. Nobody knows who killed him or why. When I learned of his death, I replayed the audio from our interview. One line continues to haunt me.

“I was born,” he kept saying, “in the Gujarat riots of 2002.”


I hear this all the time. I think this all the time. But sometimes the pressure to “move on” becomes too intense and I fail to say these words.

Yes, the riots are over but the wound continues. Narendra Modi, after all, is popular in Gujarat because of the riots – not – despite the riots.

Today I am back in Gujarat and I live just two blocks away from where Nadeem was stabbed. When I decided to return to Gujarat this year to conduct more research, I was determined to retire “Sanjay” because I am exhausted from inventing a Hindu family that I do not have so that I may live in Gujarat.

After I failed to find an apartment in a Hindu area using my real name, I was forced to live in Juhapura, an area, some say, is the largest ghetto of Muslims in all of India. Police Line is the street that functions as the “border” that surrounds this area and many Hindu rickshaw drivers refuse to enter Juhapura because they are “afraid.” On my street, a rickshaw driver, a real estate tycoon, a judge, and a nationally known journalist live side by side. I hear all of them repeat the same thing: “We live here because we have no other choice.”

Today in Juhapura I do not have regular running water in my apartment and my electricity cuts out often – something unusual in most parts, in particular in Hindu-dominated sections of Ahmedabad. When I finally registered my apartment lease with the police, a very kind Hindu officer told me I should be careful.

“The area you are staying is called mini-Pakistan and there are a lot of Pakistan intelligence (ISI) agents in the interiors.”

But it is here, only in this Muslim ghetto, where I feel safe.

I received the keys to my apartment the day before the Muslim celebration of Eid-al-Adha. The next morning I wore a crisp white Muslim style kurta over a pair of pleatless khakis and carried a white prayer skullcap in my hand.

All the men in my building had gathered at the front entrance. One man in his late 70s held his hand out as I came downstairs.

“Young man, I have not heard your complete name.”

I smiled and said the words I had to conceal so many times in Gujarat to survive.

“My full name,” I told him as we walked towards the mosque, “is Zahir Sajad Janmohamed.”

(First published in Cafe Dissensus.)

More on Gujarat from Kafila archives:


62 thoughts on “Sanjay and me: Zahir Janmohamed”

  1. Zahir: Thanks for having the courage to tell us your story. Most “westernized”, “liberal” upper middle class Hindu families in India (including my own) are heavily invested in ignoring violence against Muslims, as are many “secular” members of the Indian intelligentsia. I am often speechless at comments I hear at social gatherings in big Indian cities. —- Minakshi


  2. I wish my fellow journalists, specially those in Hindi newspapers and television news channels, could read this piece and stop lobbying for the killer called Narendra Modi.


    1. अफसोस की बात यही है कि जहां इस तरह की चीजों की जरूरत है, वहां ये नहीं पहुंच पातीं। अंग्रेजी वालों से साथ-साथ हमारे जैसे कुछ लोग जो किसी तरह अंग्रेजी समझ लेते हैं, खुद को थोड़ा और मजबूत कर लेते हैं। लेकिन जो लोग सांप्रदायिकता के भुक्तभोगी और हमलावर हैं, वे अपनी उसी नियति के अंधेरे को जीते रहते हैं, क्योंकि वहां तक सच या रोशनी पहुंचने का कोई रास्ता नहीं है। हमारी समूची व्यवस्था और समाज-राजनीति से लेकर वैचारिकियों के सत्ता-केंद्र इस यथास्थिति को बहाल रखने के लिए सब कुछ करते हैं और “दूसरों” को हेय नजरिए से देखते हैं। पता नहीं, इसका क्या हल है… या तो सभी अंग्रेजी सीखें या फिर अनंत काल तक अपनी त्रासदी को जीने के लिए मजबूर रहें…। यह मेरी तकलीफ है, जरूरी नहीं कि यह सबकी हो।


      1. Arvindji,
        I understand your point, but not your difficulty. Hindi is not my mother tongue, but as it was imposed on me, I have learned it a bit to understand what you are saying. There are multitudes of people in this country who understand both English and Hindi well. If even a handful of them, like you, or the Hindi print or TV media, take it up, then it will reach the right place. And as far as I understand that is happening to some extent.
        I realise your main grouse is not about communalism here, but the same old grouse about English elitism. Coming from a people who are extremely proud of their own language, let me tell you that I am quite unhappy about Hindi elitism as well, and I have noted how in the state discourse Hindi has been subtly changed from the Rashtrabhasha (language of the nation) to Raajbhasha (language of the rulers or king).
        The problem you talk about, is not faced only by Hindi speaking people against English. It is faced by the Tamils, the Bengalis, the Odiyas, the Malayalees etc. against Hindi as well.
        So, i would request you stop complaining implicitly about Hindi not being accepted as the imperial language. You understand English well. Please translate and take the message to your people.


  3. India is so diverse culturally that the only way the country can hold together is by providing services and amenities to all its citizens, irrespective of their religion, language, age, or other markers of identity. Yet that is what the state precisely fails to do. And not just that: more and more Indians are supporting the person under whose rule these attacks took place in Godhra, with no heed to the symbolic and practical ramifications of such an endorsement. It does not help that the humanities and the social sciences, disciplines that teach us to be critical thinkers about our identities and social responsibilities, are frowned upon, so much so that in my home city of Calcutta/Kolkata, the alleged “cultural capital” of India, there is not a single boys’ school that I know of that is affiliated to the all-India ISCE board of education and which offers humanities-based courses at the high school level. Men (more than half the population, given our skewed gender ratio) are supposed to do arithmetic quickly, earn money, increase the country’s GDP and, by the standards of education in more civilized countries, be practically illiterate and not be aware of that fact. Why will not Indian society be as insensitive as it is, or valorize leaders who have no interest in integrating different parts of its extremely diverse population? Very depressing indeed.


    1. there is not a single boys’ school that I know of that is affiliated to the all-India ISCE board of education and which offers humanities-based courses at the high school level.

      I suppose that means you’ve never heard of St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, then.


      1. It is ten years since I left Kolkata for North America, but I’m returning there permanently in a few months. When I was a student, St. Xavier’s did not offer a humanities-oriented +2 syllabus; does it do so now? That would be a welcome change!


        1. I left Kolkata 21 years back but stayed in the country, living in Mumbai. To the best of my knowledge, there were and are plenty of colleges in Kolkata which offer humanities for +2 level. I wish the problem of Kolkata was that minimal :-)
          But the fact is, humanities, as a subject has been neglected significantly in the eastern part of the world. it is difficult to study literature/ history/ philosophy etc in HK and Singapore. Willy nilly I will have to send my daughter to UK/ US to study if she chooses any of these. As a related aside, CBSE is the most evolved curriculum in the country and ICSE/ ISCE is quite rote oriented.


  4. Deeply moving….. what can we do that can make you feel whole again? I don’t have any answers, I only feel immense sadness at what we’re doing to each other……


  5. This fills me with anger, even though nothing in it comes as a surprise. I very much admire your courage, and hope you and your family will not give up your claim on India, although nobody can blame you if you do.


  6. This is what is in-store for the rest of the country if we are stupid enough to elect a mass-murderer as PM.


  7. 2002 was 2011 and, now, it is 2012. And 2012 is, for many thousands, still 2002. Their lives are a lump of congealed time in which every year is every other year. They are and yet are not. That is what this brave and sad voice says to me. I hope to hear it again — and many more like it.


  8. What does Modi winning 3 times after the 2002 genocide say about hindu gujaratis? After all, they cannot claim ‘we did not know’.


      1. Dude, Do you even know what you are talking about? Though the riots of 2002 were condemnable, the Supreme Court appointed SIT gave Modi a clean chit. Now there can be debates about the credibility of SIT. But if that’s the way we take, I have bad news for all of India. :(


    1. Gujarat is worst place to live now. I am from Gujarat and hate the strifling saffron atmosphere here. I am a Christian and it is nt good and safe for us also. Hindus behave as if they own everything. its like Hitler’ rule. Actually Gujarati people are very narrominded people. They teach thier children from childhood that muslims are our enemies and thats why Gujarati youth is totally irrational abt all this. And i blame media for all this modimadness. Idon’t know why they glamorise his image. If u kill people, scare them and do lit bit development doesnt wash ur sins. There was time i was proud to sayi am frm gujarat but now… no..


  9. In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.

    – A Sad Muslim


  10. Religion has been created to develop moral values, introduce you to a spiritual thought, create discipline in you and stop you from doing wrong. It has been created with some purpose… It is up to an individual to follow which religion he wants or create his own… Killing for religion is insanity… not helping people following different religion also amounts to killing not the religion but the human in you… Hope every human will realize this fact some day… Jaihind…


  11. Thank you for sharing this, Zahir. Things need to change, but sadly people seem to have no interest in making that happen.


  12. Thank you for this thought provoking piece. I hope more people wake up and see Modi for what he is. A barbaric force of hatred, that wishes to sweep aside secular India and replace it with a grotesque horror which is the Hindutva brigade. Ashamed that my religion is being tarnished by vermin like Modi, and ashamed that my Muslim brethren are no longer safe in their own country. This man must never never be allowed to take over the country.


  13. “But above all, Muslims in Gujarat told me they desire to be treated and viewed by their fellow Indians as Indians.” This line speaks a lot. Things need to change. People need to change. So much narrow-mindedness in people is unbearable.


  14. Dear this world is full of unjust thing, someone do the mistakes and someone else have to bear it. You look in the past history of India or anywhere, you would find history full of unjust acts but now I guess people are willing to move & rectify the problem. I guess we still need to exercise lots of patience specially when living in society like India !!!


  15. i wish to say sorry for what you went through and what you go through .it is shame to me . that this happens in my country


  16. An impartial tale of reality. Individual Hindus and individual Muslims may be kind but the deep distrust remains even in Gujarat which is otherwise not too violent by nature. How to remove this trust is a matter to be resolved by among others, the politicians, the social scientists, the bureaucracy, the students, the labour leaders, the priests – the pandits and maulanas, the teachers and so on. In my housing society we have had a muslim residing for the last five decades without feeling unsafe. He served a term as our president and is a very respected man. Though many drops make an ocean, just one drop does not ! Identity politics has to give way to truly secular politics where what a man does is more important than the family he is born in.. Control & Power paradigm has to give way to Achievement paradigm. When this happens, things will change faster. Why not start with naming a Hindu kid as Salman and a Muslim kid as Sanjay ? May be the names could be Salman-Sanjay and Salnjay-Salman just as a friend’s daughter is named Vijaya-Sudha perhaps reflecting a compromise between the wishes for a different name among elders.


  17. hmmmm….. I agree with most of the article. But the truth is that as human beings we tend to have selective memory, and don’t care much on matters NOT pertaining to us. I am not a muslim. So this has not really bothered me – as in why I vote for the BJP. Now that is horrible conscience. But at the same time I think Hindus don’t accept that riots actually happened. Or may be we don’t think about it at all. I am hoping that this too is a phase.
    What we need is actaully a congress without the stupid dynasty, and the BJP without the RSS and the VHP. yeah. But Im not ok with Mamta Banerjee or a Mulayam Singh too. What can we Indians do?


  18. Reblogged this on ramblinginthecity and commented:
    When I was doing my masters in the US, we read about discrimination through property rights. ‘Redlining’ to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods was practices in American cities and it continuous insidiously. This post highlights the same in the context of religion and Gujarat. Gheto-ization is not always a choice. And the right to move to better shelter is violated blatantly because of social injunctions of caste and religion. What then is the motivation for a person in the discriminated minority to move ahead in life?


  19. Mr. Zahir Sajad Janmohamed, Did you visit any Kashmiri Pundit camps? they have been living in ghettos, worse then any humans in Kashmir, driven away from their homeland, just because they are Hindus. They have been living in those camps quarter of a century, 25 years- 2 generations. Please do write about them with pictures.


    1. Hello! No Kashmiri Pandits live in camps these days. They all live in flats. Don’t spread lies. While Zahir should inquire into the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits, he should also inquire into the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, of displaced Muslims in Kokrajhar in Assam, of displaced adivasis in Orissa, of Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu, Pakistani Hindus in Jodhpur, and so on. If he takes up all these projects, superman as he is, I’d be happy to support him in whatever way I can. Question is, what will you do? Just sit and preach what others should do? Perhaps you could start from Juhapura. Okay?


      1. You just trolled a troll and while at it, made an insensitive and wrong observation about KPs. I have seen KP camps in Bandra E. They are no apartments as you would like me to believe.

        P.S. – I support Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination. Also I do not believe in god while not conforming to the organized anti-religious religion of atheism.

        P.P.S – Just wanted to clarify, I am not hindutva cracker or something.


    2. Why this rabid obsession with Kashmiri ‘pandits’? Is it because Kashmiri Dalits live a charmed life?


  20. It is amazing that India does this to a significant part of its population and then gets its hackles up when the world calls it a third world nation. I am seriously ashamed of the people that lend power the poilitics of Modi style fascism. Discriminations against minorities is global phenomenon, but the impunity with which Indian right wing “leaders” get away with their heinous atrocities and the complicity of the police is shocking. Frankly, for most NRI hindus it is too painful to dwell on. It makes us feel guilty by association even if we haven’t lived through these times ourselves. My father sometimes talks about similar atrocities meted out to muslims back in Jamshedpur (i assume in the 60s), it makes him cringe and I would colour him Right od centre.


  21. Lovely piece! I cant’t believe our country has forgotten the horrors of the riot so easily.

    I fear of what might become of India in the coming years…


  22. Every Indian should read this. Especially everybody who chooses to believe it did not happen. And yet we elect them again and again.we think we want a country divided like this? i am very very sorry Zahir for what happened and what still happens. Especially the betrayal by ‘ friends’ and the way many intelligent people choose not to believe.


  23. Zahir this is a wonderful article. Thank you for bringing these issues to light. Lets hope the India our kids inherit will be a better place to live in, communally & otherwise to! Amen.


  24. So it’s just misleading article! Because India is very tolerant, so anyone can say anything. I know one simple thing “there is no riot since 2002”. That’s what Modi’s biggest achievement apart from the immense growth. Due to elections, some paid congressies are spreading hatred towards Modi. Indians just wake and see it’s congress’s strategy to save DYNASTY.


  25. God bless ! Stay safe ; I cannot describe the feeling of devastation I feel as I read your blog; I grew up in secular India and cannot believe our country has come to this


  26. Mr. Zahir sahab i really appriciate your movement kindly provide any email where i could contact you for a very important step i am about to take in the same direction as of your i m in need of a little support from you….Inshallah things would change!


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