Koni koni chhe Gujarat: Rita Kothari

Guest post by RITA KOTHARI

[‘Koni koni chhe Gujarat’ is a poem by Narmadashankar Lalshankar Dave, popularly known as Narmad, who is understood to have introduced the notion of Gujarat in the 19th century, by identifying the region of Gujarati-speaking people. In the poem ‘Koni koni chhe Gujarat’ Narmad wrote that Gujarat belongs to people from different religions and also to those who belong to other parts of the country or globe.]

In 2006, St.Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad (where I then taught) hosted a conference on “Ahmedabad: Past and Present.” Towards the end of the conference a panel discussion focused on religious, linguistic, and other minorities to discuss how for instance, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Parsis felt about the city. Did they feel they belonged to the city, was their experience of citizenship complete, the panel moderator had asked. It was saddeningly clear that Ahmedabad, despite being multi-religious and multi-ilingual, did not hold the same social meaning and comfort for all. The reasons why this city, like some others, has been losing its historical contours of experience and pluralism are not far to seek. Some of the answers could be found in the history of Ahmedabad by Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth. I would only be reiterating the familiar and well established story of a majoritarian hegemony that has transformed lives irrevocably. Anyway, of the many stories that emerged during this panel, one in particular stayed in mind, reappearing intensely at some times, but receding again in ‘normal’ times.

What stayed vividly from that day’s discussion was something said by my former teacher, Prof. Abid Shamsi. Prof Shamsi taught us English Drama in St.Xavier’s where I had been a student before returning to teach. I associated him with Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. As a student I had not known that Prof. Shamsi had to negotiate the changing city of Ahmedabad in a particular way with his Muslim identity in . He mentioned that after the 1969 riots he had moved out of the Vastrapur area to go and live in the Muslim colony of Mithakhali. Vastrapur, incidentally, is a very central part of Ahmedabad where the famous Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) stands as a prestigious world-unto-itself. Prof. Shamsi mentioned that during his years in a colony in Vastrapur, he and his wife were regular organizers of Navratri. In fact his wife painstakingly chose prizes for Garba competition in their neighbourhood. In the 1970s or 80s, he was away from the colony, relegated to a religious-ethnic ghetto, despite being one of the most cosmopolitan individuals I have known.

This by itself is not unique to Prof. Shamsi. A Gujarati novel Vad (Fence) that I have recently completed translating shows a Muslim woman’s steadfast (and perhaps abortive) attempt to live in a mixed colony, and not a Muslim ghetto. The significance of this novel is that it is too close to truth, and offers none of the relief we expect from fiction. In 2006, this was already a familiar story, although I was saddened to know that it had happened to someone as gentle as Prof. Shamsi. On the other hand perhaps his own safety lay in that distance.

However, it is to his invocation of the Garba that I wish to turn again, which foregrounded his participation in what is a quintessentially Gujarati and cultural experience of the state. The nine days of Garba are many things to many people – to the young it is time for licit liaisons, to the girls flaunting backless cholis on two-wheelers it is a time for gay abandon, to the ones shy about their bodies, it is the time to let loose in the name of religious devotion. In most cases, the garba, despite its genesis in fertility rites, has ceased to be a religious event, if it was ever one. And therefore those of us who object to its blaring music and disruptive presence in our nights, console ourselves with the fact that it is an important and inclusive festival. Prof. Shamsi’s story only reinforced this notion, and I had gone away feeling how deracinated English syllabi is so as to not allow these dimensions in an instructor’s life to emerge in an abstracted class-room situation. I had not wondered then whether Prof. Shamsi had continued his association with Navratri, the ‘choice’ (for want of a better word) was unequivocally his, or so I thought.

The developments of this week have brought this episode back to the mind. This year’s Navratri is not available to Muslims. Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s diktat to keep Muslims out of garba is being followed zealously. Garba organizers are poised to check identity cards, some have had the brilliant idea of putting tilak on every forehead and thereby fortifying the symbolic walls through religion. If religion is an excluding practice, this manages to exclude not only Muslims, but many others both within and outside Hinduism. The performance of this act, if indeed carried out, enshrines as citizen only one kind of Hindu and this news appears to us as banal as Deepika Padukone’s recent spat with the Times of India. The normalization of a totalitarian regime is imperceptibly conveyed in the everyday harmless pages of a newspaper. How was consent generated, what is the debate regarding this, and how was this blatant, confident-of-itself decision taken in a country that wishes to, and sometimes rightfully claims to be plural? Are those who do not subscribe to this face of Hindutva not likely to find other means to celebrate? Of course they would. It is not the deprivation from opportunity, but the definition of citizenship and the overpowering ‘common sense’ that validates such citizenship that is being questioned here. Structurally speaking, this is consistent and logical with previous steps, one only wishes it were not so, and we could continue to take refuge in some shades of grey that at the moment seem to have disappeared only to be replaced by a black-and-white announcement on who belongs to Gujarat and who does not .

While this boycott happens in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot, the rest of us would watch and go about our business as usual. A kind friend assured me that this does not happen in the villages. Perhaps he’s right, but he may not be, eventually. In any case, such demographic differentiation fails to comfort, given the rapidity of the spread of hatred, which has far greater speed than love. Another friend mentioned how lived religion is still not polarized. Muslims makes images of Hindu Gods, and kites, and books of accounts during Diwali. Such ‘syncretic’ practices were the stuff of my own writing and consciousness, they seem increasingly inadequate for combating hate regimes.

When I heard Prof. Shamsi’s story, I had mourned the city, and disapproved of curricula that invisibilized such experiences.

Today I neither mourn nor disapprove. I am ashamed.

Rita Kothari is Associate Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Gandhinagar. The author thanks Shamini Kothari for her suggestions on this article.

10 thoughts on “Koni koni chhe Gujarat: Rita Kothari”

  1. The walls of Ahmedabad were torn down by Sardar Patel to give the city room to grow. But it didn’t. Gandhi’s karmabhoomi is a city that continues to be that walled stronghold for a trader mindset that espouses being practical with the truth. It is insular, status quoist, and unwilling to question and examine ideas using a modern framework. The saddest part is how society here has accepted the miseducation of its children. “We have our own skewed moral framework and we don’t mind our kids picking it up because the city has reached criticality — the point where there are enough similarly miseducated people to make a majority.” And it looks like India has now too.

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  2. Dear Prof Kothari
    Thank you for voicing what many of us Muslim academics in Gujarat face everyday but are afraid to express. I remember sharing my own experiences with you. Thank you for giving words to my experiences.

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  3. This article really felt like a punch in the guts. This is extremely demoralizing. One can say the usual things about going to courts, Constitution etc but something very sinister is happening here. In the Republic of India, urbanization and monetization of society now seems conicident with its intense communalization.

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    1. Saw this for the first time in your comment, and can find no corroboration anywhere. What I did find was a statement issued on 24th by civil rights groups and individuals in Gujarat:

      Several civil rights groups and individual activists of Gujarat have come together to strongly protest the efforts by certain “extremist” forces to create an atmosphere of communal hatred in Gujarat in the name of fighting Love Jihad, saying, the essence of the whole exercise of these forces is to consider women as property of a particular community by considering Navaratri as the private property of a particular Hindutva group. In a strongly-worded letter to Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel, they have urged upon her to immediately put a brake on their “vicious propaganda.”

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  4. hindus now refuse to be dominated by the malechhas and their agents. we will not corrupt our great religion by mingling with demons and cow eaters. one day we will free this holy land from the blackness of the desert.

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  5. Is there anyway i could get hold of the book Vad translated by Rota Kothari? the help would be enormous

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