A Place Called “Home”

I was headed to the airport, going back from Bangalore to Mumbai. It was one of those thunderous nights, rain pouring heavily. Sridhar was the taxi driver. He promised to get me to the airport right on time. I trusted him.

Around Airport Road, we got stuck in a jam. We started conversing. Sridhar was trained at the National Association of the Blind in Bombay sometime in the early 1980’s. He then came to Bangalore and started teaching here. After a while, I realized that personal and social life cannot be intermingled, he said to me as he continued driving. I then started my own cargo company, doing work for Blue Dart Couriers, ferrying between Bangalore and Bombay. After a while, I stopped because the stress increased. Then I bought a taxi of my own and I drive this taxi now.

Sridhar continued to talk to me about his daughter and asked me for advice on what career in psychology she should pursue. As we neared the airport, suddenly I asked him, where do you live? Banshankari, he answered. Is it your own home? Nahi madam. When I did not have money, I said I will make enough to buy my own home. Now when I have the money, the prices have gone up and I cannot afford to make a purchase. That’s destiny. I don’t have a home of my own.

I carried Sridhar’s words with me. My flight touched Bombay late that night. A day later, I met with Begum. Begum lives in slum settlement in Bombay that is due for resettlement. Begum is leading her block in the slum and is negotiating with builders for in-situ resettlement. Begum tells me about the negotiations that she is carrying out with the builders, legal safeguards that the block and she have worked out to ensure that all of them have a proper place to stay. Eventually, Begum starts to narrate a story, a story of the place called ‘her home’:

I came to this place more than twenty-five years ago. This neighbourhood was largely Muslim. I had a different way of living. Since I was quite educated, I would speak with my children in English. We lived differently. The neighbours thought I was a Catholic lady. Gradually, they started coming to me and began to bring their grievances to me. They started telling me how their children had only one school to go to and that was far away. I decided to help them enrol their children in school. Initially they were afraid, telling me, will private schools admit our children? I said why not. As long as you are paying for their fees, why should they refuse you? Today this area has two good schools. Then the problem was that there was no public BEST bus coming to this area. Along with the residents of this area, I took out a morcha to the local bus station. Today, bus number — comes to this area.

I have realized and I must tell you that people of this area are very loyal. And they will stay loyal to you all their lives. The love that I got from this place, nothing can compensate that. That love, that is it! And I will never leave this place and go!
Tomorrow, we will be resettled. The builder here has told me openly that he is hoping that most of the people who will be given houses here, will sell them off and take the money and buy house some other place and invest the rest in business. I want to tell you that this builder, he wants to ultimately build malls here, and she raised her teacher’s stick and banged it and repeated, he wants to build malls here! That’s it! He wants to build malls here!

I carry only these words with me to tell to you. What it is this place that they call home?

“How does it matter? They were Muslims. They had to die. They are dead.”

Sitting in his second-floor office in the Ahmedabad suburb of Naroda, Bajrangi talks about his NGO, Navchetan, which ‘rescues’ Hindu women who have been ‘lured’ into relationships with Muslim men. “In every house today there is a bomb, and that bomb is the woman, who forms the basis of Hindu culture and tradition,” Bajrangi begins. “Parents allow her to go to college, and they start having love affairs, often with Muslims. Women should just be kept at home to save them from the terrible fate of Hindu-Muslim marriages.”

Bajrangi’s Navchetan works to prevent inter-religious love marriages, and if such a wedding has already taken place, it works to break the union. When a marriage between a Hindu woman and Muslim man gets registered in a court, within a few days the marriage documents generally end up on Bajrangi’s desk, ferreted out by functionaries in the lower judiciary. The girl is subsequently kidnapped and sent back home; the boy is taught a lesson. “We beat him in a way that no Muslim will dare to look at Hindu women again. Only last week, we made a Muslim eat his own waste – thrice, in a spoon,” he reveals with barely concealed pride. All this is illegal, Bajrangi concedes, but it is moral. “And anyway, the government is ours,” he continues, turning to look at the clock. “See, I am meeting Modi in a while today.”

One might dismiss Babu Bajrangi as a bombast when he claims proximity to the chief minister, or describes the beating of Muslim boys. But for a man of obvious stature in society he is also accused of burning Muslims alive. As the chief accused in the infamous Naroda Patiya case, one of the worst instances of brutality during the 2002 violence, he is alleged to have led the mob that killed 89 people in the area. It is a burden that rests lightly on Bajrangi’s shoulders. “People say I killed 123 people,” he says. Did you? Bajrangi laughs, “How does it matter? They were Muslims. They had to die. They are dead.”

Evidence of Bajrangi’s complicity was so overwhelming that even a pliable state administration could not save him from an eight-month stint in prison. “They cannot reduce my hatred for Muslims with that, can they? While in jail, I demolished a small mosque that was located in there,” he says with a sly, childlike grin. Bajrangi’s views on what is wrong with Muslims are unabashedly straightforward. “They are all terrorists. Refuse to sing even the national song. Why don’t they just go to Pakistan? Now, our aim is to create a society where we have as little to do with them as possible.”

The 2002 pogrom in Gujarat was not a standalone event. It had a past, and as Prashant Jha’s essay in Himal tells us, a future.

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