A Template for Violence

The riots that changed the course of Gujarat’s political history

Almost exactly fifty years ago, in September 1969, Gujarat experienced the worst communal riots the country had seen since Partition. Although incidents of violence erupted in different parts of the state, Ahmedabad, the epicentre, was the worst affected. SHUKDEV BHACHECH
18 September, 2019

FIFTY YEARS AGO, Syeda Bibi did not own a shop. But she was happy. She was 31 years old, stayed at home and looked after her three children, while her husband made a modest income repairing cycles. They lived in a small house a few metres away from the Malek Saban Dargah, in Ahmedabad’s Bapunagar. “I lived here when Bapunagar was wilderness,” Syeda said, as we sat on a cot in her current home, inside the dargah compound. “There were no buses, no proper road, and when we wanted to go to the bathroom, we had to go behind some bush.”

Syeda lived with her extended family in a settlement of mostly Muslims that had a small number of Hindu homes scattered in between. The family knew their Hindu neighbours, borrowed milk and salt when supplies ran low, and their children played together. “We never imagined anything would happen,” she said.

In the third week of September 1969, Syeda’s family heard that people were pelting stones just outside their settlement. She could not hear any disturbance, but a relative told her that Hindus were attacking Muslims. Without pausing to think, she grabbed her three children and ran. Hiding behind bushes and trees, she made her way to Ansar Nagar, a nearby settlement where she had relatives. Just as she reached, though, she heard a mob approaching. People were marching into the area with swords. So she began to run again.

“Take the child!” someone shouted. In her panic, Syeda had forgotten her youngest daughter. She turned around, picked up the child and began to run again. As she passed a small dargah, a group of people urged her to come seek shelter with them inside the shrine. Finally, she had a moment to think. She sat down. And then, it dawned on her—she had no idea where her husband was.

Syeda’s panic worsened. She rounded up the children and, once again, began to run. She hurried down the road to her father’s house—a safe place at last. She stayed there with the children for a couple of days. Her husband, who had found temporary shelter during the chaos, finally made his way back, unscathed. It was more than she had hoped for.

But before long, the attacks began again. Sword-wielding people appeared near her father’s house. Her father gathered the family and rushed them to the nearby Kumar Chawl. But the mobs appeared there, too. The family fled again, to Shahibaug. Syeda had fallen ill by the time they took shelter here. She had not eaten in a week.

Perhaps a day after they reached Shahibaug, the family heard an announcement through a loudspeaker outside. The residents of Bapunagar who wished to return were being bussed to a camp at the Malek Saban stadium in Bapunagar.

Syeda could finally stop running. Along with her husband and her children, she spent a week at the relief camp. They slept under a big tent with what she imagines must have been thousands of people. They were given food and water and, in a strange way, it seemed as though the world was settling down.

At the camp, Syeda heard that “Indira Gandhi was allotting houses” in her old neighbourhood, so she decided to return home. As she approached her house, Syeda froze. She could not believe what she saw. The walls of her house had been stoned. The doors had been torn down. All of her possessions, from the beds to the salt, had vanished. “It was as if they swept the house clean after they looted it,” she said.

ALMOST EXACTLY fifty years ago, in September 1969, Gujarat experienced the worst communal riots the country had seen since Partition. Although incidents of violence erupted in different parts of the state, Ahmedabad, the epicentre, was the worst affected. After the riots ended, a commission led by Supreme Court judge P Jaganmohan Reddy was tasked with producing a report on what had caused the riots, how the administration had responded and what might be done to prevent such incidents in the future.

According to the Reddy commission’s report, more than 660 people died in Ahmedabad, with many bodies left unaccounted for, either because the bodies were in no condition to be retrieved, or because the deaths were never reported to the police. It is likely the death toll in reality rose to somewhere between one thousand and two thousand.

Although the exact figures could not be documented at the time, the majority—at least 430 people—of those who died were Muslim. More than a thousand people were injured in the city and, according to the then government of Gujarat, 37 mosques, 50 dargahs, six Muslim graveyards and three Hindu temples were damaged. Property worth over four crore rupees was destroyed, more than three quarters of which belonged to Muslims. Houses and businesses were looted, and many people left their neighbourhoods to live closer to those of their own religion—it was the beginning of a long process of ghettoisation, which would fossilise in the city through the decades.

The 1969 Gujarat communal riots were considered the most severe post-Partition riots in the country, until the Bhagalpur riots in Bihar twenty years later. Since 1969, Gujarat has periodically witnessed intense riots, almost every decade, all the way until 2002. Almost five decades from this watershed event, I went to Ahmedabad in July this year to speak with some of the people who had lived through that time. Several people’s memories have now mingled with those of later riots, and different people described the 1969 riots with differing degrees of ferocity.

But through all their testimonies, 1969 emerged as a kind of beginning—of intense religious division, a culture of violence, and the early rise of Hindutva in the state. The rhetoric that spurred and took root in the 1969 riots seems to echo in the politics of Gujarat, and other parts of the country, even today.

THE AHMEDABAD OF 1969, which flanked the Sabarmati river—as the city does today—can generally be divided into three parts.

First, there was the old, walled city on the eastern bank. Small clusters of buildings, known as pols, lay within the boundaries of a fifteenth-century wall, which was marked by several gates, or entry points. Today, the wall has vanished, but multiple gates remain. This inner city’s inhabitants were largely old-time residents of the state, and several belonged to the middle and upper classes.

Second, outside the walled city, there were the eastern suburbs. These suburbs housed several mills, as well as middle-class housing societies and slums inhabited by a significant population of migrant labourers from outside Gujarat.

Third, there were the suburbs sprawled across the western bank, which included upcoming neighbourhoods of the affluent classes. This bank comprised the university area and Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. Much of the violence that transpired in September and October 1969 did so in the suburbs of both banks, particularly in the mill areas and on the edges of the old city.

On the afternoon of 18 September 1969, an Urs procession meandered through the lanes of Jamalpur, an area on the periphery of the walled city. Every year, this procession, in honour of a saint called Pir Bukhari Saheb, left the Pir Bukhari Saheb dargah in Jamalpur, and travelled all the way to Bhadiyar, roughly a hundred kilometres outside the city. The procession comprised primarily Muslims but also a smaller number of Dalits. On the day the procession left for Bhadiyar in 1969, large crowds had gathered near the shrine, as they did every year. Temporary stands selling sweets, soda and toys lined the street in front of the shrine. People thronged to join the festivities throughout the day. By the afternoon, there must have been between ten thousand and twelve thousand people celebrating in the area.

Syeda Bibi, an Ahmedabad resident, spent most of the September of 1969 running with her family from one part of town to the other for safety. When she finally returned home, when the violence subsided next month, she found that her house had been stoned, burned and looted. KANNAGI KHANNA FOR THE CARAVAN

Wary of crowds, 21-year-old Jamila Khan decided to escape the bustle that day. She packed a lunch, and with a group of thirty to forty women, went on a picnic. She whiled away most of the morning on the outskirts of the city. At around 4 pm, someone rushed in and urged the picnic to disperse. “Leave whatever you’re doing and go back home,” they said to the women.

Jamila gathered her things and ran. She hurried along the river bank, avoiding the streets. “There was chaos in the city,” she remembered, when we met at her home in Jamalpur. “Somehow, we managed to get home.” At the time, Jamila did not know what was happening. “Later, I learned that cows had knocked over a pot of hot oil and a child had been burned,” she said.

Jamila was referring to a story whose details change depending on who tells it. A few hundred metres away from the Bukhari Saheb shrine sits the stately Jagannath Mandir. Centuries old, this Hindu temple now barely looks ancient. Pink cement walls surround most of the temple complex, and a modern clock is fixed above an imposing gate made of plaster domes. Outside, policemen surveil the street as tourist buses carrying devotees come and go.

Even on the day of the Urs in 1969, there were policemen near the temple. Because the Urs was a regular, large event, the organisers had taken permission, and the police had provided a full bandobast. Many policemen were also patrolling in plainclothes.

The Jagannath temple in those days housed a large gaushala of roughly a thousand cows. Each day, the cows were led out of the temple compound and down the road to graze at a farm nearby. In the afternoon, the cows would be led back in, usually in two batches, by the temple’s sadhus. On the day of the Urs procession, the temple authorities and the Urs organisers had discussed the passage of cows. The organisers, sadhus and police were all supposed to help ensure the operation went smoothly.

The busy, iconic gateway of Teen Darwaza, in Ahmedabad, seen deserted during the riots. The city remained under curfew for over a month. SHUKDEV BHACHECH

A little before the cows were about to be brought back, the organisers addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker. They warned the crowd that a herd of cows would be arriving. The first lot of cows passed through the crowd easily. But when the second lot of cows arrived, the crowd had grown thicker, possibly to its densest that day. By now, there were many in the crowd who did not know the cows would be coming. So when the second lot of cows arrived, the crowd did not make way. A few frightened animals began to rush about. In the commotion, a vendor’s cart was knocked over, and some women and children were hurt.

Upset by the commotion, some people in the crowd accused the sadhus of not managing their cows. That row flared up, and the members of the crowd beat the sadhus, chasing them into the temple.

People began to pelt stones. They threw glass soda bottles and crockery into the temple compound, damaging windows and paintings of deities. The sadhus sustained injuries that had to be treated at the hospital.

But that story, summarised in the Reddy commission report, is only one version of what happened. Much of it is alleged. From the very beginning, the details of what happened at the Jagannath temple that day have remained unclear. During the Reddy commission’s inquiry, several witnesses, including policemen, offered contrary accounts. One witness alleged that after a cow knocked over a handcart, the handcart owner argued with a sadhu. The sadhu apparently then went into the temple and returned with around twenty other sadhus, carrying sticks and swords. They approached a few Muslim members of the crowd, challenging them to a fight. When people in the crowd tried to defend themselves, a fight ensued.

But a police officer on duty at a nearby police post recounted yet another story. He alleged that the so-called attack on the temple had been planned by Muslims. After receiving news that there had been some disturbance at the temple, he left for the scene. When he arrived, the police officer claimed, he saw more than a thousand Muslims outside the temple shouting, “Allahu Akbar” and “maro, maro”—beat them, beat them. He said that many people in the crowd were also carrying hockey sticks, pipes, scythes and other weapons, which they used to attack the sadhus. Another officer added that the crowd had used acid to burn the sadhus’ clothes.

Many differing testimonies about that day still mill around Ahmedabad—some say the cows were intentionally let loose on the crowd, others say that a Muslim cut off a cow’s tail, while still others say a minor incident quickly spiralled out of control. The judicial inquiry later concluded that the incident had not been planned, that no acid had been thrown, and that people had not come armed with weapons. But what is certain is that there was some—perhaps, minor—clash at the temple that afternoon, as the cows were returning. A few people were injured and some property was damaged, but the police seemed to have swiftly abated the tensions and dispersed the crowd. Still, the ill will had not been quelled, and the incident at Jagannath temple—however it played out—unleashed a series of rumours and aggressions that would rip the city apart.

JAMILA’S ONE-ROOM HOUSE stands only a few metres from the Jagannath temple, at the edge of the walled city. Fifty years ago, Jamila lived further inside the walled city, near Teen Darwaza. But her family owned a house near the one she lives in now, a stone’s throw from the temple. When we met, she recalled how people who lived at the edge of the city had fled to the homes of friends and relatives who lived further in, if they were lucky enough to have such homes to run to. Others boarded trucks and buses and escaped to their ancestral villages. The less fortunate ones had to fend for themselves in their own neighbourhoods.

“For three days after what happened at the temple, there was complete lawlessness,” Jamila mumbled, fidgeting with the red, velvety bedsheet she sat on. She signalled to her granddaughter to increase the speed of the fan, before measuring each word: “It was a massacre. Some areas were completely destroyed. Children were killed. Old people were tied up and made to watch as their daughters and daughters-in-law got raped in front of them. It was all havoc.”

Not knowing what to do, Jamila decided to make herself useful. She began helping with the burials. As she waited for the trucks to arrive with the bodies, she spoke to others who had also come to collect the dead. “I heard so many terrible things back then,” she told me. “There were so many bodies.” Trucks filled with bodies arrived for three days. “We would wait for the bodies to come,” she said, “and we buried them by the truckful.”

A BUNCH OF SHYING COWS disrupting a gathering seems a bizarre and unlikely beginning to riots as intense as those of 1969. Many who lived in Ahmedabad had not imagined they would ever see such extreme violence in their city. The Reddy commission report—which is an exhaustive document of witness testimonies, press notes, and official communications—suggested that “communal passions” had already been simmering in Ahmedabad, months before the riots began. “The fuel, in our view,” the report stated, “had been gathered which required only a match to set it on fire and a fan to fan the city ablaze.”

From Partition up until the 1960s, several incidents of violence between Hindus and Muslims had been recorded across Gujarat. Many of these incidents occurred outside Ahmedabad and were believed to be localised, without much impact on communal harmony in the state as a whole.

According to the Reddy commission, relations between Hindus and Muslims began to especially wither after the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. The axis that China formed with Pakistan soon after, as well as Chinese support of Pakistan during the India-Pakistan war of 1965, had stirred suspicion among some sections of Hindus. They allegedly began to question the loyalties of Indian Muslims, recalling the split allegiances of Muslims during Partition.

In June 1968, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema, an all-India Muslim organisation, held a conference in Ahmedabad. Here, Maulana Asad Madni gave a speech in which he accused the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political wing, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the precursor to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—of being complicit in the Meerut riots, in which many Muslims had died. Six months later, in December 1968, the RSS held a three-day rally. Here, the RSS leader MS Golwalkar lamented that while there were special laws to protect minorities in India, Hindus were left without any such protection. Promoting the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, he claimed he felt no hatred toward Muslims, but wanted them to be loyal to the country.

Jamila Khan, who was 21 years old during the riots, helped with the burials as trucks filled with bodies arrived day after day. KANNAGI KHANNA FOR THE CARAVAN

While the Ahmedabad police maintained that Madni’s speech promoted communal animosity, the Reddy commission rejected the suggestion. According to its report, if any communal tension were to have been created by either Madni’s or Golwalkar’s speech, it would have been only among a small section of people.

In March 1969, another, perhaps more prominent, confrontation between Hindus and Muslims arose. A police superintendent, while passing in his jeep, was obstructed by a handcart carrying books. The superintendent asked the hand cart owner to move his cart to the side of the road so that the car could proceed. The superintendent happened to be Hindu, and the cart owner, Muslim. According to the Reddy commission report, when the cart owner refused to move his cart, the police did. The cart toppled over and the books tumbled out—among them, the cart owner claimed, was a copy of the Quran.

The cart owner protested that the holy book had been insulted. According to the official police log, the superintendent apologised and continued on his way. But word about the incident spread, and a crowd quickly gathered at the scene. Soon, there were nearly two thousand people. Upon hearing of this, police officers rushed to the spot, where the crowd pelted stones, threw iron gutter lids, and tossed glass soda bottles at them. Only after a lathi charge did the crowd disperse.

Local leaders arrived and urged the people to remain calm. Through a loudspeaker, the police, directed by the commissioner, announced, “Knowingly or unknowingly, if somebody’s religious feeling is hurt, then the police department is sorry.” But some stragglers in the thinning crowd were not satisfied by the apology. They apparently began shouting slogans such as “Is se to Pakistan accha hai, agar Hindu ka mandir jala diya to kya hota?”—Pakistan is better than this. What if someone had set fire to a Hindu temple?

The crowd began to reassemble. They demanded the police be withdrawn from the spot. The police withdrew some personnel and vehicles, but the crowd would not heed. So once again, a lathi charge and tear gas ensued, finally containing the situation—an 18-year-old Muslim boy died during the clash. The next day, Muslim leaders and student workers complained to the legislative assembly of the police’s alleged high-handedness, and how their behaviour demonstrated that “Muslims had no right to live in India.” On the other hand, some sections among Hindus supposedly blamed the government for forcing the police to apologise in order to garner Muslim votes.

About two weeks before the riots began, yet another incident stirred discontent within Ahmedabad. On 31 August, thousands of Muslims in Ahmedabad carried out a procession—as did Muslims across India—to protest an arson attack on the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The protest, which had taken the requisite police permissions, was a peaceful one, and its slogans were meant to evoke a sense of solidarity with Muslims around the world. The loudest slogan that day is now a familiar one: “Jo hamse takarayega, voh mitti mein mil jayega”—Whoever dares collide with us will turn to dust.

Although the slogan was meant to inspire a sense of resilience and solidarity with the international Muslim community, it was construed by many as being anti-national. Muslims were accused of pledging extra-territorial loyalties and of disrupting the nation’s secular fabric.

Babubhai Desai was 25 years old when the Al Aqsa procession was taken out. Back then, he lived in a pocket of Jamalpur where his was one of a few Muslim homes among Hindu ones. When the riots broke out close to where he lived, they were explained among his community as a retaliation. “That slogan, we were told, was the root of the riot,” he told me. “When it was shouted, Hindus felt that Muslims were getting very strong. The reaction came out later in the riots.”

Only four days after the Al Aqsa procession, more discord sparked. On the occasion of Janmashatami, a Ramlila played before the residents of Narayandas Chawl. The organiser of the production, however, had not taken permission to play music. So around 9 pm, police officers arrived, demanding that the show be stopped.

When the organiser did not comply, the police, led by a Muslim sub-inspector, began to forcefully disperse the crowd. In that scuffle, the sub-inspector allegedly hit a table upon which a copy of the Ramayan was kept. The Ramayan, along with ceremonial aarti materials, fell to the ground. The inspector then allegedly kicked the Ramayan.

The following day, residents of the chawl—both Hindu and Muslim—petitioned that the police should take action against the sub-inspector. When they did not receive a response immediately, a new organisation emerged to take up the cause. The Hindu Dharma Raksha Samiti was formed by members of the Jana Sangh, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha to seek justice for the what they claimed was an intentional insult to the Ramayan. In the ten days that followed the incident, the HDRS made speeches demanding action against the sub-inspector. They also distributed pamphlets that urged the “Hindu public” to come show their solidarity.

Jana Sangh leaders, under the banner of the HDRS, worked to gather the support of major Hindu religious leaders and leaders of other political parties. Threatening a long-term agitation, some members of the HDRS began fasting outside the police station. They claimed that they held nothing against the Muslim community but would fast until the sub-inspector was suspended. As newspapers sensationalised the events, Hindus began to equate the Ramayan incident with the Quran incident. Many showed up in support of the fasting leaders, holding placards and singing bhajans.

By 14 September, the sub-inspector had been suspended and HDRS leaders agreed to call off the fast. Though they assured the police that they would not carry out the mass procession they had been planning, it continued as planned. A local Hindu religious leader, Shambhuram Govindram (also known as Shambhu Maharaj, he had led an anti-cow slaughter movement in the state three years earlier) carried a copy of the Ramayan on his head. Behind him, four thousand people followed. They walked to the spot where the Ramayan had allegedly been knocked over, and reinstalled it. Along the way, they shouted slogans decrying the chief minister and the sub-inspector. The Reddy commission noted that despite not being explicitly anti-Muslim, the Ramayan agitation resorted to “a sort of communal competitive spirit”—the Hindus who had been offended by the Al Aqsa procession, could now show their strength in an equally large procession of their own.

On the same day as the Ramayan incident, the Jana Sangh leader Balraj Madhok gave the first of two speeches he would give in a span of three days. Both were attended by Ahmedabad’s intelligensia. The first speech, at the Ahmedabad Military and Rifle Training Association—a club that provides military training to civilians—was on the topic, “Pakistani Threat.” Two days later, he spoke at the Ahmedabad Junior Chamber of Commerce—the youth wing of the city’s chamber of commerce—on the topic, “India on the Cross Roads.”

Both of Madhok’s speeches became mired in controversy after the riots, and during the Reddy commission’s inquiry. The Jamiat-ul-Ulema and the Central Relief Committee—led by local Muslims for the rehabilitation of riot victims—alleged, “The general impression and effect of the speeches was that the Muslims in India are not loyal to the country and that the Muslims would not side with the country when there is foreign attack.”

In his first speech, Madhok emphasised that Gujarat was a border state and to defend it was to defend India. He said that even though India was larger, it should not take the Pakistani threat lightly. Madhok pointed out that Mahmud of Ghazni had managed to invade India even though he came from a small kingdom. Madhok hailed India as the land of Ram and Krishna, and called for the cultivation of patriotism within the masses. In response to a question from the audience, he espoused “bharatiyakaran”—Indianisation—of Muslims. Only when nationalism was encouraged in Muslims would their allegiances to India be secure.

In his second speech, Madhok extended his views on this topic. He said that national leaders had not been able to make Muslims assimilate with other communities during Partition. He contended that while Muslims had protested the Al Aqsa attack, they had remained silent about the Pakistan attack of 1965. Some witnesses alleged that Madhok said that 95 percent of Indian Muslims were pro-Pakistan and that only the nationalist ideology of the Jana Sangh would develop the country. Madhok later denied this allegation. Although his speeches were attended by only a small, elite group, newspapers published reports recounting his views. And even if their impact was not far-reaching, they seemed to have embodied the divisive ideologies that would permeate through the city only a few days later.

A FEW HOURS AFTER THE CLASH at the Jagannath temple, Muslim leaders, anticipating the frenzy that might ensue, arrived at the temple to apologise. The sadhus refused to accept their apology. Some Muslims leaders assured the police that they would issue a public apology, but no such apology appeared in the next morning’s papers. That night, a Muslim-owned washing company was set on fire, and a few other Muslim businesses were broken into.

On the following day, 19 September, Muslim leaders and leaders of different political parties—including the Congress and the Jana Sangh—made another attempt at cooling tensions. Muslim leaders in particular had been urged by the police to offer an apology on behalf of the community. A peace committee gathered at the Karanj police station and then went to the temple. A crowd of a few hundred people had already gathered there. The Congress leader Jamnashanker Pandya took on the role of mediator. But his address was interrupted by an uncooperative sadhu, who allegedly reiterated that the temple, and Hindus, would not accept an apology. It was reported that he told the crowd that whether or not the apology should be accepted was left to them, the “janata janardhan”—the public at large.

That night, the HDRS called a meeting at Raipur Gate. The meeting had, in theory, been postponed until two days later, as Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prevents unlawful assembly, had been imposed in the city. Still, nearly two thousand people gathered at Raipur Gate and Shambhu Maharaj addressed them. The Gujarati newspaper Jansatta reported that he announced that the sadhus of the Gita Mandir would agitate if the government did not take swift action regarding the Jagannath temple incident. The details of the rest of his speech remain murky, and Shambhu Maharaj later even attempted to deny that any such meeting had taken place. But it is more than likely that he aggravated the crowd—after the speech, a mob formed and set a nearby radio shop ablaze. When a curfew was imposed in the area, the mob is said to have circumvented the cordon and made its way to other parts, wreaking havoc.

MOST OF WHAT has been written about the 1969 riots, especially in English, has relied primarily on two sources: the Reddy commission report, which was produced in October 1970, and another short report by Ghanshyam Shah, a researcher who surveyed Ahmedabad just after the curfew was finally lifted, in October 1969. He published his findings in the Economic and Political Weekly in January 1970.

MS Golwalkar addressing a rally in Gujarat, in 1966. About nine months before the riots, in December 1968, Golwalkar addressed a rally lamenting that while there were special laws to protect minorities in India, Hindus were left without any such protection. The Reddy Commission, however, ruled out that his speech contributed to communal polarisation ahead of the riots.

But a subject almost obliterated from textual accounts is that of violence against women. Both the Reddy commission’s and Shah’s reports remain conspicuously silent on the issue, though Shah describes one incident, without further investigating the overall scale of such incidents:

Women were raped or stripped bare and forced to walk naked on the road. Children were beaten against stones or their legs were torn apart. Limbs were cut off dead bodies. Women’s breasts were cut and sex organs were mutilated or torn apart.

In her book, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, the historian Megha Kumar notes how during the riots, pamphlets circulated by the HDRS claimed that Muslim men had been sexually violating Hindu women since time immemorial. The pamphlets framed these alleged crimes as an insult to Hindu manhood, and roused Hindu men to inflict “retaliatory and preemptive violence” against Muslim women. While it would be callous to claim that Hindu women were not subjected to sexual violence during the riots, Kumar notes that there seems to have been more “organisational direction” in the attacks carried out by the Hindu mobs backed by leaders of the RSS and the Jana Sangh. The full extent of violence against women in 1969 is impossible to discern now, though recently documented testimonies, as well as a paper trail that points to the systematic demonisation of Muslims, suggest that women became almost default targets.

I met Shah, a former faculty member at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, at his home in Ahmedabad. He admitted that the cursory mention his report made does not imply that such incidents did not occur more frequently. “Just because people did not talk about it, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” he said. Even police witnesses, according to Kumar, did not put such incidents on record, possibly for fear of exacerbating the turmoil in the city, or because of notions of shame associated with sexual violence.

Over the years, Shah has come to believe that the riots as a whole had been planned by the RSS and its allied organisations. Having studied every major riot in Gujarat since 1969, he sees a trend in the Hindu right’s participation during each riot. The Reddy commission report, however, said that only individual attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods had been premeditated in 1969, with only some members of the Jana Sangh, RSS and Hindu Mahasabha participating—the actions of these few individuals, the report concluded, could not be used to justify the complicity of these parties at an organisational level.

“The report does point out the RSS’s role,” Shah told me, when I directed him to its conclusion. “When I say planned, I don’t mean sitting in someone’s living room and drawing it up,” he said. “You have to reconstruct things. … The visit of Balraj Madhok, of Golwalkar, the formation of the Hindu Dharma Raksha Samiti … all these things are not spontaneous. The land was fertile. … I wasn’t on solid grounding when I said it back then. Now, retrospectively, I say with much more confidence that they were planned.”

OUTSIDE THE DARGAH COMPOUND, less than a hundred metres from Syeda Bibi’s house, is Shantiben Agarwal’s home. The two women, having lived in the neighbourhood for decades, know each other and speak well of each other, though they do not mingle often.

“She’s a good woman,” Syeda said of Shantiben. “She won’t let even a single stone be thrown at us.”

Like Syeda, Shantiben remembers the neighbourhood from a very different era. “This whole area had only Muslims. Ours was the only Hindu house on this street,” she told me. “Over the years, all the Muslims moved away. One by one.” Today, only about a hundred Muslim homes remain in the immediate vicinity of the dargah.

Back in 1969, Shantiben was 28 years old. She had never witnessed a riot before. “Of course, there were incidents now and then,” she said. “A small disagreement would get out of hand and then there’d be some fighting. But since that riot, the killing has continued, worsened.”

As Muslims like Syeda fled the area, Shantiben hid inside her home. Unknown people came thundering down the street. She could hear the furore outside. “There used to be a small step well here,” Shantiben told me, “They killed people and dumped their bodies in there. They barged into people’s homes, took all their things, and tossed those in there, too.”

Shantiben’s daughter-in-law, who had been listening to her, interrupted suddenly: “There is a saying here—Hindus loot. Muslims murder.” Shantiben was quick to correct her. “They say that, but our Hindus also murder.”

Shantiben claimed that in 1969, both Hindu and Muslim mobs from outside the neighbourhood had descended upon their slum in a preemptive attempt at self-protection. In the clashes, people of both communities died. “They were both trying to defend themselves,” she said, “but the Muslims, they really suffered.”

The gate that encloses the settlement around the dargah was set on fire with petrol-soaked rags. The fire spread, charring homes that abutted the dargah. The trellises along the roof, which had been hammered fifty years ago, remain broken to this day.

“We were really scared,” Shantiben said. “The atmosphere had gotten so dark that people had begun to keep pots of water mixed with chilli powder outside their doors. If someone came to attack, we could throw it at them.”

After the riot, the neighbourhood changed. “Everyone began to keep swords and scythes in their homes,” Shantiben said, blaming the souring climate in her settlement on the steady influx of Hindu migrants from outside Gujarat. Ajit Bhattacharjea, an editor at the Hindustan Times who published a ground report on the heels of the riots in October 1969, had described a similar sentiment even then. “Usually, mobs came from outside the locality,” he wrote, “and often, non-Gujaratis were blamed.”

Although her family hails from Haryana, Shantiben equates the coming of outsiders to the recurrence of riots in the community through the decades. “Those people from UP, Haryana, Bihar started coming and settling down here,” she said. “They are people of weapons. Over the years, it became normal around here for people to settle even domestic disputes with a sickle.” That changing tenor, she feels, fuelled the subsequent riots in 1985, 1992 and 2002.

Shantiben still prays at the dargah on Holi and Diwali. But she lamented that neighbourly spirit is no longer the same. “We used to have a swing right outside our house here,” she said, “and the children from the dargah would come play on it. After some years, they stopped doing that.”

THE MORNING AFTER the Jagannath temple incident, several Gujarati newspapers ran dramatic headlines. More than one paper called the incident an “attack” on the temple, and one described the attack as “serious.” The newspaper Jai Hind went so far as to say that the temple had been attacked by a “fanatical group.” This report went on to describe how the sadhus had been ambushed in explicit detail. It claimed that the cows had not caused any problems, and therefore the attackers had some other fanatical motive. According to the Reddy commission and other reports, most newspapers violated the press code—they mentioned the name of the temple and the area in which it was located. False, incendiary reports would continue to fill the papers for almost a month. One report in Sevak, for instance, falsely stated that an armed Muslim mob had entered a Hindu-dominated housing area and attacked women. Several women, the report claimed, had been stripped and raped in plain sight. The next day, the paper officially withdrew its report, but the damage was already done. I approached two journalists who had been writing for these papers at the time. One kept postponing our meeting and then stopped taking my calls, and the other claimed—“I remember nothing.”

Beyond the newspapers, misleading text pocked the city. Pamphlets, three of which were determined to have been produced by the HDRS, relayed what seemed to be an intentionally warped account of the Jagannath temple incident. One of the HDRS pamphlets stated that the sadhus’ limbs had been cut off and that the temple had been severely damaged. Both those statements were later proven false. Another pamphlet told Hindus to beware of Muslims, while yet another called for a total strike in response to the attack. One of the pamphlets even urged the Hindu public to “associate in large numbers” with the programmes of the HDRS and prepare for a “dharmayuddha”—religious war. Through the course of the riots, several more hate-mongering and misinformed pamphlets crept around the city. Baseless rumours floated everywhere: the head priest of the temple had died; cows were being slaughtered in the temple area; milk from the municipal dairy had been poisoned; glass was being mixed with salt.

On the night of 19 September, a curfew was imposed inside the walled city, but only two Muslims were arrested for breaching it. By the following evening, all of Ahmedabad was under curfew. But the curfew was barely implemented. Police logs of the time described thousands of people moving around freely and rioting.

NEAR THE KANKARIA LAKE, behind 12-year-old Gaurang Jani’s house, lay a large field with an idgah. A dozen or more neem trees laced the plot, and people took shelter in their generous shade when they came to pray every Eid. When the idgah was not being used for prayer, Jani and other children from the neighbourhood played cricket in the field.

All the homes surrounding the field, including Jani’s, belonged to Hindu families. The lone Muslim family was that of the idgah’s caretaker. An elderly man, the caretaker lived with his daughter in a hut in one corner of the field. During Diwali, the caretaker would whitewash the surrounding Hindu homes for a small fee. He had with them an amiable, but transactional, relationship.

One day in September, Jani and his friends were playing cricket. The caretaker was not home. “Next to my building, there was a big house,” Jani, now a professor of sociology at Gujarat University, recalled. “It belonged to a mill owner, a Patel. He had been given the title ‘Justice of Peace.’ We used to call him JP.” That morning, the mill owner was standing in his balcony, smoking a beedi. “I remember the sight clearly,” Jani said, “We were playing cricket. And he tossed a match box towards us. He called out and said, ‘Go burn that miyan’s hut.’ And we did. We burnt it.”

Gaurang Jani, who was merely 12 years old at the time, remembers having been manipulated into burning the home of an idgah caretaker who lived in his neighbourhood. KANNAGI KHANNA FOR THE CARAVAN

It did not take more than an hour for the tiny hut to burn down. Jani ran home and confessed to his mother. Enraged, she slapped him. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Jani considered, now having processed the event over decades. “But we knew there were riots in the city. We had heard. And we had seen the newspaper. But somehow, as children, we couldn’t make the connection.”

When the caretaker returned later that day, he found nothing but ash. He asked who was responsible. The children did not hide their deed—they admitted they had been instructed by the mill owner. But the caretaker did not hold it against them. And he did not leave, either. Diwali was around the corner, so he had to stay on to whitewash homes. The children went back to playing cricket in the field.

BY 20 SEPTEMBER, two days after the Jagannath temple incident, violence had consumed Ahmedabad. Tyres burned in the streets. Buildings went up in flames. Trains on their way to Ahmedabad were stopped, the Muslim passengers pulled out and killed. In a bid to restore peace, popular leaders such as Indulal Yagnik and Morarji Desai began fasts, though their efforts were in vain.

Although most of the violence was concentrated in the working-class areas, some homes of middle-class Muslims on the western bank were also attacked. A mob even went to attack the home of the longtime Gandhian Gulam Rasool Kureshi, opposite the Sabarmati Ashram. The Ashram’s residents, though, managed to protect the building and the family. In hindsight, an attack near Gandhi’s ashram on the year of his birth centenary seems almost symbolic. Amrut Modi, the secretary of the Sabarmati Ashram told me that, according to him, those who orchestrated the riots “wanted to create an impression that Gujarat was no longer Gandhi’s.”

As Ahmedabad spiralled further into anarchy, the police waffled. Rather than control a fast-deteriorating city quickly and aggressively, they either did not take firm measures or even show up at all. Although they had been given “shoot at sight” orders, most officers did not patrol with arms. Much of the rifle stock remained untouched, as the police ventured out with lathis instead.

After the riots ended, the police was accused of being complicit in the violence, or at least not taking decisive action. Of the 102 Muslims places of worship that were attacked, 39 had been near police posts. As mobs wrecked large stretches, the police, who were widely known to be in cahoots with local goons, seemed to have let several incidents proceed, unbridled.

One Muslim woman reported that a mob shouting “Jai Jagannath” entered her home with daggers. As they threw burning rags on the house, she managed to escape with her daughter. She went to a police station for help but was informed that there were no policemen to spare. Meanwhile, her husband was killed, and his body was thrown into the river.

The Reddy commission firmly blamed the police, whom they claimed had been “caught napping.” Rioters seemed to have acted without a fear of the police. The chief minister, Hitendra Desai, also allegedly hesitated in giving strict orders to the police. Even on 20 September, when the riots had been flourishing for three days, he proclaimed on the radio that the police had been “acting with restraint” and if the rioting did not stop, they “would have no alternative but to use force.” At this point, the death toll was already in the hundreds and property worth crores had been destroyed. A quicker, more decisive order to the police by the chief minister might have nipped the violence in the bud, or at least prevented it from escalating the way it did.

On 21 September, after the local and state police had failed to contain the situation, the army was called in to restore order. Given the intensity of the riots and the police’s unpreparedness and unwillingness to control the situation, the army should have been called earlier. Neither did the state government take swift decisions, nor did the police convey that it was struggling to handle the situation. By the time the army arrived, things had got so bad that the troops would leave more than a month later, in November.

On 23 September, two days after the army arrived, the police lifted the curfew for three hours. It was a disastrous move. Looting, lynching and arson reigned throughout the city in that small window. The army later claimed that it had not been consulted before this action was taken. The police admitted that the curfew relaxation had led to a proliferation of violence, but insisted that the army had been consulted. Approximately two and a half thousand people had been arrested by the time the curfew was reimposed, and hospitals had run low on medical supplies and blood. The little control over the city that the army had been able to gain was reversed. It was only after the curfew was reinstated, and the army was given unequivocal authority over the city, that Ahmedabad began to inch towards recovery.

THE CURFEW LASTED more than a month and people stayed inside their homes, doors and windows bolted. Rations ran low, and people agonised over how to procure milk for tea. In the middle-class Hindu areas and in wealthier areas inside the walled city, life did not seem particularly tense. More than one person I spoke to described that month as a “holiday.”

Gaurang Jani’s all-Hindu middle-class neighbourhood had taken the curfew lightly—they lived so far away from Muslims that they had nothing to fear, Jani said. About eight days into the riots, Jani walked to the local children’s library to read. His parents had not stopped him. As he approached the library, he noticed a commotion near the fire station across the street. Two Muslim vegetable vendors had been pinned down by a mob of Hindus, and were being tied to their vegetable cart. The mob tied them and set the rope ablaze. “The rope singed away,” Jani remembered, “so the men wriggled out and jumped into a pool of water at the fire station. But the mob caught them again and tried to tie them up once more. But the fire brigade was able to stop them.”

THE WORST AFFECTED AREAS during the 1969 riots were the slums near the mills, especially those east of the walled city. In many of these areas, Dalits and Muslims lived side by side, and several clashes were reported to have erupted between these two communities. Also, a large population of the Hindu labourers in these areas were from outside Gujarat and were said to have been some of the main participants in the rioting.

Towards the end of the 1960s, seven mills had closed down in the city and an estimated seventeen thousand workers lost their jobs. Within the mills, job positions were often divided by caste, and several Muslim workers, because of their superior weaving skills, held permanent weaving positions. Given the loss of jobs, scholars such as Ornit Shani and Howard Spodek have suggested, Dalit and migrant workers grew resentful of Muslims, a sentiment that manifested itself in the rioting. Shah, in his report, suggested that many mill workers who came from outside the state also held strong biases against Muslims when they arrived. These workers, he claimed, were deeply religious and so, were easily excitable after the Jagannath temple incident.

The former mill workers I spoke with, however, said that mill closure was not a big issue in the 1960s, when the textile industry was generally thriving. Although some mills had closed in the late 1960s, the trend was not pervasive and mill employment remained a viable option for many. The former workers I spoke with said that rising unemployment created inter-religious tensions later, in the 1980s, when mills were at the end of their era. The workers also hinted that non-Gujaratis had been active in the rioting, though they did not deny the involvement of Gujarati workers themselves—the division most people made was between “miscreants” and “common folk.” Shah also suggested that dominant-caste Hindus incited and sponsored the oppressed-caste workers during the riots. While this is likely, and former mill workers I spoke with talked of how “poor people fought, and rich people made them fight,” they did not speak of it explicitly in terms of caste divisions.

In her book Communalism Caste and Hindu Nationalism, the historian Ornit Shani, while highlighting the disenfranchisement of mill workers, contended that in the 1969 riots—unlike in later riots—Dalits were not systematically used by political forces. Hindu organisations, she said, were led by dominant-caste Hindus and any attempts to marshal Dalit workers had not been premeditated.

Valjibhai Parmar, a former worker who lived in Bapunagar, recounted that a mob of Muslims had entered his largely Hindu chawl. Seeing them, his fellow Hindu neighbours ran out, pelting stones and stabbing as many Muslims as they could. He pelted stones, too—to protect himself, he said. He had not planned to do that, but in the sudden frenzy, joining in seemed the safest plan. But Parmar did not stay in the area for long. Nor did he continue rioting elsewhere. Frightened, he boarded a bus to his ancestral village, north of Ahmedabad, and returned only a month later.

All of the former workers I spoke with remembered the riots more because of the curfew that followed. They could barely leave their houses, even when rations depleted. If they were caught defying the curfew, one worker told me, the army officers would make them do sit-ups or rub their noses on the ground before letting them off.

By the morning of 29 September, only ten days after the riots had spurred, the mills reopened. Mill workers were issued curfew passes that extended only half an hour on either end of their shift. For the first few days, the air inside the mills seemed strained, though Hindus and Muslims tried to converse casually—they exchanged notes about the violence they had seen in each of their neighbourhoods. Quickly, mill life chugged on as if nothing had happened.

BOTH SHAH AND THE REDDY commission’s reports cite witness accounts alleging that members of the Jana Sangh led mobs. Using voter lists and telephone directories, these leaders were said to have directed the mobs to attack Muslim homes and Muslim-owned businesses. Several people I spoke to, including Shah, described seeing rows of shops and homes that had been only intermittently burned and ransacked. In a single row, many people said, only particular Muslim-owned buildings had been targeted.

Babubhai Desai remembered fearing the selective targeting. His family bolted their doors and stayed inside. “The police was catching Muslim families,” he explained. “They were banging on people’s doors. … The doors gave way. And the police caught people by their necks, those people who were trying to hide—they were beaten very badly.” Desai’s whole family stayed up late into the night, on edge. “The men would patrol and the women would pray,” he said.

Although the police later tried to deny that they had suspected the Jana Sangh, RSS and Hindu Mahasabha’s involvement in the riots and in the formation of the HDRS, their suspicions were evident in their initial report. During the riots, Ahmedabad’s commissioner of police took the Jana Sangh’s Gujarat secretary and other leaders, as well as some communist leaders, into preventive custody. The joint secretary of the Gujarat Jana Sangh criticised the move as “anti-national.” Later, after the army had arrived, Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister, alleged that Balraj Madhok had played a part in inciting the riots. The Jana Sangh president, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, denounced this allegation, claiming the Congress was trying to cover “its own inability.” He said that riots were “invariably” started because of “action by a section of the minorities.”

While Jana Sangh and RSS leaders had allegedly participated actively in directing the riots, the ruling party in Gujarat at the time was the Congress. Although the Reddy commission declined the suggestion that the state government had intentionally taken a passive role in thwarting the violence, the government incontestably failed to handle the situation. Neither did the government push the police to take forceful action against the rioters, nor did it call the army as soon as it was needed. Moreover, the Congress doled out curfew passes like candy, which enabled several rioters to defy the curfew with ease.

Some witnesses and members within the party alleged that the government initially hesitated to use force because, had it come down hard on the rioters soon after the Jagannath temple incident—when Hindu feelings of insult were still fresh—it would have paved the way for a Jana Sangh government after the state elections of 1972. Another excuse floated was that the government did not want to issue shoot-at-sight orders in the weeks preceding Gandhi’s centenary. The government, however, contended that it had taken appropriate measures at the first sign of disturbance. But even if it did, it certainly miscalculated the immensity of the situation.

The historian Christophe Jaffrelot has suggested that the Congress party in Gujarat had carried a conservative strand since 1917. “The political culture of the Gujarat Congress,” he argued, “has been traditionally characterized by a conservative overtone that contrasted with the progressive ethos of party units of other provinces.” Led by dominant-caste Hindu leaders, the Gujarat Congress, according to Jaffrelot, suppressed more progressive leaders, such as Indulal Yagnik, and instead promoted leaders who sympathised with, if not joined, the Sangh Parivar. That trend led to the state party often contradicting the Congress at the centre, both in terms of economics and cultural ideology. In particular, Jaffrelot wrote, Morarji Desai was not only critical of Indira Gandhi’s top-down economic policies, he also did not align with her “brand of secularism”—he had apparently been found guilty of “going soft on Hindus” during the riots of 1927-28 in Godhra, where he was then the deputy collector.

Only a month before the riots, in August 1969, the Congress had begun to fissure at the centre, with Desai leading a campaign against Indira Gandhi. In November, the party would officially split, and Desai would lead the Congress (Organisation). Soon after the riots began, Indira sent three MPs to assess the situation in Gujarat. Their report heavily criticised the state government. The Gujarat Congress, which was sympathetic to Morarji Desai’s strand within the national party and would later ally with the Congress (O), viewed this as a political vendetta by the centre. In an attempt to absolve their government, Gujarat politicians even tried to blame the riots first on Pakistani agents and then on Chinese forces. Even as opposition leaders mounted pressure on Hitendra Desai to resign, he refused, saying he would stay in office so long as he had the faith of the people.

“We don’t trust the Congress or the BJP,” Syeda Bibi told me. “There may have been a time when Muslims blindly voted for the Congress, but after all of these riots we don’t trust anyone. They’re all mili juli”—hand-in-glove—“governments.” Ghulam Moinuddin Nizami, a retired professor of English, told me he had become distrustful of the Congress immediately after the 1969 riots. In October that year, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan visited Gujarat on a peace tour to commemorate Gandhi’s centenary, and Nizami went to meet him to voice his concerns. “I told him, ‘We don’t trust this government,’” Nizami said. “‘Not because we are Muslims and most of them are Hindus. But they sent help to us with one hand, and snatched it away with the other hand.’”

Nizami claimed that some Congress leaders had helped orchestrate a pogrom against Muslims. “Congress leaders would say, ‘Sit in these buses, we’ll take you to safety in one of the camps.’ But then they would give instructions to the driver … to divert the bus into a Hindu neighbourhood.” One Muslim police officer, Nizami told me, had been responsible for intercepting several such buses. “Without him, at least five hundred people would have died,” he said. The Reddy commission report, however, does not mention any diversion of buses.

Ghanshyam Shah, who had used several Congress contacts to conduct his investigation fifty years ago, unequivocally blamed the state government for the spread of the riots. “Nowadays we have discussions about the Congress providing an alternative to Hindutva,” he told me. “But what kind of Congress? Why would a chief minister blame it on foreign forces? The same thing that happened in 2002 happened in 1969, except the Congress wasn’t party to it. But they were indifferent. That explains how Gujarat became a laboratory [for Hindutva], and how the BJP became so powerful in this state.”

IN THE DAYS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the riots, several Muslim families were taken to relief camps by the police. Hindus who wanted to evacuate were also helped. There were four government-run camps and seven run by Muslim organisations. More than twenty-seven thousand people passed through these camps. Some eventually returned to their original homes, others were rehabilitated by the government, and others made it on their own. Some of the government camps, it was later alleged, shut down before all the refugees had been rehabilitated. The refugees were allegedly made to leave, without warning, because the government wanted to impress Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan when he came to visit. The Reddy commission report, however, could not corroborate this claim, though it did acknowledge that relief measures provided by the government had been inadequate.

As people migrated within city limits, the housing system grew perceivably divided along religious lines. Several Hindu and Muslim families chose to settle down closer to their own communities. Some families moved nearer to the mills they worked at so that they would not have to pass neighbourhoods of the other community on their way to work. But the polarisation was not immediate and consistent. It took several years, and riots, for those lines to become almost indelible.

Jamila moved near the Jagannath temple, less than a year after the riots, to the house she lives in now. “The tension had quietened, so it felt okay,” she said, “Everything was fine between Hindus and Muslims.” At that time, her immediate cluster of houses comprised a large number of Hindu families. Jamila’s was one of the few Muslim homes in that row. “I had a neighbour, a Hindu lady,” Jamila said. “Her husband was killed in ’69. At first, she would hide her face in her veil every time I passed. But slowly, we became friendly. She used to send us kheer on festivals.” In each riot that followed, though, more of Jamila’s Hindu neighbours left the neighbourhood. After 1992, none remained.

In 1969, Jamila, like her neighbour, lost loved ones. “A man who was like my brother was stabbed and killed,” she told me. “He worked as an assistant in a mill in Bapunagar. When the trouble had started he hid in the bushes with his children for four days. Thirsty, hungry. And then they killed him. His poor wife lost her mind after that.”

Jamila’s voice began to tremble. She rested her face into her palm, half-covering her mouth. “That was the beginning,” she said, “Since then, it has been repeating and repeating. ’86, ’92, 2002. It’s like Muslims no longer have a place in this country.” She quickly dabbed her eyes with the edge of her blue dupatta and tried to steady her voice. “If they really want us out of this country, why don’t they just line us up and shoot us down?”

WHEN SYEDA ARRIVED from the relief camp, only to find her house an empty shell, she was already tired. Her body ached from days of illness. She was barely conscious of the children. As she stared at her house, her neighbours emerged. They brought her a small pot of water and asked her to drink. Then, they sat the children down and fed them rotis. “Don’t worry,” they told her.

Several people I spoke to recounted stories of kindness, of Hindus who had offered shelter to their Muslim neighbours. But these stories withered against stories of neighbours who had turned on each other. As she tried to put together those first days back from the camp, Syeda told me, her immediate neighbours, who were Hindu, helped her settle back in. She learned from them that some other Hindus in the area, whom she also knew, had attacked her house. Angry as she still is, she is not spiteful. “When the outsiders came into our neighbourhood, they forced our neighbours to attack us,” she said. “Otherwise, they would have been killed, too.”

When riot victims were being allotted new homes in the general Bapunagar area, Syeda chose to move only a few feet, to her current home inside the dargah compound. She still lives in the one-room, tin-roof structure and runs a small general store, whose items she neatly arranges on the floor, in the narrow distance between two cots. Through the day, children skip in and out, buying toffees, biscuits and paan masala for a few rupees. They leave the money at the foot of Syeda’s bed, against which her wooden walking stick leans. “I will probably die in this house,” she told me. “If I had the money, I would have moved somewhere else a long time ago.”

She has lived through five riots, four of them in this home. Each time, her possessions have been looted, her walls chipped away at. Over the years, her relatives have moved further away, some to distant neighbourhoods. “Since I have lived here, none of our things have remained,” she said. “It’s a miracle we still have our lives.”

As Syeda counted the names of the people she had lost on her fingertips, correcting herself each time she assigned them the wrong year—and the wrong riot—she stopped to tell me why she has been luckier. “It’s all his grace,” she said, nodding towards the dargah. “Sometimes I feel we don’t deserve it.” Every time a riot has broken since 1969, Syeda has hidden inside the dargah with her family, before finding a moment to run away. She swore that in 2002, the bombs thrown over the compound wall did not explode when they hit the ground. “Even though my roof leaks, and I own nothing, not even this house,” she said, “I have faith here.”

I asked Syeda if it would be better to forget it all, to not speak about the many riots she has survived. “No, we should remember it,” she replied. “We should be able to tell our children the stories, so they will know how to protect themselves.”