A Template for Violence

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

18 September 2019
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
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

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.

Poorna Swami is a Bengaluru-based writer and dancer.

Keywords: communal violence Gujarat
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