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 epicenter, 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, a 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.
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 riverbank, 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.
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 a 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 becoming. So when a 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.
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?
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