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The State of Muslims in Gujarat Today

Despite the continued ghettoisation of Muslims in a polarised Gujarat, the Muslim community in the state has through sheer hard work shown some advances in education and wealth generation. The denial of justice to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogroms, despite strenuous efforts by civil society activists and interventions by the higher judiciary, remains a major issue for the community.

The Gujarat Muslim population is around 5.5 million, constituting about 10% of the state’s population. The figures are lower than that of states like Assam (31%), West Bengal and Kerala (25%), Uttar Pradesh (18.5%) and Bihar (17%). Yet the spread of jamaats is most unusual. This is one state where Shia communities, though small in number, have played a vital part in the country. Ithna Ishri Shias are mostly concentrated around Bhavnagar. Though small in number, it was from this community that someone as tall a leader as M­ohammad Ali Jinnah emerged. The numbers of the Aga Khan Khojas are equally small, but Azim Premji, the richest Indian Muslim belongs to this community. Similarly, the Dawoodi ­Bohras number around 0.5 million in Gujarat, but they are highly educated and belong to the upper middle and rich classes. Among the Sunnis, the Memons were the wealthy elite in Saurashtra a hundred years ago. One of them – Dada Abdullah – sponsored the South Africa trip of a young lawyer, who later came to be known as the ­Mahatma. Similarly another Memon, Abdul Habib Marfani, who had business connections in Rangoon, fin­anced the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who later, out of gratitude, termed him “Sevak-e-Hind”.

But following Partition these rich and highly educated Muslims migrated from Gujarat, mostly to Pakistan or to western countries. Those who remained were poor and mostly illiterate. The leadership of these communities passed easily into the hands of the ulema, which only compounded the problems of the community. To add to their plight, being a border state, so close to Karachi in P­akistan, a reverse migration also o­ccurred, sharply increasing the communal consciousness of all people in G­ujarat. Other than those close to G­andhi and his politics, the political leadership within the state was not sympathetic to Gujarati Muslims. The conditions were ripe for the growth of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the state. It cleverly used this communal polarisation to unite a large section of the Hindus against Muslims. Oddly, when the country was celebrating Gandhi’s birth centenary, and Badshah Khan (Khan Abdul Ghafoor Khan) was in Gujarat, there were communal riots in the state. Muslims paid a heavy price, as the police, the media, intellectuals and top businessmen collaborated with the government in the whitewashing of or giving a spin on the rapes, killings and destruction in Muslim localities.

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