By  Nadia El-Awady

Deputy Editor in Chief –

Ahmedabad, former state capital and commercial center of Gujarat, on the Sabarmati River

Ahmedabad, former state capital and commercial center of Gujarat, on the Sabarmati River

I’ve always dreamed of traveling to India. The Taj Mahal, Ghandi’s liberation struggle, traveling bare-back on elephants in lush green forests; this is what India has always meant for me. I never thought, however, that my first visit would be to a state most known for its periodic outbursts of communal violence: Gujarat.

Gujarat is located on the Western coast of India, forming what looks like an out-turned pocket opening up onto the Arabian Sea. It is bordered to the northwest by Pakistan and to the north by the Indian state of Rajasthan. According to the 2001 Population Census, the population of Gujarat is 50,600,000, with a literacy rate of 69.97 per cent in 2001.

According to 1991 census results posted on the official portal of the Government of Gujarat, Hindus constitute 89.48% of the population; Muslims, 8.73%.

Gujarat in recent times is most commonly known for a series of brutal attacks on Muslims that took place in February 2002. Scores of Muslims were burnt alive, and their homes, businesses, cars, and goods set afire, allegedly in retaliation for an attack on a train, blamed on Muslims, that led to the death of 58 mostly Hindu activists.

The activists were reportedly returning from Ayodhya, where a 16th century mosque was torn down in 1992 by Hindu extremists, who claimed the mosque was built on the site of an ancient temple erected to commemorate the birthplace of Rama, ruler of Ayodhya, and an incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu.

The year 2002 was not, however, the first to witness such violent outbursts in Gujarat. In Ahmedabad alone, one of the state’s largest cities, communal violence claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people in 1969. The city witnessed more death and violence again in 1985 and 1992.

Three years after the last flare-up, however, the city seems to be a peaceful and welcoming place for this Muslim tourist. Residents of Ahmedabad go out of their way to make foreigners feel at home and comfortable. They seem to naturally be very hospitable and sociable folk.

A Long and Difficult Healing Process

Muhammad Shafi Madni, President of the Islamic Relief Committee

What the foreign eye sees, however, is not necessarily what the resident feels. Muhammad Shafi Madni, Chairman of Gujarat’s Jamaat-e-Islami [Islamic Group], and president of the state’s Islamic Relief Committee (IRC), admitted to that Muslim Gujaratis do not feel protected in the state. “There is an undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment in the region,” he said. This mostly originates, however, from what Madni referred to as a minority radical Hindu group: the RSS, [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteers Association].

It is because of this undercurrent of hostility towards Muslims that one of the roles of the IRC has been raising awareness about the Islamic faith among both Muslims and non-Muslims in Gujarat.

The IRC, as suggested by its name, bases a large portion of its activities on providing relief to those in need in Gujarat and elsewhere in India. Its official relief efforts began in 2001, in response to a devastating earthquake that hit the city of Kutch and its neighboring district in Gujarat, resulting in an estimated 30,000 deaths, 55,000 injuries, and about half a million homeless.

The IRC’s relief work continued into 2002, providing assistance to families affected by the communal violence that hit the state, regardless of the victim’s religious affiliation. Lately the IRC has been extensively involved in providing funds to families affected by the tsunami that hit the south of India in late December, 2004.

Madni, a fatherly figure with a compassionate smile, explained that the committee’s activities, as a result of its unbiased “relief for all” approach, have gained the support not only of Muslims, but of a wide range of humanist Hindu organizations and individuals in the region.

Although there have been no major incidents of violence since the 2002 attacks, aside from a few sporadic assaults, Madni said that Muslims in the region face another form of discrimination: illegal detention in Indian prisons. “A total of 304 people are now detained in Gujarat under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in India; 302 of these are Muslims,” said Madni.

As a result, Madni explained, the IRC has been providing legal assistance to Muslim detainees. The IRC is currently arguing several cases under the POTA before the Supreme Court.

Madni gave the example of three Muslim youths in their 20s, detained under the POTA on charges of plotting to kill Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party) leaders-charges Madni describes as false. Another common accusation used to justify the detention of Muslims is that they have links to Pakistani intelligence services. According to Madni, many detainees are tortured in police custody and forced into writing false confessions.

On the social level, the IRC has long been involved in organizing symposiums, seminars, and rallies, in addition to meetings at the individual level, in order to facilitate positive interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims in the state of Gujarat. It has also been involved in human rights campaigns both at the state and national levels.

The Role of Communicators

The education system should be an obvious and important ally in efforts to create a more cohesive society in Gujarat. Madni believes, however, that much remains to be done in the state’s education system. The Jamaat-e-Islami chairman even goes so far as to say that the school curricula contain incorrect data on the Islamic history of the country, citing the example of the negative depiction of past Muslim leaders as destroyers of Hindu temples, whereas in reality Muslim leaders donated lands for the building of temples, and provided yearly endowments for the temples’ upkeep.

Madni feels that Muslim children, as a result, are being culturally compromised. At the same time, efforts to provide a more Islamically-oriented education through madrasahs have not been successful in Gujarat. “Not a single madrasah in Gujarat is affiliated with an Islamic institution such as Al-Azhar [Islamic University in Egypt],” said Madni, explaining that the quality of education in these madrasahs is thus below par. It is because of this that students graduating from these madrasahs in Gujarat fail to gain acceptance in Islamic universities abroad.

It is with this in mind that part of the IRC’s efforts in Gujarat are steered towards providing better schooling for the state’s children. The IRC is currently running five schools in Kutch, and has plans to establish a system for higher education in the state.

Madni also briefly touches on the role of the media as an instigator of anti-Muslim sentiment in Gujarat. “Many Gujarati-language newspapers are anti-Muslim,” he said, adding that he could only name three dailies that provide an even and balanced coverage of issues.

Providing Family Support

Although divorce and domestic violence occur on a comparatively small scale among Gujarat’s Muslims, part of the IRC’s efforts have also focused on providing assistance to families, mainly in the form of counseling. The IRC has recently been involved in establishing a dar el-qadaa’ (courthouse) for family disputes; a committee of muftis and elders that counsel families based on Islamic jurisprudence.

The IRC has also played an important role in empowering women in Gujarat by establishing five centers that provide women with training in embroidery and handwork, in addition to computer and English language classes. In addition, the IRC runs eight medical dispensaries and two mobile dispensaries, providing healthcare to Gujaratis regardless of religion, for a minimal fee.

In a state with many wounds to heal, ongoing efforts must be conducted on all sides and with the commitment of all parties to work towards eventually unifying India into the strong subcontinent it aims to be.

Nadia El-Awady is’s deputy editor in chief and managing science editor. She is an award-winning journalist and is frequently invited to international conferences to speak on issues related to science journalism. El-Awady is also the chair of the World Federation of Science Journalists’ program committee and the president of the Arab Association of Science Journalists. You can reach her