How Narendra Modi uses India's rich heritage as political camouflage

Narendra Modi, 2014 candidate for prime minister, tries to whitewash his ties to anti-Muslim 2002 riots

Indian Muslims offer Eid al-Fitr prayers beside the tomb of Hazrat Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh, located in Sarkhej Roza, in Ahmedabad, India, on Aug. 9
Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

AHMEDABAD, India — When the renowned French architect Le Corbusier came to this city in western India in 1951, he was so awestruck by the Sarkhej Roza, an Islamic monument on the outskirts of town, that he declared, "You don’t need to travel to the Acropolis. You have everything here." The Sarkhej Roza was built in the 1450s, during the reign of Sultan Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad. It was meant to be a tribute to Shaikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh, a saint in the mystical Sufi tradition of Islam. At one point, it covered 74 acres and included two palaces, a large pond and a mosque, and was the favorite summer retreat of Ahmedabad’s royalty.

Today the pond is dried up, the walls are covered in graffiti and paan stains, and the floors are littered with potato chip wrappers and soda bottles. When you stand under one of the domes and look inside, you can see stone engravings of trees and geometric patterns, an architectural style that blends Persian, Hindu and Jain motifs. When you turn around and look outward, you can see the street that divides the Muslim and Hindu parts of Ahmedabad that residents simply call "the border." To one side of the street is Juhapura, a Muslim-dominated neighborhood derogatorily called "Little Pakistan" where more than 400,000 people live with inadequate roads, schools and basic facilities such as public urinals. Inside the monument, there is a small museum with relics from Ahmed Shah's reign as well as pictures of children swimming in the pond and Hindus celebrating the birth of their deity, Krishna, in the courtyard. (Muslims who ran the Sarkhej Roza once permitted Hindus to celebrate Krishna's birth, but that is now a distant memory in fractured Ahmedabad.) There is also a series of photographs of Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, where Ahmedabad is located, and the official candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2014 election that will decide the next prime minister of India.

Modi's appearance in the Sarkhej Roza museum photos is part of a concerted campaign to show India, and the rest of the world, that he is a changed man. The Hindu nationalist politician's meteoric rise was fuelled in large part by the gruesome 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed and tens of thousands displaced; Modi was accused of not doing enough to protect people. When asked by Reuters in July if it is frustrating that people still associate him with the riots, Modi denied any culpability: "I would feel guilty if I did something wrong."

Now, after more than a decade as chief minister, Modi has his sights set on the top job in Delhi. But first he has to rid himself of the taint of 2002. And part of that campaign is the effort to play up Ahmedabad's rich heritage, both Hindu and Muslim, as well as to cozy up to India's Muslims, many of whom still distrust him. 

If you look at the Sarkhej Roza, it is completely neglected other than one night a year for the heritage festival. And there is no discussion of improving the lives of the people around the monument.

Hena Najeeb

National Institute of Design student

In 2010, Modi visited the Sarkhej Roza as part of the annual Ahmedabad Heritage Week. At last year's function, a Sufi devotional band from Pakistan was flown in to perform for the night. Zafar Sareshwala, once a critic but today one of Modi’s staunchest supporters, cited the event as proof that the chief minister is "de-polarizing."

This year, the festival runs from November 19 to 25. Programs include a water festival at an ancient well, an antique car show as well as a Sufi music night to be held at the Sarkhej Roza. When I asked 14-year-old madrassa student Iqbal Ansari, who was playing cricket on the monument grounds, what he knew about the heritage festival, he said it was "the night when all the fancy cars come to this side of town."

The festival is by invite only and passes are hard to come by, unless you are a foreigner, a journalist or a member of Ahmedabad's growing wealthy class. "It is for the elites. It is for the BJP and for Modi to sell Gujarat," said Achyut Yagnik, co-author of the book "Ahmedabad from Royal City to Megacity." "He needs to improve his image and he is using these things to move to Delhi."

That perhaps sums up what critics of the festival say of the Gujarat government's renewed emphasis on shared Hindu and Muslim heritage. For despite the festival's long existence — it was started in 1996 to coincide with World Heritage Week and remains a celebration of Ahmedabad's 602-year history — observers say that the focus on Islamic monuments is superficial.

During his 2010 visit, Modi promised, "All conservation and development activities around Sarkhej Roza will be supported whole-heartedly by the state government." But the sorry condition of the monument tells a different story. Hena Najeeb, a student at the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID), who has researched the heritage of the city, said, "If you look at the Sarkhej Roza, it is completely neglected other than one night a year for the heritage festival. And there is no discussion of improving the lives of the people around the monument."

The taint of the 2002 riots

On February 27, 2002, soon after Modi became the chief minister, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was attacked in the Gujarati town of Godhra, resulting in the deaths of 58 of them. Riots broke out soon after, leaving nearly 100,000 displaced and more than 1,000 dead, most of them Muslim. In its report "We Have No Orders to Save You," Human Rights Watch wrote, "The attacks against Muslims in Gujarat have been actively supported by state government officials and by the police." Three years later, the U.S. government denied the chief minister a visa for failing to protect religious freedom in Gujarat.

In 2012, 29 people were sentenced for their role in the violence in the town of Naroda Patia, including a BJP member of parliament, Mayaben Kodnani, to 18 years of imprisonment for criminal conspiracy and murder. But it's been too little, too late. Kamru Nissa, an eye-witness to one massacre in Naroda Patia, told an Indian newspaper on the day of the verdict, "Only the pawns have been sent to jail, the main political culprits are still ruling like kings."

The criticism has done little to stop Modi's remarkable momentum, and the possibility of a Modi-led India, which even earlier this year seemed bleak, is now becoming very real.

Unlike Rahul Gandhi, his challenger from the political party the Congress, Modi does not have an elite political pedigree. The son of two grocers who once worked at a chai stall, the unmarried 63-year-old is a gifted orator who deserves credit for the progress in his state: an admirable rate of economic growth, a new international airport, a popular bus system and more efficiency in governance. Tourism is also up, partly due to a series of advertisements featuring Indian film icon Amitabh Bachchan. All of this has done much to endear him to the Indian business community, which flocks to the investors' summit, Vibrant Gujarat, held every two years.

At this year's summit, participants were given handouts that said, "Gujarat has the highest number of protected mosques in the country." Yet the state government long refused to pay for the restoration of Islamic sites destroyed during the violence in 2002. (After a petition was filed by the Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat, the state's top court forced the government to provide funds for reconstruction.) 

The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation flattened the tomb the very next day after it was (torn down). This is my point. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is celebrating history and also leveling it.

Achyut Yagnik

Historian and author

The pamphlets also contained this quote: "Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, was founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmed Shah to serve as the capital of the Gujarat Sultanate, and was named after him." This bolsters the BJP's strategy to rewrite the history of the city by implying that Muslim rulers built a Muslim city on top of an older Hindu settlement called Karnavati — an assertion that scholars say is false. In 1990, the BJP even attempted to legally change the name of Ahmedabad to Karnavati but failed to gain the support of the central government, then led by the Congress party.

Yagnik, who debunks the BJP claim in his book, believes the attempt to change the city’s name is political maneuvering: "(I)n the closing decades of the twentieth century, when the politics around identity embroiled the city, Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) activists tried to furnish a Hindu past for Ahmedabad by changing its name to Karnavati."

The drive to change the city's name has been largely abandoned, perhaps partly because, in 2010, Ahmedabad began the process of applying for UNESCO recognition as a world-heritage city. No Indian city currently holds that distinction. In 2011, Ahmedabad was placed on a list of possible recipients of the honor. UNESCO's description of Ahmedabad cites the city's long history of Islamic architecture and literature, as well as those of other religions.

Tanishka Kachru, a professor at NID, finds it is curious that Ahmedabad has applied. "I don't really understand. If you look at Agra," a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, "it has three A-rated UNESCO heritage sites like the Taj Mahal and it is not a UNESCO world-heritage city. Ahmedabad has none." (After Ahmedabad applied, applications were sent in by Delhi and Mumbai, both which appear likely to edge out Ahmedabad.) "Perhaps it is part of the way the BJP is marketing itself," Kachru said, "Narendra Modi wanting to project himself in a certain way as a global figure. If he wants to be seen as a global leader, then he should be seen as having a stage that is fitting of that stature. This might be it."

However there is little discussion, at least from within the local government body, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), of the 230 mosques and dargahs (Islamic shrines) destroyed in the 2002 riots. The most prominent example is the tomb of Vali Gujarati, a 17th century pioneering Urdu poet whose tomb was torn down on the second day of violence.

Historian Rizwan Kadri was dismissive when asked about the razed tomb. Kadri is a consultant with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and he is one of a growing number of Muslims who openly support Modi, something Modi has flaunted. When asked why the AMC has not rebuilt the tomb of Vali Gujarati, he responded, "Do we even know where Vali Gujarati was buried?" Kadri added, "Yes, there is discrimination in Gujarat but it is not Modi's fault."

Debashish Nayak, director and founder of the Centre for Heritage Management at Ahmedabad University, says that people are free to rebuild the tomb. Yet Yagnik laughed when I asked why the city has not yet rebuilt it. "The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation flattened the tomb the very next day after it was (torn down)," he said. "This is my point. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is celebrating history and also leveling it." 

From the temple to the mosque

Nayak was instrumental in launching the city's heritage initiative with a walking tour of the Old City that he created in 1996. Today, the walk, which costs 20 rupees (32 cents) for Indians and 50 rupees (80 cents) for foreigners, starts each morning at 8 a.m. and begins at the Kalapur Swaminarayan temple and ends at the Jama mosque.

Chinar Shah, a graduate student at NID, spent two months working with the AMC on the heritage walk started by Nayak. "They call the walk 'From mandir (Hindu temple) to masjid (mosque).' It is made to sound very secular. But… (you) do not walk through a Muslim area, not even once in the walk." According to the Archaeological Society of India, there are 65 places of historical interest in Ahmedabad. Forty-two of them are mosques and Islamic shrines. Others have criticized the walk as the volunteer guides often say that Ahmedabad was built on top of Karnavati. 

But the criticism may not be fair. Vijay Ramchandani, who worked with the Ahmedabad Heritage Committee from 2011 to 2013, said, "I was in all the planning meetings and I never once heard it mentioned that we should not have the walk include a Muslim area. In fact the walk ends at the Jama mosque because we view it as one of the highlights of the walk, as a sort of pinnacle." Indeed, in almost all of the pamphlets published by the Ahmedabad Foundation, the city's Islamic history is prominently featured, along with its Jewish and Parsi heritage. Before our meeting ended, Ramchandani handed me a pamphlet, in Gujarati, of the Freedom Walk of Ahmedabad, begun in 2007, which he said was "started" by Modi himself. "(The walk) was criticized for not highlighting any Muslims in Gujarat who fought for India's independence," Ramchandani added.

Both Ramchandani and Nayak said the purpose of Ahmedabad's heritage drive is not about achieving UNESCO world heritage status but about encouraging residents of Ahmedabad to take greater interest in their city. Others praise the heritage festival because it is encouraging people to learn more about unfamiliar parts of Ahmedabad. "People are coming to this side of town for the first time, maybe ever," RA Kothariya, a Juhapura resident, said, referring to last year's Sufi festival. 

This is the mentality here: whatever makes the corporate sector more money, Modi will do it. Modi will do anything for power. He will even change history and he can do this because no one, at least in Gujarat, has the guts to question him.

Mallika Sarabhai

Indian classical dancer and Ahmedabad resident

But Shah would like to see the conversation broaden. "With the heritage festival and the heritage walk, it has become trendy to talk about the past, to celebrate these old sites," Shah says. "But you cannot even talk about what happened in the last 10 years or so or even in the 2002 riots. People say move on, move on. But what they are really saying is do not ask questions. Do not talk about 2002."  

Celebrated Indian classical dancer and Ahmedabad resident Mallika Sarabhai believes there is a simple impetus behind all the heritage talk: making money. "There is no concept of history here" in Ahmedabad, she said, sitting outside her dance studio. She pointed to a house off to the side that her father, the noted physicist Vikram Sarabhai, built in 1953. "Part of the house was connected to a wall of Ahmed Shah's fort. But the city demolished the wall because they wanted to build a road. This is the mentality here: whatever makes the corporate sector more money, Modi will do it. Modi will do anything for power. He will even change history and he can do this because no one, at least in Gujarat, has the guts to question him."

Yagnik views the historical distortions in the heritage walk as part of an attempt to rewrite Ahmedabad's history. "This has been going on long before Modi," he said. "This has been a project of the BJP. They are the ones who tried to change the name of the city from Ahmedabad to Karnavati in 1990, to remove all the Islamic parts of this city's history." 

This, Yagnik said, may be Modi's legacy — he has instilled a level of Gujarati chauvinism in residents that makes them unwilling to look critically at their own state: "It was never like this. There was not such Gujarati pride as there is now. People are enamored by Modi. And people are afraid of Modi. He is very vindictive and very few will criticize him. He is not only the number-one person in Gujarat. He is numbers two through nine. Then everyone else follows."  

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