2002 pogrom still haunts Muslim freedom fighter’s family in India

Descendants of a local icon of the 1857 rebellion against British rule in Gujarat become victims of the country’s hate politics.

20 years of Gujarat riots
Deen Mohammed, right, with his family at their home in Mudeti village in India's Gujarat state [Tarushi Aswani/Al Jazeera]

Mudeti (Gujarat), India – Tucked away in a corner of Mudeti, a village 124km (77 miles) from Gujarat state’s main city of Ahmedabad in western India, lies a mazaar (shrine) of Shah Beg Makrani, a Muslim freedom fighter revered in the region.

In 1857, a rebellion against the British rule spread across the Indian subcontinent, with many mutineers pledging allegiance to either their regional kings or the crumbling Mughal throne.

The many battles fought in 1857 against the colonial forces – often called India’s first war of independence – have become subjects of folklore in the country.

One such battle was fought in Mudeti, a tiny princely state ruled by a Hindu Thakur family. And Makrani – who according to legend was a master archer despite having leprosy in the lower part of his body – was its hero.

shrine of Shah Beg Makrani
The shrine of freedom fighter Shah Beg Makrani in Mudeti village [Tarushi Aswani/Al Jazeera]

As the British forces attacked Mudeti to topple its ruler and crush his supporters, Makrani stationed himself on top of a tower from where his arrows took down the British soldiers.

The British saw him as the last man standing in the battle and fired cannonballs at the tower. Makrani was blown along with the tower.

Nearly 165 years later, Makrani’s kin cannot return to the village of their illustrious and celebrated forefathers. Reason: a pogrom against Gujarat’s Muslims in 2002.

Leaving village ‘our ancestor once saved’

On February 27, 2002, a train carrying a large number of Hindu pilgrims returning from the northern holy town of Ayodhya stopped at Godhra, a small town in Gujarat’s Panchmahal district, about 150km (93 miles) from the state capital, Gandhinagar.

Following a reported altercation between the Muslim vendors working at the station and passengers inside the Sabarmati Express, the details of which are still not clear, a fire engulfed one of the coaches of the train, killing 59 people.

The state government, then headed by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said a majority of the dead were karsevak (volunteers) who had gone to Ayodhya to campaign for the construction of a temple dedicated to Hindu God Ram at the exact site where a Mughal-era mosque was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Hindu right-wing groups say the mosque stood at the site of Ram’s birthplace, a claim that has also been endorsed by India’s Supreme Court which in 2019 handed over the disputed site to the groups affiliated to Modi’s party, who are now constructing the temple in Ayodhya.

The burning of the train at Godhra was followed by the worst religious violence in independent India’s history, in which nearly 2,000 people were killed, hundreds of women raped and thousands of homes and mosques destroyed across Gujarat, one of India’s wealthiest states.

The carnage reached Mudeti as well. In the village of about 800 homes, trucks loaded with Hindu rioters appeared on the night of March 1, 2002. The mob then began attacking shops and businesses owned by Muslims.

Two days later, they started to enter the homes of Muslims and threatened to put them on fire – with or without inhabitants inside.

Mudeti village in Gujarat
One of the houses belonging to a Muslim attacked during the 2002 pogrom in Mudeti [Tarushi Aswani/Al Jazeera]

Gul Mohammed Yar Mohammed Makrani, 63, is the fifth-generation descendant of Shah Beg Makrani. He said he still shivers at the memory of the day when he narrowly managed to escape death while his home was torched.

“They were yelling ‘miyaan nu maaro, anay kaato’ [kill and cut Muslims] along with slogans such as ‘Jai Shri Ram’ [Hail Lord Ram],” he told Al Jazeera, using the Gujarati and Hindi words.

As Gul saw his home with all its memories and earnings turn to ashes, he rushed to the erstwhile ruling Thakurs for help.

“They simply told us to leave before they burned us too. That is the help they gave us,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Everyone in the village respected our ancestor who died so that the rest could live in peace. But when these mobs came, no one rose forward to stop them,” he said.

“We had to leave the village our ancestor had once saved.”

‘For them, Muslim can never mean Indian’

Gul and his brothers Deen and Anwar took shelter in a relief camp in Idar town, 21km (13 miles) from Mudeti. For a year, the camp was their home, like thousands of other Muslim victims of the 2002 pogrom across Gujarat.

Gul now lives in Himatnagar, a town about 50km (31 miles) from Mudeti, and “shudders at the thought” of returning to his ancestral place. He worries a new carnage may unfold in the village as hate crimes against Muslims see an unprecedented rise across India in recent days.

His elder brother Deen, however, started going back to Mudeti five years ago to offer his obeisance at his forefather Shah Beg’s shrine, which incidentally was built by the Thakurs.

Deen, 75, now lives in a rented brick house in Mudeti. He says local Hindus also revered Shah Beg Makrani and used to visit his shrine until the 2002 carnage.

“After the biggest massacre of Muslims and their sentiments in Gujarat, they stopped visiting the shrine. It has become an unsaid rule in the village,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They make sure even their houses, their gates, even their cows have Hindu symbols.”

Mudeti village in Gujarat, India
Deen Mohammed with his family at their rented house in Mudeti village [Tarushi Aswani/Al Jazeera]

Twenty years later, as India’s Muslims face near-daily hatred and attacks, Deen says: “Despite him [Shah Beg Makrani] dying to save our village from the British, they [Hindus] don’t even once think of us as Indians. For them, Muslim can never mean Indian, even if they sacrifice their lives for the country.”

“Forget my ancestors, even I had guarded houses of fellow villagers when the rioters arrived in 2002. What did I get? I had to sell my land for whatever money I got to start a life from scratch and that too, far away from the land of my ancestors.”

Hindus in Mudeti know about the Makrani family. A local resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “When Hindus of a particular village did not participate in the harassment of Muslims, organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal sent boxes filled with bangles to the men of such Hindu houses in order to question their masculinity, to instigate them into targeting Muslims.”

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, are far-right Hindu groups affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Members belonging to all these groups were accused of the 2002 Gujarat massacres.

As this year marks 20 years of the pogrom, more than 16,000 Muslims remain internally displaced in their own state, according to a report by the Centre for Social Justice in 2013.

“I am happy that I am able to recite Surah Fatiha at Shah Beg’s grave sometimes but the pride I took in calling Mudeti my village has been swallowed by communal politics,” says Deen.

Shrine of Shah Beg Makrani in Mudeti, Gujarat
The shrine of Shah Beg Makrani in Mudeti village, Gujarat [Tarushi Aswani/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera