Modi’s Muslim Fans

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They do exist. And have been growing more vocal by the day. What this says about a minority that has been under pressure in Gujarat

Good Muslim, bad Muslim. Such labels are common nowadays. Raoof Bangali has become “a good Muslim”, one hears. He has become so by embracing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the Hindutva icon widely seen as the perpetrator of the state’s worst ever communal carnage that took place a little less than a decade ago. Since 2009, on 17 September every year, Raoof has publicly been cutting a cake to celebrate Modi’s birthday.

As one who was lucky to escape the arson, looting and massacre of 2002, Raoof does not pretend to know nothing about it; he merely calls it a “period of misfortune”. And this year, too, he gathered a small crowd of Muslims—mostly migrants from West Bengal—at Ahmedabad’s Jamalpur Darwaza for his ritual cake-cutting ceremony in honour of the CM. It just so happened that Modi began his Sadbhavana fast for ‘peace, unity and harmony’ around the same time.

Jamalpur Darwaza is located near Manik Chowk, a gold jewellery hub that bustles with Muslim ornament-makers, mostly migrants from West Bengal who live and work in dingy rooms in the dark alleys of this part of the old city. Raoof, who runs his own jewellery unit in this locality, heads the local Bengali migrants’ association, and claims a sense of responsibility for the careers and well-being of his fellow migrants. He has joined the ‘minority cell’ of the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Modi, and hopes that it will serve him well in the years ahead. “It was on Diwali last year that I met Modiji for the first time. Thereafter, I have had several meetings with him,” he claims proudly, “In 2015 [for the city’s next municipal polls], I will certainly get a BJP ticket.”

Raoof has already been of some help to Modi in getting across to Ahmedabad’s Muslims. As a leader of the city’s Bengali migrants, he helped BJP workers campaign in the Muslim ghettos of his municipal ward for the local elections held a few months ago. More recently, he played an active role in directing a regular flow of Muslim visitors—mostly fellow migrants but in skullcaps—to the venue where Modi was holding his two-and-a-half-day fast, video clips of which were widely televised across the country.

For Raoof, the cost-benefit calculation may have included a BJP election ticket, but he and his Manik Chowk followers are not alone in doing such arithmetic. No different has been the stance of many Muslims of Gujarati origin. Bohras and Khojas, the state’s two biggest groups of traders who profess Islam as their faith, have always tended to support whichever regime has been in power. As observers recall, in the pre-1947 days, many of their leaders tilted towards the British, after Independence towards the Congress, and, of late, they have leaned towards the BJP. They have been among the first to look past allegations of the Modi-led government’s complicity in the post-Godhra pogrom of March 2002. Today, many of them, especially the wealthy, are vocal members of the Modi fan club in Gujarat.

The Sareshwalas, who run a financial business and a BMW dealership, count among the richest Bohra families in the state, and their call to “move forward” has struck many business families as a call of the times. Family member Zafar Sareshwala, CEO of Parsoli Corp, a champion of ‘Islamic investment’ in India, is full of praise for Modi’s development model in the state. “In 2002,” he says, “we were ruined financially. My brother and I shifted to London. I even filed a case against Modi in the International Court of Justice. But you cannot fight endlessly. Running away was not a workable option. Many people went to Kolkata and Hyderabad, but most of them had to come back two or three years later. It was in this environment of hopelessness that, on the advice of Mahesh Bhatt, we decided to sit down and talk to the man himself. We are very grateful to Mahesh Bhatt who was instrumental in organising a meeting with Modi. This, I suppose, he did through Rajat Sharma of India TV. Our meeting with Modi took place in London on either the 20th or 21st of August.”

According to Zafar, the meeting lasted for over two hours, and also present—apart from Rajat Sharma—was Maulana Isha Mansuri, a Deoband-educated Islamic scholar based in London. “In October that year, I had a telephonic conversation with Modi, who asked me to return home and restart our business. Within weeks, we were back in Ahmedabad. Modi was very straightforward and cooperative. Rather than getting into conspiracy theories, we decided to take Modi at face value and move forward. Now, the attitude of Gujarat’s Muslims towards Modi has started changing. The BJP is also changing. Modi’s growth model has been successful. It has been of equal benefit to Muslims.”

The businessman insists that people of all religious groups have prospered under Modi, even if the evidence he cites is a sample far from random in its selection. “Last year, we sold a record 320 BMWs in the state, and 31 of them were bought by Muslims. Isn’t that an indicator that they too have prospered under Modi? This year, we expect to sell more than 450.”

Aware perhaps of how unrepresentative luxury car ownership sounds, Sareshwala summons another set of numbers to show that the benefits of development are also reaching Muslims who earn less. “Madrassas are run primarily on zakat [an Islamic levy meant to fund social welfare]. Gujarat now provides 55 per cent of total zakat collections in India,” he claims, “This, again, is a measure of prosperity among Muslims. Modi’s growth model has considerably contributed to this.”

There are many Muslim businessmen like Sareshwala in Gujarat who see an advantage in conforming with majoritarian impulses in a state that holds out rich rewards for it. But there are voices of protest too. “I know Zafar Sareshwala [and this lot] very well. These are businessmen and their interest lies in money,” says the Vadodara-based scholar and social activist Professor JS Bandukwala, a victim of the 2002 carnage himself, “Gujarat is a business state. Bohras, Memons and Khojas are largely upper middle-class Muslims. Their point of view is to forget the issue of justice and move on. They are hurting the cause of victims [of the pogrom]. A few days back, we were together, and I told Zafar that ‘I am pained that I could not win you over.’ He stayed silent.”

Modi, even as he makes speeches about Gujaratis being Gujaratis, has clearly worked out which Muslims he can count on. The CM has been focusing, even if cautiously, on soliciting the support of Muslims who owe allegiance to the Barelvi school of thought (Deobandi being the other main one in India). His caution, however, kicked up a row on 18 September, the second day of his Sadbhavana fast, when he refused to wear a skullcap that was offered by Maulana Hazrat Sufi Imam Sahi Sayeed Mehendi Husain, better known as Pirana Baba. The Barelvi cleric left the venue without a fuss, but only to vent his indignation soon after: “The refusal to accept the cap is not an insult to me but an insult to Islam. I wanted to felicitate Modi after hearing about the Sadbhavana Mission fast. I offered him a cap on stage, but he said he would not wear it. I think he feared that wearing a skullcap may dent his image.”

Such outbursts notwithstanding, most of Gujarat’s vulnerable know better than to speak out of turn. The Muslim sub-community of traders, for example, seem eager to offer Modi their overt support. After all, he is the man credited for all the cash being generated in Gujarat, with its economy booming. It is best, they say, to move on.

Many other Muslims seem to have taken a cue from that. Some even make a big show of it. Consider the curious case of ZA Sacha, former deputy municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad, who became the talk of the town on the second day of Modi’s fast when he was seen sitting, regally attired like an Arab sheikh, amid BJP leaders on Modi’s stage. With his white thobe (robe) and keffiyeh (head cloth) held in place by an agal (black rim), Sacha gave the impression of someone who’d flown down from the deserts of Arabia to express solidarity with Narendra Modi.

“White is my favourite colour, and this attire is worn by Muslims. Every Friday, I offer namaaz in this dress,” says Sacha, speaking to Open after the

event. One couldn’t help notice how isolated he’d looked on stage, the chair beside him staying unoccupied all through. Sacha has an explanation for this too: “The chair was full of droppings of pigeons perched on a fan above that was not moving, and it was vacant because no one dared sit on it. But I was treated well, and was even offered water by some BJP leaders. I didn’t accept it since I was observing a day-long roza for Narendra Modi, and you know that [to properly observe] roza, you don’t even take water.”

Sacha boasts of a “personal relationship” with Modi and eulogises the CM’s “development vision”, but unlike the Bengali migrant leader Raoof, denies that he has political ambitions. It’s a hesitant denial. Asked whether he’d accept a rumoured BJP election ticket coming his way, he says, “I will see when the time comes, but at the moment, I have no plans to enter politics.”

An opportunity has been sensed by others as well. Of late, Gujarat has seen several instances of Muslim retired public officials aligning themselves publicly with Modi: such as former DGP SS Khandvawala and retired senior police officer AI Saiyed, among others. It won’t be surprising if Sacha too joins this gradually expanding tribe of retired ‘Muslims for Modi’.

Sacha’s Sadbhavana show, however, has sparked something of a fracas within the community. The head of Ahmedabad’s Jama Masjid, Shabir Ahmad Siddiqui, has objected strongly to Sacha’s claim of having observed a day-long fast for Modi. “If a roza is observed in the name of Allah, only then is it considered a roza,” says the Maulana, “But if you do it in the name of Modi or any individual, then you cannot call it roza.”

The Maulana himself has been on good terms with Modi, although he did not visit the venue of the latter’s Sadbhavana fast. Nor does he think it enough to win Muslims over. “Modi should be doing what he ought to do as Chief Minister,” he says, “His fast cannot heal the wounds of the victims of 2002. That will happen only if the culprits are punished.” On his rapport with Modi, the Maulana says, “He is the Chief Minister of Gujarat. And so, for any work, I go only to him. I meet him quite often and tell the truth to his face. But he listens and often agrees.” The Maulana insists, however, that he maintains a distance from politics—from both the BJP and Congress.

In contrast, one Muslim who has literally saffronised himself is Khursheed Suma, a 25-year-old resident of Rajkot. A geography graduate from Saurashtra University, Khursheed looks rather striking in a saffron kurta and skullcap of the same colour. He claims himself to be president of the official Modi Fan Club he set up on the CM’s birthday in 2005. “Modi himself inspired me to set up this club when I got an opportunity to meet him around the end of 2004. Initially, it was called Shri Narendrabhai Modi Fan Club. But later, Purushottam Rupala [seen as the CM’s right-hand man] made me change its name to Modi Fan Club. At the moment, Hindus outnumber Muslims in the club. Soon, I plan to organise the Muslim members of this club separately; they will always be at Modi’s service.” Khursheed, however, does bear a minor grudge. “Some of the Hindu members of the club have got positions in the party. But I am always ignored. Yet, I hope things will change one day.” If anything dampens his zeal, it’s a mention of 2002. It stumps him into silence.

No doubt, many Muslims in Gujarat today swear by Modi, few though they still may be. And those who do, are doing so outside the closet. Several BJP flags flutter in Muslim ghettos such as Juhapura in Ahmedabad, with no apparent protest from adherents of the faith. Till recently, this was unthinkable. But then, the unthinkable can easily become conceivable once a group of people is forced into a corner.

If anything, it’s a sign of suffocation. In a state that seems saffronised beyond relief, loud protestations of love for the Hindutva mascot are but a survival ploy. Muslim life and limb may no longer be at stake, but livelihood still is: be it by means of a business or job, big or small. Pretence in Gujarat has a purpose. Phone a Muslim resident of the state, and if you hear a ‘patriotic’ caller tune, you know you have rung a ‘good Muslim’, a likely member of an official or unofficial Modi fan club.