2012 marked ten years since India witnessed one of the worst riots it had ever seen, in the state of Gujarat. Communal tensions hadn't changed much since then and we were on the lookout for how sports was helping ease tensions and unite people.
It was during the lookout for such a story that my photographer friend Priyanka Kaur Oberoi, who was then on an assignment in Ahmedabad, heard from local sources about a maidan which had transformed from a playground for people from all race, caste and religion to a hotbed for violence during the riots. The ground used to be used for playing mostly cricket pre-2002, but the day the riots began, it had apparently been turned into a no man's land. Allegedly, there used to be floodlights on both sides of the maidan, and two communities took refuge on either side, attacking anyone who made it across. This is the story of the search for that maidan.
Pappu bhai has been driving the autorickshaw for more than 20 years in Ahmedabad, the largest city and former capital of the state of Gujarat. After arriving in Ahmedabad, he was the third auto driver to take Priyanka and me around the city. But unlike others who preferred to concentrate on getting us where we needed to be at, he was chatty and forthcoming.
We were accompanied by Rasheeda, a social worker, who was showing us around areas in the city where different sports were played. We went from Jamalpur to Behrampur and then to Danilimda. Many of the grounds had been taken up by the government and had been given out on rent. OUr guide didn't stay for long, as she rushed off to do some errands after dropping off us at Salem Housing Society in Danilimda, giving us the freedom of exploring the city in search of the infamous ground.
At the Salem Housing Society, we met Kantibhai, a security guard who was taking care of a piece of land owned by a prominent Gujarati businessman. Few kids were playing on the land that was meant for property development. We head to the kids, who as usual are fascinated by the DSLR camera in Priyanka's hands, and have by now stopped playing. But after coaxing them to play on, for us to click some pictures, they play doubly as hard.
|Cricket bats lie next to a makeshift wicket made of stones and bricks at Salem Housing Society (Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi)|
We head to Kantibhai to talk about the dhamaal, the word they use to mention about the riots that ensued in 2002 (dhamaal roughly translates to ruckus in Hindi). He asks us if we can see any curfew right now, and keeps on mentioning ‘sab baraabar hai’ (everything’s alright now), going on in detail about how bad things were and how more peaceful it is right now.
|Kids enjoy a game of cricket at a land meant for property development at Salem Housing Society|
(Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi)
|A kid bowls to his friend at the ground (Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi)|
While on the way back, he tells us, “If you really want to see a ground that played a huge part in the dhamaal, then you should head out to Millat Nagar. That was one of the worst affected areas. They have a ground there by the name of Sone Ka Kheth. They used to play a number of games there – cricket, football, volleyball, you name it. But once the dhamaal began, it became no man’s land for the two communities that used to live together with such harmony.”
We ask him what became of the ground. He tells us that people still play in that area, but most of the ground has now been taken up by a new police station, that wasn’t there when the riots happened. We felt like we were getting somewhere courtesy of Pappu bhai and enquire more. He tells us most of the grounds and lands are now being used to construct houses and societies. We thanked Pappu bhai for the information, when he dropped us off at the hotel. We knew where to head next.
Early next morning we headed to Millat Nagar on the virtue of the previous day’s information from Pappu bhai. A dusty road welcomed us into the Millat Nagar area, laden with people, some with road side eateries, tea shops, some selling meat (quite a rarity in a mainly vegetarian state), alongside goats and cows roaming quite freely.
We found the maidan, and as Pappu bhai had mentioned, there was a huge police station on one side of the ground. On the other extreme stood a petrol pump, with a few high rises dotted around the same vicinity. We headed to one of the nearby buildings, for a birds eye view of the area.
|The alleged infamous ground at Millat Nagar in 2012. Notice the kids playing gilli-danda (tip-cat) at the bottom.|
(Photo by Nishath Nizar)
Since it was the week of Milad-un-Nabi, the birth of Prophet Muhammed, the streets of Millat Nagar on the side of the Chandola lake was replete with colourful flags, lights and an aura of celebration. We decided to head into the slums to the side of the Chandola lake, where we could see a muezzin playing cricket with some kids.
Walking through the thin lanes, we encountered people making brooms, goats tethered to the front of homes, local artisans doing embroidery and all the hustle bustle of closed ghetto. We found our way through a path laden with human and animal excreta alike (with a kid actually doing his business in an open toilet) to get to the now dry Chandola lake in Leela ka Khetra.
|A muezzin plays along with kids at the dried-up Chandola Lake in Millat Nagar|
(Photo by Priyanka Kaur Oberoi)
There is no mention of the dhamaal, only of brotherhood and love. I volunteered to throw a few balls, which all got hit to the far end of the boundaries, by little kids. With that battering we left the place to head to Jamalpur, where Rasheeda was waiting for us.
You might have heard of the Sarkhej Roza and the Kirti Mandir in Gujarat, but not many of you must have heard of Kooch ki Masjid, one of the oldest mosques in Ahmedabad. That is where we headed to next or rather to the colony next to the Kooch ki Masjid.
“It was a personal tragedy for me in 2002. I lived across the street with my Hindu neighbours. But slowly, but steadily the segregation happened, and we now live in communal ghettos” says Rasheeda as she took us to her home.
The room, all of just 15 foot wide and 10 foot broad, has just the bare necessities, with two beds, a corner converted to kitchen space and a fridge. We are soon joined by her husband, Abdul Manaf, and two of her three children, Javed and Junaid.
“We are waiting for a bhai, who had organised a volleyball competition between the Muslims of this area and the slum dwellers near the Phool Bazaar area, near the banks of the river Sabarmati,” she tells us as she offers us cold drinks.
She had earlier been working with Aman Samuday and was now with the Jan Vikas Organisation. For the past 10 years she has been working closely with people who have been displaced, giving them place to stay, enquiring about their compensation from the government, their current psyche and much more.
In the midst of our conversation, Munaf confirms to us about the ground that we visited earlier. “It is true about Sone ka Khetr becoming a hotbed during the violence. What happened after 2002 is that the Hindus and Muslims living together near the (Chandola) talaab (lake) have moved away and live on the other side of the road. We don’t go to their area, they don’t come to our area. People want to live free now. So if there is something happening outside let it happen. If we live with people of our own community, then we have more trust among ourselves”, says Munaf.
There is also talk of how the peace that we see outside is not embedded deep within. There is still fear, there is still suspicion, but not shown more outwardly.
Meanwhile, the young man we have been waiting from comes into the room. Imtiaz Makrani, 24, runs his father’s grocery shop near the Kooch ki Masjid.
“My papa and uncle used to live in the slums near the Jagannath Mandir, and used to play with people from around that area. When we were kids, they would take us along with them. We've had a relation with them since then, and today only Hindus live in that area. But we continued playing with each other, even after the dhamaal. We decided to take this a step forward and decided to conduct a tournament, which went on for two weeks. There were five Muslim teams from our area, and five Hindu teams from different areas like Saraspur, Behrampur, Jagannath Mandir and Isanpur. In the end, the team from Jagannath Mandir won the tournament and were presented with a trophy sponsored by the local businesses,” explains Makrani.
He invites us to meet with the winning team at the volleyball court next to the Jagannath Mandir.
We walk towards the Phool Bazaar, where a crowd awaits us under floodlights. We were not able to differentiate the team from the spectators and it was some time before normalcy returned. Imtiaz introduces us to the players and vice-versa.
Solanki Urvesh Kanyalal is one of the players for the Jagannath Mandir team. He tells us that his father and his other family members used to play volleyball at the state and national level.
“Sport is that one binding factor that unites us all. Many people do say that sport doesn’t bind and that competition breeds more hatred. But tell me if that is the case; would Irfan bhai and Yusuf bhai be in the Indian team? They play for humanity, they play for India,” Kanyalal tell us.
We were also introduced to Pankajbhai Chauhan, president of the colony near the Jagannath Mandir, who has been instrumental in conducting tournaments in the area.
“There is no religion for a sportsperson. He wants to play in peace, and only more love can be spread by conducting tournaments like this, with Hindu-Muslim bhai playing side by side. And not just play, but also do everything together. Toh yeh danga fasaad ka koi maina rakhta nahin hai. Hum baichare se rahte hai, aur rahenge. (These riots do not have any meaning. We live in peace, and will continue to do so),” concluded Chauhan before they began their nightly practice routine.
Sport is not a cure-all for development problems. As a cultural phenomenon, it is a mirror of society and is just as complex and contradictory. It has been used in a number of ways by the United Nations, benefitting peace building, conflict resolution, communication and social mobilisation and so many more.
The people of Gujarat do not wish to delve on their past and carry a grudge for the rest of their life. Sports with its unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire is doing its part in bringing together communities. At the same time, the government of Gujarat need to realize that building infrastructure in the name of development, while at the same time neglecting the sporting requirements of a state, will only make legends like Vinoo Mankad turn in his grave and talents like the Pathan brothers, Pujara and Undadkat defect to other states.
From what we saw, heard and experienced in the few days that we stayed in Ahmedabad, one can not forget these lines by the Sufi saint poet Vali Gujarati:
Gujarat ke firaq se hai khaar khaar dil
Betaab hai seenay mane atish bahar dil
Marham nahin hai iske zakhm ka jahan mane
Shamshir e hijr se jo hua hai figar dil
(My heart is thorn- filled with longing for Gujarat
Restless, frantic, flame- wrapped in the spring
On earth there exists no balm for its wound
My heart split asunder by the dagger of separation)