The Garba in Gujarat used to be – yes, used to be – a synthesis of social, economic, generational, and cultural contradictions. A representative of its typical mercantile ethos seeped in an undefined you-give-some-I-give-some attitude of mutual agreement – leaving both half-happy, half-sad, but content that the deal didn’t go sour. It was that nine-day folk dance festival in honour of Goddess Amba where all caste and religious differences collapsed under one inclusive umbrella of youthful fervour and gaiety.
Yet another evidence that the fabric was long sullied reflected on September 27, 2022, when four Muslim youngsters were thrashed at a garba venue in Ahmedabad for trying to “barge into” Hindu festivities.
Some half a dozen Bajrang Dal toughies wearing saffron scarves spotted them at the entrance of RK Party Plot on the upmarket Sindhu Bhavan Road while applying tilak on the forehead of all the men who entered the venue.
Videos of the incident that went viral showed the Bajrang Dal men asking the four what were they doing in the Navratri festival of the Hindus and then they started beating them up. Another video showed one of them, who identified himself as Salman Shaikh, being stripped of his shirt, punched and kicked.
The police told the media that they were verifying the authenticity of the video while Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal office-bearers took responsibility of the incident.
Gujarat VHP spokesperson Hitendrasinh Rajput said they were indeed scanning Garba venues randomly to prevent people from other religions joining Navratri celebrations.
“We had warned that people from other religions should not be seen at any Garba venue. Still, when those four went there, our volunteers drove them out. Garba becomes ideal places to start love jihad,” he said.
This is exactly what the Madhya Pradesh Government also said when insisting on verifying the Aadhar Card or any identity card of those entering garba pandals.
Has This Been A Trend for The Last Few Years?
While this episode shocked many, the Muslims at large in Ahmedabad were not surprised. “What is new about this? This has been happening for the last at least four to five years,” asserts Mujahid Nafees, convenor of the Muslim Coordination Committee, a non-political organisation that works for the development of the community.
He said, “Most Muslims have stopped going to the garba venues for at least five years. But yes, they do check the identities of people. This is not the first time.”
“The dirty politics of communal divide has split Ahmedabad into Muslim and non-Muslim zones – the syncretic tradition has been broken with a design. Social and cultural exclusion is a key tool to achieve this divide,” Nafees added.
Chintan Shipali, a senior journalist in Vadodara who runs a Gujarati city portal, said, “There is nothing surprising about this. They do check identity and ask Muslim boys to leave since they think they spread love jihad. But ironically, they allow Muslim girls to participate in these celebrations.”
Vadodara is known for largely preserving the traditional art form of Garba, though Bollywood beats are heard there too in recent years – many enthusiasts from outside Gujarat also come here.
Khairunnisa Pathan, a women rights activist based in Ahmedabad, wasn't surprised either, “Yes, I know, during every Navratri we hear of some such episode as the one that happened on Sindhu Bhavan Road. But nobody from my locality who went for the garba this time complained about any such experience with them.”
The tradition of all communities participating in Garba had continued, though perceivably in a quieter way after the 2002 communal riots that drove a sharp wedge between mixed neighbourhoods of Hindus and Muslims to separate them into well-defined ghettos – the biggest one being Juhapura on the new western side of Ahmedabad that touches the National Highway 8A (NH 8A).
This is where Khairunnisa Pathan and Mujahid Nafees live. “It was difficult for me. I grew up until my 20’s in Ahmedabad’s Chandkheda area in a mixed neighbourhood where Hindus and Muslims used to visit one another, celebrate all festivals, especially Garba, Diwali, and Eid," Pathan said.
“Our family had to move to Juhapura after our home in Chandkheda was burned down by mobs. From a mixed neighbourhood to a Muslim ghetto was a difficult transition. My friends and I continued to go for Garba in traditional attire, though not frequently like in the past, and some of the old people in Juhapura didn’t appreciate this much. They didn’t object very strongly, but appeared more worried,” she added.
Asked about the saffron brigade's charge of love jihad charge during Garba, Khairunnisa quipped, “Do people of any religion fall in love only during the nine days of Navratri, leave alone inter-community relations? We have taken it in our stride – so those who have been going for Garba will still go, maybe less frequently.”
A Shrinking Space for Interaction
Another Muslim resident in Ahmedabad spoke to The Quint on condition on anonymity. She pointed out that school and college students (of all religions) have been going to the garba events organised by their respective institutions in traditional dresses.
“Today, children in my colony went for a garba event organised in their school,” she said.
Like many in their neighbourhood, Pathan went to watch garba this year. She made an interesting point about many people avoiding going for Garba, “The sheri garba (street garba or those happening in open public grounds) has gone extinct, making way for a more commercial version.”
“Nowadays, Garbas take place in party plots and one has to buy expensive passes (tickets) to go there. It becomes difficult to go regularly since we have to take an autorickshaw which would charge not less than Rs 100 to Rs 150 one-way since Garba venues are far from where we live. And then, one has to buy the ticket which costs anywhere from Rs 200 to Rs 400 per person at a proper place,” she added.
Saroopben Dhruv, an eminent progressive writer, poet, playwright and rights activist whose 2018 Gujarati book, Shahernama, poignantly captures the rise of saffron forces in Gujarat, says, “There has been a social, cultural and a gradual economic exclusion of the Muslims (in Gujarat). They (the BJP) have created a situation where every person is a voter or a non-voter. Ahmedabad – and most major cities -- has been completely split into communal zones where the space for interaction has shrunk.”
This is why the discrimination against Muslims at Garba venues doesn’t surprise Saroopben. But it saddens her.
(The writer is Founder Editor, Development News Network [DNN], Gujarat)