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India election 2014: Welcome to Bhavnagar, where Muslims are free to live – as long as they change their name

Many Hindus don't want to live next door to a Muslim

The bungalow on Bhavnagar’s Sanatorium Road needs a lick of paint but its spacious plot and location in a quiet residential area would draw the eye of many a prospective buyer.

It certainly caught the attention of Ali Asghar Zaveri, a Muslim scrap metal dealer, who completed the purchase at the beginning of the year and was preparing to move in. But the 30-year-old Mr Zaveri has not been able to occupy his property because many of his prospective Hindu neighbours do not want to live next to a Muslim.

For the last few months, residents of the Krishna Nagar neighbourhood have been sitting outside Mr Zaveri’s property, chanting Hindu prayers and banging metal plates in protest. This week, the issue earned national attention after the leader of an extremist Hindu organisation delivered a speech in which he allegedly urged the residents to occupy the property by force and not to fear the law.

“Go with stones, tyres and tomatoes,” Pravin Togadia, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), reportedly said.

Delivered half-way through India’s election process, the speech by Mr Togadia was condemned by presumed front-runner Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet the dispute has drawn attention to the increasing polarisation – political, social and geographic – between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, where Mr Modi is serving his fourth term as chief minister.

When The Independent visited Krishna Nagar, four police officers outside the bungalow claimed everything was peaceful. Yet the sense of calm was perhaps deceiving.

A rare Muslim family living nearby said they had been in the area for 30 years and had not experienced any problems. Yet they said Hindu residents did not want new Muslim arrivals. The atmosphere had become tense since Mr Togadia gave his speech.

“We have had no problems. But in this area there are many new Hindu residents. The new people don’t want any more Muslims to settle here,” said Nilufa Lakhani, who has three children.

Her husband, Khalid, said that Mr Zaveri had come and asked him about the neighbourhood and that he told him it was peaceful. He said he knew many cases in Bhavnagar where Muslims had faced similar problems and that the situation had worsened since the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in which the city had suffered badly.

“Whenever you go to buy or rent, the people are dissenting. Their mind-set is that we are traitors,” he said.

Nobody in Krishna Nagar admitted to having been involved in the protests. One man said to have been an organiser refused to comment and loudly admonished his neighbours for discussing the matter.

BJP campaigning in Krishna Nagar area

Yet a number of residents explained the opposition to Mr Zaveri. They claimed most Hindus in Gujarat were strictly vegetarian and the residents would be “upset” by the eating habits of non-vegetarian neighbours. Several said they feared the arrival of Mr Zaveri would lead to more Muslims and that the neighbourhood would stop being Hindu. One man claimed Muslims were not clean.

One Hindu resident, Seema Shah, claimed property prices in the area would fall if a Muslim bought a house because “no Hindu would want to stay next to a Muslim”.  “The big problem is of the different culture, the food habits,” said Ms Shah, who claimed the area was full of staunch BJP supporters.

At times, it seems that efforts to keep Krishna Nagar a Hindu area have gone to extreme lengths. One Muslim resident said they had been forced to take on a Hindu name and have a purification ritual, or hawan, involving a fire, performed at their home, in order to remain in the neighbourhood after buying their house.

“There was a ritual right here,” said the resident, who said their parents were of different religions. “Everyone who was involved in this matter came. Now the matter is closed. It’s peaceful.”

The person added: “We wanted to stay in our beautiful house. That is why we changed our name. They asked us to change our surname. They said if you want to stay here, change your name. So that was the solution we came to.”

The person asked not to be identified and declined to identify which residents had insisted on the name change. Another resident, a Hindu, who also asked not to be identified, confirmed the person’s claim, saying the name-changing happened two years ago.

Mr Zaveri bought the bungalow from Kishorsinh Gohil, a businessman who had in turn bought it three years ago with the intention of giving it to his son, who decided he did not like it. “There was no problem and then word leaked out,” he said. “I am not sure who created the problem.”

Charges have been filed against Mr Togadia and the authorities are said to be examining a video recording of the speech he delivered. He has denied the comments and said people were defaming him.

Mr Togadia, who has been previously accused of making similar speeches, failed to respond to questions. However, a VHP leader in Bhavnagar, SD Jani, said he had invited Mr Togadia to visit Bhavnagar and that people wanted to hear him speak.

Mr Jani said they were supporting the residents of Krishna Nagar and he denied that the president of the VHP, which has close links to Mr Modi’s BJP, had made a hate speech. “He said only that the person who purchased the property should go back to his Muslim locality,” he said.

Asked whether the VHP’s actions were damaging India’s attempts to achieve religious and ethnic inclusion, he said it would be better if communities lived in different areas. He even called for the imposition of the state’s so-called disturbed areas act in Bhavnagar so that Hindus and Muslims were prevented from buying property in areas that were predominantly of the other religion.

As it is, Mr Jani’s wish for Hindus and Muslims to live in separate areas is already happening in large parts of urban Gujarat. Areas such as Juhapura in Ahmedabad, where up to 450,000 Muslims live, is separated from Hindu areas by a high wall. Others neighbourhoods such as Citizens’ Nagar, bought by charities as temporary resettlement camps after the 2002 violence which left 2,000 people dead, still do not have regular water, roads or sanitation.

Yet rather than being addressed, the polarisation during Mr Modi’s 12 years as chief minister has increased. The disturbed areas act – initially introduced in 1991 to protect minorities from distress sales in the wake of violence – is now in place in 40 per cent of Ahmedabad. Last summer India’s Supreme Court questioned whether, 12 years after the 2002 killings, so many parts of Ahmedabad remained sensitive areas.

The Indian Express newspaper commented: “More Muslims and Hindus have moved into separate spaces in Gujarat, finding trust and assurance only among neighbours of their own community, and it has ended up entrenching segregation and shutting Muslims out of the mainstream.”

Ikram Baig, of the Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat, said ghettoisation had started in the 1980s, increasing every time there was violence. Now even wealthy Muslims were buying homes in places such as Juhapura, he said, adding that Mr Modi had never made any genuine attempt to reach out to Muslims. “If he had done it with his heart, then maybe people would have believed him. But his heart is so hard because of his ideology.”

Mr Zaveri has yet to comment on his property dispute and appears to be lying low. He failed to respond to phone calls. His mother, Nafisa, who lives in a narrow lane close to Bhavnagar’s Haluriya roundabout, said she had not seen her son recently and claimed she knew nothing about the bungalow.

Yet she said she had been upset when she learned of Mr Togadia’s speech. She said: “How can India just be a Hindu area if there are Muslims here as well?”