After Riots, Some Muslims Fear for Their Future in India

March 21, 2002

After Riots, Some Muslims Fear for Their Future in



AHMEDABAD, India, March 20 ? The mobs set fire to the

lobby of the Signor Hotel but left the Opel car

dealership next door untouched. Just below the charred

shell of the Neeltop Hotel, a sweet shop is doing a

brisk business. Under bright white lights, dinner is

served at Vaibhav restaurant. But the Topaz next door

is incinerated and another once-popular restaurant

upstairs is black with soot.

A drive through this city reveals the design of the

mobs that went on a violent rampage here three weeks

ago. Hindu-owned businesses have been spared.

Muslim-owned businesses have been burned, and their

blackened hulks dot the landscape. Their smashed

windows stare out like so many gouged-out eyes.

The violence began when a Muslim mob set fire to a

train carrying hard-line Hindus. The fire, near a

station 95 miles north of here, killed 58 Hindus on

board. The next day Hindu mobs took to the streets

here with pistols, knives and cans of kerosene. By the

end, more than 600 people had been killed across the

state, most of them in this city.

More than 60,000 were displaced from their homes into

makeshift relief camps. The vast majority of them are


Among the hardest-hit Muslim establishments here are

those that served some of the city's most observant

Hindus. Owned by a small, prosperous Muslim community

called the Cheliyas, they were a string of what are

called "pure vegetarian" restaurants, establishments

that cater to the most particular of Hindu


The Cheliyas took pains not to stick out in the

Hindu-majority parts of the city. No posters of Mecca

and Medina hung on their walls. They employed Hindu

cooks. The names of their restaurants contained no

trace of Islamic identity. One was called Tulsi, the

Hindi word for the holy basil used in Hindu

ceremonies. Another was called Annapurna, after a

Hindu goddess.

"We have to live here, we have to die here," explained

Ismail Heera, a Cheliya Muslim who owns the Signor

Hotel and has a share in several vegetarian

restaurants in town. "This was just to mix with the

rest of the people."

The urge to fit in turned out not to be enough.

According to the state hotel federation, police

reports have been filed on behalf of 72 hotels and

restaurants that were destroyed, all but one of them

Muslim-owned. Statewide, a total of 147 Muslim-owned

properties have been destroyed to date. Others have

yet to file papers with the police, a federation

official said. By Mr. Heera's count, about 35 of the

properties were owned by residents of his village in

the Mehsana district just northwest of here, which is

home to the Cheliyas.

Exactly how their hotels and restaurants were

identified as Muslim-owned businesses remains a

mystery. Many of their patrons said they realized only

after seeing the charred remains that their owners

were Muslim. Mr. Heera and his fellow Muslim merchants

suspect the leaders of the rioters had done research

on their targets some time ago.

If the Cheliya Muslims were singled out at the top of

the economic ladder, their compatriots lower down also

have not been spared. Auto-rickshaw drivers dare not

leave the borders of the city's Muslim enclaves. The

same is true of scrap recyclers and vegetable vendors.

Auto mechanics, factory workers, and mattress stuffers

all languish in relief camps across the city, chased

from their homes in Hindu-majority areas. Women who

made their living doing sewing in their homes say they

have no idea when they will be able to work next. 

The mobs did more than kill and loot, said the Rev.

James Dabhi, a Jesuit priest who has been active in

the relief camps. "They have been able to demolish the

livelihood of these people," he said.

In recent days, fliers have circulated advising Hindus

not to patronize Muslim-owned establishments or work

at them. "It will be impossible for them to live in

any corner of this nation," read one pamphlet, signed

only by "a true Hindu patriot."

Violence has continued to simmer throughout the state.

Two people were killed in police shootings here today.

Four were gunned down in nearby villages on Tuesday.

In the Muslim parts of the city, where Muslim-owned

businesses still stand, commerce has ground to a halt.

Iqbal Tadha's place, the Royal Hotel, is empty. Some

of his Hindu workers have stayed on, but some are too

afraid to venture into the area.

During the riots, Mr. Tadha said, he hid the last of

his guests, all Hindus, until they could be safely

ferried to the train station.

In the Hindu areas of town, the most striking

reminders of mayhem are the empty shells of the

Cheliya hotels and restaurants. The steps leading to

the Hotel Chicago ? named after its owner, who makes

his home in the windy city ? are a carpet of broken


On the first morning of riots, a large mob set fire to

the sign of the Signor Hotel, recalled Ajit Biswas,

19, a hotel employee. Then several dozen young men

came up the stairs with the tilak ? a red dot ?

smeared on their foreheads, alcohol on their breath,

knives and hammers in their hands. They spared the

workers cowering in the kitchen only after the

elevator man convinced their leader they were all


The rioters ripped air conditioning units from the

rooms and made off with mattresses and pillows. They

emptied the cash register in the restaurant and also

polished off the soda and ice cream.

The hotel, which took up the top two floors of a

building, was destroyed. The rest of the building,

from a law office to a car dealer, remained

practically unscathed.

Mr. Biswas was one of five of the hotel's 70-odd

workers who were still coming to work. He said he did

not plan to continue for long. It was not that he had

anything against his boss. "He looks after us like

we're his sons," he said. He was just scared.

"They may set fire here again," he said. "As soon as

we get paid, we'll leave."

Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Heera sat sipping tea with

friends in the courtyard of his apartment building

here and vowed to carry on. Yes, the Signor would

reopen, he said. Nothing like this would ever happen

again, he hoped. 

"We can't just run away," he said. "We feel hurt. But

we have to face it." 

But Mr. Heera admitted he has started to consider

alternative, safer locations. The losses at the Signor

alone, he estimated, would add up to $500,000.


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