[Reader-list] Space and Violence in Vatva, Ahmedabad

Moyukh Chatterjee moyukhchatterjee at rediffmail.com
Fri Jun 24 21:08:53 IST 2005

Posting may-June 2005

In this posting, we have attempted an oral history of the area under study: a neighbourhood that encompasses two old colonies – an OBC basti of Vaaghris (Subcaste-Chunars) and a Saiyid Muslim mohalla, both of which are flanked on either sides by new and old neighbourhoods of Hindus/Muslims. The violence of 2002 links all these neighbourhoods together in contemporary times, but on the other hand and in other times, as their own history reveals, there existed centuries old relationships of interdependence and hoary legends of syncretism between communities which have undergone a tremendous transformation. Whether traced back to changes in local-level politics, livelihood patterns, processes of industrialisation/urbanisation – our effort is to first make an inventory of these traces of change in that nebulous zone of consciousness – memory. 

It is in this regard that our latest trip to Ahmedabad has been intensive both in terms of our fieldwork and collection of data, as well as in terms of the direction our research has taken. We discovered many connections and linkages that we had not fully realised in previous trips; these have caused us to shift the focus of our project considerably. We present here the few major areas of concern that we identified.

We collected most of our data through informal conversations and freewheeling interviews with the residents of the colonies; we stressed on the older generation to construct the ‘history’ part of the narratives and the relatively younger generation gave us the ‘felt’ experience’ of changing relationships between the Muslims, OBC’s and the Hindus. Those who were willing had their interviews recorded while the others accepted copious notes being taken as they spoke. With a few we just spoke as we walked from one colony to the other. Our method for the interviews on the whole was ‘conversational’ and conducted with minimum direction; asking our interviewees to narrate their life history, we were surprised to find out, in the end, the rich yarn of struggles against adversity and the enmeshing of the memorable and the mundane, the fantastic and the material, and some life histories, at least to us, so deep and confusing that they merit undivided attention, as separate entities. We also collected some official data on the areas from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), local Municipal corporators, political workers and NGO’s working in the area. We met academics and journalists who have worked in the area of communalism and mobilisation of backward classes and gained some very useful insights and pointers.

History of Vatva Gaam (village) -
Vatva is a huge industrial area on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Originally agrarian farmland it was acquired by the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC, set up in 1962) in the early 60’s. Following that a number of industries were set up on this land leading to the settlement of new residential colonies in the area. Our work is restricted mainly to three such colonies Navapura (a new migrant colony of Muslims from the inner city as well as from U.P. and Bihar settled in the 1980’s, mostly post- 1985), Sayyidvada and Vaaghrivaas (old/original colonies of Muslims and Vaaghris settled for more than 700 years- according to the oral narratives of its residents). We also briefly looked at Rabaarivaas - a colony of Bharwaads (cattle herders/ breeders/ keepers who sell milk to the local population and dairy owners). The Bharwaads, the Saiyyid Muslims and the Vaaghris are the oldest ‘original’ communities of the area.  

When investigating the history of inter-community relations in the colonies we discovered a curious legendary history explaining the origins of the settlement. Each community provides different versions of the history of the area, converging at some points and diverging at others. All three communities – Saiyyid Muslim, Vaaghris and Bharwaads traced the begining of their settlement in Vatva to a Sufi saint called Hazrat Saiyyid Jalaluddin Bukhari- Makhdum Jahaniyan- Jahangast. 
Makhdum Jahaniyan (1307-1383) was a Sufi saint, part of the Suhrawardi Silsila. Born at Uch Sharif in Pakistan he was widely travelled and thus called 'jahangast' or a world traveller. The lineage of the saint is traced to the Prophet through his daughter Fatima. We were told that he came to what is today called Vatva during his travels around the world.

Bharwaad History: -
According to the Bharwaad narrative - Vatva, originally a jungle was the site for a small Bharwaad settlement. The jungle was full of wild animals that regularly attacked the cattle, proving to be quite a menace for the Bharwaads. One day an old man- a pir came to the jungle. This was Makhdum Jahaniyan. He approached a young boy grazing a bacchhdi (calf) and asked for a cup of milk. The boy explained that the animal was a calf and couldn’t possibly produce milk; instead he offered to take the man to his settlement in the evening where cows were kept and give him milk there. The old man however insisted on getting the milk from the cow and the boy began to think that the man was senile. The old man then stroked the calf with his hand and when the boy milked the calf, the cup became full of milk. The boy excited, reported this miracle to the elders of his community who decided to pay a visit to the “mahatma”. They visited him in his cottage where they saw him surrounded by “vaagh-bakri” (tiger and goats). He told them not to worry and come in. (This seems to tie up with an account of Makhdum Jahaniyan's miraculous powers, told to us by Muslims, of how he made a tiger kiss his feet). The Bharwaad then told the pir that the wild animals ate their cattle and made their living difficult and asked him to tell them where they should settle. The pir shot an arrow and told the Bharwaads to reside where it landed; that is how the Bharwaadvaas (literally colony of Bharwaads) came to be. Makhdum Jahaniyan also told the Bharwaads that two peedhis (generations) later people would come from ‘Arbastaan’ and these people would be the ‘jodidaar’ (partners) of the Bharwaads. These were the Saiyyid Muslims. The pir also instructed them to serve (sewa) Qutb-e-Alam, Jahaniyan's grandson also a Sufi saint, who would come to this area and settle down. Thus, with Qutb-e-Alam came the colony of Saiyyid Muslims that settled down in Saiyyidvada. According to the Bharwaad narrative one Vaatwa Bharwaad, who pleased Jahaniyan pir with his services, was promised by the pir that the village would be named after him. (And thus it was called Vatva instead of 'Qutubabad' after Qutb-e-Alam). 

Vaaghri History: -
The Vaaghris are currently counted as an OBC (Other Backward Castes) community but were listed as a ‘Criminal Tribe’ during British rule in India. The colony that we are studying is known both as Vaaghrivaas and Chunaravas. The peetajaati or caste of the residents is Vaaghri and their atak (surname/ subcaste) is Chunaaraa. According to the Vaaghri narrative Vatva was originally a jungle where 900 years ago four men came and settled down. These were “Qutb-e-Alam Baba, Kesariya Bhangi, Vatva Bharwaad and the Vaaghri/Chunar ancestor Bavjibhai Bhootkhaya.” (Known as 'the one who ate ghosts' to indicate his fearlessness).
Qutb-e-Alam was a fakir and Vatva Bharwaad was a cattle driver. There were lots of wild animals in Vatva and a tiger used to eat the cattle. The Chunar ancestor was a tribal who "used to carry bows and shoot tigers". Qutb-e-Alam told Bhootkhaya the Vaaghri ancestor to live there and protect the villagers and "he (Qutb-e-Alam) gave him (Bavji Bhootkhaya) a gun"(!). The British gave the land upon which these settlements came to be and Qutb-e-Alam would not collect any taxes from the Chunars or the Bharwaads or the Bhangis – a privilege reserved for the original settlers/communities.families.
The first Chunara family is said to have come from Soongadh. Th families make a distinction between two Soongadh's- one in Rajasthan and the other near Surat.
The Chunaras say that they were originally Adivasis, or huntsmen and did no farming. It is said that the first Chunaras to come to Vatva were two brothers, one of whom was impotent. One day he had a bitter fight with his sister-in-law and went to commit suicide. On the way he saw a Raawad who had seven children, he adopted one of his children and that is how the tribe expanded.

Saiyyid Muslim History: -
The Saiyyid Muslims make up the colony called Saiyyivada and attach themselves to Qutb-e-Alam. Qutb-e-Alam the grandson of Makhdum Jahaniyan Jahangast and son of Saiyyid Naseeruddin was born at Uch Sharif. It is said that Jahaniyan pir chose/ prophesised Vatva to be the place where Qutb-e-Alam and his followers would reside. When he came upon the site where the tomb of Qutb-e-Alam currently lies, he picked up a handful of soil off the spot and said he could smell the sweet scent of the bones of his progeny in that soil. ("Merey aulaad ki haddiyon ki khushboo aa rahi hai" according to one informant). Today around the tomb lies the residential colony of the Saiyyid Muslims.
According to a legend told to us by a non-Saiyyid resident from Navapura, (the significance of the identity of the speaker will become clearer after we explore the dynamics between the old/original inhabitants- jooney log, and new/migrant population- navey log) Jahaniyan pir arrived in Vatva and encountered the Bharwaads who reared cattle in the area. A tiger that regularly ate the cattle of the Bharwaads was a great menace. Jahaniyan pir made the tiger kiss his feet and in return asked for the Saiyyids to be accommodated in the area. Some residents of Saiyyidvada also corroborated the legend of Jahaniyan pir making a calf produce milk as also the naming of Vatva afer Vaatva Bharwaad. Thus, with Qutb-e-Alam’s arrival with his followers, Saiyyidvada came up.

Ahmedabad was founded by Ahmedshah in 1411. His father Zafar Shah Muzaffar (later  Muzaffarshah I) was the Governer of Gujarat under the Delhi Sultanate when Delhi was sacked by Timurlane in 1398. Taking advantage of lack of authority in Delhi, Zafar Khan proclaimed himself Sultan of Gujarat thus establishing the Muzaffarid dynasty that ruled over Gujarat from 1391-1583 when it was taken over by the Mughals. Muzaffarshah was a disciple of Makhdum Jahaniyan Jahangast and was blessed by the pir who predicted that he would get the Baadshaahi of Gujarat. It was Muzaffarshah who after becoming the ruler of Gujarat invited Qutb-e-Alam from Uch Sharif to Patan, then capital of the kingdom. After Ahmedshah built Ahmedabad he invited Qutb-e-Alam to his city from Patan and gave him the land and villages of Vatva. The exact number of villages was never constant but at one point they included Isanpur, Vaasna, Naroda (neighbouring areas in Ahmedabad) as well as lands in Kheda district.
The British recognized the Saiyyid descendents of Qutb-e-Alam as the legitimate owners of these lands under the Saiyyid Act of the Bombay State and it was only later in 1952 that the Inaamdaari of Vatva was abolished. 
While the Muslims accept that the Bharwaads and Chunaras are along with them the original communities of the area, the 'originating myth' of the Chunaras differs in Muslim narratives and is less heroic. The Chunaras (initially only four) were brought by the Saiyyids to Vatva to work on their lands. Soon their lot expanded and thus was settled Chunaravas.

This is the history of the three colonies/neighbourhoods that constitute the area of our focus. Even a cursory analysis of these histories – which move seamlessly between myth/legend and ‘real’/social aspects – shows that the dynamics between these three communities evolved with newer levels of engagement – from employer/employed relations in farms, to fellow industrial workers and now even as independent bootleggers – the relationship between the Muslims and the OBC’s ( chunaraas) and its subsequent deterioration in the last decade will be investigated in later postings.  
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