RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Congress doesn't usually weigh in on the domestic political in other countries. But a resolution recently introduced in Congress by Representative Keith Ellison, is designed to put pressure on one high profile political candidate in India. His name is Narenda Modi and he is a front-runner to be India's next prime minister in elections this spring. The resolution suggests that the State Department should continue to deny him a U.S. visa.
Modi is controversial. Many hold him responsible for one of the worst episodes of religious violence in India's recent history; riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 that left more than a thousand Muslims dead.
ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: On the very first day of the riots, February 28th, a mob had come down on our street. And they were holding torches and swords and chanting Hindu nationalist slogans. And they were basically looking for any Muslims. And thankfully, maybe they just thought I was American. I don't know, I think about that day a lot. But I was very lucky.
MARTIN: That's Zahir Janmohamed. He's an American who witnessed the riots in Gujarat. It was his first visit to his family's home state in India, one that would shape him in ways he never could have predicted. Two years ago, Janmohamed decided to move to Gujarat to write a book about the experience of Indian Muslims there.
Zahir Janmohamed is our Sunday Conversation.
JANMOHAMED: On February 27, 2002, a train carrying Hindus was attacked in the Gujarat city of Godhra and 58 people were killed - 58 Hindus, many of them women and children. In response to the train attack, there was retaliatory violence, in which over a thousand were killed - most of them Muslim - and about 100,000 were displaced - again, mostly Muslims. And 231 mosques and Islamic sites were destroyed.
Modi himself has been accused by Human Rights Watch and every other leading human rights organization of failing to act. The State Department accused him of failing to do enough to protect innocent civilians. But one of the things that Modi has been really remarkably gifted at is evading legal responsibility for the riot.
MARTIN: Zahir, you were actually there for these riots. You were raised in California but your family is from Gujarat. You happen to be visiting in 2002 when the riots happened. Can you walk us back to that time? I mean here you are, you're an American. You're visiting your homeland for the first time and you're a Muslim. And violence that's being perpetrated is against Muslims.
JANMOHAMED: So, my family left. My grandparents left Gujarat in 1925 and I was born and raised in California. I had just finished grad school at UCLA. And I'd always been curious to go to Gujarat, that's where my family's roots are, that's what my parents speak at home, it's the food we eat. I'd never been to Gujarat. It's, like, no one in my family had been to Gujarat. So I happened to go there in February 2002.
I was working with an NGO and I was staying with a Hindu family and working with in a Hindu slum community. And then 12 days after I arrived, the riots began. From that day onward, I started - my name, Zahir, is a very unmistakably Muslim name. And so, I began using a fake name. I began to use the name Sanjay.
MARTIN: Which is a Hindu name.
JANMOHAMED: Yeah, it's a Hindu name, exactly. I began to use a Hindu name. So like, when I go to the Internet cafe or when I would go to the barber, or whatever. Because, you know, Muslims weren't supposed to live in that part of town. And eventually it got too uncomfortable for me and I had to leave because I was worried that maybe my host family might get threatened.
It had a really profound impact because I was working in the relief camps. And in the relief camps, you'd see thousands of people living - women who had been raped, children who watched their parents burned alive. So those memories really haunted me. And it's those memories which motivated me to move back in 2011, to write this story.
MARTIN: In those months after the riots, how did that experience shape your understanding of where you came from?
JANMOHAMED: You know, it was really difficult, I think, being the child of immigrant parents. You know, I really had these romantic ideas about, you know, fitting in in India, or at least liking it. But then when I went back to the U.S., it was like I think August 2002, I went across the country and I spoke about Gujarat. And what I found is that a lot Indian-Americans, it wasn't that they were anti-Muslim or they were like in favor of the riots, but a lot of kids from immigrant backgrounds, they're just not willing to hear any criticism of India.
And so, when I would give these lectures or I'd try to mostly speak to Indian-American audiences, most of them, they would say things like: You know, I've been to India and I never saw something like that. And the thing is that, you know, if the riots hadn't happened then I might have also been one of those kids as well, too, saying everything was great in India, I had fun, I ate great food and I went to some movies and I came back.
It should've left me with a particular sort of sadness that has still stayed with me. My faith in humanity was really rattled. It still is rattled by the things that I'd seen in Gujarat.
MARTIN: You're now back in Gujarat doing research for this book, reporting about Muslims. What is it like today? How does the legacy of those riots still loom?
JANMOHAMED: I think the first thing that surprised me was how divided the city is. I mean, I'm talking to you right now from my apartment. Maybe six blocks away there's a street known as the border. So I live in an all Muslim area. It's known pejoratively as mini-Pakistan. And then across the border is the Hindu area. And people actually use the word border. I mean I tell the rickshaw drivers, take me to the border.
When I first came here, I kept asking people about the riots because that was what framed my understanding. But I've actually learned not to ask people about the riots because a lot of what Modi has done is not going to go away. I mean he has sewn this intense anti-Muslim hatred and I see it so much here.
MARTIN: Modi is also credited with turning around the state's economy, no?
JANMOHAMED: Absolutely, but one of the things is I don't think the growth is even in terms of different categories. So when I assess the conditions of Muslims, I look at sort of three things. One of them is housing, and there's rampant housing discrimination in Gujarat against Muslims.
The second is in the area of schools. The city government has not built a single functioning school in this Muslim ghetto, despite there being nearly 400,000 people.
And the third thing I would say is employment, because most Muslims here work in low skilled jobs. They're auto mechanics. They're the ones that are the drivers. But really that's about it, because that's sort of the idea in Gujarat that Modi has said, is that you can be Muslim, you can practice your religion, but there's a certain limit and you can't cross this line.
MARTIN: Zahir Janmohamed, he is a writer living in Gujarat, India. Thank you so much for talking with us.
JANMOHAMED: Thank you so much, my pleasure.
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