Reprinted with permission of Rediff.com.

Dholka, a medium-sized town located 40 kilometres southwest of Ahmedabad, surprised Gujarat when it refused to become part of the communal conflagration that ripped the state a few months ago.

Dholka is, incidentally, on the list of the communally sensitive towns, and was the town where organized killings and looting took place during communal riots in 1981, 1985, and 1992. And it is the town where Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi started his career in the early 1980s as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak (preacher) to propagate Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] amongst people with high communal tempers.

"We know how Hindu-Muslim riots start and spread. The first step is not to respond to stone throwing."

But in 2002, Dholka was not among the 33 towns and cities of Gujarat that burnt and were placed under curfew. Credit for that goes to the residents of the town, Hindus and Muslims, who were determined that communal violence should not occur in this town.

On February 27, as news of a train coach being burnt at Godhra spread, Deputy Collector Dhansukh Mehta, on the advise of local Bharatiya Janata Party leader Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, called a meeting of Hindu and Muslim leaders in the city hall. Muslims comprise about 30 per cent of the town's population.

Sarmast Khan, a Muslim councillor from the Congress party, recalled that after the Godhra carnage, Muslims were very worried. "The first meeting was called by Chudasama, someone who is available to us 24-hours on his cell phone, where we decided that we must control our emotions because we have suffered a lot in the past," he said.

For the first two days, most of the Hindu leaders were screaming for revenge. There was also the fear of Muslims getting incited, something that worried local Congress legislator, Kanjibhai Talpada, who had defeated Chudasama in the last state elections. Talpada, who was also on the peace committees, said he warned his Muslim friends to stay calm.

"I warned the Muslims that since the BJP is ruling the state, the police would not give them a second chance! And if in police firing, even two or three are shot dead, the police will impose a curfew that will only add to the tension. So it would be best for the Muslims not to take part in the violence."

Champaklal Mistry, a furniture maker and a prominent citizen of Dholka, narrated the plan of action. "We know how Hindu-Muslim riots start, intensify, and spread. The first step is not to respond to incidents of stone throwing. Both sides agreed that in case stone throwing occurred in their localities, they would not react and call the police. We wanted to avoid the formation of mobs. Once that is done, half the battle for peace is won."

Dholka's recent history is replete with communal violence. In 1981, a Muslim was murdered as a result of personal animosity. But the private feud turned into public violence when Muslim gangs attacked Hindus returning from a film show at midnight, killing three. The next morning, riots broke out in the town and Dholka was under curfew for a month. An outcome of the riots was that the Hindus in the town got united against the Muslims.

In 1985, riots started broke out and the shops of Hindus were targeted and looted. In retaliation, Hindus burnt many Muslim properties, and the communal cleavage hardened.

In the December 1992 communal violence, again the shops of Hindus were marked and systematically burnt, thus showing prior planning and organisation. Over 100 Hindu shops were burnt and six people were killed in the riots that followed. Curfew was enforced for a month.

But the people soon grew tired of the riots that caused them heavy financial losses.

In December 1998, during the town municipal elections, Chudasama initiated talks with the town's Muslims, requesting them to give up some provocative practices and thus foster communal amity. He told rediff.com, "In Dholka, Muslims would burst crackers when the Pakistan cricket team defeated India, and I told them to stop that. Then, there is a conspiracy to lure Hindu girls and marry them to Muslim boys, a clear-cut case of indirect conversions. On the one hand, I know all these factors that irritate Hindus and make them angry, but I believe peace is above Hindutva. Moreover, Hindus cannot progress unless the country is peaceful."

Yet, Dholka did see some violence. Even as the peace committees were working at keeping the town calm, a rumour spread that a Hindu leader in Dholka had been killed. On March 1, 2002, within a few hours of the rumour spreading, a crowd of 5,000 Hindus rushed towards Dholka town centre, burning many Muslim shops and factories on the highways. A Muslim boy called Imran, who has an Australian mother, was burnt to death.

The police managed to control the situation and dispersed the crowd before they could further damage. Chudasama, who was brokering peace, was apologetic and convinced the Muslims that the incident was the result of a strong rumour. The local police intensified their 24-hour vigil, and even spied on people trying to poison the atmosphere. Messages were relayed to the surrounding villages that they should verify rumours before rushing to Dholka and the police control room telephone numbers were published.

Chudasama took the help of Faizubaba, a popular local Muslim priest, and a Hindu leader, Kumarpal. The three of them organized an impressive rally across the city, from the temple to the mosque. It was a touching moment for the residents. Says Sarmast Khan, "After that rally, the rioters of both communities realised that the people would not support them."

What about the Hindu anger after Godhra? BJP leader Rajasaheb Talukdar has a reply. "In Dholka, Muslims supported the bandh (general strike) called by the Hindus after Godhra. And in the peace committees, the police repeatedly warned that they would jail any rioter. All this worked," he declared.

Abdul Rahim Khan, deputy mayor, said, "Most Muslims here stated that the Muslims of Godhra deserve the harshest punishment, that they should be hanged."

And what about the Muslims reactions after the mayhem of Naroda Patia and other places in Ahmedabad? "If we had complained against the Naroda Patia killings, we would have been killed," said Sarmast Khan. "We knew peace was the best alternative. After 1992, everyone knows the limits and adverse effects of riots. We have learnt our lesson."

Mistry added, "Common men in Dholka know that this is a season of marriages. They don't want to lose related business. And here the police and the deputy collector were ready to help maintain peace. Our police never comes after the killings, it reaches the spot fastest!"

Deputy Superintendent of Police L. H. Desai said, "Here the people wanted peace and they got it."

For instance, the car of Jaidev Thakkar, an advocate and BJP leader, was attacked by a Muslim mob. But he did not file a police complain, which might have aggravated the situation.

Immediately after the Godhra incident, more than 400 Hindus were invited to have soft drinks in a Muslim locality of Dholka. The gesture helped reduce fear and mutual suspicion. Hindus too invited Muslims over and the intermingling ensured that tempers never flared beyond control.

Mahendra Patel, who is an elected member of the municipality, said, "The people of Dholka have understood the importance of development."

Despite Dholka's calm, Talpada, a Congress legislator, believes that politically the BJP will gain. "A pro-BJP wave has been created after Godhra," he said.

He added proudly that the Hindus and Muslims in Dholka were today communicating at a different level. "Instead of tackling the centuries-old issue of prejudices and instead of talking about the hurt we carry in our hearts, we, the Hindus and Muslims, sat together and did a post-mortem of the past riots and realised that we should not throw stones at each other. We want the development of Dholka and we can't afford the riots."

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