Homes Demolished, the Right to Fish Denied: The Lives of Gujarat’s Muslim Fishermen
Bet Dwarka (Gujarat): Ahead of the 2022 Gujarat elections, home minister Amit Shah had said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had successfully demolished “fake mazaars” (Muslim shrines) in the westernmost coastal point of Bet Dwarka. He addressed it as part of a “clean-up” operation against illegal encroachments.
Today, thousands of Muslim fishermen are suffering the consequences, with communal tensions escalating around coastal Gujarat.
Since October 2022, the region’s coastal belt has experienced several targeted demolition drives. The first such incident took place in the port city of Porbandar. The authorities issued prohibitory orders which prevented local Muslims from protesting the demolition of the Murad Shah Pir dargah, which was cited as an ‘unauthorised’ religious structure.
Around the same time, in Bet Dwarka island, at least 100 structures, including 30 religious ones belonging to the “minority community”, were demolished.
The state’s tourism minister, Purnesh Modi, while defending the razing in Dwarka, said in a series of tweets (now deleted) that Muslim families living there had “married” their daughters to “grooms in Pakistan”. He further alleged that many Pakistani women were getting married to locals who lived on the island. He also alleged that the region had become a hub for the smuggling of drugs from Pakistan.
The Bet Dwarka island falls under the Devbhoomi district, where the Dwarkadhish Mukhya Mandir, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, is located. The majority of the island’s locals happen to be Muslims.
However, several fishermen alleged that all the demolished properties belonged to Muslims and that they were being “selectively picked out and targeted”. One of them is Bet Dwarka’s resident Ismail Chamadiya.
Chamadiya has filed multiple appeals to the authorities for compensation. He and his family of five have since been living under a makeshift tarpaulin tent, having nowhere to go since their home was destroyed. He alleged, “The distance between the Qamarali dargah and a local ‘mata ka mandir’ (temple) here was just half a kilometre, but the mandir has been left untouched whereas our dargah was reduced to rubble.”
Some months later, in March 2023, another wave of demolitions took place in the Harshad port of Gandhvi, Navadra village, Bhogat and again in Bet Dwarka. Usmangani Sherasiya, a civil rights activist and community organiser from the region, alleged that the demolition actions targeted “only Muslims”.
The authorities claimed that the settlements owned by these fishermen were ‘illegally built’ on government land.
However, before these demolitions had started, the residents were sent a notice conveying the same, following which these families moved court, seeking the regularisation of their residences.
While this matter was pending in the court, the houses were demolished.
According to the Indian Express, 69 and 122 fishermen families from Gandhvi and Navadra villages, respectively, had filed a petition seeking regularisation of their homes. They had cited a 1981 circular which allowed for the same and was issued by the Gujarat government itself.
For 44-year-old fisherman Gafur Daud Patel, 12 hours was all he had to pack all of his fishing equipment and machinery before the authorities demolished his house. He lived in Harshad harbour, in the village of Gandhvi, in the coastal district of Devbhumi Dwarka. Patel is one of the village’s 200 Muslim fishermen who have nowhere to go after their houses were demolished.
“In January of this year, many of us from Harshad (a harbour in Gandhvi village), Navadra and Bhogat were first served notices, saying our homes are illegally encroaching upon government land, so we have to leave. We immediately approached the high court and this matter was pending before them. Then, on March 11 and 12, the bulldozers arrived and started tearing down properties,” said Patel.
He also pointed out that the local Hindus have not seen their homes demolished. “Even those Hindus were served notices. Fifteen to 20 such families were served notices.”
According to Patel, only his community was “selectively targeted”.
This reporter met one of the Hindu shop owners who was served a demolition notice. Fifty-year-old Mansukhbhai (who prefers to go only by his first name), runs a hotel in Gandhvi, as well as a grocery shop. His shop was allegedly served a notice just five days prior to the demolition action. His shop was among the eight to ten that were demolished.
He also told The Wire that the “bulldozer action was still mostly one-sided against one community. And local Hindus largely supported the move. Only 10-15% of non-Muslims here think the (Muslim) machhiyaras are living legally.”
He added that despite his attempts to convince the mamlatdar (revenue officer) that his shop was a legally constructed concrete structure, authorities told him that they “had received orders from above”.
Meanwhile, Muslim fishermen allege that the mamlatdar was “soft” on Hindu-owned shops and establishments. The Wire called and sent emails to the revenue officer, Dakshaben Rindani, but received no response. This story shall be updated if she chooses to revert.
Port segregation, unequal access and denied parking rights
In Porbandar, the story of fishermen seeking mass euthanasia caught the media’s attention last year. However, over the past year, what has come to light is the marginalisation and victimisation of the local Muslim fishermen, resulting in the loss of their livelihoods.
In May 2022, 45-year-old Allarakha Ismailbhai Thimmar had filed a petition in the Gujarat high court, seeking permission to undergo euthanasia for himself and 600 members of his fishing community. The plea, filed on behalf of the Gosabara Muslim Fishermen’s Society, alleged that “the government does not provide facilities to people belonging to a particular community.”
In August 2022, the high court dismissed the petition. Today the community struggles to earn a living.
“Our livelihood is at stake. In 2010, the freshwater lake here where we had been fishing was barred to us. So we decided to venture out into the sea, and we even invested money to buy bigger boats and fishing equipment for the same. Then, in 2016, the fisheries department stopped us from accessing the Porbandar coast for fishing, despite this being an open bandar [port],” he said.
He added that “only Muslims” have been barred from this, even while Porbandar remains an open, government-supported bandar. Adding to their woes is the issue of anchoring their boats.
The Muslim fishermen allege that the authorities have colluded with the powerful Kharwa community (a Hindu-dominated caste of fishermen) to prevent them from docking their boats in Gosabara. While the authorities maintain that the fishermen have the right to dock their boats in the Porbandar port, the community has been demanding the right to park their boats in Gosabara or the nearby Navi Bandar port, owing to the logistical difficulties and distance from their village to Porbandar.
“The Kharwa Hindu community exerted pressure on the authorities to not let us operate. Despite this area being a government port, the community has successfully applied pressure. Initially, we requested access to our own village port, and then we asked for at least access to Navi Bandar, pleading with the government to allocate a nearby port for us, but all our efforts were in vain. The Kharwa Hindu vote bank consists of approximately 25,000 people, whereas we are much smaller in number. Nobody cares,” he said.
Lalji Kanjibhai, a Hindu and the sarpanch of the neighbouring Tukda Gosa village, concurred. “They are only being targeted because of their religious identity. I myself have requested the fisheries department and local administration to allow them free access to the port. This is the only job they know, their community has been doing it for ages, why deprive them of this opportunity?” he said.
Thimmar and his community’s attempt, calling for mass-euthanasia, is an extreme case where the situation emerged out of “extreme helplessness”, according to Usmangani Sherasiya, an activist.
Sherasiya, who has been working with the state’s coastal communities for over three decades, pointed out that the communal divide between the fishermen and coastal communities has spread throughout Gujarat’s seaside, at the cost of Muslims’ economic security and futures.
Even the ports have been “communalised”, he noted. The ports where Kharwa fishermen dock their boats have jetties, while most Muslim fishermen don’t have this facility. “For instance, look at Porbandar; it has a jetty (mainly for Hindu fishers), and in Junagadh, the Mangrol port also boasts a jetty. In fact, a second jetty was recently constructed there due to the increasing number of boats,” he explained. A jetty offers significant advantages as it serves as a protective barrier safeguarding the coastline from perilous currents or tides, ensuring the safety of both fishermen and their vessels.
Yaqub Musa Patel, 45, the now-displaced resident of Navadra village, describes how difficult it is to earn a livelihood now. “In the Mul Dwarka port, we can use the jetty – but even then it’s actually run for Ambuja Cements and not for the fishermen. It’s mostly us – the Muslim fishermen – who use it. The port in Okha town also has a number of Muslims.”
He pointed out how the “smaller, more remote” regions of Harshad, Navadra, Bhogat and Dwarka had mostly Muslim fishermen, whereas Porbandar, Mangrol, Veraval, etc. had mostly Hindu fishermen who could access the jetties. “Even my family originally came from Somnath district to Dwarka to fish because of a communal rift with the Kharwa Hindu fishers and that was five decades ago. Local fisher communities mobilise on religious and caste lines,” he said.
According to Muslim fishermen like Patel and Thimmar, approximately 90% of the trawlers and large boats are owned by the Kharwas, while other groups have to manage with significantly fewer and smaller resources. They also claim that no member of even the opposition parties has raised their cause. “The Hindu Kharwas constitute a powerful voter bloc; we are of little consequence to any politician,” Thimmar said.
The Wire reached out to Porbandar MLA and Congress leader, Arjun Modhwadia, who denied claims of inaction. Modhwadia, however, conceded that there were inequalities among those who can access the ports and jetties. “From Mandvi (in Kutch) to the Somnath district, there are various types of fishermen – the Muslim Machhiyara community, the Kharwa community, the Koli community and even some traditional tribal communities, who have been fishing for generations. What’s happening now is that the bigger towns of fishermen (as in Porbandar, Jakhau, Veraval, Mangrol) have their own facilities for landing in their particular area. But in smaller towns and villages, there are no landing facilities,” he said.
He added that at present, “from Dwarka to Porbandar, these particular communities of fishermen are not allowed to have a landing point.”
He also said that the opposition had been advocating, both within the Vidhan Sabha and through other means, for the government to designate a specific location in each district for fishermen from smaller villages – such as in Dwarka district, Junagadh Gir-Somnath, and others. “Unfortunately,” he added, “this government has not been identifying suitable landing points for these particular communities, resulting in difficulties for their livelihoods.”
‘Selective targeting’: mosques and dargahs demolished, temples still standing
Local fishermen whose homes and properties were demolished said that authorities “clearly singled out” Muslim-owned establishments.
“They destroyed a madrassa, a mosque and two dargahs in our village, including the Siddhi Pir dargah and Murad Pir dargah. The dargahs were not even located near our houses. The authorities claimed they were built illegally. When a dargah was located so far off from the rest of what they called “illegal”, why bulldoze that property?” asked Hussain Suleiman, who hails from the Navadra village.
A similar set of narratives emerged from the villages of Gandhvi as well as the Bet Dwarka region.
Imam Sharfuddin, a local cleric, who resides at Harshad harbour in Gandhvi, told The Wire that both the Madina mosque and the ‘Bade Pir ka dargah’ had been destroyed. “The dargah was a very old one, it wasn’t even located near the rest of the bulldozered settlements but much further away, in a place where other establishments run mostly by Hindus have gone untouched. It appears as if the administration went out of its way to specifically demolish the dargah,” he said.
At the location where the demolitions occurred, near the seashore, there is a Shiv temple situated in the same vicinity as the ‘illegal’ Muslim-owned establishments, and it remains intact.
Gafur Daud Patel concurred. “The temple is still here, it is built on the very same land and in the same area. Why was it spared, if all our properties have been destroyed?” he said.
Meanwhile, in Bet Dwarka island, local Muslims and activists alleged that 30 to 33 religious structures were demolished. Almost all of them belonged to Muslims, they alleged.
Rukaiya Bi, whose home was demolished in March this year, alleged that the administration was “bringing [UP chief minister] Yogi Adityanath’s model to our doorstep”.
Sindhi Janardhan, who identified himself as a Hindu living in the region for over three decades, refuted these allegations, claiming that even Hindus will lose their homes as another round of demolitions to build the corridor for the Dwarkadhish temple will be carried out.
“So, it is not selective,” Janardhan, who runs a hardware shop, said. However, when asked about the date or time of these upcoming demolitions, Janardhan did not reply.
The Wire tried to reach out to Devbhumi Dwarka’s district commissioner, Ashok Sharma, on this matter. This story shall be updated if and when he responds.
A precarious future
In Navadra village, 60-year-old Hussain Suleiman had spent Rs 20 lakh just a year ago to build a bungalow. He lived here with his five sons and their wives. All of them are directly or indirectly involved in the fishing trade. This property was razed to the ground “within minutes”.
“There has been absolutely no talk nor even a mention of any compensation for our demolished homes,” Suleiman said, adding that he was lucky to have rescued five boats and take those along with the family’s fishing equipment and machinery.
“We would earn more than Rs 1 lakh a month, and even more during the peak season. But since the demolitions, we are struggling to make ends meet,” he said.
His sons, Saddam Hussain, 25, and Ramzan Hussain, 23, agreed. Saddam told The Wire that over 100 families from the affected villages have temporarily settled in Rupen, another coastal village in the district. But they are “desperate” to return, he added.
“Many of us managed to save our boats and take our fishing equipment along here, but parking of boats is a huge problem since we need permission from the fisheries department. Also, aside from getting the permits, we need space to park and that’s difficult to manage here when thousands of fishers who have been living here since before having taken up that space”, said Saddam, illustrating the logistical hurdles they faced.
Both Suleiman and Patel had moved the high court, seeking compensation and regularisation of their homes, but even as they await the next hearing, all work has come to a standstill. For many, their work has now effectively stopped for good, and that’s why they want to go back to their villages.
Since relocating from Harshad and Navadra to the village of Rupan, we have submitted an application requesting permission for boat parking. However, we are still being directed from one authority to another without resolution.
“Our primary need is a place for parking our boats and a bandar (port) for us to operate. We no longer seek compensation for our homes; we simply ask for the opportunity to fish. If we were granted permission to return to our villages and continue our livelihoods, we would do so without hesitation,” Patel said.
Patel and his sons were engaged in the intermediary role of purchasing and transporting fish, subsequently selling it within the Porbandar city. “Before these demolitions, I along with my sons and two brothers were earning as much as Rs 2 lakh a month. This isn’t the case anymore.”
Such a breakdown of trust from the government has left Patel and other Muslim fishermen feeling uncertain.
While discussing the current issue, activist Sherasiya was reminded of how communal tensions have escalated in the region for decades, with the 1986 riots, leading to the death of 13 people, in the coastal town of Veraval. “Most of the victims back then were also Muslims. Even though the community has enjoyed prosperity from this trade, they have also been at the receiving end of resentment. And denying them the right to fish, to park their boats and allot them a convenient space is only because of religious resentment”, he said.
Patel added that he and his family members had kept some of their belongings in the houses of their Hindu neighbours, the ones who weren’t sent notices. “However, now even our household supplies have been taken by them. Our homes were demolished and then trucks filled with our belongings – including some of our boats – were sold in the market. In Navadra village, at least five to six of our village’s best boats were sold off to the Kharwa Hindu fishermen of Porbandar, without us having any say on the matter,” he said.
Thimmar echoed this sentiment, saying, “Either grant us permission to fish and park our boats, or grant us permission to die. We have only been trying to earn a living.”
Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. This story is part of an ongoing series on the socio-economic decline of industries and businesses led by Muslims.
Reporting for her article was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.