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Gujarat: a citizen's perspective

She didn't know what to expect when she went to Ahmedabad a few months after the violence in Gujarat, but in the end, SHYMALA came to a premise that the unprecedented levels of bestiality and violence unleashed were only because criminal acts have gone unpunished over the years by various political parties that have wielded power. An account of her experiences and a reconstruction of some of the events from discussions with the victims.

The dargah...refuge within its walls.

I DIDN'T know what to expect when I went to Ahmedabad more than three months after the violence started. Entering Vatwa, an industrial township south of the main city, I noticed that the blue sky was dotted with trishuls (tridents): nearly all the factory chimneys had trishuls stuck on them. There had never been an instance of large-scale communal violence in Vatwa, which bears a Rabari name, the Rabaris being cowherdsmen of the area. A prominent landmark is the tomb of Hazrat Qutub-e-Alam Burhanuddin who died in the 15th Century. The Rabaris, although Hindu, have faith in the healing powers of the saint of this Dargah. Often, when their cows have fallen sick they have come to seek the blessings of the "baba". In the Nawapura area behind the Dargah, both Hindus and Muslims have lived together for as long as anybody can remember, without ever having had a major face-off. A Jain community also lives around this area, and a little Jain temple is built on land once owned by the Muslim community. A wall separates the two communities, but the gate was always open, until recent events.

Several testimonies and reports are available on the violence that took place this year in Gujarat. What follows is a brief account of my experiences and a reconstruction of some events from discussions with the victims.

The attacks on the Muslims in Vatwa began at 12:55 p.m. on February 28. Because they happened in the daytime and warnings came in from other parts of the town where the violence was already under way, the residents of this locality had time to flee. They hid in nearby localities or fields for up to three days before they wandered into camps. Thousands of people came from all sides armed with implements of destruction. On average, there were about 200 people to plunder and loot a house. About 300 houses in the Nawapura area behind the Dargah were burnt down. In several instances of rioting, the police, as well as local political leaders, were in connivance and have been identified as leading the mob. Police have, without warning, fired at innocent people, even entering their houses and wounding or killing them. It also appears that each "mob" consisted of three parts — cadres of trained killers of political parties such as the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), people who had been brought in from outside to loot and burn, and people belonging to the local community.

In Vatwa, the local Waghari community was involved in attacking its Muslim neighbours. Evidence exists of the indoctrination of hate, coercion, cold cash as well as an assurance that marauders and arsonists could keep the loot and would face no consequence. The people noticed that the Wagharis who usually bought daily provisions from the local shop for around Rs. 10 were buying oil and foodgrains for Rs. 100 the day before the riots. These people were paid about Rs. 500 to join in the attacks on the Muslims. Hindus who refused to comply were threatened. This was, categorically, a premeditated attack and not a spontaneous ignition of mob fury that the State could not control.

A family whose house was burnt down during the riots.

The Dargah now doubles as a camp for the riot-hit in the Vatwa area. It provided shelter to the thousands who had suddenly become homeless and were being hunted in the country of their citizenship. It has a shifting population: as other camps close down people migrate in, and people leave when they can. At one point it had about 3,000 people, including 300 children, all living in the blistering heat and dust for over four months, under a tattered white sheet tied to the top of bamboo poles. Gunnysack has been spread on the mud below, and this too is frayed and torn. Sanitation is non-existent, water supply erratic.

Most people in the camp are daily wage earners; working as contractors, vendors, labourers, artisans or rickshaw drivers. The men have been jobless for months and sit alone or in groups not knowing what to do next. They wait for handouts from UNICEF, the Red Cross, etc. — clothes, hygiene kits, livelihood kits and so forth. To see men and women jostle and run to line up for them as soon as they hear that something is going to be distributed makes you realise what it means to be so utterly dependent on the charity of others. Whatever is being done in terms of rehabilitation seems to be too little and too late. Further, the Muslims face an economic boycott. Many are not being hired back on jobs after the riots and autorickshaw drivers tell of being discriminated against. This boycott hampers whatever rehabilitation efforts are being made and it appeared to me that the Government was just not interested in rehabilitating these people. Perhaps the Government has a genuine concern that it would lose the coming elections if it was seen as being sympathetic to the Muslims.

SEVERAL articles of analysis have been written about the genesis of communal violence — why it was "likely to happen in Gujarat," how Gujarat is a "laboratory for the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra" and why the "Dalits and Adivasis participated in violence" — that I do feel chary of adding to the din. Yet what prompts me to write is the hurt and anguish of the people, the children who have been affected by the violence, some of whose names and faces I now know. Nothing of what I have to say is in the least bit "original", but I have come to realise that few things really are.

Why are so many people ready to hate and destroy and fall prey to propaganda? A systematic feeding of misinformation and rumours against a community can lead to a dehumanising stereotype of that community and a feeling of otherness, and this in turn can contribute to a large-scale participation of men and women in violence. Prey on people's sense of fear and insecurity, promise them wealth and power and I suppose you can get them to do terrible things. True enough. But what about those who did not take part in these excesses? Among them exist people who might harbour prejudices against another community, and yet would think it wrong to brutalise the other. There are many who are of the "I don't particularly like you, but I am willing to live and let live" variety. There are still others who might kill the man who raped their daughter, but who simply would not say: "A man with a beard raped the daughter of someone in my community whom I don't really know personally, so I am going to go and kill all daughters and mothers of men who have beards."

Keeping themselves occupied...Making agarbathis

It is the extent of individual responsibility and the ability to rise above one's internal and external environment versus the inability of the individual to withstand the indoctrination by the social environment in which he lives that I wish to understand. There are reasons that compel me to do so.

First, while in Gujarat, I met many individuals who remain anonymous, who were so distressed by what had happened that they worked tirelessly round the clock to help provide succour. Some worked to provide rain shelters for the men, women and children rendered homeless, some helped families file claims to get the compensation promised to them by the Government. Others tried to bring some structure, some hope into the lives of the children in the camps. They set up makeshift schools and playgroups for children too scared to go back to school. Second, there are those people of Ahmedabad who felt that targeting a particular community was wrong, and who did not participate in the rioting in any manner whatsoever. Among these are people who tried to help in their own capacity, big or small, whether brave or not so brave. There are also those whom I meet in my everyday life, both Hindus and Muslims, the poor and the rich, low caste and high caste, who would not think of taking something that does not belong to them and would not harm someone because they have been threatened by an influential political goon with fascist leanings that their very existence would be threatened if they didn't get rid of the "other". They simply will not be bought.

Haven't these people been exposed to the propaganda of the Sangh Parivar? Haven't some of them lived in Gujarat for several years? Do they not have the same government — the government "they deserve?" Oh sure, we can quibble about the numbers and the statistics of what categories and classifications such people belong to, but I think we do these citizens a tremendous injustice if we don't acknowledge that they too have a choice, and choose to live within the norms and laws that govern civil society. In times like this, we would do well to show our appreciation and thank them, and tell them, "You count and you are an asset to civil society" for the choices they have made, especially to those who get few other rewards and recognitions in life.

Uncertain future...Feroz and his mother Mumtaz Ibrahim.

One way to show that we, as a society, consider individual choices important is to hold accountable those individuals who did participate in criminal acts, instead of focussing soley on the fascist propaganda, as if these people were laboratory rats with no moral compass who had no choice. Not to hold the individuals accountable for their criminal conduct is very disheartening to those who had the courage to stand up and make a different choice. Not every one who read the incendiary headlines in the Gujarati dailies felt that it was justified to burn and loot and destroy a whole lot of Muslim families.

THE people who participated in the hate campaigns and violence should be considered maladjusted, if we hold the norms enshrined in our Constitution as important to the functioning of civil society. I believe that those who went on the rampage were essentially deceitful, avaricious, and prone to anger, hate, and violence. Do we really think that the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives and friends who participated in the looting, burning, raping or killing are citizens in whom the protection of democratic values such as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity could be entrusted — that is if only they had not fallen under the influence of fascist propaganda? Is it not possible that fascist propaganda only gives such people an alibi to break the law? What does one do, if one believes in democratic values, and, further, if one believes that such people cannot be counted on to protect these values? What do we do about the individuals — from the smug, grinning faces heading the recent Rath Yatra, faces devoid of any sentiment which could be construed the least bit religious or aesthetic (indeed a strange way to express one's sensitivity to the ground reality); the young fellows who were photographed flexing their muscles during the same Rath Yatra to the individuals wielding lathis and trishuls with saffron scarves around their heads. Remember that these are all individuals with names who have choices to make, and they are making them.

A LONG-TERM goal of civil society, if it is to survive, would be to have a healthy ratio of people who respect the rights of others to those who don't. How does one do that? I am not sure, but one has to start somewhere. One way might be through an education that encourages critical thinking and a social structure that encourages cooperative behaviour. Such a structure would foster pluralism and acknowledge diversity as the fabric of a human and humane society. An education that emphasises critical thinking would produce individuals who are more likely to question authority, instead of simply accepting what has been told to them. They would have a healthy scepticism for all that they read or hear. It would encourage measured dissent and creative thought. It would teach our future citizens to be observant, to be objective in their observations or at the very least be aware of their subjectiveness. It would teach them not to be rigid in their thinking, and, most importantly, not to be afraid of change. The teaching of these basic skills is essential, if we are to build a truly democratic, civil society. As we grow to become functioning members of society, these become life skills that should come to us as easy as breathing or eating.

Bharat Sing Uday Singh, 70...has lived through four riots, but believes the one this time to be the worst.

These are not new ideas. In fact, these are important aspects of scientific methodology, and in fact several well-thought out science teaching programmes that have been around have laid emphasis on such teaching. However, greater emphasis needs to be given to these aspects of education, and on a larger scale. We must combine the teaching of the facts about the physical world we live in, about its rivers and mountains, about the civilisation and modes of governance that have existed, about the arts and music and books that are a part of our cultural heritage, about the molecules that make up our bodies, the physical and chemical properties which drive us with a strong, rational logical mind. It may not be perfect and it does not guarantee that such a person would be less avaricious and hateful, but such an education may act as a vaccine in uncertain times when insecurities are being exploited and emotions need to be kept in check by a mind that remains unclouded.

For example, arming citizens with a faculty for logical thought would help them understand the nature of stereotypes. We all hold stereotypes, and they are essential to our survival. As we become adults, one of the ways in we build a picture of the world in which we live is to stereotype and categorise our observations and experiences, and we do so with ever increasing complexity. However, we must realise that a stereotype which is too general, or based on an erroneous attribute can cause us to misjudge a situation. We must also learn to with that which cannot be categorised, and that on which judgment must be reserved until further evidence is forthcoming.

An argument is now being constructed that all those advocating tolerance and goodwill between communities have no respect for religion — especially the Hindu religion — and for the spiritual content of Indian culture. Some of them have been accused of "pseudo-secularism". Let us grant for the moment that individual choices and actions do reflect the moral bearing of a person, and that issues of morality can only be dealt with by spiritual, or deep self-enquiry. Even so, any serious enquiry into the nature of the individual self and its relationship with the outside world can only be helped by a mind which is sharpened by rational thought and cognisant of the freedom to change. How can one be discerning if one does not know how to think?

So much for how we might reduce the number of individuals who have no regard for common societal aspirations or human life, and who can be paid to burn a Muslim or Muslim house down without giving any thought to the consequences of their actions. What do we do with the people who have made those choices, and who now roam the streets and the corridors of power? We have laws and a Constitution because we believe that we all have to play by the rules that have been laid down for the common good, with the clear understanding that those who don't play by the rules will be dealt with according to the laws of that society. In an ideal condition, this is done to provide an optimum environment for all citizens to fulfil their potential in freedom and thus experience happiness. When we have a breakdown in law and order, then those who are responsible have to be dealt with accordingly, whether we believe that they need to be incarcerated or given psychiatric counselling.

The camp within the dargah.

So, in the short term everyone who broke the law, in whatever manner, must be dealt with and punished according to the severity of their crime.

Criminal behaviour is deterred when there is a terrible risk associated with it. This level of bestiality and violence has resulted only because criminal acts have gone unpunished over the years by the different political parties that have wielded power. Each time that happens it is going to get more brazen, more evil.

Why is it important that we debate these issues? Why should we bother to sit across the table and talk? And why do I want a society where individual rights and diversity of views are enshrined? Because I do not wish for my children to live in an uncertain, bigoted environment where they may come to harm.

I do not wish for them to be harmed by someone who believes that by doing so he is avenging the death of a Muslim who was killed in a fake encounter by a Hindu who thought he was finding a quick solution to diffuse the tension caused by a Muslim who killed a Kashmiri Pandit because he believed he did not have the interests of the minority in mind who killed a ... .May be there are degrees of evil, and degrees of good, and may be we should start raising the bar for what degree of idiocy we are willing to tolerate.

The writer teaches and does research. She visited the Vatwa Camp in Ahmedabad in June this year.

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