Dionne Bunsha

The Hindu February 28, 2007


There is no violence but the atmosphere of fear and prejudice still prevails. Gujarat is a society divided – where minorities are segregated and face social and economic boycotts. Muslims have been pushed into ghettos.


For some of us, camping is a relaxing outdoor getaway. For Mehdi Hussain Vanjara, it is a way of life. He has been living in a tent in a relief camp on the outskirts of Modasa town in north Gujarat for five years. His entire family of eight is crammed into this tiny tent on a dusty plot of land.


“There’s not even a light here. We burn diyas  (clay lamp) at night,” says Mehdi from Kau-Amlai village. “My three daughters wash dishes and earn Rs.200 each a month. That’s how we survive.” When 62 homes in his village were burned during the communal carnage of 2002, Mehdi had to flee to Modasa, the nearest town, for shelter. Since then, he hasn’t been able to return home.


Local Muslim charities have built tiny 10×10 feet rooms for refugees here. Mehdi is still waiting for his allotment. For five years, he has been camping in the darkness.


There are still 81 relief camps with around 30,000 refugees across Gujarat. The campsites do not have basic amenities like water or electricity, even though its residents are paying municipal taxes. In Modasa, refugees pay

Rs.30 a month for water from a local contractor. “There are no gutters, no place to wash clothes, so fights break out often. But at least we are safe,”  Mumtazben Sheikh, a widow, told me. Safety is the only thing this campsite

has to offer. But for those who have survived the carnage of 2002, it is a top priority.


On February 27, 2002, 59 passengers died in a fire inside the Sabarmati Express when it halted at Godhra station. The reason for the fire is still disputed. While the Railway Ministry reports say it was an accident, the

Gujarat police insist that it was a terrorist conspiracy to kill several kar sevaks (volunteers) on board the train who had been sent by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to the site of the Ram temple in Ayodhya for a Maha Yagna. Within hours of the Godhra tragedy, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi declared it was a terrorist attack. The call went out: `Blood for Blood.’ The next day, Muslims across the State were targeted in a pogrom that lasted more than two months, killed more than 1,000 people, and left more than 200,000 homeless.


Five years later, there is no violence but the atmosphere of fear and prejudice still prevails. After the attacks, the minorities have been `taught a lesson.’ They must now live as `second class citizens’ in Gujarat, the `Hindutva laboratory’ to build the `Hindu Rashtra.’ Gujarat is a society divided where minorities are segregated, face social and economic boycotts, and constantly fear for their safety. Muslims have been pushed into ghettos. Juhapura, Ahmedabad’s biggest ghetto, has a population of over 300,000 people but no civic amenities. Only recently, it was made part of the city’s municipal area. Many elite Muslims – judges, doctors, lawyers, businessmen – have been forced to move to Juhapura. No one in a `Hindu area’ will sell a flat to a Muslim, even if he or she is willing to pay a premium.


There is not a single bank in Juhapura, not a single State transport bus passes through here.


After the 2002 violence, many other mini-ghettos emerged in cities and even small towns like Modasa. Places where refugees have been settled are now growing into Muslim colonies. In Ahmedabad, some survivors of the worst massacres of 2002 live on the edge of the city’s dumping ground. They are living on the margins amid the smoke from smoldering garbage, crows circling above, and fumes from the small workshops nearby. Ironically, this new ghetto is called `Citizen Nagar.’ The aggressors are in power; the victims have been jailed. For instance, Babu Bajrangi is an accused in the Naroda Patiya case, the worst massacre in which there were inhuman atrocities against women and children. Today he is a self-styled missionary who forcibly brings back Patel girls who marry outside their community; he boasted to me that he has `rescued’ more than 706 girls so far. Recently,

Gujarat’s theatre owners refused to screen the film Parzania because he had  threatened violence if they did.


Babubhai is free but several witnesses face daily danger to their lives. They are threatened and told to turn hostile in court, to `compromise.’ And they have nowhere to turn. If they dare to go to the police, they face the risk of being put behind bars. Several witnesses in the Naroda Patiya case who named top Hindutva leaders in their police testimonies were framed in a murder case and jailed for over six months. There are several others like them. Despite the intimidation and a daily struggle to survive, it is amazing how witnesses have shown the strength and courage to fight for justice.


The Best Bakery case, which received the most media attention, ironically ended up with a sad outcome. After several twists and turns, the local accused were jailed, but so was Zaheera Sheikh, the main eyewitness. She

was punished for perjury. Zaheera turned hostile in the Vadodara district court. Later, she appealed to the Supreme Court saying that she lied in court because a BJP (Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party) MLA (Member of  Legislative Assembly) had threatened her family into a compromise settlement. Yet, when she turned hostile again during the re-trial, she was jailed for perjury. So far no investigation has been ordered into the MLA’s alleged role in Zaheera’s second U-turn. The big fish always get away.


The Supreme Court criticised the government for “fiddling while Gujarat burned.” Yet none of the big guns has been punished. Zakia Jafri, wife of the former MP, Ahsan Jafri, has filed a case against the Chief Minister and 62 others. But the police complaint lies in cold storage in the Gandhinagar police station, a stone’s throw from Mr. Modi’s residence.


It is a rocky road to justice in Gujarat. In district courts, the accused pass lewd comments while women testify about how they were raped. When refugees in Lunawada dug up the mass graves where the police buried their relatives, the cops filed a case against them. You really cannot rely on the Gujarat police, unless you are blessed by politicians in power. Of the 4,252 communal violence cases filed during the pogrom, the Gujarat police closed more than half of them as `true but undetected.’ They said that there was not enough evidence to file a charge-sheet. In fact, the police suppressed or buried a lot of the proof. They refused to take down eyewitness complaints.


The Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat police to review these cases again. Since they did not do this, human rights groups filed a legal notice. Last year, the police re-opened most of the 2000-plus cases that they had closed. But no one has been punished for closing the cases and scuttling the process of justice.


In Gujarat these events are supposed to be too `sensitive’ to talk about; they should be forgotten and people should move on, is the refrain. The people who would most want to forget are the victims of the carnage, but they are not allowed to. There can be no peace and reconciliation without justice and the rule of law. People are still living through the nightmare. Raising such uncomfortable questions disturbs `Gujarati Asmita’ (pride). It is an excuse to suppress important questions like human rights abuses or who will really benefit from the Narmada dam. The Gujarati middle class has been fed so much propaganda that it is intolerant to any alternative view. That is why the Narmada Bachao Andolan office is often ransacked and Medha Patkar is physically attacked if she steps into Gujarat. And cinema owners are too scared to screen a film like Parzania that may anger the Bajrang Dal because they have no confidence that the police will protect them. It is a selective democracy.


What else can we expect from a political formation that draws ideological inspiration from M.S. Golwalkar who wrote in We, Our Nationhood Defined, 1939: “The foreign races in Hindusthan must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e. of the Hindu nation, and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or [they] may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizen’s rights.” Gujarat is today’s laboratory for testing and realising not Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Hindu-Muslim amity and communal harmony but Golwalkar’s 1939 vision. The Sangh Parivar organisations make no bones about this. Across the State, they have put up boards saying: `Welcome to the Hindu Rashtra.’ It is understood that not all are welcome. Some are still camping in the darkness, waiting for the light. 

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