Voices of collective conscience

Print edition : January 17, 2003

Baseerbibi, with her nephew, at the Mehsan civil hospital, on March 2. Her sister was among the 29 Muslims who were massacred at Shardarpur village during the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat. - SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/ AFP

A summary of the details brought out by independent citizens' groups on the wanton subversion of relief and rehabilitation in Gujarat.

SEVERAL reports of citizens' groups have documented the deeply harrowing experiences of the survivors of the February-March Gujarat carnage in its grim aftermath, particularly the unconscionable and unprecedented refusal of the State government to establish or run relief camps, which were run instead by community organisations, their forced premature closure, and the niggardly and arbitrary compensation paid to the victims.

The People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) reports the government's refusal to organise safe locations for the survivors, and its sombre consequences. "The Gujarat government did not set up a single relief camp. As the attacks on Muslims continued and spanned virtually the entire State, they fled from their houses in search of refuge. It took the victims in the rural areas a long time to find safe and secure shelters, in some cases over a week. Many of them hid as best as they could in the fields, hills and forests for days together and then travelled long distances in different directions in an atmosphere full of terror and risk. Some found temporary refuge in neighbouring villages, while others tried to return hoping that the attacks would have ceased. Some were killed along the way. Those who managed to reach safety informed the police about others still hiding in the fields. In many cases help was not forthcoming, in others police connived with the mobs or at best watched the killings, in still others the Muslims were saved and left at the charity of Muslim residents in other villages."

The government's policy resolution regarding the provisions for relief "glosses over the government's bounden responsibility to provide safe and sanitised shelters for victims". The PUDR report notes that "District Collectors (e.g in Anand, Panchmahals) interpreted the lack of orders to organise relief camps as specific orders not to organise them. The Revenue Secretary confirmed to us that this was what had been intended. The explanation is revealing in the scenario of ongoing communal attacks victims would feel secure only with their own communities. This is a telling comment (albeit unintended) on the administration's own performance."

The Concerned Citizens' Tribunal observes with deep concern and grief the fact that "only the leadership of the Muslim community was involved in the running of the camps for relief and rehabilitation because others did not come forward. Although some non-Muslim NGOs did contribute substantial amounts of aid to these relief camps right until August, the vast bulk of relief assistance to the refugees came from the community itself."

The March 6 resolution of the State government stated that "the district administration would provide assistance up to 31 May only to those camps that satisfy a number of conditions." But as the PUDR points out, "there is no clause specifying what happens to the inmates in the case of closure, or in cases where the administration refuses to provide registration to the camp. Where medical, sanitation, water and toilet facilities are lacking, the administration does not take the responsibility of providing this. For the State to then penalise them by withholding recognition without making any alternative provision is criminal. Evidently, the State neither wants to help victims itself nor enable others to do so."

The camps recognised by the government were in no better shape either. "The only help accorded to the inmates of these camps is a food ration amounting to 500 gm of cereal and 50 gm each of pulses, edible oil, sugar and milk, and a dole of Rs.5 per person per day." Several reports affirm that "basic amenities such as clean drinking water, shelter from the elements, medical and sanitation facilities are completely absent in virtually all the camps in the rural areas and taluk towns." District and State officials remained indifferent to a plea for protection from epidemics and from the summer heat and monsoon. For instance, "the Collector of Panchmahals, where some of the worst camps like Kalol and Santrampur are located, washed her hands of the problem by saying that the policy had no provisions for tents and toilets." The situation was no better in the relief camps in Ahmedabad.

The Sahmat, after a visit to some of these camps in Ahmedabad, confirms, "the total negligence and apathy of the government towards the innocent people who have been rendered refugees in their own land. The rations, which the government has started giving very late, are grossly inadequate. In fact the Shah-e-Alam camp managers alleged that the weekly ration being given by the government is actually not sufficient for a single day's consumption. Thousands of homeless people are having to stay under shamianas in the absence of any provision for their shelter. Blankets or clothes are not available. There is hardly any medical help in most places and even child-births are taking place in the camps without proper medical facilities. The less said about sanitation the better. At Shah-e-Alam there is only one mobile toilet with four chambers for nearly 9,000 people. The situation was even worse months later, in late June, after the onset of the monsoon."

The Fraternity and Reconciliation Forum, a group of concerned citizens led by former Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, reported: "Conditions in the camps are abysmal. In Baqar Shah Roza, people are living, eating, sleeping and defecating under the pouring rains. Shelters in the form of plastic sheet roofing have been provided mostly by NGOs such as CARE and ActionAid. With the heavy downpour, the camp sites are inundated with rainwater due to bad drainage. Rainwater, running over the mud and filth, has turned parts of camps into dirty lakes in which we found scores of children splashing and playing at the risk of contracting water-borne diseases. At the back of the camp, there was a young mother with her 15-day newborn, lying on a plastic charpai, its legs sunk in puddles of water, The baby was in a sheet, which had been trussed on two poles, to keep it well above the water. As we passed, we heard one woman say, `This is really the end. What imtihan is Allah taking'?" "In Chartola Qabristan, which is a graveyard (most camps are located in kabristans) there is a Rahat Camp; ironically rahat [relief] is the one word that does not apply here. When we reached there at 3 p.m., people were sitting in bunches under tattered plastic roofs, which were still intact. Water flowed everywhere: inside the makeshift kitchens, camp entrances, eating areas. People had not eaten despite the late hour; children were hungry but where could they be fed? Their daal lay untouched in a huge pot. The despair on their faces beggars description."

The Forum expresses anguish at "the ruthless haste with which refugee camps are being ordered to be closed in order to create a sense of normalcy. Despite the closure, people continue to stay as they have no place to go and have no resources to repair and rebuild their homes. There are many whose houses are yet to be surveyed, while others have received a pittance as compensation. People have contested the compensation amounts and asked for reassessments. Government, however, has not fully responded to such requests. As a result, people continue to stay."

The report includes a copy of the notice sent by the District Collector of Ahmedabad to the camp organisers, which deplores the fact that "this office passed an order for you to close the camp but it has come to our notice that some people are still residing in the above camp. Hence for any problem or difficulty faced by these individuals (male/female/children) in terms of their safety, physical harm and/or discomfort, any disease or epidemic because of poor hygiene or any other eventuality resulting from your irresponsibility, the Camp Organiser(s) shall be personally held responsible for which this notice is hereby given."

As the Concerned Citizens Tribunal states in its report: "None will argue that life in a relief camp should continue forever. But the scale and brutality of the violence at a dozen places across the State of Gujarat, where victims were quartered, and girls and women gang-raped before being burnt to ashes to destroy evidence, requires relocation of the victim-survivors to more conducive surroundings where life, liberty and security can be somewhat assured. Hence the attitude of the Gujarat government in coercively closing down camps, thus forcing victims to `disappear', is shocking, to say the least. Moreover, it is linked to the issue of the refusal of the government to rehabilitate the victims of the carnage. Both are violations of the just and humane principles underlying Indian constitutional law and international covenants related to violence, refugees and state responsibility."

The PUDR report summarises quite evocatively the State's record with regard to relief camps. "When the pressure started building on the State government to restore `normalcy', in the Gujarat government's dictionary, it was defined by `the winding up of relief camps'. A curious conundrum emerges the camps are to be closed down because normalcy has to be established. And of course, for the rest of the country, normalcy has been established be-cause the camps have been closed down." It concludes: "The State forcing closure of camps without even the semblance of rehabilitation or simple protection to victims, well before its own earlier deadline is thus not an innocent desire to establish normalcy. It is a calculated move to ensure two objectives at once that the Muslim victims go back to villages to live on terms set by the attackers, quietly and without a fuss, subsuming their identity. This then is the bloody politics of `peace': Golwalkar's vision of a second class status for minorities come true."

The State government has refused to rebuild the vandalised religious structures. As the report of the Fraternity and Reconciliation Forum states, "Religious places destroyed in the riots have always in the past been rebuilt at state expense. This healing precedent must be adhered to in Gujarat. The Gujarat government has taken the plea that to incur state expenditure for rebuilding monuments and religious places would violate the constitutional provision that prevents the state from favouring the followers of a particular religion. This is not correct because what the government would be doing is not acting suo motu to confer benefits on the followers of a particular religion but repairing the damage caused due to its own culpability in not being able to maintain law and order and protect these monuments."

THE same defiant abdication of responsibility for rehabilitation characterises the State's actions as documented in various reports. The Tribunal notes that the State government is "abdicating its primary role as protector and provider of all its citizenry. A measly Rs.2,500 is being given as dole to persons for loss of household goods (ghar vakhari) and, although the Prime Minister had announced that Rs.50,000 would be given for loss of homes, less than 10 per cent of those who have obtained some compensation from the Gujarat government (at least 25 per cent of the total affected have not received anything at all) have got more than Rs.30,000 each. For most of the survivors of the Gujarat carnage, the State government has rubbed salt on the wounds already suffered, by giving them paltry amounts of Rs.1,200-Rs.2,500 each or less."

According to the Fraternity and Reconciliation Forum, "The compensation announced for riot victims has been highly inadequate. The procedure adopted for assessing damages and making payments have caused a great deal of harassment to the victims and even the amounts announced have not been effectively disbursed. For example, average compensation for repairs/construction of houses has been Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 as against the Prime Minister's promise of Rs.50,000. If a person has lost both shop and home he can be compensated for one only. Compensation for the loss of agricultural assets has been ruled out. And no compensation is being paid for damage to or loss of rented property."

The PUDR report analyses how the flawed rehabilitation package is particularly "insensitive to the problems of the poor. There is no compensation, for example, for the loss of belongings, loss of days of work, loss of the crop, cattle and grain stocks. The meagre compensation being doled out by the government may help some victims tide over their immediate consumption needs. To call it rehabilitation, however, is a fraud."

At the Shah Alam madrassa in Ahmedabad, which served as a makeshift relief camp for the riot victims.-JOHN MACDOUGALL/ AFP

madrassa

Its chilling conclusion is that "the effect of the genocide on livelihoods will be a long-term one. Several of those now living in camps used to work as agricultural labour in fields belonging to Hindus or as workers in Hindu-owned workshops, brick kilns or factories. They will obviously be unable to find employment there again."

THE PUDR returned to Gujarat in September. Its report documents "the economic assault, the systematic destruction of livelihood, property and homes, and the economic boycott of Muslims. For most who own lands, their fields lie fallow. For many who could sow, the Hindus of the village have started grazing their cattle on these fields, malevolently ruining the standing crop. But for the landless, the situation remains grim even where they have undertaken the risk of going back. Agricultural labourers have been told that no one would employ them henceforth. Small traders and independently owned businesses have also been seriously affected. Some of them are simply being prevented from carrying on their work. Denial of access to credit is another method to cripple petty traders, especially those trying to restart their trades after being destroyed; the government and financial institutions also refuse to given them loans. The killing of Muslims is only the first phase of the genocide. Its lethal consequences are now unfolding: by denying justice to the victims and by squeezing out Muslims from the economy, from the villages and the towns where they have resided for many generations."

The reports of various citizens' groups on the bloody massacre of 2002 and its devastating and shameful aftermath, investigated and written by some of the country's most sterling hearts and minds, make harrowing reading. Collectively, they document what is arguably the gravest crisis faced by the people of modern India since Partition, culminated through massive vicious communal mobilisation of one segment of people against another, supported and facilitated unapologetically by agents of the state.

Are the independent reports on Gujarat, the calls of our collective conscience, mere voices in the wilderness? Or will they stir the people to reclaim the idea of an India in which each individual, regardless of faith, community, gender, caste, wealth or physical ability is not only secure but valued as an equal citizen, in which India's pluralism is celebrated as its most precious collective resource.

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