Inventing borders in Gujarat

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

Heeraben with her husband, at the Kalol relief camp. - PICTURES: VIJAY NAVGAIN

Heeraben with her husband, at the Kalol relief camp. - PICTURES: VIJAY NAVGAIN

Hostilities unleashed by the post-Godhra violence a year ago have hardened into boundaries between communities in rural Gujarat.

EVERYWHERE in villages and towns across the districts of Godhra and Dahod, people spoke of `borders'. A full year since the region was convulsed by some of the most gruesome bloodletting during the carnage that engulfed Gujarat, rural society remains ruptured down the middle. The toxins of hatred that have been fostered between communities have hardened into a settled, unyielding divide. In a journey of healing on which we had embarked through a region still riven by open wounds of pain and strife, we encountered frightening evidence of a new economic apartheid that has rapidly taken deep roots. It is a newly manufactured system of untouchability against the minorities, with rules as elaborate and iniquitous as those that have yoked Dalits for 200 years.

In many villages, people are still too terrified to return to the land of their ancestors. Instead, they remain huddled in district or tehsil towns, seeking tenuous safety in numbers. After the relief camps were forcefully disbanded by the government, no recourse was left to them except to be crammed in small rented tenements, sometimes many families in a single room, searching hopelessly for new ways of staying alive. Sheikh Naushad returned with trepidation to his estranged village Pavagarh. "We lived there for five months", he said, "but was that living? We dared not step out of our homes, in dread of taunts and humiliation. If we needed to buy something, we would send our children". Some in the village had barely rebuilt their charred and vandalised homes with the assistance received from a Muslim charity, when these were mercilessly pulled down again. Defeated, they returned to the town of Halol, where they felt more secure only because it has a large concentration of Muslim people.

It was a story we were to hear repeatedly during our travels. Shakeel Mohammad of Piplod tried four times to return to his village with his family. He repaired his home with Rs.5,000 that he got from the government and reopened his scorched shop with a little merchandise that he bought with an expensive loan from the moneylender. But no one outside his community was willing any more to purchase anything from his shop. Each night, his wife and he would lie awake in fear, as drunken vandals would crowd the darkness with threats and vulgar invective. Four times, over the past year, they escaped in panic from their village with their children under cover of darkness.

Manguben's home was burnt down twice. When she went to the local official, the talati, to seek his help, he is said to have replied, "when your house is burnt down a third time, then you come to me for help".

They fear now that they probably will never be able to live again in the land of their birth. Syeda Bibi of Delol village is desperate because her aging husband is too sick to work. Their shop in the village was torched, but they also own 12 bighas of land. Her grown-up sons and nephews go to the village to cultivate their fields by day, but always return before dark to the safety of the town.

WOMEN walked many kilometres from surrounding villages for a meeting with us at Godhra. Many spoke disconsolately of the trauma of returning to their charred and plundered homes without even a word of welcome from their neighbours, let alone a hand of comfort. Weeks and months passed, but people they have lived with in peace and friendship for generations, still turned away coldly like strangers. "When we see the faces of our children, we want to cry," they said. "But when we hear the drunken threats of men from our village at night, our hearts turn cold, and we know that we cannot live there any longer. We may eat only one meal a day, but at least we are alive."

Still, not everywhere has hope fully died. "Whatever may have happened," an old woman, said to me, "one's home is after all one's home. Nothing in the world can take its place." Rabiya of Ratanpur village spoke wistfully of their three large shops which have burnt. "My sons feel humiliated now pushing humble hand-carts in the town. But I am sure the people of my village will call us back one day. It may take time, but I believe that a day will come when they will come to us and call us home. It is the day I wait for."

The only villages where people feel relatively safe, are those in which members of their community still constitute significant numbers. However, in these villages, `borders' have been rigidly drawn. Like segregated Dalit settlements, Muslims are now permitted to live in the village at sufferance, only in isolated clusters, and the mesh of social, economic bonds that intricately wove them together in the past have been decisively lacerated.

In Salia and Natapur, 250 Muslim families live together, but the panchayat has blocked their access to all public drinking water sources in the village. The people of these villages recall that their homes were destroyed in 1990 also, when the rath yatra led by L.K. Advani rumbled past their village. But the hatred then had not been so obdurate and inflexible, and life had begun once again. But this time round, the animosity runs much deeper.

PEOPLE from almost every village on our route reported that the few destroyed petty trading and catering establishments that have been re-opened are boycotted by non-Muslim clients. Rival shops run by new caste Hindu and tribal entrepreneurs are thriving at their expense. In many small towns and villages, people returned after months in relief camps to find that on the government land on which their humble cabins selling cigarettes, paan or general provisions had stood for decades, tribal people or Hindu shop-owners have established their enterprises. There is no one, government officials or village elders, to whom they can turn for help.

Those who have re-started their petty business are helpless today if people refuse to pay. Akhtar Hussain, who has barely recovered from the injury caused by a police bullet that pierced his face and destroyed one eye and eardrum, has re-opened a small non-vegetarian dhaba in Daboi village with the help of his brother. But hardly a day passes without a gang of hoodlums eating a hearty meal and then threatening to pull down his shop again if he has the temerity to ask them to pay the bill.

The economic boycott works in many other ways as well. For decades, Muslim traders from Salia and Natapur bought and sold cattle and goats, and thrived on the small profits that they made from these transactions. Today, no one will either buy or sell animals to any Muslims trader. Hindu autorickshaw owners no longer rent their rickshaws to Muslim drivers.

Muslim factory workers have been summarily retrenched, and replaced by other workers. Daily-wage workers who gather each morning to look for work, are picked up for employment only on days when every non-Muslim worker is employed. Tenants are evicted from agricultural land. Farmers are unable to cultivate because their borewells are stuffed with stones, their pump houses destroyed. No one can rent a house except from another Muslim. In Pavagarh, traditionally Muslim catering establishments served Hindu pilgrims who worshiped at a local temple. These dhabas were torched during the violence a year ago, and their owners have not been allowed to reconstruct these anywhere in the vicinity of the temple. In the same village people are not allowed even to speak when they go to a shop. They are allowed only to point to what they wish to purchase, place their money on the shop shelf and meekly await the time when the shop-owners choose to pick up their money and give them what they wish to buy, at a price they are no longer permitted to negotiate.

For legions of families which have turned their backs maybe for all time on the villages of their birth, survival is a daily struggle. Many women who in the past tended their own homes or shops, today beg for work, cleaning dishes or sweeping floors in the wealthy homes of the towns in which they live as internal refugees. Rehana spoke of her two sons, now forced to work in road-side restaurants. "One little boy brings back ten rupees a day, another fifteen. In this way alone, we are able to eat."

THESE beleaguered people face their tribulations with resolute dignity and resilience, but despair does slip through the cracks occasionally.

Saira, still in a refugee camp in Kalol with 40 other families, broke down as she spoke to us. "I wish they had killed us also," she wept. In their village, 40 lives were lost, and many young girls and women were raped.

The shop owned by her family was looted. "We are paying Rs.500 rent for a small room. My husband now pushes a small hard-cart in the town. What can he earn from this? I have four small children. They are always hungry. The people of my village do not even let us enter our village. When I look at our humble hand-cart, my heart breaks. We used to have such a big shop, my eyes could never see enough of it. Our shop was my entire life. It is lost forever."

In Kalol camp, we met Heeraben, her face completely burnt, one eye destroyed. It was hard for any of us to even look directly at her, because her face was badly disfigured, the wounds still raw and unhealed. She was born in Delol in a Hindu household. Her parents died young, and her uncle married her off as a child to a violent alcoholic. She left him with an infant girl when she was 20. She met Ismail, a cycle repair shop-owner, who had also survived a lonely and battered childhood. They married, each adhering to their own faiths. Ismail is now a gentle grandfather to the child of his adopted daughter. On February 28 last year, a crowd attacked their home in a slum settlement in Kalol, killing 30 goats and setting ablaze the tarpaulin roof of their shanty. The roof fell on Heeraben's face, burning her face and upper limbs completely. The scorching summer compounded her agony, but she survived because her husband took care of her.

For Heeraben and 40 other families still in a relief camp in Kalol, hope is anchored mainly on people like Mukhtar and Latifaben. Mukhtar neglects rebuilding his own small business, as he struggles instead to find resources for running the camp, for buying land and building new homes for these dispossessed people and fighting legal cases of people unjustly arrested.

Latifaben had rarely stepped out of her home before the massacre of last year. Today, still in a burkha, she has emerged an intrepid champion for battered women. These are our unknown, unsung heroes.

FEAR routinely continues to haunt the lives of women, men and children in minority settlements. On the 27th day of every month, meetings are organised at every street-corner to commemorate the torching of the train in Godhra. People live in abject dread each month, as mobs are aroused and incited afresh, and sporadic violence recurs. Even a fire-cracker sends people scurrying in terror. A cricket match between India and Pakistan raises for them the sceptre of a possible riot. Every festival, Hindu or Muslim, is no longer an occasion for festivities; it only fills people with dark forebodings of a perennial spectre of violence.

In the malformed peace of our times, even in the villages, which were held up as examples of restored amity, fear continued to lurk . Eral village had writhed a year earlier in mass violence, when seven people were killed and two young girls were raped.

It was one of two villages where we succeeded in persuading people of the Hindu community to meet us together with the Muslim community. The facade of amity began to crack when Sangita, a young Hindu woman, expressed her anger that her brother was jailed for 10 months on a murder charge. People complained bitterly against the courageous resolve of a 35-year-old woman to give evidence in court; witness to the rape and hacking of a 14-year-old child. It became clear as we sat together that the village would be peaceful only if no one testified against those guilty of pillage and assault.

The other village in which such a joint meeting was organised was Napaniya.

Muslim, Hindu and tribal men and women sat together, and we were initially heartened by the vocal expressions of solidarity. A widow then took courage to speak, and said that her rebuilt hut had been set on fire once again a month earlier. The Muslim elders were clearly afraid that this complaint by the hapless woman would be interpreted as a public expression of disaffection, and tried to coerce the widow into silence, insisting that the fire that had destroyed her home was accidental. The shaken widow still held her ground, insisting that she had been repeatedly taunted and threatened by men of the village ever since the violence a year earlier.

Once again, the facade of peace began to crumble, as young men at the periphery of the meeting, quietly asked us: "If there is indeed so much amity in our village, how come each one of our 90 homes was burnt down last year? They claim it was done by outsiders, but how would strangers know which homes belong to Muslims? And why did not even one of our neighbours try to stop their assaults?" No one tried to answer these questions. Maybe there were no answers.

AT the end of the meeting with carnage survivors at Godhra during this journey for peace, a particular moment was to be etched in our hearts for a long time to come. The evening was still heavy, laden with the stories of loss and despair that the ravaged women assembled in the hall had shared. Just then, an activist sang out in her clear voice a song written by Neeraj, Ab to mazhab koyee aisa bhi banaya jaye:

Now let someone also invent a religion Which teaches people to be human beings May someone cultivate those flowers in their gardens The fragrance of which fill also their neighbours' homes May your grief and pain so affect me That if you are hungry, I will not be able to eat.

As she sang, we noticed that one by one, many of the women gathered in the hall began to dab their eyes with the edges of their frayed veils. Their wearied voices slowly joined in the song.

Even though our bodies are separate May our hearts be one May your tears flow from my eyes Now let someone invent a religion Which teaches people to be human beings.

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