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Desperate and despondent

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST



With the Hindu-Muslim divide delineated sharply, victims of Gujarat's violence fear to return to their lost homes.

DIONNE BUNSHA in Ahmedabad and Vadodara

LARGE-SCALE violence may have died down, but peace is yet to return to Gujarat.

Waheeda Sheikh is desperate to leave the relief camp. She wants to reconstruct her home at Gomtipur in Ahmedabad and get back to normal life. But trying to rebuild her life would also mean risking it. Soon after her house was looted and burned by the mobs on February 28, the site was cleared to make way for two temples. "Whenever we go back to the neighbourhood, the local bootlegger streaks in front of us. The local hoods abuse us and threaten to harm us if we return," says Waheeda.

The police have not helped protect the Sheikh family either. When the Sheikhs went to file a first information report (FIR), the police refused to include the fact that temples have been constructed where their house once stood. "Whenever we ask the local police to help us return to our home, they plead helplessness saying that the local Hindus will be upset if the temples are touched. What about us? Aren't we upset? Our life has been destroyed," says Waheeda. Adding insult to injury, the Sheikhs have not received any compensation from the government for the destruction of their house.

Across Gujarat, housing compensation doled out by the state has been so meagre that even refugees who are willing to risk returning to their homes cannot do so because they do not have the money to rebuild them before the onset of the monsoon. "We left with just the clothes on us. Our houses were burned and looted. They took everything. The government has not yet given me any compensation. Yet, the officials want us to leave the camp and go back. Where are we to go?" asks Kamrunissa Rahim Khan, who lives in the graveyard at the Hazrat Pir Shah Hammad Roja relief camp in Ahmedabad.

Around 75 to 80 per cent of the refugees have not even received compensation cheques although the government has surveyed their property, camp organisers say. The few who have received cheques got paltry amounts (as low as Rs.250 in one instance, while most get between Rs.2,000 and Rs.5,000) compared to the losses they have suffered. Refugees such as Fatimaben Ghachi from Mora village in Panchmahal district, have returned the compensation cheques, insulted by the paltry sum that was doled out.

The situation in the relief camps is likely to worsen when the monsoon hits Gujarat. Most camps do not have adequate shelter. Only cloth shelters have been put up. Food is prepared in the open. Camp organisers are not sure how they will arrange for cooking when the rain comes. With inadequate civic facilities, the risk of water-borne diseases spreading is also high. In many rural camps, people sleep outside the houses of relatives and friends. During a pre-monsoon shower in Ahmedabad, refugees from the Madhav Mill compound relief camp rushed to the nearby Kalupur station. But they were chased away. "Initially, the railway police pushed the refugees out. We had to plead with the police to let them sleep there for just one night until the rain stopped," a camp organiser says.

In its attempts to show that Gujarat is back to normal, the government is trying to reduce the number of refugees and close down the camps, without providing proper rehabilitation. It is even cutting down on supplies to these camps. "We have 750 refugees here, but the government has registered only 300. Officials have tried to close down the camp. But we have to keep it running. People here have nowhere else to go," says an organiser of the Hazrat Pir camp.

In Vadodara, the government has shut down all the camps, except one. This camp is so overcrowded that a local builder has allowed the refugees to live in one of his construction sites for the next six months.

The few who have mustered courage to return to their villages or neighbourhoods are living like refugees as there is no water, electricity or a roof over their heads. Hasra Anees Ghachi and her family have been living under a tree ever since they went back to Mora on April 12. "Our house has been destroyed. We have no money to reconstruct it. The government has not given us any compensation. Who knows what we will do when the rains start? We will have to stay with someone," she says.

Only around 50 of the 115 families that had fled Mora have returned. The refugees have not been able to resume their jobs either. "I used to drive a taxi. When I went back to my employer, he said he could not employ me because he would not get any patrons," says Ilyas Ghachi. The economic boycott of Muslims called by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad seems to have taken effect. Several skilled workers like tailors, drivers and masons have not been re-employed by their Hindu employers. The government is not even compensating the loss of belongings and the source of their livelihood such as sewing machines or rickshaws. Their destroyed homes are seen by local mafias as an easy way to grab land.

Although peace meetings have been organised by the local administration over the past six weeks, in several neighbourhoods, local Hindu leaders have been hostile. "We can't go back. Our lives are still in danger. They have told us that there is no place for Muslims in the basti anymore," says Rahimbhai Malik from Kisanwadi in Vadodara. About the peace meetings, he adds, "There were 80 local Hindu leaders and 12 of us. The police watched quietly while they threatened to prevent our return until we withdrew the cases against them."

Some local BJP and VHP workers have been arrested and charge-sheeted since K.P.S. Gill assumed charge as Security Adviser to the Gujarat government. Charge-sheets filed in connection with crimes such as rape, murder and arson at Naroda Patiya and Gulmarg Society, Chamanpura in Ahmedabad have indicted local BJP leaders among the 53 arrested. But the big fish remain untouched. VHP secretary Jaideep Patel and Member of the Legislative Assembly Mayaben Kodnani, whose names figure in the FIR, have not been mentioned in the charge-sheet. The police insist that they have not been named in the FIRs.

In other villages, the small troublemakers are still roaming the streets. "How can we go back home when those who attacked us are still walking freely on the streets? We named around 100 people in the police case, but not a single one has been arrested," says Nasir Sheikh, a refugee in Ahmedabad's Dariya Khan Ghummat relief camp. In Vadodara, the police refused to register an FIR by a witness to the burning of three persons in Makarpura.

Although the government is trying hard to prove that Gujarat is now peaceful, stray incidents of violence continue. On June 9, two persons were killed and 24 injured in Ahmedabad's predominantly Muslim Juhapura area. In Godhra, one person was stabbed and killed. Violence claimed two more lives in Juhapura the following day. Police officials say that the clashes occurred when they went to arrest local troublemakers. Local Hindu hoods used the opportunity to spark further violence.

The refugees in Ahmedabad now dread the arrival of rain and the celebration of the Jagannath Rath Yatra on July 12. Many refugees say that they will leave the camps after the Rath Yatra. The annual festival has always led to riots in the past. "Every year clashes occur on that day. This year, it will be worse. The Bajrang Dal and the VHP have the upper hand. They are looking for trouble," said a refugee whose family was killed in the Gulmarg society massacre.

The witnesses of the Naroda Patiya and Gulmarg massacres, in which 136 and 70 people were hacked and burned respectively, refuse to return to their homes. They feel secure in a predominantly Muslim area. But Chief Minister Narendra Modi turned down their appeal for land to resettle elsewhere. Several Muslim victims, including judges, police officers and professionals have moved to Juhapura. The "borders" within an already ghettoised city have been fortified.

With the divide firmly in place, more than one lakh refugees still cannot go back to their homes and jobs.

The only silver lining for them has been the conduct of mass marriages inside Ahmedabad's relief camps. Sponsored by camp organisers, most of these marriages had been planned before the violence occurred. Most parents feel their single daughters are more vulnerable, especially since they are now homeless. But, it also shows their determination to get back to normal life despite the heavy odds.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 22, 2002.)



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