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Reaching out to Gujarat

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST



Extending a hand of solidarity from West Bengal, a team of Left Front leaders carries succour and solace to the relief camps in Gujarat.

THE anger of ordinary citizens over the state-sponsored communal carnage in Gujarat found expression in an inspiring two-month-long people's campaign in West Bengal under the leadership of Left Front constituents. Through a house to house, village to village mass contact effort, thousands of activists explained the events in Gujarat, the brutal attacks on the minority community, and their dangerous implications for India's future. The campaign included collection of money for the victims, and about Rs.50 lakhs was collected.

To reach the relief funds to the victims, a Left Front team visited Gujarat on June 8 and 9 under the leadership of Somnath Chatterjee, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) group in the Lok Sabha. Other members of the team were Ajay Chakravorty (Member of Parliament, Communist Party of India), Abani Roy (MP, Revolutionary Socialist Party), Nilotpal Basu (MP, CPI(M)), Mohammad Yaqub (Member of the Legislative Assembly, Forward Bloc), Ramapada Samanta (MLA, Democratic Socialist Party), Brahmamay Nanda (MLA, Samajwadi Party) and the author. The team was accompanied by leaders of the Gujarat State Committees of the CPI(M) and the CPI.

The team disbursed Rs.47,32,070 directly to 996 affected families and 171 women widowed in the communal violence in about 15 areas of the State. This is the largest relief programme undertaken by any political party or non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Gujarat so far, and it was directly financed by mass collections from the people. People greeted the team warmly wherever it went. The message of solidarity from the people of West Bengal to the victims of the communal violence was effectively conveyed through the programme that included public meetings. At the same time, many important issues that could be taken up in Parliament and directly with the Central government were raised by the victims who met the team.

An important feature of the relief programme was that help was given directly to the victims after a proper survey of some of the worst-affected areas. Secondly, while the main relief programme was aimed at members of the Muslim community who have been the worst-affected, some poor Dalit and Other Backward Class families whose houses were burnt or damaged and whose livelihood was directly affected were also helped. Thirdly, after the identification of families that needed help, the entire amount was divided and made into individual drafts or cheques so as to avoid cash transactions. This ensured the complete transparency of the process of disbursement of this substantial amount of people's money. This was possible because of the cooperation extended by a bank employees' union in Kolkata which worked to complete the job of making out over a thousand drafts.

On June 8, the first programme was in Akbar Nagar, Ahmedabad. This is a slum settlement inhabited by Muslims. It was razed on February 28 and about 227 families were affected. All these families had shifted to the nearby Aman Chowk camp in one of the worst-affected areas of Bapu Nagar. A large number of people, including the Congress corporator from the area, were waiting for the team. At a public function, money was distributed to individuals to buy building materials. Victims from nearby areas of Hardas Nagar and Bapu Nagar, and women who had been widowed in the violence, were also present and received help. In addition, 100 families of street vendors, whose wooden carts had been burnt, and self-employed persons were given help to restart their work.

At this function, as at others, the leaders of the team stressed the message of solidarity from the people of West Bengal and the commitment of the Left Front to defend secularism and the rights of the minorities.

The next programme was held in the Dalit-dominated area of Rajpur-Gomtipur. It is separated from a Muslim-dominated area by a road. About 56 houses of Dalits had been damaged. The Left Front team was the first to go there with relief. A big function was organised in a local hall by a group of secular-minded Dalit youth, led by Jagdish Panwar. The members of this group had been attacked earlier by certain Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists because they tried to help their Muslim friends during the violence. Significantly, members of this group accompanied the Left Front team to the Muslim area where the third function was held. They met their friends for the first time since the violence started. It was an important occasion for them and they mentioned that the Left Front's efforts from far-away West Bengal had helped them renew their friendship.

The function at Shahpur was significant as it brought together people from the Hindu and Muslim communities who had lived together in an area that had been burnt during the violence. Here, the relief was meant for reconstruction as well as for helping the victims to restart their occupations.

Six more programmes were held in the afternoon. These included a big meeting in Shah Alam, the largest relief camp in Ahmedabad, where 35 widows were given relief, and a visit to the Juhapura camp where money was given to 10 widows and funds were given to the camp organisers. Earlier, the team held a meeting in Bhilvas, a Scheduled Tribe-dominated area. As many as 125 families have been accommodated in the Kankaria camp in this area for the last three months after their huts were burnt. Government leaders like L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi, who had not bothered to visit any of the Muslim camps, paid several visits to Kankaria to emphasise that Muslims were the aggressors. However, nothing had been done to extend actual help to the tribal families. All the tribal families that had not got any government relief were identified and given some help by the Left Front team. In Vatva, 100 poor Muslim families whose work tools and handcarts had been destroyed were given help. This programme was organised in consultation with the Behavioural Science Centre, an NGO working in the area. At this meeting the nephew of Ehsan Jaffri, the former Congress Member of Parliament who had been burnt to death, was present. The First Information Report, filed after three months of the incident, blames Jaffri for "firing" on the mob and thus causing his own death. Efforts are under way to challenge this subversion of justice.

The delegation met two legal aid teams organised under the Citizens Initiative, the most prominent and active group of NGOs working in Gujarat, and donated Rs.5 lakhs to it. At present its main work is confined to filing FIRs and applications for compensation. Some petitions are also being filed in the Supreme Court. These include "perspective FIRs" from different sections of society such as women, workers, artisans, professionals and students with details of the complicity of the State government in the violence. A prominent association of lawyers in Gujarat has said that it would not take up complaints from Muslims. The main legal work on behalf of the victims is being done either by Muslim lawyers or by NGOs. Thus funds to strengthen legal work are very important at this juncture.

At the final meeting on June 8, the Left Front team met the families of 10 of those burnt alive on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra. The meeting was arranged with the help of the District Collector. Several of the family members concerned deeply resented the fact that their tragedies have been utilised for political purposes. Among them was 22-year-old Chaya Devi, whose father Mani Lal Dave was killed in the train. "There are some people who do not want unity," she told the delegation. "I lost my father but I do not want others to lose their fathers. I don't like the division of Hindus and Muslims. It is the poor who suffer. Everything is being done in the name of Godhra, but those who are being killed, they do not know anything."

Dr. G.C. Rawal, 83, lost his wife Sudha and his son Ashwin. Composed and articulate, he said: "I believe in communal harmony. I want to thank the people of West Bengal for their messages of sympathy and condolence. Nothing can replace a life lost; the death of a loved one is the same, whatever the community." These voices of sanity of those affected by the Godhra killings seemed to have been deliberately stifled by the Gujarat government as they constitute a powerful message for communal peace, far removed from Modi's "action-reaction" theories to justify the pogrom against Muslims.

On June 9, the team divided itself into two groups and visited the rural camps. One group went to Himmatnagar and Madarsa in Sabarkantha, one of the worst-affected districts. Approximately 9,000 people are accommodated in nine camps in the area. The team also went to Santrampur where houses had been attacked and destroyed, people had been burnt and a large number of women had been stripped. The group met many of the victims and gave help to widows.

The other group visited the affected areas in Vadodara (Baroda). It also visited camps in Taiwada, Kalol and Godhra. While the team was in the Godhra camp, which houses victims from the rural areas of Panchmahal district, a scooterist rushed into the camp crying for help. He had been stabbed and was bleeding profusely. He was afraid to go to the police on his own because he had heard of false cases being registered against Muslim victims. This shocking incident brought home the truth that the Sangh Parivar outfits continued to perpetrate violence against Muslims. In all the rural camps, meetings were held and relief was given. The team was greeted with warmth and appreciation.

DURING the visit, the victims raised several issues of immediate importance. The situation in the camps was worsening. For example, when it rained in Ahmedabad recently, the inmates of the Shah Alam camp had little shelter until an NGO came forward to put up tarpaulin covers. Since the end of May, the government had stopped supplies of even the meagre rations it had been giving earlier. Since schools were reopening, the camps had to be shifted. But where were the inmates to go?

Just 10 days after the Left Front team's visit to Gujarat, Advani claimed that people had gone back from the camps because of the good rehabilitation work done by the Modi government. This was not true. In Sabarkantha district, for example, only half of the 18,000 people had been able to leave the camps; some of them went to their relatives, some moved into rented accommodation and a small number of people went back to their villages. Giving a detailed break-up of the camps in the district, the organisers complained to the Left Front team that of the nine camps in the district that still housed around 9,000 people, the government had not registered five, thus depriving their inmates of any help whatsoever. The government had deliberately undercounted the numbers in the camps by conducting a census when most of the male inmates were out and refusing to note down their names without their physical presence even when the women and children of the family were present. Around 13,000 people took shelter in the Shah Alam camp at the peak of the violence, and 7,700 remained there at the time of writing this report. In all the camps, inmates told the delegation of their longing to go home. Who would want to stay in such inhuman conditions? But without providing alternatives the government was shutting down the camps, jeopardising the lives of thousands of children and their innocent parents who just could not go back safely.

In areas where Muslims were in a minority, it was impossible for them to go back since the government had made no effort to ensure their security. In many cases of attacks, the delegation was told, the aggressors were led by people from the same neighbourhood as the victims. While this did point to the wide local network of the Bajrang Dal and the VHP, it also meant that the return of a large number of the refugees depended on the political will of the government to take action against those leaders. The government simply refused to do so.

In the initial phase of K.P.S. Gill's intervention, some killers were arrested giving rise to hopes of justice among the minorities. The hopes were soon belied and the wheels of justice moved in the reverse direction. In a bizarre innovation, FIRs were filed according to geographical boundaries that were arbitrarily fixed. The delegation was told that in Sabarkantha all incidents that occurred within a radius of 5 km of each other were lumped together in one FIR regardless of their nature; the names of the guilty were subsumed under "mob action". Some complainants filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court demanding that separate FIRs be filed. The High Court upheld the "geographical" FIRs but directed that the police should take individual statements under Section 162 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. This was one month before the visit, but no such statement had been recorded. Rape cases had still not been filed in most instances.

THE District Collector tried to take some victims in the Sabarkantha camps back to their homes but he failed to stop the threats of violence from the communal criminals in many villages. The delegation was told that a board put up outside Khedbhrama village forbade the entry of Muslims. The people in the camps appealed to the government to allot them wastelands as an alternative to what they had lost. But the government rejected the request. There were examples of the land and property of Muslims being taken over by some local leaders. In the Himmatnagar camp, the delegation was told that the house of one Siddique Bhai Rahim Bhai has been converted into a temple in Deshottar village. In Raigad village, the house of Mohammed Lohar had been broken down and a new one was being constructed. He petitioned a court, which granted an interim stay on the construction, but not on possession.

The other important problem faced by the displaced was inadequate compensation. The losses suffered by the Muslim community had been assessed at several thousand crores of rupees. The government has arbitrarily fixed a ceiling of Rs.50,000 for compensation regardless of the extent of loss. For example, the losses suffered by 700 Muslims whose hotels and restaurants were burnt. The government, the delegation was told in the rural areas, conducted a survey without the victims being present. The assessments were therefore arbitrary and unjust. Victims demanded a resurvey in many areas. Adding insult to injury, victims were being handed over cheques for amounts as low as Rs.80. The delegation saw photocopies of such cheques in some camps. Thus, even if an area was considered safe for their return, those in the camps did not have the wherewithal to start life again, given the inadequate compensation provided by the government. Relief, rehabilitation and compensation thus become matters of survival.

There is politics even in awarding compensation to families of those killed. The victims of the Godhra incident were given Rs. 90,000 in cash and Rs. 60,000 in government bonds. Many complained that the bonds had not reached them. But Muslim families were paid Rs.50,000 less than others. The families of those killed got Rs.40,000 in cash and Rs. 60,000 in bonds that would take 10 years to mature. Worse was the plight of women who had not been able to provide proof of the death of their husbands/male relatives either because the bodies had been burnt beyond recognition or because they had been thrown away by the killers. There are probably several hundred families that have not got the compensation. At the time of last year's earthquake, rules for proof of death were waived since it was impossible to get the bodies out of the rubble. But such a humane approach has been absent in the case of the traumatised families of those killed in the carnage. Provision of compensatory jobs is another demand raised by the families.

In almost all the areas, the victims raised the issue of the removal of the Narendra Modi government. They said his continuation in office ensured that the tensions continued and that Muslims were denied adequate compensation, so as to keep the whole community destitute, subordinate and dependent on the largesse of others.

The Left Front delegation assured the victims that it would use every forum to raise their problems and demands while continuing to offer whatever material help it could provide on behalf of the people of West Bengal.

Brinda Karat is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 06, 2002.)



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