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A time of trauma

Published : Nov 22, 2002 00:00 IST

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A time of traumaIt has been eight months since the communal violence in Gujarat began on February 27. The carnage claimed more than a thousand lives and left around 150,000 people homeless. DIONNE BUNSHA takes a look at how different people are dealing with the after-shocks.Out of school

"They drive away children from the school. They tell us to go back home. That's why I haven't gone back to school," says 10-year-old Shabana Sheikh. After being chased away from school, Shabana now works at a local tea stall, earning Rs.15 daily.

Their meagre belongings already destroyed during the violence, children are under greater pressure to work. After the violence, jobs were harder to come by because of the economic boycott of Muslims. This made way for another form of employment — child labour. Several children, who could not return to school after the riots, have started working. It took a lot of guts for Shabana's family to return to their home in Naroda Patiya, an industrial neighbourhood in Ahmedabad. Their neighbourhood saw the bloodiest killings, rape and arson in which more than 86 people died. But Shabana still could not summon up the courage to go back to school. When she did go back, the school was not too welcoming. "They told me I wasn't enrolled for the new term. It started while we were still in the relief camp. Now, they want my birth certificate to put me back on the rolls. But it was destroyed when our house was burned," says Shabana. "After the riots, I am too scared to walk to school. If they start a school inside our chawl, I'll go."

Azeem Sheikh, 11, has not started working yet, but he too was refused admission in school. "When I went back to enroll myself in school, people didn't even look at me. They just turned their heads the other way," he says. "They refused to take me back. They told me to take my leaving certificate after paying eight months' fees." Azeem is also scared to venture the 20-minute walk to school. "I saw people being burned. All the way to the relief camp, I saw bodies on the road. Now, I'm too scared. It's still not safe. Violence still keeps breaking out somewhere in the city."

Just hours after this correspondent spoke to Azeem, his family fled Naroda Patiya to go back to the Shah Alam relief camp. The Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar (Gujarat's capital city, an hour by road from Ahmedabad) had been attacked. Every Muslim feared the worst. The police plainly said that they could not protect them against another attack. "After the riots, four private charitable schools in Naroda refused to accept Muslim students. They are asking them to pay and take a leaving certificate. They justify it by saying that they cannot ensure the children's safety," says Meera Malik, a social worker. "Even children from Dalit families are scared to return to school after seeing so much violence."

The city is already divided into ghettos. Now, even the schools are being segregated and the poorest are being pushed out. With schools closing their doors, more children like Shabana are being pushed to the grind. Working, with no way out.

On edge

It seemed like an ordinary family outing. But Jayesh Shukla, 29, had perhaps decided it would be their last.

He took his wife Nita, 25, and son Harsh, 4, for a motorcycle ride on the evening of September 19. They stopped and ate a snack at a local bhel vendor. Then, they drove to the railway tracks in Ranip, a suburb of Ahmedabad. They didn't just watch the trains go by. They stood on the tracks and let the train run over them.

Such shocking incidents have become common in Ahmedabad. After the communal violence died down in June, nine family suicide cases occurred in the city until September. Almost every week, a family suicide case is reported in the local press. Police sources admit that no family suicide occurred last year. Jayesh had a catering business. He came from a fairly well-off business family and lived in Ghatlodia, a middle class colony in Ahmedabad. Apparently, his business took a downturn during the communal violence. It became increasingly difficult for him to pay back his debts.

The police and the government deny that the suicide phenomenon is linked to the communal violence in any way. But the stories of many families reveal that the recession caused by the riots led to their downfall. Daily wage earners were the worst hit. On the other side of the Sabarmati river, in the working class ghettos, casual workers reached starvation levels. Most could not leave their homes for two months owing to the curfew. Shankarlal Solanki, a construction worker, was out of work for three months. Barely managing to support his family of five, Shankarlal could not afford the medicines for his wife Kailashben's treatment for tubercolosis. On September 5, the entire family burned itself with kerosene in its home in a Bapunagar chawl.

Saved by a missing match

"We were saved by a matchstick," says Naeem Patel. "When our house was attacked, the mob poured kerosene all over my father and me. Luckily, they couldn't find a matchbox, so we got away."

Naeem and his father escaped with severe injuries. They had to be flown to Mumbai for treatment. The rest of the family also fled to Mumbai, unwilling to risk another attack. Naeem and his elder brother Salim stayed back in Ahmedabad to manage their business, the city's famous Mughlai restaurant, Moti Mahal, just outside the Kalupur railway station. Their hotel worth Rs. 3 crores, called Moti Manor, was burned during the violence.

"It's not safe for my family. They are now living in Mumbai, while I look after the business here. I'm still reluctant to leave all this behind," says Salim. "Initially, we thought of shifting within Ahmedabad to another locality. In May, I was at Mumbai Central station, bringing my wife and children back to Ahmedabad, when we heard that riots had broken out again. That's when we decided to keep the family in Mumbai."

"Why do you think so many people are leaving? Many people have left for Hyderabad, Pune or Mumbai. The immigration queues are long. And, it's the Patels who are the most eager to go abroad. I still feel that I should live here. We run a 100-year-old restaurant in Ahmedabad. Why should you have to run away from your own country?" asks Salim.

Salim was at his restaurant when his house in Paldi, a mixed neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, was attacked on March 28. "I couldn't leave because of the curfew. I had to coordinate everything by phone. Some friends took my father and Naeem to V.S. Hospital. Naeem had fractured his hand. But they took so long to attend to it, that he left without a plaster cast. They couldn't stay at the hospital for long. It wasn't safe. A huge mob had gathered outside the hospital too. Some of the people who attacked our tenements were also there." The next day, Salim sent his family to Mumbai where they have relatives. There his father underwent surgery for a head injury. He is still undergoing treatment.

"One thing is for sure. No one is going to invest in any new business venture in Gujarat. If we decide to start anything new, it will be in Mumbai. Even now, our business turnover is only 60 per cent of the normal amount. And, we are one of the established businesses in the city. Others may be worse off," says Salim. "When we first reopened, our regular customers kept calling us. They felt too embarrassed to face us after what had happened. But after speaking to us, they came."

Salim and Naeem are reluctant to leave behind their life in Ahmedabad, despite their brush with death. But they may have no choice. They do not want to risk the chance that next time, the mob may bring a matchbox.

Boys in the hood

"I've never worked a day in my life. I live by cheating," boasts Hiren (not his real name). "I don't ask for money. People give me money to get their work done. I take haftas directly from the cops. If they refuse, I threaten to make a phone call and get them transferred," he says, explaining his modus operandi.

Hiren is a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader. His father, a former mill worker, was a die-hard Congress supporter. This correspondent met the 25-year-old Hiren and his friends in Gomtipur, an industrial area that went downhill when the textile mills started closing. Gomtipur now houses some of the poorest workers, mainly Dalits and Muslims. "They (Muslims) put up a good defence (when we attacked). But there were too many of us. We burned everything. They had to be taught a lesson after killing so many Hindus in Godhra," says Hiren. "I saw many dead and injured people in their basti. I didn't feel anything. I wasn't scared. When you go with stones, bombs and petrol, you have to expect trouble."

"If the Congress was in power, we wouldn't have got any support from the police during the riots. It's because of the BJP government that they stood aside and let us attack. They fired at Muslims. Not just here, but everywhere — in Naroda Patiya, Gulbarg society," says Hiren. Why did he join the party? "Even during the 1992 riots, we (Dalits) supported the BJP. The BJP is kattar (hardline) Hindu. Ever since the BJP has come to power, Muslim dadagiri (mafia) is less. Now, more Hindu bootleggers have started business."

The party has gained support amongst unemployed youth who are looking for opportunities to acquire power locally and hustle their way through. Some have realised that it has got them nowhere. Others have gained through extortion and `cheating'. Still others have allowed the Hindutva frenzy to divert their attention away from the real, unresolved problems within their neighbourhood.

(Frontline interviewed Hiren in July and September 2002. Recently, Hiren was arrested on charges of bootlegging.)

The fate of the purged

"Remove Muslims from this village," announced a poster in Pilodra, Mehsana district. That dashed any hopes Husainbhai Sheikh had of returning home. He currently lives in a small hut in Dasaj village, where a relief camp was being run. Now, people in Dasaj also want to throw him out.

"In July, the Sangh Parivar organised a huge public meeting in Dasaj. They spoke about removing all the refugees living here. They wanted to scare us. But where else can we go? We have no homes to go back to," says Husainbhai.

Every tactic is being used to chase away the refugees. "The sarpanch wrote a letter giving instructions to the local school to refuse admission to children who aren't from Dasaj. He withdrew the letter only after we complained to the Collector. They still don't let our children drink from the matka (water jug) kept near the school. Even though the Collector's office gave us new ration cards, they don't sell us kerosene in the ration shops," says Husainbhai, a landless farm worker. "We applied for permission to build homes on land given to us by other Muslim families here. But the Collector's office keeps delaying the approval." The only support for the 40 families seeking refuge comes from Dasaj's Muslim basti. "They have given us land to build huts and work in their fields. It's because of us that they are facing a boycott in their own village," says Husainbhai.

"These people have nowhere to go. We have to help them," says Hathibhai Khan, a former sarpanch of Dasaj. "The Patels are angry with us for sheltering refugees. They have imposed a boycott. No one can buy from Muslim shops. They have taken away land from Muslim share-croppers. The Dalits don't support their boycott but they are under threat."

Most refugees can't even dream of going back. "Yesterday, a rickshaw puller from Oonjha village, who is a refugee in Dasaj, went to drop a passenger in Oonjha. He was chased out of his own village," says Aliyar Khan Pathan, another refugee in Dasaj.

"Even though they want to kick us out, Dasaj is the only safe place for us. It has a large Muslim basti," says Aliyar. A different kind of ghettoisation is occurring in Gujarat's villages. Muslims are moving to villages where members of their community are found in large clusters.

Exiles at home

"It's horrible to be treated as outcasts in our own village. This tension is too much. We can't sleep at night. How can we live like this?"

After their homes were burned and 32 persons were killed, only around 15 of Sardarpura's 90 Muslim families returned home in August. But their homecoming was greeted with hostility. The Patel community imposed a boycott of Muslims, threatening anyone who dared to speak to them. During the communal carnage in March, some of the most gruesome killings took place here. Intimidation still hangs thick over the village. Most people are scared to speak, fearing threats from the powerful Patels. It is not surprising that the other Muslim families have not returned.

"Only those who had land came back to till them. But what's the point? They don't sell us water from their borewells. Don't hire out tractors to us. Don't buy our milk at the cooperative dairy. Many people have had to leave their fields fallow because they aren't getting borewell water. We have to call tractors from other villages and pay them extra," says a Muslim farmer. Sardarpura is in Mehsana district, a rich agricultural region. Farmers here rely heavily on borewell irrigation for their cash crops. "Families with children have not returned. They are living in other towns and cities with their relatives. It's easier to find work in a city. Here, there wasn't much work anyway. And the boycott has made it worse," says a farmer. "It was not like this. Earlier, we all used to be in each other's homes, celebrate festivals and weddings together. Now, when the government organises a peace meeting, they don't show up. Other people in the village who talk to us are threatened."

There are some who have stood up to the Patels, and have paid the price.

Deputy sarpanch Someshwar Pandya helped rescue families during the attack. He visited them regularly in the relief camp. Someshwar was attacked while he was sitting outside the panchayat office. But that has not deterred him. "We don't agree to this boycott nonsense. Dalits still support Muslims."

Pandya, a Dalit and a local Congress leader, describes the vested interests behind the attack. "Most shops in the market belonged to Muslims. There were three or four Patel shops. Now Patels have set up 13 to 14 shops. They wanted to clear the Muslims from the market," he says. "All the accused who killed people here are out on bail. They are still creating problems, including the sarpanch of this village."

Most Patels are angry with the Muslims for being witnesses in police cases filed against them after the violence. This correspondent could not speak to members of the Patel community since Muslims were afraid of the consequences that such an interview would have on their security.

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

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