After the Storm
Gujarat’s communal violence claimed more than 1,000 lives and left around 150,000 people homeless. Eight months after, Dionne Bunsha takes a look at how different people are dealing with the after-shocks.
Boys in the Hood
“I’ve never worked a day in my life. I live by cheating,” boasts Hiren (name changed). “I don’t ask for money. People give me money to get their work done. I take haftas (bribes) directly from the cops. If they refuse, I threaten to make a phone call and get them transferred,” he says, explaining his modus operandi. “What’s wrong with it? Who doesn’t cheat? From top to bottom,” Hiren laughs mischievously.
Hiren is one of Ahmedabad’s army of unemployed youth, hustling to get by. I met Hiren, 25, and his friends in Gomtipur, an industrial area of Ahmedabad. Once a busy working class neighbourhood, it went downhill when the textile mills started closing. Around 100,000 people lost their jobs. Hiren is a local BJP leader. But his father, a former mill worker, was a die-hard Congress supporter. Gomtipur houses some of the poorest workers, mainly Dalit and Muslim. During the recent riots, it was one of the few areas where Dalits attacked Muslims. Frustration due to unemployment has increased communal friction.
“They (the 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 (the police) stood aside and let us attack. They fired at Muslims. Not just here, but everywhere- in Naroda Patiya, Gulbarg society,” says Hiren when I asked him why he joined the party. “Even during the 1992 riots, we (Dalits) supported the BJP. The BJP is kattar (hard-line) Hindu,” he says. “Ever since the BJP has come to power, Muslim dadagiri (mafia) is less. Now, more Hindu bootleggers have started business.”
Being part of the BJP has given Hiren and his friends local power and a way to make a quick buck. “This rascal even cheated me,” pipes in Mahesh (name changed), his childhood friend. “My name was nominated for the local BJP committee, but he didn’t announce it. He knew I would see through his scams and make a noise about it,” he says. “You know what he does? The minute any money comes in to the local party office for scholarships or whatever, he immediately swipes half.”
“He didn’t want me in the BJP committee because he knew I would raise a lot of uncomfortable questions,” says 36-year-old Mahesh. “Initially, I believed strongly in Hindutva. But later, started reading more and after being with them, I realised that the BJP is not for Dalits. They only use us to stir trouble with the Muslims. Have they helped us find jobs? Although I’ve been with the party for 12 years, I’ve remained unemployed,” says this part-time rickshaw driver.
Hiren and his friends went boldly forward when the BJP mobilised for an attack on Muslims. The party has gained support amongst unemployed youth 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 from the real and unresolved problems within their neighbourhood.
Licence to loot. Freedom to flex muscle. But even after years of loyalty, there’s still, no work.
(I interviewed Hiren in July and September 2002. After that, Hiren was arrested for bootlegging, and was later released on bail.)
“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 Shabana Sheikh (10 years). 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, the pressure on children to work is greater. After the violence, jobs were harder to come by due to the economic boycott of Muslims. This made way for another form of employment – child labour. Several children, who couldn’t return to school after the riots, have started working. Many started working while they were still refugees in the Shah Alam relief camp in Ahmedabad. Others like Shabana started working after they returned to their homes but weren’t accepted back at school.
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 died. But Shabana still couldn’t summon up the courage to get back to school. When she did go back, the school wasn’t 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 muster. But it was destroyed when our house was burned,” says Shabana. “After the riots, I’m too scared to walk to school. If they start a school inside our chawl, I’ll go.”
Azeem Sheikh (11) hasn’t 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 dead 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 I spoke to Azeem, his family fled Naroda Patiya back to the Shah Alam relief camp. The Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar (Gujarat’s capital city, an hour away from Ahmedabad) had been attacked. That night, his family had to flee Naroda Patiya and run back to the Shah Alam relief camp. Every Muslim feared the worst. The police plainly said that they couldn’t protect them against another attack. Azeem’s family returned three days later after the Sangh Parivar decided it wouldn’t create any trouble during the bandh it called to protest against the temple 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.”
In the more upmarket part of the city, the story isn’t very different. Around 200 Muslim students had to leave Ahmedabad’s Don Bosco school. Their parents were scared to send them to a school so far from their home. The students shifted to the National School in Juhapura, a Muslim neighbourhood.
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, and no way out.
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 from Dasaj also want to throw him out.
“In July, the local Sangh Parivar organized 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. Only after we complained to the collector, he had to withdraw the letter. 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 here are the families in 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 driver from Oonjha village, who is a refugee in Dasaj, went to drop a passenger to 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 their community is found in large clusters. Earlier, even one or two Muslim families lived in a village. But that is changing. They now seek security in numbers.
For many refugees, there’s nowhere to run. No place to hide.
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 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 the Muslims, threatening anyone who dares to speak with them. The village seems to be living up to its notoriety. 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 to me, fearing further threats from the powerful Patels. It isn’t surprising that the other Muslim families haven’t returned.
“Only those who had land came back to till their fields. 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 co-operative 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 located in Mehsana district, a rich agricultural region. Farmers here rely heavily on borewell irrigation for their cash crops. Agricultural land here is also priced at a premium. With so much at stake, Muslim cultivators were keen to get back to their fields, even if it meant risking the threats.
“Families with children haven’t returned. They are living in other towns and cities with their relatives. It’s easier to find work in a city. Here, anyways there wasn’t much work. And the boycott has made it worse,” says a farmer. “It wasn’t like this. Earlier, we all used to be in each other’s homes, celebrate festivals and weddings together. Now, when the government organizes 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 the families during the attack. He visited them regularly in the relief camp. This upset the local perpetrators of the carnage. Someshwar was attacked while he was sitting outside the panchayat office. But that hasn’t deterred him. “We don’t agree to this boycott nonsense. Dalits still support the Muslims. The Patels have stopped us from taking fodder from their fields because we don’t adhere to their boycott. They even talked about a fine of Rs. 5,000 to those who disobey the boycott.”
Pandya, a Dalit and 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. We have a Congress MLA here. The BJP wants to put up a strong candidate. It has been mobilizing Patels for months.”
Other than Pandya, no Dalit will talk about the conflicts within the village. “People here are too scared to speak to you about this. After all, they work in the Patel’s fields. I’m the only one who will speak. I’m too old to care,” says Pandya.
Most Patels are angry with the Muslims for being witnesses in police cases filed against them after the violence. I couldn’t speak to the Patel community since the Muslims were afraid of the consequences that such an interview would have on their security.
Back home but still shunned. Exiled in their own hometown.
Over the Edge
It seemed like an ordinary family outing. But Jayesh Shukla (29) had perhaps decided it would be their last.
He took his young wife Nita (25) and son Harsh (4) for a motorcycle ride on the evening of September 19th. They stopped and ate a snack at a local bhel vendor. Then, they drove to the railway tracks in Ranip, a suburb in Ahmedabad. But they didn’t just watch the trains go by. They stood in front of the tracks and let the train run over them.
Though shocking, such incidents have become common in Ahmedabad. Ever since the communal violence died down in June, nine family suicide cases have occurred in the city between June to September this year. Almost every week, a new family suicide pact is reported in the local press. Police sources admit that no family suicides occurred last year. This year, the economic crunch due to the riots spelled disaster for many families.
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 more difficult for him to pay back his debts. Jayesh had reportedly borrowed a large amount from moneylenders. A few days before he killed himself, the moneylenders had visited his home. They demanded their money and threatened him if he didn’t pay back, said neighbourhood sources. A loud argument ensued. Jayesh was apparently under great pressure to repay the debts, but his business wasn’t picking up. He seems to have taken another way out.
The police and government deny 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 did lead to their downfall. The police merely state that the family was facing an ‘economic crisis’ but don’t provide more details.
Worst hit were daily wage earners. On the other side of Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati river, in the working class ghettos, casual workers reached starvation level. Most couldn’t leave their homes for two months due to the curfew. Shankarlal Solanki, a construction worker, was out of work for three months. Barely managing to support his family of five, Shankarlal apparently couldn’t afford the medicines for his wife Kailashben’s TB treatment. On September 5th, the entire family burned themselves with kerosene in their home in a Bapunagar chawl. Until the riots, Shankarlal reportedly earned a steady income and was able to educate his three children – Ripple (12), Umesh (8) and Dharmesh (5). But work was hard to come by after the violence. That apparently pushed the entire family to take their lives.
After Ahmedabad’s mobs finished with their killing and arson spree, its effects are still being felt amongst people who weren’t physically harmed in the violence. The after-shocks of the violence pressed many people into such dire conditions that drove them to kill themselves.
Others are still surviving, enduring the anxiety silently. But still living on the edge.
Saved by a 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 older 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 three crore, called Moti Manor, was burned during the violence.
“Its 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 so 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 28th. “I couldn’t leave because of the curfew. I had to co-ordinate 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. 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 skull injury. He is still undergoing treatment.
“One thing is for sure. No one is going to invest in any new business investment 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 normal. And, we are one of the established businesses in the city. Others may be worse off,” says Salim. “When we first re-opened, 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 close brush with death. But they may have no choice. Next time, the mob may bring the matchbox.
Frontline, November 9 – 22, 2002 Also available here