The bullet marks on the white-washed walls around the dargah have been carefully outlined in black. There was police firing here at Vatwa during the ‘dhamaal’, they tell you. They arrived in two vehicles on March 1, the day after violence had erupted in the area, and fired upon people gathered on the roofs of their one-storey houses – a woman died, and several people were injured. Three of the injured – all young women – were arrested in June, the day after we left. Circulars issued by the government of Gujarat are impressive in their clarity: no one injured in police firing can claim compensation, because of course, if the police fired on them they must have been terrorists. It’s a neat circle. The majority killed in communal violence in post-independence India? Muslims. The majority arrested and convicted? Right. No surprises there. We know this stuff, after all, we are a bunch of academics – students and teachers, the second team of volunteers from Aman Ekta Manch in Delhi. We also know all there is to know about Gujarat – it’s an information overload, for god’s sake. Statistics, details of loot and plunder, of gory massacres, of mass rapes and public sexual humiliation of women, of devastated localities, state and police complicity, it’s all there.
(But here’s a lesser known little snippet of information – from yet another government circular on compensation for deaths, it emerges that Rs 1 lakh is the price of a dead person, but the family does not get it all in cash. You get Rs 40,000 in cash, and the rest in Sardar Sarovar dam bonds. It’s a simple equation – the more deaths in communal violence, the better for the dam. Not so coincidental is it – the physical attack on Medha Patkar at the peace meeting organised by Mallika Sarabhai in Ahmedabad?)
The VHP may call it Gujarat Pradesh of Hindu Rashtra, on saffron billboards all over the state, but it is still, nominally at least, part of this land mass we call India. And Indians are landing up in Gujarat in thousands from all over the country – to “do something,” to document, to mourn, to see for themselves. “Riot tourism”, it has come to be called. There is an element of that, but it is this large-scale documentation at all levels – individual video-clips, journal entries, anguished first-hand accounts, detailed fact-finding reports, news coverage, all circulating on the web, in newspapers, on television – that has produced the composite picture that turns our stomach: Gujarat 2002.
Having arrived after three months, what we encounter in the camps is dull resignation and a simmering resentment, not the raw pain and uncontrollable grief there must have been. It’s easier for us to take. But in fact, nothing you have ever read or seen or heard prepares you for the utter horror of Gujarat. Nothing prepares you for the survivors of the Chaman Pura mass rapes relating the nightmarish details of the rounding up of the women, the taunts that were hurled of ‘akha’ (whole) Hindu penises, so much better than ‘kate’ (circumcised), of recognising rakhi brothers and those who had shared Id feasts amongst the attackers, of one young boy, shamed by his friend’s startled and partly amused query, “Arre, tu mujhe marega?”, retreating to the door, but sent back by another to finish the job.
Nothing prepares you for nine year-old Nagma, during a quiet moment inside the dargah of Qutb-e-Alam – now, like many dargahs in Gujarat, a camp for the detritus left by the sweep of the saffron sword – saying in that endearing sing-song Hyderabadi way they speak Hindi there, “jab hum ghar vapas gaye na Didi, do-teen din bad, tab vahan kuchh nahin tha, bilkul khetaan jaise tha” (When we went back home after a couple of days, there was nothing, it was flat like a field) – gesturing with her little hands ironing out the air. Even though you have been to the ravaged ‘bastis’, seen the destruction for yourself, utterly thorough and hi-tech, crunched underfoot the pulverised remains of homes and dreams, seen the gloating slogans on the ruins of walls – ‘khandahar gali’ (Ruins Street), ‘Ajanta-Ellora ni gufa’ (Ajanta-Ellora Caves) – watched the partially burnt Quran being pulled out and impassively taken away by a survivor (why is it not in ashes? Was it meant to be recognised, to hammer home the humiliation?) – still nothing prepares you for those little hands gesturing, “khetaan jaise”.
Nothing prepares you for the policemen swaggering into the dargah with their shoes on. Has any Indian, of any religion or none whatever, ever entered temple, dargah or mosque except on bare feet? It’s a daily, ritual, humiliation in small things and big. It’s a hostage population.
And the story of the middle class Muslim, a friend to many of us, at the railway reservation counter in Ahmedabad as late as the end of May: Seeing his name on the form, someone behind him set up a shout, he was mobbed by others present, kicked and beaten, and he escaped with his life by managing to run to his scooter parked nearby. The crowd followed him for quite a while, he tells you. We know that the carnage was state-sponsored, that mob violence was meticulously planned and executed, but this from ordinary people at a railway station on the morning of a working-day? Did they not have offices to go to? Children to take to school? They just happened to be there that morning, after all. But then, if every mob numbered thousands, then the chances are high that every third or fourth person you see on the roads – man or woman – was part of a violent, rampaging mob. Nothing prepares you for that thought. Nothing prepares you for the blood-lust over the city.
It is also a city that is expecting at any moment, that dreaded thing – ‘the Muslim backlash’. Every Hindu knows full well that what was perpetrated there is beyond human endurance. They have looked into the void – will there not come a moment when the void will look back? One morning an auto rickshaw driver taking some of us to Vatwa in a sort of convoy with two other autos, lost sight of the others. As we drove deeper into the clearly Muslim locality he grew more and more panicky. Trembling with fear, he said again and again that he had only agreed to come because of the others. He tried to make us get off – don’t pay me, he said, just let me go. They take two totally different routes to the Vatwa dargah, you know, Hindu and Muslim auto drivers. Hindus invariably take a longer route through the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation area, from the outside of the city centre. Muslims drive straight through the city, through teeming localities, many of them evidently Muslim.
Then there was the government official from the collector’s office, on a head-counting trip to the camp. The government has been trying to wash its hands of the camps ever since they were set up and to withdraw the pitiful amounts of rations it provides. It is the task of the official head-counters to pounce on camps in ‘surprise’ raids to prove that the camp organisers are in fact building fat fortunes on ‘sarkari daal-chaval’; that there are not as many people in the camps as the organisers claim, and that they have all gone back to their homes. We asked the official who came to Vatwa dargah whether he had in fact seen the village, less than a kilometre away, to which he was expecting the people to go back to when the camps closed. He had not; not once in the four months since the camps were opened. We insisted he come with us to see Navapura, to see the devastation, to decide for himself whether anyone could go back to live there. He agreed reluctantly, and off we went in the vehicle emblazoned with the words I can no longer encounter without a hollow feeling of dread ‘Government of Gujarat’. We arrived, and started taking him around, the destruction more complete than any earthquake could have managed. People were around, working on their homes, trying to repair, to rebuild (that’s where they are when the head-counters swoop down – in the wrecks of their homes, with pitiful amounts of cement and building material; or they are roaming the city in search of work, because they are not being taken back into the jobs they were in before the dhamaal. Or they are out in places where they can escape from the merciless sun). We began to walk around, the official impassively looking and listening, but pretty soon word had spread, and a young man suddenly accosted him, challenging him on the paltry compensation, the lack of it for most, demanding to know why he or others hadn’t been seen there in four months. Others joined in the shouting, and more and more joined the little procession of about 10 people following us. The official’s footsteps hastened, no longer was he the powerful ‘sarkari afsar’ but merely a Hindu in a Muslim locality – his shoe slipped off as he practically ran to the car, which in the meanwhile, was waiting, engine running – we made a clean, panic-stricken get away. He off-loaded us back at the camp without a word.
We related the story at the camp, and were rather taken aback by the amusement it generated, the way it was told and retold amidst building laughter. The image of the frightened government officer, his shoe slipping off – it became a moment of recaptured dignity. We can still frighten them, the laughter said. We are not entirely reduced to that heart-wrenching, humiliating picture of the young man pleading with folded hands for help.
By the time we arrived, in early June, the manufacture of ‘the Muslim backlash’ was in full swing. Every day the police would raid Juhapura, the Muslim ghetto, try to round up ‘suspects’, they would be resisted by the residents, there would be police firing, and the papers were full of front-page photographs of “Muslim mob marching towards Juhapura police station”. The photograph clearly showed an unarmed, peacefully marching demonstration. But more than two Muslims is, of course, ‘a mob’. Narendra Modi’s goons? Oh, that’s the ‘Government of Gujarat’.
We went one day to the Hindu village adjoining Navapura. No one from the camp would come with us,. We were pointed in the right direction by our friends in the dargah. Vaghrivas is as devastated as Navapura, in an identical fashion. We have come to recognise the way these villages look – the black streaks of soot on broken walls, the evidence of explosives inside electricity meters, the systematic looting, right down to ripped off floor tiles. We identify ourselves as Aman Ekta Manch volunteers from Delhi, people gather, a young man is located, clearly the spokesperson. He and the others show us around; the same heart-breaking remains of little, ordinary lives. They have returned from the camp where they were located because the organiser was swallowing up all the food and money that was coming in, and they were close to starving. “First the Bajrangis burnt down Navapura”, the young man tells us, and the next day, a mob arrived at their village. They show us the route by which they ran for their lives, tripping and falling, children caught underfoot. They headed for the other Hindu village across a stagnant pond – they pointed it out to us. Undamaged. But that village was far from welcoming – they were thakurs, and these were low caste chunars. “They wouldn’t let us enter, they said they would be killed too.”
I think of the feminist friend from Pune, after having met the survivors of the Chaman Pura mass rapes, crying out in bewilderment and anguish – “What makes us Hindus so tolerant of violence? Even the women participated in the rapes, you know. It was the local ‘dhoban’ (washerwoman) who helped tear off clothes. Is it the perpetual, endemic caste violence in our society that trains us to take this so lightly, even to enjoy it – the public humiliation and slaughter of human beings?”
But the Vaghrivasis did force their way into safety. The mob did not follow. Did they recognise anyone in the mob? There is disagreement on this, and a confused discussion breaks out. Didn’t the police help? No, the police told them to run for their lives and would not fire on the mob. The Gujarat police did not take the opportunity to fire on a Muslim mob? And the identical pattern of destruction? And the confusion on whether they recognised people from the neighbouring village? Is it so simply a retaliatory raid, after all? We look across at the Bajrang Dal flag fluttering across the field, think about the way they were referred to as ‘Bajrangis’ – not as ‘Hindu’. What’s going on here?
They point us in the direction of the dargah, where we say we are headed, but they too, will not accompany us beyond a point. As we turn to leave, the young man mutters, naming the camp organiser – “Akbarbhai ko hamara salaam kehna.” When we pass on the greeting back at the dargah, Akbarbhai smiles politely.
By June in Gujarat, there have been several hundreds of volunteers from all over the country, some like us coordinating with Nagrik Pahel in Ahmedabad, others with other civil society initiatives in the state, and still others just landing up and trying to be of use. (Every day one or the other of us would break down, and Bina, our friend, philosopher and guide in Ahmedabad, would calm us. When do the secular activists in Gujarat sleep or eat? When do they have the luxury of crying?) The volunteers have come from Mumbai and Pune, from Hyderabad and Vellore, from Delhi and Almora and Lucknow. They are doctors and those with training in psychiatry and counselling, others with experience in community work, government employees and private sector employees on their annual leave, film-makers, theatre people, teachers and students. Some are independently wealthy, others are desperate to go, but cannot even afford second class train fare – other people sponsor them. Some are so young that their parents seek reassurance that it will ‘be safe’, others are close to retirement. Another thing. They are overwhelmingly Hindu.
A Kashmiri Pandit writes in an email message – “I as a Kashmiri was a victim yesterday. Today if it happens to be a poor Gujarati Muslim, tomorrow it may be the turn of anybody – a poor Hindu, Muslim, secularist or a pseudo-secularist. I, and a friend of mine have found something definite that can be done. Something on a small scale…In the heart of Amdavad, in Beharampura, there is a small Muslim ‘basti’… Some residents are now gradually and very reluctantly wending their way back from the relief camp to their burnt and looted houses… We would like to help them rebuild their lives, to get them back on their feet again, bring them to a safe home...in a city where they were born, which they must not stop loving. We want to live with the people in this ‘chali’, we want to be with them when they are scared – there is still a very palpable fear in Ahmedabad about the ‘rath yatra’. We want to keep watch every night with them in case the mobs come again. We want to be with these people with our hearts and minds and we want to participate with them in the rebuilding of their lives.”
Shame – it crops up again and again – “We are ashamed of what has happened. We want to show we are sorry.” At one orientation in Ahmedabad for a team that had just arrived, a young woman says seriously – “I’ll do anything required of me. Anything. If the toilets in the camps are filthy, I’ll clean them.” We all recognise the feeling. It’s a form of ‘prayaschit’, of atonement. The horror has been perpetrated in our name – in the name of Hindus. We are responsible. For many of us who never considered ourselves to be ‘Hindu’ it is a difficult process of coming to terms with this identity. We argue about it among ourselves, if people in the camps ask what our religion is, what should be our reply? Some feel we should respond – what does it matter, we are all humans. But others say that it would be grossly insensitive to those in the camps to deny that it is as Muslims they have experienced humiliation, torture and slaughter. The taunts about circumcision, the desecration of Qurans and mosques, the demolition of dargahs, the forced shouting of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ before being cut into pieces. (Do you remember a time when that cry came from the heart in praise and thanksgiving?) And now the conditions being laid down if they want to return to their homes where they have lived for centuries – no meat except on Id, no ‘aazan’, no beards. It is their Muslim identity that is to be obliterated. Humiliatingly obliterated.
And if this is so, how can we deny our Hindu identity – it shouts itself from our names, from our bodies, from our practices, from the way we speak Hindi and Malayalam. It strikes us that this was ever so – we were always Hindu, even when we claimed to be non-believers. For we were always legally Hindu and Muslim and Christian, governed by Hindu and Muslim and Christian personal laws. This is not an identity we can choose to take on or deny – this is an identity that we bear, for better or for worse, and all the more so if we are believing and practising Hindus. It calls itself the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, it claims that Hindus want the temple at Ayodhya. We must reclaim that space. We are Hindus too, those who want a democratic India in which all can live in dignity and peace.
Suddenly, towards the end of our stay in Vatwa, the children who have become very close to us, hear a rumour. In the impromptu school we have begun with the help of local young educated women, Safia comes up to ask, “Didi, aap Hindu ho?” (Are you Hindu?) At our reply, she claps her hand over her mouth in shock and dismay – “Haww..”, she gasps. The class breaks up, the children cluster around – “Amanbhai bhi? Aradhyadidi bhi?” they name us one by one. Seven-year old Sultan swaggers up – “Kaun kehta hai ki aap Hindu hain?” (Who says you are Hindu?) he shouts, eager to protect our honour. In a few moments however, it is part of their common sense, they have absorbed the knowledge. We go back to multiplication tables. The next day Safia is teaching me a rhyme to go with the game all little girls seem to play, clapping hands together rhythmically. It’s mostly nonsense, as these rhymes are. I catch the odd phrase – “garam masala” she goes, “paani puri”, both of us clapping away. Suddenly – “Laam Lachhman”. I stop, surprised. What did you say, I ask. Safia is irritated with this break in the rhythm. She says impatiently, “Aap Hinduon mein nahin hota, Laam Lachhman?” (You know, what you Hindus have, Ram-Lakshman.) Oh that. We carry on.
At the camp at Aman Chowk, where three of our team, young people with experience in theatre, conducted theatre games with the children over the week, they had a similar experience. There the team brought up the question themselves – “Do you know who we are?” they asked towards the end of their stay. The children guessed, “Bhai-behen? Mian-biwi?” No, no, do you know what our religion is? They guessed again – Sikh ho? Isai ho? One of them was Christian, so that was partially correct. The two of us are Hindu, Bhrigu explained. “Ho hi nahin sakta”, (it’s not possible), the children were confident. ‘Hindu’ was a word they associated with terror, with fire, with frightening shouts of Jai Shri Ram, with fleeing in the night. These children were playing games of Hindu toli versus Muslim toli in the camp – of course it was inconceivable to them that any Hindu would have spent this time playing with them and making them laugh.
Zubeida had a bangle business, destroyed now, of course. In the shade of the neem tree protecting the dargah, she chats to me about Delhi, where she has relatives. But she is not from Gujarat originally. “Bindravan gayi ho?” she asks. (Have you been to Brindavan?). No, I reply. “Tirath karne nahin gayi? Hum wahin se hain. Wahi hamara vatan hai.” (You have never been there on pilgrimage? We are from there. That is our land.)
Hamara vatan. Zubeida’s and mine. We have no other.
Nivedita Menon teaches in the Dept. of Political Science, University of Delhi.
Three Essays Press for books on history, education, culture, media, society and politics with a South Asian accent and a contemporary slant.