December 7

Coping with Violence Discussion #2

Graded Suffering: 2002 Survivors

by Harsh Mander


    The brutal assaults on Muslim men, women and children after 58 people tragically lost their lives in the train fire at Godhra on February 27, 2002 was intended as a punishment and a warning to the entire Indian Muslim community. The slaughter was engineered so as to strike at, and break, the spirit of a whole religious community. It sought to reduce them from equal citizens and partners in India’s destiny, to submissive, segregated second class citizens, similar to the dalits in large swathes of rural India. It eroded the premises and pledges of the secular democratic Constitution of free India, approximating instead the vision for minorities by Hindutva leaders like Golwarkar. When Chief Minister Narendra Modi refuses to express regret, but instead boasts in rallies across the country that only he had the ’56 inch chest’ required to take on and tame the enemy within, it was not just vengeance against the Ganchi Muslim residents of Godhra who he alleged had set the train on fire; it is retribution for an entire community for what the militant Hindutva vision of history portrays as a millennium of Muslim subjugation, violence and treachery.

    This massacre was therefore, like the carnage of Sikhs in 1984, an assault not on the direct victims but on the religious community to which they belonged, and more than at any moment in independent Indian history, Indian Muslims across India and even those who had taken citizenship in countries of the North or the Gulf, felt personally intensely devastated by the violence. I have interacted with innumerable gatherings of Muslim people – in cities, towns and villages across India and in many countries in the world after 2002 – and each time I have been struck by the extent to which they have internalised the suffering of the direct victims as if it was their own. The meta-narrative of the pregnant woman whose womb was slit open and the foetus set aflame is repeated and recalled as though it was experienced by a known loved one, as are numerous gruesome stories of rape, arson and murder. Each grieves with a personal sense of loss, each time a new mass grave is discovered, or when a Muslim is killed by the police in a faked encounter. I have encountered non-resident Indian Muslims, who have not returned to India for years, but who lapsed into clinical depression after the Gujarat carnage. Many weep and hold my hands, even years later, like people unable to come to terms with an enormous personal tragedy.

More than anything else, I encounter in the hearts and minds of Indian Muslims after 2002, the anguish of intense betrayal. Each recounts his or her personal memories of childhood and youth, peopled by close Hindu friends, who they believed loved them without chauvinism: with whom they comfortably shared the spaces of home, play and school, who were an intrinsic presence in moments of joy, celebration and sadness. But today they are variously wounded, by the open support of their childhood comrades for Hindutva ideologies, or by their deafening silences, their failures to condemn the injustice of holding them culpable only because of their separate religious identity. They wonder what has changed between them, or were they only fooling themselves that their bonds were untainted by prejudice.

This anguish of the vicarious victims of the 2002 massacre, the entire Indian Muslim community, linked them organically to the direct victims of the carnage only briefly. Since the state government refused to establish relief camps for around two hundred thousand people who had been displaced by the conflict - and the secular humanitarian organisations who came forward were too few to meet the colossal need for succour to the people who had been critically traumatised and dispossessed – it was mainly the Muslim community which had to support a massive relief and reconstruction effort. Donations poured in from Indian Muslims from across the country and the world over: religious organisations, overseas Indians, rich business houses and probably even the mafia filled the gap left by the abdication of the State and large segments of secular civil society. This gigantic self-help collective enterprise of extending relief and rebuilding homes was admirable and epic: many unknown heroes emerged in these times.

But the modes and institutions for distributing this colossal assistance were built around conventional notions of charity, which were intrinsically inegalitarian. The survivors were never informed or consulted about the funds raised for them, or the plans made for rebuilding their futures. They were not involved in the management of the camps, and even less in the construction and management of relief colonies. In virtually every relief colony, run by a range of mostly diverse religious organisations, residents report that demands were made for them to pay large sums of money – from ten to twenty five thousand rupees – to secure allocation of the homes. They paid this with great difficulty, collecting money from relatives and private moneylenders – and I am sure that the donors were never informed about these demands – but in no colony have they received papers of title to these homes. They live even seven years later in constant fear of eviction. The managers of many of these colonies have emerged as local tinpot dictators, who can eject dissenters from their homes at will; and single women often complain of sexual harassment.

Donors within and outside India are increasingly unwilling to contribute to the survivors’ struggles for justice, or to rebuild their homes and livelihoods or educate their children. It is remarkable that although they themselves continue to suffer as ‘vicarious victims’ of the carnage, conventional class suspicions have overtaken their view of the impoverished survivors, who are seen to be parasitical and unreasonably dependent on further external support.

Even within Gujarat, there is an almost unbreached communal divide between lawyers of different religious identities, with only rare Hindu lawyers willing to pursue criminal charges against accused people of their own religious faith. But leading Muslim lawyers are also unwilling to fight the cases of Muslim survivors, unless they are paid extraordinarily high fees.  People gossip that the greatest beneficiaries of the fight for justice have been local lawyers, whose fortunes have risen from two-wheeled scooters to luxury cars. To make matters worse, even with these high fees, many of these Muslim lawyers are negotiating behind the backs of their clients ‘compromises’ with the Hindu accused, in which they agree to prevent the witnesses from recording truthful statements, in return for money which is shared unequally between the lawyer, sometimes the judge, and the witnesses.  Former relief camp managers have made their own compromises with authorities: they tell me that since they have businesses to run, and properties to preserve, they cannot afford to antagonise local politicians and officials.

Therefore although there is initially an overlap of the concerns of direct victims of conflict with those of the vicarious victims (the larger community); but are also autonomous and in some cases in potential conflict (such as around other fault lines such as of class and gender). It is remarkable that although both sets of victims continue to suffer, their interests seem to diverge so much over time, that today a lot of the proximate anger of the indigent survivors is against privileged members of their own community, rather than only against their attackers or the partisan State.

…Mushtaque Ali, a dedicated young lawyer who was raised and studied in Aligarh, volunteered to work with us in Nyayagrah, a campaign for community based mass legal action against those who committed these crimes. He lived for three years in a relief colony in Anand, in daily close proximity with the survivors.  He perceptively observed: ‘In Aligarh, communal riots have been an intrinsic part of our lives. But in Aligarh, the Hindu and Muslim communities live in separate parts of the city, with very few social and cultural bonds. Whenever violence breaks out, you are attacked by a stranger. You therefore deal with the practical consequences of this loss, but are able to emotionally move on. By contrast, in rural Gujarat, the attack was by people one knew intimately, trusted, and had shared life with for an entire lifetime’. When this intimate friend turns enemy overnight, it causes a wound in the soul which they find hard to heal. It only rankles and festers.

In Chaklasi village in Kheda, an elderly widow refused to be cowed down by threats or lured by inducements: she insisted on testifying against her neighbours who had looted and burnt her house. After her testimony was concluded in the court, she was asked by the judge to identify the main accused. She pointed to a young man who sat with his head bowed in a bench in the crowded court-room. ‘Beta, Lalla, uth,’ she said, her voice, breaking. She addressed the young man as her son, by his nickname Lalla, and asked him to rise. She said I know his real name, but for me he is still Lalla, like a son. ‘He was my neighbour’s son. We were dear friends, and the boy virtually grew up in my house. He was an inseparable friend of my own son. He would eat in my house, and play all day.  I have seen him grow from boy to man. I have brought him up like my own son; I never saw any difference between him and my son. And yet he led the mob to loot and burn down my house’. My colleague Altaf, who was present in the court at that time, said a hush descended in the court as she spoke. Even the judge was visibly moved.

More than their economic decline, it is the permanent loss of social bonds with their Hindu neighbours that most grieves the Muslims in villages ravaged by the violence. Amina bahen, a middle aged widow weeps often in the loneliness and austerity of her one room tenement in a relief colony in Himmat Nagar. She was married into her village Khumapur when she was 16 years old. ‘Where have those good times gone? It was a village where, when my son fell from a tree and hurt himself, Jayanthibhai Patel drove his  scooter at a crazy pace 8 kilometres distant, to fetch an auto-rickshaw to take him to the hospital. It is the same village whose residents attacked my house, and we barely escaped with our lives. I only have my son. If we return and he is killed, then I will have no one. So I have become a stranger to my home’.