Wednesday, 25 July, 2007

Gujarat: Encounters Of A Different Kind

“When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother…when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.”
Robert F. Kennedy said that in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1). But he could well have been describing the alarming ascendancy of hate and fear in Indian politics, especially in states like Gujarat.
I’m back in Gujarat talking to community leaders and voluntary organizations about inter-communal relations, more than five years after the Godhra train carnage and the ensuing anti-Muslim pogroms seemed to rip this society apart.
I see signs of economic boom everywhere: world-class highways; upscale office buildings and hotels; trendy shopping malls competing with the best of Delhi and Bangalore; and construction cranes announcing many more of the same. The upbeat mood of the middle class is palpable -– cocky, some might even say.
Yet, as far as the Muslims are concerned, the state has not only failed to heal the wounds of 2002, but it seems to have largely succeeded in invisibilizing the community.
Thankfully, there are still a handful of activists here who refuse to throw in the towel in their David and Goliath encounters with institutionalized intolerance. This is their story.
The “normal” Gujarat
“Shanti j che!” Gujarat is absolutely peaceful and is on the march, declare its leaders as they attribute all negative news on the social front to a secularist conspiracy to defame the state. But behind the veneer of “Vibrant Gujarat” barely hides the menacing face of Hindutva, which often spills over into public space, as it did during my visit:
A Bajrang Dal man, who ought to be behind bars for participating in the 2002 violence (2), has set himself up as a “marriage breaker,” kidnapping and forcibly separating dozens of young couples who have dared to fall in love across the communal divide (3).
A BJP leader and his cohorts barge into a university campus to assault an award-winning fine arts student for “offending religious sentiments” with his sketches (4). The police arrest the student for promoting enmity, but the gate-crashers go scot free. (Note A)
Three senior police officers are arrested for staging a fake encounter in 2005 to gun down a common criminal, who’s deliberately tagged as a terrorist on his way to assassinate the Chief Minister (5). Days later, the state admits that the police may have also killed the victim’s wife and burned her body! There are persistent reports that this may have been just one of several encounters staged by the Gujarat police.
Such unconscionable acts encouraged or condoned by a democratically elected government elsewhere might have seriously threatened its right to govern. Not so in the laboratory of Hindutva. Quite the contrary, the state’s PR machinery is in full swing trying to turn those very acts into a badge of honor (6), betraying the dismal depths to which politics here has sunk.
In the mean time, the government in Delhi, preoccupied with coalition politics and the latest growth statistics, doesn’t seem terribly concerned about the continuing dehumanization, leaving it to various commissions and the judiciary to occasionally offer a glimmer of hope to the victims.
Invisibilizing a community
Widows from Delol now in a Kalol camp. Their husbands werepulled from a Tempo and hacked to death in 2002 (2007)Five years on, the state has yet to express any remorse for its acts of commission and omission; instead, it often invokes Newton (action-reaction) to justify violence and to withhold aid from uprooted families, whose very existence it denies (7). And, in stark contrast to dozens of Muslims incarcerated without trial for the Godhra train fire, hundreds of accused Hindus roam free under the benevolent shadow of the state. (Note B)
Muslim leaders say that it isn’t anymore a question of if societal odds are stacked against their community; but whether, faced with social boycotts and threats of renewed violence, the community is resigning itself to second-class citizenship:
Dr. Hanif Lakdawala of Sanchetana, which works for social justice for the urban poor, says that discrimination is so blatant that otherwise nice people find creative ways to package them: In 2002, many schools sent away Muslim children citing “safety concerns” (8). But nowadays, they tell parents that their child may not feel comfortable being among mostly Hindu children. The travesty, he says, is that they are wont to offer the same pretext to turn back the next Muslim child who comes along…and the next.
If ghettoization started years ago (Note C), the pogroms only seem to have accelerated the process: It is now virtually impossible for Muslims to purchase homes in most parts of the city, except in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods (“negative areas” in local parlance) (9). Even Sanchetna was unable to lease office space in the suburbs under Lakdawala’s name and had to fall back on a Hindu trustee’s name.
Dr. Shakil Ahmad of the Islamic Relief Committee (IRC), who lives in Juhapura, tells me that the area has minimal civic amenities and woefully inadequate schools (10). Many residents complain that they find it difficult to obtain utility connections and bank loans -– my auto-rickshaw driver was literally kicked out by a State Bank manager who told him that he doesn’t advance loans to Muslims!
If there are some here who take the trouble to couch their prejudices, there are many others who behave as if the state’s gaurav (pride) hinges directly on humiliating the minorities:
During an earlier trip, Dr. J.S. Bandukwala, a professor and social activist, had shown me a letter from a self-styled Hindutva historian taunting him to convert back to Hinduism. A young social worker had told me that a well-known NGO asked him in a job interview if he knew how to make bombs! And Muslims were expressing fears that concerted efforts were underway to push them out of their traditional livelihoods.
Bandukwala now not only receives threats from Hindutva activists, but he is also blacklisted by his own community for daring to advocate reforms. Many of the new shopping malls are reportedly reluctant to employ Muslims. And, as predicted, only Hindu-owned automobile garages have been allowed back in some of the riot-torn areas.In rural Gujarat, Muslims have been kept out of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which was designed to provide a safety net for poor families (11). And, in the town of Godhra, a prominent doctor says that he was forced to withdraw from a public tender, after provocative leaflets started appearing across town naming him as an undesirable competitor.
And so the list goes on, leaving little doubt that an insidious campaign has been underway, with the active collusion of state and civil society, to invisibilize Muslims; so much so, that a casual visitor would hardly suspect that anything was amiss.
But for an average Muslim family still smarting from the 2002 pogroms, “normalcy” seems to be merely the absence of overt violence.
Secularists who won’t go away
Backdrop at a street play by Nishant Natya Manch (2004)
“You can fit all the secularists in Gujarat in the back of two trucks,” my friends used to wryly joke last time I was here. The latest version has the Chief Minister’s office opining that one truck would do, as half of them will disappear the moment they sense danger!
But those on the “back of the truck” are in no mood to acquiesce to institutionalized bigotry: Some of them doggedly pursue court cases, believing that without a modicum of justice, there can be no reconciliation. (Note D) Some pursue youth initiatives cutting across religion and gender as a pathway to reconciliation. Others focus on primary education as the only long term hope for ridding the society of communalism. And, there is near unanimity that working with the poor on issues that they care most about -- jobs, housing, education, water, and public services -- is a more effective way to build bridges than to lecture them on communal harmony.
Janvikas was thrust into massive relief and rehabilitation work in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake. It had barely returned to its grassroots developmental work, when the 2002 violence sucked it once again into the eye of the storm. Before rushing in to help, says Gagan Sethi its outgoing Managing Trustee, they had to first look in the mirror: What was their own record on inter-community relations? How many Muslims did they have in their organization?
The answers weren’t pretty -- they were shocked to hear some of their own staff say that Muslims had it coming! And it took a great deal of introspection before the organization resolved that it could not remain silent on the issue of communalism.
Janvikas hasn’t looked back ever since and has devoted a considerable part of its energy to fighting intolerance, at several levels:
On the legal front, Center for Social Justice (CSJ) provides legal aid to the victims, including to Bilkis Bano, whose gang-rape case was transferred to Mumbai by the Supreme Court. It also supports the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), many of whose post-Godhra rulings were based on CSJ’s field investigations.
Harmony sculpture by Yuvshakti, Halol (2005)
Janvikas spear-heads efforts to draw national attention to internally displaced families who still can’t return to their villages: In a direct challenge to the state’s shameful assertion that there are no such people (12), 5,000 families came together last year under the umbrella of Antarik Visthapit Hak Rakshak Samiti. Their formal report elicited a strong notice to the Gujarat government from NHRC. And a Supreme Court committee found these families living under “difficult and pathetic conditions” (13).
The idea of bringing together Hindu and Muslim youth, including some who had taken part in the violence, sounded far-fetched when Gagan first mentioned it to me. But the idea has blossomed into Yuvshakti, whose first major project was Cricket-for-Peace, which saw religiously-mixed teams from several talukas compete in a friendly but serious tournament in 2005. The youth movement now works across Panchmahals on community-specific issues. (Note E)
Dhanraj Pillay, Deep Sethi, Sunil Gavaskar, and P.T. Ushawatching mixed women’s cricket finals, Halol (2005)
The idea of secular NGOs working closely with Islamic organizations was also unimaginable in 2002. But, today, even as others go on about the need for madraasa reforms, Janvikas has already taken a baby step -– the first of its kind, I believe -– to bring the teaching of science, mathematics, and Gujarati to some of the maktabs in the Kutch, in partnership with Jami’at-ul-Ulama-i-Hind. Deepika Singh, who runs the program, is optimistic that the pilot will be eventually scaled up by the Jami’at, bringing positive change to elementary education in remote Muslim communities.
As I bid goodbye to Yuvshakti volunteers in Halol, they inform me that local authorities won’t let them use their grounds for cricket anymore and that the harmony sculpture unveiled by Sunil Gavaskar in the town square during my last visit is gathering dust in the municipal office!
Presumably, a friendly game of cricket reaching out to Muslim youth is a serious threat to this state of intolerance.
---Renowned danseuse and social activist Mallika Sarabhai has paid a heavy price for challenging the state in the Supreme Court for its handling of the 2002 pogroms. Her decision to risk her career and personal safety to help a community in distress had stood in stark contrast with the deafening silence of other prominent artists: In a tragic illustration of majoritarianism at work, one well-known Muslim musician reportedly lamented that he was unable to take a public stand on Gujarat as “it takes just one phone call from the PM to destroy a career.”
Last time I was here, Mallika was still fighting the government’s attempt to pin an absurd human trafficking case against her. The charge was eventually dropped; but, in a bit of irony, a BJP MP, reportedly close to Gandhinagar, has just been caught red-handed in a real human trafficking case.
As I catch up with Mallika at the Darpana Academy, she asks me if I had encountered any protestors on the streets burning her effigy! The CM is apparently miffed at Doordarshan for agreeing to broadcast Darpana’s path-breaking TV series, SAT-Television For Change, and he has been leaning on the Planning Commission to pull the plug. The series, billed as “high quality stuff” by Doordarshan, is an “unprecedented development communications move,” Mallika asserts, which will set the standard for social programming at the national level.
Despite the intervention of the nation’s highest court, Gujarat seems to miss no opportunity to hound activists like Mallika, who is any day a more fitting ambassador of Hindu culture and values than those who would accuse her of being “anti-Hindu.” Unfazed, she continues to use her art form to address critical social issues and to send a message of universal peace and harmony. (Note F)
It would be a shame if she were driven out of Gujarat by a vindictive government.
Dr. Mukul Sinha of Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM) strongly believes that pursuit of justice must be grounded in grassroots work among the affected people. He cites JSM’s legal support to dozens of Muslims held under POTA, on the one hand; and their Public Interest Litigation on behalf of Sanklit Nagar, on the other, which resulted in a court order forcing the municipality to service the area.
Such grassroots work has generated unprecedented solidarity among poorer Hindus and Muslims, he asserts, even prompting joint action against slum demolitions. (Lakdawala mentions similar solidarity in Sabarmati Nagrik Manch, which is protesting the Sabarmati river front development.)
Women in Sanklit Nagar, Juhapura and their destroyed home elsewhere (2003)
When some of us met Sinha back in Sep 2002, he firmly believed in the principle of Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation for the Godhra train fire –- accidental or caused by a miscreant -- was most likely the right one. He has since become widely known for his success at the Nanavati-Shah commission hearings in discrediting the state’s constantly changing conspiracy theories (14).
“Aren’t you legitimizing a body widely seen as a cover for the ruling elite?” I ask. By staying engaged, he responds confidently, JSM has not only been able to access the state’s “evidence,” but it has also been able to garner the attention of even the notoriously communal Gujarati media, which is beginning to question the government’s credibility. “They don’t know whether to keep us in or to kick us out. With us in, they risk continuing exposure of the state; but without us, they lose the only legitimacy they have.”
When I first met Rajendra Joshi of Saath, the group was working predominantly in Hindu slum areas of Ahmedabad. The 2002 violence drew it deeper into Muslim areas, where it has been helping some of the victims with support from NRI groups.
Tehera, whose destroyed home was rebuilt by IRC, receiveslivelihood assistance from Saath (2007)
As Rajubhai updates me on Saath’s work, I’m particularly intrigued by their pilot project to convince the local power company that despite all the fearsome myths surrounding Juhapura, there were profits to be made here. (“It’s a dangerous place, a mini-Pakistan, where men walk around with AK-47’s,” a reporter had sought to educate me in 2002!) Thanks to Saath’s work supported by USAID, and parallel efforts by IRC and other community based organizations, the initial fee for a power connection has dropped from a high of Rs. 12,000 to about Rs. 2,500. And the company has even set up an office in the area, cutting out exploitative middlemen.
Saath also trains unemployed youth for service jobs in the mushrooming retail sector, with support from the American India Foundation (AIF). “What about reports of discrimination against Muslims?” I ask. “With the entry of many non-Gujarati companies,” Rajubhai responds, “some employers just don’t care what religion one belongs to.”
This, the first optimistic note I hear during my trip, gives me pause: Does the much-talked about shortage of labor in the service sector promise a “business solution” to communal harmony -- by taking unemployed youth off the streets of cities like Ahmedabad?
RFK’s rousing 1968 speech, On the Mindless Menace of Violence, (featured in the movie Bobby) is still ringing in my ears as I get ready to depart Gujarat after an all-too-brief a visit: “Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul….Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens.”
I’m immensely grateful that despite threats to their personal safety, there are a few activists here who are determined to bring justice to their fellow citizens and persevere in their struggle to cleanse the society of the politics of hate and violence.
What happens in Gujarat, many believe, presages the future of a secular India. But, fortunately -– as recent elections have shown –- a vast majority of poorer Indians, regardless of their religion and caste, sense a shared destiny and are demanding that politicians respond to their basic human development needs first: Recent images of Muslim groups leading protests against the proposed Special Economic Zone in Nandigram should be an eye-opener.
It’s only a matter of time before a majority of Gujaratis too conclude that a government that is single-mindedly pursuing the politics of exclusion and conquest can’t possibly serve the long-term interests of their state. When they finally manage to put the Hindutva genie back in the bottle, it will have been in no small measure due to the sacrifices of those few activists on the back of that truck.
In addition to those mentioned earlier, I am grateful for the insights of Martin Macwan, who speaks passionately of the shared destiny of poorer Muslims and Dalits, and who now devotes full time to the education of Dalit children and youth; Mukhtar Mohammed, a businessman turned community activist at Kalol, whose relentless efforts to seek justice for the riot victims secured some of the earliest convictions in a local court; Shri P.G.J. Nampoothiri, former Director General of police, Gujarat, and until recently NHRC’s Special Rapporteur, who played a critical role in NHRC’s Gujarat interventions; Rohit Prajapati (an ex-RSS man) and his colleagues at PUCL, who remain the last line of defense against communal forces in Vadodara; Father Cedric Prakash, who co-facilitated the Concerned Citizens Tribunal, which came closest to a “Truth Commission” on the 2002 violence; and K. Stalin of Drishti Media, who brought the plight of India’s Dalits to international attention through his award-winning film, “Lesser Humans.”Notes:
A. The Dean of the Fine Arts Department at M.S. University, Vadodara, Dr. Shivaji Panikkar, who was a victim of the campus violence, was recently attacked in Ahmedabad by a hostile Hindutva mob.
B. Former IAS officer Harsh Mander successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to reopen more than 2,000 riot cases that the Gujarat police had summarily closed. His Nyayagarh initiative is pursuing 512 of those cases, resulting in the arrest of over 200 people to date.
C. e.g. Nafisa Barot of Uthaan, which works on women’s and water issues, says that her family was forced to shift homes half a dozen times in the 70’s to escape harassment by neighbors.
D. Per Tehelka, 13 riot cases have lead to convictions so far. Small as this is in relation to the extent of the crimes, even this would have been impossible without the tenacity of a few activists from Gujarat and elsewhere, as already noted. In addition, efforts by Teesta Setalvad in successfully pursuing the Best Bakery case, despite numerous personal threats and witness tampering, are well known.
E. Delhi-based Anhad, convened by activist Shabnam Hashmi, recently organized a youth convention, which brought together 350 delegates from across the state. Anhad was the first to defy the unofficial ban on the film Parzania, which it screened unopposed while I was in Gujarat.
F. Mallika’s latest theater project on India’s “Unheard Voices,” Unsuni, based on Harsh Mander’s book, is reportedly facing the heat of Gujarat’s censors.

By Raju Rajagopal

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