Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad plans to set up a Museum of Resistance in Ahmedabad’s Gulbarg Society, the site of a massacre during the Gujarat riots of 2002. In this interview, she explains why such a memorial is necessary

By Deepa A

In the identical one-room tenements in Gujarat’s relief colonies, it’s a photograph on the wall that often completes the family portrait: a son killed in the riots of 2002, a daughter thrown into a human bonfire, a father hacked to death. The photographs never betray the horrific stories behind their deaths; behind a picture frame, the dead are often wearing their best clothes.

These photographs are the legacy of the communal violence that Gujarat saw seven years ago, in which over 1,100 people – a majority of them Muslims – were killed. In the years since the riots, the survivors have been urged to move on, both by well-wishers and politicians whose complicity in the violence has been established in various enquires. But human rights activist Teesta Setalvad sees no reason to forget the past in attempting to meet the future. Her organisation, Citizens for Justice and Peace, plans to build a memorial at Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad, where 71 people, including the former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, were killed on February 28, 2002. (The state government puts the number of deaths in the gruesome massacre at 38.)

India has seen several communal riots – the country’s birth itself is rooted in a bloody Partition – but there are no memorials to its victims. The Citizens for Justice and Peace says its memorial will be for all those who lost their lives in communal violence, be they Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs or Muslims. But perhaps because this is the first such memorial planned in India, several doubts and questions have already been voiced. Will the memorial crystallise the existing faultlines between communities? Will it perpetrate feelings of victimhood? Teesta Setalvad, no stranger to controversy, responds to these questions and more in an email interview.

Last year, you announced that the Citizens for Justice and Peace would be setting up a Museum of Resistance at Gulbarg Society. Why did you feel such a museum was necessary?

It is necessary for all of India and not just for Gujarat. This is not just about what happened in 2002, but also about sectarian violence across the board, the hate speech and hate writing that precedes it, the silent complicity of the majority and the narratives that eventually disappear. We hope to be able to set up this museum but only after the trial in the Gulbarg case is over. [Currently, the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team is investigating the massacre; a related case is also pending in the apex court.]

The memorial will document narratives from victim-survivors of the violence and also their tales of resistance. It is meant to be an acknowledgement of their loss and grief, to help with the healing of those who lost near and dear ones. We hope the memorial will have a role in ensuring historical mistakes are not repeated.

Can a memorial replace a peace intervention between two communities? Wouldn’t that be more important than building a memorial?

There can be no ‘either/or’ when certain sections of a society are deeply conflict-ridden and hate-filled, as is the case with parts of Gujarati society. Every initiative is important. The curious question is why certain initiatives that focus on justice and reparation more than others are sought to be bad-mouthed by some spokespersons of the state government and a small section of the media.

How do you respond to critics who say such a memorial will divide communities further?

When we look at the history of independent India, we see a society that has been, since its birth in Partition, torn apart by premeditated violence, filled with hate speech propaganda and the demonisation of communities. It is imperative that we come face to face with this demon within us that rears its ugly head each time a monster overtakes our reason. Imagine if this argument [of a memorial creating divisions] were to be applied by the world to the Nazis responsible for the Holocaust. We would have had no Nuremberg Trials, no apology from the Germans. Lasting peace between communities in India needs to be based on the bedrock of honesty and integrity. This involves facing up to the violence that has already occurred, which each one of us allowed to occur by being silent before, during and after the violence.

The people who criticise the idea of a memorial are the same people who exhort Muslims to move on. These are people who have not been directly affected by the violence of 2002. To them we have said that it is difficult to forgive and forget when there is no remorse on the other side. In any case, this is a deeply personal choice that every victim-survivor has to make. We cannot speak for everyone and there cannot be a monochromatic response to genocide.

Is there any model that you hope to follow for the memorial, such as those in other countries like the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia?

We hope to create our own memorial, learn from others and yet create something that is our own. We do not want to fossilise memories, but we want to create centres for psychological and physical rehabilitation that will have victim-survivors at its epicentre. Not only will it have counselling centres but also programmes modelled on the life experiences of young survivors to ensure meaningful rehabilitation of riot victims.

The victim-survivors should be making the choices about what the memorial should be like and showing the way for us to proceed. There have been several incidents of communal violence and pogroms in India but the voices we hear are not of the survivors but of those who speak on their behalf. In this memorial, it will be their vision we will see and their voices that we hear.

In a YouTube video about the memorial you have asked for feedback and contributions from people. What is the response that you have received?

There have been suggestions about design and appreciation for the fact that the memorial will not be about just one incident of communal violence. People have also praised us for locating the memorial in Gujarat, given the history of sectarian violence in the state.

What has been the response of those who lived at Gulbarg and victim-survivors from other parts of Gujarat to the memorial?

The concept and vision for the memorial was borne out of their painful wait for justice for so many years… things have moved very slowly for them and the memorial was originally an idea to keep their struggle alive. This memorial is the collective vision of all the survivors of Gulbarg Society, none of whom have returned to live in their charred houses.

In recent months, there has been a lot of activity surrounding the riot cases, with the re-investigations being carried out by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) and the arrests they have made. What is your opinion of the work they have done so far?

The very process of getting a Special Investigation Team set up was a demanding one. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was the main intervenor [in the case before the Supreme Court] but it was the Citizens for Justice and Peace that submitted the documents about the subversion of the justice process at the local level. We documented how the accused were being allowed to go scot-free; how FIRs were being clubbed together; and how public prosecutors who were members of right-wing parties were being appointed. We also submitted affidavits from victim-survivors.

The SIT was appointed on March 26, 2008, almost a year ago. It has now submitted its interim report but we, the co-petitioners in the case, have not been allowed to peruse a copy. There is immense hope in the process of re-investigation itself but there is a sense of scepticism as well as the SIT is helped by Gujarat police officers.

What do you make of chief minister Narendra Modi’s recent reshuffle of police officers, seemingly to protect some policemen accused in the riot cases? Is it likely to have an impact on SIT’s investigations?

Modi’s appointment of a Muslim director-general of police is a smart move for his image. But the real issue at the moment is how far the Indian justice system will go against powerful people even given the overwhelming evidence against them. There is an attempt to influence the SIT but as it’s headed by two officers from outside Gujarat, we hope that it will withstand these pressures and reaffirm the victim-survivors’ faith in Constitutional governance.

Has the arrest of a few police officers and political leaders brought hope to the victim-survivors?

Yes, some hope has been resurrected now that a sitting minister and a few police officers have been implicated.

Do you foresee the SIT being able to take action against high-ranking police officers and politicians? Two years ago, as the case lay languishing in the court, even getting as far as Maya Kodnani [minister of state for women, child development and higher education, accused of leading a mob in Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gram in 2002] and Jaideep Patel [Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader who is also an accused in the Naroda massacre] would have seemed impossible. All the evidence points towards ministers and former ministers, including Gordhan Zadaphiya, Ashok Bhatt, I K Jadeja and Chief Minister Modi himself. If a truly independent investigation were to be conducted, there is no way the process would not implicate the highest political leaders in Gujarat. We live in hope.

What is the condition of those internally displaced by the riots?

We struggled to get the displaced electoral voting cards and this was achieved by 2007. Now we are working on all of them getting Below Poverty Line and Antyodaya cards.

Does the Muslim community at large face any discrimination in Gujarati society?

There is continued fear among Muslims; barriers have been drawn and these cannot be crossed. I think that at its worst in 2002, 59% of Gujaratis supported Modi and 41% did not. In 2007, too, the figure was similar. Among those who support Modi, there is not just a hardening of stance but also a conscious and collective effort to brush away the harsh realities of 2002. Our hope lies with those Hindus who are finding the courage to speak up against the fascism of Modi’s regime.

(Published in Infochange India in March 2009)

Advertisements

There is at least a framework of entitlements for those displaced by development projects. There is no policy and no framework for those displaced by sectarian or communal violence

By Deepa A

 

The exteriors of the one-room tenements in Rahimabad Society in Devgarh Baria, in Gujarat’s Dahod district, are painted pink, a bright colour that belies the darkness inside the houses. About 75 families live in these tiny structures, without basic facilities such as sanitation, access roads and water supply. Livelihoods are hard to come by here. There are no good schools or hospitals nearby. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the 475-odd inhabitants of the society, who have been living here for the past six years, don’t call it their home. Perhaps it’s also because their roots lie elsewhere, in a village where they had farms or shops, where their children went to school, and where their lives followed trajectories they had chosen for themselves.

 

Such luxuries are noticeably absent in the unpaved paths in and around Rahimabad Society, which houses victim-survivors of the horrific communal violence that Gujarat witnessed in 2002. According to Gujarat government estimates, which many activists contest for being on the conservative side, over a 1,000 people — a majority of them from the Muslim community — were killed in the riots. A report published by the Concerned Citizens Tribunal in 2002 estimated that the violence also resulted in the displacement of about 2.5 lakh (a lakh is one hundred thousand) people. Over 4,500 families are still living in what are called relief colonies, much like the Rahimabad Society, unable to return to their homes, from where they were hounded out for no reason except that they were Muslims.

 

Even a casual discussion with the residents of the Rahimabad Society is sufficient to understand why going back to their homes is not an option they can consider. They hail from Randhikpur village, which is today most notorious as the place where Bilkis Bano, a woman who was pregnant at that time, was gang-raped, and 14 of her family members killed, by a mob in 2002. 

 

Almost everyone in Rahimabad Society has lost a loved one in the violence. Siraj Nana Patel, who tries to make a living in Devgarh Baria by working as a casual labourer, says his son, his brother and his nephew were killed in the riots. He remembers the gruesome event as if it had happened yesterday. “A mob came in the morning and attacked our house. They hit me with a sword, I was bleeding and I fainted and they thought I was dead,” Patel says, removing his shirt to show the scars on his chest. His surviving relatives took him to a hospital, from where they went to a relief camp in Godhra, and ultimately moved to Rahimabad. He lives here with his disabled daughter and wife, and speaks of a daily struggle to eke out a living. On most days, he sits at home as he can’t find work.

 

Like his neighbours in Rahimabad, Patel cannot imagine going back to his home, where people he knew, and who lived in the same village, were part of the mob that attacked him. He says he went to the police several times but in a story that’s repeated across relief colonies, the cops did not even bother to register a complaint. As their attackers roam free, the victims remain confined to ghettos, where they live in an atmosphere laced with insecurity and fear.

 

Rahimabad Society is one of the estimated 81 relief colonies in Gujarat, which house those who had been internally displaced by the riots of 2002. Countless reports have come out on their plight but despite the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre announcing new compensation packages for victim-survivors, words have not translated into action at the ground level.

 

The displaced continue to live a life centred on mere survival. Most don’t have documents certifying possession of their houses, which were built by Muslim trusts, occasionally with the support of non-government organisations. There has been no help from the Gujarat government, which stands accused of complicity in the violence of 2002. None of the colonies have been provided with even basic amenities. Ration cards and voter ID cards were issued only as recently as last year, and that too because of the tireless work of a few non-government organisations and at the insistence of the Election Commission. Assembly elections were held in Gujarat in December 2007, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by chief minister Narendra Modi, was elected into power for the third consecutive time. The very same government had denied for over five years that people had been displaced by the riots. An acknowledgement came only in August 2007, when, responding to an explanation demanded by the National Commission for Minorities regarding steps taken to rehabilitate the displaced, the government stated that people were still living in relief colonies. Such was the level of despair that victims had been plunged into, activists counted the government statement as a minor victory.  

 

So many reports, so little action

Across Gujarat, life in relief colonies follows a similar depressing pattern. In Godhra, in Panchmahal district, Aman Park houses those who managed to escape with their lives from neighbouring villages and towns after being attacked by mobs during the riots. Some of the men in this colony were forced to take up jobs in dolomite factories and have ended up with silicosis. They speak of once owning farms or small businesses in their hometowns. Today they have been reduced to penury and have to wait at government offices for hours to beg for electricity and water connections that they still do not have.

 

In Ahmedabad, as elsewhere across Gujarat, the relief colonies lie in the outskirts of the city, in areas without roads and schools and hospitals. To earn a livelihood, the people have to travel long distances, and the commuting cost itself eats into their meagre earnings. In the rains, the water reaches their doorsteps. At Faisal Park in Vatva, an industrial area in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, residents complain that the water contains chemicals from nearby factories. There’s no drainage facility to speak of here, as in any relief colony in Gujarat.

 

A survey conducted in October 2006, supported by Oxfam and implemented by Aman Biradari, Lawyers’ Collective and Yusuf Meheralli Centre, confirms there are hardly any public conveniences in the relief colonies. In 65 percent of the colonies, residents get drinking water from private sources. In colonies such as Rahimabad Society and a nameless one in Rajgadh, Panchmahal district, a hand pump is located one to two kilometres away from the houses. It’s the women who usually trek the distance to get water to their homes. The survey notes that only two colonies have government schools. Only four colonies have Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) anganwadis while just three have ration shops.

 

The economic situation of the displaced is dire, says a committee appointed by the Supreme Court in a case pertaining to Central government sponsored food security schemes. In its report presented to the apex court in June 2007, the panel states that despite the visible poverty, only 725 of the 4,545 internally displaced families had been recognised as living below the poverty (BPL) line. As a report of the National Commission for Minorities, dated October 2006, says, the residents are unable to support themselves as they used to before the riots. “Before the violence, many of these people were small self-employed traders, artisans or industrialists. The violence put an end to their means of livelihood since their old clients were unwilling to use their services,” says the report. It adds that though residents are living in abject poverty, many have been issued above the poverty line or APL cards, instead of BPL ones. 

 

In December 2006, a delegation of Members of Parliament from the Left parties and Congress submitted a report to the Centre on the conditions in relief colonies. The report highlights an important point: every attempt is being made by those who intimidate the Muslim community to take possession of their (the Muslims’) property. In Naroda Patia, Ahmedabad, the site of one of the worst massacres in the riots, only 15 of the 80 families living there had come back, says the report. “Leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have taken over possession of their land and built multi-storeyed buildings,” it adds. 

 

The availability of substantial, documented evidence about the internally displaced in Gujarat, however, has not prompted the government into action, as an Amnesty International report released in 2007 on riot victims notes. The question of compensation remains a grey area in Gujarat. The state government returned Rs 19 crores sent by the Centre for riot victims, claiming that it had completed all rehabilitation work. Yet, in almost all relief colonies, residents complain of receiving inadequate or no compensation. In September 2007, the Centre announced an additional package of Rs 70.66 crores for riot victims. However, as activists noted during a similar pronouncement for additional compensation by the Centre in March 2007, such packages ignore the rights of the displaced and neglect aspects related to their rehabilitation. 

 

Forgotten stories

Taking note of the appalling conditions in relief colonies, the National Commission for Minorities, in its report, recommends that the state and central governments prepare a special economic package for those displaced with a focus on livelihood issues. The report also highlights how India does not have a national policy in place for those forced to move because of violence. “Populations displaced due to sectarian, ethnic, or communal violence should not be left to suffer for years together due to the lack of a policy and the absence of a justifiable framework of entitlements. When displacement takes place under conditions of fear and under constant direct threat of violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, the trauma and conditions under which survivors face the future is considerably worsened. Further, when the threat of violence is perceived to be continuing, the protection of people’s constitutional rights can only be sought through a national policy which clearly lays out a non-negotiable framework of entitlements,” the report says. The commission suggests that such a policy should include provisions for immediate compensation and rehabilitation; facilitate the displaced’s right to return home, if the environment is conducive; and establish time frames for implementing rehabilitation plans as well as include grievance redressal and monitoring mechanisms. The 2007 Amnesty International report, quoting the Commission for Minorities, notes that such a specific policy for dealing with those internally displaced by the riots is important because the criminal justice system in Gujarat “appears not to be working and discrimination and exclusion persist”.

 

Gagan Sethi, an Ahmedabad-based activist who has been fighting for the rights of those internally displaced by the communal violence of 2002, points out that states do have a framework for those displaced by development projects. However, this is not so in the case of those displaced by ethnic violence. Internationally, nations are expected to follow the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement presented to the United Nations (UN) in 1998. Though it’s not a legally binding document like a treaty, the 30 guiding principles do have international acceptance and identify the rights of the displaced. It recognises internally displaced persons as those “who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internally recognized State border”. Among other things, the principles state that the authorities should provide protection and humanitarian assistance to the displaced, and regardless of the circumstances, provide essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, essential medical services and sanitation.  

 

Sethi, who’s also the managing trustee of Jan Vikas and Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad, notes how these principles have been ignored in Gujarat. The displaced have been living in tenements for six years without holding any documents to the one-room shacks they stay in. Some of them have paid money, amounting up to Rs 45,000 as in Baroda’s Noorani Mohalla, for the houses. Yet, they do not have papers for their houses.

 

Almost all the relief colonies were built in land owned by Muslims, when the state government arbitrarily shut down relief camps that housed riot victims and they had nowhere else to turn to. Some of these plots were classified as agricultural land, but construction was taken up here because of the difficult circumstances. Though none are encroachments, the state government is yet to approve the land’s usage for residential purposes. “The paper work is pending and it’s used as a ploy to classify the colonies as illegitimate,” says Sethi. The same tag is used to deny basic facilities such as water, sanitation and electricity to these colonies, though as internationally accepted principles notes, relief colonies should have been constructed by the state government in the first place. Not only did the state not construct even a single house, but over the past six years, it has also done nothing to create basic infrastructure in relief colonies.

 

Third time unlucky?

With Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi coming back to power for the third time in the recent state elections, the most optimistic of the activists working with riot victims in Gujarat seem concerned. Sethi says that the exclusion of the Muslim community continues in Gujarat, with there being a “greater design to reduce the presence of Muslims to a few villages in each taluka and free the rest of the villages from Muslims”. Hanif Lakdawala, director of the non-government organisation Sanchetna, which works in the fields of health and education, adds that subtle discrimination and social ostracism against Muslims continue in Gujarati society, pushing Muslims into ghettos. He warns that this can only reinforce the alienation that the community already feels.

 

Ghanshyam Shah, a social scientist who has studied riots and socio-political trends in Gujarat extensively, feels that Muslims seem to have reconciled to the fact that there’s nothing that they can expect from the government. Even if the Gujarat government were to offer protection to those displaced, people might not return home because of fear and insecurity, he adds. As he explains, for Muslims to feel safe, “it requires a different kind of conviction”, a strong political will that’s absent both in the current government and its opposition party, Congress. Muslims, therefore, have developed their own coping mechanisms, and today construct their own schools and hospitals instead of relying on the government, says Shah.

 

Shakeel Ahmed, administrator of the state Islamic Relief Committee’s legal help and guidance cell, concurs that the situation is unlikely to change. “It’s therefore important for the Muslim community to reorganise themselves and work together,” points out Ahmed, who’s also the secretary of the Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity (Gujarat). “We need to work together for improving education levels. Also, there is a percentage of Gujarati population that’s non-communal and we should build bridges with them.”

 

Achyut Yagnik, founder-secretary of the NGO Setu: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, and also co-author of the book The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, points out that if one were to go by the United Nations’ principles on displacement, the Central government would have to be held equally responsible for the plight of those internally displaced in Gujarat. “The UN is not going to ask the Gujarat government, it’s going to ask the government of India about the people,” says Yagnik.

 

While the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government could have easily done something for the displaced after it came into power, it slowly stirred into action only in 2007, when Gujarat was set to go to polls. Yagnik cities just one example: the residents of Juhapura in Ahmedabad, considered to be one of the largest Muslim ghettos in India with a population of 2.5 lakh people, have been demanding a bank for the past three years without any response from either the Centre or state governments. Small wonder then that when the Centre announces a compensation package, people see it as a case of too little, too late. For those displaced by the riots, living in houses that they cannot call theirs’, an announcement is just that: a statement someone makes with an eye on votes, only to be forgotten somewhere in the near future.

 

This was published in Infochange India’s Agenda issue on migration and displacement. It can be accessed here.

The doors of homes in Rehmat Nagar, Godhra, are opened by children, and sometimes by women. Men are rarely to be seen around. The world outside the settlement refers to them as “POTA families”, a description that encapsulates their precarious present and future. Deepa A has more.

 The scrapyard that leads to Rehmat Nagar in Godhra, in Panchmahal district in Gujarat, appears to be an indicator of the squalor that one’s about to witness. A dusty, unpaved path serves as the access road to this settlement, comprising of hovels with red-tiled roofs. A few children and women are to be found on the middle of the road, next to a water container, washing vessels or filling steel pots. The doors are opened by children, and sometimes by women, if they are home; men are rarely to be seen around. Most of the tiny shacks are bereft of furniture, the starkness of the rooms reflecting the silences and absences that today mark the lives of Rehmat Nagar’s inhabitants.

 

The world outside the settlement refers to them as “POTA families”, a description that encapsulates their present and future, and one that has redefined their perhaps already precarious existence. On February 27, 2002, after 59 people were killed in a fire that engulfed the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra station, the otherwise inconspicuous town catapulted into notoriety. Godhra became the reason for targeting the Muslim community in Gujarat — a Muslim mob is said to have burnt the coach carrying Hindu karsevaks — and in the ensuing riots, over a 1,000 people, a majority of them Muslims, were killed.

 

In Godhra, the police arrested many Muslim men living in areas close to the railway station and charged them under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) for burning the train. The women at Rehmat Nagar, which is about four kilometres from the railway station, say the police turned up on the evening of the horrific Sabarmati Express tragedy, barged into the houses and picked up men — their husbands or their sons — at random. There are 14 “POTA families” here, women and children whose lives were upturned by the Act that was repealed by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2004, but under which their loved ones continue to be charged. The women, who once never stepped out of the confines of their homes, have started working and it’s on their mettle that life moves on. They face ostracism both within and outside the community, as fear of harassment by state agencies prevents even those who want to help from stepping forward.

The rest of the piece can be read here. Published in India Together in November 2007.

After resolutely ignoring the victims of the 2002 communal riots for five years, the Ahmedabad government is now being forced to acknowledge their existence

By Deepa A

A cluster of unfinished houses stands in two rows in a small clearing in Rajgadh, in Gujarat’s Panchmahal District. Two goats rest on a charpoy outside a house, and a group of children playing a game with tamarind seeds chase away a black hen that wanders too near, incessantly pecking away at the ground.

Eleven Muslim families, displaced from their hometowns in other parts of Panchmahal by the Gujarat riots of 2002, now call these two-room, unpainted structures home. Inside are a few mats and pillows on the floor, as well as some pots and pans, neatly arranged on makeshift shelves in makeshift kitchens. There is no electricity, no plaster on the walls and no bathroom. When nature calls, the families visit the shrubs behind their homes, with the women in particular seeking the darkness of the night or early dawn. Amidst these very shrubs are also reminders of other houses that were to be constructed here: half-finished brick walls, which rise up as if in the hope of finding a roof to hold them together.

The description ‘relief colony’ hangs anachronistically over the Rajgadh dwellings. There were to be about 40 families here, comprising people who were either hounded out of their homes or fled on their own due to a fear of pogroms. But, as 30-year-old Hasinabibi Makrani explains, the non-government agency that started the construction of these houses had to stop its work midway due to police and political intervention. The first few families had already moved into the unfinished houses when police officers suddenly turned up to chase away workers at the site. The agency, the residents believe, had not secured the requisite paperwork before starting construction. It is arguable whether a state that displayed such insensitivity towards its Muslim population would have even considered such a request. But the ‘illegal’ tag has proved sufficient for the police and other arms of the state to deny basic civic conveniences to the residents of this ‘relief’ colony.

Fearing for their safety, and unable to return to their hometowns due to threats from Hindu neighbours, the 11 families have remained in Rajgadh, fashioning lamps out of discarded bottles, and sleeping outside every night to escape the oppressive airlessness of their homes. Hasinabibi’s biggest worry is centred on her son, who goes to a school five kilometres away. “He is in the tenth standard this year,” she says. “How can he study without lights at night?”

Hasinabibi used to run a bangle shop in Navakuva, in Panchmahal, where she lived with her children and husband, who ran a garage. During the riots, their house was burnt down, and the family was forced to stay with relatives before moving to the Rajgadh colony. Now, Hasinabibi has no means of livelihood; her husband works in a garage in Baroda, earning about INR 50 every day, on which he, his wife and six children must survive. Her neighbour, Hussainbhai Zafibhai, moved to the colony from a relief camp, after his house in Sarasva, also in Panchmahal, was burnt down by rioters. “We used to own farms. Here I do any work that comes my way,” he says. He makes about INR 1500 every month, with which he has to support his parents, wife and two children.

Precarious existence
The stories from Rajgadh are echoed across the 80-odd relief colonies spread across Gujarat, which house well over 4000 families. An Oxfam-supported survey in October 2006 found that almost no public infrastructure had been provided in these colonies. Little has changed since then. In 65 percent of these settlements, residents are forced to get their drinking water from private sources; only two colonies have government schools; and just four colonies have Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres, known as anganwadis. For a population that is so desperately out of work, only three colonies have ration shops for subsidised food.

Perhaps one reason for this negligence is that none of these colonies was established by the state government. In fact, when the relief-colony residents were issued voter-identification cards this past June, following a directive from the National Human Rights Commission, it was practically the first official acknowledgement of their existence. Much work, however, remains to be done. Typically, riot victims have received little or no compensation. (Though, in late September, the Centre did announce INR 705 million in additional compensation.) Moreover, their existence continues to be a precarious battle for survival in a society that appears to have little compunction about excluding and ignoring them.

In his tiny house, where a tall, blue water container is the most prominent fixture, Dedki Mehboob Yusuf sifts through stacks of paper detailing the upturned lives of the inhabitants of Aman Park Society, a relief colony in Chikodhra, Godhra, where he also lives. Yusuf’s family used to own three shops in Ranipura, from where he and his family barely managed to escape during the riots. Today, he scrapes together a living by working two jobs: teaching at a private school while doubling as a social activist. Yusuf has been assiduously shooting off letters to the local administration about the lack of water and electricity in his colony. The water situation is so bad here that a resident who works as a jeep driver occasionally brings his vehicle to the colony, at which time people pile the truck high with clothes, and head off to a pond a few kilometres away to do a week’s worth of washing.

The story remains much the same in relief colonies across Gujarat. In Halol, Iqbal Makrana, the father of two children, works as a casual labourer. He talks about how the families living in the 150-odd houses in the colony have to depend on one hand-pump for water, which is half a kilometre away. Mehboob Shaikh, who used to sell coconuts at the foot of the famed Kali temple at Pavagadh before the riots, and today works as a truck driver, adds that there is not even a primary health centre in the vicinity.

Perhaps most ironic about Gujarat’s relief colonies is the fact that residents do not even hold ownership papers for their houses, though these buildings were constructed by Muslim trusts and a few non-government organisations. This means that they can be evicted at any time. Many even had to pay significant amounts for these tiny structures – often INR 25,000-40,000. In Baroda’s Noorani Mohalla, where 45 displaced families live, 42-year-old Sarfaraf Habibullah Khan says that residents were forced to pay more than INR 45,000 each. “But the work quality is poor,” he complains. “There’s water leakage, there’s no plastering. And we paid the amount by borrowing money from relatives.” Even so, the residents have yet to be given allotment letters for their houses. And as Mohammad Hanif, a maulana in Bachesar colony in Shehera, where 64 families live without holding any land document, notes, “You can’t apply for a loan without a property deed.”

Small steps
After visits made in October 2006, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) listed many of the challenges faced by colony residents in a report submitted to the central government. Among other findings, the report said that the residents were being denied the most basic of civic amenities, such as potable water, sanitary facilities, schools, primary health centres and approach roads. The report added that the state government had not provided any amenity or facility in the colonies, nor had Gandhinagar officials attempted to facilitate the residents’ return to their original homes.

The residents are “frustrated” by their inability to earn their own livelihoods, said the NCM report. Many of them had been self-employed traders, artisans or industrialists before the riots, but now customers are “unwilling to use their services”. An examination of the homes of residents showed they were living in “abject poverty”, with little more than bedding and kitchen utensils. The report also noted the atmosphere of insecurity and hostility that residents face, including from state agencies, particularly the police.

In June, a Supreme Court-appointed committee tasked with monitoring national food-security schemes noted that only 725 out of the 4545 internally displaced families in Gujarat had been recognised as living below the poverty line, though the economic situations of all were dire. The Right to Food Commissioner, N C Saxena, told the court, based on a survey by his colleagues, that only five of the 81 colonies had government or government-recognised schools, of which only four served midday meals to children. The committee’s recommendations included setting up primary schools (with midday meals), ICDS anganwadis and ration shops in all colonies, wherever they are not available within a three-kilometre radius.

The National Commission for Minorities asked Gujarat Chief Secretary Sudhir Mankad to provide an explanation for the commission’s findings of abysmal conditions in relief colonies. In its response in August, the Gandhinagar government for the first time admitted that 3660 riot-displaced families were still living in 69 temporary colonies. Gagan Sethi, managing trustee of the Ahmedabad-based Jan Vikas and Centre for Social Justice, says the government’s admission is in itself a significant step. For five years, the state government has consistently denied, even to the Supreme Court, that anyone had been displaced by the riots. The official acknowledgement could now ensure that the colony residents, who have already been issued voter ID cards, finally have a platform from which to claim their rights. Sethi, whose organisation has been actively working for the rights of those displaced by the riots, points out that, even in colonies where the use of land for residential purposes is yet to be legalised, voter ID cards can serve as proof of residence.

After five years, and probably due to insistent complaints and challenges, some positive changes are finally starting to be seen in the displacement camps. The state government in Gandhinagar has at long last started issuing Below Poverty Line and Antyodaya ration cards. While these are crucial steps, Jan Vikas’s Sethi warns, “What they’re not doing is improving infrastructure in the relief colonies.” But in a dramatic turnaround of sorts, the Gujarat government, which had previously returned INR 191 million that it had received from the Centre as relief-work funding – claiming that rehabilitation was already complete – is reportedly asking New Delhi for money for special schemes, specifically to improve infrastructure in the relief colonies.

Meanwhile, the colony residents hope for the best, but say they will believe the new promises when they see the infrastructure and services actually arrive. In Rajgadh, a wick burning in a small bottle in a smoky room emits a shaky flame, on which Hasinabibi’s son still relies to read his textbooks. As he traces the words, she hopes that eventually he will have a life with lights, toilets, a future to look forward to, and the respect of the state.

Published in Himal Southasian October 2007 issue. The piece can be accessed here.

In Kerala, considered a role model for other parts of the country, almost all Muslim children up to the tenth standard are in school, numbers that compare well to that of other communities. Yet, the story is very different when one looks at higher education, writes Deepa A

As the principal of Farook College at Kozhikode, the first Muslim-run institute of higher education in Kerala, Professor K A Jaleel witnessed several landmark moments in the history of Muslim education in the coastal state. On a rainy evening in June, at his house near the college that he nurtured and cherishes, he recalls one of those moments that he knew even then would later be described as a ‘turning point’: the admission of girl students to the college.  

Jaleel, who went on to become the vice-chancellor of Calicut University, remembers, “I had been the principal of Farook College from 1957 onwards, and girls were admitted for the first time in 1959. There was much hesitation and anxiety, and there was considerable fear as to what the reaction from the community would be.” There were only a handful of girls in the college those days, pioneers who braved traditional norms and societal pressure to seek a foothold in the education field. But today, the situation is different, as even a casual visitor to the college will acknowledge at first glance. “Now there are as many girls in Farook College as there are boys,” says Jaleel.  

Lest this be seen as the gist of a progress card that the community can proudly flaunt, N P Hafiz Mohamad, a writer who’s the head of the sociology department at Farook College, is quick to point out that Muslim girls have to battle many odds even in the 21st century. Through the story of one of his “best students”, Mohamad traces what’s still an uphill battle for education for many girls. “My student was the first Muslim girl chosen to participate in the Republic Day parade, from Farook College. She was not only excellent in extra-curricular activities, but also scored high marks in exams,” he says. Yet, the student’s parents forced her to get married against her wishes, ignoring her desire to pursue her studies and chart out a career path for herself. 

Almost 50 years separate Jaleel’s recollections from Mohamad’s account, yet even today, both are accurate indicators of the state of Muslim education – particularly girls’ education – in Kerala. Considered a role model for other parts of the country, the state does score above its counterparts in terms of Muslim education. Educationists estimate that almost all Muslim children are in school, at least up to the tenth standard, numbers that compare well to that of other communities. 

Yet, the Muslim community lags behind even the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of Kerala when it comes to higher education and employment. Various studies, including those commissioned by the government, show a substantial number of posts reserved for Muslims in government services lying vacant. This is baffling, in a state that has been largely free of communal violence, and where Muslims have been an integral part of the cultural and social fabric since ancient times. A Kochi-based organisation called the Forum for Faith and Fraternity, which published a study titled A Socio-Economic Survey of Muslims in Kerala and India in 2006 and submitted it to the Sachar Commission, notes this contradiction in the first pages of its report. The study, conducted by a committee comprising of the former pro-vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, K M Bahavuddin, among others, says, “We started with the impression that the situation of Muslims is comparatively better [in Kerala] but after collating the data, we have come to the conclusion that their situation in Kerala has also been deteriorating in the last 20 years”.  

The rest of the piece can be accessed here. Published in India Together on August 2, 2007.   

Five years after the atrocities of Gujarat, the state’s education system is taking youngsters backward

By Deepa A

In a tiny room with blue walls full of charts about birds, fruits and vegetables, 10-year-old Tamanna sits on the floor, drawing on sheets of paper strategically folded to resemble greeting cards. The room, on the first floor of a modest dwelling in the Siding Service locality of Ahmedabad, has been hosting a learning centre run by the NGO Pratham for the past seven months. “Earlier, we were in the Muslim part of the area,” says Kanchanben Rathod, a teacher. “But Hindu children, especially girls, wouldn’t come there, so we had to move to this place.” Tamanna, whose shy smiles preface her every sentence, interjects: “The Muslim children were troubling us; we were frightened of them. So I stopped going there.”

A few kilometres away at Allah Nagar, where vegetable vendors, children and goats jostle for space in the narrow paths of the slum settlement, is another learning centre managed by Pratham. Many of these children, also leaning against blue walls as they open their bags, wear skull caps. Mothers bring little girls, often wailing as they shake their pigtails in defiance, into the classroom, and stop to chat with the teacher. There are no Hindus in this area, and certainly none in the classroom. Both the children and their mothers speak of their lives inside the slum, having little or no contact with the world that lies beyond their inadequately covered shacks and the dusty, fly-infested lanes outside their homes.

Last November in Ahmedabad, where almost everyone is forced to navigate between real and imagined boundaries drawn on the basis of religion, a few social workers got together to attempt to bridge the divide between Siding Service and Allah Nagar with a cricket match for children. That game quickly came to be referred to as the “India-Pakistan” match, says Jigna Rathod, who works with Pratham. “Sometimes, children say such things,” she adds. Afterwards, the children traded insults and threw stones, recalls Anjana Parmar, another Pratham worker. Clearly, even a playground could not be neutral terrain, with the scorecard heavy with bias and prejudice before the game could even get underway.

Mind-boggling borders

A policeman snoozes inside a khaki tent pitched on a lane that forms the ‘border’ in the Parikshit area of the city. He, and usually his colleagues, are ostensibly here to douse the neighbourhood quarrels that end up taking on communal overtones. Their presence is a forbidding indicator of the omnipresent possibility of clashes between Muslims and Hindus in the area, separated by a ‘border’ – a term that Ahmedabad’s residents mention casually, as if indicating something as mundane as a traffic light that serves as a landmark.

Neelam Mewada lives in Parikshit, and she laughs when asked about the skirmishes. “We’ve gotten used to it,” says the teenager. Neelam went to a school in Shah Alam before the riots of 2002, in which the state government claims about 1000 were killed, while activists put the number of deaths at around 2000 (mostly Muslim). “I left my studies because the school is in a Muslim area,” Neelam says. When localities are identified not according to their physical characteristics but on the basis of the religion of its occupants, it is no surprise that a school can fall out of favour for being on the wrong side of the ‘border’.

In a paper on the impact of the 2002 violence on the education of Hindu and Muslim pupils, based on a study of two schools for girls in Ahmedabad, researchers Suchitra Sheth and Nina Haeems wrote about how one expects schools to be spaces where religious differences can be transcended. This was, however, not the case in the schools they studied, one a Gujarati-medium school in the Dalit-Muslim neighbourhood of Rajpur, and the other an Urdu school in Shahpur. In a subsequent piece published in The Economic and Political Weekly in April 2006, they wrote: “Even if neighbourhoods are antagonistic, one would imagine that the school could be a site for secular socialisation. The Urdu school of Shahpur of course does not offer such a chance because its students are all Muslims. But we found that the Gujarati school of Rajpur was scarcely different though it has students from both communities.” The authors added: “We asked the girls to name close friends at school and not one Dalit child named a Muslim child and neither did the reverse occur. We found that the Muslim children played in their groups and the Hindus in their own.”

Perhaps these children have merely assimilated the ways of the world around them. Fr Fernand Durai, principal of St Xavier’s School, Loyola Hall, recalls how he was shocked by the attitude of a few children towards their counterparts from the minority community during the 2002 riots. “Our students have always lived together,” he says. “There is no differentiation on the basis of religion, so how did this come up suddenly? It means that the students must have seen or heard something, and they picked it up in no time.”

Indeed, several school administrations themselves were leading the harassment of Muslim children. Khurshid Saiyed, a politician affiliated with the Congress party, says that Muslim parents had to withdraw their children from many schools in 2002 because of the threats made by the school authorities. “Their ruse was to tell parents that the children were not performing well and hence were going to be failed. They offered a compromise to the parents: if they took their children elsewhere, they would give them pass certificates.” Hanif Lakdawala, director of Sanchetana, an NGO that works in health and education, refers to this as “subtle discrimination”. “Schools tell parents that the child will feel isolated in that atmosphere,” he explains, “so parents eventually decide they are better off taking their kids elsewhere.”

Afroz Baig, who works with local schools on peace-education programmes through the NGO Samerth, lists various tactics that some authorities have used to disallow Muslim children from attending their schools. “A school at Vejalpur didn’t throw out Muslim children, but told their parents that they couldn’t guarantee their children’s safety,” she recalls. “At another school in Paldi, the Bajrang Dal people injured the watchman, and the parents instructed their children not to speak to Muslims. How could one survive in that atmosphere?” Baig herself was at the receiving end of such discriminatory practices, when she tried to get her son admitted into a well-known school in Thaltej. “The principal categorically told me that the school had no place for Muslims,” she says.

Chor and police

Near Chandola Lake is a school with an entryway that has been taken over by unruly shrubs. The blue letters that form its name are fading in the sun. This abandoned structure was once the L V Patel High School, run by a Hindu management that decided to pack its bags after the riots, when the area suddenly came to be dominated by Muslims. The school today functions about three kilometres away in a Hindu area.

At one time, Hindus and Muslims went to the same schools and lived in the same neighbourhoods. School managements were never identified by religion. After the riots, however, both communities moved to areas where they found safety in numbers. Says Lakdawala, “The authorities are simply not interested in the children – in areas where there are Dalit and Muslim students, we have heard high-caste Hindu teachers saying there is no point in teaching these children.” If the L V Patel management got around their predicament by moving to a new spot, others chose to shut shop altogether. One Hindu school management in Shah Alam sold their school building to a Muslim builder, who plans to renovate it to provide education for Muslims.

Several others from the Muslim community have also come forward to establish their own schools to accommodate Muslim children. Their action is a display of resilience and self-reliance, for the Gujarat government has done little to create or improve educational facilities in Muslim pockets. In areas to which riot victims have moved, such as Vatva and Faisal Park, there are hardly any civic amenities – no water, drainage or electricity. Parents laugh helplessly when asked if they send their children to school. Why would one think of books if there is no livelihood? Unfortunately, schools set up by Muslim trusts may not be the solution. By and large, this new wave of ‘educationists’ have no experience in education, and tend to place increased emphasis on religious mores and customs in an already segregated atmosphere. This leaves the Muslim pupils doubly disadvantaged.

The textbooks carry forward the recurring theme of alienation. In the Gujarat State Board textbooks, it is not enough to qualify Aurangzeb merely as a ruler; he is always introduced as a Muslim ruler who was intolerant of other faiths. Hindu mythology is never about myths or legends; they are presented as facts as sacred as the gods whose stories curiously form part of Social Studies textbooks. Exercises for children, mentioned at the end of each lesson, include suggestions to learn more about “daughters of sages”, and the textbooks are full of slant and stereotype.

Such tampering with textbooks is dangerous, says Fr Cedric Prakash of the activist group Prashant, who has worked with several others to bring these errors to light. “When children learn [these biases], even their games reflect the same thinking,” says Prakash, who recently won the national Minorities Rights Award for 2006. “When they play chor [thief]-police, the Muslim is always the chor and the Hindu the police. When we used to play, we were both the chor and the police on different days.”

Achyut Yagnik, co-author of the 2005 book The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, says it is important to see how history is taught in Ahmedabad schools. “The teacher, for instance, will only talk about the destruction of the Somnath Temple [by Muslim kings],” he points out. Influential Hindu sects such as Swaminarayan also run a number of educational institutions, says Yagnik: “More than the Sangh Parivar, they are responsible for Hindutva-isation, at a direct or indirect level.” Pointing to a vicious circle, Yagnik notes that most schoolteachers in Gujarat are from OBC, tribal or Dalit communities. “They are attracted to the sects, possibly because of a promise of a more meaningful identity in cities and towns. They are conscious that their standing in the Hindu social pyramid is low,” he says. It is in the hope of integration that they become members of the sects, going on to adopt ideologies that encourage Muslim-bashing, a divisive credo that may eventually surface in their classrooms.

A visit to Juhapura

In the cloistered spaces of Ahmedabad, it is now entirely possible for a Hindu or Muslim child to grow to young adulthood without meeting a single individual from the other community. It is a vitiated environment that can be exploited to create insecurity and fear. Says Shakeel Ahmad, administrator of the state Islamic Relief Committee’s legal help and guidance cell: “Our big concern is that there is no intermingling of communities because of the segregation that has happened. This alienation will have a terrible impact on the children. They are not in a position to know about each other’s culture and religion and, as a result, their tolerance levels will be low.” Adds Khandadkhan R Pathan, principal of the Republic High School at Lal Darwaja: “Hindu children will easily believe political propaganda against Muslims if they are not provided knowledge. If they know a few Muslims, then they will at least have a broader vision.”

Perhaps all it takes to demystify the dreaded ‘other’ is a simple visit. Lakdawala remembers an incident from an Id Milan programme organised three years ago at Juhapura, often referred to as the largest Muslim ghetto in Gujarat. He remembers: “A friend had brought his eight-year-old son along. The boy knew that the programme was being organised at a school in Juhapura, but on reaching there, he asked, ‘Where is Juhapura?’ My friend told him that this was the place, to which the child replied, ‘But I had heard that Muslim children carry knives; I don’t see that here’.”

Lakdawala talks about the experiences of activist and filmmaker Stalin K, also centred on Juhapura. The Hindu youngsters, mostly from poor economic backgrounds, with whom Stalin worked had particularly vile impressions about the ghetto. Stalin therefore took them on a visit. Says Lakdawala: “They walked around Juhapura for three or four hours. They ate at a bakery there; they enjoyed themselves. Stalin asked them if they saw any difference between their areas and Juhapura, and the boys said no.” The trip would have changed the youngsters’ perceptions about the area and its inhabitants. But, as Lakdawala says, it is not easy to get people to step outside the boundaries they have set for themselves. Trapped somewhere between those invisible barriers, the children of Ahmedabad and indeed all of Gujarat are forced now to live in insulated bubbles, unable to reach out to children on the other side.

(Published in April 2007 Himal Southasian issue. It can be accessed here.)

2002’s season of hate has left a generation of Muslim girls with little prospect but the dead end of the ghetto. Deepa A reports

 

On a December afternoon, Zahirabanu Yunisbhai sits on a couple of dusty, broken bricks outside her one-room house in Millat Colony, Ahmedabad, helping her sister scrub the vessels spread on the ground. The clothes they must have washed a few hours ago flap on a clothesline above their heads, and an occasional cow, several goats and a handful of alternately wailing and smiling children amble along the narrow path into which the houses in the colony open into.

 

Inside the room that makes up their house, where this family of two sisters, mother and father live on rent, are bundles of clothes and bags piled on top of each other and a makeshift bed-like structure where the girls do their sewing and embroidery work. Between both of them, they make about Rs 25 or Rs 50 daily, more than what their father, a rag-picker, manages to bring home on most days. Their mother, a maid, cleans floors and vessels in other people’s houses, chores that her daughters earnestly and dilligently carry out in her own home.

 

Zahira studied up to the ninth standard in a school in Bhavnagar, where her family lived before moving to Ahmedabad during the riots of 2002. “Only the last exam was left,” says the 18-year-old. “I had passed all the other tests.” But there was no question of her appearing for the annual exam. They were in a relief camp in Juhapura, Ahmedabad, where every second brought with it tales of dismembered and burnt bodies, and of women who were tossed around like footballs and raped. 

 

Zahira’s sister Najma, a quiet girl whose hair is tied back in a severe plait, was in the seventh standard then. They haven’t discussed school with their parents since the “dhamaal”, though both the girls speak of how they are keen on getting back to studies. But after they moved to the house in Millat Colony, securing a livelihood was their main concern and the money the girls made from their sewing became a necessity to keep the house running.

 

Like Zahira and Najma, hundreds of girls in Gujarat gave up their education soon after the carnage of 2002, in which over 1,000 people died, a majority of them from the Muslim community. (Activists put the number of deaths at a much higher 2,000.) As an unhelpful state government brandished a cliché that the situation in Gujarat was ‘normal’, thousands of families literally picked up the pieces of their broken homes and lives, migrating to areas were they found safety in numbers. Five years later, their days continue to be shrouded in fear, which has an almost tangible presence in the road-less, school-less, hospital-less ghettos they have been pushed into. Some are too busy with the day-to-day business of survival in a society that all too often excludes Muslims to bother with the education of their children, especially of their daughters, in whom the only investment they make is for a wedding. Others won’t let their girls walk up to the main road, though it may just be a kilometre or two away. 

 

The principal of an Urdu-medium school in Ahmedabad, who requests that her own name and that of the school and its locality should not be used, explains that parents have today shifted children out of “unsafe” areas. “Especially in the case of girls, they feel that it’s dangerous for them to travel as anything can happen. They prefer to let the girls remain in their own locality. If there’s no school in that area, then the girls don’t go to school at all,” she says.

 

Like Zabina Shaikh Mukhtar, who lives two houses away from Zahira in Millat Colony. The 350-odd houses in the area were burnt in the riots, and like her neighbours, Zabina and her family spent nearly seven months in a relief camp in Juhapura’s Sankalitnagar municipal school, before returning to homes that were reconstructed by relief committees. Zabina, who was in the ninth standard, stopped going to school after 2002. Her old school is, as she puts it, in a “non-Muslim area”, which she and her parents clearly consider unsafe. “None of my friends went back,” says Zabina, who now does sewing out of her home. Adds her mother Shameem, “Even now, whenever there is some tension, I can’t sleep. We don’t know when we will have to run, and I feel worried all the time.”

 

Raziya Saiyed Ahmed, also a resident of the colony, couldn’t agree more. Sitting on the doorstep of her house, near her young daughter who is soaping clothes under a tap, she claims no one wants to send their girls to schools after the riots. “We were hearing all kinds of things then. After such things happen, how can we send our daughters outside? Once you lose izzat [honour], how can you get it back?” she says.

 

In Behrampura, an area that was affected by the riots, 18-year-old Mousmina Vohra makes kites, sitting on the floor of her two-room, neatly kept house. She was studying in the tenth standard at the Anjuman-e-Islam school at Astodia when the riots happened. “I didn’t appear for the board exams,” she says. “My centre was in a Hindu area and it wasn’t safe for me to travel there. Anyway, all my books were burnt. What could I study?” They lived in a relief camp for a while and came back to the neighbourhood, where the burnt houses had been rebuilt by a non-government agency. In a story that’s all too common today, Mousmina’s father, who used to work in a shop, found that his employers didn’t want to retain Muslims. Depressed, he committed suicide, leaving his wife and three daughters to fend for themselves. Today, Mousmina makes kites — as many as 2,000 to 3,000 a day — earning about Rs 50. The kites soar in the sky during a Hindu festival, and meanwhile, their makers bury their own dreams in a place from where there is no return. “I wanted to study and become a doctor,” Mousmina says, without a trace of regret, rubbing possibly noxious glue onto paper and sticks.

 

Like Mousmina, many find their lives following trajectories that at one time would have been inconceivable. It doesn’t help that the state government has failed to provide them with the most basic of infrastructure. In the localities where non-government agencies built houses for riot victims, such as Faisal Park, Bombay Hotel and Vatva in Ahmedabad, there are only a handful of municipal schools — if at all — with poor facilities and inadequate number of teachers. In Juhapura, referred to today as a large Muslim ghetto, there are no options for students after the twelfth standard, says Shakeel Ahmad, administrator of the Islamic Relief Committee Gujarat and general secretary of the Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity (Gujarat). “It’s a little bit easier for boys to go outside Muslim localities, but there’s a fear psychosis as far as girls are concerned,” he adds.

 

There are a few private schools, but the fees are beyond the means of parents. Maijuddin Inamuddin Shaikh, for one, will vouch for that. He still gives his address as Naroda, Hussain Nagar, though he today lives next to a hill of garbage in Citizen Nagar, where a cluster of houses have been built for riot victims. After surviving the massacre in Naroda Patiya, where over 80 people were killed, Maijuddin is now seldom able to put enough food on the table for his three children. “In Naroda, I was driving my own auto. Here it’s a new place, I just about make 50-60 rupees daily, how can I send three children to school?” he says. It will cost him Rs 9,000 every year to send all his children to the private school in the area, the only option available. Farzana, Maijuddin’s 15-year-old daughter, went to the school for a while but dropped out after the fees proved to be too much of a burden. She studied till the fifth standard in Naroda and professes a distinct fondness for Gujarati. “I wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “I miss school but I do go for sewing classes.”

 

Several others fought distressing odds to go back to school, only to be waylaid by the cruelty and crassness of fellow classmates. Seventeen-year-old Farhana Farid from Behrampura says her studies had suffered because of problems at home. “My parents used to fight a lot and I was often sent to my grandmother’s house,” she says. But she continued going to a Gujarati-medium municipal school in her chawl, attending classes even after the riots. “The Hindu boys gave us a lot of trouble,” she says. “They used to abuse us, so I left. I don’t feel like going to school now. The teachers were alright but they didn’t do anything about our complaints.” Farhana, who is clad in a burqa, now can call herself only a ‘seventh standard pass’ and her ambition has been limited to marriage and running a household.  

 

Afroz Baig of Samerth, an NGO that works in the field of education and livelihood, says the atrocities committed on girls in places such as Naroda continue to haunt parents. “Earlier, parents would still send them to school. But now, learning has become less, all the girls wear burqas, and the parents are getting them married off at a very young age,” she says.

 

Yet, if there is hope, it surprisingly comes from some of those who saw the worst face of humanity. Mehboobbibi Yusuf Ansari lost her husband and five other family members in the massacre at Naroda, where they lived. A soft-spoken woman who jokingly claims to sleep all the time, she now stays in Faisal Park with her daughter Gazala, a second standard student at an English-medium school that’s 15 minutes away by an autorickshaw. With the support of an NGO called Himmat, Mehboobbibi, who had once relied on her husband, is slowly picking up the threads of her life, learning sewing and making friends in a new locality. “People told me not to put Gazala in an English-medium school,” she says. “They said, the fees will be very high, how will you afford it? But she is very bright, and her father is not there…” Mehboobbibi herself has studied only up to the fifth standard, in a Gujarati-medium school, but is eager to ensure that Gazala gets the best education possible. Her frisky daughter, who lists science and mathematics as her favourite subjects, says she wants to grow up and become an inspector. Gazala is unable to articulate why she wants to be in the police, but Mehboobbibi possibly knows and, listening to her daughter’s words, tears well up in her eyes.

 

(First published in Tehelka on March 17, 2007. It can be accessed here.)