A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate one another, while a decent society is one in which the institutions do not humiliate people.
Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society
Getting into Ahmedabad station early in the morning, there is the same bustle as in any other city. Auto rickshaw drivers corner you into acceptance of what seems to be a high charge. A new city, the sluggishness of sleep: you accept. Driving through the waking roads, it strikes you that the shops are still shut and it is close to eight. There are people about but not as many as one would expect in a capital city. Then like a tooth knocked out, a gap in the buildings, a shop blackened by fire. No more signs and we reach a part of the city that is residential and green. No indication of either bustle or violence. Two worlds; one insulated from the horrors and humiliation of the other.
As we drive to Shah Alam camp later in the day, we seem to have veered off into another part of the city: another time and another space. There are magnificent dargahs and mosques of forgotten dynasties and in their shadows gutted shops of forgotten people. People forgotten by a government which remembered them only to commit violence against them. Where we saw order and civility coming into the city, now there was rubble, burnt buildings and charred walls. And at the end of it a mosque which had become the refuge of over 10000 people from Naroda-Patia whose homes had been systematically blown up with gas cylinders in the early days of March. In the 18th century at a time of warfare temples and mosques had become either redoubts of beleagured soldiers or a refuge for a fleeing populace. Now Gujarat was at war again: a civil war or was it a pogrom?
In Shah Alam’s mosque, every inch of space was covered with people and possessions. What one’s eye took in initially as a jumble resolves into tiny squares of occupation. Every family creating a habitation by fencing its space with rusted boxes and mattresses. Neat squares creating a sense of order. After all they had been there three months already under canvas and bamboo in the intense summer heat. It was lunch time. People were eating hungrily: plastic water jugs slopping over with oily gravy (no vegetables) and piles of chapattis kept on newspapers serving as a carpet. “Yeh khaake thodi majoori kar sakte hain. Achha hua bazaar mein manda hai” Mushtaq observed wryly. He had been going out regularly in search of a job-any job-for the past month. The Hindu businessmen (there weren’t any Muslim shops left in the vicinity) blamed the riots for the slump. There was an effective boycott of Muslim labour.
Mushtaq had passed his Board exam from the camp earning a visit from local journalists and a story in the newspapers. His brothers, two of them, had failed in class IX. One brother, Ishaque, who had passed Class X had become an auto rickshaw driver. When the auto was burnt by rioters, he had rediscovered education. He was helping to run a school in the camp and was modest about what he knew. “When they aren’t getting any education, even a tenth pass has something to teach the children”, he said grinning. Mushtaq was more bitter. “I don’t have the patience to teach children.” He had always felt that he was bright and good at his studies and couldn’t understand why all the Muslim boys failed once they reached Class IX. He thought it had something to do with the fact that the thakurs in Naroda-Patia did not want Muslims to pass. He smiled crookedly and said, “It is a good thing that the riots happened and we had to flee under police escort to the city. Here the thakurs cannot control who passes or fails.” He already had the impatience of someone with an education who knew that it would lead him nowhere. Unlike Ishaque he could not reconcile himself to the “time pass” of teaching children, nor indeed drive an auto for a living. He said that he had hardly studied before the exam and had still got 66 percent. A job, money and self-respect were what he wanted. The azaaan sounded while we were talking. Mushtaq looked at me wryly, “I am not a good Muslim you know. No prayers five times a day. But I will be killed as a Muslim one way or the other.”
Suleiman was welcoming and sat back easily against his rolled-up mattress as if he were welcoming us into his living room. “Khaana kha liye” he asked. Suleiman had three autos, well, three charred and twisted autos lying in the debris of his house in Naroda Patia. His foot rested on the Gujarati newspaper that he had been reading. Suleiman had passed his B.A.exam a long time ago. “It was a stunt he said. The BJP needed a stunt, they had been losing all the elections in Gujarat. If not Godhra then some other stunt”. He used the English word “stunt” with relish. He had an explanation for the Naroda-Patia massacres. “Have you been there”, he asked. I had not as yet. “Well, if you go there it is obvious; you will see immediately that the Muslim shops and houses are beside the Ahmedabad-Bombay highway. It is all a matter of property speculation. Burn the houses and build commercial spaces.” He underplayed the role of religion in the killings. “If it had been religion then in the neighbouring village too there should have been killings. However, there the sarpanch was influential. Unhoney rok liya, strong aadmi tha. Vahaan sab khet hai, shop thodi bana sakte hain”. Suleiman was quite clear about the fact that the entire issue was an economic one, to break the Muslim commercial community. I asked him why there had been so many killings and so much gratuitous humiliation of Muslims. “No one died in my family”, he said. He gestured towards the silent man occupying the adjoining square of cloth. “He lost his brother”. But his enthusiasm for rational explanation had dimmed. “The Punjabi (Gill) has made a difference. But I suppose he has a reputation to maintain, uski apni izzat ka savaal hai”. He had become gloomy.
But Shah Alam was not where we were going to be. We were told that the camp at Khutb-i-Alam dargah at Vatva needed volunteers since it was outside the city and therefore outside the purview of the press and publicity. The coordinator at Ahmedabad said that it did not even have basic toilet facilities: one toilet for 2000 odd people. Vatva is an industrial area on the outskirts of the city. Some of the factories now have tridents fixed on their smokestacks and have stopped employing Muslims. The Khutb-i-Alam dargah: another magnificent monument housing 1300 families in their despair. Behind the dargah white cloth propped up on bamboos and the same disorderly order of meagre belongings. It was deceptive. As one enters through the arched gate there is no indication of the camp. Just an air of gentle ruin that a lot of medieval buildings wear despite the presence of worshippers and the azaaan marking the hours of prayer. A few men going to pray in the afternoon heat, walking hurriedly on the burning flagstones and trying to step on the lime painted strip so as not to burn the soles of their feet.
Most of the men in the camp had gone to their village-Nawapura- to repair what was left of their homes. Some sat around in the tea shops opposite the main gate; others lay in the shade of the arches of the dargah. The women were busy rolling agarbathis their hands stained black with the resinous gum. Aashiq offered to take us to the village. He was of the Bukhari family, the descendants of the pir who had founded the dargah. Nawapura was on their land and over twenty odd years the village had come up as Muslims moved out from the city towards the industrial suburbs. However, a lot of the men were still casual labourers, cart pullers, paan shop owners: living on the verge of respectability. Aashiq had had a chemical factory and some houses which he had rented out. Not much remained of the buildings. He was away in Bombay at the time of the attack on February 28th and fearing for his safety had returned only after a month. While Nawapura lay behind the dargah, by road one had to drive around the fields to get to it. Later we discovered that it took just ten minutes through the back of the dargah. That was the reason why when the villagers were attacked by mobs they could rush to the safety of the walled compound.
Three to four rows of houses, some of brick and mortar others bricks held together with mud. The houses were hollow shells now. They looked like they had exploded from within: walls had fallen outwards, and the roofs of asbestos sheets were shattered. “Gas cylinders. Aag jalaakar, cylinder phenkte the”, Aashiq told us. Later, speaking to friends in the city, we were told that there had been a shortage of LPG for a month or so after the riots began. Estimates varied, some said 6000 cylinders had been commandeered from depots; others said 10000. Looking at the houses, I was reminded of photographs of Lebanon from my childhood: years of artillery and bombing had produced the same devastation. The mobs had taken only a day in Nawapura, they had other Muslim sites to demolish as well. A curious detail caught our eyes. The cement appeared to have melted down the walls of a few houses, giving the appearance of wax running down the sides of a candle. Aashiq was emphatic in his reply. “When the earthquake happened last year, the government has received chemicals to melt cement and concrete to rescue people trapped under debris. They used the same chemical here. It was brought in pouches and thrown against the wall”. Aashiq knew a bit about chemicals and said that he thought it had been imported from Israel. Israel came up again in conversations with our auto rickshaw drivers. Imran asked me, “Don’t you see a similarity between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and what Modi is doing to Gujarat’s Muslims? He has received a lot of help from Israel.’
The few people who were there in the heat were clearing up the debris in their homes: levelling the floors, knocking out the crumbling plaster, collecting the charred remains of doors and melted plastic and piling them up neatly in corners of what once used to be rooms. One of the houses the asbestos roof had been blown away with the force of the explosion and the plaster had come off the walls. Subsequent cleaning had given the walls a scrofulous look. In what had been the living room, someone had arranged a pile of bricks under the window and set up a large shard of a broken mirror. There were a comb and ribbon lying next to it. The mirror reflected the melted blades of the ceiling fan; it looked like an octopus with limbs missing. Again, a curious detail. In many houses, the metal safes and cupboards were grotesque shapes of melted metal while the wooden doors were intact. The attacks were for looting and the mobs knew where to go. Aashiq pointed to a house and said, “They had put aside the dowry for their daughters’ wedding. Everything was at home when the mobs came.” Three months down the line the villagers were more resigned and distanced as well from the tragedy of February. Some of them pointed to fans with blades ripped off, sewing machines with the machine and treadle removed and said “Kuch to chhod gaye hamaare liye”. In each house the water and electricity connections had been systematically destroyed.
We wondered whether we could photograph the ruins around us, one part of our minds militating against voyeurism while the other wished just to document. “No”, said Aashiq. “Some people came and took photographs and they came back to complete the job”. We wondered who they were. He pointed over the low wall which marked a kind of border of the village. On the bare dusty field on the other side, a makeshift compound had been made with bricks. The walls were no more than two feet high and the bricks had been hastily and shoddily laid one on top of the other. Beside the wall, there was a large board surmounted by a trident and a tattered saffron flag, triangular in shape. The board said: vyayamshala, prarthana gruh and held the promise of many more institutions. It also mentioned the names of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. I later discovered in conversation with one of the Bukharis that a Hindu contractor had purchased the land from them and sold it to the VHP. There had been two earlier attacks on the village trying to encroach beyond the boundary wall which had been beaten off. The assault in the last days of February had been stronger.
In the camp office at Vatva, I sat with Arifbhai and read through some of the Government Regulations. Arif worked for SEED, an NGO which was concerned with working with the Muslim community. He was a Commerce graduate and wanted to do his bit for helping out with the displaced people in the camps. There was a cluster of GR’s numbered 232002 and dated between the 28th of February and the first week of March. They dealt with the issue of compensation and relief camps but all of them began with an invocatory phrase: the kaumi hullad (communal disturbances) that followed the attack in Godhra. Godhra was the watershed event: the day from which the reckoning began. For those who were killed in riots upto Rs. 2 lakh could be paid in a neat diabolical package (GR 232002/513/S.4 dated 28 February 2002). Rs. 60000 was to be paid as “immediate” compensation. The rest totalling Rs 140000: Rs 30000 from the government fund; Rs 30000 from the Chief Minister’s fund; 80000 from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund was to be invested in Sardar Sarovar Nigam bonds for three years. Even in death, or probably only in death, the Muslims had an investment in the state. Filling in a compensation form a few days later one of the men in the camp told me that he had received a lakh as compensation for his land flooded by the SSN project. He had come to Vatva with a Xerox of the court order (just in case anyone asked how he had managed to get such a lot of money) and set up home. Now his home had succumbed to arson: the fire this time. “Agar main marta to meri bivi ko jyaada paise milte magar teen saal baad. Zinda hoon, paise jaldi miley aur ghar bhi ab jala diya gaya. Sab jaldi hua”. There was a lot of black humour in the camp.
Another GR dated the 11th of March said that only those would get compensation that had not participated in the riots and did not have a police record. So if one had lost a limb in the riot was it because one had been rioting or because one had been attacked? How could one prove that one had passively stood by despite provocation and allowed the cutting off of a limb since this was the only instance in which compensation would be paid? As Arif read the GR’s and translated them into English for me, the camp office was suddenly filled with the smell of ethyl alcohol. I turned around and one of our colleagues was filling out the compensation form for a man whose right hand was missing: the stump was bandaged. He wore dark glasses. Later I learnt that he had picked up a home made bomb to fling it away. It had exploded in his hand and the flash had damaged his retina as well. When I spoke with him a few days later he was cynical about the prospect of compensation. “They will say that I was participating in the riot. How can I prove otherwise?” Aashiq grinned, “ Mussalmanon par hamla hua, Mussalman maarey gaye aur ab Mussalman arrest kiye jaayenge”. He did not know then how prescient his words were. A few days before we left Aashiq was to appear in court to face charges of rioting and murder. He had not been in Vatva at the time of the massacre. He had stayed on in Bombay for a month at a business associate’s till the situation became calmer.
There was a casual brutality about government officers who came to the camp. They would arrive when the sun was at its height, and most of the men had left the camp either in their futile forays to find work or to repair their homes. There was something Sisyphean about their labours: three months gone and the homes seemed always only this far from completion. Maybe they knew that repairing the home meant that they would never get the compensation they hoped for. One afternoon the government officials came and the camp organizers got into a heated debate with them. The main organizer was refusing to sign on a document. The Land and Settlement Officer had come and like Caesar surveying his men run an eye over the camp. “200 people”, he said. “Too few. Your camp records are false. We have orders to close these camps; no one wants to stay here any more”. The organizers were protesting both at the random count as well as the fact that the officers coming when they knew only less than half the members would be present. Akbarbhai expostulated with the LSO, “Subah aayiye naa ya raat ko. Is time koi nahin rehta”. The LSO sat back in the folding chair and looked disbelieving and smug. I asked him, “Nawapura gayen hain aap?”. He turned to me, “Nawapura, kahan ki baat kar rahen ho?” As we talked I realized he had never been to any of the villages from which the refugees had come to the dargah. “ Voh mera kaam nahin hai”, he said emphatically. After the camp organizers had refused to sign the head count he went away. Three days later they were back. This time they had twenty carbine bearing policemen with them. None of them took off their shoes. I asked one policeman, “Agar yeh mandir hota to aap apne jootey utaartey, hain na?” He said, “ Hamaare liye mandir masjid ek samaan hain.” Impeccably secular words.
I met Feroze at Nawapura picking through the remains of what had been a plastics factory. There was a misshapen lump in the centre of the courtyard where plastic goods had melted in the fire and then cooled down. The right side of his face was pitted: it looked like someone had flung a pot of ink at him. The acid had burned his arm as well making it difficult for him bend his arm or lift anything. His brother had taken him to the hospital so he had survived. While Feroze lay in delirium in the ward his brother left to get medicines and never returned. Feroze was not sure what he would do now; it was his brother who had had the expertise. While we were having tea in the stall outside the dargah gate, we were joined by an old man. He said that he had seen all the riots since 1969 and been affected by all of them as well. I asked him whether there had been any difference this time in the violence. “Well, riots happen when people live together. They used to come and burn our shops, throw stones and then after a day or two we would go back to living next to each other again. We thought this time too the same thing would happen. That was our mistake. This time they wanted to kill us and humiliate our women and we were completely unprepared. We were taken by surprise.” Later Imran and Mahboob, our auto drivers said the same thing but differently. “We Muslims are not all good people, there are antakvaadis as well. But we don’t kill children, humiliate women.” Imran said quietly, “Agar hamne kuch karna shuru kiya, to tod-fod nahin karenge. Uda denge sabko.” It was the first time that he had said something so bitter. Maybe he felt after ten days that we would understand his anger.
Mahboob wanted us to see the tod-fod. On the Ishanpur- Vatva road, the Ishanpur mosque had been clawed from the road by a bulldozer. The walls had fallen but the inside domes were intact. The crowd had moved on. Further down the road he stopped the auto at a turning and pointed at the triangular patch beside the road. It had been strewn with broken rocks and leveled. There had been a mazhar there. Later in the evening, passing that way, we noticed that several cycle rickshaws were standing over the spot. Life moved on. Further down the road, another mazhar broken and leveled but this time a small makeshift brick shrine flying a sun-bleached saffron flag. It did not look like anyone would ever worship there. A dog lifted its leg and urinated on the wall of the shrine. Elsewhere in the city, Ustad Faiyaz Khan’s tomb had been desecrated as well. I was reminded of Walter Benjamin, writing at another time, poised on the abyss of what was once called civilization. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.
A week into working at Vatva, it seemed the right time to go and look at the adjoining village. It was populated by lower caste Hindus. The Vagris (as they were presently called; Chunars as some knew them) were largely illicit distillers though they had school educated men and even a few graduates among them. Their village had been attacked by the Muslims after Nawapura had been assaulted by the Bajrang Dal. Pradeep who was a Congress volunteer said that the Bajrang Dal had bought their neutrality and then not warned them about the possible retaliation. However, he was very clear that the Muslim counter attack had been calculated at inflicting as little damage as possible. While a number of the houses and some of their makeshift devi temples had been broken, no one had been hurt. The attack had been at 3 in the afternoon when the men were away and there was sufficient time for the women and children to get away. “We have no enmity with the Muslims”, he said. “We have lived together for 300 years”. I was to hear this again from one of the Bukharis while sitting in Vatva camp. “Paanch sau saalon se ek saath reh rahen hain.” He continued, “We sat together after Godhra and discussed the possibility of attacks and violence. There was no one who wanted violence. Only one lame man (I don’t know who he was) was sitting on a charpai away from us and he said. “Tum log kya ho? Ham phoo karke uda denge.” “Yeh to ladne vaali baat thi, magar baaki sab chhup rahe.” The camp that had been organized for the Vagris wound down quickly with the organizers facing charges of embezzlement of funds. Pradeep was particularly upset by this. “Yeh Muslim log apnon ka khyal rakhte hain”. When the Vagri village was attacked, the thakurs living nearby had driven them away, not wanting their space to be polluted by lower castes. And the Hindu organizers saw no particular merit in running camps for lower caste refugees either.
We went to Naroda Patia towards the end of our stay in Gujarat. The usual gap-toothed shop fronts along the highway; the Muslim shops picked out and gutted. We turned off the highway into a scene of devastation; a scene made more poignant by the fact that adjoining the ruins were the freshly blue-washed houses of the thakurs. Here too the houses had been exploded with cylinders and then it seemed like earthmovers had come and clawed the rubble to complete the job. There were the burnt out shells of auto-rickshaws lying upended in the sun. Some of the hollowed houses had a tick mark in red on the walls and the word O.K. GR 232002/513/S.4 dated 5 March 2002 stated that Rs.1250 would be paid for loss of house and furniture “Only for those whose houses are burnt more than 50 per cent.” So O.K. in the brutal telegraphese of the government surveyor meant less than 50 per cent burnt: not entitled to compensation. As yet no one had dared to return to live in or rebuild the village at Naroda Patia. We met a group of Muslims who were loading random objects that they had saved from the debris into a tempo, including the skeleton of an auto rickshaw. Ahmad offered to show me the mosque or what remained of it. He had come back for the first time after the riots had happened. The minaret had been demolished and had fallen into the middle of the road. Life went on around it: two scooters were parked on either side. Since the shopkeepers were Hindus they were not particularly concerned either. We entered the mosque through a hole in the wall. The rusted iron gates had scrawled on them, “Jai Shree Ram. Yahan Ram Mandir banega.” Inside the mosque the walls had been defaced and Jai Shree Ram inscribed in chalk randomly. We went up the stairs avoiding the limply drooping blades of the ceiling fans. There was a pile of ash on the floor where the lovers of Ram had burnt Korans, covering them up with curtains so that they would burn well. The Korans had been taken out of their cases and one half burnt wooden case lay in a shaft of light. A few pages of the Koran lay near the windows covered with shattered glass. Ahmad turned to me and said as if he were giving me some useful information, “Koran kabhi farsh par nahin rehne ka.” He picked up the pages kissed them and put them on a shelf. His back was towards me and he was shaking with sobs. I laid a hand on his shoulder and we stood there for a moment Hindu and Muslim overwhelmed by a barbarity beyond our comprehension.
In Vatva, they have a tabarruk, a block of what appeared to be petrified stone or wood. People come from far away to see it, make a wish and then try and lift the object. It is said that if one’s heart is pure and one’s wish were to be fulfilled, then the stone is no longer heavy. Even a child can lift it. We took turns with our several wishes. One of us lifted the stone with some effort after a few attempts. The old keeper of the tabarruk asked what she had wished for. “Shanti”, she said. “ Han han shanti hogi magar der se”, the old man said.
Dilip Menon teaches history at the University of Delhi.
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