Just another day in Ahmedabad
Gurpal Singh, July 5th, 2002
Source: Personal E-mail
Just another day in Ahmedabad
Mail no. 8
I arrived in Ahmedabad on 16th May and spent most of my time playing with the children in some of the camps, for over a month. I also kept mailing my family and friends about the situation here. These mails reached more people than I had thought and I ended up making many new friends.strangers who responded with words of encouragement and solidarity. Reading my last few emails some friends probably felt that I was becoming too emotional, zealous, obsessed and raving mad about the situation here. and they gave some good natured advice that I should take a break from it all..and move away from Ahmedabad to gain some perspective. I did not agree fully with them but anyway, partly following this advice I went off for a few days when I found some work and returned to this strange city on the 3rd of July. Here are some impressions, thoughts, experiences.
The last impression I had taken away with me from here was a scene I saw at the station at Anand where there were two groups to see off newly weds. One was a Muslim family and the other was Hindu. There were many cops at the station who were taking trains presumably to return home, and were in a loud and boisterous mood. I saw one of them harassing the Muslim family.. he was telling them not to crowd around, and waving his laathi at them ..for no apparent reason.the other cops were laughing. The Hindu family, with the same number of people was left alone by this cop. As the train pulled away he hopped on to the train and winked at his comrades on the platform who found his antics very amusing and were getting some perverse pleasure at the visible discomfort of the Muslim family. Scenes like this are not uncommon here, the "Hindu" cops are on a high. Over here, they have managed to "get away with murder" in the real sense of the term.
When I reached here day before yesterday, I was not too sure of what to expect..the papers outside Gujarat don't carry much news from here and I was not really in touch with my friends who were still working here..Now that the world cup is over and the threat of war has dissipated, and people are bored of the sundry scams unearthed everyday, I hope Gujarat will find some more column space once more in our dailies and magazines..if we are lulled into a false feeling that all is well and life should go on as usual, then we, as a nation are doomed..because quite simply speaking all is NOT well. What is at stake here is our character as a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic.
I took an auto from the station and immediately set about finding out if the driver was Muslim or Hindu. This is something I don't have to do (as yet) in any other city, but is important here because some Hindu drivers would be uncomfortable going to certain areas that I visit. Everywhere in this city there is a heightened sense of awareness of your religion.it was not difficult to surmise that this driver was a Muslim.most Hindu drivers advertise their religion by putting stickers of gods and temples in front of the steering, and often trishuls on the top, and most of the "Muslim' autos have absolutely no marking on them...and in a few you can find traces of recently removed stickers that may have had a picture of some mosque or some inscription in Urdu, hastily covered with black paint.
I asked to be taken to the Shah Alam camp and the driver smiled. When I get into an auto driven by a Muslim I tend to find out how he managed during the riots..most are hesitant at first to disclose how they had to borrow money or eat at a relief camp or live on the charity of family or friends. Most of them could not earn their livelihood from 28th February until the middle of May.that is when the violence had ebbed. This driver, Javed , told me that the "survey" for his burnt house had not been done even now..and he had no idea when he would get his compensation. There are just too many like him who will have to wait for god knows how long to get back what was snatched away from them, due to a breakdown of the law and order machinery. He has to manage a family of four and he said that even now he was living on borrowed money as he was not earning enough every day to payback what he had to borrow. He was staying with his brother in his one room tenement and there were a total of 11 people staying in that room.With a wry smile he also told me that he has been "eating things he has never eaten before". Well at least he was in a cheery mood..unlike my friend Usman Bhai at the camp. When I had last seen him he was hopeful of getting his compensation cheque soon. Now he seemed devastated.he had been given a cheque 3 days ago.the amount was 3000 rupees.according to him it was a little less than one hundredth of the value of what he had lost .In desparation he asked me if I could do anything to fix a meeting for him with the higher ups. I did not have the heart to spell out for him, that for one, I too was powerless and besides, he was not the only one with whom this was happening and there were lakhs of others whose amounts were even more incredible..he probably knew all this and I doubt if he really expected me to offer anything more than moral support. All I could do was hold his hand and all he could do was cry silently.
Usman Bhai is about 55, from Naroda gaon.one of the worst affected areas during this genocide and he alongwith his family and others from Naroda Gaon, sleeps on the floor on the right side of the dargah. I took him to the left side to meet another family from the Anupam cinema area. They have been together in the same camp for 4 months now but it is impossible to know everyone..at it's peak there were 12,000 people in the camp. Even now there are nearly 5000. Riaz bhai lived near Anupam cinema..and he had received a compensation cheque of 12,500 rupees for the three room house that was completely burnt..one wall of his Hindu neighbour's house was slightly blackened from the fire, and that neighbour has got a cheque of 22,500. Riaz Bhai cannot go back yet because his neighbours have threatened him not to return. He is quite a fearless man but he feels it is pointless to register a complaint..as the cops who will take the complaint were themselves involved in this pogrom.. I wanted him to meet Usman bhai as I had found in this man a strange kind of resilience and a will to fight and I thought it would wear off on Usman Bhai, who was seeming quite broken and physically much weaker than when I last saw him. Sadly this backfired, because I found a change in Riaz Bhai too since I last met him.he too seemed broken and defeated and his story only made things worse. I ended up adding to the depression when I mentioned that things were much worse in rural areas.
I decided to cheer things up by playing with the kids. I found that many of the children I played with had left but there were many more who wanted to make friends and play. I was told that during my absence, there were not many people who came and played with them regularly or made them paint and draw. A pitiable state indeed for what is the "star" camp.I wondered what the state of the kids would be at the other, lesser visited camps. The children decided that they wanted to sing and tell stories..while we were doing that one of the kids near me, a six-year-old, was keenly observing the ants and insects around. I smiled and picked up one ant and put it back.the boy immediately stamped on it and said softly that it was a "Hindu" ant. When I asked him to repeat what he had said he smiled sheepishly and ran away. This for me, was a new experience and I had no idea how to deal with it. If there were more Hindus who were coming forward to show them the "other" face, it may have been easier. I could not help but think of the latest issue of Outlook which talks about the importance of outlining the difference between Hindutva as a political idealogy and Hinduism as a form of thought. The silence on this topic needed to be broken What exactly does it mean to be a Hindu. (I wondered whether the dead ant would be reborn as a Muslim ant.)
Later one of the kids who knew me from before took me aside and begged me for a rupee.this too is a disturbing new development..for over a month since I have known them, these kids had never begged. I went back to Usman Bhai.it was my turn to cry on his shoulder.
Usman Bhai's immediate neighbours(that is the family sleeping three feet away) offered me some water and told me how they appreciated my playing with their kids. An old lady kept blessing me and would not stop..I had never seen her like this before.. and I wished there were others with me to share the burden of her blessings. When I told her about what the little boy did with the ant she set out to look for him in order to admonish him. I would have stayed to look for him but I had to get back to go to the loo and have a bath, having come directly from the station. A gentleman from that family offered to take me to the loo there. I laughed at the idea because I had read that there were only 22 toilets for all the inmates and I had to go fast. He told me that he was referring to a slum nearby where their family had hired a room at 400 rupees a month , so that they could use the toilet. (I had always wondered how 12,000 people had managed for so many days with such few loos). I was also told that quite a few families had done this, even though the 400 rupees were too valuable at this stage, but there was little option and also that this arrangement did not work on the days when the water from some reservoir nearby was released as then the whole area gets flooded for a while.
Not feeling too adventurous I decided to go to the flat where we are staying, but before that I found out from one of the camp organizers that there were 882 families there(4792 people).very rarely does one get accurate figures as these keep changing and there is no proper method of checking. The camps are run not by the government(it wasn't the government's fault was it, that 14000 houses in Ahmedabad were damaged)but by Muslim community leaders...there are always allegations and counter allegations of mismanagement and appropriation of funds. Must be quite a thankless job..specially because not many people are sending material or monetary help, as they did during the earthquake relief operations. While I was in the office there were many women standing in line waiting for their turn to choose clothes from a consignment of old clothes that had come from Delhi. Some were in the process of choosing them and others had already done so. Many were cribbing about the fact that most of these clothes were fit only for cleaning the floor with, and also there were so many strange "skirts and tops which our girls will never wear". One man in the office said "jo milta hai khushi khushi le lo".a better way of saying that beggars can't be choosers.I guess that was true but they must have wondered why they had been reduced to this. One lady shot back saying something to the effect that her major 2 faults were, that she was born poor, and born a Muslim in this country.
Most of the help that has come has been from Muslim organisations and also most of the distribution has been done by these organisations. This has given rise to the feeling that only Muslims will help Muslims, adding further to the polarization here. I wonder if more help will come from "Hindu" individuals, organisations and business houses once the truth about Godhra comes out. (Where did that 60 litres of petrol come from? Why were the fans intact, while the floor was charred, why did many Ram sewaks get off a few stations before Godhra? How far is Signal Falia from the place where the coach was burnt?)
After my ablutions, I set out with four friends to some other camps.these friends from Delhi were leaving that day and had to say their goodbyes to the kids they had been working with. We went to the Behrampura camp at the municipal school which has been officially closed but there are 46 families living there. Shareefa ben, a volunteer, was arguing with the principal of the school pleading with him to let the people stay on as they were huddled in two rooms which were not being used by the school in any case...they could not go home as their houses were burnt, the compensation was not paid and besides, the landlord of the chawl where they stayed had blocked the entrance to the chawl.He had built a shop and a wall and the matter was being negotiated. She told him that she had spoken to Mr. Gill too, and was hopeful of a quick solution. Soon the principal relented and Shareefa ben saw me and came to appraise me of the situation .She also told me that the government had not bothered about where to send the people, but had stopped giving grain.It was now coming from an NGO but she did not know for how long they would be able to sustain it. As we were talking we noticed that an old lady was having an argument with the driver of the municipal truck that was parked outside. It turned out that he had told her that she was going to be loaded on to the truck with all the others and "dumped outside Gujarat"...and when she told him triumphantly that the principal had agreed to let them stay, he had said that he did not care.What the old lady was really upset about was the fact that this truck was the same one which was used to carry garbage.Shareefa, always the fighter,went to confront the driver, but he mumbled something and left.
The old lady, Batul bibi, in the meantime came to me and asked me about the promise I had made long ago to take her to the eye doctor. Several days ago when my mother was here too, helping out at this camp, she had learnt that this lady was suffering as her spectacles had been left behind in her house as she ran for safety to this camp on 2nd of March..she had gone back much later to find her house burnt down and she could not find her glasses or even the paper which had her power number. Her eyes had been burning all these days and no one from the relief committees took this seriously enough. Mom had asked me to do the needful as she was leaving that day and I had promised to do so, but like the others, had not taken it seriously enough. It was time to redeem myself. She wanted to be taken to a particular doctor who had been kind to her and had operated her free of cost. As we were leaving the camp, another old lady, Amina Bibi said that she too had the same problem so the three of us went off to find the benovelent doctor. As we reached his gate we saw a large, freshly painted sign that said OM on the outside wall. Amina bibi was scared on seeing this and was of the opinion that we should go back, but Batul bibi insisted that the doctor was a wonderful man and would treat them well. I too added my two bits by saying that "Om" was something to be revered and chanted and nothing to be scared of.... and that I sometimes chanted it too.Amina bibi was somewhat convinced and we went in.....Dr. Vipul and his wife Dr. Sandhya were indeed wonderful people and treated these ladies free of cost. The few people in the waiting room who seemed uncomfortable about Amina bibi's dirty burqah and Batul bibi's shabby salwar kameez, were duly ignored and we went back happy, singing the praises of the wonderful couple. Amina bibi is to be operated for cataract in 3 month's time.
When I had asked the doctor if he was scared of the VHP or the Bajrang Dal landing up at his door, because he was defying their call for a social boycott of Muslims, he had replied that he was indeed, but he was more scared of God, so he did what he had to do. I have in any case changed their names in this mail to protect their identities. My family perhaps wishes that I could change my name in these mails too. They are concerned and keep telling me to keep a low profile, which I must admit, I am doing, because all said and done, I am no superhuman. I too, am scared of being marked and victimized. But perhaps I am playing into their hands too. The politics of fear and hatred thrives on people like me. Hatred can only be conquered by love and fear by courage..so I keep telling myself to try and be more brave. Anyway, I still do wish that there were more people speaking out and standing up to be counted. There is safety in numbers! They cannot victimize everyone!
Even if some are victimized, I think it can only do them good. Look at three illustrious people who were badly victimized during the emergency...one rose to be the Prime Minister another his deputy and the third is the defence minister! It is a pity that they choose to look the other way when others are victimized here in Gujarat. .My day ended with a call to a friend in Vatwa village who told me a few things about victimization.
Vatwa is a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. There are three camps running there, even though there should be only one by now, but all the organizers, I guess, want the spoils of relief! The relief officials land up at midnight or at one in the night with trucks to say that the camp has to be wound up and merged with Daryakhan or Shah Alam. Vatwa has seen some of the most terrible acts of victimization of Muslims.On 20th March a godown was burnt by the mobs and some Muslim families came to their doors to see what was happening. The police fired on them killing one young lady Farzana. The police version is that she was leading a 500 strong mob! They also shot a polio affected Mumtaz in her good leg while she was standing just outside her own house. And 20 year old Sikandar was shot first in the leg,then in the chest..he leaned against a wall, pleading to be spared.and the cops pulled him down and kicked him.He was then dragged to the jeep and was hit several times in the head and face with rifle butts.The post mortem has shown haemorrhage. My friend in Vatwa told me about how Sikandar's brother was picked up a few days ago by the anti terrorist squad, and kept for three days. Their father has recently received the compensation cheque of forty thousand rupees for his son's death and someone called up to demand thirty thousand out of it to release the second son from jail. Fortunately the man did not pay and the son was released anyway, because there does not seem to be any real case against him. There still is a lot of pressure on the father to keep mum about the police brutality. And he still has not received the rest of the money(sixty thousand rupees in the form of Narmada bonds)which is the price for his son's life. Well, atleast he got the 40 grand, there are several families, like say, the ones in Randhikpur, who cannot claim any money for dead fathers, brothers or sisters. The body has to be shown as proof, but many of the bodies are so badly burnt that they cannot be identified.. .the burnt bones could be anyone's, they are told. Three terrible words.."charred beyond recognition".
As I write, there is a tremendous fear of 12th July. ..both inside and outside the camps. That is the date for the traditional Rath Yatra .The tradition is said to be 125 years old but there seems to be a more recent twist to the tradition..this yatra is always taken through sensitive areas and provocative slogans are shouted from the trucks carrying activists from the Bajrang Dal and the VHP. Someone from among the Muslims retaliates by throwing a stone, or a petrol bomb and then all hell breaks loose. This new tradition is all set to be repeated this year but probably with more devastating results. I have heard so many rumours , theories and "definitive stories" about what will happen this year. It is said that the police held a meeting with some of the Muslim "gang leaders" and asked for an assurance that there will be no trouble from their side. They in turn asked for an assurance that no non-religious slogans will be shouted from the trucks. The police expressed their inability to give this assurance. Another story is about three trucks full of weapons that are said to have left Mumbai..and the police waited to intercept it at Baroda, but there were no such trucks. One I heard was about the "plan" to blow up the rath on the 10th .The police "will get to know" of this plan on the 9th and make many preventive arrests. There is another about the plan of the VHP to hire Muslim Goondas to burn the rath on the 11th. There are many more such stories, all symptomatic of the paranoia that has gripped the people here. What is certain is that this fear is telling on the community, mentally, and that things are on the edge. I have overheard some Muslim boys say that "this time" they too are prepared.
Until now we kept hearing about how weapons are kept in every Muslim house, Masjid and Madrassa. Strangely these mythical rocket launchers, AK 56 rifles and grenades were not used (even for protection, let alone for attacking) during the pogrom and combing operations in March and April. Not even when there were cases like the ones in Vatwa. So have these fictional weapons finally made an appearance? I doubt it, the "preparation" is probably in the form of hockey sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, and perhaps "sutli" bombs. The vernacular press carries stories which suggest that there are armed terrorists in all the relief camps and that the Muslims are upto mischief "as ususal". 12th of July will surely be an important day in the contemporary history of Gujarat. What happens (or does not happen) on that day will determine the immediate future course of rehabilitation. All those in the camps right now say that there is no question of them returning before the yatra. My guess is that the camps will swell up again on the 10th with people ( and of course no one will be prepared for this!)
If a little pressure is exerted on the government , it goes along way. The Gaurav Yatra that was planned from the 4th of July has been postponed. This procession would have polarized people further on communal lines and would have covered all 180 constituencies in the state..clearly with an eye on the forthcoming assembly elections. Efforts are still on to change the route or to cancel the rath yatra and if adequate pressure is put,things can improve. According to the TOI, The Jagannath temple trust did show it's willingness to change the route , but forces in the state government and the VHP made them change their minds. Clearly it is in the ruling party's interest to let things deteriorate..even if at the "cost of a few lives"...If the central govt. is made to feel that it can win a few brownie points with the electorate by exerting pressure to change the route, then things may look up. If not, then what is a few lives here or there..
Through this long and tedious mail I can only give you a tiny part of the whole picture, but whatever I see is unacceptable to me as a human being, as an Indian, and as a Sikh. If it is unacceptable to you too, please join the others in your city who are doing something to stem the growing communalism in our society. Hearts and minds have to come together to deal with this issue..this IS the big one and will affect us all. And I am not only talking of Gujarat, but also Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan .....and everywhere around you.
I still don't know if my absence from Ahmedabad helped me gain any perspective. I already did realize, even while I was here, that there were larger socio-economic-political factors at work, and that things do not change overnight.. What is reinforced in my mind is the fact that the situation is extraordinary and nothing will solve itself without participation from people like you and me. Inertia will be disastrous. As far as the larger perspective goes ...I keep remembering the words of one of my new friends, Scharada:
"Stay with the work, the commitment, the passion, but don't forget to notice for a few moments each day how the season is turning, new flowers still bloom, dogs sit nonchalantly on charpoys and buffaloes walk with slow measured steps from the puddle where they have had a soak. That, after all, is the larger picture."
Thank you Scharada, and many others, for all your help, encouragement and show of solidarity. And yes, the flowers still bloom, night still changes into day. Stars in the cosmos will die and new ones will take their place . And good will triumph over evil. But not without your help