A step back in Sabarkantha

BELA BHATIA

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RIOTS, I was told had broken out in Sabarkantha too. The thought of Sabarkantha brought back many memories, for it was from here that I first began my journey into rural India. The sedate low hills of the Aravalli range all around, camels meandering at their own pace, bharvads squatting in the fields with their herds of sheep, mud huts, scorching heat during drought relief works, local struggles against caste oppression, for minimum wages and land – those were the early years of getting to know rural life amidst the tears and laughter of the local communities: adivasis, vanjaras, bhambis, vankars and thakardas. Many years had since passed and I went back only to find that the Sabarkantha I knew had changed drastically.

Ask anybody on the streets and your will be told that it, toofan (storm, as riots are referred to locally), has hit almost every village of the district where Muslims were residing. The question to ask is not where it has happened but where it has not, was the general comment.

After Godhra, there was a wave of anger against the Muslims. This combined with the concerted mobilisation by the RSS, VHP and the Bajrang Dal over the last decade or so led to a spate of violence, intense and frightening. According to some, if Godhra had not happened nothing may have taken place. According to others, the date that things had been planned for was 6 March, and Godhra only hastened matters.

It is interesting how the dates, the timing and the methodology of what happened coincide in village after village. While violence broke out in the town areas of Khedbrahma and Bhiloda talukas the very next morning (28 February) following Godhra, action in the villages happened on 1 and 2 March, mostly around 7.30 to 8.30 at night. The houses and the shops of almost all the Muslims in each village were first looted, and then torched. Only those houses or shops which were close to the houses of the Hindus or where Hindus were owners or tenants were spared. In some villages, houses of single Muslim women, widowed or old, too were spared, on request by neighbours. The pattern confirms that this was no riot, as we understand the term. It was neither spontaneous nor sporadic but systematic. It may have been a ‘reaction’, as was asserted by the chief minister of Gujarat, but one that was marked by precision and planning.

Aggressors were reported to be bahar na (outsiders) or aaju-baju na gamda na (from surrounding villages). Even though participation of people of the same village was usually negligible, some support is undeniable for, as it was pointed out, how else could it be possible for outsiders to figure out the exact targets? They came in large mobs, the strength of which varied from a few score to a few hundreds, in tractors, jeeps, or on foot. In some villages they were armed with trishuls, talwars, local agricultural implements such as spades and lathis. In places they were also reported to be wearing saffron headbands and sashes, holding Hindutva flags, and shouting slogans that clearly identified them with Bajrang Dal, VHP and RSS.

 

 

Whatever was done was done by tolas (groups). It seems that there was a clear division of tasks. There were the todwavalla (those who were destroying), lootwavalla (those who were looting) and baadwavalla (those who were burning). The community uniformly identified to have played a key role are the Patels, in particular the Kutchi Patels. They were in all three groups, while poorer communities, such as adivasis, thakardas and vaghris, participated in the looting. In many villages it was emphasised that it was the sukhi (rich) people who were carrying off the loot and not the dukhi (poor).

In a matter of a few hours Muslim residents, who had been living in these villages for hundreds of years, were rendered destitute and homeless. Forced to flee with what they were wearing, they had to trudge for days through fields and dungars (hills) with their babies and children; most old people were left behind. Some of them initially headed for the houses of their relatives in nearby talukas of Sabarkantha or in adjoining areas of the neighbouring Banaskantha, only to find that their relatives too were undergoing a similar fate. After days of hunger, hardship and anxiety for lost family members, they finally reached the safety of relief camps. It is now nearly two months since they have been living in these camps as refugees in their own land, wondering about their future, and too scared to go back.

The objective seems to have been to target the Muslims economically, boycott them socially, and spread fear and terror. By forcing them to leave their places of residence en masse and simultaneously, the aim seems to have been to change the very demography of the villages. And that is why the most popular slogan was ‘Muslai ne gaam ma thi kado’ (force the Muslims – called ‘Muslai’ derogatorily – out of the village). The operation was successful in destroying the Muslim population economically, scaring them psychologically, and sowing seeds of insecurity and fear. Altogether, 2161 houses, 1461 shops, 304 smaller enterprises (including small shops called gallas, handcarts, fairias – mobile salesmen), 71 factories, 38 hotels, 45 religious places, and 240 vehicles were completely or partially destroyed. Total loss in monetary terms is attributed to be around 3071.33 lakh rupees (District Collectorate, Himmatnagar, as on 4 April 2002). Needless to say, the actual figures are likely to be much higher.

 

 

Muslims on the run fled to those areas where they felt safe. These were areas where their relatives lived or where members of their own community were in greater numbers. So many people fled to the same areas that Muslim religious organisations in these places started collective service, which later became relief camps and in due course were recognized by the government. At present there are 12 camps running in the district. Eleven of these are being run by Muslim organisations where the camp members are all Muslims. The only camp for Hindus is in Modasa and is run by a Hindu welfare organisation (a Hindu camp in Himmatnagar was shut down by the government recently). It is sad to note that only Muslims provided refuge for the Muslims in trouble. There was no instance of a camp being organised by the Hindus for the Muslims or vice versa, nor was there a multi-faith camp.

As on 9 April, there were as many as 10,569 members in these camps (10,041 of them were Muslims). Week-wise comparison of total numbers in the camps reveals that the peak was in mid-March when the total numbers were 10,718. As we can see, the numbers in April have not decreased substantially. This suggests that the situation on the ground has not improved. With their homes empty and charred, no source of livelihood, uncertain love of others in the village, what indeed do they have to go back to?

‘They did not leave even a chamchi (spoon) with which I could eat my medicine,’ said elderly Aminabibi, from Derol village in Khedbrahma (now in Vadali camp). ‘Hamara vatan yahi hai, ham kahan jai? (This is our land, where should we go?)’, asked Vallibhai Ghanchi of Mudeti village (Idar taluka). ‘Ham Hindustan ke vatni hai. Jab maraigai to do gaz zameen to milaigi? Unka kahna hai ki inko jala daigai, to yah do gaz zameen bhi nahi mangaigai (We are people of Hindustan. When we die, we will get enough land for our graves, will we not? They say that they will burn us so that we will not ask for even that),’ said Gafoorbhai Mansuri (Bhiloda taluka). As these testimonies reveal, these broken people have been pushed to the wall.

 

 

Even in the midst of their pain, however, they remember the help and support given to them by many of their neighbours and friends. But they know that they too cannot protect them at all times, for as has happened in numerous instances, those who protected them were also threatened. Despite personal adversity, many of their Hindu friends came to leave them at the camps, many others are still going to the camps to get them back. While there are a few stray examples where people have returned and tried to resume their old lives, in most other cases where they went back to their villages, they had to return to the camps because of continuing threats to them and their well-wishers.

The complicity of the police is clear. Everybody one meets confirms this to be true. ‘It happened in front of their very eyes’, ‘it happened in front of the police station’, ‘when we phoned them for help and they did not come’, ‘policemen were themselves encouraging people passing by to help themselves to the loot’, ‘72 hours after Godhra were supposed to be "free for all",’ are observations mentioned by scores of people.

 

 

In towns such as Himmatnagar, Bhiloda and Khedbrahma it was after curfew had been imposed on 28 February that shops and business establishments were looted and destroyed. One finds few instances of action by the police, be it the use of tear gas or lathi charge. Notably, in the aftermath of the violence too, urgent action that was necessary and possible was missing. Combing operations were not taken up. Where they were, combing was done in the houses of the Muslims! Or a vehicle was kept in a public place and people ordered to return what they may have taken, thereby suggesting that no action would be taken against them individually. Nobody knows what happened to the stuff that was thus retrieved.

There seems to have been an official interest in protecting the individuals who were involved in these attacks. Police stations were not admitting First Information Reports (FIR). As we know, delay in lodging a FIR is detrimental to the attainment of justice. Where FIRs were being admitted, people were being actively discouraged from mentioning names of individuals and asked to mention only a ‘tola’. Aggrieved Muslims got round this by faxing their FIRs directly to the DSP.

 

 

Besides, 137 Muslim businessmen of Himmatnagar lodged a petition in the Gujarat High Court against the police inspector, Himmatnagar town, as well as the DSP, stating that they were not recording FIRs nor were they carrying out investigations as per requirement. The petition was subsequently withdrawn when assurances were given by the respondents that due process would be followed. As on 9 April 2002, 393 FIRs had been lodged in the entire district (these are single FIRs with multiple statements) but not a single person had been charge-sheeted so far because of ‘lack of time’, according to the DSP.

The police in Sabarkantha have functioned in a manner which clearly suggests that it was politically motivated. Saffronisation of a great part of the police force itself is quite plausible. Out of the 52 policemen in Himmatnagar town police station, for example, only two are Muslims. Sincere lower level officials are often helpless in the face of their superiors. As a lower level official at Bhiloda police station admitted: ‘Hamari halat chai jaivi churi vachai supari’ (our situation is like that of a betelnut in the middle of knives).’

How was such a large-scale operation carried out? Sabarkantha is a largely rural district with more than 90% of its population residing in rural areas. The economy of Sabarkantha is dominated by agriculture. A large part of the land is owned by influential cultivating castes such as Patels, Kolis and Rajputs, who are also powerful politically. Sabarkantha is known to be a stronghold of the farmers’ lobby in Gujarat. A large part of this lobby, represented by the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, is pro-BJP.

The Kisan Sangh’s network extends to the villages. This network, combined with the economic resources of the Patels (Rajputs are known to have played a protective role this time), political patronage by the BJP, the party in power in the state and the district (6 of the total 8 MLAs in the district are BJP), and concerted spread of the Hindutva ideology over the last decade are some of the key contributing factors. Besides, advancement in the field of telecommunications also played a vital role in mobilisation. A decade ago, it was difficult to come by a single telephone in a village, now telephones and STD booths have mushroomed all over and can be found in interior villages too.

 

 

Of the total population of the district, 17% is that of adivasis. The main adivasi groups residing in Sabarkantha are the Bhils, Bhil Garasias and the Dungri Garasias who are concentrated in four talukas of the district, namely, Khedbrahma, Vijaynagar, Bhiloda, and Meghraj. It is being widely alleged that the adivasis played a central role in what happened in Sabarkantha. This viewpoint needs to be corrected.

Stories from various villages across the district as well as the viewpoint of the Muslims in camps, including their leaders, is that by and large adivasis were used by upper caste and class Hindus in their programme against the Muslims. ‘Adivasis are not our dushman (enemies). After four years of continuous drought, they may loot our shops but are not against us. Given the opportunity, they may loot the shops of Hindus too,’ was a commonly held view. This applies to many villages where adivasis were mobilized to loot with the assurance that there would be no police action afterwards. In some instances, they were also paid small amounts to do the work, as the adivasis of Gambhirpura village (Bhiloda) admitted when their names appeared in the FIR. Like adivasis, in villages where there are only thakardas (another poor community which is in the OBC category), they too were similarly mobilized.

 

 

In adivasi talukas like Khedbrahma, major instances happened in the town area where there are fewer adivasi residents and more Kutchi Patels. In interior villages like Lambadiya where some communal tension has occurred in the past, nothing happened this time. Similarly, another adivasi dominated area, Poshina, also remained peaceful. This was the case even though the Bajrang Dal and VHP have, over the last few years, made Khedbrahma a centre in order to break into the Congress base in the area. The Khedbrahma assembly constituency (which includes Vijaynagar) is the only reserved ST constituency in the district; one of the two Congress MLAs of the district is from Khedbrahma.

Bajrang Dal and VHP members are reported to have initiated the violence in Vijaynagar too. On 3 March, they came in large numbers in jeeps, tractors and tempos. Supporting Hindutva flags, they were shouting that no Muslim should be allowed to remain in the taluka. Beating their drums, around 5000 adivasis assembled in the town that day. They were so many that all roads were blocked. They are known to have participated in the looting. In the course of the events that day, police opened fire killing three adivasis.

In other villages of Vijaynagar, Bhiloda and Meghraj talukas, the general pattern was that a tractor full of Bajrang Dal activists came and played a major role in destroying and burning while local adivasi supporters participated in the looting. In other villages, for example Kalyanpur in Bhiloda, one section of the adivasis was the aggressor while another played a supportive role. In this village, out of 10 adivasi sub-groups, Bajrang Dal has made inroads into two, and these were the ones who led the attack. The sole Muslim resident of this village, a widow, was dressed up in a sari, a bindi stuck on her forehead, and helped to escape.

Hinduisation of the adivasis in Sabarkantha is not new. The adivasis in Sabarkantha define themselves as Hindus even though they acknowledge that Hindus do not consider them as equals. Pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses are common in adivasi households. Historic places in adivasi areas, such as Shamlaji in Bhiloda taluka, have been named after a famous temple of Shamaliya Bavji, as Krishna is called by the adivasis. Like the Hindus, adivasis of Sabarkantha too have been practicing untouchability vis-a-vis the dalits for long.

 

 

When, how and why did the adivasis of Sabarkantha start thinking of themselves as Hindus is a question that requires closer scrutiny. Increase in education and income levels may have led to rising middle class aspirations amongst the adivasis to join the Hindu mainstream. The official policy of identifying adivasis as ‘Hindu bhil garasia or Hindu dungri garasia’ in their school leaving certificates may have also contributed to their identity as Hindus.

Saffronisation among the adivasis, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Efforts in this direction have increased during the last decade, particularly in the last two to three years. In the late 1980s, when shilas were being collected, there was some response from villages in Sabarkantha too, but this was restricted to the upper castes and villagers at large had not heard about VHP, Bajrang Dal or RSS. Now, most people, for example, know Bajrang Dal. Bajrang Dal has tried to increase its base in villages by building local level organisations with office bearers, some youth on its payroll, and regular events such as sports. Wall writing by the Bajrang Dal can be found in public places. For example, Talwar niklaigi mayan se, Hindu rashtra banaiga shaan se (on Khedbrahma bus stand) or Is desh mai rahna ho to jai shri ram kahna hoga (in Himmatnagar).

 

 

Besides Bajrang Dal, some efforts were also made by women members of VHP to organize meetings with adivasi women in some interior villages of Bhiloda taluka during the winter months last year. The plan to include the adivasis in the Hindu fold becomes clear from this slogan on a Gujarat Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad poster: Nagar, gram, aur vanvasi, ham sab Hindu adivasi (whether in cities, villages or forests, all of us are Hindu adivasis).

The story in Sabarkantha is far from over. The tremors seem to have only just begun. According to Narendrasingh Rajput a leading RSS leader of Bhiloda taluka, ‘ham itna hi kah saktai hai ki ham apni lakir aagai khichtai jaigai (all we can say is that we will continue to stretch our line forward).’ What does the future hold? Where will this criminalisation of religion and politics of hate lead? Will humanism prevail? One can only draw some hope from the many stories of support that people gave to their Muslim neighbours and friends and the wisdom of Sakinabibi of Mau village when she said: ‘It is not your fault, nor is it mine. Not all five fingers of a hand are equal.’

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