One week in Aman Chowk
HOW do you make sense of Gujarat? How do you tell other people about it? In all probability you would try and evoke the grotesquerie of it by concentrating on a definite period or a set of acts of violence as singular events of terror. But how do you possibly convey the everydayness of it? The continuity of terror – as it is renewed in smaller ways, as it changes in character, as it spills into the present and the future and has long since become mundane in public consciousness. I fear that the former is easier because it grabs our attention.
Since returning to Delhi from Ahmedabad, I must have narrated ‘my experiences of Gujarat’ on numerous different occasions to people with vastly varying degrees of political engagement and beliefs. What has remained the same is that each time I have felt a burden akin to that of Sheherazade – what if my listeners are not shocked, horrified and fascinated by what I have to say? What if they don’t understand the spectacular nature of the tragedy? Another thing – the people who organised themselves as perpetrators of the acts and events that occurred in recent months in Gujarat, at some level also intended it to act as a medieval (and increasingly modern) reactionary form of punishment as public spectacle.
The brutality of recent events in Gujarat are now a part of public memory and will circulate as narratives locally, and otherwise, in various forms whether or not we write, act or do anything at all. Unfortunately, if the bloody past of South Asia is anything to go by, it is very possible that the spectacular element of these narratives will resurface with frightening regularity in the future with all kinds of consequences. Is there any way to write against such terror? There is the danger that if our images and words are shocking enough, they might provoke an equally horrifying reaction. A different but equally frightening possibility – it might gradually further what has been called a ‘dismay of images’.
Potential consumers of such images will then increasingly require ever more detail in words and images of hurt and suffering to authenticate reality. It is best then to proceed with some degree of caution. As easy as it is to produce an eminently readable account full of killings, beheadings, arson, and rape, it is that much more difficult to narrate a riveting account of the difficulties encountered in running a camp, in designing an adequately broad compensation form or say, the processes by which people are resettled (or prevented from leading a stable life) over a longer period of time. Thus, in what follows I will try and spend some energy on the mundane, as I do on the grotesque, in the hope that we can try and convey the horror, not just of a specified ‘official’ period of violence but of all that which continues in the lives of the people that we met.
A few weeks back, in mid-June 2002, I was sitting with Taufiqkhan Pathan, the main camp organiser of the Aman Chowk relief camp in Bapunagar, Ahmedabad. Taufiqkhan is an elected municipal official, the Chairman of the Hospital Committee of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. In early March, the Aman Chowk camp had about 6000 people. By the time we visited it in June, there were about 2500 people still there. Most people at the Aman Chowk camp came from directly adjacent or neighbouring areas – Chunnilal Devshankar Chawl, Manilal Chawl, Shantiniketan, Sone ki Chawl, Akbar Nagar, Arban Nagar, and from jhuggi clusters surrounding the nearby telephone exchange. Others came from further off – Haldervas in Khera district about 35km away, Kuha village in the rural district just off Ahmedabad city, Chamanpura, Naroda-Patiya and Meghaninagar.
In calm and measured tones, Taufiqkhan described to me the logistics of setting up a camp, a process he had previously undertaken in 1985 and 1992 at exactly the same spot in Aman Chowk, following outbreaks of what he described as toofan. It was a long, disjointed interview in the course of which we discussed, among other things, how people were brought to Aman Chowk, the surrounding Bapunagar area, the difference between previous instances of violence and the present one, and changes in the character of the city of Ahmedabad.
Ahmedabad, once known as the ‘Manchester of the East’ had a total of 73 large-scale mills. Of these only 13 or so now remain. Bapunagar is a mill district, well-known for its fragility and tendency towards communal clashes over the last many decades. However, Taufiqkhan spoke with nostalgia of the time before the closure of various textile-mills across the city, when a large diaspora of migrant labour helped Ahmedabad become one of the most prosperous cities in the country. He describes that period as one of tolerance, a time when the area was known as ‘mini-India’ because of the diversity of its inhabitants.
Once the mills began to shut down in the 1980s, many people moved out of Bapunagar. In the 1970s, Bapunagar was a Muslim majority area but gradually as migrant Muslim mill-workers moved out, the area changed in character and became segregated into distinct Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods. As far back as most people can remember the road separating the Hindu from the Muslim residential areas has been called the ‘border’. Most present residents are ex-millworkers who shifted to smaller scale factories and cottage industries or opened small businesses and shops to make a living. February 28 and the weeks that followed, quite drastically altered the look of most businesses, shops, restaurants and homes on the Muslim side of the border.
The pattern is similar across long rows of shops, or the remains of what used to be houses. The closer you are to the border, the greater the annihilation. Doors blasted open with bottles of kerosene and petrol bombs, black, singed walls, piles of rubble in various corners, the occasional small household-based karkhana with broken, blackened machines. The Hindu side of the border looks quite pleasant, houses of various different hues and colours, Ganesha or an occasional Durga adorning the front door. If you have a suitably wide-angle lens, there is even a spot near the border from where you can take a photograph – an endless row of colour-coordinated black on one side and an equally long row of neat, unharmed, multicoloured houses on the other.
Throughout the interview Taufiqkhan’s tone was energetic and businesslike and his words were guarded. When he spoke of the riot-affected, they were people very different from him, bechare jhuggi-jhopri dwellers. Only once in the entire conversation, did his voice drop: ‘I have lived here in Bapunagar for the past 41 years. During this time there have been many ups and downs but I have never seen anything like this.’ Before the interview I had planned to ask him about the circulation of a set of stories about municipal hospitals in Ahmedabad, some of them possibly under his direct jurisdiction, where it was rumoured that in early March, during the worst period of violence, Muslim patients arriving for treatment were poisoned or otherwise brutalized by Hindu hospital workers, nurses and doctors.
I had planned to ask him other things too: How did he react to the murder of Ehsan Jafri, an ex-M.P. and a fellow Congress party member of even bigger political stature than him? It is said that while a screaming mob stood outside Ehsan Jafri’s house, he made frantic telephone calls to the Director General of Police, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) and others. There was no response. A group of people walked into Ehsan Jafri’s house and burnt him alive.
I wanted to ask him, Taufiqbhai – Do you trust your colleagues in the Municipal Corporation? Whom all do you meet at work every morning? What is the chain of command above you? Are you able to do your work these days? Sitting barely 10 meters away from the camp, in an interview conducted with a number of people from the camp and nearby areas sitting around us, many of whom had presumably voted for him, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him any of this.
Shortly after I returned to Delhi, two news items on www.ahmedabad.com, a local website I have been following quite closely since early March, caught my eye.
* Indicating that early polls are likely in Gujarat, the BJP intends to organise a gaurav yatra (pride march) to propagate the ‘achievements’ of the Modi government. Pushing forward its Hindutva plank in the state, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad also plans to hold a ‘rath yatra’ in its full grandeur on July 12… Though the elections are slated for February next year, strategists in the Modi government are in favour of an early poll. They feel that Chief Minister Narendra Modi has become the ‘most popular leader among the Hindu community in the state and no time should be lost to take advantage of his popularity’ (26 June 2002).
* Having feared opposition from their neighbours earlier, riot victims staying in camps across the city are now refusing to return to the homes, apprehending violence during the rathyatra on July 12, which also happens to be a Friday. The victims, especially in Behrampura, Naroda and Chamanpura fear that violence might erupt again and are refusing to even start rebuilding their shops and houses, organiser of Aman Chowk relief camp in Bapunagar, Taufiqkhan Pathan said. ‘We have closed down our camp but people from these areas refuse to go. We have about 400 persons who are still staying with us,’ he said. About 20 families from Naroda-Patiya and 60 families from Meghaninagar, Roshanbhai Chawl, Chiloda and Chamanpura do not wish to go back till the rathyatra is over, Mr. Pathan said… ‘We do not get anything from the collector’s office and as per the records, the camp is closed. However, since people continue to stay here we have to continue the camp unofficially’ (24 June 2002).
400 persons who are still staying with us, some of whom were still in the process of recovering from the earthquake in Gujarat the year before, others who had told us about their fear of the rath yatra even while we were there, and a handful of whom I have kept in touch with since returning to Delhi. As I write this in early July, it has started raining in Ahmedabad. Aman Chowk has flooded, so the remaining people have collected in a smaller part of what used to be the camp. A few days back there was a massive short circuit so the bulbs that used to light up the camp and the surrounding area at night aren’t working anymore, and of course, the government has stopped ration and water supplies because the camp is now ‘shut’.
Our daily routine at the camp. The first part of the day with the children, playing games, singing, painting etc. The second part of the day would be spent in and around the camp, talking to people, sitting in the camp office, trying to figure out other ways in which help from outsiders could be given, such that it would not be in conflict with the (largely local) networks of people already at work. On our second day there, we met Mushtaqbhai during his shift in the camp office. He took the three of us under his wing from then on. Surrounding Aman Chowk on three sides are houses of various sizes, and bylanes which lead out onto the main road. These houses have a wholly Muslim population, which makes Aman Chowk a natural place of refuge at the time of a dhamaal (the word most often used to describe a period of violence).
Mushtaqbhai lives in one of the houses situated in a bylane on the edge of an opening that leads to Rakhiyal road. He is in his early 30s and works in a factory that produces plastic folders. He worked in a tea shop through his years in school and at the time of the dhamaal, apart from working in the factory, he was beginning an MA in Urdu. He has not been able to go back to the factory. ‘I have been working there for the last 15 years and many of us who work there have been together since we were in our late teens. I went back to work a couple of weeks ago after two months. If you go back somewhere after a long time, especially when you have gone through a period of difficulty, you expect some sort of welcome. Instead many people I’ve known for years taunted me. Kahaan tha itne din? Phat rahi thi teri? Some of the others looked quite threatening. I haven’t been back since.’ Instead, he has committed himself full-time to the camp office.
He explained the division of labour at the camp office to us. That bearded man there, sitting behind the table, is Mujibbhai. He is in the dargah committee and is incharge of compensation and the day-to-day finances of the camp. Aslambhai is also in the dargah committee. He is very knowledgeable about the people who live around here. When the local police have to arrest someone from the area, they first come to Aslambhai. The portly man with the moustache is Rasoolbhai. He takes care of sanitation and the other administrative tasks. If you ever want to make an announcement on the camp loudspeaker, he is the man you need to ask.
Mushtaqbhai is a bit wary of the elders and spends most of his time these days with Maksood, also in his early 30s, a second cousin of his, whom he has become close to in the days following the dhamaal. Maksoodbhai and his father are well-known members of the Ahmedabad Auto-Rickshaw Driver’s Union. Both Mushtaq and Maksood have been travelling through various places in the vicinity, conducting their own informal surveys, estimating the extent of damage and locating smaller camps, where help hasn’t reached from other quarters.
One evening in the camp we asked them if they would come with us for dinner. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if they came to St. Xavier’s College where we were staying and attended our evening meeting. They could then meet other volunteers like us from various parts of the country and tell them what kind of help was needed in their own area and other places they had visited. We could go out for dinner after that. The three of us left in an auto-rickshaw. Mushtaq said that they would wind up their work at the office and follow an hour or so later on Maksood’s motorbike.
The ride back from the camp to Xavier’s always fascinated me. You would get out of the walled city, cross either Ellis or Nehru Bridge and enter a new country (The Gujarat Pradesh of the Hindu Rashtra, as the VHP board informed you). The walled city of Ahmedabad is ‘chaotic’, ‘violence-prone’, ‘riot-affected’. New Ahmedabad on the other hand is prosperous, well-planned and modern. Yet, it is here that you get a sense of the pathology of planned and efficiently executed violence. This is where you can smell the neurosis of the people, the city and the state.
What happened across the bridge, on the ‘other’ side, cannot be explained away with reductively rational economic logic – unemployed, illiterate, backward people at each other’s throats. And this time it isn’t the ‘cultural’ explanation either – communities with long histories of conflict colliding on the occasion of a festival or a procession, over the sacrifice of a cow or over the use of some common space for a mutually incommensurable religious practice. Nor was it – and this is important to state again and again no matter how many people have said it before – a ‘spontaneous’ reaction to Godhra. A ‘reaction’ it may well have been but there was nothing in the least ‘spontaneous’ about it.
Despite decades of violence, South Asia is still relatively unfamiliar with the nature and scope of recent events in Gujarat. This was carefully planned genocide requiring the expertise of politicians at various levels, municipal officials, administrative officers, both high and low-ranking police officers and constables in large numbers, accountants, managers, people with an in-depth knowledge of chemicals and explosives, people with legal expertise, capital from upper-class businessmen and manpower numbering in thousands. All of this was planned here, on this, the happy, shiny, rich side of the city.
It happened here first in its minute bloodthirsty detail in the imagination of the planners and their people. It happened with the collaboration of the prosperous Hindu middle class that lives on this side of the city, who carry on with their lives, business as usual; who through their actions or conversely, their inaction, endorsed and even celebrated the events of the past few months. The wide streets, the big buildings, the baroque temples, the fancy cars booming with loud music, the posh marketplaces teeming with people are all bathed in blood, and anyone can see it pouring out of the cracks.
Mushtaq and Maksood crossed Ellis Bridge, entered the new city and came to Xavier’s. They attended our meeting and met other members of our group, stationed in different camps across the city. Maksood’s mobile phone rang. It was Mushtaq’s mother. There had been police firing that evening at Juhapura and she wanted to know how long they would take to get home.
We went for dinner to a nearby restaurant. There was a group of men sitting on the table behind us and a couple on the table to our left. There was Ganesha just above us on the wall and a photograph of Durga with a trishul above the entrance. Jokingly we told them how a strictly subzi diet had been imposed on us because this side of the city had only vegetarian restaurants. Mushtaq promised us lunch at his house the next day. There was another group of younger men, laughing loudly, just outside the restaurant at the STD booth who watched us while we ate paan after dinner.
We walked back to Xavier’s. After the first turning we saw a group of people, mostly men. Probably taking a late evening walk. We crossed the road. At Xavier’s Maksood started his bike. I wanted to ask Mushtaq if I could call him in an hour to check if he had reached but I didn’t, because I knew he wouldn’t like it. I’d been in this city for a week. He’d lived here all his life.
The one thing that took up most of our time and attention at Aman Chowk were the children. The first day we arrived, we went to the camp office and made an announcement. Jo bachhe drama aur painting karna chahein, khelna chahein, voh manch par aa jayein. This was a large, elevated platform right next to the camp. A wave of about 200 children arrived from various parts of the camp. We played simple games involving clapping, sound and movement. Many of the adults from the camp gathered around to watch and smiled and laughed with us. I think there may have been a note of relief. Here was someone who did not want to take any photographs, was not officiously noting down things in a pad and did not want them to tell their stories for the hundredth time. (Outsiders making quick, short visits, or ‘tragic tourists’ as they have come to be called, will often come back and say, ‘People are dying to tell their stories.’ This need not always be the case at all. Quite often people from the camps are fed up, having narrated incidents over and over again). Afterwards, many of the children wanted to sit with us, talk, hold our hands and show us around the camp.
Gradually we learnt their names. Firoz was the boy who would catch hold of my finger as soon as I arrived and not let go until I left. His younger sister Ruksaar and their baby brother Taufiq respectively adopted the other two from our group of three visitors to their camp. Niloufer was the girl who always had a baby on her arm. Sabeer was the boy who would ask me, at least five times, at the end of each day – Kal Aaoge? and then add Roz Aana, again five times, extending the ‘o’ each time, till he was tired with the effort.
Fatima was the girl with the angelic smile who would wreak havoc in the singing sessions by singing loudly and out of tune. Rahim, Munin and Hassan were the bigger boys, who would often help us out during our sessions with the younger kids. A couple of them worked at nearby chai shops. Two days before we left, they bought each of us a small gift from money they had saved up and collected over the past few days.
Many of the kids lived in the houses in the surrounding area, but spent the day playing in and around the camp. Some of the houses, such as Hasan’s, had bullet holes and marks on the walls from the police firing. For the first couple of days no one brought up the dhamaal. Perhaps they were protected, I thought. They lived far away and their parents brought them here under the cover of the night. This turned out to be further from the truth than I could have possibly imagined.
After a couple of days, Firoz, though he didn’t talk about the dhamaal was quite insistent that we come to visit ‘his’ dargah. He also wanted to show us where he used to live. I presumed that it would be at some distance, which would mean going with him in an auto-rickshaw or a bus. This worried me a bit because I wasn’t sure if his mother would approve of our taking him away like that. In this I was wrong again, his house was a few minutes walk from the camp. Barely a kilometre away, left from Aman Chowk is a row of erstwhile kuchha and pakka houses that used to comprise Manilal ki Chawl. What remains now is only piles of black soot, some bricks and an occasional remnant of a wall. One of these spaces used to belong to Firoz and he comes to look at it everyday.
Further down the road is the dargah, one of the many that was ravaged in this part of the city. The front entrance is still standing, which is surprising given the ferocity of the attack with which the rest of it is marked. Further inside is a canopy without a head. What removed the head was an LPG gas cylinder, the top half of which is still inserted firmly into the base of the structure, so firmly that they haven’t been able to take it out. Its sturdy red frame still retains some of the apocalyptic energy from the days it first found its place there – it jumps up and attacks you as you enter the dargah.
Just beyond the area that used to be Manilal ki Chawl is a line of trees on a small, shady patch at the top of a hillock. If you climb the hillock you can look down into the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium, the largest public space in this part of Ahmedabad. Several important political leaders have addressed rallies in this stadium. The hillock continues onto a plateau where there is a small park for children with swings and a few slides. Further down is another green patch, another dargah (also in ruins) and then finally the main road. This area, prior to the dhamaal, used to belong to the children.
On another evening, Mushtaq recounts his own childhood, now almost two decades back, based in this same space. The early part of the evening would be neeche in the stadium, playing cricket. Late evenings, he would climb the hill, come to the small park and sit in relative privacy further away from the swings where other children were playing, and study because there were too many disturbances at home. On Sundays the stadium would be full, like a mela. Five or six cricket matches on simultaneously, ice-cream, cold drinks, chaat and other snack vendors, toys, some clothes and other knickknacks for sale.
In late February, many of the children spotted the stadium filling up with a different kind of crowd. Numbers vary depending on how intensely the story is being told, but a reasonable guess would be between three or four thousand people, armed to the teeth. Muslim residents from the area gathered on the road above the hill to try and create a line of defence. Police vans arrived in large numbers and began firing at this line of defence. Their subsequent retreat behind the first row of houses to take shelter from the police firing opened up the space for the first wave of two thousand to enter from the stadium and begin some preliminary arson. Some of the children hid and watched their houses being burnt.
Here we are two and a half months later, standing at exactly the same spot, surrounded by soot and rubble. The remaining crowd in the stadium waits in anticipation for the first wave to return. This crowd is well looked after. Water tankers, food stalls, sweets and other goodies dot various parts of the stadium. In one corner alcohol is served; further off a puja is held. We walk up the hillock to take a bird’s eye view of the stadium. On the road behind us, a police jeep passes and for a moment, no one speaks. Rahim points to a gate in the distance: Vahaan se Hindu log aaye the.
On the last day before leaving, I tell him, Main Hindu hoon. He thinks for a bit, looks a bit shocked, then tells me, Shayad sabh Hindu log ek se nahin hote, kuch achhe bhi ho sakte hain. Munin remembers a number of trucks with loudspeakers, repeatedly making announcements, occasionally throwing taunts at the retreating line of defence. Kaccha chawal kaccha paan, mullah bhago Pakistan. Firoz remembers other sounds, helicopter blades, bulldozers banging against walls, blasts and screams. More announcements, Yahaan dhamaal hone vali hain, Yahaan se bhaag jao, Rehna hai to Hindu ban ke raho.
Videos are circulated among the people of Bapunagar, gifted to them by the attacking tolas. These contain footage from the previous few days of violence at Naroda-Patiya, one of the worst hit areas anywhere in Gujarat. One night, back at Xavier’s, police footage from Naroda-Patiya was screened in the common room. I have been to the archaeological site at Pompeii in Italy. In one of the houses there, just next to an ornately decorated wall, you are startled by the presence of a contorted body, as if it were sculpted with coal black putty. An artwork of horror, perfectly preserved over centuries by a sudden burst of lava from Mt. Vesuvius, the shock still registered on its face by a mouth wide open, screaming. The body is almost 2000 years old, but if you look at it, you can still hear the scream.
The Naroda-Patiya video had many such bodies and let it suffice to say that Mt.Vesuvius was much, much kinder. I could spend the next two paragraphs describing what I saw in the five minutes that I could bear to watch the video. Worse, I could describe what I saw on the faces of those left to salvage the remains of bodies and entrails, faces covered with hankies, tears streaming down their eyes. But I set out to write against terror, not to describe it in its grisly, corporeal detail. The morning after they screened the video at Xavier’s, I woke up bathed in sweat, got out of the room and brushed my teeth, crying.
After roughly four or five hours the first wave of attackers returns; the second wave, waiting in the stadium takes over. This passing of the baton, wave to wave, continues for 36 hours and the tola spreads to various parts of Bapunagar. In this time every Muslim of any social standing in the area is calling every influential person they know but phone after phone is off the hook. When they do get through, they are told, 36 ghanton tak hamare haath bandhey hue hain. In areas of recurring communal violence, communities have their own networks of ‘protection’. In this case that network had been systematically and successfully disabled. How did these waves finally stop? Perhaps the attackers got tired, or they thought their work was done. Perhaps they moved on to other areas, to join their colleagues elsewhere. According to Rahim, military ne aake hamein bacha liya, nahin to voh andar Aman Chowk tak bhi pahunch gaye hote, sab kuch khatam ho jaata.
Another evening we were walking down the same road, past the same hillock with Mushtaq. Further down the road was a small, blackened shop without a door. A man came out of it. Namaste, mera naam Radheshyam. Mushtaq gave him a friendly pat on his back, his grim expression unchanged. Is bechare ki dukaan galti se jal gayi. Unhone socha yeh mussalman hai.
We walked on ahead and visited other shops and houses. It was getting late and we needed to be back in time for our evening meeting at Xavier’s. We cut through the park and another wooded patch and emerged on the left side of the stadium to be confronted by a small mud hut with saffron coloured walls. This was a street corner mandir, like many others on street corners all over India. On the wall of the mandir was a hand-painted local hybrid version of Durga with a trishul. A middle-aged woman came out with a thaali and a diya, she had just finished performing arti. We kept walking.
Mushtaq spoke. ‘Champabhen, bade din ho gaye mile hue!’ He went up to her and she smiled. ‘Arre Mushtaq! Kaise ho?’ Following him, we walked up to the temple as well. ‘Arre, jao jao, andar jao. Abhi prasad chadha hai,’ Mushtaq told us. I walked in and almost automatically, I bent down, touched the base of the statue and folded my hands. Champabhen gave me some prasad, a fraction of a laddoo. Mushtaq and Maksood took some as well, with their right hand, left hand cupping it from below.
Later, as we waited for a bus, Mushtaq told us, ‘Yahaan ke Hindu logon se hamari koi ladayi nahin hai. Voh to police aayi, bahaar ke log aaye, tabahi machaa ke chale gaye.’ During a previous period of violence in 1992, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Mushtaq had hidden Hindu families from Bapunagar in his house for over a week. Back at Xavier’s we heard stories, very different ones. Neighbours, close friends, long-term area residents participating in the murders of people they had known for years, celebrating the destruction of houses they had visited, bloodying spaces they had inhabited together.
In liberal, secular or humanist narrations of violence it is customary to end on a note of hope. To find some story, however small, which stops us at least some length short of dystopia. There are things I can say about Aman Chowk, which would be suitable for such an ending. There is the owner of Mushtaq’s factory, Jayantibhai Patel, whom he calls ‘kaka’, who sent him a machine, so that he might continue to make plastic folders from his own home. Champabehn, a taluka panchayat delegate and Lalsingh Thakur, a landowner, both from Haldervas, hid a large number of Muslim families in their fields and houses and called up Taufiqkhan, who went with trucks to fetch the families to Aman Chowk.
I hope there are more such stories. I do want to be able to speak of hope – to write about the NGOs, the volunteers coming in from all over the country, the local people, both Muslim and Hindu, working tirelessly to restore some sense of stability – and say that things will improve. But hope, these days, is increasingly scarce.
What continues to frighten me about Gujarat, is not so much the violence that has occurred but things as they presently stand. Newspapers regularly inform us that Chief Minister Narendra Modi has become ‘the most popular leader among the Hindu community in the state.’ Forget the actually existing ‘truth’ behind such a statement. Just for someone to be able to say such a thing without being called ridiculous, without being labeled a reprobate liar, is in itself a shocking commentary on the state of affairs in Gujarat. Having said that, let us also be clear about one thing – it is not that were it not for the BJP or the Sangh Parivar, ‘ordinary’ people in Gujarat would live in a static and blissful state of ‘communal harmony’. A condition somewhat endemic to ordinary lives in South Asia is mutual suspicion over various kinds of difference – class, caste, religion, region, language. In Gujarat and other places all over India, there are areas and times when lives become particularly polarised.
Despite this, the traces that party politics has left on everyday lives over the previous decade have been different, new and extremely frightening. We know quite well that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar entered mainstream politics by zoning in on what has possibly been our weakest and most fatal vector of difference – religious identity, the dependable divisiveness of which has facilitated centuries of domination of various kinds. In many parts of India, we have watched the BJP and the Sangh Parivar tap, harness and mobilize histories of hatred and successfully create fresher, more painful wounds. In Gujarat, this experiment has come to fruition. They have transformed an existing mythology of suspicion into systematic and efficient machinery of destruction. In the process of creating a set of enemies, they have helped large populations discover the evil they have imputed to these ‘aliens’, and unabashedly mimic the savagery they have imputed. The violence is ‘bottom-up’, like a mass movement.
What sort of understanding – what sort of speech, writing and construction of meaning by any mode – can deal with and subvert that? Whatever it is, we need to find it fast.
What terrifies me even more is this – what next? What are the other places where similar processes are being put in place? Where else are ordinary people gradually moving towards a state of communalization, the real extent of which we will only realize after the next apocalypse?
Over the past few months I have listened to discussions of politics on the streets and in the drawing rooms of Delhi with increasing concern. The story goes that India and its Hindus have been passive for too long, be it against external or internal enemies. It would seem that the tide has turned. They are now baying for blood, with a government creating, fuelling, renewing this hatred, slowly installing machinery whose existence we are as yet unaware of. A government that has shown that it is willing to pave the way for this aggression to turn into organised action. We are steadily heading for the kind of violence that will make the partition of 1947 look like a minor blemish in the history of South Asia. That followed by daily lives of constant terror, sudden suicide bombings and a culture of suspicion and surveillance. What shames me at this moment is my failure to find any way to write against this impending terror, my inability to speak of healing and hope.
When the muezzin died, the city was robbed of every call.
The houses were swept about like leaves
for burning. Now every night we bury
our houses – and theirs; the ones left empty.
We are faithful. On their doors we hang wreaths.
O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth –
The sky is stunned, its become a ceiling of stone.
I tell you it must weep.
After such knowledge what forgiveness? What defence?
(Lines from the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali)
* The writer, a research associate at Sarai, CSDS, was part of a group which visited relief camps in Gujarat under a programme coordinated by the Citizens’ Initiative, Gujarat and Jagori, Ankur and Aman Ekta Manch, New Delhi.
Our indecent society
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
(Harvard University Press, 1996)
GETTING into Ahmedabad station early in the morning, there is the same bustle as in any other city. Auto rickshaw drivers corner you into accepting 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 chapatis 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 per cent. 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 agarbattis 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 28 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. In 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 active 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 to bend his arm or lift anything. His brother had taken him to the hospital so he had survived. While Feroze lay in a 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 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 levelled. 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 three 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.