20 years after Gujarat Riots: Merchants of hate

Riots in Gujarat were as pre-planned as the demolition of the Babri Masjid

The late Ehsan Jafri & wife Zakia outside their house in Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad; (right) the house after the Hindutva mob burnt it down
The late Ehsan Jafri & wife Zakia outside their house in Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad; (right) the house after the Hindutva mob burnt it down

Shabnam Hashmi

As horrific reports of Gujarat riots started coming in, we did not feel comfortable sitting in Delhi. About 15 days after the riots first broke out, my husband Gauhar Raza, our 15-year-old son Sahir and I travelled to Gujarat.

We were not resourceful enough to help the victims substantially, but we felt we could at least document their stories. Gauhar was making a documentary film; our son, who was interested in photography at a young age, was taking photographs and I kept interviewing as many people as I could.

We initially stayed for about 20 days. Later, I went back and lived for months travelling across Gujarat, meeting women who were brutalised and continuing with my documentation, helping with relief and rehabilitation in whatever small way I could. Eventually with people like Harsh Mander who was also working for Gujarat riot victims and few others we started ANHAD NGO and a long journey began which need not be elaborated here.

The most alarming aspect was the deep-seated hatred one could witness all around. Father Cedric Prakash, Director of PRASHANT, an Ahmedabad based NGO, took us around. Everywhere we went, all we saw were deserted streets and gutted and haunted houses with piles of household items, books, beds, clothes. We could, it seemed, breathe hate in the air.

The stories of violence we heard were so brutal--it was not possible unless an entire people were radicalized with hate.

We ourselves did not feel safe and at least on two occasions we had a narrow escape from deeply suspicious mobs.

In Naroda Patiya area, my husband Gauhar, and my son Sahir went inside a building to shoot and I stood guard outside. I noticed that a suspicious crowd had started gathering, and suddenly Father Cedric shouted “Ask Gauhar to make a move, we have to leave.” All of us had to run to get into the cab and drive away.

In Usman Pura, my son and I were buying something from a shop while Gauhar was at a recording studio. My son asked me, “How much more time will Abba take?” I observed the immediate reaction of the shopkeeper on hearing the word ‘abba’ a seemingly Muslim word. I could soon see him calling a few other people and a crowd started gathering. I rushed upstairs to the studio, dragged my husband out and we left the building.

The riots were pre-planned, preparations took place even before the train burning: No Muslim from any class or background was spared. While Naroda Patiya was a lower middle-class area, upper class Muslims, intellectuals were also attacked in different parts such as Paldi. We met Justice Divecha, whose house was burnt down. It was a mixed neighbourhood where both Hindus and Muslims lived but the meticulous planning that went behind the rioting ensured that only his house was burnt while other houses were not touched.

This was a pattern across all riot-affected districts. Muslim houses, shops and businesses were identified and marked in advance. We also heard from many eye-witnesses that weapons such as swords, tridents, gas cylinders were being supplied to the remotest parts of Gujarat days in advance, even before the day of the train burning i.e., February 27.

Some of these were stored in the local temples and other places.

In a tiny village in Sabarkantha, women did the cooking in earthen stoves with cow dung cakes. Nobody had LPG gas cylinders in the village but the local mosque and Muslim houses were blown up by gas cylinders. Where did the cylinders come from?

Looking at the kind of preparedness one can say the entire anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat was planned in advance. Several victims told us that mobs which attacked them were not of people from their neighbourhood. We heard claims that thousands of people were brought in trucks, who seemed to have been trained for engineering violence. Nobody could have inflicted the brutalities we found unless they were trained.

Muslim women were specifically targeted: I must have met thousands of victims, and they all told me the same thing;that wherever mobs attacked Muslim houses and shops, women were dragged out, stripped naked, the terrified women in tears forced to dance, chased by mobs, molested and gang-raped before burning them alive. It was a pattern.

Most of the women who survived were not willing to speak directly. A woman in a relief camp shared stories of other rapes but never admitted of being a victim herself, although we had been briefed that she was one. Perhaps it was a kind of defence mechanism. Many brutalities were therefore not reported and never came on record.

Kausar Bano was not the only pregnant woman whose womb was slit open and her foetus pulled apart. A well-known activist working in the area showed us photographs of at least 7-8 such other women whose burnt bodies were found where we could see the foetus sticking to the body.

Solidarity from non-Muslims: There were of course also stories of many people, Hindus, Dalits and tribals among them, who protected and saved Muslim women. Educationist and poet Saroop Dhruv has documented some of these stories. It was said that tribals and Dalits were also involved in the attacks. But several tribal families claimed that they were told that if they didn’t join the carnage, they would themselves face severe consequences. Muslim families confirmed that tribals were not involved in killing or rape but looted property and in some cases, returned things they had taken away. Some of them helped raped women with clothing or helped them reach the nearest relief camp.

The relief camps: Scenes at the relief camps were straight from hell. The government did not set up any relief camps. They were set up by the Muslim community, NGOs and other civil society members. The camps were overcrowded with literally lakhs of people milling in small areas, with little facilities. There were women and children wailing everywhere. Some women were bed-ridden due to the sexual brutalities but there were no health facilities, not enough toilets.

I met this young man in a camp in Ahmedabad who was standing in a queue for some food with his young daughter. He broke down in tears and said, “My daughter every morning would throw tantrums and demand a particular kind of omelette. Now I am standing here in a queue for a bowl of porridge.”

The poor were so resigned that for them standing in a queue for food was not as soul crushing and humiliating as it was for people from the middle or upper class who found themselves thrown to the street with nothing. I saw one such woman, in her 60s, dressed in all white, asking around if sewing machines were being distributed. Her grim face still haunts me because she could well have been my mother, and that still sends a chill down my spine.

(As told to Sanjukta Basu)

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