Sixteen years later, the memories refuse to go away

On this day in 2002, a train carrying karsewaks was set on fire in Godhra. Communal riots across Gujarat followed, after which Narendra Modi eventually rose on to the national scene

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI
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Shabnam Hashmi

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

I have spent a good part of the last 16 years in Gujarat, beginning the first week of March 2002.

There are tens of fact-finding reports, both national and international, articles, documentaries, feature films based on the 2002 carnage and probably nothing more needs to be written about it, as it will not add new information.

Travelling across Gujarat in the first few months of the carnage, when Gujarat was still burning, being a witness to the displacement of over 1.5 lakh people, seeing their conditions in various relief camps set-up by the community and sharing the grief of gang rape survivors totally shattered me as it did all others who were working with the victims.

Even after 16 years, there are still memories which refuse to go away.

There was a woman around 80 years old, who still haunts me. I had very briefly met her in Dariya Khan Gumbad camp. She was wearing a white salwar kameez. Her head was covered with a thin white dupatta. Her face was full of wrinkles, her back slightly stooped. I was talking to Noorjahan , a victim, in a low voice when the old woman entered the office, came up to me and asked, “Are you giving money to the widows here?”

Before I could reply, Noorjahan told her that sewing machines were being distributed outside and she left immediately. I rushed out after her. Darya Khan Gumbad relief camp was in a school building and at the time, there were about 6,000 victims in the camp. Pushing my way through women and hundreds of children, I kept on searching for the old woman for over 20 minutes but that woman was nowhere to be seen. Tears started trickling down my cheeks; I didn’t know why I was crying. The old woman was a nameless, faceless woman, who had perhaps lost all her family, her sons, her daughters. I often imagine, she could have been my mother, may be your mother? Her face is etched in my memory.

Saddam must be about 24 years old now. Latifa, who ran the Godhra camp, had introduced me to him and his brothers. Eight-year old Saddam talked non-stop. He would collect small children around him at the Godhra camp and tell them how the goons gang raped his mother. Perhaps that was the only way he could deal with the tragedy. It took Latifa days to make him understand that he should not be telling all this to small children. His father had died some years ago, the day their village was attacked, his mother gave ₹50 and asked him to run and save himself. He didn’t run away, but instead hid himself in the bushes. He talked in detail of how his mother was brutalized. Mr Modi’s puppies?

She was so different from what I had imagined her to be. During my several trips to the Shah Alam Camp, all efforts to meet her had failed. I had met her husband twice. I had interviewed a large number of other eyewitnesses. I knew that she had completely shut herself from the whole world and was not ready to talk to anyone. Gang raped by more than 20 men, she was found absolutely naked and was taken to a hospital. The stories of gang rape survivors are still untold. Only three cases out of hundreds went to the court.

There are innumerable memories, stories of not only despair but also of long struggle and resilience. Despite all the documentation, stories and films, each and every story has not been told. While to you and to me there is enough documentation, but for each of the individual victim it is her or his own story which still needs a hearing. It still needs justice and compassion.

The Sangh is working round the clock to convert India into a fascist state, a small sample of which was demonstrated in 2002. They call it the ‘Gujarat Model’ and are trying their best to export the methods of spreading hatred and violence, perfected in the laboratory of ‘Hindutva’, to the rest of India. The obvious objective is to create pan-India mayhem.

There are innumerable memories, stories of not only despair but also of long struggle and resilience. Despite all the documentation, stories and films, each and every story has not been told. While to you and to me there is enough documentation, but for each of the individual victim it is her or his own story which still needs a hearing. It still needs justice and compassion.

However, the story in Gujarat has taken a turn, there is a small window opening in the minds and hearts of the people of Gujarat. The disillusioned youth today realises, as to how the social fabric was torn apart, how the seeds of hate were sown and how they were used as political tools for shifting the power fulcrum in favour of Modi. The joint struggle against hatred, led mainly by the activists, intellectuals, legal fraternity and the creative community has started yielding results. The young leaders are giving a voice to the discontentment. They are not only fighting on socio-economic issues but are fearlessly talking of fighting hatred and working for communal harmony.

There is a very long list of people, human rights organisations, ordinary citizens who have engaged with people and issues in the aftermath of the 2002 carnage. The struggle for justice and against hate was fought on multiple levels over the past 16 years, both from within and outside Gujarat. It is impossible to pen down names of all those who participated in the struggle. Any list prepared will remain incomplete, so I will not even undertake that exercise. It is important to understand that the struggle for justice is being carried by both prominent activists as well as by innumerable grass roots activists, writers, poets, filmmakers, academicians and citizens.

The biggest lesson that India has to learn from Gujarat is the fact that despite it being the declared laboratory of Hindutva, the Sangh could not convert every mind into a fascist mind. They could not silence every voice. Even at the peak of the violence and hatred which saw thousands of Muslims being killed, hundreds of women being gang raped and lakhs displaced, ordinary women gave shelter to Muslim women, ordinary Hindus in every corner of Gujarat gave protection to Muslims even at the risk of being attacked, hundreds of activists from all communities organised relief and rehabilitation, legal fraternity moved in to fight cases, help file FIRs, do trauma counselling.

While we continue to fight against the perpetrators of the 2002 carnage, be it those in power or their foot soldiers, we also must celebrate the struggle and resilience of the victims, especially Muslim women, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, number of Gujarat police officers and civil society members. Though there were some political leaders who rose up to the occasion, supported and engaged with the struggle, most of them have kept a safe distance. Silence of these leaders’ echoes loud in Gujarat.

It is very important for the political parties to understand that the battle against fascist forces has to be based on the principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity laid out clearly in the Indian Constitution. Distancing from the basic principles of secularism in the name of securing the ‘Hindu’ vote has only strengthened the fascist forces and any such ‘tactical’ move would be suicidal.

If various political parties had taken the ‘Gujarat Model’ seriously and had studied it closely perhaps India could have been saved from the onslaught of these forces. Unfortunately, many of us were made fun of for being paranoid. We cannot find any solution unless we understand the problem and analyze it from every angle. The denial of the existence of the fascistic tendencies, ignorance about the right-wing terror network, letting the perpetrators of violence get away, doing defensive politics, not engaging with their own cadre and letting communal consciousness seep into their minds are some of the major blunders which political parties must rectify urgently.

It is very important for the political parties to understand that the battle against fascist forces has to be based on the principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity laid out clearly in the Indian Constitution. Distancing from the basic principles of secularism in the name of securing the ‘Hindu’ vote has only strengthened the fascist forces and any such ‘tactical’ move would be suicidal.

Activists, human rights defenders, civil society can play a supportive role in defeating these forces but it is a political battle. There is no time for ifs and buts. A large coalition of all secular parties, national and regional, is the need of the hour. The nation can’t afford to pay for ‘historical mistakes’ committed by political parties.

Yun Hi Hamesha Ulajhati Rahi Hai Zulm Se Khalq

Na Unki Rasm Nai Hai, Na Apani Reet Nai

Yun Hi Hamesha Khilaaye Hain Hamne Aag Men Phool

Na Unki Haar Nai Hai, Na Apani Jeet Nai

Faiz

(Thus always has the world grappled with tyranny

neither their rituals nor our rebellion is new

Thus have we always grown flowers in fire

neither their defeat, nor our final victory, is new!)

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