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Vastanvi imbroglio and the Muslims in Gujarat

[This is a humble reminder to Deoband Mohtamim Maulana Gulam Vastanvi sahib about true but bitter picture of Gujarat riots affected Muslims. After reading he may change his so-called Modi-fied statement, says our senior colleague Abdul Hafiz Lakhani in an eye-opening, exhaustive report on the current situation of Muslims in Gujarat. – Danish Ahmad Khan, Executive Editor, Indian Muslim Observer]

By Abdul Hafiz Lakhani

Ahmedabad: If they return to their village they may not survive. If they stay on in their resettlement colony they will never have basic education, healthcare or livelihoods. Eight years after the Gujarat riots, this is the status of thousands of displaced Muslims in the state, amongst them 51 families from Kidiyad housed at a camp in Modasa, who are still awaiting for official confirmation – and then compensation – of 62 deaths of their kin.

Al-Fallah Nagar is a resettlement colony of Muslim refugees on the outskirts of Modasa town in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district bordering Rajasthan. It is one of five resettlement colonies that have come up in the town after the wave of unprecedented violence that swept through the state in 2002. Modasa too witnessed violence and arson that led to five deaths in police firing. But there hasn’t been a major flare up since then, perhaps because the two communities have kept to themselves.

A modest, single-storey bungalow at Al-Fallah Nagar, freshly painted in various shades of green, stands out, hinting at the social status of its owner. Salimbhai Sindhi is former sarpanch and chairman of a local dairy cooperative from Kidiyad, an interior village around 25 km from Modasa, in Malpur sub-division of the district. “Out of the 550-odd families in the five resettlement colonies in Modasa, 51 families are from Kidiyad. We are the largest group of refugees in the region, allotted houses at Al-Fallah Nagar in 2004,” Salimbhai says. “Before the houses were built, we spent nearly two years in makeshift camps in the nearby open fields after fleeing our village.”

Makeshift camps for Muslims displaced in 2002 dot the region – Modasa and Khedbrahma in north Gujarat, Dahod, Lunawada, Godhra and Chotta-Udepur in central Gujarat – as also other places in the state. An official report by a senior police official to the state home department in August 2002 says: “An estimate about communal riots victims migrated from various districts indicates that over 75,500 persons from 13 districts have been shifted to other places… During the communal riots, 10,472 houses, 12,588 shops, 2,724 larri/galas (handcarts) were damaged or destroyed due to arson, while 1,333 shops were ransacked.”

The Gujarat riots broke out on February 27, 2002, when a Muslim mob in Godhra town set alight a train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims on their way back from Ayodhya. The incident, which claimed 59 lives including women and children, sparked three weeks of murderous reprisals by right-wing Hindu mobs, followed by low-intensity violence that left over 1,000 people dead across Gujarat. In 2009, seven years later, 228 ‘missing’ people were declared dead, pushing the official death toll to 1,180.

Independent activists and academicians maintain, however, that the toll is closer to 2,000 and the number of displaced nearly 1.5 lakh, with over 900 villages and 150 towns in 19 of the state’s 25 districts affected by the riots. Communalism Combat and Citizens for Justice and Peace have noted, in a 2003 petition to the Gujarat High Court that the number of relief camps in the state of Gujarat during the peak of the riots was 121, out of which 58 were in Ahmedabad city alone. These relief camps accommodated 132,532 persons, the petitioners say.

A majority of the survivors continue to live in camps seeking safety in numbers. Even today they refuse to go back to their homes. “Ninety-five per cent of (displaced) Muslims do not want to go back to their villages or localities. They prefer the security offered by a Muslim ghetto like Juhapura in Ahmedabad,” observes social anthropologist Dipankar Gupta, who spent 2009 studying how victims of ethnic violence gradually re-establish themselves, although rarely ever regaining what they had in the past.

For the displaced from Kidiyad, the 2002 ordeal is still fresh in their minds. On March 2, Salimbhai and other elders from the village decided to move to a secure place when news of arson and killings started pouring in from nearby villages. “There was no help forthcoming from the police. To ensure the safety of women, children and the elderly, we packed around 120 of them in two tempos, escorted by some young men,” he recalls. Among those fleeing were Salimbhai, his wife, and 15-year-old son. The trucks had travelled only a short distance from the village when they were stoned and stopped by mobs that lynched and burnt 73 people

Salimbhai remembers how another group of around 100 Muslims hid themselves in the wheat fields near Kidiyad during the night, and trekked seven kilometres to reach the taluka headquarters in Malpur. One of them, elderly Subbumiya, was tracked down and killed by the mob as he was too weak to endure the trek and was left hiding in the fields. “The total casualties from Kidiyad were 74, but the police could recover only 12 dead bodies. There is no evidence to this day of 62 persons who were either killed or burnt in such a way as to leave no sign of their dead bodies,” Salimbhai says.

In Kidiyad, all that remains of the Muslim homes are the damaged red brick-and-mud walls. Salimbhai says, “How can we go back when the killers of my wife and son are still roaming in the village? Is there anyone in my village who will help us find the killers of so many innocents? Some of the bodies were so badly burnt, nothing was left. You could not make out if this was a child or a man or a woman.”

The residents of Al-Fallah Nagar say they are learning to live with this nightmare, even while complaining of a lack of basic facilities like potable water, sanitation, electricity, an approach road, and the absence of health and education facilities in their new colony. “We are living in barely human conditions… as if marooned,” Aminaben Sindhi, an elderly woman, says. The men complain about work. Most of them, once fairly well-off cattle dealers, agriculturists, traders and transporters who used to employ others for unskilled jobs, are now reduced to working as trainee masons or carpenters for paltry daily wages. Some of them have opened makeshift snack stalls or paan shops; others work as drivers.

For the first time since 2002, 10 men with sizeable holdings have moved back to Kidiyad to till their lands this agricultural season, pitching tents, along with police escorts, near their destroyed homes. But most of the other men say they are better off living on the paltry daily wages they earn in Modasa. “We have either sold off our land in Kidiyad or have given it on lease to our Hindu neighbours who have remained friendly with us. They share the annual produce with us, and we are fine with it. We go there once in a while, but return before nightfall,” Zakirmiya Sindhi says.

Islami Relief Committee (IRC) local organiser and state finance secretary Aminbhai Seth says he tried hard to persuade displaced families from Kidiyad to return to their lands. “The land in Modasa on which they have been resettled is owned by the IRC, though a few well-off like Salimbhai have bought their own plots and built private houses adjoining the resettlement colonies. But, for the majority, the alternative homes provided by us, measuring 24 feet x 12 feet, cannot be a permanent solution. The resettlement camps across Gujarat remain makeshift camps, except for concrete structures replacing the tarpaulin tents. The ownership rests with the relief agencies,” he says.

Despite the daily hardships and looming uncertainty, no one from Al-Fallah Nagar or the adjoining colonies in Modasa wants to shift back to their village permanently. “If we go back they will kill us,” says a young Salma Banu from Dhansura, a village 18 km from Modasa. Her neighbour, Mohamed Hanif of Badagam village, says that after all the arson, looting and killings in 2002 there is no chance of Muslims returning to their villages. Most of the surviving families in the Sabarkantha region say they prefer to live in and around Modasa because of the sizeable Muslim presence

From the start, the government of Gujarat has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the existence of these camps, let alone address the people’s humanitarian needs. The NCM, in its report, while mentioning the state government’s claim that camp inmates were living there voluntarily, observes: “In view of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the commission finds this viewpoint untenable and evasive of a government’s basic responsibility.”

Gupta, who presented a draft report titled ‘Seeking a “new” normal: Post-conflict coping strategies in Ahmedabad and Mumbai’, at a symposium in Ahmedabad in December 2009, says: “We put a lot of pressure on governments after incidents of such violence, seeking protection and relief. The moment bloodshed ceases we tend to lose interest. For this reason, a long-term perspective on how to handle the consequences of community-driven attacks is incompletely understood.”

Referring to suggestions from certain quarters of society that Muslims in Gujarat should forgive and forget and get back to normal living, the social anthropologist argues: “This is easier said than done. The victims of ethnic violence, and I have known them since the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, strongly feel there can be no peace without justice.” Gupta has found in the course of his year-long research that Muslims in Gujarat, unlike Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 or Muslims in Mumbai during 1992-93, find themselves without any support.

“The government refuses to have anything to do with the camps. There are NGOs trying to help, but they too lack support from the larger civil society in Gujarat. It is the faith-based organisations like Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Hind that have been involved in relief and rehabilitation in a concerted and protracted manner. It is not clear whether the victims paid for these services in full with the compensation they received from the government, but it cannot be doubted that without these faith organisations many Muslims would have had no roof over their heads,” Gupta says.

In Ahmedabad, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Hind estimate that roughly a quarter of Muslims who took shelter in various refugee camps were too scared to go back to where they lived earlier and have been provided alternative housing. Most of them now live on the outskirts of the city in four pockets -- Juhapura, Ramol, Vatva and Dani Limda. “There are 15 such resettlement colonies in Ahmedabad housing some 725 households, but the municipal authorities refuse to even have a look,” Seth says.

A major concern of the displaced is that the allotment of houses in the resettlement colonies has no legal basis. “We are told that as refugees of communal violence we can live in these houses as long as we please, but there will be no ownership papers,” says a resident of Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad. An office-bearer of Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Hind defended the decision saying the ownership rights were held back as a precaution against the possibility of ‘pucca houses’ being sublet or sold outright.

A visit to a resettlement colony in Ahmedabad reveals the dreadful condition of the so-called ‘pucca’ houses that are single-room tenements. There are tell-tale signs of water seepage through the low roofs during the monsoons. The electrical wiring is of poor quality and unsafe; there is no ventilation, no internal water taps, and no drainage system. The rubbish flows outside, and waterlogging is common along what passes for internal roads. The plight of the people living here is further worsened by the fact that the government has failed to build schools, health clinics, and provide for civic transportation.

Added to this are reported attempts by some Muslim groups to force people towards religious conservatism, stirring up discontent inside the colonies. Tehelka magazine reported in its December 5, 2009 issue a few of the unyielding conditions imposed by religious conservatives coming from as far as the United Kingdom: no television sets, no music, no computers, women to don the hijab and observe purdah, men to adopt Islamic garb by sporting a beard, wearing a skull cap, dressing in traditional tunic and pyjamas, saying prayers five times a day, and compulsorily attending religious camps.

Ahmedabad-based social activist-journalist Indukumar Jani blames the situation on the government’s failure to provide education and other basic civic amenities: “There are no educational facilities at 68 of the 81 resettlement colonies in Gujarat. In the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura, from among 6,000 applicants for admissions to the primary section only 360 were admitted in June 2009 and 2010 the situation is almost same . There is no government-run high school in the area. So, even among those admitted in the primary section, just about 50% will manage to go beyond the seventh grade. And we blame the mushrooming madrasas and call the area a ‘mini Pakistan’.”

In their study titled ‘The Displaced of Ahmedabad’, researchers Neera Chandhoke, Praveen Priyadarshi and their co-authors say: “It is clear that for the present government these families just do not form an integral part of Gujarati society and politics; they have been expelled both spatially and socially to the margins of the city… And it is here, in these barren spaces, that the victims of the carnage in Ahmedabad have been settled, and are expected to begin their life anew, amidst even more deprivation than they faced in their original habitats.”

The study adds: “Not only are most resettlement colonies remotely located from the city where jobs are to be found, they are far away from schools and health clinics… The legal status of the land upon which these shanty towns have been constructed is contested, because much of it is agricultural land. This has instilled dread among the residents that they still live in temporary settlements, which can be easily mowed down by the bulldozers of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).”

Gujarat-based NGOs like Sahr Waru and the Centre for Social Justice, in a 2009 submission titled ‘The Marginalised Status of Muslims in Gujarat’, say: “Muslims in Gujarat continue to endure the lasting results of the pogroms in the form of ghettoised living conditions… They also suffer unemployment, severely restricted access to schools, and social/cultural ostracism… It is estimated that in the refugee colonies, 70% of the residents lost their previous employment and 40% of these remained unemployed as of 2005.”

Gujarat NGOs have sought from the Indian government immediate restoration of displaced persons’ rights to an adequate standard of living, to employment, to health, to education, to take part in cultural life, and to justice under relevant articles of the Indian Constitution. But Gupta has real doubts that this will happen. “The complicity of the Gujarat state was clearly visible at every stage since the killings started. It is true the Muslims in Gujarat want, above all, to feel comfortable and confident as citizens, otherwise their economic and educational prospects will always be on hold.”

Ahmedabad-based trade unionist Mukul Sinha, who has been at the forefront of the struggle for justice in Gujarat, under the banner of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, also feels there is little hope, with the state continuing to target victims of 2002 as was evident in the Chandola Talab demolition case recentlin 2010. He was referring to Muslim families displaced from Bengali Vas in Ahmedabad’s Chandola Talab area in 2002.

The displaced families have till date not been adequately compensated by the state government for the seven deaths that took place and houses that were burnt; nor have any rehabilitation measures been taken despite repeated directions from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The houses built by voluntary agencies on an emergency basis – some 300-odd dwellings – were never regularised and were finally demolished along with a madrasa and a school, by the municipal authorities on the morning of November 3, 2009. The entire colony was razed to the ground leaving more than 1,800 people without a roof over their heads, despite the fact that almost all of the displaced families had valid voter IDs, ration cards and electricity connections, and hold a domicile of Gujarat.

Several representations to this effect have been made to the central as well as state authorities, claims Yusuf Sheikh, convenor of the Antrik Visthapit Hak Rakshak Samiti, which also moved the Gujarat High Court resulting in notices being issued to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and the Gujarat police on November 25, 2009. “It is inhuman that the poor riot victims are being further targeted and victimised by the whimsical and unfair Gujarat government,” Sheikh says.

While riot victims elsewhere are fighting their own battles with aid from NGOs, approaching governments from the village level to central level, and courts of law from the local courts to the Supreme Court, for the survivors of Kidiyad there is only a mysterious silence at all levels of government on those missing since the riots. The survivors continue to live in the hope that justice will be done some day, although the seven years required to declare missing persons officially dead have passed.

Panchmahals district officials maintain they have no clue how people went missing from Kidiyad; the village did not fall under its jurisdiction. The Sabarkantha district police confirm that some people from Kidiyad, which does fall in its jurisdiction, were stopped and killed by a mob at Limbadiya chokdi (crossroads). This was during the initial phase of the violence, when people were travelling in tempos. But the spot where the incident took place was in Panchmahals district.

“We were 224 Muslims in Kidiyad that day. Some 20 were guests visiting us for Friday prayers. I had organised two tempos. Some people stayed back, hiding in the wheat fields,” Salimbhai recalls. Thirty-four people set off in the first tempo at 4 pm, speeding towards the Godhra-Modasa highway. Salimbhai was in this tempo driven by Zakirbhai Shamsuddin Sindhi. They hoped to make the hour’s drive to the sub-divisional headquarters in Malpur before dusk.

At Limbadiya chokdi, they encountered a large mob blocking the highway to Malpur. So they turned in the opposite direction and sped towards Khanpur. But they ran out of luck at Sampadia village where huge boulders had been placed across the road. The tempo came to a halt and people jumped off trying to flee. Fifty-year-old Mehmood Dalubhai Sindhi, his wife Abedaben, 45, and Jamilaben Sindhi, 35, Salimbhai’s wife, were cornered and attacked with sharp weapons. Zakirbhai was also attacked as he tried to escape from the driver’s cabin with his four-month-old son, Mohsin. In the ensuing melee, Mohsin fell from his hands and died. Six were killed while 28 managed to flee the mob fury at Sampadia. The survivors sheltered inside a dargah at nearby Kaaranta village for 10 days before they moved to the Modasa camp.

The second tempo left Kidiyad within a few minutes of the first. Some men from the mob, on motorcycles, intercepted them at Limbadiya chokdi, firing and flattening the tempo’s tyres. Armed men surrounded the vehicle. Some of the attackers climbed into the carriage and hacked the women and children with swords and sickles. It was a mass slaughter. They then emptied cans of petrol and kerosene and threw burning tyres to set the tempo on fire. Those who managed to escape were chased and fired upon. The wounded were thrown into the burning tempo.

Sixty-seven people perished in the fire at Limbadiya chokdi; only 17 managed to escape the mob fury and reached the nearby Virpur town late at night. The tempo was left to burn for nearly two days, until the army jawans arrived and doused the fire

The survivors from Kidiyad have written to the authorities on several occasions in the past seven years. But no one has responded to their pleas for evidence to be collected and bone fragments located at the site. They still visit the stretch between Limbadiya chokdi and Sampadia -- where rampaging mobs waylaid the two tempos and killed their people -- in the hope of gathering some evidence. Family albums and half-burnt photos retrieved from destroyed homes are the only reminders that their people existed.

Police officials involved in the investigations in the past say the vehicles -- and all the bodies they contained -- were kept burning for two to three days. “The heat was so intense, even some metallic parts melted. So there is no question of a body or bones being found. They even dispersed the ashes,” former Panchmahals Superintendent of Police Raju Bharghav says. “We sent the ashes we retrieved to the Forensic Science Lab for DNA testing, but they reported they could not conduct any tests on that.”

Aminaben Sindhi, the oldest survivor in the Modasa camp, regrets they could not even give their people a proper burial. “Marne ka gham to hai, usse zyada to yeh gham hai ki ham unko theek se dafna nahin sake (We are pained by their death, but are more upset because we could not give them a decent burial).”

The survivors are even more upset that 12 of the 27 accused who were named in the FIR registered at Khanpur police station, and subsequently arrested, were let off lightly by the lower court in 2002. The case was re-opened after the Gujarat High Court admitted a state government plea to re-open the case in August 2004.

“The high court gave us hope that the doors of justice are not slammed on us,” Ayubmiya, a witness in the case, says. But it took another four years for the police to execute more arrests in the case. In April 2008, eight suspects were arrested and booked under Section 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC, after eyewitnesses identified them in a parade conducted at a “neutral venue” in Modasa. They were let off on bail by the high court three months later, Ayubmiya recalls.

Salimbhai says that the law courts are their last hope. “With 62 deaths yet to be confirmed, so many survivors are still awaiting compensation for the loss of their near and dear ones.”

Kidiyad’s survivors are tired of it all now. “The legal delays and pending compensation are important issues, fine. But will we ever know what happened to our families?” Ayubmiya wants to know. “If they can at least tell us where the accused buried or dispersed the ashes taken from the burnt tempos…”

In March 2003, Communalism Combat and Citizens for Justice and Peace filed a writ petition in the Gujarat High Court asking for accountability regarding compensation/reparation paid to victims of the Gujarat riots. This was after the Gujarat government returned over Rs 70 crore out of an initial relief amount of Rs 100 crore from the central government stating that no money was needed for relief and rehabilitation. In a follow-up petition in 2006, these organisations exposed the state government’s schemes as ‘woefully inadequate and far from adequate reparation or compensation’ for those who had lost everything in the riots.

“The amount of compensation will be Rs 10,000 if the extent of disablement is beyond 40%, and in case of permanent disablement the extent of compensation will be Rs 50,000… The heirs of the deceased were to get Rs 150,000, which would again be divided into two parts… the value of a person’s life, in the state’s view, apparently, was reduced to Rs 90,000, to be given in cash, and Rs 60,000, to be given after a period of about five years by way of government bonds… Similarly, the amount of compensation for loss of business properties was Rs 5,000 in case of fixed assets and Rs 10,000 in case of destruction of vehicle,” the petition says.

The Gujarat government claims it has offered adequate compensation and that out of 977 deaths reported in 2002, ex-gratia death relief was paid in 758 cases; that, as of June 2002, Rs 7.62 crore was disbursed in 4,954 cases (2,023 in urban areas and 2,931 in rural areas) for completely destroyed residential houses, while Rs 15.55 crore was disbursed in 18,294 cases (11,199 in urban areas and 7,095 in rural areas) for partial damage.

In May 2008, the central government announced its own Rs 3.3 billion relief package for survivors and families of those killed in the Gujarat riots, describing it as compensation in addition to what the state government had already given to the riot victims earlier. Under the package, the families of those who died in the riots were to get Rs 350,000, while each of the 2,540 wounded would get Rs 150,000.

Earlier, in March 2008, the Supreme Court initiated a re-investigation into 10 major cases of the 2002 riots by forming a five-member Special Investigative Team (SIT). The 10 cases relate to rioting in seven places, including Godhra, where 81 people were killed, Gulbarga Society, where 68 people were killed, Naroda Patiya, where over 100 people were killed, Sardarpur, where 34 people were killed, and Best Bakery, where 14 people were burnt alive. The court indicated its intention of constituting the SIT during the hearing of a petition filed by the NHRC that wants trials in the riots cases shifted out of Gujarat and re-investigation carried out by an independent agency like the CBI.

The NHRC filed the petition after several witnesses turned hostile amid allegations of threat, coercion and inducement to derail the investigations. The court said the SIT would act as a nodal agency to decide which witnesses in the case should be given protection and relocated. The apex court also gave powers to the SIT to recommend cancellation of bail if considered necessary in any of the cases.

Ayubmiya, who drove one of the tempos on that fateful day in March 2002, and is an important eyewitness (along with his wife Arzooben, fellow driver Zakirbhai and two others) to the mass killing of 74 people from his village at Limbadiya chokdi and Sampadia village, moves around without any protection. Two constables from the Central Reserve Police Force based at the district headquarters in Himmatnagar visit the eyewitnesses once a week to ensure that they are still alive. The eight suspects booked for the mass murders, based on the eyewitnesses at an identification parade in Modasa, roam free since they were granted bail by the high court in July 2008. “I am a driver by profession, but with these people around I am scared to move within the district. I prefer trips to Ahmedabad and far-off places. This has brought down my monthly earnings from an average Rs 6,000 to Rs 2,000,” Ayubmiya complains.

In Kidiyad, Bashirmiya Sindhi lives in a tent near what was once his ancestral home. The weeds have taken over the gutted remains of the old house that was torched and razed by the mob. A .303 rifle belonging to the lone policeman who stays with him and others who have returned, for their protection, hangs from a nail outside.

The eight years since that fateful day in 2002 have clearly taken their toll on Bashirmiya. The frequent visits to police stations, repeated summons from the court, and interviews with the media are all getting tiresome. “Kitni baar bole, sab ko mar diya, hamari aankho ke saamne, humne dekha hai (How many times do we say they killed them all, we saw them being killed),” he says. “There is no justice in Gujarat.”

Theirs is not an isolated case. The ordeal of Kidiyad and its displaced people applies to the rest of Gujarat too. As activist-journalist Indukumar Jani says, “Even today, several thousand residents of this state belonging to the minority community are unable to return to their place of birth, livelihood and residence simply because of the fear that prevails in Gujarat even today. There is a continuing failure of the constitutional machinery in the land of the Mahatma.”

Dipankar Gupta is forthright as he sums up the situation in Gujarat: “Muslims live in constant fear of the state government. Compensation can be wrung out of the administration, jobs can be found, schools too, and houses can be rebuilt. But who will quell the fear that rises in them when a cracker goes off unexpectedly, or a truck backfires on the streets?”

[Abdul Hafiz Lakhani is a senior Journalist based at Ahmedabad, Gujarat. He is associated with as Bureau Chief (Gujarat). He can be reached at or on his cell 009228746770]