Looking Ahead in Gujarat

The news from Gujarat, four years after the genocide, continues to belie hopes of justice and reconciliation. Most reports indicate that inter-community prejudices are deeply entrenched; segregation in schools and neighborhoods is widespread; the social distance between Hindus and Muslims has increased; justice is conspicuous by its absence; and there is an absence of remorse on the part of the perpetrators of the 2002 violence.

Yet, as Raheel Dhattiwala, an Ahmedabad-based journalist writing on issues of peace and justice, states, "Despite the odds, there is always a way, if there is a will."

Even as the movement for justice must continue in Gujarat, the time has perhaps also come to affirm and document the stories of hope and humanism that have endured in an atmosphere of hate and fear. Largely eclipsed by the tragic events of 2002 and the growing segregation of communities since then, are stories of exemplary human courage and compassion that transcend religious fault-lines. (According to government figures presented in the Rajya Sabha on May 11, 2005, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 left 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead, 223 people missing and another 2,500 injured.) There are stories of coexistence between religious communities in Gujarat, of Hindus who risked their lives to save their Muslim neighbors, of police officers who followed their conscience and performed their duty to protect civilians, of Hindus and Muslims coming together to resist the violence that engulfed most of the state.

Take, for instance, the example of the Ram Rahim Nagar slum in Ahmedabad. This locality stood out for its ability to foreground coexistence and resist strong external pressures to resort to violence. The slum's peace committee, comprising elders from the two communities, was set up in the early 1970s after the first bout of communal violence in 1969. Since then, it has been successful in preventing the outbreak of violence during the 1992 riots and the 2002 genocide. That the committee was set up by the residents of the locality, at their own initiative, is crucial to its success.

While these positive stories provide succor and hope to survivors of violence, they also provide a context for the peace building community to study why certain geographical spaces remain peaceful even as violence engulfs the surrounding areas. What motivates some individuals to risk their lives (and face boycott and ostracism in the succeeding months and years) to preserve a culture of coexistence and communal harmony?

Economic interdependency has been cited as one reason for the success with which the slum-dwellers of Ram Rahim Nagar have been able to prevent the outbreak of communal violence. Social scientist Ashutosh Varshney draws attention to this factor in his book, 'Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India'. Using a refreshing methodology - the study of peaceful cities - Varshney points to a connection between civil society networks and the prevention of communal violence. Cities with vibrant inter-community social, political and economic civil society networks - such as business associations, trade unions, professional groups, political parties, sports clubs, film clubs, NGOs - were able to keep the peace even as surrounding areas erupted in communal clashes.

Inter-community associations have proven to be quite effective in dispelling inflammatory rumors, in identifying and isolating rabble-rousers, and in hiding and protecting potential victims. Such associations also provide pre-established networks of communication across community lines that can be valuable in the chaotic circumstances that lead to riots. Varshney notes, "If organizations serving the economic, cultural and social needs of the two communities exist, the support for communal peace not only tends to be strong, it can also be more solidly expressed."

The residential apartments of Khanpur in Ahmedabad - a pocket of communal harmony - point to another powerful tool for conflict prevention, namely the multiethnic, multi-religious character of mixed neighborhoods. In such a neighborhood, where families share meals, jointly celebrate festivals and allow their children to play together, rumors (which precede most communal riots) are unable to take root.

This interaction also builds durable relationships that can withstand and prevent violence. The Khanpur example gives credence to the simple yet powerful notion that multiethnic communities can create a culture that embraces diversity, mutual respect and non-violent communication; a culture that is durable enough to withstand the powerful forces of communal mobilization.

Peace researchers such as John Paul Lederach and Harold Saunders have drawn attention to the power of inter-community relationships in preventing violence. Dialogue groups - which serve to improve inter-community trust and understanding, and build identities not based on a negation of 'the Other' - provide a viable methodology. This has been used to form a powerful women's peace advocacy group called Athwaas. Initiated by WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace), a South Asian peace building initiative, Athwaas has metamorphosed from an inter-ethnic, inter-faith women's dialogue group into an initiative that provides services for building sustainable livelihoods, trauma healing and conflict resolution.

The case study of Versola, a village in Kheda district, Gujarat, points to another resource for peace: local leadership. Versola is one of many examples where local political and religious leaders risked their lives to transform their personal belief in coexistence and communal harmony into concrete efforts to save families whose lives were threatened. The village sarpanch (head of the local village council), Bipinbhai Bhoi, and other Hindu leaders were able to withstand attempts by outsiders to unleash communal violence. They informed the outsiders that the Hindus of Versola would strongly oppose any effort to attack the Muslims of the village.

The story of an inter-community women's initiative from Himmatnagar in Sabarkantha district, Gujarat, points to another unique peace methodology: the use of income-generation activities to create a safe space for Hindu and Muslim women to address the divisions between their communities and to build social and economic relationships. The Sadguru Krupa Mahila Mandal and the Pragati Mahila Mandal were set up to address the women's immediate needs - primarily those of livelihoods - and to thereby open up a space where Hindu and Muslim women could intermingle and address concerns relating to coexistence.

These and several more stories of hope and human courage have been documented by organizations such as the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, New Delhi, Sabrang Communications, Mumbai, and Oxfam, Ahmedabad. In addition to providing a much-needed balm to soothe the wounds of the 2002 genocide, these stories serve as a compass in our efforts to search for approaches that can prevent further violence.

The concept of 'positive approaches to social change' is one such methodology. It works with the assumption that in all human systems, there are things that work well, or have in the past, and that these can be identified, analyzed and built upon as the foundation for envisioning and implementing change. In their book, 'Positive Approaches to Peace building', Cynthia Sampson, Mohammed Abu-Nimer et al write, "Such approaches have a forward-looking orientation to producing change, rather than focusing on analyzing the ills of the past... Attention is given to that which inspires and gives hope in the human experience."  


More by :  Manjari Sewak

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