Oh Gujarat!

The violence against Muslims which began in Gujarat on February 28, 2002, the day after the Godhra incident, has been called one-sided and state-sponsored and has been likened to a pogrom. Neither gender was spared, nor any age group.

One form of violence, though, could be directed only against women and girls. Rape often took the form of gang rape and was followed by mutilation and finally by the destruction of evidence through the burning of the victims.

But some victims of rape were left alive, and, it appears, for an excellent reason.

While there are ways of estimating, at least roughly, how many people were killed, the number of rapes committed cannot be estimated. Many victims will not have spoken of their trauma, because rape is perhaps the single crime known in which the victim is made out to be the criminal, morally and socially. Further, the police of Gujarat either refused outright to register complaints or else twisted them and watered them down so that they became meaningless.

Figures of several thousand rapes must be discounted, since there is no evidence and since wild exaggeration is common in situations of this kind. Other methods of estimation must be used, imprecise though they are. There were many instances of women being raped in groups. Survivors have described the subsequent killing of the others of their groups. Such accounts have not been systematically recorded and collated, but there have been enough of them to indicate that many more women were raped than those who survived.

Two thousand or more Muslims have been widely estimated to have been killed. How many of this number were women who had been raped is uncertain. It is perfectly possible that even the charred remains of some, or of many, were never seen.

The chilling reality is that today (in 2005) just one case of assault on a woman is being tried in the courts: that of Bilqees Yaqoob Rasool. In the second week of February 2005, almost three years after the violence, a news report did say, "Police in Gujarat said they were re-investigating many of the cases that had been closed down and had also filed charges in a majority of rape cases." There are two obvious difficulties here. First, the Gujarat Police has a record of evasion and of an inability to substantiate its claims. Second, the facts that "many of the cases" and "majority" can be defined any which way, and that the Gujarat police can scarcely be expected to bring to light its complicity in the cover-ups or worse.

Before and after the assembly election of 2002, rapists swaggered about and threatened their victims with the repetition of their act. They do it to this day. The act itself is seen as one which brought glory to them, and obscene songs are sung to keep its memory alive. Even the police, staunch defenders of a law perverted beyond recognition, use the threat as a means of keeping Gujarat's Muslims cowed and silent. There were Muslim women who were raped but not killed. They are the walking, breathing proof that the threat is real.

Throughout history, while women have been the immediate victims of rape, the act has served to subjugate the groups to which they have belonged - caste, tribe, kingdom, nation, religion, and race. Thus the swaggering rapists threaten all of Gujarat's Muslims, not just women. Three years later, they do it as part of their daily routine, even as an indication of their agenda. This is murder of the spirit of an entire community.

Of the hundreds of men who were arrested in Gujarat under POTA after the "riots", just one was not a Muslim: and of course he was not a Hindu. Those in prison have been tortured physically and mentally, and their trials have not even begun. That is so far as their individual suffering goes. That they are almost all young and that they were nearly always the sole bread earners of their families, are facts whose implications are staggering.

Indian women's social circles are almost always smaller than those of men. They can turn to fewer people for support, and their ability to earn is limited. A woman in trouble is likely to have to deal with it by herself. But the responsibility of looking after the home, of feeding and clothing both children and the old, is hers. She bears this burden even when a man is around, and it becomes far heavier when the man is locked up or dead. It is slow, painful and sure starvation.

The government of Gujarat promised a compensation of Rs 150,000 (1US$=Rs 45) to the families of those who were killed: Rs 90,000 in cash and the remainder in bonds. Whether the bonds will ever have any value is not known. What is known is that an identical package was promised after the riots of 1985 in Gujarat - and the bonds still remain promises.

On paper, then, the government of Gujarat has fulfilled its responsibility. There end its efforts at the rehabilitation of an entire uprooted community. Muslim groups did step in to provide shelter and means of livelihood, but at this time none can say what the effect of these actions will be in the long term.

One effect, though, is only too visible: the growing power of the Muslim religious establishment. Progressive Muslims in Gujarat look on, helplessly, as the bulk of the adherents of their religion are taken backwards. They speak of the ruin of a quarter century's worth of advances. There is the inevitable policing, with a constant watch being kept specially on women. Having suffered so much barbarity, and while being kept deprived of material resources, Muslims must also bow before the dictates and whims of those who claim to be their moral guides. What is to stop the rise of suicidal fundamentalism?

We humans need anchors to hold us in place. We need basic security, hope, good times to look forward to. I paraphrase a description of what happens routinely in Muslim homes in Ahmedabad. "Twenty or more men hammer on your door at 3 am. They ransack household goods and abuse and kick you. After an hour or two of this, they take away a male 'for questioning'. You are warned not to tell anyone about what has happened. After that you begin to wait. Often your wait is without end, for your loved one never returns."

Report after report, based on investigation, interviews and analysis, and prepared by journalists, activists, academics, lawyers and judges of unimpeachable integrity, has spoken in detail of what Gujarat's Muslims, women in particular, have suffered and are still suffering. The most recent is "India: Justice, the Victim", released in January 2005 by Amnesty International. Like the others, it sets out the administrative and legal measures which must be implemented. The victimization must end immediately, it says, and compensation and restitution must take a real form.

Not one cogent argument has been advanced against any of these reports, yet their recommendations have been ignored. The reports might just as well not have been prepared. Our leaders say, ad nauseam, that we are a democracy in which people's voices are heard: but those who have spoken up for the thousands who were mercilessly crushed have been crying into the wind.

What compels the Central Government to permit Gujarat to continue to deny Muslims their ordinary human rights, and to keep them from living at a level even of bare subsistence? Are those shattered people not citizens of India, not human beings? Is our Constitution no more than paper? 

The author gratefully acknowledges the help of friends who gave information and insights, especially Zakia Jowher


More by :  Mukul Dube

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