Feb 24, 2009

Scarlet Tears

Ahmedabad, 2007. In a tiny room where much of the space has been gobbled up by a bed and a steel almirah, Shaheen* sits on the floor, reminiscing about the massacre of seven years ago, and the one instant in which her life changed forever. "A bullet killed my husband," she says, dabbing at her eyes with a torn dupatta. "We don't know if the police fired at him or if it was the mob. The mob had all kinds of weapons, and the atmosphere was such that we didn't know who was doing what."

For the Gujarat government, Shaheen's husband is just another statistical number that adds up to a seemingly understated figure of over 1000 people massacred in the riots of 2002, a majority of them Muslims. In her Faisal Park home in Ahmedabad, where riot victims have been temporarily rehabilitated by NGOs, his death is an immeasurable and palpable loss, and grief is a shadow persistently knocking at her door.

Shaheen was a resident of Naroda, where over 80 people were killed in a horrific carnage during the 2002 riots. Her own house was looted and burnt. With her children, she sought refuge in a relief camp and eventually moved to her current home. Trying to pick up the threads of an earlier life, she sent her children to a school nearby. But her daughter was too distraught to study. Her son left Gujarat to study and vows never to come back. The scars on their young minds are too deep to ever heal.

Seven years have passed after the riots. Seven years in which saplings have blossomed into trees and blueprints stand tall as buildings. But time has stopped for many like Shaheen and her children, for whom a monstrous yesterday has become an inextricable part of their today and tomorrow. Their dreams and hopes have been altered in unlikely and distressing ways. Children and adolescents, many of whom suffered or witnessed atrocities during the riots, continue to live in an environment of insecurity and fear. What's more, this environment is subtly nurtured by the Gujarat government, whose complicity in and apathy towards the communal carnage is an established fact.

Most of the riot victims live in poverty, and while deprivation is visible, their pain and sorrows seem to have had a more intangible but real impact on their mental health. Mental disorders are now manifesting themselves through a host of symptoms - irritability, sadness, fear, sleep disturbances, difficulties in concentrating, feelings of guilt in survivors, among others. Several children had become rebellious, disobeying rules and laws and generally looking for reasons to vent their insecurity, anger and guilt. An adolescent who was recovering at a local hospital uttered his first words, "When I get back on my feet, I'll kill the people who have done this to me." Many girls and women who had been sexually assaulted did not want to go back to their homes where they had been manhandled by rioters.

All these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. There is anger, there is psychological distress. Some feel guilty at having survived but not having been able to save others in the family. Memories occur even though they don't want to think about them. One common thought is that victims feel the quality of their life outside their own community is low. This is a stark indicator of the policy of exclusion of Muslims that has become an unwritten credo for many in the Gujarati society. It is something that Muslim children, denied admission in several schools on account of their religion, cannot escape. Frighteningly, such polarisation may lead to strengthening of stereotypes about the other - the Hindu counterpart. When children will talk about how someone from their community had been killed by a person from the other community, it will strengthen their own feelings of hatred.

Communal harmony is essential to improving the current situation. One effective way is to celebrate festivals together. For instance, a popular slogan that says, "Diwali mein 'Ali' aur Ramzan mein 'Ram'" can bridge the chasm. We need to build on these things. Yet, in a Gujarat where even basic health facilities are not available in areas which riot victims have moved to, mental health remains a blurry line in the horizon. Meanwhile, edged out by a majority of the society for reasons that they cannot even comprehend, many of the victims of the Godhra massacre continue to live in insecurity and fear.

* Names changed to protect privacy

Edited to add:
I changed the title to something more hard-hitting.


  1. Surbhi, great post. It's so easy to feel compassion for people when we strip them off religion, national borders and social class and yet we keep ourselves shackled to these human creations.

    Frankly, I don't think slogans will get rid of communal feelings. It might assuage it temporarily, but we will never get rid of it completely and communalism will come back to haunt us at someother time in a different garb.

    No matter how beautifully we try to dress a cancer patient,it does not cure her cancer. In this case, no matter how much we try to bring communal harmony through slogans, the cancer of religion will continue to return and inflict more pain on us. Unless we get rid of that cancer and the carcinogenic elements in society - namely the religious fanatics - there is little hope ,if any, for future communal harmony.

    I hope I am wrong.

  2. Nitwit:
    No, you are right. I was getting very cynical when I wrote this, and thought it would negate the purpose and impact. I know there's not much that could really help things in India. But there's no point in not even tring. The slogan won't help much, I know, but it is at least a start, at least for kids.
    I remember this incident of about a couple of weeks back, when I found a long-lost childhood friend on Orkut. Incidentally, he's here in Delhi. Mom & Dad advised me to call him over for lunch/dinner at home. A relative who'd come over for the night heard this and was shocked. "Arre lekin wo to Musalmaan hai. Ghar kyun bula rahe ho? Baahar hi mil aayegi ye us se."
    I was incensed and sick to my guts. Apart from the fact that our relative had no right to interfere in our family matters, it was this very attitude which made my blood boil. I burst into tears of frustration and anger. WTF if he's a Muslim? Is he not a human any more? I share my childhood memories with him. We started school together and played together. At that time, we never saw each other as Hindu-Muslim, so why the f*** should it be any different now?

  3. Diwali mein Ali aur Ramzaan mein Ram, what a beautiful way to put it Surbhi. Indeed the hopes of communal harmony in Gujarat seem dismal, especially in the presence of a CM like Narendra Modi. I truly hate that man.
    I always believe that in such cases, it is not just the immediate victims, but the saplings of fear, hate and helplessness that are sown in the hearts of the ones who are wronged, that are the much worse resultants.

  4. Goofy Mumma:
    True, it is a beautiful slogan for communal harmony. I saw it long back in a TOI ad and loved it. Anyway, what needs to be seen is how much a slogan can help in times of strife and hatred fed by politicians.
    As for Modi, don't get me started. I intend to do a full post on him. :)

  5. Excellent Post ! Now i feel that along with discussions and sharing amongst us who already believe in equality of all, the message could be spread individually to the people around, by referring to text like "Diwali mein Ali aur Ramzaan mein Ram"; the older ones might find ways of retaliation, but kids would live such stuff, and we can hope for a better future atleast. Excellent Post !

    BTW, yesterday i wrote a lot in comment to this post, but it couldn't be posted coz word verification image kept loading.....I hope it is serving its intended purpose. I would try to be a good citizen, or least a good blogger, and try to respect the rules even if they cause a lil bit trouble :) ; for i understand their hidden motive.

  6. Good thoughts Surbhi!

    Celebrating each others festival is good idea, but getting hindus and muslims to celebrate each others festivals look beyond impossible.
    Getting people of celebrate more secular festivals like 'republic day' or 'independence day' will serve the purpose much better.

  7. Communal harmony is a long stretch for us, unfortunate. Its like we need to get cured internally to a great degree. We have a basic problem of Education and Jobs. These communal rights are in the effects of our inability to provide each one a valued life...Well..Let be hopeful and do our little parts. and Hope for a butterfly effect.

  8. RK:
    Thanks! :)
    I'm sorry for the word verification thing. I know it can be such a pain. But it is a necessary evil to protect from spammers and trolls.

  9. Aniket:
    Welcome! And many thanks!
    Well, it may seem impossible to get Hindus and Muslims to celebrate each other's festivals, but we can always try. At our level, we can gather other friends (and maybe their families too) from other faiths and celebrate together. It'll help pave the way forward.
    I've seen many Muslims and Christians celebrate Diwali and Holi with their Hindu counterparts, but less number of Hindus and Muslims celebrating Christmas and even lesser number of Hindus and Christians celebrating Eid. That, I think, is the whole point - we need to be a part of each other's celebrations to truly feel that they are no different from us than we are from them.

  10. Chirag:
    Very true. Communal peace ma seem a little far-fetched esp. in these turbulent times. But I think it is very much possible.
    More than education or jobs, I think it is the dirty vte-bank politics that is responsible for discord between and within communities. That may, for all we know, be the root cause of the communal hatred we see all around.
    I also feel that till the time Muslims/ Christians are called 'minority' and not accepted as part of mainstream India like Hindus, there would be an inherent disconnect from the 'majority', deep down inside them.


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