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.
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