I was uncertain if the ghazal concert by Jagjit Singh would still be held in Ahmedabad, Gujarat on that fateful day, February 27, 2002. I had reason to believe otherwise: just a few hours earlier, I received a call while working in a Hindu slum in Ahmedabad that communal violence had erupted. Apparently a train of Hindu pilgrims was attacked somewhere, I was told, and that I should immediately return home. An American Hindu colleague of mine and I both waited for the bus to take us across town to the Hindu host family with whom I was staying. But as my Hindu friend in the slum community received text messages about what was really ensuing, he ran out and said, “No Zahir, you specifically have to leave.” I was eager to know why but he never budged. “Its for your safety,” he kept imploring.
It was only on the rikshaw ride home that the picture emerged: our Hindu driver carefully skirted all the Muslim majority locales in Ahmedabad as off in the distance, we could see fires flaring up in only Muslim populated areas. As we drove through a mixed Hindu-Muslim neighborhood, we found ourselves stuck in a massive traffic jam, only later to learn that just a few hundred yards ahead of us a Hindu mob had stopped a car full of Muslims, removed them from their vehicle, and burned them alive.
It is difficult to say this without sounding profoundly naive and perhaps insensitive, but at the time, it seemed pretty normal. Perhaps that was a reflection of the company I kept. I had arrived just twelve days earlier to work on micro-finance issues and I was posted to work in a Hindu slum area. I never took much notice of this: my intention in working in Gujarat was to understand my ancestral homeland and to learn and to help people, regardless of their religious background.
When I returned home later that day, my boss Raju bhai assured me that the violence was nothing unusual. India blows off some steam from time to time, he told me, and that the violence would flare up for a day or two and then subside. Perhaps he had a point, I thought. Despite romanticized notions of Gujarat being tolerant, probably on account of it being the birthplace of the non-violent sage Mahatma Gandhi, communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat has flared up intermittently since 1969. Between 1987 and 1991 alone, for example, 106 Hindu-Muslim skirmishes erupted. But neither he or I had any ability to know that what would transpire in the subsequent months would amount to a State sponsored pogrom against Gujarati Muslims in what many of have rightfully called one the darkest chapters in India’s history.
We ended up going to the Jagjit Singh concert that night. After all, in the Hindu area where I lived and where the concert was held, I had no way of knowing that just a few miles away in the Muslim locales, some of the worst violence was ensuing, already on that first night. It is difficult and troubling to think about that concert, let alone to muster the courage to admit that I attended, while so much chaos erupted around me. Within the confines of the manicured lawns of the concert setting, Singh’s lyrics, many taken from poems by Muslim poet Mirza Ghalib, hearkened an India ripe with Hindu-Muslim synergy, an India that I found disappearing in my subsequent six months working with the 85,000 displaced Gujarati Muslims in Ahmedabad alone.
I do not wish to recount the details of what happened in Gujarat, as that has been extensively documented, most exceptionally in Human Rights Watch’s “We Have No Orders to Save You,” and journalist Dionne Bunsha’s Scarred: Experiments with Violence in Gujarat. Nor do I wish to recall the personal toil of witnessing violence on this scale–that is far too personal to elucidate in this space and at least for me, in the guise of non-fiction. But I wish do elucidate two points from that episode that have sinced shaped my activism.
The first is that the initial telling of a historical event is seldom the complete or even accurate version. When the violence reached an unbearable level, I thought that my presence, as a Gujarati Muslim, was endangering my dear Hindu friends. So I left for New Delhi where I soon found myself addressing a gathering of NGOs about my experiences. But I learned that speaking about Gujarat is partly about giving testimony and partly about withholding information. I remember telling that gathering that contrary to popular notions of Indian communal violence, the violence in Gujarat was most acute in mixed locales and that the only safe areas were Muslim ghettos. That fact rattled the notion that communal violence is minimized when Hindus and Muslims intermix. Gujarat proved just the antithesis – Muslims were most vulnerable when they lived in close proximity to their Hindu neighbors. I told that group, much to their dismay, that I understood why many Gujarati Muslims had built ten foot walls to protect their families and their homes. Thinking of communal harmony was privilege that many Gujarati Muslims could not afford to think of as they witnessed the mass scale rape of women and the pillaging of their homes.
Part of the problem in achieving an honest dialogue on this issue is that the Gujarat violence is viewed as a problem of the past and as an aberrant blotch on India’s record that evaporated when the violence subsided. This could not be farther from the truth. Lingering problems exist within Gujarat, the least of which are the palpable tensions. And while antagonism against Muslims thankfully has not manifested itself in brutal violence since 2002, there is still widespread curtailment of the rights of Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and others in India. India’s central government may now acknowledge what transpired in 2002, but there is still strong denial at the popular and governmental level within Gujarat.
For example, eighty-seven Muslim men have been held since 2002 for “starting the train fire” and “igniting the violence,” despite India’s Supreme Court own acknowledgment which found the Hindu nationalist BJP group complicit in the violence. Hemantika Wahi, the standing counsel for Gujarat, recently responded to possible news that these 87 may be set free and also to charges India’s draconian anti-terror laws have been used to target Muslim by noting that “Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.” Most recently, a film called “Parzania” by Gujarati director Rahul Dholakia about the 2002 violence was prevented by theater owners in Gujarat from being screened, despite the fact that the filmed had already cleared India’s rigorous (and often politically slanted) film censor bureau.
Film’s like Dholakia’s are promising, partly because they help usher in a more honest discussion of what transpired. After all, it was not long ago that those who called the violence pre-planned and orchestrated by the state were called absurd. But often the truth trickles out, and though its pace may be frustrating, it is still nonetheless cathartic for those who seeking a public reckoning of the pain they endured.
The second lesson Gujarat taught me is not to compare two historical tragedies. When I spoke at college campuses throughout 2003 and 2004, I often found it tempting, especially when addressing Muslim audiences, to compare the Gujarat violence to another horrific act, that of the attack on Palestinians in Jenin, which also happened in early 2002. I had reason to make this comparison: Muslims throughout their world expressed justifiable outrage over Israel’s incursions into Jenin but remained largely silent over the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat. But I quickly learned to cease making such comparisons, partly because I refused to participate in an effort to pit and to measure the suffering of one people against another.
I have been called many things in the past five years, most of which are not suitable to publish on this site. But perhaps one of the most unfair criticisms leveled at me and other activists working against communalism in India is that somehow our assessment of what transpired in Gujarat is maudlin or excessively sentimental. This indeed may be the case, but it is not without reason. I will always remember 12 year-old Sadik, who I met in a relief camp just shortly after the violence ensued. He fled for relief after he witnessed his father burned alive and his mother raped and then immolated. He never did speak to me – or to anyone – during the six months that I saw him in the camp. But at night, after the aid workers would leave, I often found Sadik sitting alone in the corner, crying quietly.
I am not sure what has happened to him since but I suspect there are nights when he still cries and wonders why, five years later, his tears are still needed.