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West Bengal shows solidarity with Gujarat victims
|For the last two months people of West Bengal under the leadership of the Left Front had an inspiring mass campaign to collect funds for the victims of the Gujarat carnage. To reach the relief funds collected to the victims a Left Front team visited Gujarat on June 8 and 9 under the leadership of Comrade Somnath Chatterjee (M.P. and leader of the CPI (M) Lok Sabha group). Other members of the team were Comrades Ajay Chakravorty (M.P.-CPI), Abani Roy (M.P.-RSP) Nilotpal Basu (M.P. CPI-M) Md. Yaqub (MLA-FB), Ramapada Samanta (MLA-DSP) Brahmamay Nanda (MLA-SP) and Brinda Karat. The team was accompanied by Gujarat State Committee leaders of the CPI (M) and CPI.
The team disbursed Rs. 47,32,070 directly to 996 affected families and 171 women widowed in the communal violence in about 15 areas of the State. This is the largest relief programme in Gujarat directly financed by mass collections from the people that have so far been undertaken by any political party or NGO. People greeted the team warmly wherever it went. The message of solidarity from the people of West Bengal to the victims of the communal violence was very effectively conveyed through the programme. At the same time many important issues were raised by the victims who met the team, that could be taken up in Parliament and directly with the Central Government. An important feature of the relief programme was the effort to reach the relief directly to the victims after a proper survey in some of the worst affected areas prior to the visit of the team.
Secondly, while the main relief programme was for members of the Muslim community who have been the worst affected, some very poor dalit and OBC families in affected areas whose houses were burnt or damaged and whose livelihood was directly affected were also identified. This work was mainly done through contacts made in the camps. Thirdly, after the identification of families to be helped, the entire amount was made into individual drafts/cheques so that no cash transactions were involved.
This ensured complete transparency of the disbursement of this substantial amount of money. Fourthly, the help for the legal work for the victims, being done by the Citizens Initiative the most prominent platform of secular NGOs in Gujarat working among the violence affected, was also an important gesture of solidarity, which was highly appreciated by the groups. On June 8, the programme in Ahmedabad started with Akbar Nagar.
This is a slum settlement of jhuggis that had been completely razed to the ground on February 28 affecting about 227 families. All these families had shifted to the nearby Aman Chowk camp in one of the worst affected areas of Bapu Nagar. A large number of people from the Muslim community, including the area Congress Corporator were waiting for the team. A public function was held and the individual amounts for building material were given. In this function victims of nearby areas were also asked to attend so that the relief could be distributed in one place. Thus people from affected areas of Hardas Nagar, Bapu Nagar, and women who had been widowed in the violence also attended the function. 100 families of street vendors whose wooden carts had been burnt or self-employed families who needed help to restart their work were given the necessary help. In this function as in others, the speeches made by leaders of the team stressed on the message of solidarity from the people of West Bengal and the commitment of the Left front to defend secularism and the rights of minorities. This had a very positive impact.The next programme was held in a dalit Scheduled caste-dominated area of Raju- Gomtipur. This area borders a Muslim dominated area being separated by a road. About 56 houses of Dalits had been damaged, eight of them badly damaged. The Left Front team was the first to go there with aid. A big function was organized in a local hall by a group of secular minded dalit youth. This group had been earlier attacked by the VHP because they had tried to help their Muslim friends during the violence.
Significantly, this group of secular youth accompanied the team to the neighboring Muslim area where the third function was held. The two groups of friends met for the first time since the violence started. It was an important occasion for them and they mentioned that the Left front efforts from far away Bengal had helped them renew their friendship.The following function in Shahpur was also significant as it brought together people from both communities who had lived together in the Shahpur area that had been burnt during the violence. Here the relief was for reconstruction as well as to restart their work. There were six programs in the after lunch session till late evening. This included a big meeting in the largest relief camp of Shah Alam where 35 widows were given relief and a visit to Juhapura camp where money was given to 10 widows and for help to run the camp. The Shah Alam camp organizers mentioned specifically their appreciation of the role of the Left Front in parliament and all the support they have been getting (details of their problems in a following section) They also mentioned that they had refused to organize meetings for any other party. In fact many of the camp organizers said they were holding such meetings for the first time. Earlier the team held a meeting in a ST dominated area of Bhilvas. There are 125 families who were housed in the Kankaria camp for the last three months after a few huts had been burnt.
The PM, Chief Minister, Advani etc. had made many visits to their camp to emphasize that Muslims were the aggressors.
However nothing had been done to actually help to rehabilitate the families. All those ST families who had not got any Government relief were identified and given some help by the Left front team. In another area of Vatva 100 poor Muslim families whose implements and handcarts had been destroyed were given some help to restart their work. This programme was organized in consultation with the Behavioral Science Centre, an NGO that has been working in the area.The team then met two legal aid teams and donated Rs. five lakhs to help their work. At present the main work is still in filling in compensation forms, filing FIRs etc. Some petitions are also being put in the Supreme Court. The teams are also filing what they call 'perspective FIRs' from different sections such as women, workers, artisans, professionals, students etc. with details of the complicity of the State Government. A prominent Lawyers Association in Gujarat is reported to have made a statement that no Muslim complaints would be taken by them.
The Chief Public prosecutor in the state is an RSS man. In such a situation the main work is being done either by Muslim lawyers or by a few NGOs. Thus aid to legal work is important. The last meeting on June 8 was with 10 families of those burnt alive in the Sabarmati Express at Godhra station. The meeting could be arranged with the help of the Collector. Several of the family members are deeply resentful that their tragedies have been utilized for political purposes.
The team expressed their deep condolences and assured them of support and help. On June 9, the team divided into two and visited the rural camps. One team went to Himmatnagar and Modarsa in Sabarkantha district one of the worst affected districts. Approximately 9000 people are in nine camps in the area. The team also went to Santrampur where houses had been attacked and destroyed, where people had been burnt and where there had been mass stripping of women.
The team met many of the victims and gave help to the widows. The other team visited Baroda where a press conference had been held. It visited a camp in Taiwada, Kalol; another very badly affected area and also Godhra. While the team was in the Godhra camp which houses victims from the rural areas of Panchmahal district, a scooter driver who had been stabbed and was bleeding profusely was rushed into the camp crying for help. He was afraid to go to the police on his own because of the false cases registered against Muslim victims.
This shocking incident brought home clearly the continuing violence of the sangh parivar outfits against Muslims. In all the rural camps visited, meetings were held in which the relief was given. Here also the team was greeted with warmth and appreciation for the gesture of the people of West Bengal and the left front parties. (Issues rose to be published next week)
Issues rose in the different areas:1. Although the situation appears normal in fact the violence is very >much on the surface and can erupt at any time. This is mainly because in most cases the accused have not been arrested. The two FIRs filed in the worst cases of violence in Ahmedabad namely in Narodia Patia where over 100 people including women and children were burnt to death and Gulbarg Society case here the former Congress MP and scores of others were burnt to death, blames the victims for their own deaths. This has greatly demoralized the thousands of other victims. The demand for justice and arrests of the accused is therefore very crucial if normalcy is to return. In spite of the statements by many women of rape, FIRs in rape cases are not being filed. The FIRs filed are so-called group FIRs that cover a radius of 5 km. Thus all acts of violence are lumped together. This is a travesty of justice and was challenged by the inmates of the Himmatnagar camp in the Gujarat High Court. The Court accepted the group FIRs but directed that individual statements made under Sec. 162 should be separately investigated. However even this is not being done. 2. In almost all the areas victims once again raised the issue of the removal of the Narendra Mody Government. They said his continuation in office was ensuring that the tensions remained.3. The refusal to arrest the main accused has also resulted in continuing threats to Muslims who want to go back to their areas. This is true of both Ahmedabad and even more so in the rural areas.
In Ahmedabad, a most important issue is the resettlement of the families of Naroda Patia area. At present most of these families are in the Shah Alam camp. Families who have gone back to see their burnt houses or to recover belongings have been threatened not to go back or they would once again be attacked. This was reported to the team. They have appealed to the Government to give them land in any more secure locality, which they have identified. However the Government has flatly refused to give them any alternative place or even to provide them security to go back. In the rural areas, the team was told that in Sabarkantha district where two months ago approximately 18,000 people were in the camps, about half of them have been able to go back to their villages. However for the remaining approximately 9000 people, it is absolutely impossible to go back as the VHP/Bajrang Dal leaders of their villages have told the Muslims that they can go back only if they accept the most humiliating conditions. The Collector of the district had tried to take some families back but even he failed to stop the threats of violence from the communal criminals in the village outside the village of Khedbhrama there is a board put up forbidding the entry of Muslims.
The people in the camps have appealed to the Government to allot them Government wasteland. But the Government has refused There are some cases where the land and houses of Muslims are being taken over. For example in the Himmatnagar camp there were two families so affected. One said that his house was broken and a new one constructed and occupied by their aggressors. The owner got a stay order from the court but even then his house remains illegally occupied. In another case, a Muslim house had been turned into a temple. 4. Another aspect of the issue of rehabilitation is that of compensation. The Government has issued compensation forms that clearly state that the maximum to be given is Rs. 50,000 for damaged property regardless of the amount of losses suffered Even this amount has not been given in a single case in any of the camps the team visited The amounts given in many cases range from just Rs. 50 to Rs. 2000. Everywhere the team was told that the surveys by the Government of damaged property was arbitrary and in no cases were the actual victims allowed accompanying the official survey team. This is clearly highly unjust and is an issue that must be taken up. The demand from many areas is for resurvey along with the actual victims.
5. The official death toll is a gross underestimate. In one camp in Modarsa the team was given a list of 62 people who have been declared missing since the first week of March when the tempos they were traveling in fleeing from their villages was attacked and burnt. The few survivors from Kidiyad village have testified that everyone in the tempos were burnt to death but their testimonies have not been accepted. In one case the mother of a day old infant who was snatched from her arms and burnt has been asked to provide evidence that her child is indeed dead. Such inhuman stories are common. The victims believe one reason is also to deny them compensation. There are many widows who have not been given compensation from the Government because it wants "proof' that their husbands or family members are dead. At the time of the earthquake when bodies were buried under rubble, such proof was waived. This should be done in the present cases also.
6. As far as the running of the camps are concerned although according to the report of an NGO, the Gujarat High Court has given a stay on the closure of the camps till June 30, everywhere the team was told, whether in Ahmedabad or in the rural areas that even the meager supplies to the camp of food grains and of the dole of Rs. seven per family had been stopped since the last week of May.
Since each camp has not less than 800 to 1000 people and goes up as in the case of Shah Alam to as many as 10,000 inmates, the stoppage of help is virtually imposing a starvation regime.
The day the team visited Shah Alam camp they were informed by the organizers that the Government had been informed that it was no longer possible to run the camp and that therefore he Government should take it over. The main reason is the refusal of the Government to provide the minimumsupplies and to accuse the organizers of inflating the numbers of inmates in the camps. The Government surveys of the campsare conducted at a time when most of the male members are out and their absence is taken as their non-existence. The situation in the rural camps is even worse than in Ahmedabad.
Many of the camps are being run in schools. With the scheduled reopening of the schools the camps will now have to be shifted to tents. The current heat wave in Gujarat makes it almost impossible to stay in the open tents. The fear is that the coming monsoons will make things even more difficult. The immediate need is to ensure that the supplies to the camps continue and that the Government takes responsibility in properly maintaining the camps until there is security for the inmates to return home or until the Government makes alternate arrangements.
7. As is recognized, the carnage has broken the economic spine of the community. However even efforts to rebuild their businesses are being thwarted. All those affected who require loans should be granted the same on easy conditions by the banks. 8. In Sabarknatha district, the team was given a list of 105 Muslim primary school teachers, 70 of them women, who are being asked to join schools in areas, which have seen terrible cases of atrocities. They have been asked to resign if they are scared to go to the schools allotted to them. Clearly this is a move to drive them out of their Government employment.
In most of the areas, the large majority of people the team met were women and children. The team met five orphan children four in Sabarkantha and one in Ahmedabad whose parents were killed before their eyes. The plight of the widows is desperate as most of them are unable to go home and are somehow managing in the camps. A demand for urgent and special rehabilitation for the widows must be made. At the time of the Sikh riots, such a rehab programme was made by the Central Government for the widows in Delhi including provision of housing. q
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