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Looking beyond Gujarat pogrom
By Saeed Suhrawardy

The time has come when Muslims and those committed to the maintenance of the secular democratic character of the country, should get out of “Gujarat Fixation.” That does not mean that the pogrom and its impact should be underestimated. But the sad truth is that all dead bodies have to be eventually buried. They may be consgined to the heap of dust known as ‘history’. In the case of Gujarat the dead bodies have been counted both officially and unofficially. The same applies to estimates of economic losses. There may be a huge gap between the official and unofficial figures. That shall hardly make a difference. Statistics are, after all, dead figures. They cannot perform miracles. They do not have the magic touch to revive the dead or bring back those who are lost forever.

It should be a matter of satisfaction that in the worst hour of distress, Muslims have not been alone in recounting their tale of woe. Official and non-official bodies in their quest of truth received valuable support from bulk of both print and electronic media. The list of their names shall make a huge catalogue.

Our immediate concern should be that there is no repetition of the pogrom in Gujarat and no extension of that anywhere else. No abdication of responsibility of governance should be permitted at any cost. In that context, it is proper to refer to the observations of Harsh Mander, a serving IAS Officer of Gujarat, who resigned in disgust after Gujarat pogrom.

“As one who has served in the Indian Administrative Service for over two decades, I feel great shame at the abdication of duty of my peers in civil service and police administration. The law did not require any of them to await orders from their political supervisors before they organised to decisive use of force to prevent the brutal escalation of violence, and to protect vulnerable women and children from the organized murderous mobs. The law required them to act independently, fearlessly, impartially, decisively, with courage and compassion. If even one official had so acted in Ahmedabad, she or he could have deployed the police forces and called in the army to halt the violence and protect the people in matters of hours. No riot can continue beyond a few hours without the active connivance of the local police and magistracy. The blood of hundreds of innocents is on the hands of the police and civil authorities of Gujarat, and by sharing a conspiracy of silence, on the entire bureaucracy of the country. I have heard senior officials blame also the communalism of police constabulary for their connivance in the violence. This too is a thin and gratuitous alibi. The same forces have been known to act with impartiality and courage when led by officers of professionalism and integrity. The failure is clearly of the leadership of the police and civil services, not of the subordinate men and women in khaki who are trained to obey their orders.”

The crux of the problem is to ensure that such ‘failure’ should not recur. That may not be so easy as it sounds. At present there is a risk that the basic and most important issue may be lost in the crop of non-issues that presently engage public mind. The failure of the police and civil administration in preventing and controlling a communal riot has not occurred for the first time in Gujarat. The only difference is that it has happened in Gujarat on a much wider and larger scale and for a very long period. That is the repetition of practices found in earlier communal riots. The inquiry commissions that went into their causes have noted the connivance of the police and civil authority and their partisan conduct. The matter was considered by National Integration Council, which held that the local police, civil administration and intelligence agencies should be held responsible for the occurrence of communal riots. However, their recommendation so far remained a pious wish without suitable legislative support. Even without making a new law, the existing civil and criminal laws supplemented by relevant judicial verdicts provide for remedial or penal action in such cases. If nothing is done in that direction the entire official and non-official findings about Gujarat pogrom shall merely add to the heap of paper already existing about dealing with communal riots.As for non- issues being debated it is not clear what Muslims stand to gain or lose if the elections to Gujarat Assembly are held in October or November? Muslims are not in a position to change the results materially or substantially to suit their interests. It is for the political parties in the arena to decide how they are going to fight out among themselves. It is possible that the contending political parties may not seriously take up the issue of secularism versus communalism. As for the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, it has no qualms of conscience in playing its favourite Hindutva card. It is not yet clear how their rivals will face that. How far shall they go without risking loss of majority votes?

What is the ground reality in Gujarat? Once again, Harsh Mander has made another significant observation, “Where also, amidst this savagery, injustice, and human suffering is the ‘civil society’, the Gandhians, the development workers, the NGOs. Where was the fabled spontaneous Gujarati philanthropy, which was so much in evidence in the earthquake in Kutch and Ahmedabad? The newspapers reported that at the peak of the pogrom, the gates of Sabarmati ashram were closed to protect its properties; it should have been the city’s major sanctuary. Which Gandhian leaders or NGO managers staked their lives to hold back the death-dealing throngs? It is one more shame that we as citizens of this country must carry on our already burdened backs, that the camps for the Muslim riot victims in Ahmedabad are being run almost exclusively by Muslim organizations. It is as if the monumental pain, loss betrayal and injustice suffered by Muslim people is the concern of only other Muslims, and the rest of us have no share in the responsibility to assuage, to heal and rebuild. The state, which bears the primary responsibility to extend both the protection and relief to its vulnerable citizens, was nowhere in evidence in any of the camps to manage and organise the security or even to provide the resources that are required to feed the tens of thousands of defenceless women, men and children huddled in these camps for safety.”

If in their hour of distress, Muslims have to fend for themselves, we should realize that our memoranda and seminars about ‘empowerment of Muslims’ have failed to make the desired impact. Muslims have survived in the country by their will to survive. Self-reliance has been their instinctive response to the callous indifference of social environment. For future also that is likely to be their best support. It was their ‘will to survive’ that was attacked by Sangh Parivar in Gujarat. Muslims have managed to survive in the country, because they have not expected state patronage or government jobs. They have relied on their crafts, skills and inherent competence for securing a ‘place in the sun’. It is the self-reliance of Muslims that has to be strengthened and better organized for a better future. Their charities have to take over the work, ignored or resisted by the government.

For Muslim organizations relief work in Gujarat still remains an unfinished task. Malini Ghose, who visited Gujarat four months ago, as a member of a women’s fact-finding team, recently visited Halol, Kalol and Godhra in Panchmahal district. In the article, “Business as Usual” (Times of India, August 15, 2002) she has summed up the present condition of riot victims. “Forced to leave camps, people are scattered in rented houses around taluka headquarters where the camps once were, or living in camp-like conditions. 

They visit their homes in the daytime, and are too scared to stay there at night, or go to stay with relatives and acquaintances. Some have been forbidden to return, some are too terrified to try, others are simply without means. A few have returned to their villages but live ostracized and constantly fearful. They don’t talk of justice, because they know it is not to be had. They just want to survive. They want to be allowed to make a living.”

That is the present ground reality in other parts of Gujarat also.” It is not clear how that is to be changed by the schedule of elections to Gujarat Assembly. It is the job of Muslim organizations now to help them in making a living, in helping them survive with dignity. If that is not possible in Gujarat, let it be somewhere else. For that we need a new vision that looks beyond the Gujarat pogrom. 

See editorial: Lest we forgetl

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