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Gujarat riot relief camps closed, victims left to fend for themselves

New Delhi: In what is being perceived as a clear indication for the preparation of legislative assembly elections in Gujarat, Narendra Modi administration in this trouble-prone, communally-sensitive western Indian state has ordered the closure of the last relief camp for riot victims at Haj House in the state's commercial capital, Ahmedabad. 

The forcible closure of the camp has rendered hundreds of Muslim victims homeless and completely insecure as they have nowhere to go except footpaths. The state government had announced that all relief camps must shut down by October 30.

The state government wants to show that all victims have been rehabilitated and have returned to their homes, which is not true. Muslims are still not allowed to return to their homes in many areas and villages which have been proclaimed "Muslim free".

The election to the state legislature is slated to be held beginning December 12, according to an announcement made by the Election Commission of India here recently.

The closure of the last few relief camps has taken place amid allegations of grave irregularities and financial misappropriation indulged into by the state bureaucracy. 

Riot victims alleged that they have been discriminated against by the government in matters of providing proper shelter and compensation, and are being subjected to live in utter penury after the forced closure of the remaining camps.

The state witnessed one of the gravest communal conflagration in the history of independent India, after a train car was torched at Godhra railway station on February 28 this year in the state. The train named Sabarmati Express was returning from the Hindu temple town of Ayodhya — the place associated with mythical god-king Rama, and where once stood the Babari Masjid before it was completely razed to the ground by Hindu fanatics in December 1992.

The train car which was burnt down carried Hindu pilgrims. The burning incident sparked off worst ethnic riots between Hindus and Muslims, unparalleled in brutalities even by the standards of the gruesome anti-Sikh riots of 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Reports reaching here said that out of hundreds only one single relief camp at the Qureshi Jamaat Hall at Mirzapur area in Ahmedabad remains functional. The camp presently shelters 70 families from Naroda and Chamanpura, the two of the worst-hit areas.

Ataullah Khan Pathan, organiser of the Qureshi Hall camp, said, "Most of the inmates belong to Gulbarg Society (39 killed) and Naroda-Patia (86 killed) and they do not want to return home. We are holding talks with the district administration for allocation of land to these people in areas like Vatva and Sarkhej."

"I don’t know how to live my life after I get out of this camp. My meat shop was looted, my house was burnt down and the government simply refuses to compensate my financial losses that run well over Rs. 0.15 million. Till date I have only got Rs. 2,500," said Adil Abdul Hamid, one of the camp inmates.

The Haj House camp was ordered shut down after nearly 100 camp inmates were directed to comply with the vacating orders by the administration. The repeated pleas of the inmates that they had no places to return to, found absolutely no favour with the authorities.

Ayub Khan, organiser of the relief camp, complained that about 100 people, especially from Jalampuri Ni Chawl in Saraspur and few areas in Vatva, had not received any compensation at all and had been unable to rebuild their homes.

"I have submitted report of all the expenditures we have incurred during the past few months. Neither does the district administration respond to this nor make any effort to help 35 per cent of riot-hit inmates in this camp who are still waiting to get the compensation. The state government machinery does not seem to be interested," he said.

"How long can the government feed them?'' asked SMF Bukhari, the state government's chief coordinator of relief. "We have given them cheques to repair their homes and also sufficient time to construct their homes," he said. 

When it was pointed out that 70 per cent of the people had not received any compensation and that in the case of those who were given cheques the amounts were often as grotesquely low as Rs.71 [US$ 1.46] and averaged between rupees 2,000 and 3,000, Bukhari said: "What we are giving is assistance, not compensation. Aid is given as per the government engineers' estimates."

AJ Shah, district collector, had something else to say. He stated, "We verified records before giving compensation. The scope for mistakes is very small."

The victims are not at all ready to believe the version of the district authority. One of the lady victims, Mumtaz Ghanchi, feels that they (victims) are being let down and find themselves directionless in an unsympathetic environment. She said, "We went to the district collector's office but we were told that a local leader had taken the cheques. We still have the card on which compensation is to be paid. We can't understand how the compensation was paid without the card."

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state had been widely criticised for the state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogrom. The appalling conditions of Muslims displaced by the large-scale killings, arson and looting by Hindu mobs drew the attention of several countries of the world, including the US and EU. But most Muslim and all Arab countries kept conspicuous silence.

The state law enforcement agencies were taken to task as there were allegations that the police played a passive role all through with reports of even active collaboration with the arsonists in some places. Victims and eye witnesses alleged that the police stood by as Hindu mobs killed Muslims and torched their homes and businesses. There was a complete failure on the part of the state intelligence and action by the state government.

However, one of the biggest complaints of victims was the refusal of police to register cases of rape, murder and burning with specific individual names of the perpetrators. The victims were pressurised to register their case, if they wanted to do so, claiming that the crime was committed by a "crowd," in which case no one would be punished.

The government and the state bureaucracy fooled the people in the name of providing compensation. Shaukatkhan Tyrewala, general secretary of the Qaumi Relief Committee set up to carry out negotiations with the government on behalf of the minority victims, said that some of them had been paid as little as Rs. 15 or Rs. 50 for repairing their damaged houses!. "Why this crude joke in the name of compensation?" he bitterly asked. 

Tyrewala added, "While the victims of the earthquake in urban centres last year were paid a compensation of Rs 0.15 million with soft-term loan facilities for another Rs. 0.3 million, the government was not prepared to pay even Rs. 50,000 for the houses damaged in the riots."

Muslim industrialists too find themselves at odds in the face of the given situation since they suffered heavy losses. The compensation policy for the riot-hit industries and shops, has a major loophole. They can either avail a soft-term loan or a 10 per cent subsidy, not both.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on October 22 had issued notices to the central government, Gujarat state government and the National Human Rights Commission on a petition filed by a noted writer and 29 others seeking reopening of the relief camps for riot victims pending the completion of the entire relief and rehabilitation operations, besides transfer of all riot-related cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The state government should impose fines on officials if riots ever erupted in their area and also begin departmental and criminal proceedings against such officials, the petitioners requested the apex court.

¯ MG Correspondent

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