By Azim Sherwani
06 September, 2006
Mohammad Shekh is an activist working with victims of the state -sponsored
anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 3000 people
were killed. She is based in the Qasimabad Colony, near Kalol in the
Panchmahals district of Gujarat. Eleven members of her own family, including
her daughter and husband, were slaughtered in this most large-scale
wave of anti-Muslim violence in India in recent times, the victims of
which are yet to get justice. Here she narrates to Azim Sherwani the
traumatic murder of her family, her struggle for survival and her present
involvement in seeking to promote peace and communal harmony in communally-polarised
I was born in a fairly well-off family. I grew up with my grandparents
and parents. My grandfather wanted me to marry in the same village.
So he found a boy of my own village who was my cousin from my mother's
side. He had done his secondary schooling but the economic condition
of his family was not very sound. I was 13 at that time and told my
family that I would commit
suicide if they forced me to marry him but they did so. Initially, I
hated to live with my husband's family but my grandfather convinced
me and emotionally blackmailed me. I started supporting my husband by
helping him sell vegetables. Once my husband had an offer of a government
job but he was asked to pay a hefty bribe. My parents were willing to
pay the bribe to help my husband have a better future but he refused.
He felt it was against his honor to borrow from his in-laws to pay the
bribe. He promised me a good life with his hard labor. Because of our
hard work our business flourished and finally we had to employ some
local youths as helping hands in the business.
On 27th February 2002, I had a gynecological operation. I was in the
nursing home. The next day my husband told me about the burning of the
train coach in Godhra. I was frightened but he told me that police had
been deployed and that nothing untoward would happen. He told the doctors
to take care of me and not to worry about the money, promising to be
back the next morning.
On 1st March a Hindu mob attacked the Muslim houses in my village Dahlol.
I intuitively did not want my husband to go to the village but, owing
to his repeated insistence that the children were alone, I could not
stop him. A Hindu customer of ours sheltered my husband and the children
in his house when the mob went on a rampage. He insisted on sending
our children to the hospital, which he thought to be a safer place.
My husband reluctantly agreed. My 13-year old daughter stayed with her
father. The Hindu customer dropped my son Suhail at the nursing home.
I was worried. I wanted to know where my family was. He told me not
to worry. Very soon, he said, everybody would join me, and he assured
me that they were safe in his house.
In the evening this Hindu man took my family with him, telling them
that he was arranging for safe passage for them. He took them towards
the river and on the way started shouting that there were Muslims around.
This was a trap that he had laid. All at once, a Hindu mob, armed with
sharp weapons, surrounded my family members. One of my nephews ran to
save his life and hid behind huge bushes. But the mob killed everybody
one by one. They begged for their life to be spared but in vain. My
13 year-old daughter was gang-raped and cut into pieces. After killing
burnt their bodies. My nephew, who narrowly escaped, was watching everything,
shaking with fear. He fled the place when the mob went back to the village.
He came to the main road, which connects Kalol, a town with a substantial
Muslim population. The police found him, and asked him to remove his
trousers to see if he was a Muslim. They kicked him and abused him for
being a Muslim. He was thrown out of the police jeep. Upon arriving
Kalol he narrated the incident to our relatives and family friends.
I was still in the hospital and was not told anything by our relatives.
The next day the mob came to the hospital in search of me. The doctor
told them that I had been discharged and had left the hospital. After
this incident the doctor was afraid that the mob might come again in
search of me. He provided a set of clothes normally worn by Hindu women
to hide my identity in case I was stopped on my way to a safer place.
After 15 days I was sent to a relief camp in Qasimabad in an Army vehicle.
When I reached the camp, my sister and other people started crying.
I wanted to
know about my husband, daughter and other family members. They told
me that they were in a different relief camp. I insisted that I want
to speak to them. One of my family friends phoned me, pretending that
he was my husband, but I could easily make out that it was a different
voice. I guessed that I lost everything. My life was completely destroyed.
My brother-in-law started crying and revealed to me that only thee members
of our family of 11 had survived.
The atmosphere in the relief
camp was depressing and frustrating. I had lost everything but I had
to live for my son Suhail. We had to face so very many problems. We
could not go back home. My brother-in-law wanted the compensation money
to be deposited in his name. He thought I might take the money and get
married to someone else and might not take care of my son. I convinced
him that I would take care of my son for he was everything to me now.
In case I got married again, I said, I would deposit the money in his
I had so much pain in my heart and was worried that I might go mad.
I started volunteering in the camp. At that time some women's group
and an NGO came to work for the rehabilitation and access to justice
for the victims of the carnage. I joined them as a volunteer initially.
There was a lot of opposition from some conservative maulvis. They tried
to force me not to go out because I was a widow and I had to perform
the religious duty of being isolated from men for four months. I told
them categorically that I needed to work for women like me who had lost
everything in the
carnage. They needed my support. There was also some opposition from
some of my distant relatives.
It was really difficult to engage Hindus, Dalits and Muslims in peace-building
initiatives. There was complete mistrust of and hatred for each other.
Muslims said that the Hindus had destroyed their life. What kind of
reconciliation, they asked, is possible? But some people started appreciating
our work. They would tell me, 'You lost everything in the carnage but
you still don't hate Hindus. Rather, you try to engage them. So, we
should follow your path of trying to promote peace and counter hatred'.
Today, I have no one in my life except Suhail. I am sad but now I am
a confident woman. I can relate to and understand the problems of all
other women, Hindus, Dalits and Muslims.
Constant preaching of hatred against Muslims for political purposes
is the root cause of communal violence in Gujarat. The Bajrang Dal and
the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are the main instigators of anti-Muslim hatred
in India and use any opportunity to instigate violence against them.
During the mass violence against Muslims there were some good Hindus
who helped their Muslim neighbors in providing shelter or safe passage.
Unfortunately, however, in Gujarat today the communal divide has increased.
We need to work hard in engaging youth, women, Dalits and Adivasis to
mobilize for communal harmony.
In fact, all religions teach tolerance and peace but some people interpret
religion with narrowness and to generate hate against fellow human beings.
At times I ask myself that if the different religions were made to serve
humanity then why are people all over the world killing each other in
the name of religion?
I have devoted my life to the struggle against communalism and for empowering
women. This and the hope for a better future of my son are my strength.
I want to educate my son and would like him to join government service
in Gujarat. There is so much pain in my heart but I want to channelise
it to prevent a repeat of what happened in Gujarat in 2002.
Azim A.Khan Sherwani is based in Delhi and writes on
human rights and Muslim-related issues. He may be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
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