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Remembering Gujarat

By Kalpana Sharma

The Hindu
28 December, 2003

This is the season when people are supposed to pause, think and introspect about the year gone by. And make resolutions about the coming year — on how not to repeat the mistakes of the past. But for some, introspection is preceded by amnesia. Thus, when there is nothing to remember, there is nothing to regret.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is convinced that anyone who still speaks of the horrifying events of February-March 2002 in Gujarat — "five-star activists and pseudo-secularists" — is "trying to tarnish the State's image". There is not even a hint of acknowledgment, leave alone regret, about the killings during those months that scarred not just Gujarat but India. As far as Modi is concerned, the "people have given them (the pseudo-secularists) a fitting reply by voting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) back to power and these five-star activists have no right to question the collective wisdom of the people of Gujarat."

Is it "collective wisdom" to endorse amnesia? Can a sound future be built for a state, or a country, on the unhealed gaping wounds of thousands of its citizens? Can we as a country afford to bury and forget the terrifying messages that last year's massacres in Gujarat carry?

To ensure that the memory of the Gujarat carnage is not erased, one more report by the people Modi loves to hate has been released. "Threatened existence: A feminist analysis of the genocide in Gujarat" by the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat is an important addition to the scores of documents that have recorded the events of early 2002. The significance of the report lies in several factors: one, the group that put together this report visited it nine months after the violence first began. As a result, they had the advantage of looking at the events afresh, at a time when things were supposed to have become normal.

Second, the group consisted of women from six countries including academics and activists. The international panelists were Sunila Abeysekara, Director of Inform, Sri Lanka, Rhonda Copelon, Professor of Law, City University of New York, Anissa Helie of Women Living Under Muslim Law from Algeria/France, Gabriela Mischkowski, historian and co-founder of Medica Mondiale, Germany, and Nira Yuval-Davis, Professor of Gender and Ethnic Studies, University of Greenwich, U.K. From India there was Uma Chakravarti, feminist historian from Delhi University, Vahida Nainar, researcher of international law, Farah Naqvi, independent writer and co-founder of Nirantar and Meera Velayudan, formerly with the Institute for Environmental and Social Concerns, Coimbatore. Together they brought their combined experience of similar situations around the world to bear as they listened to testimonies of the affected women and men in Gujarat.

The report is worth more than a glance because it illustrates how something that the Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani prefers to dismiss as an "aberration" has in fact systematised violence and discrimination so that it has become part of daily existence in Gujarat. Nine months after the violence, the panelists found that the problems for the Muslims, who had already lost almost everything, had not stopped. They look at five different aspects that arise from this situation: "Fear — generated both by threat of violence and actual attacks; displacement and non-rehabilitation; continuing economic violence including an economic boycott of Muslims; long-term impact on Muslim women including the impact on their physical, reproductive and psycho-social health and the long-term impact on children."

On the first point, for instance, they observe that "fear is today the dominant emotion in the lives of the Gujarati Muslims. They tread quietly and try to keep a low profile because even small altercations with members of the majority community can easily become serious."

The report especially highlights the impact of the sexual violence that was such a dominant motif of the killings of last year. "For women the fear of physical violence is heightened by fear of sexual attacks. Having been subjected to sexual violence themselves, having seen other women from the community being violated, or knowing the extent to which sexual crimes were committed, has engendered a psychological threat perception among all women from the community."

A woman survivor from Anand told the group, "Nobody has asked for forgiveness or shown regret. We cannot say anything. Rapists stop women in the street to humiliate them: `Didn't we have her, haven't we done this or that to her?' We don't speak about this at home, because then our men will get very agitated."

This combination of denial of justice and the continuing threat has caused women, already traumatised by the events of last year, even greater stress. The unmarried women who were raped do not speak about it. There are reports of many of them being hurriedly married off for fear that otherwise they would be unacceptable. Some married women are prepared to speak about what they saw or went through. But clearly, for every one such recorded case, there must be dozens that will never be acknowledged.

On top of this, women are burdened by suddenly being forced to be the sole breadwinners for their families. They also have to cope with displacement and the problems this throws up such as the difficulties their children face in new schools and in a different environment. And all the time, they have to deal with the open intimidation by perpetrators of past crimes who continue to move around unchecked. The team concluded that "nine months after the pogrom, (we) found overwhelming evidence of new and continuing forms of violence against the Muslim minority. They are unable to resume anything resembling a normal life, unable to ensure basic survival and to make free choices in the pursuit of happiness and well being for themselves and their families. The future holds dread".

But this is something Narendra Modi refuses to accept. All such reports are defaming his state, he blazes. On completion of one year in office, he prefers to talk about the wells his government has dug and the heightened attendance in schools. But does this count for anything when thousands of people who lost their families, whose women were gang-raped, whose children were massacred, whose houses were reduced to cinders, still have no hope for justice, for real rehabilitation and a promise of a peaceful future?

No, Mr. Modi and Mr. Advani. India and Gujarat cannot "shine" — "India shining" is the new slogan — as long as the dark stain of the Gujarat carnage remains unacknowledged and unaddressed. Indians who care must resolve that even in 2004, they will not allow such shameful events to be forgotten and erased from public memory.