Where wounds refuse to heal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 February, 2007, 12:00am

The slight young woman pulls a dust-covered suitcase from under her bed and rummages through it. She smiles briefly as she takes a photograph out of the clear plastic cover that has protected it for the past five years.

'That's him, that's Saleembhai,' says Firoza Banu Memon. 'That's my husband before they killed him.' The 25-year-old widow pauses for a moment, flanked by two of her three children. Her youngest, Muskan Banu, 6, squints at the picture, a father she does not remember.

Mrs Memon's husband had acid thrown in his face, before being stabbed and beaten to death in Baroda, in India's western state of Gujarat, five years ago. The reason: he was Muslim.

Today, the 27-year-old auto-rickshaw driver is little more than a precious memory, one among thousands of victims of some of the worst communal rioting to ravage post-partition India.

The carnage was in retaliation for 58 people being killed when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set alight in Godhra, eastern Gujarat, on February 27, 2002. Three months of widespread, systematic violence - murder, rape, looting and arson - aimed primarily at Muslims followed as the state, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, descended into a bloodbath.

More than 200,000 people were displaced and about 2,000 people murdered in a series of pogroms, the precision and organisation of which led many, including India's then president Kocheril Raman Narayanan, to accuse the state government of complicity.

Mrs Memon recalls vividly the day she became a widow. As mobs began to loot and burn shops and homes near their home in Tarsali, in Baroda, Saleembhai packed his wife, children and parents into his auto-rickshaw and told his older brother Yaseenbhai to drive them to an emergency camp a few kilometres away. He would follow later as there was not enough room in the auto-rickshaw. It was the last time Mrs Memon saw him.

Police discovered Saleembhai's body dumped in a waterway a day later.

'Because he was not fit to be seen because of his injuries, we did not see his body ... I couldn't believe this was true. He was such a good man. He got on well with everyone. I feel bad for my children, they have lost their father,' she says.

Though the majority of victims were Muslims, rioters did not spare lower-caste Hindus, Adivasis (indigenous people who are mainly animists) and Christians who stood in their way.

For Lalitaben Parmar, being a Hindu was of little help when a petrol bomb claimed the life of her 36-year-old husband Keshubhai as he cycled to his home in the religiously mixed area of Dani Limbra, in Gujarat's largest city, Ahmedabad, after work in April 2002.

The neighbourhood, unusually for Ahmedabad, remains religiously diverse and escaped much of the 2002 violence as people of different faiths jointly patrolled the neighbourhood to maintain calm. But Keshubhai still fell victim.

'What's the point in opening an old wound? This was in my fate. Whom do I forgive?' asks 36-year-old Mrs Parmar. Her work-worn face, devoid of the bindi (dot on forehead) which married Hindu women wear, is angry.

The anger is shared by her Hindu, Christian and Muslim neighbours, particularly since five years after the terror, most of those responsible for the atrocities remain free. The political and social climate in the state has meant prosecutions have been fraught with difficulty.

In the most high-profile case, judges in Gujarat were forced to acquit, due to a lack of evidence, 21 people accused of burning alive 14 people in a bakery in Baroda in March 2002. A bench of senior justices criticised state police for harassing witnesses and a retrial of the 'Best Bakery' murder case had to take place outside the state, in Mumbai.

Nine of the defendants were finally convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Mumbai last year.

The Supreme Court of India's decision to indict legislators from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which governed Gujarat, for intimidating witnesses, also illustrates the links between the carnage and senior party members. The BJP, which was in power nationally in 2002, still rules the state.

Human rights workers say that because no effective political counter-balance exists to rival the influence of the BJP and other 'Hindu nationalist' organisations, the majority of those responsible for the 2002 riots and other acts of communal violence will never have to answer for their crimes. The rights groups say this lack of justice is fuelling the growth of such violence, as extreme right-wing Hindu groups are largely free to operate with impunity.

While the BJP denies any involvement in communal violence, the political influence it wields is undeniable.

The BJP is part of the Sangh Parivar, an organisation with more than five million members that is also patriarch for groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The viability of these organisations, and with it their aim of promoting Hinduism in India, hinges on the political and financial support they receive from Hindus worldwide.

Experts suggest there are growing divisions between Hindus, Muslims and Christians and a rise in violence against non-Hindus in areas where the BJP rules either alone or as part of a coalition.

New school textbooks praise fascism in BJP-ruled Rajasthan, while Gujarat has seen increased segregation between Muslim and Hindu areas. In the eastern state of Orissa, where the BJP governs as part of a coalition, and in the BJP-led central state of Madhya Pradesh, Christians have been attacked, their churches burned and Muslims have reported violence and harassment.

The widespread reach of the Sangh Parivar - which provides free education in thousands of schools and has influence in political parties, trade unions, student unions, women's groups and charities - provides an unparalleled framework for it to peddle its ideology.

Angana Chatterji, an associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies who has researched communal tension in Orissa since 1995, warned that systematic violence by right-wing Hindu nationalists against Muslims, Christians, Dalits (Hindus who are outside the caste system) and Adivasis, was growing and that the state government had turned a blind eye.

Investigations by secular groups in Madhya Pradesh reveal a similar recent increase in violence against Muslims and Christians since the BJP won a majority in state polls in December 2003.

Ram Puniyani, general secretary of the All India Secular Forum, said the degree of systematic violence against Christians and Muslims in Madhya Pradesh had increased. According to the 2001 census, there were 830 million Hindus, 140 million Muslims and 24 million Christians in India.

'The idea is that you have to keep these [Muslim and Christian] communities under check and that their activities are curtailed. It's a slow boil process that's always on and some problems are accelerated at certain times,' he added.

BJP national spokesman Sidharth Nath Singh denied allegations of hatemongering and condemned the 2002 riots. He said: 'If Muslims feel they are being harassed in Gujarat, they should come to the centre [New Delhi] with proof.'

Ram Madhav, national spokesman for the RSS and the Sangh Parivar, also rejected suggestions the latter had fomented communal violence. He admitted 'a problem' existed between Hindus and Muslims in parts of India but said that the group was trying to talk to Muslim leaders so that both communities could work together to prevent violence.

Rakesh Sahni, chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, said the state government was committed to upholding harmony and had acted 'promptly' to stop isolated incidents from turning into 'major communal situations'.

A similar rebuttal was issued by Orissa officials who said accusations the government was ignoring communal violence were 'totally wrong'. Gujarat officials could not be reached for comment despite repeated efforts to contact them.

The federal government has been more circumspect and is tabling a communal-violence bill before Parliament, the first law aimed specifically at faith-based violence. But the bill has been criticised for giving police - often accused of involvement in or of ignoring communal violence - too much authority.

Meanwhile, tensions remain high in Gujarat. A newly-released film, Parzania, based on the true story of a 14-year-old Parsee boy who went missing during the 2002 riots, has not been screened in the state for fear of sparking violence.

Violence against Christians was reported last year before and during the 'Shabari Kumbh' Hindu festival.

Haleema Masi Allah Raka Mansoori, 67, has lost faith in politicians. Her son, Maulana Ahmed Hussain Allah Raka Mansoori, a 34-year-old madrassa teacher, was among 1,000 mainly Muslim men arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act after the 2002 riots. The act has since been repealed, though not retrospectively, but about 180 people, including Mr Mansoori, remain in custody.

Mrs Mansoori says her son was singled out because of his religion.

'Maulana was working in a madrassa teaching children the Koran, that's why he was arrested. The police thought he was training children and young people [to be terrorists] ...I will never forgive them for what they have done.'

Assertions by politicians that communal violence is not a problem mean little to Mrs Mansoori and Mrs Memon, whose lives have changed irrevocably.

Mrs Memon says: 'I am still frightened something like this will happen again. The people who did this are still free, they have not been punished. We hope this will not happen again ...that we can all live in peace.'