I survived Gujarat 2002 riots: This is what our life looks like today

It is here, in tiny, airless ghettos that people like me find solace.

 |  5-minute read |   07-06-2016
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The clock strikes 1pm and I have set out for Anjum Colony in the centre of a Muslim ghetto in Juhapura in Ahmedabad. It’s one of the few colonies where victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots have been resettled.

Anjum means star, but that’s probably the only brightness in the lives of those who have lost everything in the riots. It doesn’t take much time for me to find the colony as I was also brought up there.

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The heat outside is strong, the sunlight blinding. But in the bylanes of this colony, the light is dim. Motorcycles are parked on both sides of the street, making sure I squeeze myself in to reach the stairway of a house.

Just as I reach the first floor, I see dingy rooms in pink, blue and green. I sit on a charpai and catch a glimpse of a wrinkled 60-year-old woman offering namaz.

Meet Niyaz Khala, one of the residents of Anjum Colony.

ghettos_060616090548.jpg We are compelled to stay in ghettos where we feel secure.

After her prayers, she calls me inside her home, a small room with a kitchen and a bathroom. She stares at me, as if waiting to be reassured that I am a Muslim. I empathise with her as I understand the discrimination my people face in the name of religion.

For her, it has been doubly hard. She used to live in Ognaj village, some 12 kilometers from Ahmedabad. Her husband is a quiet and reticent man and hails from a family of wealthy farmers. They had a sprawling 1,800-square feet home. It was an opulent life - a stark contrast to this dingy neighbourhood.  

But her old life started showing cracks. Khala talks about how boys from the Hindu community would tease Muslim girls in school and get Muslim boys into trouble, who would then be beaten up on the basis of such accusations.

On February 28, 2002, at 5pm on “jummah” (Friday - considered holy for Muslims), some villagers came to her house and told her to leave the village. There were only 15 Muslim families in the village, all of whom had gathered at her place.

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“We didn’t want to escape and decided to face the consequences,” says Khala, with visible resentment. The mob was huge — approximately 5,000 people.

“They started attacking my house with stones, glass bottles and whatever they could find,” says Khala. As for the police, they arrived only at 7pm after Khala had called them several times.

They took away 15-20 families from Ognaj village, including her to a relief camp in a government school in Juhapura, where already some 1,000 people were brought from different parts of Gujarat. Since then, Juhapura has been her home.

The next house I visit is pink in colour. A woman with unkempt hair and shabby clothes is sitting on the floor. She gives me a warm, but uneasy smile. She wants to know my name and ponders over it. It’s obvious that Muslims are wary of meeting strangers.

“Seven of us used to stay in this small room,” says Mumtaz, as she lets her guard down.

Mumtaz works as a domestic help. She doesn’t remember her age. Her family too is from Ognaj village and was rescued from there. In the village, she and her husband used to work as agricultural labourers. Their earnings would suffice for the day.

They lived in a jhuggi there and seemed content till the 2002 riots overturned their lives. They received one lakh rupees from the government, but they spent in their two daughters' weddings. Mumtaz visited Ognaj two years after the riots to see their house.

“I couldn’t stop crying. We had lost whatever we had,” she says.  

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Worse was to come. After they were resettled in Ahmedabad, Mumtaz’s husband Rahim couldn’t find a job for more than two years.

“Nobody wanted to employ Muslim men after the riots,” she explains. Her husband now drives an auto-rickshaw on rent and can barely sustain the family.

Due to their crumbling financial situation, her elder son couldn’t finish school and had to find work to support the family. However, her younger son, a ninth grader, recently received Rs 1,650 as scholarship and wants to study further.

“I will save the money so that I can pay his college fees later,” says the proud mother. Mumtaz and her family earn around Rs 6,000-7,000 a month. “We save Rs 100 every month,” she says.

Seeing their improved financial status, local authorities recently converted their Antyodaya red ration card (meant for families in dire financial crisis) to a BPL card.

Over the years, there has been a precipitous decline in the income levels of Muslims as the 2002 carnage forced us to abandon our previous jobs and look for alternative sources of income.

Most of those who were rehabilitated, now work in the informal sector, leading to a generation of illiterate and unskilled Muslim youth.

Niyaz Khala has received three bravery awards and has travelled to 17 cities in India for the movement to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed. Also, she has been made a conveyor of 84 resettlement colonies.

“I have lost everything in the riots but my courage. I will fight to get justice,” she says.

It’s been tough for all of us. The 2002 riots brought about a sea change in the lives of Muslims and led to our marginalisation. Despite our different social and economic status, we are compelled to stay in ghettos where we feel secure.

It is here, in tiny, airless rooms that people like Niyaz Khala, Mumtaz and I find solace.

We struggle everyday and yet, despite having lost our worldly possessions, we have one thing intact — our courage.

Writer

Fayeza Pathan Fayeza Pathan @fayezapathan

Communication strategist and a writer based in New Delhi.

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