Guest post by AYESHA KHAN, Baroda-based journalist
To mine the detritus of the Gujarat pogrom for positive stories may seem like sacrilege. But when memories are dredged up to mark a decade of the horrors of 2002, a little blasphemy could help balance the account books.
Mostly what we recount of Gujarat 2002 is deaths. Yet, more than the murder and mayhem, the pogrom stood out for an unprecedented scale of sexual violence that Muslim women were subjected to. George Fernandese in his capacity as the Union defence minister had explained to the Parliament after a quick tour of Gujarat that women raped or molested during riots was not surprising or exceptional. I will not go here into the polemics of why violating women’s sexuality is considered a means of dishonouring a community,
There’s an untold story about how the community handled sexual violence. If the dominant community legitimised rape driven by its insecurities and politics that stemmed from history and identity issues, it was perhaps for the first time that the persecuted community reacted to rape in a progressive way.
Rape is double-edged sword, first leading to physical violation and second to social ostracisation in most societies. Which is common to mask the identity of rape victims for fear of social stigma. Strangely, during the 2002 riots, Muslim women, some of them burqa clad and most of them from tightly-knit rural communities never betrayed the kind of shame or guilt that rape victims are expected to show. What was their fault? Why should the victim feel shame and guilt? And so it was that many of them did not cloak their identities, and instead chose to come out publicly to demand justice.
The social stigma attached with rape disappeared to a large extent from the consciousness of victims, as also with the persecuted community at large. Stereotyped as conservative and backward in popular mainstream discourse, the Muslim community reacted positively and progressively towards its scarred womenfolk in an unconscious, untutored, effortless manner. This remains one of the most unacknowledged and undocumented facets of the 2002 pogrom.
A progressive response to a heinous sexual crime from a community they love to loath. Surely that is not what the perpetrators hoped for. Poetic justice perhaps. It uncorked one of the most progressive reactions from a community in a manner that is unheard in most parts of the world.
Fathers and brothers, farmers and traders, who were normally law abiding citizens had turned overnight rapists and molesters with impunity. They did so because of two reasons: first because an unwritten social sanction gave their crimes a moral legitimacy. The act was largely supported by Hindu women and elders who believed there was nothing amiss for Muslim women to be raped/molested or murdered, as it was rightly done to avenge the crimes against Hindu women in 14th, 15th and god knows how many centuries, as a skewed historical narrative became popular narrative. Then, of course, there was the complicity of the state government, its police apparatus and a pliable local judiciary in a manner documented in great detail by activists and the media.
Gujarat’s famed safety for women in public places stood good during the 2002 mayhem. Only that the guarantee was taken away for Muslim women. That, and how the community responded to it, I saw first-hand in those days on a news-reporting tour to Petlad town in Anand district. I had travelled there along with a photojournalist colleague to a Muslim elder’s residence. In the empty front-room sat the elders on white plastic chairs. Women and young girls stood at doorway to see us, the journalists from an English daily.
It was then that a young man introduced a visibly pregnant woman as his wife, calling her out into the room. He began to tell us how the police were refusing to register a complaint of his wife. He quietly mentioned how his wife – a petite, pretty pregnant woman was raped, while some molested while on the run.
My photojournalist colleague for a rare first time decided not to use his camera. It was a quiet, tragic narrative, except perhaps for a sniffle, unmarred by tears. Soon after, the womenfolk took me to the other room, detailed me their horrors of sexual violence, lifted up their clothes to show me visible marks on their bodies. The mandated 48 hours for a rape complaint had passed by then.
I realised that everyone in that home and perhaps the neighbourhood or even the whole village knew who was raped or molested and as they said, by whom. Only the police pretended not to know.
After that, the men detailed the mass nikaah programme to be held soon in what was then the unofficial relief camp. Activists would now debate if that was the correct way to react to rape victims. The people believed this was the only way they could protect rape victims unconditionally and provide them support. “It is not the girls’ fault, the least we can do is to get them good grooms. If we won’t support them now, who else would?” a young man had tole me. This was not a lone experience: soon after the riots, mass nikaahs were a common feature in many a relief camp.
Bilquis Bano was gang-raped, as were other women in her family. 12 of her family members were burnt alive. She was left for dead but survived. A semi-literate woman hailing from Devgadh Baria in eastern tribal Gujarat, Bano had persisted in filing rape and murder complaint against the perpetrators, while the police tried every trick in the rule book to dissuade her. Hers is the only case in Gujarat’s 2002 where convictions have taken place and Bilkis lives with some semblance of justice having been done.
While one cannot in anyway discount the support by legal activists and that a proper investigation done by the CBI, what has struck me the very visible public support of her husband and in-laws during the entire trial under media gaze.
Although such stories abound, many would point towards sexual violence and harassment of women even after the riots, in and outside relief camps. They have been reported and discussed, and I think the heartening stories of the resilience and courage f Gujarat’s Muslim women and men need to be told just as much. Contrast this with other incidents of rape. On New Year’s eve in 2003, Bijal Joshi, a college going girl from a middle-class Brahmin family of Ahemdabad was gang-raped in a hotel. When she went to the police station with her sister to file a complaint, the policemen predictably made light of the crime and instead questioned her morals for going to a New Year’s party in the night. Such was the shame and social stigma that Bijal Joshi was subjected to, that she committed suicide a week later; some of the accused were convicted in 2008.
The Muslims of Gujarat unconsciously and without any counselling sessions from psychiatristsor activists could blunt this sword with a simple realisation – that the woman was not raped because of her gender, but her religious identity, for which she could not be held responsible or even shamed. While discussing this atypical reaction with academics, activists and journalists, it has always elicited surprise, including even from those who have worked closely with the victims of the 2002 riots. None have so far denied it, but the oft-quoted discussion agenda of triple talaq and burqa which mires the issues of Muslim women inside and outside its ranks, shadows even that of the 2002 riots.
It took me a decade, but finding no discussion ever on this count or even a report or a study in countless tomes on the 2002 pogrom, I felt this needed to be said. It needed to be said now, as the once-shunned women in burqa have become the most sought after in 2011-2012 Gujarat government programmes chaired by the same CM who presided over the 2002 riots. The conspicuous burqas and skull caps were hoped to disinfect the past, in a series of his Sadbhavana fasts.
Two more positive points need to be made.
The Gujarat government claims credit for better literacy among the state’s Muslims. But this did not happen after 2002, this was the case from much earlier. Of the largest Muslim trading communities in the country, the Khojas, Memons and Bohras are all prosperous Gujaratis who historically used education to chart their destiny. If Gujarat Muslims lagged in education in the intervening decades, so did the rest of Gujarat. Because trading was a bigger priority than education.
But 2002 brought a course correction. After the pogrom, Gujarati Muslim outfits have been busy instituting prizes and scholarships to students. They’re building hostels and schools. The Gujarat government has blocked central government scholarships for minorities; so Muslim organisations have scraped the bottom of their coffers to establish schools and colleges, especially for girls, burqa or not burqa. So that they study, if not in Gujarat then elsewhere.
The third story could hearten a nationalist. Apart from being a human tragedy, the 2002 pogrom was also an experiment in identity politics, unashamedly challenging Constitutional protection of minorities, their rights and dignity. The state’s institutions and founding principles were subverted essentially for politics – for electoral politics, for votes. A senior colleague would assure me often, that there is a different India outside Gujarat. That the ideas of pluralism and justice aren’t completely finished in India with Gujarat 2002. We have seen how the judiciary has by and large, in and outside Gujarat, been foiling the Gujarat government’s best attempts to deny justice. Also standing resolutely for justice are activists and the national media, as well as public intellectuals who bring hope to victims by assuring them that they are not alone.
Since the Gujarat riots, the BJP has become strong in Gujarat but the results of this laboratory of Hindutva have not been exported. No matter how much the claims of development are used to whitewash the 2002 pogrom, it is privately acknowledged even by BJP leaders that the Gujarat 2002 ‘experiment’ has been a ‘limiting’ for the BJP in national politics.
There are tears and indelible scars but there are also reasons to smile and hope. The stories of dignity and maturity must also be told – they make us proud and hopeful, they give us the strength and resilience to continue with life’s battles and ultimately, they also help defeat the perpetrators and their ideologies and their attempt to shame and subjugate a community in a manner so vile.
(Ayesha Khan worked in the Ahmedabad bureau of the Indian Express for a decade and is currently on a sabbatical.)
More on Gujarat from Kafila archives:
- A conversation that didn’t take place in Juhapura
- The urban-rural divide in Modi’s Gujarat
- Nivedita Menon: We remember Gujarat 2002.And we know you’re lying about development
- Rahul Verma: Gujarat vs. Himachal Pradesh
- Ayesha Khan: Of Shared Spaces and Experiences in Gujarat
- Reza Noorani: Reflections of a Refugee from Modi’s Gujarat
- RB Sreekumar: On the low morale of the Gujarat Police
- Urvish Kothari: We, the People of Gujarat
- Ayesha Khan: Three stories of resilience from Gujarat
- RB Sreekumar: Gujarat genocide – the state, law and subversion
- Zahir Janmohamed: When an April Fool’s Day joke is not funny
- Zahir Janmohamed: On Narendra Modi’s strange bedfellows in Washington DC
- Zahir Janmohamed: Sanjay and me