Share Your Thoughts
Suddenly, he turned and re-entered the house. He reappeared moments later with a cricket bat. Now he continued to glare at the gate with a cricket bat perched on his shoulders. I was perplexed.
“Bunty, what’s going on?” I asked, with a growing sense of unease.
“Don’t worry,” he answered, not moving his eyes from the gate. “I’m here and I’m taking care of us.”
“Why do we need to be taken care of now?” I asked. I felt a pit growing slowly in my stomach and acid beginning to reflux into my chest.
“Mangesh just called and told me that two truckloads of Muslims are on their way to attack our area. I am going to inform the rest of the society.”
That night my cousin organized a group of men from our housing society who were prepared to protect our community. They were up all night, patrolling the society, watching for any signs of danger.
I was dumbfounded. I felt like I had been drafted into playing a part in an action movie. I even found myself thinking about my priorities if we were indeed attacked. Get everyone out of the house safely. And my passport—I need my passport and my ticket back to the U.S. I need to make sure that I can get back home.
I am a second-generation U.S. citizen. My parents are of Indian origin, having immi-grated to the U.S. in the early ’70s in search of better educational opportunities. My sister and I grew up in a very different environment from our parents—we are the products of middle-class American suburbia. My parents, on the other hand, grew up in conservative, lower-middle-class villages in Gujarat. Among the many cultural disagreements in our family, we struggled to define a bicultural interface that happily merged aspects of American and Indian values. As I grew older and better appreciated my parents’ perspective, I decided to go to India one day and experience first-hand the culture that my parents had known from their childhood and the place they still call home.
As a fourth-year medical student, I decided to perform a research project on women of a low socio-economic class in Gujarat. I worked in conjunction with a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO)—Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG), and performed research on women with whom they already had a long-term relationship. AWAG focuses its work on minority groups in Ahmedabad—Muslims and lower caste Hindus. The work performed by NGOs such as AWAG is essential in providing a voice for the women of these disadvantaged communities. In order to reduce the many confounding variables in the study, we decided to accept participants from one religious group only. AWAG was particularly interested in the nutritional health of Muslim women so I focused my efforts on this community.
I began my research project in mid-October of 2001. Already apprehensive from post-9/11 hysteria in the U.S., I was initially nervous entering the Muslim slum—not only as a Hindu, but also as an American. The AWAG workers assured me that there was nothing to fear. Nevertheless, when asked about my nationality, we publicized that I was Indian, so as not to be vulnerable to any anti-American hostility. However, I found that these communities were so preoccupied with the daily struggles of providing food and shelter for their families that for them hatred in other parts of the world was a distant and unimportant issue.
I also observed that the state of Hindu-Muslim relations was much more advanced than I had expected. I would enter the slum each day with at least two AWAG workers—Ramaben and Mehroonisha—one Hindu and one Muslim, respectively. Every family we interacted with treated us all with the same respect and hospitality. There was a sense of deference towards one another, and dialog was unconstrained. Ramaben and Mehroonisha were both able to talk freely with these women about sexual relations, family planning, and domestic violence. There seemed to be a mutual understanding that traditions and religious practices may be different, but that the human condition remains the same. If Ramaben could be accepted and seen as someone helping the Muslim community regardless of her religious preference, then perhaps the Muslim community would be less hasty to pass judgments on another Hindu simply based on their religion.
Due to the strained political environment, many of my own family members living in Ahmedabad were nervous about my safety while I performed research in a Muslim community. They would repeatedly voice their concern and I would try to allay their fears by explaining the nature of my work and the potential it had for building communal and religious harmony. I observed that although the AWAG workers were willing to work with women of different religious backgrounds and practices, the majority of Hindus with whom I interacted socially did not feel that they could relate on a personal level with Muslims. I found many people, even of advanced educational backgrounds, with stereotypical views of Muslims: “those fanatics who should never be trusted.”
I completed the data collection in late Janu-ary 2002, and decided to take a month’s hiatus from the field work for analysis. I was pleased with our progress and the quality of data we had collected. On Feb. 28, 2002, a train carrying a number of Hindus on their way to Ayodhya, the site of a decade-long dispute between Hindus and Muslims, was attacked. The attack occurred while the train was passing through Gujarat, in a small village named Godhra. The train was set ablaze and several passengers were killed.
News of the attack spread fast, and by evening there were many acts of violence in reprisal for the Godhra attack across Gujarat. Although retaliatory violence also occured in other states, it centered predominantly in Gujarat. Shops, restaurants, and businesses owned by Muslims were burned down within the first few days of March. This unleashed violence on all sides. I recollect witnessing a Muslim-owned restaurant burning down in flames very close to our home on the first day of the riots. Having consumed their food happily just days before, I was appalled that fellow Hindus could simply watch and contribute to the restaurant’s destruction. One man standing next to me remarked that since the Muslim owner was not inside the restaurant at the time of the fire, the arson was essentially futile.
During the first few weeks of rioting, I observed Ahmedabad, previously a peaceful and safe city, turn into a war zone. It was no longer safe to wander alone, especially at night. We were not allowed to venture into areas of the city where Muslims predominated and vice versa. The market, an area where Hindus and Muslims had previously worked side-by-side, remained deserted, made unsafe by random stabbing incidents. The economy of the city was disrupted as Hindus and Muslims who previously had coexisted on services provided by one another, were no longer able to interact peacefully. Even NGOs such as AWAG, advised their Muslim workers to stay at home until the violence was under control.
Throughout the rioting I waited apprehensively to hear news of the people with whom I had been working. Having no practical way of getting in touch with any of the Muslim women, I had to wait. It was two weeks before I heard from Mehroonisha, and she related to me what she and her family had gone through.
She said that on the morning of March 1, at around 9, a large group of men attacked her community from the outskirts. They burned and looted the neighborhood from the periphery and worked their way to the center. She said that her people defended themselves with what they had until the following day at 3 p.m., when the police finally arrived. By that time, most of the neighborhood had been demolished. Most people had been killed or had had their livelihoods destroyed. Although the burning and looting had not reached her own home, Mehroonisha said that she and her children had witnessed most of their neighbors being harassed, killed, and their homes ransacked. She told me that she continued to be scared to close her eyes at night and had not slept in weeks.
Due to the violence that continued until I left Gujarat in May, I was unable to go back to the area in which I had performed my research. I was never able to see the slums or see the condition of the survivors among the people with whom I had worked. AWAG still continued its work, as best it could, providing immediate support through relief camps and helping to re-establish contact between both communities. But I felt that the trust and progress that AWAG had made within the minority communities had been set back, if not erased completely.
A few weeks after the riots broke out, flyers were distributed that outlined how each community should try to attack one another in the most effective manner. I saw a flyer that had been circulated among Muslims encouraging the men to abduct Hindu girls, and promising financial rewards. Throughout the violence that I witnessed in post-Godhra Gujarat, I was stupefied that the distinction between right and wrong had been obliterated. The fact that abduction and killing are wrong became blurred when the emotions of religious fortitude were prominent. Many people who I respected tried to explain their feelings to me, but when I did not comprehend hatred for the other religion, they attributed my incredulousness to naivete about Hindu-Muslim relations. Though I tried to understand their viewpoints, I also tried to explain to them that riots and violence breed more violence and solve nothing. Mehroonisha’s children witnessed 30 hours of slaughter and will never forget what happened to their community. One wonders if these wounds will fester in them, perhaps prompting them to retaliate in the future. Violence is not the solution; it only creates a more insecure world for the future.
I revisited Gujarat a year later. I found that AWAG had grown two-fold in personnel and space, and was involved in more projects with as much dedication as I had observed the year before. Ramaben and Mehroonisha related to me that the Muslim neighborhood that had been devastated during the riots had since been rebuilt. Now Ramaben and Mehroonisha were involved in another project called “Harmony” which provided a forum for the women to vent their post-riot feelings. Mehroonisha said that because women tended to stay at home, sheltered within their own community and separated from the other, they continued to harbor ill feelings towards them and their hatred had grown unabated over the past year. “Harmony” was designed to help these women discuss the riots and its aftermath within their own community and then facilitate a discussion with a group of women of the other faith. The goal was to show that your Hindu or Muslim neighbor was not the enemy. Rather, a third party had entered from the outside to cause havoc between the two.
For me, post-9/11, Godhra, the Gujarat riots, and the war in Afghanistan, it was incredibly powerful to visit India and see that the hatred and the apprehension that had plagued Ahmedabad is being approached in such a compassionate and direct manner. Without any aspiration for glory, AWAG workers are again building the foundation to help prevent Hindu-Muslim rioting in the future. With all the motivation and courage they had prior to the riots, AWAG is striving to rebuild communal and religious harmony person-by-person and meeting-by-meeting. Determined and hopeful, they are making a real difference for the future.
Stanford University graduate Kavita Trivedi is now a resident physician in internal medicine at the University of California in San Francisco.