Gujarat: An Eyewitness Account

– Shubhra Nagalia

THE FIRST thing that probably strikes anyone who enters Gujarat is its vast expanses of silent spaces, long stretches of highways, lanes upon lanes of market complexes, and crowded colonies. It becomes difficult, particularly in those cities, which have seen the worst days of violence, to distinguish between the areas under curfew and those that are not. Segregation between Muslim and Hindu areas is sharply visible as you move around these cities. Mistrust and fear still hang thick, for everybody tells you not to do this or not go there or not to say that, because anytime dhamaal (riot) might break out. Conversations are cautious and guarded, perpetually sizing you up to gauge the reaction. Free movement in Gujarat, with the intent and purpose spelt out, is an impossible luxury. Reasons of security is administration’s favourite argument to stop your movement altogether and foreclose any possibility of fact-finding that you might want to do. So we thought it best to move on our own with all the liberty that such an option could afford and, of course, despite the risks, underlined from the point of view of the administration and police. It was another matter that we met more and more people and our friends there endorsed our decision as a wise one, and in fact, safer.

Our trip to Gujarat started on 19 March and we returned on the evening of 26 March, on the eve of Moharrum. We started from Surat, a city that had seen gory riots in the immediate wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, during which Hindutwavaadis videographed their heroic feat of mass rape of Muslim women. Mr. Praful Bidwai has written that the present Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Modi was the director of the Surat riots. Today, in his capacity as the Chief Minister, he is accusing the media of inciting violence by showing raw violence on the screen. One should ask, where exactly were these principles when those rapes were being videographed in Surat a decade ago? This city has stayed mercifully calm this time, almost everybody said. A statement whose fragility became apparent in the tears pouring from the eyes of a woman who had lost nothing and no one of her own but was exhausted from giving hope and courage to all around her who had lost everything.

Official figures: A fairytale of ‘control’ and ‘normalcy’

“It was very nice of you to come. At least someone took the trouble of meeting and talking to us” – Salma Begum.

As we walked through the ruins of old buildings and godowns, more and more people joined in, and she appeared from somewhere with glasses, a bottle of water and a smile. Walking with us, talking fast and loudly, she took us from one wreckage to another: deserted areas with silent gaping holes in walls and roofs, charred windows and blackened trees. Her matter-of-fact voice cut through the whispers of the crowd following us as she narrated how they had evacuated most of the houses and why most people had still not come back. Then, as we got ready to leave, Salma stood there, silent for the first time and her smile vanished: “I am so tired. I haven’t slept for many days. I am tired of giving people courage to go on. I didn’t lose anything but everyone around me has lost much...” “It is unbearable. I can’t take it any more,” she said. Then she squeezed my hand. With her large eyes brimming with tears, she waved a shaky goodbye. This was Lakkarkot, the oldest part of old city of Surat. Here, Muslim-owned massive godowns storing hundreds of tonnes of wood and marble were gutted selectively. Repeated appeals to provide security to the people, in view of escalating tension after a mosque had been desecrated the previous night, was waived away dismissively. Salma said, “The fire raged and raged, fire brigades refused to come till everything was burnt down to the ground. Women peed in their pajamas and couldn’t even cry from fear. Slogans rented the air as all who had stayed back huddled in their houses. They were just a lane away. I can’t describe what I felt in those hours.” A single and unnamed FIR has been lodged on behalf of the entire area of Lakkarkot.

In Pandesara, which was the first place we visited, women and children had been evacuated a day before 1 March, just in case trouble started in their area. It was a timely precaution. A mob of thousands surrounded them and their frantic appeals went unheeded; their mosque, which had been relocated and rebuilt after being damaged in the previous riots, was damaged beyond repair this time, too. It reeked of rioters’ piss and burnt pages of Koran lay scattered. Filthy slogans screamed from the remaining walls. It doesn’t take too long to sum up this nightmare, which for them keeps recurring.

Bashir Bhai, the president of that society and pillar of their strength, suddenly becomes incoherent with despair and repeats again and again: “What wrong have we done? Why don’t they tell us once and we will all commit suicide here itself. But don’t kill us over and over again.” In what language can you translate a broken man’s sobs? It was more terrifying, and is so even today as his lined, kind, but despairing face comes before my eyes. Then a woman took me aside to show her small one-room shop-cum-home, completely empty and completely torched. She told me that she had no one to look after her and that her sole source of livelihood had been destroyed. She looked at Bashir Bhai from a distance and then quickly turned her face. Perhaps she felt the same terror as I had. It was as if hope had just died in front of our eyes.

Though many of the perpetrators could be identified it was not possible to file a named FIR and there was no assessment being done for the value of their destroyed property. As we moved towards the areas known for their textile factories – Rajivnagar, Ishwarnagar, and Mahaprabhunagar – we saw how singularly and precisely those factories owned by Muslims had been torched and razed. Hours of luxurious indulgence were given to the rioters, with bulldozers to aid them. The police and fire brigades, despite ceaseless appeals were nowhere in sight. As we moved around, most houses were conspicuous by the presence of Jai Shri Ram, scrawled in black charcoal, and those where this marker was absent were even more conspicuous with their blackened and gapingly silent presence.

The Murderer: Don’t worry; I will safeguard your life!

Our eerie journey from Surat to Baroda (Vadodara) stretched for hours, virtually alone on the Ahmedabad-Surat highway, one of the busiest in India. There was almost no other private vehicle on that highway for long stretches, which was dotted with burnt trucks and shops alongside. Only heavy or government vehicles could be seen on that road. We were told that parts of the city were still under curfew, which was amply visible from the deserted look it wore. As we crossed colonies packed with houses, in which surely people were residing, there was not a sound emanating from any house and no motion outside or around the houses could be discerned. Baroda had witnessed gruesome violence in the past three weeks. We visited the biggest relief camp sheltering people, relatives or simply strangers, from in and around Baroda, in the area called Tandelja. We also met the daughter, Zahira Shaikh, of the owner of two-storied Best Bakery, located at Dabhoi main road, who managed to survive an attack in which almost her entire family and property was destroyed. She was staying with Iqbal Bhai and her grandmother. It was the eve of Jumma and by the time namaaz ended the entire area had also came under curfew. We barely managed to make it to Zahira’s house. Our plan of meeting two other survivors of the attacks failed: one a sessions judge and the other a retired Lt. Colonel (both his sons are currently serving the Indian Army). Both had survived an attack and torching of their houses by huge mobs.

“‘Don’t worry chaachi, we will ensure your safety. No harm can come to you while we are here’. This is what our neighbours told us on the morning of 1 March and by 8 p.m. they attacked us” – Zahira Shaikh.

Young Zahira sat in front of me, absolutely still, dry eyed, with her hands folded in her lap. Only the sharp mechanical rise and fall of her intonation gave away the terror that has become a part of the remaining walls. Her father had mercifully died of a heart attack 10 days before the attack. “It was on 1 March and we had just finished with dinner when we realised that some people were collecting around our house. My uncles brought the vehicles inside and locked the gate of the bakery and called the police. Repeated calls were answered saying that there was no force available. As the mob gathered, they started shouting our names asking us to come out. When they started shouting the names of women, we went on the terrace. They were shouting filthy abuses. Then they torched the bakery. We shielded ourselves from the smoke and heat using mattresses and sheets. All the people who were below, 10 people including 3 women and 4 children, were charred to death in the night itself. Two Hindu workers who were trying to escape were stabbed to death. Although a police van came to the area, it left without doing anything. We cowered in the terrace where they kept throwing burning sticks and stones to flush out any survivors. Then they settled down for a nightlong vigil. By 10 a.m. we were as good as dead and decided to plead with them for mercy. They cajoled us and assured us that they would not harm us and that we all were familiar with each other. They said that whatever happened at night was over and nothing would happen to us now. When we came down we were dragged to the nearby huts, all the while being told that there was adequate arrangement for all of us, from a girl of 4 to an eighty-year-old woman. By that time police arrived and we survived. The remaining males, including my brother, were tied up and attacked with trishuls, swords and sticks, after which they were doused in kerosene and were set on fire but the police arrived and they managed to save their lives. They are still undergoing treatment at the hospital. Two of my uncles are still missing. I have filed a named FIR identifying the culprits since I could recognise them very well. But no arrest has been made so far and the killers continue to roam the streets freely.” As she was finishing, her grandmother came in, who also went through this ordeal. She had barely sat down when she started crying inconsolably. She just kept repeating brokenly, “Why my two sons? What wrong did they do? Why? Why?”

Tandelja relief camp was sheltering more than 3000 people, apart from the 7-8000 that were staying with various families in that colony. As I spoke to one woman after another at the relief camp – in some cases only incoherent sobs, holding of hands and in some cases just long vacant pauses – I realized it was impossible to piece together their story, just like their lives, which were only large exposed wounds for all to see. The story of one woman after another was the same: she is someone who had most of her family killed, members burnt alive in front of her eyes, and home gutted. She is someone with dependent children, who had to begin her life all over again from a scratch. Most faces echoed past horrors and a despairing exhaustion from the moment-to-moment struggle to give some shape to themselves.

Saira Bano from Hussain Nagar, along with her husband and three children, had to flee suddenly as the mob descended on them on the morning of 28 February at around 11 a.m. Thankfully, a neighbouring Hindu, Dhana, gave them shelter and with hands that were shaking so badly that precious minutes were being lost, he locked them up, cautioning them not to make a sound, and fled from there. “We stayed under the bed for almost 24 hours. I told my children to swallow their cough and not make any sound, I told them to pee on a wet cloth I had laid out for them so that no water would trickle out to give us away. We sat like that, not making any sound, without any food or water, till Dhana came back and asked us to leave since his own life was in danger,” Saira told me calmly and flatly. Suddenly, the calm was pierced by her high-pitched wail as she said, “for the next 7 kms. my husband, me and my children, this little 2½-year-old Amir, shouted Jai Shri Ram, as we walked through the hostile crowd still present to reach Muktinagar where my uncle lived”. She dissolved into tears as I held her Amir tightly in my arms and heard her saying again and again, “My Amir, my two-and-a-half-year-old Amir also shouted loudly and continuously, all the way to Muktinagar to save our lives”.

We left curfew-bound Vadodara’s still and silent streets with many memories amongst which one was of a flag march by the Army on one side of the street and while a police van led people on the other, flaunting Chief Minister’s definition of ‘control’ and ‘normalcy’ and suppressing stories of continuing violence and the tragic plight of the survivors. Thus we entered the proud city of Ahmedabad, brought to its knees violently over the last month. We stepped into the city through a point called Sarkhej Circle and were met by a site of burnt shops all around the circle in what must have been a carnage: not erratic, disordered or chaotic but cold, precise and thorough.

Gujarat Police: Rescuing the dead

“It began at about 10.30-11a.m. on 28th February. I remember because that is when the water comes. They came in thousands, from all sides. We ran the way we were, whoever could flee could save their lives and whoever was caught was killed. My entire family was almost wiped out. 5 people were burnt alive and the rest are missing. I have been staying at this camp since then and have not gone back even once. I don’t want to also” – Jaimunnissa, in Shah Alam relief camp.

Naroda Patia is a large area with many Muslim localities spread out in chaal after chaal. February 28 would go down in history as the day when an entire city put everything aside to light the biggest funeral pyre in its memory. It was here that the flames leapt higher and brighter than elsewhere.

Thousands converged on an unsuspecting people, flashing saffron headbands, wielding trishuls, swords, chains, sticks, stones, sharp-edged iron pipes and deadly gas cylinders and kerosene, with bulldozers, and with great foresight, edibles and hundreds of Bisleri water bottles. They rented the air with slogans of intent: “Kill them all! No one should escape alive! Jai Shri Ram!” As men, women and children fled, trying to take refuge in nearby Hindu ‘societies’, gates were locked at their face and deadly petrol bombs, stones and acid bulbs were hurled from balconies. As all exits were slowly blocked by the 10000-strong mob, connection to the outside world snapped. No telephones, no electricity, no water; nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide.

Moinuddin, a 17-year-old student of class 10 was late coming out of his house and was caught. When he refused to say Jai Shri Ram kerosene was poured into his mouth and he was set on fire. His 70-year-old father, Hasan Abubakr Saiyed helplessly watched his sole source of dependence reduced to ashes. He told me that his son was a very bright student and his mother had been very proud of him.

Sain Bano recounted those hours of her nightmare, which had stayed with her ever since: “Myself, my husband Mohammad Hasan and our three children ran to save our lives. My husband was shot in the leg and he fell down. As I ran towards him to help him up, I saw him being shot again, in his head. Then the mob poured kerosene over his body and set him afire, right in front of my eyes. I stood there till someone dragged me away. Then I ran and ran with my children”. She fell silent, even as I asked her how she managed to escape. She suddenly said, “I ran away”. “I could not save him. I couldn’t do anything to save him”, she kept repeating in disbelief as I got up to leave her to fight her demons alone.

Some women hid near a water tank and watched through the wire mesh. People were being cut up with swords, and torched. They also said that many woman, small girls, were raped and set on fire. They made me meet a woman, who pleaded with me to not to give her name or her daughter’s, who had been raped by 6 men and then burnt alive.

The hideous murder of Ehsan Jaafri and most of his family and the stripping and rape of two girls from his household before being burnt alive (as stated in the representation to the NHRC) numbs consciousness. We met his sister-in-law, who was among the survivors of the shocking attack on Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad in which Mr. Jaafri along with 42 other people were charred to death. We also met the daughter-in-law of Mr. Jaafri in her second floor house, situated in Adajan area, in a colony called Siddiqui Square in Surat. His daughter-in-law told me that their house in Randher had been attacked in previous riots but they had decided to go back and live there. Only 3-4 years ago they had moved into Siddiqui Square. On being asked if she felt secure here, she smiled and said, “it is pointless to look for safety anywhere. If a mob of 5000 comes here, what relevance would a ‘safe colony’ have?”

Besides being Muslims, they were all women, naked bodies of women, who were Muslim enough to warrant all the hatred, but were women nevertheless, who could be raped and against whom sexual oppression could be used as a tool. While meeting people in Gujarat, in relief camps and outside, and scanning hundreds of pages of articles and reports on Gujarat, it became obvious that there are very few survivors as in most instances women were raped and then killed. No trail has been left so that the complete story of this barbarity cannot be put together just like in the case of missing people, whose bodies have not been found till date. The horror must live only in the dark memories of the perpetrators and their few surviving victims.

The events that completely turned the lives of thousands of people upside down were thorough, for when it all ended by about 5 p.m. in the evening, there was scarcely any house standing upright and undamaged. Every single person alive had fled to Shah Alam relief camp. The police kept patrolling the nearby areas where it was calm, despite repeated pleas for help. Sain Bano’s husband was shot twice. She claims that it was the police who shot him. Many others will tell you in voices thick with fatigue, not even caring whether any one believed them or not, that when they were desperately trying to run to save their lives, the police was firing at them to drive them back towards the murderous mob. By about 1 a.m. in the night, the police came back. It was a black, deathly silence because corpses don’t talk. Having done everything in the day to drive them to death, they came back at night. To rescue the dead.

Fascist Takeover Of Gujarat

The decade of the ’90s, in particular, has seen a consolidation and expansion of the Hindu Right across the country. In Gujarat, the BJP, the political party of the extreme Right, has been in power over this decade and has effectively used state power to organize and militarise its support base. Dissemination of its ideology and formation of a solid organizational network has been done with the blessings and support of elected representatives in the government. It would be significant to give an instance: Trishul Diksha Samaroh is a function held by the RSS (the parent organization of which the BJP is a political party and the VHP, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini and numerous others are its mass organizations) regularly, and in the present context it was held all over Gujarat in December. It was attended by various state and central ministers of the BJP. In this function thousands of swords and such other weapons were distributed widely. How well they were used in the genocide that followed Godhra! Other revealing instances are organizing festive public religious rituals in which thousands of women participate and listen to VHP and other organizational leaders. As Arunabehn from Navrangpura colony of Ahmedabad said, “We go to our society satsang daily for two hours. There we listen to the VHP leaders”. She had gone to Ayodhya with 15 other women from Ahmedabad. She says, “We spend the days cooking and keeping house. But we can spare at least 2 hours in the name of God”. (The Indian Express, February 26, Dateline Ayodhya, filed by Sonu Jain). Along with regular and systematic preparation at the ground level, the state machinery is also thoroughly ‘caderised’. A massive recruitment of VHP cadres as police sahayaks and home guards has been made. Posting and transferring senior police officials according to their ideological leanings has given them a large space of maneuverability designed for use in situations like the one we are witnessing now in the state, where the police force of Gujarat was seen as taking orders directly from the Sangh Parivar’s leaders instead of the bureaucracy. Information, which is normally not for public consumption, has been collected through the government and the extensive organizational network. In situations like the post-Godhra one-sided violence, the political will of the entire state machinery becomes clear through the inaction or supportive action of the police officials, relief fund distribution and so on.

State power along with a successful mobilisation of social forces like dalits and tribals is what gives the extreme Right its deadly striking power. It also successfully enables the formation of well-equipped, armed and trained civil militia, gathering an organized mob of thousands at a very short notice and putting it to use effectively as it did recently. It is also immensely important in channelising the overwhelming energy of restive educated unemployed youth, which could otherwise turn against the neo-liberal economic policies aggressively pursued by the state.

Participation of women in the communal fascist project

In its communal fascist project, mobilising women has been an important agenda of the Hindu Right. Employing women in this project is of particular importance since their presence not only adds to the emotive value but also signifies an overarching acceptance of the Hindu Rashtra agenda amongst various sections of society. A pattern can be discerned in how the presence of women is utilised for an impassioned and larger mobilisation by generating insecurity and anger within the community. This often happens with the help of local dailies of wide circulation, which print inflaming news describing in graphic details the so-called abduction, rape and mutilation of women from the particular community, thus immediately striking a chord among the masses. It is propagated as an attack on the honour of the community. It then sanctifies rape, mutilation and other gruesome violence inflicted on the women of the enemy community as honour killings. In 1990, in the worst ever Hindu-Muslim riot that took place in Bijnore (U.P.), Dr. Mushir Ahmed gave shelter to two Hindu women who were caught in the crossfire on a bandh day. This was widely circulated as abduction of the two women and led to the tragic lynching of Dr. Ahmed, subsequently followed by mass killings of Muslims. In the evening, RSS and VHP men roamed through the town spreading rumors that Muslims in Barwan were raping, kidnapping and murdering Hindu women. (Amrita Basu, EPW, Oct.1, 1994.) In the present situation of Gujarat also, the presence of women was used in igniting an already volatile situation. Starting from the ghastly Godhra killings, where the news of an incident of attempted abduction of the teenaged daughter, Sophiya, of Jaitin Bibi, who along with both of her young daughters was waiting for a train to Vadodara, by a kar sevak, spread like wildfire and perhaps played a role in the mobilisation of the mob that had collected at the station. Contrary to the rumour, the attempt did not succeed and she along with her family is in Vadodara now. This was followed by a news report on March 1, 2002, on page 16, in Sandesh, which is a leading Gujarati daily and enjoys a large circulation. The translation of that news is as follows:

From among those abducted from Sabarmati Express two dead bodies of Hindu girls found near Kalol in mutilated state!

Vadodara, Thursday: The details of the information about the dead bodies of two girls abducted from the bogies, during the attack on Sabarmati Express, yesterday, found in a mutilated and terribly disfigured form, near a pond in Kalol, has added fuel to the already volatile situation of tension, not only in Panchmahal but in the whole state.

As part of a cruel inhuman act that would make even a devil weep, the breasts of both the dead bodies had been cut. Seeing the dead bodies one knows that the girls had been raped again and again, perhaps many times. There is a speculation that during this act itself the girls might have died.

The police, however, have kept quiet and have not spoken about this sensitive event. On account of that various speculations during an already tense situation are like adding ghee to the fire.

According to the talk heard during the night one more dead body of a girl, also in a terribly mutilated form, had been found. After having been raped and mutilated, the body of the woman had been set on fire with petrol. Is there no limit to lust?

This (mis)report was verified by Deputy Superintendent of Police, Godhra, Mr. Raju Bhargava, and he refuted this story as baseless in a press statement. But by then the damage had been done. Rioters brandished the copy of Sandesh, raping and killing Muslim women and shouting, “You should pay for this!”

Sexual subjugation of women through rape, disrobing, mutilation of their private parts also serves as a message of barbaric crushing of the honour and culture of the “enemy” community. It is foregrounded in building the image of a Muslim as an aggressive, lustful, characterless rapist, thereby generating fear and insecurity in the Hindu men and women for whom the violence meted out to the Muslim woman is justified.

While carefully preserving the myth of women being primarily mothers, and hence being nurturing, caring, enduring and tolerant, the Hindu Right has cleverly exploded this myth when it comes to dealing with the enemy – Muslims in this case. While she must be Sita for a Hindu male, she would become Ranchandi when fighting to protect her family i.e. the Hindu rashtra against the perceived threats posed by the enemy. So while in her Hindu home she keeps adjusting to and enduring domestic violence, marital rape and bride burning, she is patted on her back for being a bloodthirsty aggressor when fighting the Hindu family’s biggest enemy (Muslims). In fact, she does this with a sense of bounden duty. It goes without saying that in both cases, whether the woman is a victim or the victimiser, she is the loser.

In Gujarat women not only shared the booty after their men had torched Muslims and their property by coming in droves to loot the destroyed shops, merrily matching the size of their shoes and colour of their dresses, piling the choicest pieces of furniture and scores of other items into vans, they helped in making acid bulbs, kaakaras (cloth wrapped several times around a long stick, which is then doused in kerosene and used to torch people and property), collecting sticks and stones. They goaded men into action and aggressively took on the police, which in any case was in no mood to fight them. Although wherever police officers or any bureaucrat did try to do their duty, they were seriously hampered in their work by determined women, who stopped them from arresting, known and identified criminals. On 17 March, as soon as police commissioner Pandey issued the order of transfer of the station in-charge, K.K. Mysoorwala, the prime accused in Naroda Patia massacre, to the Special Branch, within hours a mob of about 2000 people, which largely comprised women, encircled and forced the Commissioner to revoke his order. They took part in large numbers, in groups singing of Ram dhuns, for the construction of the proposed Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. They were a part of the mob which kept nightlong vigils to ensure there were no survivors in some of the goriest instances of massacre. They also, after having refused shelter to fleeing women and children, threw acid bulbs and stones from their balconies at those desperate people, mostly women and children, who managed to get inside their Society. They were part of those who signed in large numbers to remove shelter camps housing vulnerable, terrified and homeless people. Some women reportedly were even actively engaged in encircling and killing Muslims. They acted as shields by leading mob processions to prevent the police from stopping them.

There are a large number of middle class housewives from different states amongst the thousands who are being mobilised for the movement to build the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. Women leave their familial responsibilities for 15 days or more at a stretch for a larger cause. They see themselves as a part of a crusade to protect, invigorate and reproduce the Hindu race. The tragic burning of 58 passengers in S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express, most of whom were women and children, was seen as Rambhakts (which is equated with desh bhakt) being attacked by the enemy (i.e. anti-national Muslims). They became martyrs for Ram. “There are thousands of worshippers who are still ready to sacrifice their lives for the cause”, said Geetabehn Gamit, 21 years old, coming from Songadhi Taluka (The Indian Express, Surat, March 1). While it might never be possible to know the facts behind the ghastly Godhra killings, it has been much easier to construct the association between anti-national, anti-Hindu Muslim attacking Ram bhakts/Desh bhakts. So in the reprisal that must necessarily follow, women should stand up to their duty of avenging the wrongs done to the Hindu race. “Enough is enough! They can get away with anything they want. How much can we tolerate? We must have it out once and for all!” – thus marched thousands of veeranganas on the streets of Gujarat raising the battle cry. From Ayodhya to Gujarat, images of women – from Andhra Pradesh wielding naked swords on their way to Ayodhya – to photos of women singing Ramdhuns, to images of women picking up goods from torched establishments, it was Hindu women, very much in the forefront of communal fascist mobilisation of the extreme Right.

Put in her place!

The brief spark of empowerment that scores of Hindu women experienced when they took to the streets to participate in the violence was squarely put in its place when women who dared to go against the dictates of the Hindu male community had to pay the price with their death. The Indian Express of March 9, 2002 filed the story of 19-year-old Manjula Maganlal Patel, who had been burnt alive by her husband’s brother, cousin and two brothers-in-law while Maganlal, her husband, waited outside. She had been admitted to the hospital in Ahmedabad with 95% burns with no chances of survival. She had been punished for asking her husband not to venture out of the house and not to join ransacking mobs. She was 7 months pregnant at the time and delivered a dead baby boy and had been slapped and beaten up before being doused in kerosene and set afire after which her husband set out to torch other people. Manjula had eloped with Maganlal 2 years ago. Soon after her marriage her troubles began as Maganlal beat her up regularly and attempted to burn her alive 8 months ago. Earlier when she had become pregnant, her mother-in-law and Maganlal forced her to abort the child after 5 months of pregnancy. Manjula Maganlal Patel made a mistake twice over. Once, by coming into marriage without the prized dowry. Second, by audaciously asking her husband not to participate in the genocide. They both paid a price for wanting to live their life their own way. Gujarat spelt it out loud and clear that there was no place for such women in the Hindu Rashtra, and that such defiance would be crushed mercilessly.

Gujarat is one of the most prosperous states in India. It has deep-rooted social customs. According to one such custom, a boy from a lower status village circle (group of villages, which are higher in the hierarchy if they have more wealth and fertile land) can marry a girl from a higher status village circle without lowering of his status, but vice-versa is not possible. This has resulted in an ever-increasing competition amongst families in giving highest dowry. This has forced many families to earn more and save more to prepare for a good marriage. The fact of Gujaratis migrating in the 19th and 20th centuries to East Africa, then later to the U.S. and U.K., is already well known. Of those who migrate almost 35% are Patels followed by Vania, Lohana and other castes. Steady fragmentation of cultivatable land and earning and saving for dowry marriage is an important factor that results in migration.

The rate of death of women by burning and suicide is one of the highest in Gujarat. The number of deaths of women by burning (within the age group of 14 -30 years) is very revealing.

Deaths per year
Average deaths per day

	1987 	2220 	6.08 
   	1988 	4116 	11.27
   	1989 	4245 	11.65
   	1990 	3986 	10.92
	1991 	3862 	10.58
   	1992 	4016 	11.00
   	1993 	4521 	12.38 
   	1994 	4838 	13.25
   	1995 	5112 	14.00
   	1996 	5164 	14.15
   	1997 	5525 	15.14
   	1998 	6349 	17.39
   	1999 	6135 	16.80
   	2000 	5583 	15.03

* Source- AWAG (Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group). This is the data compiled in the year 2000.

In the given table, 57% of deaths are due to burns, 18% by poisoning, 6% by other causes and only 15% are deaths due to accidents proper. With an average of 8 to 10 deaths due to burns everyday, it is not difficult to imagine the unhappiness of Maganlal’s family in having a dowryless daughter-in-law.

Similarly, according to the figures of 1995, 1523 women died by committing suicide out of which, 175 women are from Ahmedabad alone. Out of 100 attempts to commit suicide all over Gujarat, 17 are from Ahmedabad alone. In the matter of deaths by suicide, Gujarat ranks the highest in the country. Such is the case if we look at the decreasing man-woman ratio (fast decreasing number of women) in Gujarat, one of the most developed states of India. Here 99% of the abortions done are of female’s foetuses. (Source: AWAG)

Mrs. Ila Pathak, Secretary of AWAG (Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group) spoke to me in some detail about the worsening of the condition of women and was categorical in stating that in a state in which the record of atrocities against women was so high and oppressive, unspeakable violence against Muslim women was understandable.

Similarly, statistics on domestic violence in Gujarat suggest a deeply embedded oppressive patriarchal hierarchy of the Hlndu family. The Domestic Violence Bill introduced by the BJP govt. at the center defines domestic violence in such a way that if a man habitually assaults or makes the life of the aggrieved person miserable by cruelty of conduct, or if a man beats his wife, to protect his property, it is not domestic violence, this will be taken as part of his right to defend himself. This bill institutionalises and legalizes domestic violence in tune with the ideology of Hindu Right according to which a woman must endure and make her husband happy for the sake of the stability of her family.

One of the biggest successes of the Hindu Right has been in cleverly averting, in fact displacing, the anger and resistance to rigid and oppressive patriarchy within the Hindu family and transferring it to an external agency i.e. the enemy of the Hindu Rashtra (Muslims, in this case). The outburst of violent activity that women participated in was often within the sanctified and defined boundaries of patriarchy, in subsidiary roles of helping, defending or shielding their men. The historic and glorious Kaali/Ranchandi roop (icon) promptly acquired its docile and predetermined role within the Hindu family.

Attacks on Hindu-Muslim couples

In another incident reported in The Gujarat Age edition of The Asian Age, on March 24 in Ahmedabad, an inter-religious couple, 30-year-old Geeta (renamed Mumtazbano after her marriage 7 years ago) and 22-year-old Munna Salim Shaikh were attacked while going on their scooter from Sarkhej to Odhav, by a mob of around 50, carrying sticks, pipes, knives and other sharp-edged weapons. They were stripped to confirm their faith and then attacked. While Munna Shaikh was seriously injured, his wife, Mumtazbano was stripped naked and succumbed to multiple stab wounds on her chest and abdomen. She had had a heated altercation with her neighbours previously but had resolutely refused to turn over her Muslim husband.

Several times, during our visit to Gujarat, we came across many anonymous pamphlets that had been widely circulated all over the state. Minor variations notwithstanding, all these pamphlets launch a vitriolic attack on Muslims, calling for their total boycott. There is a clause pertaining to Hindu-Muslim couples. It cautions against the dangers of the love trap of Muslim boys and warns those who defy this rule. In one such pamphlet it says, “I shall be alert to ensure that our sisters-daughters do not fall into the love-trap of Muslim boys at school-college-workplace”. In another it says, “Hindus, wake up! If you want to save your sisters-daughters and if you want to save Gujarat and the rest of India from becoming another Kashmir, then, from today onwards, keep a watch on your girls so that they don’t keep any sort of relationship with Muslims. The Hindu boys studying in the colleges could save Hindu girls from the hands of the Muslim goondas either by themselves or with the help of Hindu organizations”.

Controlling the sexuality and behaviour of their women is a crucial element in the ideology of RSS. Attacks all over the country on various couples for celebrating Valentine’s Day, or on women, for wearing jeans and thereby defying the strict codes of conduct laid out for the ideal Bharatiya nari, by the various organizations of RSS is a well-known fact.

The over-riding concern to keep the purity of the Hindu community and protecting it from dangerous, amorous and lustful Muslim boys (previously it was against Christian boys, although anti-Muslim tirade has always been a crucial component of their construction of India’s history) was blatantly displayed in August 1998, when Gujarat state govt. issued a circular directing the Gujarat police to set up a police cell to investigate each and every case of inter-community marriage, since conversions were the alleged motives for such marriages. Although this circular was withdrawn some time later it made available valuable information. In this backdrop, combined with the internal surveillance of RSS and its numerous organizations, the attacks on Hindu-Muslim couples cease to be stray, random cases and become cold-blooded and targeted killings.

Communal Fascism and Women

Drunk on the stench of burning human flesh, fascism took over Gujarat and stands at the doorstep of rest of the country. If there is one thing that Gujarat has made very clear, it is that riding on the back of communal fascism, any empowerment of women is bound to lead her back to where she began, in fact make her regress from that. Today women are more vulnerable than before in Gujarat, more deeply entrenched in the oppressive patriarchy of their own community. Any liberation of women must come from resisting oppression from within and combining it with the struggles of other sections of society for a democratic and egalitarian India. It is the only possible tribute that can be paid to those thousands of innocent lives, which were brutally taken for no fault of theirs and who still await justice.