Mus­lims strug­gling to es­cape Gu­jarat ghet­tos

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Shah­ja­han Bano was a young boy in Feb 2002, sell­ing veg­eta­bles with his mother in a mar­ket in Ahmed­abad in the western In­dian state of Gu­jarat, when some of the worst com­mu­nal ri­ots in the coun­try’s his­tory broke out. For days mobs ram­paged the city, burn­ing houses, loot­ing shops, rap­ing women and killing men, women and chil­dren. More than 1,000 peo­ple, mostly Mus­lims, died in the vi­o­lence.

Bano and his mother, who hid in the mar­ket the first night, were taken to a re­lief camp the next day where other Mus­lims hud­dled, await­ing news of their fam­i­lies and homes. It was a month be­fore Bano was re­united with other fam­ily mem­bers - and eight months be­fore they could leave the camp. They moved into what they thought would be a tem­po­rary home in Cit­i­zen Na­gar, an en­clave of 116 mod­est homes, built quickly by a Mus­lim char­ity for some of the dis­placed fam­i­lies.

Fif­teen years on, Bano and his fam­ily still live there, spilling out of their two-room home in a fly-in­fested neigh­bor­hood flanked by a large, smok­ing land­fill. “We lost ev­ery­thing in the ri­ots,” said Bano, 23, a lanky young man, star­ing into the dis­tance. “We are very grate­ful for this house, but we die a lit­tle ev­ery­day here: The smoke, the smell, the rubbish, the lack of fa­cil­i­ties. We have thought about mov­ing, but where can we go?”

The ri­ots dis­placed about 200,000 peo­ple in the state, mostly Mus­lims. Some re­turned to their homes, while oth­ers found new ac­com­mo­da­tion in mainly Mus­lim neigh­bor­hoods. Mus­lim char­i­ties re­set­tled about 17,000 peo­ple in 80 colonies across Gu­jarat, among In­dia’s wealth­i­est states. Fif­teen of these colonies are in Ahmed­abad. Ev­ery fam­ily in these colonies lost fam­ily, homes, pos­ses­sions or busi­nesses in the ri­ots, which led to greater seg­re­ga­tion and marginal­iza­tion.

“The state has done very lit­tle to re­set­tle the vic­tims,” said Shamshad Pathan, a lawyer who has rep­re­sented some vic­tims in their fight for more com­pen­sa­tion from the govern­ment. “To­day, Ahmed­abad is a seg­re­gated city: You will not find many build­ings or neigh­bor­hoods where Hin­dus and Mus­lims live to­gether. Mus­lims are forced to live in ghet­tos, ex­cluded from the devel­op­ment of the rest of the city and state,” he said.

State Sanc­tioned

Nearly 800,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed by con­flict and vi­o­lence in In­dia, ac­cord­ing to the Geneva-based In­ter­nal Dis­place­ment Mon­i­tor­ing Cen­tre. The data is not spe­cific to com­mu­nal vi­o­lence. Mus­lims dis­placed by com­mu­nal vi­o­lence are of­ten too fear­ful to re­turn to their homes, and have asked the govern­ment to re­lo­cate them. But govern­ment of­fi­cials say that would pro­mote di­vi­sion rather than unity be­tween Mus­lims and Hin­dus, who make up about 80 per­cent of In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion.

But in­for­mal rules and deep-rooted bi­ases are erod­ing the mul­ti­cul­tural na­ture of In­dia’s ci­ties and di­vid­ing com­mu­ni­ties into ghet­tos, an­a­lysts say. Hor­rific as the Gu­jarat ri­ots were, they were not solely re­spon­si­ble for the seg­re­ga­tion in the state. A prop­erty law unique to Gu­jarat, the birth­place of In­dia’s found­ing fa­ther Ma­hatma Gandhi, helped cre­ate ghet­tos and a sense of apartheid in its ur­ban ar­eas well be­fore 2002.

The “Dis­turbed Ar­eas Act” (1991), a law that re­stricts Mus­lims and Hin­dus from sell­ing prop­erty to each other in “sen­si­tive” ar­eas, was meant to avert an ex­o­dus or dis­tress sales in neigh­bour­hoods hit by in­ter-re­li­gious un­rest. The state, headed at the time by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, amended the law in 2009 to give lo­cal of­fi­cials more power in prop­erty sales. It also ex­tended the reach of the law, say­ing it was do­ing so to pro­tect Mus­lims, who make up about 10 per­cent of the state’s 63 mil­lion peo­ple.

But crit­ics say the act’s en­force­ment and the ad­di­tion of new dis­tricts un­der it - about 40 per­cent of Ahmed­abad is gov­erned by the law - means it is be­ing ap­plied as a tool of so­cial en­gi­neer­ing. “It is state sanc­tioned seg­re­ga­tion,” said Pathan. “As a re­sult, Mus­lims are con­fined to the filth­i­est corners, with no hope of up­lift­ment. Devel­op­ment and progress are for every­one else in the state, but not for Mus­lims,” he said.

‘Lit­tle Pak­istan’

The di­vi­sion is so marked that Juha­pura, a teem­ing town­ship in Ahmed­abad of about 400,000 peo­ple, many who moved there af­ter the 2002 ri­ots, is re­ferred to by lo­cal Hin­dus as “Lit­tle Pak­istan”. Con­di­tions there and in other Mus­lim set­tle­ments in Ahmed­abad, Gu­jarat’s largest city, are sim­i­lar: Res­i­dents lack proper roads, street­lights, ad­e­quate drink­ing wa­ter, sewage pipes, and ac­cess to pub­lic clin­ics and schools.

They also do not own the small homes they live in, whose ti­tle deeds are with the char­i­ties that built them. “They don’t own their homes, they can’t live any­where else; they are just for­got­ten here,” said Rasid­aben Ab­dul Sheikh of the Ad­hikar Prapti Ken­dra char­ity that works with riot vic­tims. “Af­ter 15 years, their dif­fi­cul­ties are no less. Maybe they feel a bit more se­cure be­cause they are liv­ing with their own peo­ple, but in many ways they are worse off,” she said. Else­where in Gu­jarat, which has among the most slums in the coun­try, of­fi­cials are back­ing res­i­dents as they up­grade and re­de­velop their set­tle­ments, but not here. Calls to the state so­cial wel­fare depart­ment were not re­turned. The fed­eral govern­ment, in re­sponse to pe­ti­tions, said it has given Gu­jarat about 4.3 bil­lion ru­pees ($6.7 mil­lion) to com­pen­sate vic­tims, in­clud­ing for res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial losses.

Vic­tims say the com­pen­sa­tion was not enough to buy new homes. There’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of that money in Me­htab Colony, another Mus­lim set­tle­ment of 16 houses for riot vic­tims. Piles of rubbish lie in the open court­yard where stray dogs scav­enge. “We used to live in a neigh­bor­hood with Hin­dus, but we never went back to our home,” said Razia Aseem­b­hai Kedawala, stand­ing out­side her one-room home. “This is where we have lived for 15 years. Per­haps we will live here al­ways; we have nowhere else to go.”

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