No home to call my own

Little has changed for many victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots as their wounds continue to fester

By Fayeza Pathan
he clock has struck 1 pm. And I have set out for Anjum Colony in the center 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 those riots. It doesn’t take much time for me to find this resettlement colony as I was also brought up there. 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 me squeeze myself in order to reach the stairway of a house. 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. After her prayers, she calls me inside her home, a small room with a kitchen and bathroom. She stares at me as if waiting for reassurance of my identity as a Muslim. I empathize 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 belonged to a family of wealthy farmers. They had a home which was 1,800 square feet. It was an opulent life compared to this dinginess. But her old life starting showing cracks. Khala talks about how boys from the Hindu community would tease Muslim girls in school and get Muslim boys in trouble, who would then be beaten up on the basis of these accusations. On February 28, 2002, at 5 pm on “jummah” day (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. “We didn’t want to escape and decided to face the consequences,” says Khala with 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, it arrived only at 7 pm after Khala had called them several times. They took away 15-20 families from Ognaj village, including Niyaz Khala, 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, Juha-pura has been her home. The next house I visit is pink in color. A disheveled woman with unkempt hair and shabby clothes is sitting on the floor. She gives me a warm but uneasy smile. She asks me 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 down her guard. 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 laborers. 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 from the government, but it was spent in marrying off their two daughters. They visited Ognaj two years after the riots to see their house. “I couldn’t stop crying. We had lost whatever we had,” says Mumtaz. 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, 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 on,” says the proud mother. Mumtaz and her family earn around Rs. 6,000-7000 per 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 crisis) with a BPL card. Over the years, there has been a precipitous decline in the income levels of Muslims as the riots forced us to abandon our previous employment and look for alternative sources of income. Most of those who were rehabilitated work in informal jobs, leading to a generation of illiterate and unskilled youth. Niyaz Khala has received three bravery awards and has travelled to 17 cities in India for the movement to get the Women’s Reser-vation 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,” says Khala proudly. 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 marginalization. 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.