15 years after the communal carnage in Gujarat, Harsh Mander narrates a tale of exceptional courage.
Farzan Biwi, 22, who lost her husband during communal violence 2 months ago and since living in a relief camp, kisses her 15 days old baby in Ahmedabad, 16 May 2002. Farzan’s baby is among the 45 babies born in this camp since its opening following the sectarial violence in which nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, have died. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP | Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP | Farzan Biwi, 22, who lost her husband during the communal violence in Gujarat, kisses her 15-day-old baby at a relief camp in Ahmedabad in May 2002.
This article was first published by Scroll on 17th February, 2017
I have engaged for many years with survivors of communal violence across India: in Nellie and Kokrajhar in Assam, Tilak Vihar in Delhi, Bhagalpur in Bihar, Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, and Godhra in Gujarat, attempting to express some solidarity in their struggles for justice and healing.
I have found that the most vulnerable among them are the widows. Their spouses, children and elders are killed and, almost overnight, their homes, their livelihoods and earnings are wiped out. They are uprooted from familiar environs into new ones and, all at once, they are saddled with the responsibilities of rebuilding their lives and caring for other survivors. And, like most other widows in India, they battle memory, loneliness, want, as well as the negligence and cruelty inflicted upon them by society.
Despair constantly stalked the 21-room apartments allotted to widows and their children in a colony erected by relief-workers on the outskirts of the village Delol, near Godhra, for the survivors of the 2002 massacre in Gujarat. The spirit of the residents of these small homes and their sense of hope remained fragile even years after the carnage. A gust of memories, a boy’s quiet weeping, a girl’s terrified screams in her sleep, a widow’s unacknowledged loneliness, the barbed taunts of neighbours, worries about the future of children, the humiliation of continued dependence on charity – each was enough to obliterate hope.
Feisty, fierce, resilient, compassionate, impetuous and sometimes unwise, yet often defenceless in her loneliness, 31-year-old Naseebbahen Mohammedbhai Sheikh emerged as a natural leader in the colony. She had lost an incomprehensible total of 26 members of her family in the massacre, including her husband, her 12-year-old daughter, her parents, and almost every living relative in her parents’ and her husband’s home except one brother and a son.
Yet hers was the steadiest voice in the colony, one offering comfort and strength. “You have to now make two hearts beat in your breasts,” she never tired of telling the other widowed women, “one that of a mother, the other of a father.” She would urge the women, “Live for your children but also for yourself. Make sure that your children study.”
Memories of a massacre
Naseeb and her one son survived only because of a chance of fate. She had been admitted into a government hospital in Delol for a hysterectomy on February 27, 2002, just one day before the massacre engulfed her village and villages in 20 districts of Gujarat. She did not know, until much later, about the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra railway station that same day, barely 20 km from where she lay on the operation table, or that the horrific deaths in the train compartment had sparked such widespread and barbarous mass communal extermination.
Her husband, Mohammedbhai, visited her grim-faced in the evening after the operation. He did not tell her that their home had been plundered and burnt down by mobs, their television smashed, that everything they had lovingly accumulated over 15 years of married life had been destroyed in minutes. Their locker had been broken into, too, and their life savings of Rs 70,000, with which they had hoped to buy agricultural land, had been looted. Mohammedbhai only gave her home-cooked food in a tiffin-carrier, asked after her health and held her hand. He then left. It was the last time that she saw him alive.
The following night, Koyobhai, an Adivasi worker from her village who had tended to their fields for many years, brought her 10-year-old son to the hospital. There had been some communal disturbances in the village, he told her briefly. Some Adivasi agricultural-workers had given her extended family shelter in their homes, he said, and they were all safe. Naseeb’s son had wept incessantly for her and he had therefore carried him to the hospital to leave him with her. Naseeb was very troubled, but Koyobhai reassured her that there was no cause for worry.
On the morning of March 2, 2002, Naseeb awoke to the roar of frenzied crowds milling around the hospital. She stumbled out of bed and ran to the gates. In the distance, she saw an overturned Tempo van being set on fire by a mob. Naseeb screamed when she thought she saw her own brother Yakubbhai among the passengers trying to escape the burning vehicle. Even as he struggled desperately, a horde of men overpowered Yakubbhai, poured petrol upon on his clothes and set him on fire. At this point, Naseeb fell unconscious. She was spared the sight of her sister-in-law being stripped naked and raped by the men even as she begged for mercy. She did not see her brother’s two terror-stricken children run screaming for safety towards the hospital and being overpowered and burnt alive.
When Naseeb regained consciousness, she found herself back in her hospital bed. To save her life, the nurses had dressed her in a sari, stuck a bindi on her forehead and spread vermilion in the parting of her hair. Her traumatised son sat frozen by her bedside. Mobs were scouring the hospital wards for Muslim patients. The doctor convinced them that she was a Hindu and they passed her by.
The doctor, Hasmukh Machi, was an elderly gynaecologist who had treated generations of women from Naseeb’s family. After the mob left the hospital, he reassured the shuddering and sobbing Naseeb that the man she had seen killed was not her brother, and that all her relatives were safe. But, as days passed and no one came to see her in the hospital, fear and panic mounted. However, the doctor told her that he had made enquiries. All the members of her family had taken shelter in relief camps. They were unable to visit her only because of the curfew and the unchecked violence.
After she was discharged, Dr Hasmukh took Naseeb to his own home where his wife and mother gently nursed her and restored her to health. It was the longest that Naseebbahen had lived in a Hindu household, she said. They treated her as one of their own. Finally one morning, twenty days after the violence first broke out, the doctor and his wife sat by Naseeb’s side and, in low, shaking voices, shared horrifying news, worse than the worst of her nightmares.
After their home was destroyed by the rioting mobs, the Adivasi workers – who had been employed for many years by Mohammedbhai’s family – sheltered her extended family in their huts, a total of 11 women, men and children, for three nights. But the bloodshed and butchery refused to die down. When others in the village discovered them, they advised the men that it would be safest for them to shift their families to the relief camp in Kalol, Gandhinagar. They assured them safe passage.
The entire family set out that evening in the fading twilight. They walked a short distance, then decided that it was too dangerous to continue and hid in a shallow pit on the bed of the Goma River until nightfall. Although the villagers had assured them that they would remain unharmed, they still trembled, clinging on to each other, hoping to see the dawn. But this was not to be.
A crowd of men armed with swords approached stealthily from the rear and surrounded the family. The attack was swift and surgical. They first cut off the head of Naseeb’s mother-in-law. They then attacked her husband Mohammedbhai. They hacked off his arms and, as he cried out to Allah, fatally stabbed him in the stomach. The death of their 12-year-old daughter was even more merciless: they cut off her arms, feet, hair, and only then ended her life. In this way, one by one, nine of them fell to the mob’s swords as their blood collected and coagulated in the riverbed and their screams filled the stillness of the approaching night. They burned alive two small children.
The doctor’s account did not end there. Frequently breaking down, he told Naseeb that it was indeed her own brother whom she had seen from the hospital gates.
While their home was being looted and torched, her parents’ extended family of 15 remained hidden in the fields. After cowering for two days among the standing crops, enduring hunger, thirst and fear, her brother had decided that they could not continue like this indefinitely. The storm showed no signs of passing and he felt that there was no option but to drive everyone to the relief camp in Kalol.
Somehow, their Tempo van had been left unharmed and they all piled into it and left. In Kalol, they found that the roads had been blocked with crude, hastily put up barriers made out of stones and mounds of sand. Naseeb’s brother tried to desperately drive over the barriers but, at one point near the hospital where Naseeb was recovering from her operation, the van swerved and overturned into a ditch. Naseeb was witness to some of what happened afterwards.
Naseeb, now utterly distraught and incredulous, begged the doctor that she be allowed to visit the relief camp and look for survivors from her family. The doctor drove her there himself. With her son clutching her shaking hand, she walked unsteadily through the camp. The only relative that Naseeb could find was her husband’s elder brother Abdul and his wife. They had survived only because they lived in another town, Dehasar, where their homes had been destroyed but their lives had been spared. They all held on to one another and wept inconsolably. Such was the lamentation in the camp that this little family gathered around, weeping, became just one among numerous others.
The state government had refused to manage the camp, or provide any assistance beyond supplying foodgrains barely enough for a subsistence-level existence. In this situation, unlikely leaders emerged. Moved by the suffering of the thousands who had survived slaughter, rape and plunder, and who were now internal refugees abandoned by their own government, many pushed their own sorrow and loss aside. Bands of young people gathered and set up makeshift shelters out of plastic sheets and bamboo sticks, cooked and distributed food, carried water for bathing and drinking, organized milk for infants and medical care for the wounded, and helped survivors file complaints with a recalcitrant and openly hostile police.
A week after Naseeb arrived in the camp, Abdul took a room on rent in Kalol and moved there with his wife and children and his sister-in-law and her son. Naseeb lived with them for three months but finally returned to the camp.
She returned because she was humiliated and wearied by her sister-in-law’s insinuations. She unrelentingly taunted Naseeb, “Your whole family died, how did you alone survive?” She reviled Naseeb particularly because it was a Hindu doctor who had left her at the camp. “Why did that Hindu doctor shelter you for 20 days?” she asked. “What did you do for him?”
At the camp, they slept on the bare floor and were able to bathe only every 10 or 15 days. The camp organisers had hired a tanker to bring in drinking water but this was never enough, and the temperatures soared mercilessly all summer.