Reflections From a Colleague -- Justice and Community Building

I was deeply moved by this piece that my friend and colleague, Yasmin Qureshi, wrote. It spoke to me in the aftermath of the outrageous responses I heard on the issue of the Islamic Cultural Center in Wall Street and the heartbreak and despair I felt after hearing about how a young Indian and Asian student had publicly shamed a gay room mate at Rutgers University, who then committed suicide.

There are times when we lose hope -- but Yasmin reminds us that everyday, even in places like Gujarat where there was a genocide in 2002 as thousands of Muslims were killed, there is reason to retain our faith that as MLK Jr. reminded us, "the arc of history does indeed bend toward justice."

Enjoy, Kavita

Gujarat: The long road to justice, reparation and community building

First published in The Sunday Guardian on October 10, 2010

By Yasmin Qureshi

27 February 2002. I was leaving for the US in a few days. NDTV was broadcasting live from Godhra. I was at a bank in Noida. Slogans and calls for shutting down shops erupted as men in saffron brandishing trishuls marched around the market. I panicked, wondering what would happen if they demanded all Muslims to identify themselves. The bank officials ordered the shutters down. The men moved on.

Although I grew up in Delhi hearing about riots in Moradabad, Aligarh, Meerut, and old Delhi, the closest I came to witnessing them was during the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Delhi was burning; Sikhs were being identified and killed. A guest staying at our house came back one day narrating how he had seen a Sikh's turban being set on fire near Pragati Maidan.

News of gruesome violence in Gujarat at a scale never seen before and the state's unwillingness to protect Muslims flooded the media. I came back to the US disturbed. More than 2,000 Muslims were killed. Women and girls were subject to the worst kind of sexual violence. More than 20,000 homes and 250 masjids were demolished. The community suffered an economic loss of Rs 3,800 crore.

Last year on my trip to India I visited Ahmedabad. I did not want to meet the victims since I had nothing to offer. Instead, I wanted to learn about the work of various organizations to fight the root causes of such hatred, a daunting task in the face of Hindutva groups operating in the state over the last 25 years.

Communal violence against minorities in Gujarat is connected to a rise of Hindu nationalism through grassroots mobilization by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which along with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) collectively form the 'sangh parivar.' After my first night in Ahmedabad I told my friend, Matan Cohen, that I was going to cut short my trip. He drew open the curtains of the hotel room and said, "You are feeling depressed because your room is so dark." It wasn't the darkness in the room but the darkness of 2002 and the subsequent years that was engulfing me. Images from Rakesh Sharma's film, 'Final Solution' and Nandita Das' 'Firaaq' were running through my mind all night. There was an uneasy calm in the city. Yet, I sensed injustice, segregation, and polarization. I started feeling hopeful after I began meeting activists and hearing about their amazing work.

Hiren Gandhi, a cultural activist and founder of Darshan, partly blames the 'mercantile culture' of Gujarat for the predominantly narrow, communal ideology in the state: "There is no culture of fighting for one's rights....Caste struggles that took place in south India or Maharashtra led by Periyar and Ambedkar never took place in Gujarat."

Gandhi runs a theater workshop in Ahmedabad with a group of Hindu and Muslim youths. "Kids at this age are interested in playing and don't have an ideology," said Gandhi. The Hindutva groups exploited this by recruiting Dalit youth into recreational body building classes and later used them to kill people. "Gujarat became a laboratory for the Hindutva forces," Gandhi notes.

Involvement in workshops and theater classes helps them overcome their own trauma and introduces a new way of thinking. At Gandhi's workshop I saw the group practicing for a play, 'Aisa Kyon' (Why is it this way?) on patriarchy and violence. Mahendar Solanki, a Hindu had participated in the 2002 rioting as a teenager. He was a lead character along with a Muslim girl, Rehana Qureshi.

The most disturbing aspect of Ahmedabad is the segregation of communities based on religion. After 2002, Muslims are not allowed to rent or buy property in Hindu majority areas and it is nearly impossible to get jobs. They live on the 'other side' of the river in a few ghettos. Ironically the bridge looking across Mahatma Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram is the dividing line for the communities.

Zaid Ahmed lived in a posh Hindu-dominated colony in Ahmedabad but was forced to move to the old city after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. He worked with ActionAid conducting children related activities for the survivors of the pogrom in rehabilitation colonies. He realized teacher's training was equally important. With a fellowship from TATA, Ahmed started Tasveer, a program that educates teachers in creating a curriculum that views the world beyond the boundaries of a classroom. He also worked with Himmat, an organization initiated by Monica Wahi to rehabilitate women survivors and train them for self employment and deal with domestic violence issues. "Other forms of violence and issues of marginalization also need to be dealt with to improve society," said Ahmed.

Many activists were trained by ANHAD, a movement initiatied in response to the Gujarat pogrom. "Our greatest achievement has been in fearlessly taking on the state," notes Shabnam Hashmi, the co-founder. Over the years they have trained more than 8000 college students to fight prejudices and question the status quo. In 2007, 45 young people traveled from village to village exhibiting and distributing more than 2 million leaflets about the preamble of the Indian constitution. "Since the state government actions are an attack on constitutional values it is important to educate people about it," said Hashmi.

Success at the judicial level was achieved recently with Gagan Sethi, co-founder of Jan Vikas, winning a class action suit of Rs 40 crore demanding reparation for loss of uninsured commercial property and jobs in government services. Harsh Mander's organization, Nyayagrah, fights through the legal system by re-opening cases of abuse and killings.

Referring to Muslims at a Bay Area event Sethi asked, "Instead of thinking of yourselves as the largest minority why not consider yourselves as the second largest majority in India?" Growing up as a Muslim in India my greatest frustration was living in constant fear and social pressure to prove ourselves. We need to change our mindset and fight injustice by joining hands with other communities. Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendar Modi, continues to win elections and rule. Riots of the 2002 scale haven't taken place but the state government uses other systematic methods to violently suppress minorities. 21 cases of Muslim deaths in fake encounters since 2005 are known. A nexus between the state government, political mafias, and the police uses any excuse to randomly pick Muslims and torture them. Recently there have been alleged Maoist arrests, none proven to be involved in the Maoist insurgency in Central India.

Only the work of activists and their organizations can bring about structural and institutional changes; change people's mindset and eventually defeats the right-wing Hindutva ideology. This article is my tribute to all the dedicated and committed citizens of the world aspiring to institute democratic processes, bring justice and uphold human rights for all.

Yasmin Qureshi is a Bay Area, CA professional and human rights activist involved in social justice movements in South Asia and Palestine. Her article on Kashmir, Democracy Under the Barrel of a Gun was published in June 2010 by CounterPunch and ZCommunications.