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Everybody loves a victim

The image of Gujarat’s Muslims is one we have created and nurtured: that they are helpless victims, no better than second-class citizens, writes Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Dec 10, 2007 21:06 IST
Platform | Neelesh Misra

Labels come easy and crisp in Gujarat. Pro-Modi. Anti-Modi. For the rest of the world, you are either with him or against him. Which is why when it comes to the Muslims of Gujarat, and the Muslim victims of the 2002 riots, it is best to stick to the safe story: Muslims live in mortal fear in Gujarat and non-governmental organisations have given a new life to riot victims.

Or, I could tell you the truth — how many in the media and many NGOs want to keep Gujarat’s Muslims refrigerated as ‘victims’ for all foreseeable times to come — even if those in the community don’t want to be seen as victims, even if it works against them, and even if they want to unshackle themselves and get on with their lives for their future.

How else does one explain the media’s complete inability — or reluctance — to describe Gujarat’s Muslims in no way other than whiners? How can they not see and write about Gujaratis like the maulana I met who bought an apartment from his stock market earnings, the Muslims running English-medium schools in the ghettos, the stock broker who lost everything in the riots and went on to pioneer Islamic finance in India, the riot survivors now writing TOEFL exams and getting ready to go overseas to study? Or the sprawling Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind school for riot and earthquake orphans — Hindus and Muslims —in remote Kutch that has changed hundreds of lives?

Or how they ignore simple facts: Muslims in Gujarat have a literacy rate of 73 per cent, more than Muslims anywhere, and more than the national average. Gujarat’s 45 lakh Muslims — just over 9 per cent of the state’s population — fare better than the national average for all religions on several counts including sex ratio and work participation. Yes, Muslims and Hindus don’t get homes in each other’s neighbourhoods. There is actually a law in Gujarat that bans such sales in several places. Yes, Muslims do feel discriminated against in many areas. But they are doing all this despite all that. Modi or no Modi, Gujarat’s Muslims are armed with the supreme weapon that every Gujarati is armed with: their centuries-old entrepreneurial spirit. No amount of imposed victimhood can take that away.

Yet, there is a deep and astounding disconnect between what we in the media believe the condition of Gujarat’s Muslims to be and what it actually is. And maybe there is a lesson in that. Still, the image of Gujarat’s Muslims as perceived outside Gujarat and outside India is one we have created and nurtured: that they are helpless victims, no better than second-class citizens.

Then there are the NGOs. Many of these organisations took money from the riot victims before letting them live there. In Godhra, for example, a two-room set with plastered walls took about Rs 33,000 to build, and the families paid Rs 20,000 each for them. They begged and borrowed from friends and family members, scrounged and somehow put together the amounts. That doesn’t sound like relief to me. It sounds like a subsidised real estate deal.

Worse, these families don’t even own these two-room sets. The properties have not been transferred in their names and they are technically illegal squatters. The head of the Islamic Relief Committee, which supervised these constructions, told me that this was done “so that the riot victims don’t sell those homes... that sort of thing happens here”. And that money was taken from them “so that they know that everything does not come free”.

Then there’s the place that provoked the National Commission of Minorities to state, “If there is hell under the sun, it is here.” Citizen Nagar, a neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, is where Muslim riot victims live next to the city’s largest garbage dump, where sewage flows through their lanes in the monsoons and they battle disease and squalor.

For five years, Citizen Nagar is, for the NGOs, the symbol of what is wrong with Gujarat’s Muslims. They lost their livelihoods, they are far from their places of work, schools or medical facilities. But who chose that location? Who bought the land and resettled the families near the reeking garbage dump? The same NGOs who are complaining today. Rather than encourage and prepare them to return home or to rebuild their lives, the NGOs, according to a prominent Muslim philanthropist, “threw money at the families and created victims for life”.

It was haphazard, poorly thought out and downright cruel. First the mad rioters killed people and Modi’s government looked the other way. And since then, the media and many NGOs are trying to ensure that they always remain just that: victims.