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Exiles in their own land

india Updated: Feb 22, 2007 14:53 IST
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She wept bitterly that it was her son’s first day at work. We were initially confused. Why was this an occasion for grief? "He is just 10 years old,” she explained. It was his own decision to drop out of school, and join his father’s trade as a house painter. He felt that if he worked, at least the family would be freed from the burden of providing for him. His home is a grimy single-room tenement at the edge of the garbage dump for all of Ahmedabad city. The colony is one of more than 80 that sprang up for survivors of the 2002 massacre in Gujarat, who continue, even five years later, to live in dread of returning to their original homes. They survive not just as economic refugees but as fugitives from a continuing climate of sustained hate and fear.

The Gujarat government is in complete denial about the conditions of internal displacement. In an affidavit to the Supreme Court in January 2006, it admitted that some affected persons had not returned to their homes, but maintained that this was not because of fear but because of superior economic prospects that they found in the new locations. In a recent communication to the Supreme Court commissioners in the right to food case, it stated even more categorically that all “riot-affected people have returned to their homes”.

This official falsehood was easily nailed by a visit in October 2006 by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) to 17 such colonies, where they found appalling living conditions. This was further confirmed by a comprehensive survey of 81 relief colonies by Aman Biradari, which found around 30,000 internal refugees living with abysmal denial of public services and livelihoods.

The survey noted that not a single of the 81 colonies were established by the state government, which did not even provide the land for any of these. Instead, every single of these were built by Muslim organisations on purchased land. In only six of these was there some kind of collaboration by secular NGOs. This is a grave abdication by the State but also by international and national humanitarian organisations.

From the start, after the forced closure of relief colonies by the Gujarat government in 2002, the return of 200,000 internally displaced persons to the land of their ancestors had to be painfully negotiated with neighbours who had betrayed and attacked them. There was rarely a welcome, or expression of remorse. It was made amply clear that their homecoming was on sufferance. The first condition if they insisted on returning was that they would not give evidence against their attackers in any criminal case. As a result of their consent to this humiliating condition, thousands of criminal cases connected with the carnage collapsed at the stages of investigation or trial. They also had to accept residential segregation and boycott in employment and trade.

For those who were unwilling to accept the terms set for their return, or who could still not muster the necessary trust to come back to the land of their ancestors with their families, or those who continued to be openly intimidated, the choices before them were stark: to leave Gujarat, to buy or rent homes in Muslim ghettoes or, if they were too poor, to live in the deprivation of relief colonies. It is difficult to estimate the numbers of the first two, in a situation in which the government refuses to keep records of displacement. This minimises its own responsibility and culpability. But this survey gives an idea of the numbers of internally displaced persons in relief colonies five years later.

The colonies were established by Muslim organisations on the cheapest land available, without connecting roads and distant from economic prospects. The daily grind of finding work is compounded by the fact that people who fled from numerous villages were bunched together in colonies that were built with paramount considerations of safety in numbers rather than sustainable prospects of employment. The survey found that the majority of men travel long distances to their old places of residence to eke out work, but there they are hampered by boycott of Muslim shops, eateries, even factory and farm workers and artisans. Women have mostly had to drop out of low-end employment once available in their old homes.

Most colonies continue to be treated as ‘unauthorised’, denied public services of drinking water, drainage, street lighting, ration shops and ICDS centres. There are only five ICDS centres in the 81 colonies, and only three serve supplementary nutrition to children. The NCM noted conditions of great destitution in the colonies — only 725 of the 4,545 families had below poverty line ration cards that entitle them to subsidised foodgrain. Even in such desperate conditions of daily survival, the state government chose to return Rs 19.1 crore unutilised from the highly insufficient grant of Rs 150 crore. Yet, it maintained that all tasks of relief, rehabilitation and compensation were fully accomplished. This was observed with regret also by the NCM, “In the course of our visits to the camps, we found several people who are in need of funds under different schemes. If the state government was able to identify such people and extend the benefits of the scheme to them they would be able to utilise the entire money allotted.”

The colonies’ residents, whose existence, let alone legality, is denied by the government, live under continuous insecurity also because they are vulnerable to pressures from local religious organisations. Residents report pressures to follow the specific beliefs of particular Muslim sects, or other lesser legitimate demands of local managers, on constant threat of overnight eviction. Widows and single women are the most vulnerable.

Children, as always, are worst affected. Only two of the 81 colonies were found to have government schools and five some form of private schools. In addition, religious teaching was offered in four mosques. There were non-Muslim students in only two of these schools. By exiling Muslim children into ghettoes and relief colonies through fear and hate, children of both communities are deprived of contact and companionship with children of other faiths. They will be far more susceptible to falsehoods about the ‘other’ community.

In the colony on the garbage dump, children have cleared a space amid the mountains of refuse to play cricket, while we found it hard to bear the stench. The residents survive with spirit and courage, amid sub-human conditions and failure of the State to provide a life of security and dignity to all without discrimination.

But they also live with isolation, fear, hate, boycott, intimidation and penury as a way of daily life. For this, we all stand indicted.

Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari, a people’s campaign for secularism, peace and justice.