On a chilly February day last year in Gujarat’s largest city, members of several leading non-government groups assembled to furiously oppose a new peace plan.
They did not want direct reconciliation talks between Muslims and Hindus who had killed each other on the city’s streets three years ago.
The provocation was a move by a local civil rights group, the Jan Sangharsh Manch, to bring Dalits and Muslims of the badly-affected Gomtipur neighbourhood face to face for reconciliation and to drop lighter criminal charges, like stone throwing and causing injuries, against each other. Serious cases — like those relating to arson, rape and murder — would still be actively pursed, the group had suggested.
|Khatija Begum, 70, a survivor of the Sardarpura village massacre. She now lives in a camp in Satnagar in Sabar-kantha district with little hope of going home any time soon. (Ritesh Uttamchandani/HT)|
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“These NGOs went on a rampage. They said we were doing it at the behest of (Chief Minister Narendra) Modi, that we had sold out,” the state’s top human rights lawyer, Mukul Sinha, a former physicist who is leading a powerful legal campaign on behalf of riot victims, told the Hindustan Times.
“They opposed us tooth and nail. So we had to cool off,” he said.
The NGOs have saved lives in Gujarat, run relief camps, fought sharp-edged legal battles with the government, built homes for the displaced and helped them earn livelihoods.
But critics say they are not doing enough to begin reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims, who have clashed with each other several times over decades in the state with deep religious faultlines.
“You cannot have ‘conflict entrepreneurs’. But some have been doing precisely that in Gujarat, clinging on to the status quo,” said leading filmmaker and activist Mahesh Bhatt, who has opposed the Gujarat government for years to demand justice for the victims.
Mohammad Shafi Madani, chairman of the Islamic Relief Committee that spearheaded post-riot aid — and also strongly opposed the 2005 reconciliation idea — said the organization had its reasons.
“It was felt that this was a plan backed by the Modi government, that it was their idea. We did not know how much to trust the people who suggested this,” Madani told HT. He said NGOs were also concerned that this trade-off, including withdrawal of cases, might later be applied to cases involving major crimes — murder, rape and arson — as well.
Benoy Acharya of the group “Unnati” said that NGOs were not against reconciliation, but against “reconciliation without justice… If people are forced to withdraw cases, that is not a fair approach. That would serve no purpose”.
A few attempts from Muslims to mend fences with Modi, who is widely seen as anti-Muslim, have also met with NGO hostility.
Gujarati businessman Zafar Sareshwala, who had once campaigned to have Modi tried at the International Court of Justice, said he was widely attacked when he went to meet Modi in London to directly confront him with the problems of Gujarat’s Muslims and seek solutions. “Fatwas were issued against me. NGOs opposed me. They couldn’t bear it. They all said I had struck a deal with him,’’ Sareshwala said.
Some NGOs have tried sporadic activities like cricket matches, joint meals and joint celebrations involving Hindus and Muslims. But such events are mostly considered ornamental and of little lasting value.
“I do not think that NGOs have started any major reconciliation process over the past five years. We could not come to that stage,” said Rais Khan Pathan of the group Citizens for Justice and Peace. “There are selfish elements in both religions who do not want this to go forward.”
In some cases, even well-meaning NGOs seem to have a misplaced agenda.
Some groups are now focussing on some 26,000 displaced Muslims who say they are afraid of new attacks and refuse to go back to their homes, where an estimated 1,75,000 other Muslims have already returned. They are demanding better civic facilities at those 47 sites across districts, including a squalid cluster of two-room homes near Ahmedabad’s sprawling garbage dump with tonnes of reeking waste.
Those demands carry an assumption that the riot victims will live at these sites for the long-term. They also show that even five years after the riots, no real attempts are being made to help them return to their original homes, have a dialogue between the two sides and seek a way forward.
“What do Gujarat’s Muslims want? They want to build bridges. Otherwise it will never end,” said Sareshwala.