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Gujarat riot victims losers even in peace deal

In a few months, it will be five years since Shakil Bhai last heard the call of the muezzin from the mosque by the village pond. In a few months, it will be five years since the life of the gentle grocer and his community changed.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2006 11:59 IST

In a few months, it will be five years since Shakil Bhai last heard the call of the muezzin from the mosque by the village pond. In a few months, it will be five years since the life of the gentle grocer and his community changed.

On March 1, 2002, as religious fury raged through Gujarat and hundreds fell to daggers and bullets, Shakil’s family fled, barefoot, from their home in Sunderna, 75 km from Ahmedabad. Rioters vandalised his grocery shop and home, and burnt down his lucrative kerosene depot. The minarets of the village mosque were smashed and the dargah, or mausoleum, of a locally revered priest damaged. The dargah has since been repaired but the mosque remains without a head.

“Yes, there were massacres and there was looting, but one has to move on,” said Shakil, 26. “We have returned. But the village elders said, ‘If you don’t compromise, you cannot stay here’.” Seated on a bag of flour in his renovated shop, he added: “Now there is no azaan (the call to prayer from mosques).” The grocer’s tale resonates with thousands of Gujarati Muslim families, especially in the 16 districts which were among those worst-hit by the 2002 riots.

Many Muslims have returned to Hindu-majority villages. But in business-like Gujarat, which knows its deal-making and give-and-take, they often have to live on harsh terms. In many villages, Muslims have given up azaan. In others, they cannot openly sell meat and have to observe festivals as low-key affairs.

Also, a large number of Muslims have had to withdraw criminal cases they had brought against fellow villagers, a necessary condition for their return.

“The whole system is still wrapped up in this compromise business,” said Preeta Jha, state coordinator of Nyayagraha, a voluntary group. As HT discovered, deals are still under way, brokered by village heads and at times by local officials. “Cross-cases” are another phenomenon: complainants in riots cases are prosecuted for minor offences. Both sides agree to drop charges as a ‘compromise’.

In Sunderna, Shakil's father Mohammed Bhai was charged with stealing a Krishna idol from a nearby temple. The family denied the charge. Finally both sides agreed to withdraw their charges and an official compromise was signed in Gujarati: "We shall live together in peace. We shall not create any trouble for each other."

That last sentence could have a thousand interpretations, so Shakil's family has taken precautions and kept a low profile. They do not talk to most people, they do not slaughter animals on their festivals, and they do not harangue Hindu customers for long-pending grocery payments.

"There is a grudging acceptance that Muslims have to keep their heads down and keep a low profile," said activist Gagan Sethi, member of a monitoring committee formed by the National Human Rights Commission. The government says things are close to normal in the villages. "There are no signs that there is any fear, though minor tensions continue," said MoS for Home Amit Shah. "I am not claiming there is no communal tension, but it is not of a nature that will prevent the two communities from living with each other." Gujarat has a history of religious riots, but the 2002 massacre was the most brutal, spilling over to many of the state's 18,000 villages. Human-rights activists say more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the riots; the government says the number was about 1,300.

Litigations go on and the social divide runs deep. Sayeed Miyan Qazi, a grocer and head priest of Napa village, says he fled his home, leaving behind his property, after the men who were trying to protect him- from the state's Special Reserve Police (SRP) force- were assaulted and wounded by mobs. Before leaving, he filed a first information report in the local police station about the
arson. Soon after reaching a relief camp in Vasad village where he now lives, Qazi was told that police had charged him with firing from the mosque roof at the crowds below. But SRP personnel testified in court that Qazi was not at the site when the firing allegedly occurred. A verdict is expected soon.

In the meantime, as Jha of Nyayagraha says, "There are severe lifestyle changes - and livelihood has been affected. The Muslims' economic spine has been broken."

First Published: Nov 04, 2006 11:59 IST