Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Gujarati Muslim Woman's Struggle for Justice

A Gujarati Muslim Woman's Struggle for Justice

Naseem Mohammad Shekh is an activist working with
victims of the state -sponsored anti-Muslim carnage in
Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 3000 people were
killed. She is based in the Qasimabad Colony, near
Kalol in the Panchmahals district of Gujarat. Eleven
members of her own family, including her daughter and
husband, were slaughtered in this most large-scale
wave of anti-Muslim violence in India in recent times,
the victims of which are yet to get justice. Here she
narrates to Azim Sherwani the traumatic murder of her
family, her struggle for survival and her present
involvement in seeking to promote peace and communal
harmony in communally-polarised Gujarat.

I was born in a fairly well-off family. I grew up with
my grandparents and parents. My grandfather wanted me
to marry in the same village. So he found a boy of my
own village who was my cousin from my mother's side.
He had done his secondary schooling but the economic
condition of his family was not very sound. I was 13
at that time and told my family that I would commit
suicide if they forced me to marry him but they did
so. Initially, I hated to live with my husband's
family but my grandfather convinced me and emotionally
blackmailed me. I started supporting my husband by
helping him sell vegetables.

Once my husband had an offer of a government job but he was
asked to pay a hefty bribe. My parents were willing to pay
the bribe to help my husband have a better future but he
refused. He felt it was against his honor to borrow
from his in-laws to pay the bribe. He promised me a
good life with his hard labor. Because of our hard
work our business flourished and finally we had to
employ some local youths as helping hands in the

On 27th February 2002, I had a gynecological
operation. I was in the nursing home. The next day my
husband told me about the burning of the train coach
in Godhra. I was frightened but he told me that
police had been deployed and that nothing untoward
would happen. He told the doctors to take care of me
and not to worry about the money, promising to be back
the next morning.

On 1st March a Hindu mob attacked the Muslim houses in
my village Dahlol. I intuitively did not want my
husband to go to the village but, owing to his
repeated insistence that the children were alone, I
could not stop him.

A Hindu customer of ours sheltered my husband and the children
in his house when the mob went on a rampage. He insisted on
sending our children to the hospital, which he thought to be
a safer place.My husband reluctantly agreed. My 13-year old
daughter stayed with her father. The Hindu customer
dropped my son Suhail at the nursing home. I was
worried. I wanted to know where my family was. He told
me not to worry. Very soon, he said, everybody would
join me, and he assured me that they were safe in his

In the evening this Hindu man took my family with him,
telling them that he was arranging for safe passage
for them. He took them towards the river and on the
way started shouting that there were Muslims around.

This was a trap that he had laid. All at once, a Hindu
mob, armed with sharp weapons, surrounded my family
members. One of my nephews ran to save his life and
hid behind huge bushes. But the mob killed everybody
one by one. They begged for their life to be spared
but in vain.

My 13 year-old daughter was gang-raped and cut into pieces.
After killing everybody they
burnt their bodies. My nephew, who narrowly escaped,
was watching everything, shaking with fear. He fled
the place when the mob went back to the village. He
came to the main road, which connects Kalol, a town
with a substantial Muslim population.

The police found him, and asked him to remove his trousers
to see if he was a Muslim. They kicked him and abused him for being
a Muslim. He was thrown out of the police jeep. Upon
arriving Kalol he narrated the incident to our
relatives and family friends.

I was still in the hospital and was not told anything
by our relatives. The next day the mob came to the
hospital in search of me. The doctor told them that I
had been discharged and had left the hospital. After
this incident the doctor was afraid that the mob might
come again in search of me.

He provided a set of clothes normally worn by Hindu women
to hide my identity in case I was stopped on my way to a safer
place. After 15 days I was sent to a relief camp in
Qasimabad in an Army vehicle. When I reached the camp,
my sister and other people started crying. I wanted to
know about my husband, daughter and other family

They told me that they were in a different relief camp.
I insisted that I want to speak to them.
One of my family friends phoned me, pretending that he
was my husband, but I could easily make out that it
was a different voice. I guessed that I lost
everything. My life was completely destroyed. My
brother-in-law started crying and revealed to me that
only thee members of our family of 11 had survived.

The atmosphere in the relief camp was depressing and
frustrating. I had lost everything but I had to live
for my son Suhail. We had to face so very many
problems. We could not go back home. My brother-in-law
wanted the compensation money to be deposited in his

He thought I might take the money and get
married to someone else and might not take care of my
son. I convinced him that I would take care of my son
for he was everything to me now. In case I got married
again, I said, I would deposit the money in his

I had so much pain in my heart and was worried that I
might go mad. I started volunteering in the camp. At
that time some women's group and an NGO came to work
for the rehabilitation and access to justice for the
victims of the carnage. I joined them as a volunteer

There was a lot of opposition from some
conservative maulvis. They tried to force me not to go
out because I was a widow and I had to perform the
religious duty of being isolated from men for four
months. I told them categorically that I needed to
work for women like me who had lost everything in the
carnage. They needed my support. There was also some
opposition from some of my distant relatives.

It was really difficult to engage Hindus, Dalits and
Muslims in peace-building initiatives. There was
complete mistrust of and hatred for each other.
Muslims said that the Hindus had destroyed their life.

What kind of reconciliation, they asked, is possible?
But some people started appreciating our work. They
would tell me, 'You lost everything in the carnage but
you still don't hate Hindus. Rather, you try to engage
them. So, we should follow your path of trying to
promote peace and counter hatred'.

Today, I have no one in my life except Suhail. I am
sad but now I am a confident woman. I can relate to
and understand the problems of all other women,
Hindus, Dalits and Muslims.

Constant preaching of hatred against Muslims for
political purposes is the root cause of communal
violence in Gujarat. The Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa
Hindu Parishad are the main instigators of anti-Muslim
hatred in India and use any opportunity to instigate
violence against them.

During the mass violence against Muslims there were some
good Hindus who helped their Muslim neighbors in providing
shelter or safe passage. Unfortunately, however, in Gujarat
today the communal divide has increased. We need to work hard in
engaging youth, women, Dalits and Adivasis to mobilize
for communal harmony.

In fact, all religions teach tolerance and peace but
some people interpret religion with narrowness and to
generate hate against fellow human beings. At times I
ask myself that if the different religions were made
to serve humanity then why are people all over the
world killing each other in the name of religion?

I have devoted my life to the struggle against
communalism and for empowering women. This and the
hope for a better future of my son are my strength. I
want to educate my son and would like him to join
government service in Gujarat. There is so much pain
in my heart but I want to channelise it to prevent a
repeat of what happened in Gujarat in 2002.

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