Monday, May 19, 2014

'Achhe din' may mean nightmares for some.

It is freezing cold. The surroundings are cloaked in a dense fog; I cannot see my feet. The uneven terrain adds to the difficulty in finding the way. I pull harder on my jacket and trudge on, squinting to catch glimpse of safer footing. It has been raining for two days now; there are ditches and pools full of muck everywhere. We lumber on for a while, until the fog caves a little to reveal our destination. Endless rows of tents mud-walled, tarpaulin-roofed stand in a sprawl on a huge clearing. The place is desolate save for the occasional child skipping out, only to cast a shy sidelong glance at us before disappearing inside a tent again. There are animals too; I see a goat and a few hens in the distance. We turn towards the driver following us, ask him to park our traveller on the side of the narrow road, and start walking towards the nearest tent.

I am standing amid a group of villagers in Suneithi village of Kairana district in western Uttar Pradesh, which witnessed a brutal communal riot in August-September 2013. A couple of women stand in front of me with their husbands and infant children in tow. Another young boy stares at us with suspicion while tugging at his mother's dress. He has a running nose and furtive eyes. On my side are an old grandmother and a young widow. They are visibly elated to see a group of sheher-wallahs in their camp. For them, it means just one thing aid. Financial assistance, items of daily use like toiletries and solar lanterns, or maybe the elusive promise of pucca houses. For them, our arrival gives rise to a plethora of hopes. Their expectant eyes cause the dense air to come down on our shoulders slightly heavier.

I ask them about the incident and its aftermath. Their eyes get beady and distant. The Muslims of Muzaffarnagar and adjoining villages had been somewhat aware of the Hindu-Muslim tensions brewing in the village community for some time, one of the men explains. Then one day the news came: they were cornered by a horde of men from the area's majority community, the Jats, and were to flee for their lives. It was all very sudden; the men kept watch over their houses at night while the women made preparations for the escape. Nobody slept that night. Morning came and they fled carrying minimum possible belongings, leaving their homes, lives, and livelihoods behind. Some were lucky enough to have escaped before the real violence descended; many others saw their family members and neighbours being cut into halves or burnt alive. It sends a chill down my spine.

I change the topic and ask them about their present situation and future plans. The women instantly break into laments about their living conditions. There is no proper source of water, no fuel to cook, no beds to sleep in but torn blankets, and very little medical aid by way of visits by some charitable doctors. The recent untimely rains have caused water to accumulate on the floor of their tents, and children are contracting pneumonia from the cold. Indeed, a couple of children have died of pneumonia in the past week. The women of the camp barely manage to scrape together some firewood and crop leftovers from nearby forests or farms to use as fuel. My mind is busy contemplating the immense environmental and health hazard such kind of living poses for the community and those living in the surrounding areas. I refrain from making any mention of it.

The men chime in. There is precious little money, and that is spent in getting food for the family, leaving nothing for them to invest in setting up even a small business. There are sparse job opportunities, and those too, at nearby construction sites or brick kilns. Many refugee families assert that they are originally farmers or agricultural workers and consider it beneath their stature to work in brick kilns. I ask if they'd rather live off the dwindling aid packages from outside, or forget class concerns for a while and go to work wherever they can find it. The women vehemently oppose the latter prospect. They insist that they'll sell wares or work on construction sites if need be. The mutual knowledge that such work opportunities for a migrant Muslim population are almost impossible to find in the surrounding villages is silently brushed under the carpet. I don't pry further for fear of breaking their bubble of comfort, or much worse, incensing them

* * *
Eight months since that fateful episode, winter has subsided but the worst is still not over for the several thousands of refugees who continue to live in those godforsaken shelters. The aid has all but stopped flowing in; people seem to have forgotten about the refugees. The unfortunate incidents are after all several months in the past now. People have found new charities to devote their time and money to. The refugees realise this and do not depend on incoming help to survive and to feed their children. In a desperate attempt to make a living of their own, many have taken to the surrounding brick kilns and spend 16 hours a day earning just enough to make ends meet. A livelihood outside of those kilns is still a far-fetched dream for most of them.

I, along with a group of 15-20 friends, collected over 3 lakh rupees from family, friends, and whatever other sources we could think of, and made three successive visits, over the course of two months, to a few camps in close vicinity of each other. On our first visit we distributed items of necessity folding beds and warm clothes to combat the extreme January cold, mugs and buckets with lids for storing water, bathing and washing soaps for sanitation, and stationery for the children who are being deprived of schooling.

On our second visit, we talked personally to the men and women in groups and brainstormed ideas on how to help them build a livelihood to break out of this vicious circle of poverty and dependence. Most of them said they did not want any beds or buckets or clothes anymore. If only we could help them set up long-term prospective businesses or help them get employment, they would earn for themselves and be grateful to us forever. It was an eye-opener for us.

On our third and final visit, we were men and women on a mission. We arranged for the refugee women to be provided sewing machines and work from the village sarpanch's brother, Dawood bhai, who had been working for their welfare incessantly and of his own volition. We also set up a business model with his help, wherein we gave money to meticulously chosen groups of 5 or 10 men as a loan to buy implements or bicycles and start working with their respective skills. They would then have to return a certain amount as interest on the loans to Dawood bhai each month, as evidence that they were indeed generating income and not squandering off the money. The interest obtained would be used to extend similar loans to more such groups, eventually sustaining a self-sufficient model for their economic empowerment. We also helped widowed and elderly women with requisite funds and knowledge to set up their own independent bangles businesses.

It was the most beautiful and gratifying feeling in the world when the women on our third visit recognised us, confided their more intimate problems in us, and gave us small presents to show their gratitude. All the villagers men, women, and children were very hospitable and kind to us. It made everything much more than worthwhile. In hindsight, the entire experience has had a profound impact on my thoughts and life and will stay with me forever.

* * *
When asked if they'd like to return home, the displaced villagers of Shamli refuse point blank. There's nothing left for them to return to. They wish to make their present abode their permanent abode and start life afresh. If only the government would have it, though. They are slowly being evicted or forced to leave the lands they are living on, without the government making any efforts to rehabilitate them or grant substantial monetary assistance or security of life in their native villages. Being a minority community doesn't come easy in a country like India; that too, a community that has historically been subjected to prolonged subjugation and popular disdain. Things were different between the Hindus and Muslims of India before the British decided to play Divide-and-Rule. Things haven't been the same ever since. We can see the ramifications today in the frequent communal riots.

With the elections long over and the incumbent government in power, the political purpose of the riots has been served. But things are probably not going to get any better for these helpless displaced Muslims. Rather worse. The people's mandate has delivered its decision. An election fought on the basis of communal ideology is easy to win with the support of a majority of the population, but to deliver on the promises made to the Hindu majority population will entail oppressing and denigrating the Muslim minority population even further. Achhe din aane wale hain, par sirf satta ke (Good times are in the offing, but only for those in power). It is a lone, long battle from here for those who have no home, no livelihood, and above all, a threat to their lives in their own land. Power is now in the hands of those who never took responsibility for their past failures (and possible involvement) in the horrendous communal riots that have rocked the country's Hindu-Muslim unity in the past. It is a mockery of democracy, a victory of money and media power over truth and merit. The country's economic development may touch the skies in the next five years but the moral and secular fabric of the society is only going downhill from here.

* * *
Common people, including some of my own friends, are divided on how and why the riots happened. A few friends even believe those stories about Muslim men luring Hindu girls into marriages and converting them to Islam in an organised manner, and about the riots being a 'just' retaliation by Hindus to teach the Muslim community a lesson. I have no respect for anyone who supports or promotes such ideas and ideologies despite the best of education. The country is in dire need of 'thinking' Indians. It is easy to blame the 'other', but to undergo what thousands of innocent victims have is a different ballgame altogether.

I can only pray now. For the welfare of the thousands of displaced riot victims and their kith and kin. For my country not to go to the dogs in the coming years. And for my fellow Indians to have the courage and good sense to strive against all odds to uphold India's fragile secular fabric and dignity in the face of communal elements constantly inciting them not to. Amen.

1 comment:

Shobhit said...

After reading this post about what you did with your friends for those unfortunate people, you and your friends deserve huge respect not only from me but from every person who believes in humanity.

I don’t know if religious intolerance crept into our country because of the British or if it was inherent even before that. But it has certainly continued to dictate the psyche of a great majority of our population, specially, since the partition of our country on religious lines.

It is evident how the majority of young Indians have voted in these elections. They may have voted in the name of development, but deep down in most people’s minds, communalism plays a strong role even today. The young people of today have grown up on the foundation of religious intolerance which touched its peak in December 1992. People who were kids back then were greatly affected by the communal divide. Those very people now constitute the youngsters who have communalism ingrained in their psyche.

I don’t think this is the place for political comments, but the truth is that most people from the majority community have been automatically attracted to people who symbolize religious intolerance. People who come across as being audacious enough to shrug off any accusation of human rights violation. People who appear powerful enough to get away with murder.

‘Forget the past, focus on development’ can attract anyone who hasn’t experienced the horrors of the riots. But for those who have seen their loved ones die can never forget the past. And this includes people from every religion.

Sadly, we have become so obsessed with money that we want economic development at any cost. I wonder what if Ajmal Kasab had been an Indian and some expert economist, maybe he would have been forgiven to use his expertise for economic gains.

It all is so depressing. But knowing the fact that there are still people like you and your friends, hope continues to shine amidst all the gloom.