Neelesh Misra, Hindustan Times
Ahmedabad, November 4, 2006
Hamida Bano sometimes feels she is invisible. When visitors feel like throwing up at the stench from Ahmedabad's biggest garbage dump next door, she does not sense anything.
When she tells visiting officials about poor roads and polluted drinking water, nothing happens. When she calls up authorities to complain about the long power outages, she says they hang up without a word.
Bano, 40, believes that much of it has to do with who she is — a resident of one of the ghettos of Gujarat's displaced Muslim riot victims. "It is as if I do not exist," she said as she stood outside her home in a corner of Ahmedabad, surrounded by several other women.
They are from 106 displaced families all from the Naroda-Patiya neighbourhood — one of the epicenters of the 2002 riots — where nearly 90 people were killed. In districts across the state, some 5,300 families — approximately 26,000 people — continue to live in 47 settlements away from their original homes.
Even four years on, they say they are too scared to return.
The government says there is no reason to be. "In the villages where they come from, the situation is not so bad. No riots have taken place after 2002," Gujarat's junior home minister Amit Shah told the Hindustan Times.
"The residents should ideally live in their villages, though if they want to live elsewhere, the government cannot stop them," he said of the new settlements.
Bano's two-room home in Ahmedabad's Citizen Nagar neighbourhood is not easy to find. It is lost in a cobweb of rocky lanes, and flanked by a plateau of hundreds of quintals of the city's sewage-soaked garbage.
There is electricity, but supply is erratic. Water is available from a shared public tap. The government's disinterest in rehabilitating the Muslim families — and the sharp-edged stand of its critics — has brought the situation to a precarious and bitter stalemate.
Human rights groups say that since it was the government's inaction during the riots that led to the squalor, the government should now rehabilitate them since they do not want to return.
"There is every attempt by the government to ghettoize the Muslims into a few pockets and make their existence invisible," said Gagan Sethi, member of a monitoring committee formed by the National Human Right Commission.
Shah says: "Those camps are not run by the government. If they were, then it would be our responsibility to give good facilities." Meanwhile, it is often a battle of hyperbole.
"If there is hell anywhere under the sun, it is here," the National Commission for Minorities said last month in its report about the Citizen Nagar settlement.
"Muslims of Gujarat are happy, they do not think we are against them," said Shah.
That is not true, although Muslims of Gujarat rank much higher on development indices than their counterparts in other states — with Muslim literacy rates at 73.5 per cent, compared to the national average of 59 per cent, according to the 2001 census.
Even with those relatively high rates of literacy, most Muslims have traditionally worked in factories and small trades. But the displacement after the riots has struck hard at livelihoods.
In Naroda Patiya, where a football ground separates the Muslim area from the more affluent Hindu neighbourhood, Hamida Bano and her husband used to weave beautiful dresses with brocade work. "Now, my husband has to wait for orders from the factory. There are hardly any. And he gets Rs 300 every week. Earlier, we used to make about three times as much," she said.
Tragedy has also worked in other ways. Her daughter, Yusra Bano, was to marry a local man and the match is in jeopardy. "We do not have money for the marriage. We had saved some over the years, but everything was robbed in the riots," Hamida Bano said. "We have been trying to persuade the groom's parents to postpone the wedding, but they are against it."
Says Noor Bano, another victim, "Back in Naroda Patiya, my husband was a contractor at a factory. There were 50 people working for him. We used to give zaqat to the poor every year. But now, I line up to take zaqat."