Woeful Tales in Muslim Refugee Camp

Published on Apr 04, 2002 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: India

← Back to Articles

AHMEDABAD, INDIA: Gloom and a sense of desperation is the mood among 75,000 Muslims crowded into refugee camps in the city of Ahmedabad where violence by vigilante Hindu groups supported by the police continues to threaten the lives of 800,000 people, most of them in the poverty-stricken old city. Over a four-week period, an estimated 1300 Ahmedabad people have died in addition to another 700 in villages across the Gujarat state.

In a camp of 10,000 people, tightly crammed into the courtyards around a mosque in the old city where temperatures are more than 40 degrees, a woman of 32 with six children told me how her husband was burned to death when a mob of thousands moved into the area of Naroda-Patia on the outskirts of the city.

“They grabbed my husband’s rickshaw and threw kerosene on it and burned it. Then they threw him on top of it,” she said. When the mob set fire to her house, she and her children escaped with the help of some Christians who were later attacked. “I can never go back to my neighbourhood,” she said. “I’d be too afraid.”

A barefoot woman of 22 with two restless pre-school sons sitting next to her on the bare ground under the blazing sun described how five members of her family died in the same area after her mother pleaded with police to protect them.

“The police told them they had a vehicle that would take them to safety and were asked to walk down a road. When they got to the end, they faced an open field where a mob threw kerosene over them and burned them to death. My sister-in-law is now in the hospital being treated for burns. She is the only one who escaped. An NGO helped me to come here,” she said. “I was lucky. Many women here at the camp were raped.”

Harsh Mander, a senior central government civil servant, now on leave and directing an NGO called ActionAid India, says that he has never seen sexual crimes against women used so widely by the mobs. “There are reports everywhere of gang rape of young girls and women, followed by their murder by burning alive or bludgeoning with a hammer.

“What can you say about a woman eight months pregnant who begged to be spared. Her assailants instead slit open her stomach, pulled out her foetus and slaughtered it before her eyes,” he wrote in The India Times, a major English-language daily which along with other English publications here has charged the government with doing little to protect the Muslim minority.”

Munir Shaikh, the administrator of the Shah-e-Alam camp located at the mosque where I conducted many interviews, said that the future for Muslims in the state is bleak. “The fascists in this state have decided to finish off the Muslims.

“The government talks about rehabilitation but does nothing. There is vacant land in the city where the refugees could go but they don’t want them to have it. This camp was set up by Muslims. The government isn’t providing enough food, and children needing medical attention are being turned away from the hospitals.” Across the state, 25,000 are now homeless, 15,000 of them in Ahmedabad.

Those in the camps, and thousands of others who feel too afraid to leave their homes to go to work or to buy food are being helped by over thirty non-government organizations that have formed a group called the Citizens Initiative.

Composed almost entirely of Hindus with a history of working in the fields of poverty, human rights, minorities and women’s empowerment, it is supporting the refugees with food, health services, legal counseling and activities for the thousands of children who are not attending school.

Every day members gather at the St. Xavier Social Service Society, an agency run by Father Victor Moses, a Jesuit who is dedicated to communal harmony and the eradication of poverty.

A key member of the coalition is Wilfred Decosta, the national coordinator of the Indian Social Action Forum, a federation of 400 social action groups from across India.

He says that the BJP government in the state of Gujarat draws its support from a whole range of

Hindu fundamentalist organizations inspired by the Nazi model. “Their goal,” he said, “is to obliterate the Muslims.”

He talked about how the chief minister of the state, Narendra Modi, was shaped by the Rashtriya

Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organization of more than 100,000 members “with a fascist military orientation.” He particularly deplores the behaviour of the Bajrang Dal, composed of thousands of young men that are being trained to act as hoodlums.

Across the city and the state thousands of Muslim establishments have been systematically destroyed, he said. Before the riots, there was a chain of 1100 Muslim-owned vegetarian restaurants. Now only 100 are left.

A university professor who did not want to be named said that lower caste Hindus and Untouchables, who have always been treated bady, been given the mission of carrying the torch of Hinduism and are being used by upper caste Hindus in the fundamentalist organizations and government to perform their dirty work.

Decosta said non-resident Indians, especially in north America, need to be apprised of the “fascist activities” of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an international Hindu council that he equated with the Ku Klux Klan. “The VHP,” he said, “is not only against Muslims, but also against Christians – anyone seen as a non-Hindu.”

The riots, which have been going on for more than a month, broke out after 58 Hindu pilgrims burned to death when Muslims tossed fire into a train returning from the controversial temple city of Ayodhya where the VHP threatened to start erecting a temple on the ruins of a mosque torn down by Hindus in l992.

A Muslim doctor working in the charred ruins of old city of Ahmedabad said that all those responsible for this must be caught and severely punished. “But one act of terror doesn’t deserve the massacre in retaliation of thousands of innocent people across the state.” Gujarat has a population of more than 50 million, five million of them Muslims.

Losses in houses, assets and vehicles is estimated at $100 million Canadian. Industry estimates economic damage at $1 billion Canadian. Mobs razed bakeries, barbershops and cycle-repair stores as well as hotels and factories. More than 18,000 two and three-wheelers and 800 trucks were destroyed. Thousands, as a result have lost their sources of income.

This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette on April 4, 2002.