Love and hate

 When two Hindu women chose to elope with their lovers who happened to be Muslims, the entire community was hounded for weeks in two small towns in Gujarat 

More than 60 Muslim families were forced to flee from their village — Randhikpur in Panchmahal district — in June–end because the local unit of the VHP held the entire community responsible for the elopement of two Hindu girls from the village with their respective Muslim lovers from two neighbouring villages. Even a month later, they were unable to return to their homes. To take stock of the situation, SAHIYAR, a women’s organisation based in Baroda, sent three of its members — Rita Choksi, Roshan Mansuri and Trupti Shah — on a fact–finding visit on August 2. A.N. Karla and Mukundbhai of the Humanist Rationalist Society joined them from Godhra.

The fact–finding team’s report was ready on August 8. But before it could be publicised, agitating Hindu communalists struck again — this time at Sanjeli town in the neighbouring Godhra district. In view of this, an enlarged fact–finding team — consisting of activists from the Movement for Secular democracy (MSD), People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat (PCUL), National Alliance of Women’s Organisation (NAWO), and Gujarat Forum for Women’s Studies and Action’s (GFWSA) was put together. The team members, Prof. J.S. Bandukwala, Trupti Shah, Shiba George, Dwarikanath Rath, Dr. Priyavadan Patel, Sophiya Khan, Tapan Dasgupta, and Rohit Prajapati visited Sanjeli on August 24.

The first investigation team could only meet the Muslim victims from Randhikpur who had sought refuge elsewhere since the VHP had put Randhikpur out of bounds for media persons and others. The second team, which visited Sanjeli town and also the district headquarters at Godhra, spoke to people from all communities, including the local leaders and activists of the RSS/VHP/Bajrang Dal, as also government officials in–charge of law and order in the area.

This report is based on the reports of the two fact–finding teams and interviews with some of the team members who visited Mumbai for placing their findings before the press.

On June 23, 1998 two
Hindu women from
Randhikpur — 18–year– old Kanta, a matriculate running a paan shop and Nanda, a wage labourer, eloped with their lovers from two neighbouring villages — Arif Yusuf from Sanjeli and Tiniyo from Malpur respectively. Kanta was then unmarried, while Nanda who is estranged from her husband had been living with her uncle along with her child.

According to the Muslim residents of Randhikpur, the two women had had a relationship with Yusuf and Tiniyo, respectively, for quite sometime. Even assuming both to be incidents of kidnapping, they pleaded that they can hardly be held responsible, as a community, for the deeds of two individual Muslims, especially since the youth belonged to other villages. But the local unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) thought otherwise. On June 28, Muslims of Randhikpur were served an ultimatum — if the two Hindu women were not back in the village in the next 48 hours, Muslim women from the village would be given "the same treatment". The stoning of Muslim homes followed the threat. Terrified, the Muslims fled.

A large number of the affected villagers had taken refuge in Devagadh Baria. The fact–finding team spoke to a group of around 50–60 women and children who had fled from Randhikpur. "Even before the girls eloped, our homes were being regularly stoned for a few days," said Fatimabibi. "When the two Hindu girls eloped, we were threatened with the ‘same treatment’. To save our dignity, we ran away in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on our body. What we are wearing now are clothes provided to us by others."

Among those who fled was Sugraben, a woman member of the Randhikpur Gram Panchayat. She told the fact–finding team that she had personally been threatened by some members of the panchayat. Sugraben also complained that fow quite sometime now she was either not told about the panchayat meetings or not allowed to speak when she did attend.

Ganibhai Majidbhai Shaikh and Shirazbhai, two of the victims from Randhikpur told the fact–finding team: "After we left Randhikpur, some of us were called to Limkheda Police Station. We were told we had only been called for some enquiry but they kept us there for 10 days. We were beaten and asked to reveal the whereabouts of the two girls. Since we did not know anything, what could we tell? We were mistreated by the police without any case being registered against us".

"We are finding it difficult even to arrange food for ourselves now", another group of victims who had fled from Randhikpur told members of the fact–finding team in Godhra — their temporary refuge — on August 2. "Our community leaders have helped with money but instead of buying food we are using it to hunt out the two Muslim boys (Yusuf and Tiniyo)". They people have resolved that, henceforth, they will not tolerate any romance between any Muslim male with a Hindu woman.

Inciteful pamphlets distributed and incendiary speeches made at the VHP–sponsored ‘dharam sabhas’ have been ingenuously used by the BJP–RSS–VHP–Bajrang Dal combine to intensely communalise neighbourhoods and communities before an attack is launched against the minorities. Reproduced here is the English translation of a pamphlet in Gujarati, which was widely circulated in Sanjeli town and its neighbourhood a fill month before the attack on the Muslims on August 12 and 15

Let’s unite — to stop young, tribal women from being lured and kid napped. Let us unite to put an end to these unholy incidents of Hindu women being sold in Muslim countries — Let’s respond to bricks with stones.

Onwards to Sanjeli! Public meeting Onwards to Sanjeli!

Date: July 7, 1998, Sunday afternoon, 3 p.m.

At Rein Bassera, Sanjeli

Leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and

Bajrang Dal to address the meeting

A young, 18–year–old woman, Kanta, of Randhikpur, and another married adivasi woman were seduced and kidnapped to some unknown destination by Muslim youths. We have no trace of them. This is not the first incident in our area. Whether it is Vandana from Bandibaar, or Ami and Surekha from Jhalod, or Varsha from Godhra. There have been innumerable such incidents of kidnappings and disappearances. For months and years, our sisters and daughters cannot be traced. Apart from that, tragic incidents like the suicides of several elders like Magabhai Ninama keep happening in our society.

Hindu young women are kidnapped and

Hindu elders commit suicide

Hindu population on the decline

Produce more children by kidnapping young women

Add to Muslim population

A widespread conspiracy to add to the numbers of anti–Hindu, anti–national elements is at work throughout the country

For the establishment of Ram Rajya, it was the people alone who came forward to help Bhagwan Ram. Now too, adivasi brethren will have to come forward and unite to destroy this conspiracy.

When there is a weekly village market what do these Muslim loafers do? How do these Muslim loafers behave with Adivasi women going to the river for river sand? Pretending to help, do you know how these loafers tempt and lure young adivasi women and their elders?

Without expecting anything from the police, the government, or any of the politicians who are only interested in securing our votes — come — let us save our sisters and daughters from the clutches of these yavanas (demons) who sell them to the Arabs.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad — Bajrang Dal — Sanjeli

"We have heard that our houses have been looted and burnt. But we dare not return to the village or even go there to find out if this is true. Two Muslim youth from Sanjeli who visited Randhikpur a few days ago were beaten up and implicated in false cases," the fact–finding team was told.

The victims of the Randhikpur assault are really bitter, as no political party or social organisation has taken up their case. Ironically, not long before they were rendered homeless, the better–off Muslims from Randhikpur had contributed "lakhs of rupees" as relief for those affected by the cyclone that devastated Kandla port." "Is this the treatment that we deserve?" was a common refrain recorded by the fact–finding team.

They were also sore that until August 2 (the day the fact–finding team met them), the government had provided them no help or security, leave alone compensation for damage to property. "Even more curious is the attitude of the authorities," Trupti Shah, a member of the team told Communalism Combat. "The Collector and the DSP shrugged off the whole issue as no real problem. When we questioned them about the reluctance of the victims who had been driven out of the villages to go back, they dismissed it as a ‘psychological problem’ of the victims."

Many of the victims also claimed to have learnt that the police was unable even to make a panchnama of the loot and arson in Randhikpur as no one was willing to be a witness for fear of reprisals from the VHP. Apparently, the VHP continued to make incendiary speeches at dharma sabhas and village meetings. During these meetings they publicly threatened police personnel that anyone who helped the Muslims would be faced with an instant transfer order.

According to the victimised Muslims from Randhikpur, the elopement of two Hindu girls with two Muslim boys was being conveniently used by the VHP to suit other political and economic interests. The political objective was to increase the strength of the BJP and sideline the Congress in the area. The economic consideration was to grab prime land owned by Muslims near the tribal market place.

The affected Muslims also told the fact–finding team that all attempts to return to their village had so far been frustrated. "A few days ago, the Collector told us to go back to Randhikpur and promised us protection. So, some people went there. But as soon as they reached the village, a mob of VHP supporters surrounded them and threatened that if they returned to the village without the two Hindu girls who had eloped, they will have to face the consequences".

The police had little assurance to offer. "They told the families that went back to Randhikpur that all of them should stay in one house and if they went out and something happened, the police will not be responsible. How can we stay there under these circumstances?"

The saffron squad at Randhikpur does not want the press anywhere near their village either, as seems evident from the experience of two reporters:

The Indian Express, July 28, 1998 reported: "On Sunday evening, Bhupendra, a freelance photographer accompanying this reporter (Darshan Desai), went to Randhikpur. There he was trailed by a group of 10 people who heckled and abused him as he entered. He was gheraoed by at least 100 people, led by Shailesh Bhatt of the VHP. He was abused, pushed around, slapped on the face and asked to leave. Patel says he saw a sub–inspector hiding his nameplate before entering the scene and also asking him to leave for his own good. When told that he should be protecting Patel, he said, ‘Don’t he over–smart, I will slap you if you teach me my job. Now get lost.’" The reporter left Randhikpur after this incident." Yunus Gujiwala of Gujarat Today was detained for several hours at the local police station when he tried to visit Randhikpur.

As the fact–finding team was finalising its report after the visit, it learnt that following the intervention of Gujarat’s minister of state for home, Haren Pandya, about 60–65 Muslims had been helped in returning to Randhikpur. In response to an enquiry from one of the team members, the deputy superintendent police, Parghi, K.L.N. Rao, claimed that there had been no untoward incident at Randhikpur following the return of these Muslims. He added that the police had taken adequate security measures for the remaining Muslims to return if they wished to.

But a person who was present during the meeting called by minister Pandya, and who requested anonymity, gave an entirely different picture to the fact–finding team. According to him, the Hindu leaders were initially adamant that the two Hindu girls must be brought back to the village before any Muslim is allowed to return to Randhikpur. Only after a great deal of persuasion did they agree to let some of the families return. However, they remained staunchly opposed to the return of the remaining families.

The team that visited Godhra on August 2 had also met some Muslims from Sanjeli at Godhra. Abdulbhai Karimbhai Shaikh, one of them, had then told the team that Muslims from Sanjeli, too, had received a threat similar to the experience of their co–religionists from Randhikpur but they were able to hold out. However, peace at Sanjeli, a small town with a population of around 6,000, proved to be short–lived. A communal skirmish on August 12 escalated into a full–fledged riot on August 15.

The immediate cause of the skirmish on August 12 was the issue of who had the right to fish in the village pond which falls under the jurisdiction of the gram panchayat. In the previous year, the contract for exclusive fishing in the pond was given to a Muslim resident of Sanjeli, Altaf Beg Mirza. On being refused a renewal of contract in 1998, Mirza got a stay order from the court. This infuriated the panchayat leaders who declared the pond open for public fishing. Trouble started on August 12, when Mirza tried to prevent some tribals who, allegedly instigated by the panchayat leaders, started fishing. In the disturbances that followed, a cabin owned by Mirza and the local idgah was damaged. The police arrested a number of Hindus and Muslims. Both sides claiming biased police action against members of their community.

The same day, the VHP organised a ‘dharam sabha’ at Sanjeli where among others, Niraj Jain, a practising lawyer and a prominent VHP leader from Baroda, made incendiary speeches. A group of teachers from the Dr. Silpan R. Joshi Memorial High School, Sanjeli, who are also activists of the RSS/VHP/Bajrang Dal, informed the fact–finding team that at the ‘dharam sabha’, the issue of the elopement of the two Hindu girls was raised in the backdrop of the "persisting problem" of "harassment of Hindu girls by Muslim youth during the weekly haats and other melas".

The teachers alleged that Muslims had for long been "taking undue advantage of the poor economic condition of tribal women" through monetary inducement and joyrides in tampas. (tampas, a local mode of transport, are owned and run largely by Muslim youth). Since this problem had continued for quite sometime, they claimed, the sangh parivar had decided to organise "awareness campaigns" in surrounding villagers.

But others, like the local Congress leader Kalika Kumar, former prince and sarpanch of Sanjeli for 11 years, maintained that the sangh brigade’s "awareness campaign" was nothing but a campaign to instigate tribals against local Muslims. The dharam sabha of July 12, was the culmination of this campaign at which Muslims were projected as the economic and social exploiters of ‘Hindu’ tribals. During the same meeting, police personnel on duty were publicly warned that they would be stripped of their uniforms if they tried to act "in favour of Muslims". The leaders boldly asserted that they don’t have to fear anyone because, "Its our government now, in Delhi and in Gujarat".

"It was also announced from the rostrum that if Muslims have to survive in this country, they would have to live according to the laws of Hindus," Kumar added.

On August 15 — Independence Day and, coincidentally this year, also Janamashtami — thousands of people converged at Sanjeli. Though the police denies it, local Muslims claimed the saffron brigade’s game–plan was evident from the fact that unlike on other mela days, no women or children were to be seen on this occasion. According to them, in the concerted attack on Muslim property which commenced around noon and continued until 9 p.m., a total of 35 shops and houses were looted and burnt.

Abdul Rahim Shaikh and Salimbhai K. Morawala — three houses of the former and one of the latter were burnt down –— told the fact–finding team that a well–planned design was at work to cripple the local Muslim community economically. In Sanjeli, Muslims and Hindus are present in equal number; economically, too, their situation is comparable. Muslims dominate the local transport business but have found it very difficult to ply the roads since the escalation of communal tension following the elopement incidents. For nearly two months now, due to complete inaction by the police and district administration, the Muslim–dominated tampa businesses have been boycotted and only tampas with saffron ribbons and stickers symbolising allegiance to Hindutva have been allowed to ply. Due to this blatantly illegal economic boycott and discrimination, Muslim youth have been getting increasingly restless.

Another target of attack by the mobs on August 15 was the Akhandvani Ashram, the residence–cum–chapel of Fr. Joe Vas, a Catholic priest who is also the administrator of an English medium school at Sanjeli. According to the priest, a 1,000–strong mob shouting slogans like, "Jai Sri Ram", "Hum se jo takrayega, Mitti mein mil jayega" (Whoever dares confront us will be consigned to the dust), started stoning his ashram around 6 p.m. The statue of Mother Mary at the entrance of the Ashram was destroyed and the mob "asked me to come out of the house so they could kill me". Fr. Vas said the rioters smashed windowpanes, broke furniture inside the house and cut–off the telephone wires —"All this happened in front of the police." Muslims at Sanjeli, too, were very critical of the passive role of the police.

Dy.S.P. Parghi gave a different version to the fact–finding team. Parghi denied that there were no women or children at the Janamashtami mela. He said the police fired 52 rounds to disperse the rampaging mobs. The DSP and the district collector arrived at Sanjeli around 4 p.m. and the situation was brought under control soon thereafter, he claimed.

"When the fact–finding team asked the VHP workers how they could justify the attacks on the minorities, their replies were evasive. ‘What we are leading is a mass movement and in a democracy no one can do anything against a mass movement’, was one of the answers they gave," Rohit Prajapati, another member of the fact–finding team, told Combat.

Following meetings with Parghi and subsequently the DSP and the collector at Dahod, the district centre, the fact–finding team was left with the distinct feeling that government personnel had responded to the communal build–up at Sanjeli in a very casual manner and appeared to be acting under political pressure.

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