The Unbearable Burden Of Belief
An Indian-American goes from California to Gujarat to take a close look at his cultural roots and gets swept into a maelstrom of sectarian violence. Back in the U.S. now, he is still racked by the brutal violence and hatred he came face to face with, and asks why his name precedes his person.
I have been searching for Gandhi for several years. But after spending six months in Gandhi’s homeland, Gujarat, I fear he may be dead.
I was recently sponsored by the America Indian Foundation to work with an Indian NGO, SAATH. Gujarat was a natural choice for me: my grandparents hail from the coastal state in India’s west. They left India in the early 1920s to join the diaspora in East Africa. My parents were both born in Tanzania. When my father was a medical student in Uganda, Idi Amin came to power and insisted that Africa was for Africans—black Africans—and Indians had no place among them. In 1971 they arrived in Sacramento, California, and have remained here ever since. My return to Gujarat was, therefore, tinged with romantic yearning.
What I came face to face with in the next few weeks was beyond imagination.
I was working in a Hindu shantytown on Feb. 27 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, when a train coach with 58 Hindus was set ablaze in the city of Godhra. The Indian government was quick to suggest that the attack must have been the act of Muslims and, possibly, Pakistan.
For three months, intolerant mobs held all Muslims in Gujarat, including me, responsible for the beastly attack in Godhra. Harish Bhatt, senior leader of right-wing Hindu group VHP, warned in early March: “Now it is the end of tolerance. If Muslims do not learn, it will be very harmful for them.”
Father Cedric Prakash, director of an Ahmedabad-based human rights group, testified to members of U.S. Congress about the program, which many critics say was state-sponsored. According to his estimation, over 5,000 people were killed, 150,000 forced into camps, 300 women raped and 532 mosques/dargahs destroyed. As many as 600,000 fled the state. Nearly all were Muslim.
I remember my first visit to the Shah Alam refugee camp in Gujarat’s capital Ahmedabad. It was groups of compassionate Hindus that began the much needed rehabilitation efforts in Gujarat. More than 15,000 Muslims battled for space in the cramped confines of a relief camp the size of a soccer field. Huddled in a corner was a group of young children and I sat down and introduced myself. One child kept asking, “But you are Muslim too. Why didn’t your home burn down?”
As I left the Shah Alam camp, another child asked, “Why are you able to leave? Why can’t my family leave?” Any Muslim caught leaving the Shah Alam camp was arrested. Posted all around were police officers, their weapons facing towards, not away from the refugees. Muslims in the camp, I was told, were planning an attack. Conditions in the camp were so dire that an infant died in the camp of dehydration. What potential threat could people under such conditions pose?
I wrestled with the duality of my existence in Ahmedabad—I was at once a part of the minority community attacked by the government-sponsored violence and yet constantly being granted special treatment because of my U.S. citizenship. I carried immense guilt as I left the Shah Alam camp. It is a duality that continues to haunt me.
Nowhere was this duality more manifest than with my host family, an exceptionally loving and delightfully entertaining Hindu couple in Ahmedabad. When I did not have an outfit to wear for Bakr Eid festival, it was “uncle” who gave me his own kurta pajama.
After returning from the relief camp one evening, I was in too much agony to eat dinner. Each time I tore of a piece of roti, I recalled the friends I made in the camps: Javaid, orphaned at 12, after watching his parents being burnt alive before his eyes; Anjum, 19, gang raped and urinated upon; Iqbal, 71, arrested and shot in the leg for “inciting violence” against a mob of 250.
What, I asked myself, did I do to deserve the luxury of a quiet dinner that so many of my friends in the camps did not have? My host mother attempted to cheer me up, “Well you know beta, those Muslims only go to the camps because they get free food there.”
I wanted to tell her that the relief camps smelled of urine and feces, that the floors were indescribably filthy. You would throw up at the very sight of that place, let alone eat there. But I remained silent. They offered me the security and acceptance denied to many other Muslims in Gujarat and I was grateful.
I recall my visit to the relief camp in Vatwa, just 20 miles outside Ahmedabad. An entire community of around 100 Muslim homes was burned on the first day of the riots, forcing nearly 500 into the relief camp.
I arrived with friends from Citizen’s Initiative, the umbrella organization comprising 31 NGOs committed to rehabilitation. We arrived in the Vatwa camp with two truckloads of rice and lentil. My friends became nervous when they entered the camps. One of them was scared of even accepting a glass of water inside.
As we unloaded the rice from the van, I heard the azaan, the call for evening prayers, and I asked my NGO friends if I could go to the mosque for a few minutes. Persistent curfew in Ahmedabad had prevented me this pleasure. I continued to work in the relief camps of Ahmedabad through April. In the first week of April, a Hindu woman called Madhuben was pulled out from her home, raped, urinated upon, and then burnt to death. Her crime? She had given shelter to a Muslim man, believed to be her lover. The perpetrators took pictures of her body and sent it all around Gujarat. Pamphlets were passed around warning that similar action would be taken against anyone else helping Muslims.
I saw fear creeping into my host family. One morning as I left to use the Internet café, my host “uncle” told me with discomfort, “Uh, perhaps you should not use the name Zahir while at the café.”
A week later, I boarded a one-way flight to Delhi. I did not want to leave Gujarat. My work in Ahmedabad, though emotionally grueling, had shown me India and humanity in ways I had never imagined. Now, my presence in Ahmedabad was a threat to those around me and I had no choice but to leave.
I could not restrain my tears as I boarded the flight. As I peered out at the diminishing view of Ahmedabad from the airplane window, I thought of my parents’ expulsion from Uganda. Could my pain compare to their separation from their birthplace? I remember repeating the lines of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib: Jab ke tujh bin koin nahin mawjood; fir yeh hangama, ai Khuda, kya hai (When nothing but You exists; why then, Oh God, this chaos?)
At the advice of friends I decided to backpack through North India. Gujarat is not India, they told me, and I wanted to believe them. My first destinations were Hardwar and Rishikesh. I wanted to see the Ganga, the holiest of Hindu rivers. Friends had spoken of its healing power, and I certainly needed the solace.
When I checked into a hotel in Hardwar, the hotel owner looked at my passport, particularly my Pakistani visa stamp and told me to return to Pakistan. I spoke in Hindi and told him that I was Gujarati. He eventually allowed me to stay but found it incredible that a Gujarati Muslim from America would want to visit the Ganga.
I continued to backpack and covered 22 cities in one-and-a-half months, encountering much of the same prejudice everywhere. In Varanasi, I was asked by a hotel owner to prove that I wasn’t an ISI agent. In Aligarh, I met Muslim students who spoke of being discriminated against in jobs. In Jaipur, I saw a crowd of nearly a hundred burn an effigy of a “Pakistani” as we prayed on Jum’a (Friday prayers). In Mumbai, I met a Muslim family who was denied an apartment in the upscale Malabar Hill suburb because the housing complex wanted “vegetarians only.” They had said Gujarat wasn’t India. I did not see any proof of that.
Now back in the U.S., I am often asked what it was like to witness the worst communal violence in India since Partition. Two days after returning, I walked into the bagel shop near my house in Sacramento, California. The store employee took my order and asked, “What is your name?”
I froze. I allowed the question to linger for a moment. How many times, I thought, had I wrestled to answer that most basic question in India? Three weeks after returning to the U.S., I am still haunted.
I decided to visit a psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder. When I walked into the doctor’s office, she said, “How can we get you to forget?”
I walked out five minutes later. It is not about forgetting. Nor is it about reciprocating hatred. It is about translating my loss into an effort to understand the larger issues, to understand people, and to see that this violence does not repeat anywhere, be it against Muslims, committed by Muslims or completely unrelated to Muslims.
Working in India I have learned the danger of instilling fear without creating political and societal mechanisms to safeguard against that very fear. I have witnessed how easily the chant of “protecting security” can readily be used to break down society and overshadow more pressing societal ills.
I recall visiting one family in the slum that had just lost their infant son to dehydration. When the conversation somehow drifted to politics, they shifted their tone and told me, “Pakistan is the biggest problem plaguing India.” What then, I asked them, about the spiraling health conditions, the lack of safe drinking water, scarcity of employment or the low literacy in India? After all, India is a country where many street children learn to extend their hand to beg for spare change before they can even say “Ma”.
And that is what frightens me: Has communal hatred in India eclipsed more exigent issues like food and water?
Might Gandhi still be alive? Somewhere, in someone?
Zahir Janmohamed is a 25-year-old UC Berkeley and UCLA graduate and is currently writing a book about his experiences in India. This article first appeared in the online magazine www.literateworld.com