New Internationalist

Geetaben and Shakila

July 2002

Urvashi Butalia’s view from the south

This is a tale of two women. The first does not have a name: I‘ll call her Shakila. The other was called Geetaben. Geetaben‘s and Shakila‘s lives were broadly similar. Both lived in Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat. They weren‘t rich, but they weren‘t poor either. There was little in their appearance that marked them as different, except for the individual features that mark one human being as distinct from another. And one other detail which should normally have been insignificant – their religion. It was for this last difference that both died: horrible, macabre deaths. Shakila because she was a Muslim, and Geetaben because she was a Hindu who dared to love a Muslim. Shakila was nine months pregnant when she was attacked by a fundamentalist Hindu mob in Ahmedabad. They ripped her foetus out of her womb and left both mother and child dead on the road. Geetaben was similarly killed. Not because she was Muslim, but because she transgressed the fundamentalist boundaries by loving, and attempting to protect her partner, a Muslim man.

The stories of Shakila and Geetaben are just two of the more than 1,000 killings that have taken place in Gujarat since late February when the violence began. As I write, 125,000 people are stranded in relief camps across the city with little food and water, barely any shelter, bewildered and lost, angry and helpless – in the blistering heat of the Indian summer. There are dozens of women who have been raped, children who have been orphaned, men who have been wounded and the old and infirm are helpless on their own. Where once homes stood there is little left and Muslims dare not return for fear of further violence.

Meanwhile, the Government remains indifferent, callous and obstructive. Now the victims of the Gujarat carnage are too frightened and too wretched to think of anything other than from where the next meal will come. But the anger will return and the desire for revenge will manifest itself. Hate will begin its insidious, corrosive task and appeals for restraint will go unheeded.

A thousand dead. A whole city virtually destroyed: shops and businesses burnt down, buses set ablaze, houses destroyed. And yet, a curious silence in the international media – a bare six or seven months after 24-hour, non-stop news bulletins on the horrific attacks of last September. Is this just a question of numbers? Or is it a question of where you are and who you are? With the odd rare exception, the 1,000 who died in Gujarat were all Muslim. Since 11 September 2001 the typecasting of the ‘Muslim as terrorist‘ has reached its long arm out to us in India as well. To the point that our Prime Minister, shamefully, made a public statement that wherever there are Muslims there is violence.

A thousand dead. A whole city virtually destroyed: shops and businesses burnt down, buses set ablaze, houses destroyed. And yet, a curious silence in the international media – a bare six or seven months after 24-hour, non-stop news bulletins on the horrific attacks of last September

Every action, we were told, has a reaction – this is a reference to an attack by Muslims on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims which is said to have led to the Gujarat carnage. Yet can a ‘spontaneous‘ reaction take the shape that the killings in Gujarat did? Every person in the mobs which roamed the city was armed with a trishul, a trident supplied to them by fundamentalist Hindu political parties. Knives, swords, incendiary materials – these don‘t just materialize out of thin air. But the more disturbing question is a moral one: what is it in human beings that makes us turn on each other with such violence and hatred? What is it that enables us to turn friend, neighbour, associate, acquaintance into a thing, an object to be hated and destroyed? Worse, what is it that allows us to use religion to justify our actions? These are urgent questions to which, increasingly, it‘s becoming difficult to find answers.

When you walk down any street in any part of India you will likely as not meet a Hindu, a Christian, a Sikh, a Parsi, a Muslim, a Jain, an agnostic, a faith healer… you name it. Talk to any of them, ask what they want, and somewhere in the answer you‘ll find a desire for peace. And yet this strong, deep desire for peace is sharply contradicted by our propensity to violence; it only takes a minute for us to start killing each other, simply because one or the other of us is ‘different‘.

Like many Indians I am bewildered, shocked and in despair about this. I have never thought of myself as a nationalist, but my identity as an Indian is important to me. Today I watch, helplessly, as fascism makes inroads into this wonderful, plural country. I watch as Shakila becomes its unwitting victim, as Geetaben dies because she dared to speak against it.

And I learn that it is dangerous to protest, perhaps better to compromise. And this is how it begins. I realize this, as must thousands of other Indians, at home and abroad – the latter among the largest financiers of our right-wing fundamentalists. And yet, will we do anything about it? Or will we keep telling ourselves this is about ‘culture‘, and not about politics and power? After such knowledge,

I ask myself, what forgiveness?

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 347 This column was published in the July 2002 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 347

New Internationalist Magazine issue 347
Issue 347

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