Displaced by a riot

Since 2018, a remarkable uptick in communal violence has taken shape in India. Dilnaz Boga speaks to those uprooted by ethnic violence in the 1990s, who explain their fears for where the country is headed.

Damages wrought by the 2020 Bangalore riots. Credit: Times of India

Ayeshabi Abdul Sattar Nadaf, 50, sells fish to eke out a living in Mumbai. ‘When I was married, I used to be so timid that I could not even go to a shop and ask for something, she recalls with a smile. Since then, life has taught Ayeshabi plenty.

On 3 January 1993, her husband, 30-year-old Abdul Sattar, a stove repairer, was stabbed and burnt to death in Kandivali, a western suburb of the violence-stricken metropolis. Abdul had been looking for his brother who was rumoured to have been killed in the violence of what are referred to as the ‘Bombay riots’, which left over 900 dead. The communal violence in December 1992 and January 1993, set off by the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, was a Shiv Sena-organized pogrom against Muslims in Mumbai.

Two days later, Ayeshabi escaped with her two small daughters and son – all under the age of 10, and never returned home. She went to her father’s house a few suburbs away. ‘I didn’t feel safe; there was no news of my husband,’ she explains. ‘Our mosque was demolished and so were two Muslim homes nearby. There was so much violence around us, I was worried for my children… our lives. We were told by an acquaintance that rioters asked my husband to chant “Ram, Ram” [a Hindu religious slogan], but he refused, so they stabbed him and set him on fire.’

We were told by an acquaintance that rioters asked my husband to chant “Ram, Ram”, but he refused, so they stabbed him and set him on fire

Men from Ayeshabi’s neighbourhood caught up with her and first stoned her house, ransacked it and then demolished it.

Pappubhai Qureshi, who worked with NGO Citizens for Peace in Mumbai, confirms that during the riots several murders occurred near Ayesha’s home, and eight to 10 houses were burnt in Kandivali, in east Mumbai, as the rioters wanted to target people’s livelihood. ‘The Supreme Court had a list of missing people believed to be dead in the riots, he says.

Ayeshabi is only one of the countless people permanently displaced by violence during riots in India. National figures for this section of permanently internally displaced people (IDPs) in riots do not exist but killings rooted in communal polarization are prevalent to this day.

To compound the trauma, the loss of home and livelihood exacerbates matters for those displaced by communal violence and accountability and justice are often relegated to a distant realm. Impunity for both state and non-state actors is perpetuated amidst cycles of violence.

Almost three decades later, many people are continually being displaced within India’s borders as a result of conflict and violence, second to disasters  the primary driver of displacements. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a Geneva-based international agency, says that India accounted for most of South Asia’s new displacements between 2018 and 2019.

An IDMC report stated that 2018 especially saw a rise in displacements caused by ‘localized violence linked to politics, caste, ethnicity or religion’ in the first half of the year. Another publication by the same agency indicated that the number of girls and women in India bearing the brunt of this were as high as 230,000.

Religious violence has deep roots. Researchers maintain that India’s Partition may be viewed as one of the most violent processes of ethnic cleansing in recent history, with India being the fourth-worst country in the world for religious violence. Brass’ (2003) work titled, The Partition of India and Retributive genocide in the Punjab, 1946–47: Means, Methods, and Purposes indicates that over 12 million people were dislocated in one of the ‘greatest human convulsions of human history.’


The lasting impact of these cycles of violence is clear to see. What troubles Ayeshabi now, even more than the psychological trauma, is the fact that her children grew up without a father. ‘My daughter Asma, who adored her father, would be crestfallen upon seeing other children with their fathers after his murder.’

In most recent times, lynchings of Muslims and the televised violence of riots in Delhi in 2019 have brought back brutal memories for Ayeshabi.

‘These days I cannot sleep well. Delhi reminds me of what we endured as a family. My children had to quit school. It was a matter of survival. There is too much tension here even now, but where can we go? We were born here, and we will die here.’

It’s not just Muslims that have suffered violence; Dalits, another marginalized group, have endured caste-based attacks from Brahmanical forces. Kamal Gaikwad, 65, remembers a two-month long riot in 1974 that forced her family to move. Gaikwad lived in a building in Naigaon, Worli, one of south Mumbai’s prime localities.

‘There was a riot between the Shiv Sena and the Dalit Panthers over the murder of Bhagwat Jhadhav, a young party member who was killed by a grinding stone thrown from a terrace as the Panthers rallied by Worli’s police quarters,’ Kamal recalls. Her father, a mill worker, decided to move to a shanty in north Mumbai. To this day, her family regrets letting go of the property that was later encroached upon.

In India, ethnic-based violence has been endemic since independence, according to ethnicity theorist Paul Brass in his book Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence. In present times, violence instigated by complex political structures reaps electoral benefits through the strategic polarization of the public.

The rampaging mob pointed to me. They destroyed all my sewing machines, along with the orders. I had to leave immediately.

The anti-Muslim riots in Godhra in 2002 appears to offer a tragic illustration of what Professor Paul Brass refers to as an ‘institutionalised riot system’ in his book Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms, and Genocide in Modern India.

In Gujarat, over 2,500 were murdered by Hindu mobs and 200,000 families displaced as the BJP-led state government, under then chief minister and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, refused to intervene.

Analyzing the effect of riots on the vote share of Hindu nationalist parties, a Yale study shows that ‘the BJS/BJP saw a 0.8 percentage point increase in their vote share following a riot in the year prior to an election.’

Riot survivors like Sheikh Anwar, 53, lay the blame on politicians. ‘You can ask anyone,’ he says as a matter of fact, ‘I have always been on good terms with people from all communities.’

Anwar, who ran a sewing business in Kurar village in Malad, in east Mumbai, recalls how his workshop and home were vandalized by people he was familiar with in his neighbourhood, along with others he did not recognize. The rampaging mob pointed to me. They destroyed all my sewing machines, along with the orders. I had to leave immediately.’

In 1998, Anwar did return to the village to restart his business with help from well-meaning Hindu friends and business acquaintances but left a year later because of ‘fights between communities in the area.’ He sold the place he called home for 15 years and moved to Malvani, another suburb in north Mumbai.

Anwar still does not comprehend why he was targeted in December 1992. ‘I was not involved in politics, had a good relationship with everyone. I just do not understand. Our country suffers when poor people lose their means to make a living. Only politicians dictate our lives.’

The burden of rehabilitation

Displacement associated with conflict is a regular occurrence, but it can be complex to track and obtain comprehensive data on it because conflicts are very localized, and are often linked to identity and ethnicity. The fate of people displaced in India constitutes a significant information gap, particularly for those who do not live in formal camps or resettlement areas. No comprehensive humanitarian assessment of IDPs’ needs has been conducted at the national level.

But Misbah Rashid, a Research and Documentation Officer at the Centre for Equity Studies, is trying to do just this, her three-year project on riots aims to collect testimonies from people affected by riots in India that took place between 1961 and 2013.

Rashid refers to a case she came across during one of her visits. While she was documenting testimonies from the Bhiwandi riots, she met an affluent business family that was sheltering workers in the compound of their house, where 32 of them were killed. ‘In a 1970 the family had shifted due to a riot, in 1982 they shifted again to Mumbai and in the riots of 1992, they had to shift once more.’

54-year-old Javed Ansari, whose family was uprooted several times over several generations, shares a similar story. ‘Our family was hit by the Uttar Pradesh riots about 150 years ago, according to the story I was told. My father migrated to Kurla, in Mumbai, as a young man, where he completed his studies. We had a big house there. Because of the riots, we moved again to Kalyan.’ Born in 1966, Ansari’s family had moved to Bhiwandi where he is adamant he and his siblings lived an idyllic life on a farmhouse his father built on 28 acres.

The family even had a good rapport with those from adjoining villages. However, on 17 May 1984, armed mobs attacked the property for two days. ‘People from the slum (including Hindus) close to our farmhouse ran to us for shelter. My father was in contact with the police, but they were not helpful. We were surrounded by around 5,000 people chanting slogans. It was a military-type of operation. We held out all night.’

The mob, Ansari says, was armed with guns, swords and explosives. ‘For each person in the farmhouse there were 100 people outside. We had guns but not enough cartridges. Finally, they broke in and the goriest violence took place,’ he remembers.

As the women and children were locked safely in the farmhouse, they survived. But the others were not spared. The mob gathered the victims, poured kerosene on them, and asked them to run.

‘They were hunted. Some of them had their guts ripped open and then set on fire, while others’ private parts were chopped off. This lasted for four-and-a-half hours,’ Ansari recalls.

In this incident, 32 were killed, out of which three were Hindus; 28 bodies were recovered, and four bodies were found in a well. A senior police officer, who was passing by, alerted the authorities as the telephone line had been severed.

The State Reserve Police Force, accompanied by journalists, reached the spot. ‘Journalists interviewed dying victims and the story was reported internationally,’ he says.

These days, Ansari sees a dark future, but somehow remains hopeful. ‘There is injustice worldwide, so you have to fight for justice… for truth. These dark powers are at their zenith, which means their end is near. That is why it is important to stand for what’s right,’ he emphasizes, optimistically.

The police have always played the role of the aggressors, supporting the rioters here – they shoot the poor and protect those who are violent towards the minority community. This has been their tradition role

Policing riots

Member of All India Students Federation (AISF), Shambuk Sankalpana Uday, lives close to Bhiwandi, Maharashtra’s power loom center which lies 31 kilometres from Mumbai. Concentration of Muslim populations in cities and towns is often described by the right-wing as ‘mini-Pakistan’. Bhiwandi is one such area.

The Bhiwandi riots took place in 1984, and Shambuk explains how his Left party-backed organization ‘helped the community day and night’. Efforts to keep track of the numbers displaced couldn’t be made because they were busy with rehabilitation work on a mass scale, he elaborates.

In the past, several people from rural parts of Bhiwandi were permanently displaced because of police atrocities. People fled from Muslim-majority villages such as Pagda, Borivali and Mahpauli in rural Bhiwandi due to constant harassment by the police and agencies, alleges Shambuk.

Asrar Ansari, part of the anti-communal movement in Bhiwandi, concurs: ‘I was 19 years old when I witnessed the 7 May 1970 riots here. The police have always played the role of the aggressors, supporting the rioters here – they shoot the poor and protect those who are violent towards the minority community. This has been their traditional role. The Justice Madan Commission report concluded the same.’

Bhiwandi was one of many towns that reeled under communal violence. Similarly, Aurangabad, 383 kilometres from India’s financial capital Mumbai, is also known as a ‘communal hotspot’ as it has witnessed violence in 1992, 1996 and 2018.

Aurangabad resident Abhay Taksal, who worked closely with Mumbai-based activist Irfan Engineer’s Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, observes that fear played a central role in major displacement of both Hindus and Muslims and is largely responsible for the ghettoization of his city into the ‘green belt’ and the ‘saffron belt’.

Hindus left Muslim localities, and Muslims left Hindu localities after the riots – Aurangabad is a ‘laboratory of communal violence’, according to Taksal. In the last bout of violence on the night of 11 May 2018, two people, a Hindu and a Muslim, were shot by the police.

‘Looting and burning of shops during riots is common. To this day, no action has been taken against the police who accompanied the rioters in May. Forget action, no inquiry has taken place into these murders,’ says Taksal.

Legal justice remains elusive in most cases as it takes years for trials to begin and end. In fact, those who stand up to the state to criticize complicity in riots have been targeted.

In Gujarat, former journalist and social activist Teesta Setalvad closely documented the devastation and displacement that affected the community during and after the riots. Setalvad’s testimony at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom against the state (BJP) government, then headed by Modi, led to the US denying him entry to the country in 2005 due to his role in the Gujarat riots which lasted from February to May 2002 in which many rapes were reported, 2,000 Muslims were killed, and over 200,000 were displaced in total.

Shafi Patel provided relief to many victims of the Mumbai and Gujarat riots in his 25 years of service to the marginalized. Declining to describe himself as social worker, Patel, who hails from Bharuch in South Gujarat, outlines his assessment of the nature of the internally displaced: ‘Firstly, there were people who were permanently displaced because they failed to get support and were economically handicapped without food, shelter or clothing. Secondly, there were those whose relatives took them in. Finally, there were families who availed of the social support provided to them and found better opportunities for themselves.’

When asked to elaborate on the nature of support provided by the state, Patel retorts, ‘Government compensation is a criminal farce. Political organisations that supply monetary compensation are steeped in bribery and corruption. People are left to fend for themselves.’

Boundary lines

Ahmedabad-based journalist Nachiketa Desai, who covered the Gujarat riots, shares his observations: ‘Muslims were at the receiving end and they became refugees overnight. I remember, around 400 lower-middle-income families moved from eastern Ahmedabad, the old town, to Juhapura, the posh western part of the city in 2002.’ Juhapura is now the largest ‘Muslim ghetto’ in the state, he laments.

One of the major investigations by Desai suggested that Muslim businesses were deliberately and strategically targeted by militant Hindu groups to induce a demographic change.

Referring to his story published in The Telegraph on 10 January, 1992, Desai recollects: ‘I had interviewed Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia, who boasted that the VHP had undertaken a census and land record survey to take stock of the real-estate ownership pattern among Hindus and Muslims in over 18,000 villages, towns and cities of the state.’

The survey, Togadia said, ‘would provide the VHP leadership with the necessary data that would help formulate short-term and long-term strategies for "protecting" the interests of the Hindu community in ‘sensitive’ areas.’

In order to stem the demographic spread and economic growth of Muslims, Togadia explicitly stated that the VHP would draw up a ‘boundary line’ in all major towns and cities beyond which Muslims would not be allowed to cross.

Since then, there have been a multitude of communal riots etched in the sub-continent’s post-colonial history. More recently, vigilante cow protection groups harassed and attacked people in states such as Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka in the name of upholding laws prohibiting the killing of cows.

Concentrated principally in four of 28 Indian states, there have been more than 33,000 Hindu‐Muslim riots since 1947. Some of them are the Bhagalpur riots of 1989, Aligarh riots of 1990-1991, the religious violence in Kandhamal district in the western parts of Odisha in January 1999, the Muzaffarnagar district violence in 2013 and 2019.

Studies, both national and international, have concentrated on the trajectory and the structure of communal violence that is steeped in politics. But there is a need for a longitudinal study on the survivors, the after-effects (social, economic, psychological) of displacement to understand the real toll it has exacted on the public.