A Saheli Account of Godhra during the IIJ.

Newsletter Jan - Apr 2003

The Oxford Dictionary defines 'normalcy' as a state of 1. 'conforming to a standard, regular, usual, typical 2. free from mental or emotional disorder. In the context of recent assembly elections all over the country, it may be worthwhile to re-visit the normalcy that prevailed in Gujarat just after elections in the state.

A member of Saheli accompanied the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat as volunteer to Panchmahals in mid-December. Polling was just over. The air was heavy with expectancy. Results were to roll in the morning after.

Panchmahals was the worst affected district during the months of communal violence in Gujarat. Everywhere, we met women whose lives had been destroyed. Homes burnt and looted, husbands and children killed, livelihoods wrecked. And they themselves beaten, wounded, humiliated, and often, brutally raped. You know what happened there. Or you think you do, until every woman tells you a story you almost don’t have the courage to hear. The fabric of their lives ripped beyond repair, no homes to return to, no freedom to re-build their lives. “Whether we go back or not depends upon tomorrow”... “Case ke baare mein kal ke baad sochenge” (We'll think about filing a case only after tomorrow)... woman after woman told us. “Whether we're allowed to fill water in the village or go to our fields, we’ll know only after tomorrow”, said others who had remained, or returned to their villages, only to live with threats and insults. But fear of the morrow was also tinged with black humour. “If the Congress comes to power", a young man told us, "they’ll have a One-Day International (of violence), but if it's the BJP we’re in for a Five-Day Test Match!”

And then tomorrow dawned with a saffron sun. As results of the BJP sweep started pouring in, victory drums started rolling in the district. Even before Narendra Modi’s followers could start their drunken victory procession in Godhra, muslim families had started fleeing from villages. As the proud, re-elected Chief Minister thundered on television that the English media and secularists had de-famed Gujarat for no reason, thousands of saffron-clad men lined the Vadodara-Halol highway. Crammed in tempos and trucks they went on a yatra, celebrating their victory and the manner in which they had earned it. They brazenly admitted to the looting, killing and rapes, and held out the threat of more. In an unabashed public revelry of the most heinous crimes, the air resounded with graphic threats of sexual violence against muslim women. And all the while, New Delhi said that everything was as it should be in Gujarat. “I can’t see why you are all so concerned”, said the District Commissioner of Police in Godhra without batting an eyelid, when we rushed to him with reports of tension in the region. Barring a few ‘stray incidents’ in Vadodara, peace had returned to Gujarat. Elections had been ‘well-monitored’. ‘Normalcy’ had been restored.

But with the re-instatement of the BJP government, it was clear to everyone in Panchmahals (and the rest of Gujarat) that all roads to redressal had just closed forever. When all arms of a democracy fail the people, what do mere ‘free and fair’ elections mean? Ask those thousands of people who remain insecure and homeless surrounded by their attackers; those children still not free to play or go to school; those victims the criminal justice system has failed, whose complaints are consistently distorted by the police, and to whom the administration offers nothing but a blind eye.

44% electoral turnout in Jammu & Kashmir, 62% in Gujarat. 'Normal' participation in the electoral process we are told. Be relieved that old chapters are being closed. After almost two decades of militancy in Jammu & Kashmir, the people have ‘given their mandate as citizens’. After months of horrific violence, the people of Gujarat 'have spoken'. The clarion call is out. We must accept the ‘will of the people’.

Elections have just been held in Nagaland are to be held amidst dialogue with leaders of the oldest struggle for ‘sovereignty’. In Himachal, star campaigner Narendra Modi raised the bogey of Mian Mussharaf with the predominantly hindu population in hope that 'terrorism' will deflect attention from underdevelopment. And in Rajasthan, people have no doubt 'decided' their fate even as they reel under their fourth successive year of drought and famine. This is ‘normalcy’ in our land. ‘The standard, the regular, the usual, the typical’. Our shared experience of being ‘free from mental or emotional disorder’.