6/20/06

Living Through Horror - Book Review

. 6/20/06

TREMORS OF VIOLENCE Muslim Survivors of Ethnic Strife in Western India: Rowena Robinson; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B-42, Panchsheel Enclave, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 295.


Each communal attack only worsens the poverty and marginalisation of Muslims... A nuanced narrative from the heart of the ghettos

`Chhota Pakistans' are the most maligned areas of our cities. They are considered dirty, `breeding grounds' for `anti-social elements'. The harsh reality is that they are the poorest areas where some of the most marginalised are hemmed in — by deprivation, prejudice and riot after riot.

In this book, Rowena Robinson gives a voice to Muslims living in these ghettos — people who are never heard and are often misunderstood. Robinson's empathetic analysis disperses the fog of bigotry and provides insights into how people stitch back the pieces of their lives after riots. Based on interviews of Muslim survivors of communal violence in Mumbai, Vadodara and Ahmedabad, the book also brings out the experiences in different cities and also the varying responses of people within the Muslim community. Through revealing narratives, Robinson tries to understand how people live through one or several violent attacks, and how it alters their perceptions of time, space and identity.

Boundary
After Mumbai's communal violence in 1992-93, Muslims huddled together in certain areas in central Mumbai, Jogeshwari in the western suburbs and Mumbra in the eastern fringe. In Ahmedabad, the old, walled city, and Juhapura, a new settlement on the city's border are the only places for Muslims.

The Sabarmati that runs through the city forms the boundary for Muslims. In fact, a Muslim rickshawman who the author interviewed narrated how one of those he dropped on `the other side' told him, "Now Muslims don't have any excuse to be on this side of the Sabarmati." Even public spaces like parks become less accessible. Vadodara also has certain places where Muslims are confined — the walled city and newer settlements like Tandalja on the periphery. Every riot brings more people to these areas, seeking safety in numbers. Juhapura has doctors, lawyers and judges as residents, yet it is difficult to shake off the mini-Pakistan label. Not only physical, but even mental `borders' are tightly sealed.

Inside the ghetto, people's sense of security shrinks with every riot. Living just a few streets away from those who attacked and looted has narrowed the space of safety and trust. For example, one woman in Vadodara told Robinson, "Our area is okay. This street is fine. It is there, behind from where people attacked." `Behind' was just two lanes away.

Prejudice
More than `Hindus' as a whole, people distrust the police, Robinson observes. After every riot, witnesses' testimonies are not properly filed. False cases are lodged against survivors. And, every riot is marked by another police `chowky' outside the Muslim area. They are the most policed areas. `Combing operations' and illegal arrests are a regular occurrence. All this feeds the popular prejudice of Muslims being `anti-nationals' and `terrorists'.

In most Muslim areas, municipalities deny them the basic facilities, further propagating the stereotype of `them' being `dirty'. Common celebrations are also rarer now. Every big festival, be it Ganesh Chaturthi or Eid, is now considered unsafe. Earlier, Hindus and Muslims celebrated these together. Now, people stay indoors, fearing trouble. At certain points in the book, one wishes Robinson had also spoken to the Hindus on the `other side' of the `border' to get an interesting counterpoint, but maybe it did not fit in with the brief of her research.

Robinson devotes an entire chapter to women's narratives, examining how they deal not only with physical and economic survival, but also with changing family and community ties after the violence. She found the narratives from Mumbai more linear, while those from Gujarat, where the trauma is still being lived in the present, more chaotic. Many people said their tragedy was heard and acknowledged by the Srikrishna Commission that inquired into the Mumbai riots. But there was much less faith in Gujarat's Nanavati-Shah Judicial Commission.

Every violent incident also makes people slip into the stereotype of Muslims being `fundamentalist'. As they retreat into their community, many find comfort in their faith while dealing with the trauma. Not surprising, considering that the only organisations doing relief work in Gujarat were mainly religious charities. Women who didn't wear `hijab' start wearing one to protect themselves from outsiders in case there is another attack. Many people who didn't want to move from a mixed neighbourhood to a Muslim area narrate how they found it difficult to adjust, but later got involved with their community. Robinson has sharply captured these nuances. She has also pointed out the differences among Muslim sects not only in the way they view their religion but also in the way they view violence, marginalisation and prejudice, and how they adjust themselves to it.

In certain cases, identity becomes more straitjacketed, Robinson points out. But she also interviews young social activists engaged in the relief and rehabilitation work, who want to distance themselves from religion. For them, adversity led to a different self-realisation and made them community leaders, in some sense.

Poorly represented
India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, more than what many Muslim nations have. Yet, this 15 per cent of India's population is just a little better off than the Scheduled Castes, the poorest in the country. The income of the average Muslim is 11 per cent less than the national average.

Muslims are very poorly represented in the police, administration and politics. Only five per cent of Muslim women have completed high school education and only one per cent have studied beyond that level. Each communal attack only worsens the poverty and marginalisation of Muslims.

The book provides a nuanced narrative from the heart of the ghettos, very appropriate and essential at a time when prejudices against Muslims are reaching hysterical pitch world over. It is a sensitive presentation that gives voice to a people who are otherwise drowned out by hate speeches and irrational intolerance.





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