Fifteen Years On, The First-Generation Survivors of the 2002 Riots Await Rehabilitation, Jobs and Education

Women collect water from a tanker in the Citizen Nagar relief colony for survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The colony is situated in close proximity to a solid-waste landfill, which releases toxic smoke, adversely affecting the health of the colony's residents. Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
27 February, 2017

On a sunny day in late January 2017, I sat on a cot outside a small room with an asbestos roof, in Citizen Nagar, a resettlement colony in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with 32-year-old Siraj Malik, the room’s resident. An emaciated man with sunken eyes, sprouting grey hairs on his temples, Malik has the appearance of a man older than his age. Nearly 15 years earlier, on 28 February 2002, a rioting mob had attacked Naroda Patiya, a Muslim-dominated locality in which Malik then resided, leading to the death of over 90 Muslims. “Khel-kud toh sab khatam hi ho gaya hamara”—All the playing around disappeared, he said. “Bhag-daud mein lag gaye, ki hum gujara kaise kare”—We became caught in figuring out how to get by.

Barely 17 years old at the time, Malik told me that he, along with his two young sisters and a younger brother, hid on the roof of a home in a neighbouring housing society as the violence ensued, for over 24 hours. “Aagey aagey police chalti thi, picche picche tola”—the police walked in front, and the mob followed them, he recounted. “Police walein khud bolte the, ‘Bhonsdi ke, dartey kyun ho?Maro na goli.’”—The police officials said, “Bastards, what are you scared of? Shoot them.” Whoever the mob came across, Malik said, was hacked to death or burned. He and his siblings escaped at close to 2 am at night, when a police bus arrived to pick up survivors. Suddenly, Malik became the guardian for his young siblings. Now, Malik said that he and his 18-year-old brother, were employed in a nearby factory, working 12 hours a day, each earning Rs 8,000 per month.

According to a survey conducted in 2012 by Janvikas—a non-governmental organisation, established in 1987, which works primarily on issues of Dalit rights and conducted the field survey to provide support to riot victims—Islamic charitable organisations and NGOs set up all the relief colonies in Gujarat, 81 in total, to house internally displaced persons, or IDPs. These colonies were set up over the ten years following the riots, without any government assistance, and accommodate approximately 50,000 victims. Hozefa, a volunteer with Janvikas said the figure included only those who were able to obtain ration cards. According to him, the actual number of displaced population could be up to 200,000. Many of the displaced, like Malik, were young when the violence occurred, and grew up in its aftermath. A large number were not able to return to their homes out of fear. For others, there were no homes to return to—they were burnt, or broken down.

Citizen Nagar, where Malik and his siblings reside, is one of the 15 relief colonies in Ahmedabad. According to the foundation stone at the colony, it accommodates 40 Muslim families who were displaced during the 2002 riots. The colony is located barely 500 metres from a solid-waste landfill in Pirana, and forms a part of the Bombay Hotel area in the city. Bombay Hotel is a large Muslim-dominated ghetto that, according to my conversations with its residents, accommodates around 1,000 families, including riot victims. The area does not have access to basic facilities, such as water and drainage—for instance, several residents raised the grievance of inaccessibility of drinking water and water for domestic use, which they had to buy from private tankers, at a cost of nearly Rs 300 a month.

Most survivors I met said that all the young children that used to attend school before the violence had later dropped out. A majority of the young men—the ones I met and those I was told about—either work in nearby factories or are unemployed. During my visit, I met Sayyed Mohsin, a 26-year-old resident of Citizen Nagar, whose education also had to be discontinued after the riots. His family, comprising his father, mother, and his younger brother, a 17-year-old, moved to Citizen Nagar in 2004. Yasmeen said that she could not send Mohsin to school because there was no public school within a two-kilometre radius of the locality. She added that the nearest school was an expensive private one, which most residents of Citizen Nagar could not afford. As a result of this, Yasmeen said, a majority of the children in the colony, including Mohsin’s younger brother Haris and his seven-year-old daugther, Nikhat, do not attend school.

Mohsin works as a wage labourer. His house is located close to the Pirana landfill. On the day of my visit, the 100-feet mound of garbage from the landfill was releasing thick smoke. Several residents said that this was a regular phenomenon. “The chemical factories throw waste during the night, it becomes so difficult for us to breathe,” Mohsin’s father Nizammuddin said.

Mohsin, his wife Ruksana and Nikhat have developed a skin disease, which, he said the doctors told him, was due to the pollution and gases emanating from landfill. “People have stopped marrying off their women to boys residing in the area due to the pollution,” Nizamuddin added.

On 28 January 2017, I also visited Siddikabad Society, a relief colony in Juhapura, in Ahmedabad. The colony comprises around 500 houses, each measuring less than 200 square-feet in area and consisting of a small room, a kitchen and toilet.

Ajmeri Reshma, a 27-year-old resident of Siddikabad, was 12 years old when she fled her home in Sabarmati during the riots, along with her 15-year-old sister, five-year-old brother and her mother. None of the siblings went to school after the riots. “Agar dange nahi hotey toh padh saktey the, abhi ek dusre ka munh dekhte”—If there were no riots, we could have studied, but now we just stare at each other. Reshma is now married, and has an infant child. She manages the household chores, and her husband is a daily-wage labourer.

Of the nearly 30 riot survivors I spoke to, 20-year-old Pathan Fahim from Siddikabad was the only one who had continued his education after the riots. “On my second day of school, the riots occurred. My house was burnt down, that is the only thing I remember.” Fahim’s mother managed to send him to school again with the help of expenses that his father, who works outside the state, sends home to his family. Fahim is now pursuing his graduation in textile engineering.

The state government has consistently denied the existence of these relief colonies. On 26 February 2003, ID Swami, then a minister of state in the Ministry of Home Affairs, answered a question in the Rajya Sabha about the status of relief shelters. Swami stated that during the rehabilitation’s “peak period,” on 15 April 2002, “there were 121 camps sheltering 1,32,532 inmates.” Swami added that “due to speedy disbursement of assistance … all inmates had returned to their original places of residence gradually on their own will,” and that consequently, the last relief camp was closed on 31 December 2002.

In 2007, a Supreme Court-appointed committee, headed by NC Saxena, a former member of the erstwhile planning commission, informed the court that it found that 4,545 families, comprising around 30,000 persons, were living in difficult conditions in 81 colonies. The committee added that the state government had misrepresented the situation to the court-appointed commissioners by denying the existence of these colonies, and that the government did not set up or assist any of these colonies. In an article published in the 23 December 2006 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly the activist Harsh Mander, who serves as the director for the Centre for Equity Studies, an independent research and advocacy organisation, wrote that the state’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of the relief colonies was “in conformity with shameful official policy that can only be described as open state hostility to a segment of citizens only because they worship a different god.”

The Janvikas study also noted that the colonies lacked several necessities—access to roads, availability of public distribution systems, adequate water supply, and access to health-care facilities. According to the study, the average income of the riot-affected families in the 15 colonies in Ahmedabad was Rs 38,790 a year—less than Rs 3,500 a month.

Both the BJP-led and UPA-led central governments initiated relief and rehabilitation measures, in 2002 and 2007, respectively. Prakash Jaiswal, a former minister of state in the union home ministry, stated in the Rajya Sabha on 7 May 2007, that in 2002, the central government had released Rs 155.61 crore to the Gujarat government under a special relief and economic rehabilitation package. The state government utilised only Rs 136.51 crore and returned Rs 19.10 crore “on the ground that no case for relief and rehabilitation is pending.”

Jaiswal added that in 2007, the UPA government approved a proposal of Rs 106.57 crore for relief and rehabilitation for the victims that was “payable on the pattern of package allowed in the Sikh riots of 1984.” The package granted an assistance of Rs 3.5 lakh in case of death; Rs 1.25 lakh in case of injury; and in case of damage to property, assistance of ten times the amount already granted by the state government, from which the amount already paid by the state government would be deducted. Of all the riot survivors I spoke to, Fahim’s mother was the only who received financial assistance from the state: Rs 29,000 for property damage.

Along with the assistance of Rs 106 crore, the central government at the time also introduced special provisions for the rehabilitation of the riot victims by means of compassionate appointments—such as preference in recruitment in government and public sector undertakings for children of riot victims, preference of recruitment in paramilitary forces, age relaxation in jobs, and a special recruitment drive to be taken up for the riot victims’ children. It also proposed relaxation of rules for receiving pension, and allowing the victims to rejoin their jobs that were lost due to their absence.

In 2008, Gagan Sethi, the founder of the Centre for Social Justice, an NGO based in Ahmedabad that works for the rights of marginalised people, filed a public interest litigation, or PIL, in the Gujarat High Court, seeking the full implementation of the relief package. In its judgment, the court took note of a letter that the central home department sent to the chief secretary of the Gujarat government, on 12 September 2007. The letter expressly clarified that “only those who received ex-gratia earlier should be eligible for the enhanced additional ex-gratia amount”—effectively, only those who received compensation under the 2002 relief package would be eligible to claim it again. Johanna Lokhande, a researcher who worked for CSJ then, told me that as a result of this, many riot survivors were left out even in the second disbursement of the relief package.

In an article published on web-based platform in July 2015, Sethi calculated that as per the state government’s own figures, financial assistance in the sum of Rs 42.55 lakh for injury cases, Rs 3.02 crore for damage to residential property, and Rs 2 crore for damage to commercial property, remained unpaid. Hozefa, the Janvikas volunteer, told me that they were presently collecting affidavits from survivors who had not been identified by the government. In the ongoing process, they had collected affidavits from 2,000 persons.

In its final judgment pronounced on 9 September 2011, the Gujarat High Court dismissed the PIL holding that the state government had disbursed the amount received from the central government as per the September 2007 letter. While hearing the PIL, on the issue of appointments to the dependants of riot victims, earlier that year the court had stated: “As it is a matter of Government policy, we do not pass any specific order for grant of compassionate appointments.” In the judgment, the court maintained the same position.

Sethi filed an appeal against the judgment before the Supreme Court in 2012, seeking, among other things, compassionate appointments for the children of the riot victims. In July 2015, while allowing the appeal to be heard, the Supreme Court reportedly stated that it “cannot order compassionate appointment.” It added that the case may not come up for hearing for another five years. The case is still pending before the Supreme Court.

In another relief colony I visited, Imarat-e-sharia, in Juhapura, I met two young brothers, named Wasim Rahim and Irfan Abdul Rahim, at their house—a small windowless room. They were five-year-olds when they left their home in 2002 in Saraspur, and had no memory of the riots. Wasim told me he worked as mechanic in a Honda showroom. Irfan was looking for a job. Wasim, Irfan, Fahim and other young survivors of the riots told me that they had made Hindu friends after the riots, and held no prejudice against the community. Most of them said that while they did not have any hopes or expectation from the police and the state government, they did not feel abandoned by them either. This was starkly different from the older survivors within the same generation, they said.

But the riots left older survivors with an unshakeable suspicion of the police and their neighbours. Malik said, “Sath mein picture dekhne jate the. Woh log hi hamare samne aa gaye, bole ab toh gaye tum log”—The same people we used to go for movies with came face-to-face with us and said, now you people are done for. He continued, “Now we don’t know whom to trust, these people have ruined the meaning of our lives.” When leaders such as Hardik Patel call for a bandh in the city, Malik said the families in Citizen Nagar do not let the men in the household to go for work that day. “Abhi tak logon ke magach se ye nikla nahi hai”—The fear of the riots has not left the minds of people.