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  April 19, 2002  

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Muslim women bore the brunt of Hindus' Gujarat rampage
By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - Sheba George broke down and had to be comforted by other members of a Women's Panel when it presented its report on Wednesday on the sexual brutalization of women, the highlight of a pogrom unleashed on Muslims in western Gujarat state to avenge the February firebombing of a train carrying Hindu devotees.

"We do want to live in Gujarat and be integrated with society in the state but after what happened I don't know," said Sheba, a Muslim married to a Christian. Both religious-minority groups have been systematically persecuted by fanatical Hindu organizations ever since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state four years ago. "After what we heard and saw in Gujarat we won't be able to lead the same lives anymore," said Syeda Hameed, a former member of the National Commission for Women (NCW) and currently with the Muslim Women's Forum.

The report that she and other members of the Women's Panel presented consists, for the most part, of powerful testimonies by survivors of what is seen as the systematic rape of Muslim women as they fled from their burning homes in the days after the February 27 firebombing.

"Most of the rape victims were simply set on fire to destroy the evidence," said Farah Naqvi, who added that Gujarat events closely resembled the ethnic cleansing carried out against Muslims in Bosnia in terms of the murder of men and the rape of their women. "The mob started chasing us with burning tires after we were forced to leave Gangotri society [a housing colony]. We saw them strip 16-year-old Mehrunissa. They were stripping themselves and beckoning to the girls. Then they raped them right there on the road. We saw a girl's vagina being slit open. Then they [the bodies] were burned," Kulsum Bibi told the panel.

Bibi is one of nearly 10,000 refugees in the Shah-e-Alam camp in the textile city of Ahmedabad, which was visited by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee more than a month after the pogrom. Across Gujarat today, there are more than 100,000 refugees living in camps, many of them former businessmen and professionals and their families who survived the killings and rape and now have nowhere to return to because their homes have been pillaged and burned down. "Even if their homes are restored, they can no longer live beside neighbors who had turned on them and done unspeakable things to their girls and women," said Hameed.

Women testified to feeling betrayal at the hands of neighbors, friends and people they had lived, worked with and even celebrated festivals with for years - but who thought nothing of joining fanatical mobs that roamed about looking for Muslims and their homes. Sheba George, who works with the voluntary organization Sahrwaru, said many women arrived at the Shah-e-Alam camp stark naked and badly injured from gang rape and sexual abuse. Some, including one girl who had to have wooden splinters removed from her genitals, were still too traumatized to speak.

But many recognized and named their tormentors. Bilkees, who was left for dead, named those who killed members of her family and those who raped her in a first information report (FIR), which was recorded at a police station only on the insistence of the female district magistrate of Dahod, Jayanti Ravi. But in the vast majority of cases, a blatantly partisan police refused to record complaints of rape on the grounds of lack of evidence and whenever they did, ascribed blame to nameless groups of people or mobs, said the members of the panel.

Said Syeda Hameed of the Muslim Women's Forum: "At the best of times, victims of sexual violence do not have the confidence to approach the police, let alone walk the long path to evidence gathering and getting justice."

Part of the reason the panel recorded the testimonies of rape survivors in Gujarat was so that justice can be secured for them and because many women in the camps are still willing to testify given the assurance that justice would be done, she said. But justice is a long way off in a state whose Chief Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly said the violence was a natural reaction to the February 27 firebombing of a train at Godhra station, which resulted in the deaths of 59 people returning from the temple town of Ayodhya in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

Modi and the BJP are now keen on calling quick mid-term polls in Gujarat, confident of having roused majority Hindu sentiment over the Godhra incident. They are also confident of having defied reports by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a statutory body, laying blame on the administration for "lack of intelligence, literal and figurative" in allowing a situation to develop.

The charred bodies of the victims were deliberately put on public display at the Ahmedabad railway station by the state administration. Fundamentalist publications such as Sandesh (Advice) were allowed to print fictitious stories of Hindu women being abducted and carried away into mosques to be raped. Witnesses told the women's panel and other fact-finding teams that the mobs that brutalized the Muslim women carried not only swords, but also copies of the Sandesh edition with the story of Hindu women having been raped and with the inflammatory banner headline Khoon ka Badla Khoon (Blood for Blood).

"In many ways women have been the central characters in the Gujarat carnage and their bodies the battleground - the provocative lies published by the Sandesh newspaper used images of brutalized women's bodies as a weapon in ways deliberately designed to provoke real violence against women from the Muslim community," said Farah Naqvi.

The report of the Women's Panel corroborated the NHRC report, an independent Citizens' Report, a report by the Minorities Commission, and another by the All-India Democratic Women's Association, an affiliate of the Communist part of India (Marxist). All spoke of the targeting of Muslim women in the Gujarat violence.

The Supreme Court has ordered a separate investigation.

One immediate consequence of the violence in Gujarat is the creation of a large number of female-headed households because of the killing of male members, and of destitute single women, including widows.

(Inter Press Service)

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