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April 27, 2002
ABC of Violence
The conditions in which thousands of people live in XYZ are horrible, yet horribly familiar. Lanes are narrow, sometimes no more than a foot wide. Open drains filled with a black ooze are everywhere. Garbage lies around. Electricity wires snake past at nose level. Houses are flimsy, right up against each other. Some are two or three stories tall, but I actually have to bend over to make my way past -- under -- a balcony on which a man stands, stringing clothes up to dry. He's on his first floor balcony, and my eyes are level with his feet.
Fifteen or twenty minutes walking through this squalid maze, and we are suddenly in an open space, where you can see the sky and a few trees.
There's a simple reason for this open space: the huts in this area were burned to the ground some days ago. The area is bounded on one side by a low wall. The wall separates XYZ from a road and several buildings in PQR colony. We can see the heads of a few policemen, standing in the road. From time to time, we see police and military trucks and jeeps, moving up and down the road.
A small knot of XYZ residents gather around to tell us what happened that day. People had gathered on the terraces of the surrounding buildings in PQR. Any idea who they were, we ask. Might have been outsiders, they reply, but even if so, they could only have got to the top of the buildings with the cooperation of the residents.
Whoever they were, they began firing at the huts in XYZ. Several people showed me bullet holes: in walls, door jambs, utensils, water drums. In one woman's hut, I lined up two such holes and peered along the resulting line of sight. Indisputably, this particular bullet came from ABC, the green building across the road. In fact, the gun that fired it was clearly not on its terrace, but in a fourth-floor window.
With the firing, plastic bags filled with petrol began raining down on the huts, followed by bombs and torches to set them on fire. XYZ residents speak of seeing the people on the terrace throwing these bags over by the fistful, using both hands, dozens at a time. Fleeing from their flaming huts, they also had to dodge bullets.
Nearby are a number of huts, evacuated by their residents. The roofs are shattered, including the roof of the community toilet. Large stones were dropped on them from DEF building, towering overhead. Bullets were fired into these huts as well: chalk circles mark the holes. One first floor wall has about a dozen of these circles.
Everywhere, people talk in anguish. Most of the young men are seething. Some say they now have no choice but to become "mujahideen" and defend themselves, cause riots themselves. They have been subject to attacks for weeks now, with no sign of any let up. They cannot go out of XYZ because they are attacked, their women raped. Children haven't been to school, men don't go to work. They have a hard time getting food because the markets they used to visit are now out of bounds.
Women weep as they speak. They have been here for generations, feel as Indian as anyone else, and are now being assaulted simply for being Muslim.
With the police taking part in the destruction too, who will protect them?
Where will they go?
The press, say XYZ residents, has badly misreported the events of these weeks. XYZ has been widely portrayed as a den of vice and arms. This could not be further from the truth. There are no arms here, and in fact the youths who are intent on "defending themselves" would have to find ways to get some first if they want to go ahead. They have been attacked and they have nothing but stones to fight back with.
Next, we visit the buildings in PQR colony. In ABC, from whose window the bullet had been fired into the woman's hut, the secretary of the society tells us the residents have taken a collective decision not to talk to anyone. He will say nothing more.
In DEF building, we have a long conversation with a man who lives on the top floor. Firmly and repeatedly, he assures us that nobody used their terrace for any attacks on XYZ. To support this, he points out that had their terrace actually been used, there would have been far more damage than there was, since there is an unrestricted view of XYZ. What about the holes in the roofs of huts and the toilet below? From DEF, the holes are clearly visible. If they were caused by falling objects, those objects had to have come from DEF.
Except that the man says the hut-owners must have broken their roofs themselves.
What's more, he says, it is people from XYZ who frequently throw bombs, stones and other missiles at DEF. Any damage as a result, we ask. He cannot say, though he has heard that one bomb had "rolled under a car and was doused before it exploded." Which car? He's not sure.
In nearby GHI building, everyone says they live in fear of attacks from XYZ. Bombs had been thrown at them, shots fired at them. One man takes us through his flat to where he has permanently boarded up two of his windows to protect against attacks. Walking stealthily, another man takes us to see what he calls a "bunker" and a "firing range" in XYZ. He points to three sandbags lying on top of a broken roof of one of the abandoned huts in XYZ.
Like at DEF, we ask to see evidence of attacks from XYZ. Several residents escort us to the back of the building, through a gate into a courtyard. Beyond the courtyard wall are the huts of XYZ, several visibly burned. As we step into the courtyard, the GHI residents warn us to be careful, for "beyond the wall is Pakistan." On the wall of GHI, they point to what they say are marks from bombs. All I can see are two white stains and a large hole. I ask specifically if they mean the hole. No, the hole has always been there, they mean the stains.
What about the burned huts, perhaps 30 or 40 feet away in XYZ? The residents of GHI snort in derision. That was done by the people of XYZ residents themselves. They frequently "burn and damage" their own huts. Didn't I know that?
In both buildings, residents consistently tell us three things. One, most of XYZ is "illegal" and has come up only in the last couple of years. Two, it is filled with Bangladeshis. Three, it is also filled with arms. Faced with all this, faced with the frequent bombs and firing from XYZ, people in these buildings don't feel safe in their own neighbourhood. They have no choice but to organize and defend themselves. But they have no arms, only stones.
One more thing everyone in PQR says: the press has completely distorted the true picture of events. They have never attacked XYZ. There has been no firing, no bombs and stones thrown, from these buildings. Since the press has reported all this, it is clearly biased against them.
Where am I going with all this, with the acronyms that have probably confused you by now? Well, you have probably assumed this is an account from Ahmedabad, wracked by violence in recent weeks. Good guess, but wrong. I put together that account from my notes of nine years ago. That's right, nine years: early February 1993, during the riots in Bombay.
Why did I put together that account? One reason was that when I visited Ahmedabad recently, the things I heard people saying were eerily similar to all I heard in Mumbai nine years ago. The same claims of helplessness, that "they" had all the fearsome weapons, that "we" could only pick up stones to throw in "self-defence". The same anger that the press was "biased against us." The same laments, from only one side, that the police took the other side. The same clear evidence that whatever had happened, one side had suffered incomparably more.
But I have another reason: to make a small point. Nine years on, so much has changed around us. But when it comes to hatred and violence between religions, nothing has changed. Nothing.
I look forward to writing much the same article nine years from now. Actually, I don't.
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