Abida Bano sits on the floor of a crowded makeshift relief building in Ahmedebad, the largest city in Gujarat, holding her 10-month-old daughter. She mumbles her story into the folds of her brightly colored shawl.
“I saw the crowds pull my husband out of the house. I saw him being killed, and hacked into pieces and put in the fire. He was holding my 2-year-old daughter. They killed the child in the same way. All day there was no police. So the crowds kept attacking…. In the evening, any of us who were left were taken out.”
This past spring, up to 2,000 Muslims were massacred by armed Hindu mobs after a train was set on fire on February 27, killing fifty-eight Hindu activists. It is rumored that on the night of the fire, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads India’s coalition government, ordered members of his ministry not to stop the ensuing violence. In the pogroms that raged across Gujarat, police stood by and watched while Muslim men were burned alive and women were gang-raped and killed; according to Human Rights Watch, police told Muslims, “we have no orders to save you.” The People’s Union for Democratic Rights, an Indian NGO, described the violence as “a systematic effort to terrorize Muslims and reduce them to the status of second-class citizens by taking away their lives, livelihood and shelter.”
As many as 150,000 Muslims flocked to relief camps in March. But under pressure to make Gujarat appear stable enough to hold state elections, the government officially closed the camps in June. Now, eight months after the violence, thousands like Abida Bano have received no government assistance and still have nowhere to go. And though before the riots she earned a small income by doing stitching work from home, that is impossible now. She has three daughters who survived with her, and no way to provide for them.
In addition, after the violence Hindu leaders swiftly called a statewide boycott on Muslim goods and services. Most employers in Gujarat are Hindus, so even those Muslims who didn’t lose their rickshaws and sewing machines in the pogroms were left with few economic options.
Several months ago grassroots activists who had been working on riot relief realized the victims of Gujarat needed more than handouts, so they devised the Gujarat Harmony Program to work toward long-term Muslim-Hindu reconciliation by restoring livelihoods and educating both communities. For an economic model the program looked to the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)–the single largest union in Gujarat and the only women’s trade union in India–which organizes home-based workers into cooperatives. The Harmony Program created a work and microfinancing cooperative–funded by CARE India, an international relief and development organization–dedicated to helping riot-affected women rebuild their lives.
Much of the program’s momentum comes from an Ahmedabad-based interreligious couple who run a small NGO. Rafique and Mira know about religious violence firsthand. They have been threatened since the day they were married. Last spring the couple moved out of their home in a Hindu locality because, says Rafique, “I could not wear a [Muslim] beard while she wears a bindi [forehead mark traditionally worn by Hindu women]. She could be attacked any time. so could I.” Shortly after the riots, Mira was stopped by a gang of Hindus as she tried to enter one of the relief camps. When the boys established that she was a Hindu married to a Muslim, they started pulling at her clothes, threatening to bring her to the fundamentalist Hindu authorities. But other Hindus from a nearby slum heard the commotion, recognized Mira as one who had been giving literacy classes in their area, and convinced the boys to let her alone.
The Hindus who rescued her were Dalits, the so-called untouchables–the lowest level of the 4,000-year-old Hindu caste system. Even though Untouchability was outlawed in 1950 when India adopted its first constitution as an independent nation, Dalits still aren’t allowed into most Hindu temples and cannot eat in the same place as upper-caste Hindus in most villages. Nevertheless, anti-Muslim bias is keen among Dalit communities.
The incident strengthened Rafique and Mira’s belief that the oppressed Dalit communities are the key to reconciliation between Muslims and Hindus–that’s the crux of the Gujarat Harmony Program. It guarantees work to Muslim and Dalit women by negotiating with Hindu traders and contractors, to convince them to bypass the boycott and buy the goods the women make. The program gives grants to buy equipment, like sewing machines, through its newly established microcredit bank, the federally registered Women’s Savings and Credit Cooperative Society. The women form work cooperatives of ten Muslims and ten Dalits that meet each day for education classes and then gather in work groups to make clothes, kites and bangles. Mira recalls that it took days of persuasion to convince the women to sit together in the same room, but gradually, they have come to trust each other.
The Gujarat Harmony Program has given loans to almost 100 women since it was established three months ago–and so far, there’s been a 100 percent recovery rate. The program gives loans exclusively to women because many Muslim women have been forced into the public realm for the first time since losing their husbands and homes, and the cultural bias against women workers makes their footing within the informal sector especially precarious.
Recently in Gujarat, six people were killed and many more injured in riots after a BJP election rally. But as Chief Minister Narendra Modi campaigns for December’s volatile assembly elections under the banner of Hindu pride, and the state readies itself for further violence, Mira hopes their project will have made some move toward harmony across communities. “I know this effort is only a drop in the ocean, but every such drop will fill up the reservoir of human compassion.”