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.