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Valay Singhrai
Tuesday , October 29, 2013 at 17 : 54

Broken Hearts, Wounded Minds


We were taught in school that India's unity is in its diversity. All religions are equal and all gods are manifestation of the one supreme god, is another principle imparted to most children, at least to the ones who go to 'good, English medium private schools'. In my twelve years of schooling I went to 4 schools, in none of them was I exposed to any obvious discrimination based on one's name or background. The monument-mosque in distant Ayodhya was still intact. I had been put in a boarding school by then to save me from what my father thought was the undisciplined and carefree street culture of Bhopal(think of Soorma Bhopali accent in sholay's). I was in class 5th and my world was dominated by sports stars, and making it to the school hockey team(I did make it as the youngest member of the junior hockey team that year).

The first year at the boarding school was harrowing. But I remember looking forward to the summer, when I could visit my relatives in Bhopal, where there were a lot of kids who were my age and the lanes were safe and perfect for us to play hide and seek till quite late into the evening. My grandfather's house is in the Muslim majority area of the old city, right opposite the Taj Mahal(the royal palace where the Prince of Wales stayed). For a lot of my cousins who have shifted to other corners of the world, Bhopal still means the Shajahanabad home. An unremarkable house in an unremarkable locality the place has had an air of decay to it. But as with all small towns, everybody knew everybody through somebody there. It was a perfect neighbourhood for children to grow up in.

Many summers were passed playing hide and seek, rock and river, ice-pice and other games with my friends, neighbours and their cousins who were visiting, the names are too many to recall but some I can never forget- Osaid, Abhishek, Munis, Munmun, Anas, Babar, Dipu, Tinni, Sardar Ali, Sumit and several others; all of us would wait for the sun to become cooler so that we could hit the lanes with our bats, cycles, kites and gulails. After dark, it was hide and seek that kept us out till late in the evening when finally our guardians would start getting restless and send older cousins or their loud warnings to get us back home. We would comply quickly because there would be many more nights of play in store and particularly because nobody wanted to sulk at home the next day when the rest of the gang played.

I remember Babar as the quiet one, though older than us, he was, unusually, not given to bullying younger kids. I remember his cousins from Indore(where I studied), two young brothers who I got along very well with. I loved Shahjahanabad and the house and still count those summers as the most enjoyable of all my summer vacations. We were a bit like the children in the ET film, of course there was no cute alien bipede to save but that didn't affect our camaraderie in the least. All of that was to change very soon.

When right-wing Hindu mobs razed the old decrepit structure called Babri masjid in 1992(hundreds of people were killed in the riots that followed) they also erased millions of friendships. At least, in my case this was true. The summer of 1993 came but Shahjahanabad had changed even though no rioting took place in our gali(street). Apparently, so the story goes, when one night Hindu and Muslim rioters tried to enter the street, 'uncles' , both Hindu and Muslim came out with their well-polished guns and forced the mobs to retreat. It was a thrilling story, and I remember sulking at not being there when all this real action took place. (I was stuck in my boarding school with classes cancelled)

That summer, Babar's cousins didn't come down from Indore, Babar himself had moved to another town. I met him later, he had a wisp of a beard; he hadn't changed his name. Hide and seek was played, it all seemed normal, but it was hard to miss what had changed, my muslim friends were missing, even when they did come to play, they always had to go back home early. Free access to each others' homes remained; we just didn't use it as much. Something had broken, changed and, changed permanently, this was my first brush with polarization along religious lines. The ET gang broke up for good, for no fault of theirs. But who cared about children and their friendships when slogans like ''Bachcha bachcha Ram ka janambhoomi ke kaam ka''( all of Ram's sons will work for the cause of Ram temple at Ayodhya) were being across towns and villages of the Hindi heartland.

Cut to 2013:

A couple of months ago, I visited a few refugee camps in the riot-hit Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh. Like Bhopal, I am told, this region of UP has, by and large, been free from communal violence. There are no permanent sources of friction barring cow-slaughter. We all know the inception of these riots will remain murky since truth and hype often get weaved into the same narrative of who and what started the communal fire. What is clear is that Hindu-muslim and servant-master ties will never be the same in this region. "They(Hindus) were shouting Mussalmanon Pakistan jaoge ya seedhe kabristan Jaoge", recounts an angry Hafiza bi in a camp 10 kms from Muzaffarnagar town, "why will we go back when our own neighbours attacked us'', she asked me. In all the camps I went to, the feeling was not just of anger out of being attacked and driven out of their homes, it was a bitterness that comes when you have been hurt by people who you thought were friends. Family after family told us of how they were first told not to worry, then told to pack up and leave if they wanted to save their lives. The Hindu are an economically better-off community and most of the victims of the riots are poor working class Muslim families who have been working for, or with the for hundreds of years. While some Muslims make a living out of making iron tools, and other farm equipments other work as farm hands in the fields of their Hindu neighbours. It was a robust system of mutual interdependence wherein both communities helped each other sustain and survive. Their children often went to the same schools, played in the same fields and treated each other with a familiarity that grows only out of an organically linked existence. However, that life was shot, hacked through and burnt down in a week of insane violence. And life is not going back to what it was any time soon.

Nothing can justify the killing and maiming and children. Here's how one young girl Azra recounted to a newspaper the terror of the night rioters attacked her family, and a couple of rioters slashed Azra's stomach with a sickle, "I fell and was bleeding profusely. Then, Kamal of our village told his friend to cut my hand, too".

Confused, indifferent, scared but still spirited, I found children in these camps answering our queries in different ways. Rubina(name changed), a 7 year old who has never been to school, said, ''who log humein mar rahe the isiliye hum bhaag aaye''(those people were killing us so fled from house). Another older boy chided her for nothing and told her to shut up. Several young boys snickered saying, what's the use of talking to media people. They just come, click photos and go. Good point, media deserves credit for a lot of good things that happen but it still has to learn to be sensitive, particularly towards child victims. Thankfully, most children along with women and elderly were taken to safety before the rioting started, still, two children were killed in the violence and several were injured. The injuries will heal. The wounds that will never heal are in the minds and hearts of thousands of children and young adults. Most of them will never return to their homes. Or go and sit in the same classroom, or play with their 'old' friends, many of them would drop out from school altogether, particularly the girls. They would never get convincing and comprehensible answers to why they were attacked, why had to flee their village and now that all seems to be over, why can't they go back and live as before.

Different children will cope with this needless violence and hatred in different ways, some will black it out from their memory, others will accept and move on, some may not remember much except a hazy memory of it by the time they grow up to become adults. But one thing is clear, they will not forget it. Those who experienced or witnessed violence may grow up with behavioural problems and disorders. All of them will grow up scarred in different degrees. A child's mind is like a sponge that absorbs everything that is poured on it, they don't have a say in it.

While there are many immediate concerns about families displaced by the riots: livelihood, housing, health, nutrition and education; the long term focus should be on starting a process of reconciliation between the two communities. This should begin immediately, or we would have failed ourselves and the secular foundation of this country, yet again.


More about Valay Singhrai

Valay has worked with NDTV 24x7 as an editor on the newsdesk. Valay has made films on caste and tribal issues in Maharashtra. He has also worked on 'Sons and Daughters', a film on child trafficking for domestic servitude. He wrote his thesis on 'Good journalism can be good business'. Valay works in the social sector now. He can be reached at valaysingh@gmail.com.