Amid riots, some cross a religious divide

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On her first visit to a Muslim slum after the riots began, Devuben recalls how a little Muslim girl ran screaming from her because of the traditional bindi Devuben puts on her forehead as a married Hindu woman.

Since that time, the volunteer aid-worker leaves her bindis at home. Now, the Muslim girl has slowly started coming to Devuben to sit in her lap and read stories in the classes, and join activities that she and other aid workers are organizing.

"I realized then: My God, we have reached a point today that anyone wearing a bindi is a Hindu and could do the sort of violent things that these people have seen," says Devuben. "But the more that we go into these camps, there comes the understanding among the poor that we are all the victims of this, whether we are poor Hindus or poor Muslims, and it is up to us to put a stop to this."

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In a state ravaged by Hindu-Muslim riots over the past two months, the stories of Hindu and Muslim volunteers crossing communal lines to help those of different faiths are a rare glimmer of hope. Not surprisingly, these quiet amanpathiks, or peacemakers, get less attention than the rioters and hatemongers who loot shops, burn homes, and kill men and women of the opposite faith.

Some may snicker at the small numbers of active peacemakers. But like the rioters themselves, they know that it doesn't take an army to have a profound impact on society, though perhaps slowly.

"Already the ethnic cleansing has taken place. It's going to take a long time to change the ethnic cleansing in people's minds, to undo the power of prejudice," says Victor Moses, a Jesuit priest and director of St. Xavier's Social Service Society in Ahmedabad. Together with 32 other aid groups, St. Xavier's helps sponsor and train the volunteers.

The numbers of those affected are sobering. Since the Feb. 27 attack by Muslims on a train crowded with Hindus, more than 900 people – most of them Muslims – have been killed statewide in communal violence. The true death toll could be more than twice that figure, however, since many people remain missing.

Survivors of these attacks have largely fled to makeshift camps or ghettos surrounded by people of their own faith. In Ahmedabad alone, more than 117,000 Muslims and Hindus live in such camps. An additional 30,000 live in curfew zones, unable to leave their homes to work and make money to buy food; it is these people, aid workers say, who are at most danger of starvation.

The dislocation may be even greater in rural areas, where the communal violence has been more brutal, often instigated by visiting speakers from religious groups such as the violently pro-Hindu Bajrang Dal youth group or the powerful Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Opposition parties have repeatedly called on the government to ban these groups. Yesterday, debate in Parliament ran late into the night over an call to censure the government's handling of the riots, but the move was ultimately defeated.

In Ahmedabad, most camps are self-run, with Muslim community elders organizing the food and shelter for displaced Muslims, and Hindu elders organizing Hindu camps. But aid groups – from the Red Cross to the Hindu charity group, the Ram Krishna Mission, to the more secular amanpathiks – also play a crucial role in making sure that camp residents get the help they need, such as legal advice, medical help, and emotional counseling for children and adults alike.

In Shah Alam camp, where more than 10,000 Muslims live on the dusty grounds of a 200-year-old mosque and shrine complex, young Muslim volunteers from the community visit each of the families to advise them of their rights and to urge them to remain peaceful. Amanpathik organizers – many of them Hindus themselves – plan to bring Hindu volunteers to this camp as well.

In the mosque's graveyard, amid the green and white painted tombs, amanpathiks are busy setting up outdoor classrooms for some 450 children, where they will be taught mathematics, and Urdu and Gujarati languages. Under the shade of a larger Mughal-style tomb, women learn hand embroidery.

"It is better that these people should listen to our words of humanity than to listen to the religious fundamentalists," says Mansuri Yusuf, an energetic volunteer who helps arrange legal aid for people who have lost family members or property during the riots. "It is very difficult to talk of peace in times like this, but we are trying."

Meherunnisha Shaikh, another amanpathik volunteer, remembers the time she told a refugee family that Muslims should all remain peaceful, and the family elder responded, "We did stay peaceful, and that is why we were beaten up." Miss Shaikh let the elder have his say that day, but since that time, some of the family members have come to her to learn more about the peacemaker program.

Across town, in the mixed slum called Guptanagar, amanpathik organizer Rajendra Joshi takes a visitor on a walk through a series of narrow dirt and stone alleys. One side of the narrow road is the Muslim community, with charred brick shops and broken corrugated tin doors. The other side is totally Hindu, where the shops are untouched, but have been shuttered for nearly two months because of riots.

"The road we are walking on is considered 'the border,' " says Mr. Joshi, who has organized development programs in these slums for nearly a decade. "Ultimately, it is the common people who suffer, and it is the common people who know they have to solve this."

At the small amanpathik center here, nearly 20 Hindu volunteers gather to train, and to discuss their next activity. On this day, they are unable to visit the all-Muslim camp at Juhapura district, because of a curfew. Two days earlier, there was a stone-throwing incident and the grisly murder of a Hindu motorcyclist by a Muslim mob.

"The first time I went to Juhapura camp, I went with a group of 10 amanpathiks, all of us Hindus," says Devikaben, a sprightly middle-aged housewife in a bright pink sari. "This Muslim couple saw us coming down the alley, and they turned around and ran away. We stopped them and explained that we were peacemakers, and they said, 'This is the need of the hour.' "

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