Amid riots, some cross a religious divide
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.