‘I am a product of the riots’ — Nishat Hussain

    ‘I am a product of the riots’ — Nishat Hussain

    Mera naam hai Nishat Hussain. Mein dangon ki paidaish hoon. (My name is Nishat Hussain. I am a product of the riots). Much is destroyed in the violence of riots, but riots also create a host of things. I date by birth with the riots. In 1989 when the riots took place, I used to listen to the story of the curfew.

    What is curfew? What happens during a curfew? I used to long to experience life under curfew. But when my wish was realised, I experienced raw fear, my faith was broken and for the first time since my birth in Hindustan, I was made to feel that I was a Muslim.

    Nishat Hussain’s name is a familiar one for both communal and secular Jaipur. The communally turbulent decade of 1990s saw this new face emerge, literally, out of the burqa, on to the social scene. Before 1989 she had led the life of an ordinary Muslim woman in the walled city of Jaipur. Not that ordinary, because she also ran a small school for children of her area. Married at a young age, her world was her three children and the school in the basement of her house. The purdah around her face was a reminder that her limits were the four walls of the house.

    Come 1989 and Jaipur City had its first communal riot, breaking a pact with faith that had remained strong even during Partition-driven violence. Then, Jaipur had protected its Muslim community. The uniqueness of the city lay in its crafts, most of which were handmade by Muslims. Until 1989, they had full protection from Jaipur’s handicraft traders, the Hindus.

    October 1989 dramatically changed this city. Like many other islands of normalcy, it fell prey to the machinations of the Hindutva brigade and Jaipur had its first communal riot. It changed many lives, including Nishat’s. She realised for the first time that she had a Muslim identity. She understood what living under curfew meant. She saw children loot shops in her neighbourhood and carry the loot home. She was struck for the first time by the fact that she along with a few other Muslim families lived in a Hindu majority area and that her own neighbours, whose children studied in the school she ran, could also harm her.

    Fast on the heels of the experience of 1989 came 1990, when, just after the arrest of LK Advani in Bihar, Jaipur faced its worst riots. Nishat remembers how they all sat huddled, fearing an attack. The sounds of animals’ wailing in the neighbourhood forced Nishat onto her terrace, from where she saw that the house of the Muslim barber nearby had been burnt and a crowd of Hindu boys was roaming the streets with lit torches.

    The barber family had escaped but their goats that had been left behind were being roasted alive. The fire would not only kill the goats, it was spreading fast to the houses of other neighbours.Nishat ran out, alone, without her burqa or chappals, onto the streets with a bucket of water to douse the fire. As she stepped out, a police jeep stopped her. With folded hands she begged them to save the animals and disperse the crowd that was planning to torch other houses. Her forceful plea prompted the police to fire in the air. The police then motivated other people to douse the fire. The goats were saved.

    Achaanak ek police jeep aa pahoonchee (Suddenly a police van drove up). The policemen sitting in it did nothing to stop those preparing to attack us. I could not stay quiet. I could not bear this. I charged towards the crowd. I could not bear the wails of the goats locked inside. I grabbled a pail of water and ran towards that house. People from my family couldn’t believe what I was doing.

    I do not know the words I used, with what words I chastised those police officials. I yelled, I pleaded, I tried to say, "Why are you allowing this to happen to us? Why are you not stopping them?" SP Sohni, Narurka etc were there.

    I jabbed at their firearms "Why is this rifle with you? Take it off."

    God knows what, but suddenly something happened. Their conscience stirred, they advanced towards the mob, they fired in the air.

    Then the police officer Narurka tells me: "You are a fauji mahila".

    I replied, "That I do not know. What I do know is that I am a Muslim woman. Jo pahli baar apni hayaa, sharm, burqa, purdah chod kar sadak par, nange pair, aap ke paas khadi hai. Is Desh ko bachaiye, Is Desh ke logon se bachaiye, apnee duty yaad rakhiye. (A woman who for the first time in her life has abandoned her burqa, the purdah, all the paradigms of her upbringing and is now standing before you, bare foot). Please save this country. Save it from its own people. Remember your duty.")

    After that, the people of mohalla were encouraged to put out the fire. A small police chowky of Hindu policemen was later set up below my home.

    The entire basti heaved a sigh of relief. Everyone started blessing me, I was dubbed a ‘sherni bahu’. (tigress daughter-in-law)

    The police chowky is a permanent reminder of my struggle that day. That day, for the first time, I felt within, the strength that women have.

    For the police I have this to say: Ek murde ki tarah order mat palo (Do not simply follow orders like a corpse). Show some moral courage and sense of justice.

    Exercise your power in the cause of justice.

    When Nishat was returning home after her encounter with the police, she realised that another group of youth were trying to attack her house. Risking her life, she tried to prevent her house from the attack.

    Soon, she saw a group of Hindu boys from the neighbourhood come running to her. They assured her that they, who had been students of the school she ran, would not allow her house or other Muslim houses from being attacked in that area.

    ‘India was such a beautiful country. I wish with all my heart that we recapture what we have lost, after the chasms have been filled and justice has been meted out’.

    Nishat was reassured that years of educating the youth in her neighbourhood had not been in vain. But her sense of comfort in her mohalla was short lived when her family heard the news that her nephew (her husband’s sister’s son) had been killed in riots in another part of the city.

    She offered to go to the mortuary with her husband, a place where she had never set foot before. There, they were shocked to see the dead bodies of both sons of her sister-in-law. This incident completely changed her life.

    She simply could not sit at home any more. Horror stories of how groups of boys were roaming the streets and killing people were being repeated day after day. When curfew was lifted for a few hours after the first four days of rioting, instead of buying provisions for her own family, she found herself buying ration and milk for women whose husbands had been taken to jail by the police. They had nobody to procure food for them. It was during these trips to people’s homes that she realised the need for an organisation that could look after the welfare of Muslim women.

    That is how the idea of the National Muslim Women’s Welfare Society, which Nishat today heads, was born. She was vocal on the issue of indiscriminate detention of Muslim men under TADA. She made visits to different parts of Rajasthan where they were detained and often helped ensure their release.

    Then a personal tragedy struck. Her elder son, Arshad, was attacked and injured by a battle-axe just outside his house. He suffered deep wounds and so did his younger brother, who along with his father had rushed out to help him. These incidents led to many family members withdrawing their moral support to her struggle. But Nishat had committed herself and she carried on.

    Come 1992 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and Jaipur was burning once again . Under Nishat’s leadership,the women of the Society spread out all over the walled city, providing ration, medical supplies and other essential commodities to women. Some members of the Society even travelled to Malpura (Tonk) where 22 people were killed in the riots and provided assistance in the form of rations and medical supplies.

    In January 1993, the Society, under Nishat’s leadership, also prevented the Muslim community from holding a black flag demonstration on Republic Day. The women went from house-to-house, dissuading young boys against the proposed protest.

    Nishat Hussain and 20 other women formed an organisation in Jaipur working actively for communal harmony and providing justice to women in matters relating to domestic violence and dowry. Her children have also carried her ideals forward. Both her sons are married to Hindu girls. Her elder daughter-in-law is the daughter of the local RSS leader.

    Two years ago, Nishat bought a house in a nearby colony inhabited by Hindus and Sikhs. Vested interests tried to prevent her from doing so because she was a Muslim. But Nishat, helped by her secular Hindu friends in the town, stood her ground and managed to withstand the pressure. She is still very active, organising Muslim women in the walled city on issues of water, civic amenities, domestic violence, dowry, reform in personal law, general human rights and communal harmony.

    If there is one movement in post-Independence India that could match the sweep of our struggle for Azaadi from the British, it was the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. Created to sacrifice the Babri Masjid, it in fact did much more. Is andolan ke tahat mohalla mohalla zaharila ho gaya. (Thanks to this movement, every neighbourhood was poisoned). It poisoned our police, our schools, our colleges, our judiciary.

    But one thing I have personally experienced. These Hindutvawaadi forces are shallow, their words and actions — brutal and violent as they are — are shallow. They have no courage, no guts. The situation is grim. I worry for myself. My family is like a mini-India. Both my daughters-in-law are Sharmas, we are all very close. One of their fathers is a local RSS leader.

    Ek bahoot khoobsoorat sa Bharat tha. Uski dilse kalpana karti hoon. Ki phir se vaise hi bane, toot-phoot bhula kar, insaaf dila kar. (India was such a beautiful country. I wish with all my heart that we recapture what we have lost, after the chasms have been filled and justice has been meted out).

    (As told to Teesta Setalvad)