Treading novel ground

Pushben Bhatt, Social Worker, Himmatnagar

Since April 2003, I have been involved with two entirely new initiatives in Himmatnagar, Sabarkantha district, the town where I work and live. Before this I have been a social worker for 20 years, having come into the struggle after a dear friend, Shakuben, pulled me out of the exclusion and depression that I felt being a deserted woman and a single mother.

My work involved the education and training of rural women communities but never before did I have the opportunity or perspective with which to work on the issue of developing communication between two communities, Hindus and Muslims.

February and March 2002 will be etched in our memories forever. The strained relations and tensions, the violence, the fears and insecurities that we experienced entrenched themselves deep into the soul of Himmatnagar where much interaction had existed before. When we volunteered to help dishoused persons to rebuild their homes in three villages through relief agencies and even managed to complete some of them, our own relations would tell us, "Do not risk your lives entering Muslim areas."

During one such effort the process had been especially painful. The Hindus adamantly refused to even think of letting the affected families, who had lived by their side for generations, back into the village. Political propaganda and hatred had seeped deep even into our rural areas.

I started this work through two initiatives. One is a programme that works with children and teachers and the other through local communities.

We had close and intense discussions on how to even begin the work of dialogue and understanding within the parameters of Gujarat, given how deep the schisms ran. Himmatnagar had had its bouts of violence in 2002 but they were not as prolonged and bitter as those in Ahmedabad.

When we started this work in Himmatnagar, for the first few months we worked among separate groups of women, Hindu and Muslim. There were two kinds of sections and groups. One section was extremely poor, self-employed women of both the Muslim and Hindu community in Chhaparia; a really poor large urban dwelling that also suffers bitterly at the hands of the police. Setting up a Mahila Mandal and library, and beginning work on accessing government assistance and programmes (BPL cards etc.) was a step to build camaraderie with and between the women while constantly speaking of the divide and schisms between the two communities.

After several meetings we managed to establish the Pragati Mahila Mandal with a membership of 30 women in the Hadiyolpur Chhaparia area of Himmatnagar. Most women are domestic workers with a monthly income of Rs. 900. We opened a bank account for the Mandal on September 1, 2003 and we have already effected savings of Rs. 11,000. The Mandal chief is Mehmoonaben while Najmaben and Shabanaben are next in line. To enable a vibrant and regular working relationship to emerge where the issue of communication and co-existence with different communities takes centre stage, we held meetings where we discussed the women’s immediate problems and needs. The severe economic crunch they all faced was always a dominant issue.

Intermingling with Hindu women of the same vocation and from the same area was easier in Chhaparia than in the middle class areas of Himmatnagar. Here among the domestic workers and the self-employed, a certain amount of intermingling took place and there was participation at the level of daily needs and sharing and symbolic sharing at festival time.

But the women identified certain key persons in the area and community who they felt were out to create trouble and fuel suspicion. Women recalled how when a noted figure like Rasikbhai Kadia passed away, Muslim women participated in large numbers at the condolence meeting or besna held for him. There were also occasions during the violence in 2002 when attempts to aggravate the situation were controlled by spontaneous interventions from local women and men who appealed for reason.

Though this has been the background in this locality, women of the Mahila Mandal have felt even more empowered after the consistent interventions over the past year. That a Hindu woman like myself would take the trouble to go to this extremely poor Muslim locality twice a week and listen to their problems was itself a novelty for the others. But most importantly, we found that within us a collective courage to discuss and take on issues was born.

We had three or four meetings where suggestions were exchanged about the immediate desires of the group. There was and remains an overwhelming need for training in economic self-advancement, ie, in attempting self-employed businesses at home so that the women could get out of the drudgery of domestic work.

There was also a distinct feeling of insecurity in continuing to work as domestic workers in Hindu homes after the violence in 2002. Mothers who often took their young girls to help with the work distinctly felt that this was not safe and should be avoided.

Through some assistance from officers in the administration, we managed to organise some training on candle and shampoo making through government departments in January 2004. Our greatest success, however, was what we managed to do together on the issue of the BPL (below poverty line) card to which all these women are entitled but which they (the Muslim women) had been so far denied. The entire experience: appealing to the state government official, a Mr. Prajapati, writing a memorandum to him, and standing firm and unafraid when he made an inspection, has instilled a tremendous sense of satisfaction within the group. Representatives of the Mahila Mandals undertook the whole exercise themselves with only some help from me.

The other group that we have successfully managed to form is the Sadguru Krupa Mahila Mandal also from the Chhaparia Hadiyolpur area. This is a much poorer locality where women are also domestic help but also sell small eatables on the highway. There are 11 women here who managed a total savings of Rs. 100 each. So far this Mandal has saved Rs. 1,200. Laxmiben Dudhabhai Bhoi and Jayantiben Rameshbhai Bhoi are the two main functionaries.

There has been no group working here before this and our work has been welcomed. Chronologically speaking, since this Mandal was formed and established after the Pragati Mahila Mandal, the ‘leaders’ of the latter, Muslim women, have stepped in to help at every stage. When the Sadguru Krupa Mahila Mandal wanted to formally establish itself, the Pragati representatives chipped in, attended meetings and gave them advice. When the latter’s bank account had to be opened, it was the office bearers of the Pragati Mahila Mandal who accompanied them to the bank.

Personally speaking, I find great satisfaction in the means of communication that have developed. Today, if I need to send a message to the area about scheduled meetings, all I have to do is inform one of the women and the message is then passed from woman to woman, all acting as vital links in an organised chain to ensure that everyone receives the information. They communicate without constraint, moving freely in and out of each other’s homes and areas. Laxmiben, especially, finds courage and collective strength in the others’ physical presence and support. Today one of the most urgent needs is for a medical camp in the area.

The initiatives and meetings among the middle class residents, Hindu and Muslim, have been more complex. The first thing that struck me after I started going to the Gulabbhai Memon School and having informal discussions with Memon women was how little I myself knew about Islam and Muslims.

This was a startling revelation. I felt I needed to know more. I started attending the Thursday katha with Muslim women, which is a kind of sermon of their faith. For me this has been the first opportunity to work on the issue of communal amity. I have never done it in the past and I find it tremendously fulfilling. If through the work that we are doing, Himmatnagar once more allows all of us to intermingle freely, what greater satisfaction can there be?

My decision to attend these Thursday kathas built a huge sense of trust and camaraderie with the Memon community. This is a traditionally well-off community. (In 2002, the Memon community in Sabarkantha district was a target of brutal violence and many families were reduced to penury). We have had three special internal meetings to discuss the intrinsic value of dialogue.

All of us felt that for the first such meeting, only those women from among the Hindu community whom they named and trusted should be invited there. Meetings took place first in February and then again in April 2004.

In the Alkapuri area, Polloground, we have not had as much success in starting a Mahila Mandal. Women here work in small government jobs or home businesses. But there are some women like Dharmisthaben who are interested in furthering a collective strategy. I believe that this will happen, but perhaps more slowly than in other areas.

The work in Chhaparia means immediate uplift and benefit for women who need such access and facilities, be they Hindu or Muslim. These areas also fall victim to the worst kind of violence. Police mistreatment of women and of young Muslim males in Chhaparia has been a sore and recurrent issue. On one occasion, over 1,000 Muslim women from Chhaparia went and protested ill–treatment at the police station. There was comment on this locally but it got the women an assurance that they would be taken into confidence whenever the police made searches and that they would not be harassed at night. This has instilled tremendous faith and strength among the women.

Today, on our own initiative, we have started a Balmandir, a crèche for our children funded by our own contributions and attended by 22 children from different sections of society. We have started organising creative activities for them. How better to begin the issue of dialogue than with our young?

For frank dialogue and understanding, we feel that there is tremendous scope among the middle class. For the Muslim women, despite the hardships that they have suffered, the humiliations and penury, there is hurt but also a deep desire to re-establish a lost relationship and equation with their sisters from the Hindu fold. For the Hindu women, along with a sense of guilt and shame, there is a strong need for reassurance from Muslims that wrongdoing (read criminal activities and terrorism) will not be tolerated.

There was much coming and going between the two communities prior to 2002. There were some differences in lifestyles but also much intermingling. All that was ruptured. Old bridges need to be rebuilt.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2004 Year 10   No. 98, Cover Story 19



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