‘Why should I be afraid?’

Madinaben brings, in her small but unique way, a healing touch 
of peace and love to a city that is slowly but systematically being 
more and more fragmented.


Madinaben Ganchhi Pathan

Madinaben Ganchhi Pathan, housewife, 47–years–old, lives in the Sankalitnagar area of Juhapura in Ahmedabad.  Juhapura is today a well–known, Muslim–majority ghetto. About 30–years–ago, this area was in fact a wasteland. Thousands of slum dwellers living on the banks of the river and affected by the floods of the river Sabarmati were moved by the government to live in this area on these patches of land.
Earlier, Madinaben lived in one of the slums on the banks of the river. She might have been about 16 or 17 when she was married off to another slum dweller who earned his living through casual work. Her neighbourhood was a mixed one, housing Hindus and Muslims. Everyone’s attention was focused on the primary objective of trying to make both ends meet. In their poverty, they were able to share each other’s joys and sorrows. 

Pitted against unfair and harsh living conditions that bonded them, the joint celebration of either Diwali or Id were an extension of this bondage. Despite the numerous hardships, life went on, until the floods of 1973 changed the pattern of their lives forever. 

The people who lived in these slums on the banks of the river were forced to leave them. Madinaben was one such evictee… forced to move out of her settlement as a newly married bride with her young husband. But for her, ever since then, there has been no looking back. When the slum dweller evictees first moved to Sankalitnagar in Juhapura it was a mixed neighbourhood. Over the past few decades, however, Madinaben has seen the Sankalitnagar neighbourhood change in complexion, as the Hindu families slowly started moving out, for fear of reprisal by their Muslim neighbours for attacks on Muslims in the other parts of the city. Sankalitnagar is a typical microcosm of the deeply divided and ghettoised society that urban Gujarat today reflects.

In 1984, Madinaben was identified by St. Xavier’s Social Service Society (SXSSS) and trained to be a health worker. Her daily routine in the sprawling slums of Sankalitnagar was to carry out house–to–house visits of the families living there, providing them with health education, promoting good health, showing them how they could prevent the spread of illness and even providing them with medicare when necessary. An essential component of her work has been to listen to people who were traumatised by attacks of violence and who have felt the burden of hate propaganda and prejudice.

In the years of her work, Madinaben has been, in a humble and unassuming way, reaching out to people, to heal the wounds of hate and division. Ever since the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, she has also been visiting many of the Hindu slum settlements of the city. She does this in a most matter–of–fact way, responding to the needs of the poor in the very same way as in Sankalitnagar. 

Madinaben eagerly waits to make her daily trips to Khariwadi, Rakhial and other places… And, the slum dwellers in these places (most of them are Hindus) wait for her to come, as eagerly. When asked whether she was not afraid (being a Muslim woman) to go everyday to a Hindu dominated area she shoots back a reply, “Why should I be afraid? The problems of the poor are very different; the people do not see me as Muslim but as some one who wants to help them”.

An important part of Madinaben’s responsibility is to counter rumours and hate-mongering that is an integral part of hate politics.  Normally, just before the onset of a communal riot there are dozens of patrikas (handbills/leaflets) which are circulated. Most of them are very venomous and vicious in nature.  They are usually against the other community. They serve the purpose of sowing the seeds of suspicion, preparing the ground for violence.

Since she is literate, Madinaben with ready access to both communities is often asked by the people to read out – and often, explicate — the contents of the handbills to them. She does so creatively and honestly. Often, she is able to destroy the blatant lies printed in them, by taking them apart, one by one. 

It is not easy. A tall order, in fact, because she risks the wrath of either her own or the other friendly community. Loyalties are tested on narrow and brittle ground when communal tensions run high. She runs the risk of fellow Muslims accusing her of divided loyalties and on the other side being dubbed a Muslim and clubbed with a generalised and stereotypical image of her community.

Being a health worker, she also has to deal with the mental health of people.  She is fully sensitive to the fact that during communal riots it is the women and children who are not only the most vulnerable but who also suffer the worst traumas. It is to these groups that Madinaben reaches out. She tries to reason with them, to make them see and understand that it is women, especially, with access to home and hearth, who can create spaces of peace within the communities. 

Within her overall efforts, there have been significant cultural breakthroughs, too. As part of her work, Madinaben has attempted to communicate the message of peace and communal harmony through songs and dances in the communities she works with. When, she successfully manages, as part of her efforts, to get Muslim girls to dance the Hindu garbas and Hindu youths to sing quawalis, associated with Muslims, more than the normal Laxman rekhas between communities stand breached. These small but significant acts become, in fact, important bridges between the two communities.

Madinaben, conveys her convictions in a very emphatic voice…” The people who keep the Hindus and Muslims divided are the politicians. They want us to keep hating each other. What is happening in Ahmedabad should never happen anywhere…Each one of us, has the capacity to love and to help each other solve our problems”.

Madinaben’s voice, though somewhat suppressed in present–day, hate–driven Ahmedabad, is not a solitary one. She brings, in her small but unique way, a healing touch of peace and love to a city that is slowly but systematically being more and more fragmented. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2001, Anniversary Issue (8th) Year 8  No. 71, Cover Story 5



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