The woman who lost 25 members of her family in the 2002 riots and went on to help other widows

15 years after the communal carnage in Gujarat, Harsh Mander narrates a tale of exceptional courage.

Gujarat Riots 2002
Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP | Farzan Biwi, 22, who lost her husband during the communal violence in Gujarat, kisses her 15-day-old baby at a relief camp in Ahmedabad in May 2002.

I have engaged for many years with survivors of communal violence across India: in Nellie and Kokrajhar in Assam, Tilak Vihar in Delhi, Bhagalpur in Bihar, Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, and Godhra in Gujarat, attempting to express some solidarity in their struggles for justice and healing.

I have found that the most vulnerable among them are the widows. Their spouses, children and elders are killed and, almost overnight, their homes, their livelihoods and earnings are wiped out. They are uprooted from familiar environs into new ones and, all at once, they are saddled with the responsibilities of rebuilding their lives and caring for other survivors. And, like most other widows in India, they battle memory, loneliness, want, as well as the negligence and cruelty inflicted upon them by society.

Despair constantly stalked the 21-room apartments allotted to widows and their children in a colony erected by relief-workers on the outskirts of the village Delol, near Godhra, for the survivors of the 2002 massacre in Gujarat. The spirit of the residents of these small homes and their sense of hope remained fragile even years after the carnage. A gust of memories, a boy’s quiet weeping, a girl’s terrified screams in her sleep, a widow’s unacknowledged loneliness, the barbed taunts of neighbours, worries about the future of children, the humiliation of continued dependence on charity – each was enough to obliterate hope.

Feisty, fierce, resilient, compassionate, impetuous and sometimes unwise, yet often defenceless in her loneliness, 31-year-old Naseebbahen Mohammedbhai Sheikh emerged as a natural leader in the colony. She had lost an incomprehensible total of 26 members of her family in the massacre, including her husband, her 12-year-old daughter, her parents, and almost every living relative in her parents’ and her husband’s home except one brother and a son.

Yet hers was the steadiest voice in the colony, one offering comfort and strength. “You have to now make two hearts beat in your breasts,” she never tired of telling the other widowed women, “one that of a mother, the other of a father.” She would urge the women, “Live for your children but also for yourself. Make sure that your children study.”

Memories of a massacre

Naseeb and her one son survived only because of a chance of fate. She had been admitted into a government hospital in Delol for a hysterectomy on February 27, 2002, just one day before the massacre engulfed her village and villages in 20 districts of Gujarat. She did not know, until much later, about the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra railway station that same day, barely 20 km from where she lay on the operation table, or that the horrific deaths in the train compartment had sparked such widespread and barbarous mass communal extermination.

Her husband, Mohammedbhai, visited her grim-faced in the evening after the operation. He did not tell her that their home had been plundered and burnt down by mobs, their television smashed, that everything they had lovingly accumulated over 15 years of married life had been destroyed in minutes. Their locker had been broken into, too, and their life savings of Rs 70,000, with which they had hoped to buy agricultural land, had been looted. Mohammedbhai only gave her home-cooked food in a tiffin-carrier, asked after her health and held her hand. He then left. It was the last time that she saw him alive.

The following night, Koyobhai, an Adivasi worker from her village who had tended to their fields for many years, brought her 10-year-old son to the hospital. There had been some communal disturbances in the village, he told her briefly. Some Adivasi agricultural-workers had given her extended family shelter in their homes, he said, and they were all safe. Naseeb’s son had wept incessantly for her and he had therefore carried him to the hospital to leave him with her. Naseeb was very troubled, but Koyobhai reassured her that there was no cause for worry.

On the morning of March 2, 2002, Naseeb awoke to the roar of frenzied crowds milling around the hospital. She stumbled out of bed and ran to the gates. In the distance, she saw an overturned Tempo van being set on fire by a mob. Naseeb screamed when she thought she saw her own brother Yakubbhai among the passengers trying to escape the burning vehicle. Even as he struggled desperately, a horde of men overpowered Yakubbhai, poured petrol upon on his clothes and set him on fire. At this point, Naseeb fell unconscious. She was spared the sight of her sister-in-law being stripped naked and raped by the men even as she begged for mercy. She did not see her brother’s two terror-stricken children run screaming for safety towards the hospital and being overpowered and burnt alive.

When Naseeb regained consciousness, she found herself back in her hospital bed. To save her life, the nurses had dressed her in a sari, stuck a bindi on her forehead and spread vermilion in the parting of her hair. Her traumatised son sat frozen by her bedside. Mobs were scouring the hospital wards for Muslim patients. The doctor convinced them that she was a Hindu and they passed her by.

The doctor, Hasmukh Machi, was an elderly gynaecologist who had treated generations of women from Naseeb’s family. After the mob left the hospital, he reassured the shuddering and sobbing Naseeb that the man she had seen killed was not her brother, and that all her relatives were safe. But, as days passed and no one came to see her in the hospital, fear and panic mounted. However, the doctor told her that he had made enquiries. All the members of her family had taken shelter in relief camps. They were unable to visit her only because of the curfew and the unchecked violence.

After she was discharged, Dr Hasmukh took Naseeb to his own home where his wife and mother gently nursed her and restored her to health. It was the longest that Naseebbahen had lived in a Hindu household, she said. They treated her as one of their own. Finally one morning, twenty days after the violence first broke out, the doctor and his wife sat by Naseeb’s side and, in low, shaking voices, shared horrifying news, worse than the worst of her nightmares.

Amit Dave/Reuters
Amit Dave/Reuters

Horrific end

After their home was destroyed by the rioting mobs, the Adivasi workers – who had been employed for many years by Mohammedbhai’s family – sheltered her extended family in their huts, a total of 11 women, men and children, for three nights. But the bloodshed and butchery refused to die down. When others in the village discovered them, they advised the men that it would be safest for them to shift their families to the relief camp in Kalol, Gandhinagar. They assured them safe passage.

The entire family set out that evening in the fading twilight. They walked a short distance, then decided that it was too dangerous to continue and hid in a shallow pit on the bed of the Goma River until nightfall. Although the villagers had assured them that they would remain unharmed, they still trembled, clinging on to each other, hoping to see the dawn. But this was not to be.

A crowd of men armed with swords approached stealthily from the rear and surrounded the family. The attack was swift and surgical. They first cut off the head of Naseeb’s mother-in-law. They then attacked her husband Mohammedbhai. They hacked off his arms and, as he cried out to Allah, fatally stabbed him in the stomach. The death of their 12-year-old daughter was even more merciless: they cut off her arms, feet, hair, and only then ended her life. In this way, one by one, nine of them fell to the mob’s swords as their blood collected and coagulated in the riverbed and their screams filled the stillness of the approaching night. They burned alive two small children.
The doctor’s account did not end there. Frequently breaking down, he told Naseeb that it was indeed her own brother whom she had seen from the hospital gates.

While their home was being looted and torched, her parents’ extended family of 15 remained hidden in the fields. After cowering for two days among the standing crops, enduring hunger, thirst and fear, her brother had decided that they could not continue like this indefinitely. The storm showed no signs of passing and he felt that there was no option but to drive everyone to the relief camp in Kalol.

Somehow, their Tempo van had been left unharmed and they all piled into it and left. In Kalol, they found that the roads had been blocked with crude, hastily put up barriers made out of stones and mounds of sand. Naseeb’s brother tried to desperately drive over the barriers but, at one point near the hospital where Naseeb was recovering from her operation, the van swerved and overturned into a ditch. Naseeb was witness to some of what happened afterwards.

Naseeb, now utterly distraught and incredulous, begged the doctor that she be allowed to visit the relief camp and look for survivors from her family. The doctor drove her there himself. With her son clutching her shaking hand, she walked unsteadily through the camp. The only relative that Naseeb could find was her husband’s elder brother Abdul and his wife. They had survived only because they lived in another town, Dehasar, where their homes had been destroyed but their lives had been spared. They all held on to one another and wept inconsolably. Such was the lamentation in the camp that this little family gathered around, weeping, became just one among numerous others.

No help

The state government had refused to manage the camp, or provide any assistance beyond supplying foodgrains barely enough for a subsistence-level existence. In this situation, unlikely leaders emerged. Moved by the suffering of the thousands who had survived slaughter, rape and plunder, and who were now internal refugees abandoned by their own government, many pushed their own sorrow and loss aside. Bands of young people gathered and set up makeshift shelters out of plastic sheets and bamboo sticks, cooked and distributed food, carried water for bathing and drinking, organized milk for infants and medical care for the wounded, and helped survivors file complaints with a recalcitrant and openly hostile police.

A week after Naseeb arrived in the camp, Abdul took a room on rent in Kalol and moved there with his wife and children and his sister-in-law and her son. Naseeb lived with them for three months but finally returned to the camp.
She returned because she was humiliated and wearied by her sister-in-law’s insinuations. She unrelentingly taunted Naseeb, “Your whole family died, how did you alone survive?” She reviled Naseeb particularly because it was a Hindu doctor who had left her at the camp. “Why did that Hindu doctor shelter you for 20 days?” she asked. “What did you do for him?”

At the camp, they slept on the bare floor and were able to bathe only every 10 or 15 days. The camp organisers had hired a tanker to bring in drinking water but this was never enough, and the temperatures soared mercilessly all summer.

A relief camp in Ahmedabad. Photo: Sebastian D'Souza/AFP
A relief camp in Ahmedabad. Photo: Sebastian D'Souza/AFP

Stigma at every step

Naseeb could not shake off the stigma and vulnerability of being a widow even in the camp. Earlier, before she had left the camp to live with her brother-in-law’s family, their religious leader, the maulana, had insisted she observe the ritual iddat of 40 days, prescribed in Islam for all widows, with complete confinement in her brother-in-law’s home.

Her brother-in-law had stoutly supported her resolve to defy this custom, even if it meant excommunication from their faith. How could a woman who had lost everything, including 26 members of her family, and now charged with raising her only surviving child, be expected to withdraw from the world for 40 days? But back at the camp, the maulana returned to his haranguing: she had been rescued by a Hindu doctor, he said, and had refused to observe iddat. There could be nothing worse in his view. There were 15 widows at the camp and they all lived together, extending to each other a sisterhood of comfort and support. None observed iddat. None escaped the maulana’s recriminations.

One day, Ransinghbhai, a Hindu vegetable dealer with whom her husband used to do business, visited them at the camp. Appalled by the conditions, he offered to take them to his own home. Naseeb declined because she was afraid of gossip, but gratefully sent her son with him.

‘We had a happy home’

Alone in the camp, Naseeb’s thoughts would frequently wander back to her husband. “Compared to my parents’ home,” Naseeb told me, “we were not so well off. But we had a happy home. My husband was a good man. He would always inform me before he left home, about where he was going, and when he would return. Not many men do that. He never beat me, and fed me well.”

Naseeb had very fond memories of her grandfather. It was he who had given her in marriage to Mohammedbhai, her mother’s sister’s son, even though the family was poor, because he wanted her to always live close by so that he could see her flourish before his own eyes.

He was a well-off landowner, with 100 bighas of irrigated land; he employed 20 farm-workers with whose help he grew vegetables and castor. He had been on the Haj thrice, each time spending a Rs 1.5 lakh . They owned three tubewells. From one, he offered a free supply of drinking water for two hours daily to any villager who needed it, regardless of community or caste. This act was exemplary in a village in which divisions of caste and religion ran very deep. He had also dug a trough of water for animals and birds. Her grandfather never foisted purdah upon the women in his family. He also encouraged them to participate in Hindu festivals like the Navratra.

Naseeb’s two brothers studied up to Class 10, but the girls were allowed to only attend the local madrassa, up to Class 7. Naseeb had wanted to study further but the religious school offered, in her words, “more Quran, less schooling.”

Naseeb was 16 when she was married off to her cousin Mohmmedbhai. He was more educated than her brothers, having studied beyond secondary school, and having acquired a diploma in electrical engineering from the local Industrial Training Institute. But he ended up in the business of dairying, with a single buffalo, which was augmented after their marriage by the second buffalo her grandfather gave them.

Her father also encouraged and assisted his son-in-law to sell the vegetables grown in their fields. When Naseeb would gather grass from her father’s fields for their buffaloes, he would never allow her to carry the load back on her head but would send her on his tractor. Naseeb and Mohammedbhai sold milk mainly to their Hindu neighbours, and vegetables to Hindu traders. Her mother-in-law was always full of praise for her, said Naseeb. “Naseeb is true to her name,” she would say, “she has brought us good fortune. Only after she came to our home has our poverty and want ended. Today we have every kind of happiness.”

As Naseeb lay on the uneven floor of the relief camp, with no clothes except the ones that she wore, surrounded by crowds of weeping children, bereaved women and dispossessed men, battling mosquitoes, the hot sun and despair, all of this seemed a distant, shadowy dream.

Rioters on a street in Ahmedabad. Arko Datta/Reuters
Rioters on a street in Ahmedabad. Arko Datta/Reuters

New normal

The state government forced the relief camps to close six months after they had been set up. Normalcy had been restored, local authorities claimed. And as elections to the state assembly were due, people must return to their villages. No one bothered to explain to the tens of thousands people sheltered in the relief camps how they could go back to their villages where neighbours remained violently, implacably hostile, where they had no prospects of employment and tenancy, where their homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, and when the state government had refused to offer anything more than a pittance as compensation and nothing as rehabilitation grants and loans.
Naseebbahen was given a compensation of Rs 90,000 for one member of her family. The remaining 25 were declared “missing persons”, and she was informed that she would have to wait for seven years before she would be paid compensation for their deaths.

By then we had created Aman Biradari, a collective for peace and justice work, bringing together survivors of the carnage and also working-class Hindus from the villages and towns which had been engulfed by the violence. Peace-workers from Aman Biradari met Naseeb, and she decided to join their efforts. Her work as a peace-worker brought her solace. She was entrusted the responsibility for six villages in Godhra.

In each village, she gathered around women, and Muslim and Dalit youth. “I have not come to give you anything,” she said to them. “I have only come to join hands with you, to see if we can build peace, justice and unity in places where there is communal hatred.”

Everywhere, people were moved that a woman who had lost 26 members of her family could still speak of peace and love. Many joined her. She encouraged and supported women to fearlessly give evidence to the police and in courts, and to speak up about the rape, the looting and the killing. In each village, Naseeb also asked about the Hindus who had protected their Muslim neighbours during the carnage. There were many, and she invited them to be leaders of Aman Biradari’s peace groups in their villages. Together they tried to instill faith in those whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, and to encourage them to return to the villages of their birth, to take heart and start life again.

The maulana remained hostile to Naseebbahen’s work. “You go about with your head uncovered and speak to strange men,” he would lecture to her. “It is because of women without shame, like you, that riots occur in the first place.” He felt that the only respectable course for Naseebbahen was to remarry and even suggested suitable men to her. (He did this to the other widows as well.) Naseeb was only 31 years old and not averse to marrying, provided the right man asked for her hand. But her first priority was her work and her son.

Naseeb’s extraordinary work as a peace-worker in Aman Biradari was recognised when she was nominated among 1,000 women leaders from across the globe for the Nobel Prize.

But her own life fell apart all over again when she alleged that the leader of their relief colony had tried to rape her. This leader had grown into a respected and influential humanitarian and justice-worker in his own right. He hotly denied Naseeb’s charges. Peace activists were bitterly split in their support. I stood resolutely with Naseeb. The man against whom she had alleged rape and sexual harassment left the relief colony and moved to Ahmedabad, where he continued working with leading organisations for the cause of peace. Naseeb was bitter but remained unbroken.

But that story is Naseeb’s to tell. It is enough to say that this episode inflicted one more wound after the many that life had dealt Naseeb, but it could not fell her.

In the years that passed, she raised and educated her son into a fine and caring young man, and found a bride for him. The widows of the colony would still turn to her in difficult times. She did not remarry because she did not find the right man. But in her work for peace and with the widows, she has often said to me, “I feel that I have a new family.”

Excerpted with permission from Harsh Mander’s new book Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance, Speaking Tiger

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