ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The 'Other' Tragedy


The ‘Other’ Tragedy It has been called Gujarat’s “second catastrophe”. In the aftermath of the widespread communal violence that Gujarat witnessed in 2002, those displaced, most of them Muslims, struggled to rebuild their lost lives in makeshift rehabilitation camps bereft of the most basic necessities. Several reports that very year by teams from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Concerned Citizens Tribunal and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights described the abominable conditions in most camps, largely set up on private initiative, where amenities such as water, electricity, schooling and health facilities were routinely absent. The Gujarat government, already severely indicted by a number of institutions, most notably the Supreme Court and the NHRC, for its inability to prevent the widespread breakdown of law and order and in several cases even of having abetted the violence, was also found guilty of failing its responsibilities towards its citizens. As historical precedents post-1947 have established, the principle that it is the State that holds responsibility for relief and rehabilitation has never been seriously questioned. In this respect, Gujarat since 2002 has come to constitute a dubious first, where the State’s duty to ensure the citizen’s constitutionally assured right to life appears to have been subverted. That such subversion continues close to five years after the frenzy of violence, poses a grave threat to humane, democratic and just governance. Though the state government makes much of having provided for the survivors of 2002 and for those “displaced” (estimated as ranging between 91,000 and 2,50,000), the fact is that government assistance has been either absent or only grudgingly extended. Displacement, i e, the virtual uprooting of people from their established ways of life, not only implies a denial of humane living conditions and a livelihood, but in an atmosphere of violence it also carries with it undertones of insecurity and psychological and mental scars. A survey undertaken in 2004 of the status of internally displaced persons by the Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad and the NHRC’s Monitoring Committee found that state-provided assistance ranged from a few hundred rupees to Rs 40,000 (the latter in just a few cases). The total amount officially reported paid to 18,037 families in urban areas was an average of Rs 6,808 per household; while 11,204 families in rural areas received an average of Rs 15,905 each. These are amounts too small to enable people to rebuild their homes. Not only has the assistance extended been abysmally meagre, the government and its agencies have also been active in seeking to “close” several camps on grounds that these were “temporary”, harboured “anti-social elements” and it was necessary to shut them down to restore “normalcy”. A recent report (October 2006) filed by a team from the National Commission of Minorities that visited 17 of the 46 relief camps reaffirms these truths and confirms that for the displaced of the Gujarat violence of 2002, little has changed. Many continue to live in poorly equipped camps, run mainly by non-governmental organisations, too afraid to return. As the aftermath of communal violence elsewhere – for example, Delhi (1984) and Bhagalpur (1989) – bears out, there are few avenues for comprehensive redressal. While justice itself is long-drawn, issues of assistance and rehabilitation are inextricably bound up with the legal process, thus prolonging the agony for the victims. Those “displaced” for their part become “secondary” victims. Loss of homes or livelihoods has often not formed part of assistance packages. For instance, as reported in the media, in the case of Bhagalpur, the compensation promised by the state government was paid to less than one-third of the families of the 1,981 victims, listed as the riots’ official casualties. A bill on communal violence has been on the anvil and includes among other provisions, the provision of fast-track courts to ensure justice. At the same time, a draft National Rehabilitation Policy only has provisions to cover displacement due to development projects. For

those internally displaced by violence, a new framework of understanding is urgently required. Where the threat of violence and discrimination and exclusion of a community persists, as in Gujarat, the protection of people’s constitutional rights can only be ensured through a policy that specifies a clear framework of entitlements, including provisions for immediate compensation and rehabilitation, as also the desire of displaced populations to “return home”. Such a policy must also specify time frames for rehabilitation, as well as include an effective grievance redressal and monitoring mechanism. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

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