Ahmedabad, Post Una: Dalit, Muslim Women Have Some Answers
I am in Ahmedabad. This is post Una Gujarat. Chief Minister Anandiben has resigned citing her advancing age. BJP is abuzz with who next? This step was partly a fall out of a huge gathering of Dalits at Sabarmati Bus Depot where 25000 people gathered under the umbrella of Dalit Mahasammelan. There a pledge was taken to stop skinning cattle carcass and stop cleaning gutters. Let the rest of the populace fend for itself. The fact that Muslims stood side by side with them in this massive demonstration was for me the high point. Two young men, Jignesh Mewani and Shamshad Khan Pathan, both lawyers, are comrades in arm for the next step; from Aug 5 to Aug 15 a long March from Ahmedabad to Una. For this a slogan has been devised: Azadi Kooch: Zulm se Mukti Izzat ki Ore-- Chalo Una--Una Chalo
I arrived at the stroke of what may well become the Dalit Spring. But my mission was a little different. I came to listen to women, Muslim and Dalit, who gathered at Dalal Hall in Paldi, under the aegis of an organization Sahr Waru (the compound word means dawn in Urdu and Malyalam) with which I have worked since Gujarat carnage 2002. I wanted to asses the work they had done in fourteen years to bring Muslim women out of the trauma of the colossal losses suffered during those brutal days. Loss of life, family, home, possessions. I also wanted to see what had they done to bring Dalit women close to their estranged Muslim sisters.
The women were from three talukas Mehmdabad, Urban Ahmedabad and Dehgaon. They represented over one lakh women who had benefited from the arduous work of this dedicated NGO. Many women had not been able to come because of heavy rain and other work compulsions. In Ahmedabad city they were from Bombay Hotel, Vatva, Ramol, Gomti Nagar.
I was eye witness in 2002 and periodically in the intervening years, to their miserable living conditions when Sahrwaru had begun its work. The question was how to make them self reliant? How to make them demand and get their entitlements? These were women at the edge of existence. Dalits and Muslims who had been violated and manipulated during 2002. They had been taught to hate one another with a passion that was played out when Dalit men had targeted Muslim women in places such as Narodia Patia, names of mohallas which have entered the vocabulary as synonyms for communal violence.
Today due to constant work of organizations like Sahrwaru, Dalit and Muslim women have realized that they have to live and work together to survive. These women were flicked away like dirt specks by Panchayat men and officials when they first appeared with demands.
Then with help of Sahrwaru women like Naseem, Mehjabeen and Mahmuda, they asserted themselves. And it broke the official apathy, even in a state like Gujarat where the sate had been complicit in the violence. I watched the courage with which Khursheeda Bano, Rehana Bano, Fakhrunissa spoke about how they were able to get a water and gutter line in their area. Kamla, Saroj, Deo Behn were able to get girls in their area to complete class 10 because of their persistence with the school authorities to bring the village school up to class 10.
The poet Israrul Haq Majaz wrote these lines as if in anticipation of these Sahrwaru women. 'Tere maathey pe ye aanchal bahaut hee khub hai lekin/ Tu iss aanchal se ek parcham bana leti to achha ttha'. Saroj and Fakhrunissa, Deo Ben and Shameem Bano have flipped their ghunghats into banners which herald their self reliance.
Women from villages of Memdabad such as Pahad, Nainpur, Jinger, Rehamatnagar, Kanij, Aamsaran, Rudan, Haldarvas, others from Dehgam taluka villages, such as Dharisna, Bahiyal, Bilamna had the same stories of how they overcame the apathy of the administration. One cross cutting fact was the violence the women from both communities routinely faced. Here again the emerging women leaders (with Sahrwaru workers adding clout) confronted the abusive husbands and male family members.
'I had never before been part of Roza iftari until last Ramadan' said Rupal, a young smiling field worker of Sahrwaru. 'I loved the way all the fruit was cut and how four people ate from the same plate'. She said she was from a conservative family of Junagadh. I was hesitant to ask the obvious question about Jhoota khana so I asked, did you tell your family? 'yes I described iftar to my husband and he too was happy, he shared my feelings'. Many women then began to describe how they participate in each others' festivals. Holi Diwali, Eid, Ramadan. 'Our links are forged every day, there is so much interdependence...'
It has been fourteen years since Sahrwaru has been in the field helping these women rebuild their lives. Today they can question the talati, confront the gram Sachiv, invoke RTI; words that were alien have been integrated in their language. Their relationship with the men has seen a change so that they can even stop liquor consumption to some extent.
What happened that morning in that city hall in Ahmedabad was for me a link in the strong chain of a Dalit Muslim alliance which if forged all over the country can alter the power equations in 2019. The aanchal thus flipped over by the women can become the banner for Azadi for the oppressed Muslims and Dalits.
(Syeda Hameed is a former Member of the Planning Commission, and a well known women rights activist)