Gagan Sethi is the Managing Trustee of Jan Vikas, an NGO in Ahmedabad which has been active in the struggle for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat genocide. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about his work.
Q: Jan Vikas is said to have played an important role in the battle for justice for the victims of the Gujarat genocide of 2002. What has been the nature of this work?
A: We have taken up the issue of POTA detenus, trying to fight for justice of those Muslims who have been unfairly detained under this draconian law. In the wake of the genocide. Jan Vikas Centre for Social Justice was asked by the National Human Rights Commission to monitor violation of human rights that took place right across Gujarat, and the Centre became a sort of secretariat for all complaints. We prepared regular reports on human rights violations and provided these to the media, political parties and social activists. We also took up several cases of killings and illegal imprisonment of Muslims, including the well-known Bilquis Bano case, which, tragically, happens to be the only case associated with the Gujarat genocide in which a CBI inquiry has been carried out, such being the large-scale violation of human rights in Gujarat by the state and Hindutva forces.
Q: Jan Vikas is one of the few ґmainstream NGOs in Gujarat working with Muslims. What sort of work are you doing in this regard?
A: Before the genocide, Muslims in Gujarat were a sort of ґblind area as far as most secular NGOs and activist groups were concerned. It was not, as some of us would like to believe, that Muslims were opposed to such groups. In fact, it was largely because of our own failures, our own biases, because most of us treated Muslims as a ґblind area. I mean, when we talked about development, equity and so on did we bother to see how many Muslims we had in our own organsations or how many Muslims were benefiting from the different programmes that NGOs were carrying out? When I ask this question to some of my NGO friends, they admit that they have hardly any Muslims working with them, but the excuse they give is that there are very few suitably qualified Muslims. To this excuse my counter question is, ґIf I give you enough qualified Muslims will you be willing to take them?. Very few, to be frank, would agree, such is the level of anti-Muslim feeling among many Hindus in Gujarat today.
In the wake of the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 we realised that it was essential to engage with key Muslim community institutions, such as ulama groups and madrasas, because they exercise a powerful influence on many Muslims. So, we began with working along with the Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Trust, which is associated with the Tablighi Jamaat, the Deobandi Jamiat ulҖUlama-i Hind and local Muslim NGOs, mainly in Ahmedabad and Panchmahals to provide relief, work for rehabilitation and fight for legal justice for the victims of the genocide.
Through the Udaan resource centre that we set up recently we have also begun working with some 18 maktabs in Kutch, in northern Gujarat, and we plan to expand this to include 25 maktabs soon. All these maktabs are run by the Jamiat ul-Ulama-i Hind. Some of them are located in places where there are no government schools. In consultation with the Jamiat ul-Ulama we have appointed one teacher in each of these maktabs after providing them with some training. Three of these teachers are trained ёulama. Our teachers teach basic science, mathematics and Gujarati, and we plan to hold regular training programmes for them. These teachers also try and get admission for the maktab students in government schools after they finish their basic religious studies. We are also trying to get some ulama in Kutch to work as Unani medical practitioners along with local health workers. In addition, we are helping with the school for poor and orphaned children that the Jamiat ul-Ulama-i Hind has set up in Anjar, Kutch.
In the Panchmahals district we have worked with local Muslim organisations for relief and resettlement in Halol and Kalol. We have also set up nineteen Gyanshala schools, several of which are located in villages with a considerable Muslim presence. These are non-formal education centres and provide education till the third grade. Muslims, Hindus and Dalits attend these schools together, so this provides a crucial means for inter-community interaction. Several of these schools have been set up in Muslim localities. We also organise support classes in villages for students who have dropped out of school, many of them Muslims.
We are also informally trying to help promote a new sort of Muslim leadership. In recent years, and this has been accelerated after the genocide, Muslims in Gujarat are setting up their own small community welfare organisations and groups. We are trying to support some of these efforts, trying to link them up with non-Muslim groups as well. We do not find the Islamic religious groups we have worked with, the Jamiat ul-ёUlama and the Tablighi Jamaat, a barrier in this sort of work, I must stress. They have been very open to working with us for common goals, including for communal harmony.
Q: In the aftermath of the genocide do you see any transformation in the attitude of Gujarati Muslim community organisations towards education?
A: Most certainly, and now even conservative religious groups like the Jamiat ul-Ulama-I Hind and the Tablighi Jamaat in Gujarat are setting up modern educational institutions. Sometimes, however, not enough thinking and planning goes into these well-meaning efforts. It is still very difficult to find enough educated Muslim women who can teach in schools. Also, there is a tendency to think in terms of establishing large colleges, with fancy buildings, rather than focussing on elementary education. Thus, for instance, the other day a Muslim organisation approached me saying that they want to establish a B.Ed. College, but I told them to use the money that they had collected on programmes for training Muslim women para-teachers instead or for setting up good primary schools in Muslim localities.
But, yes, I would say that after the genocide there has been a vast transformation in the Gujarati Muslim psyche. Even conservative ёulama groups have realised the need for modern education if Muslims are to be able to survive and struggle for their rights and lead a life of dignity. So thats why now in Gujarat even the maulvis are asking that at least some modern education should be imparted in the maktabs. I would say that many maulvis are indeed enthusiastic about modern education as well. It is wrong to imagine, as many of us do, that they are all vehemently opposed to change. You only need to approach them with sensitivity and respect.
And it is not only as far as education that this change is visible. Take the question of women. Groups like the Jamiat ul-Ulama are said to follow very strict rules regarding women. But we found them quite flexible when we started working with them. We worked with the Jamiat ul-Ulama to establish housing cooperatives for Muslims whose houses had been destroyed in the violence, and we insisted that the ownership of the houses should be in the name of both the husband and the wife, not just the husband. For the Jamiat officials we were working with this was something novel, but they later agreed. And now, just a few months ago, when we heard that in Modassa, in the Sabarkantha district, 70 Muslim families, displaced from their homes, were forced to live on the roads, we rang up the Jamiat to discuss what should be done, and the Jamiat officials on their own suggested that we should set up a cooperative society and the houses should be in the names of the women, because women are sometimes unfairly thrown out of their homes by their husbands!
So, my point is that NGOs, activists and others who are genuinely committed to secularism and justice need to work with institutions that command influence and respect within the Muslim community. We cannot afford to ignore them. And, moreover, they are not all the diehard conservatives that they are often made out to be. If you relate to them with respect and concern, not with an aim to preach or condemn, but to work together with them for common purposes, you will find, as we in Jan Vikas have, that they can be quite amenable to this.