Khatun Sheikh’s orange hair fell free as she shooed a stray dog that had crept into her home and toppled a bag of wheat. She chased it away in the direction of a mountain of garbage flecked with scraps of blue tarpaulin, soiled rags, human waste, and muddy plastic. The dog disappeared into the multicolored heap, and she turned back, wheezing, shielding her nose from the fetid stench.
Sheikh has been living in a relief colony at the foothills of a dumping ground in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, for the past 12 years. A mob torched her home in a middle-class housing complex on February 28, 2002, killing 97 Muslims.
The attack occurred during the three-day Gujarat riots, which left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. The violence was set off a day earlier, when a train full of Hindu pilgrims burst into flames in the city of Godhra, killing 59 people. A Muslim mob was accused of setting the blaze, although the cause was disputed. Coordinated attacks on Muslims soon followed.
Sheikh’s one-room hovel was cluttered with a small stove, a straw mat, and clothes hanging to dry. Her husband, who once managed a firm that contracted billboards and signboards, was somewhere in the city looking for work. Her 21-year-old son, Mohammed Rashid, is unemployed, and her younger son, Mohammed Rafiq, who is 13, can’t go to school because the nearest one is miles away.
“I think about the old days when we were happy,” Sheikh told VICE News, “and I feel helpless.”
Some 98,000 people were displaced in Gujarat by the 2002 riots. Sheikh and her family are among the 16,000 who remain in relief colonies, 83 of which are located across the state. Residents of the 15 camps in Ahmedabad overwhelmingly lack clinics, schools, proper roads, and adequate drinking water.
Sheikh has developed jaundice as well as blisters on her feet from the sewage water that floods her neighborhood. “But going back is out of the question,” she said. “I can still hear screams for help.” She returned to her old neighborhood only twice, to collect whatever was left from her burnt-out home.
Even as polls certify the popularity of Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister and the ascendant prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the riots remain a notable stain on his administration. Modi had taken office a few months before the riots broke out, and he’s been criticized for his government’s handling of the violence and accused of not acting quickly enough to stop it. Some have claimed that his government encouraged the retributive killings.
While Modi was never charged in connection with the riots, a former minister in his cabinet was convicted of inciting the bloodshed. A team of investigators appointed by the Supreme Court cleared Modi in 2010 of criminal liability in failing to intervene and stop the riots. Subsequent investigations also found no incriminating evidence against him — but questions have been raised about their thoroughness.
In the immediate aftermath of the riots, most displaced survivors lived in relief camps built by charitable trusts. The Gujarat government forcibly shut down the camps within a few months and gave paltry compensation to those displaced by the riots. NGOs and local groups hastily erected colonies intended to relieve the housing shortfall, but the substandard accommodations were really no less temporary than what they replaced. None of the colonies was set up with state government support.
Modi’s candidacy for prime minister relies on his image as a capable leader. Over the past decade, he presided over an economy considered among the strongest in India. The “Gujarat model” boosted industry through infrastructure and focused on creating access to water, roads, and electricity. The state grew at a rate of 10.1 percent between 2004 and 2012, while the national average was 7.6 percent. However, Modi has been criticized for the gap in non-fiscal indicators like child malnutrition and maternal and infant mortality.
“What is Modi's famous Gujarat Model? It is dismal human development indexes,” Vijay Parmar, CEO of the nonprofit organization Janvikas, told VICE News. “The victims of 2002 need to be alleviated from hopelessness. This means that in addition to basic amenities, they need rehabilitation, economic stability, and a stake in India's progress.”
‘In 2007, in response to a Supreme Court committee inquiry, Gujarat’s government claimed that there were no relief colonies housing people displaced by the 2002 riots.’
Modi is fond of saying on the campaign trail that India needs the roads, electricity, and jobs that he has helped bring to Gujarat. Feroz Gulzar, a man in his late 30s who lives in another relief colony in Ahmedabad, still wonders when those resources will reach him. He has struggled with his livelihood ever since surviving the attack at Gulbarg Society, an upper-middle-class housing complex that was torched during the Gujarat riots, killing at least 69 Muslims.
Gulbarg is now a cluster of burnt shells — doorless, windowless structures covered in soot. From its dilapidated gate one can see a city buzzing with prosperity: air-conditioned cars honking furiously at sluggish rickshaws, women being tended at a beauty parlor, a group of men relaxing after a game of cricket.
Gulzar lost his parents, two brothers, and a sister in the assault, and now lives with his wife and two children in a colony located in an industrial area of the city with a serious drainage problem. A lake of sewage festered outside of his home. Gulzar’s three-year-old daughter Tehsin was scaling his leg as he talked about setting up a series of failed enterprises.
“I tried a marble business. I tried loading and unloading cranes, and even tailoring,” he said. “But luck is not on my side.”
Tehsin, who had climbed to her father’s shoulder, patted his head sympathetically.
A young woman named Safina Jaid Hussain lived next door. She was a nine-year-old being tutored in English at Gulbarg when a mob armed with swords and kerosene stormed the complex 12 years ago. She managed to flee the scene and took shelter in a Hindu neighbor’s home during the violence.
Safina left school to help support her family following the attack, taking up tailoring. As a child whose life was irrevocably changed by the slaughter in 2002, she was oddly matter-of-fact about the attack and its consequences.
“You have to help yourself,” she said.
In 2007, in response to a Supreme Court committee inquiry, Gujarat’s government claimed that there were no relief colonies housing people displaced by the 2002 riots.
“The letter submitted by the state government said that if a few people chose not to return to their homes, it was because of better economic prospects,” Parmar said.
In March 2013, Citizens for Justice and Peace, an organization seeking fairness for the survivors of the riots, submitted a letter to D. J. Pandian, the Gujarat revenue secretary at the time, outlining the lack of basic amenities in the colonies.
“He promised that he would look into it,” Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist and founding member of the organization, told VICE News. “I followed up on various occasions, but nothing happened. They said they sent a team to the colonies, but maybe they wore invisibility cloaks because none of the survivors saw them.”
Pandian, who is now the principal secretary of Gujarat’s energy and petrochemicals department, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. The office of Anil Mukim, Gujarat’s current revenue secretary, declined an interview request.
Kirit Premjibhai Solanki, a BJP member of parliament representing the Ahmedabad West constituency, told VICE News that the government had already done “good work in these areas.”
“Everyone is happy and they have moved on,” he said. “Everyone has forgotten.” Solanki refused to discuss the colonies further.
Khatun Sheikh sat outside of her home on a straw mattress, spreading a layer of wheat in front of her. She recalled being ferried through an armed crowd by bus along with other Muslim survivors following the attack on her housing complex in 2002.
“They looked at us as if they were thinking, ‘Where were they hiding?’ ” she said. “I recognized some faces in that crowd, and wonder what made them turn on us.”
Her son Rafiq was only three months old at the time, but he still has nightmares about the experience.
“People tell us to forget,” she said. “I tell them that no one has tried to forget more than us.”
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Photos by Mansi Choksi