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What they want

KALPANA SHARMA



What matters most is whether someone will find ways to heal the wounds ... certainly not the average politician.

TODAY, the country holds its collective breath as the results from the crucial Assembly elections in Gujarat come rolling in. Winners, losers — politics determines our future in these absolutes. But the reality for millions of men and women is somewhat different. For them, what matters is justice, rights, food, water, work. The flood of words and promises that washed over the landscape of Gujarat these last weeks failed to address these needs. The least comforted of all the groups that witnessed, somewhat aloof, the election spectacle, were the women. Particularly Muslim women. Not a word was uttered about the unprecedented violence that their sisters had suffered nine months ago. There were no comforting words, no promise of justice, nothing. It was as if these horrendous crimes never took place.

Yet, the cold truth is that regardless of which government comes to power in Gujarat, there will be thousands of homes where there is still no light because the indescribable, wrenching sorrow of what occurred just nine months back has yet to be dispelled. "What was our fault?" asked Kulsum Bano of Naroda Patiya as she told us last week how she had watched helplessly as her seven-year-old daughter was killed before her eyes. There is no answer to that question. Scattered across the State are women like or Zubeida Bano, who lost her husband, of Bibi Bano, who lost eight out of 11 members of her family, for whom every day is a question mark. And there is no one to provide the answers. These women are alive. But there are scores who are like the living dead. Women who have been raped, burned, and witnessed the rape, torture and death of their dear ones, including young children. Will a change of government make a difference to their lives? Who will plan for their futures? To these women of Gujarat, what matters most is whether someone will care enough to bring the culprits to book, someone will work to provide alternative livelihoods, someone will find ways to heal the wounds. That someone is not your average politician, and certainly not any of the worthies competing for the Gujarat throne.

Those providing the comfort today are as far from politics as you can get. Women like Nazimbanu Pathan, a Puneri Brahmin who fell in love with a Pathan. She had to run away from her home in Pune because her family cut her off. She and her husband came to live in Ahmedabad where his family also rejected them. Hema, who became Nazimbanu, lived with her husband and children in the city. When he died, her in-laws finally made their peace with her. Her parents still refuse to accept her. But Nazimbanu is not worried about her own pain. She is one of hundreds of women and men, the Aman Pathiks, who are helping others deal with their pain.

Three days before polling day in Gujarat, one of the most exhilarating experiences was to enter Ahmedabad's impressive Tagore Hall and witness an auditorium packed with women of all shapes, sizes, ages, castes, creeds singing together, weeping together and shouting slogans of freedom and justice together. If anything could dispel the cloud of gloom that has hung over Gujarat since the communal carnage of March and April this year, it was the spirit in this hall during a unique, one-day Mahila Ekta Sammelan. Initiated by women's groups who have organised women on a range of issues from environment, governance, rehabilitation and now the communal violence, the response was beyond their wildest dreams. Women who had never stepped out of their villages were willing to travel overnight by bus to participate in the Sammelan. What was striking was the instinctive understanding amongst these women that if one of them had suffered grievous harm, it was a collective burden. That if one community was targeted, and particularly if the women of that community had been singled out for sexual crimes, no woman was safe. Women also acknowledged that they had the power to influence their men. "We have decided our men, our sons will not go out and join such rioting," said a Dalit woman. The Dalits had been used to attack the Muslims in many areas as had the Adivasis.

There was also embarrassment amongst the Hindu women that they had not known the extent of the violence. "We knew Muslims had been killed," said a woman from Malliya, "but we had no idea that Muslim women had been attacked in this way." When they heard the personal stories of over a dozen Muslim women from different parts of the State, they wept. And they asked for forgiveness.

This is the healing that is needed. The reassertion of humanity, so that we can feel the grief of another. But it also has to go beyond that. There also has to be justice so that the men who have committed crimes openly and with the confidence that the State is on their side, are brought to trial and convicted. There are can only be true closure when this happens. These women want to vote for justice — not for this or that party.

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