Loss of Shared Meanings

Published: September 18, 2014 - 15:52

Post the riots, there is a need for the articulation of the trauma of the survivors or we will risk the social death of a segregated community

Ghazala Jamil Delhi 

In muzaffarnagar and Shamli, a community struggles to come to grips with the reality of the events that took place an year ago, and all that has happened since. Not only has their immediate world changed, words have begun to have different meanings too.

I first visited the camps to which the Muslim families displaced by the violence in the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli region had relocated, seven months after the violence. I went with only a vague idea that while relief and physical rehabilitation rightly take priority, it is also important that attention be paid to the trauma such people have faced and continue to experience. Everyone I spoke to agreed that they would rebuild their lives somehow and, of course, that financial resources mattered: but it was equally important for them that they could speak of their experiences.

As they spoke to me about the familiar comforts of their old houses and the bonhomie that prevailed in their villages, there was frequent weeping. “Ghar jodte-jodte zindagi lag gai, ek minute mein ujaad diya. Unke dil bhi naa kaanpey (It took a lifetime to make our home but it was destroyed in a minute. Their hearts did not even tremble at this).” Women rued the loss of the jewellery and other items they had collected bit by bit for their daughters’ dowries. Teenagers and young children have had to drop out of school and have lost an academic year. Many girls and women who used to sew clothes for a living have lost their sewing machines and customers. Combined with their trauma, the loss of livelihood—and, generally, the inability to do anything productive with their time—has struck them hard. Women said their days just passed in a daze. They found it difficult sometimes to believe what had happened to them. Children still often woke up crying at night after having nightmares.

“Woh toh bas ek hawa thi.”

I ask little Zara, all of three years old, if she likes this house that her grandfather has rented. She shakes her head. “Would you like to go back to your old house?” No, she replies. “Why not?”  “Wahan meri gudiya ka palang jala diya (my doll’s bed was burnt there).” Her older cousin pitches in, “Mera basta bhi jala diya (my bag was also burnt).” I look towards their grandma. “They are right”, she says, “all the new and useful stuff was looted from our house and then they burnt the place down.”  “Have you been there since?” I ask her. “Yes, I went to the village to vote but couldn’t gather enough courage to go inside the house. I met some of my neighbours too. The boys said, ‘Chachi, ghar aaja, cha pee le’ (Aunty, come home, have tea). They used to play in my lap when they were mere babies. I asked them, ‘Ghar to tumne na bachaya, sab lut gaya, sab khatam ho gaya, ab cha kyon pilao ho?’ (You didn’t save my house, everything is looted, everything is finished, why do you ask me to tea now?) They said ‘Chachi, pata nahin kya ho gaya, us roz to kuchh hawa thi’. (Aunty, don’t know what happened, that day... it was in the air).”  

Eyewitnesses recount the story of an old man in Lisad village hacked to death on September 8, 2013. His body was never found. His daughter-in-law says, “He died because he refused to believe that he might be harmed. Whenever there was a death in the village, it was our Baba who would tie the wooden framework to carry the corpse for cremation. He said, they will do no harm to me.” His eldest son and daughter-in-law were also killed because they said they were responsible, as the eldest in the family, and could not just leave their house and cattle. Their bodies were also never found. Of a large joint family, two other sons and daughters-in-law were saved, as were several granddaughters, grandsons, their wives, and very young great-grandchildren, by a Hindu woman neighbour who warned them the previous night and told them to leave. “Raton-raat bhaag jao (Run away during the night),” she told her Muslim friend. I asked this family too if they had ever tried asking this neighbour who the killers were. They said they had asked her and others in the village, but “Everyone says, ‘Woh to hawa thi’ (it was in the air).

During my later visits and numerous conversations with Muslim victims of violence and forced displacement, I realised that the expression “ek hawa thi” had entered the local lexicon. For some it was an easy way out of a difficult question posed by neighbours whom they had betrayed or had not done enough to protect. For the victims it was the point where language failed them and injustice prevailed. Calling violence by another name is violence continued.

I was reminded of a short story in my school textbook about an old man who had no friends or relatives, nobody to speak to. Days would pass before he had an opportunity to speak. To amuse himself, he decided one day that he would call his bed ‘cupboard’ and his cupboard ‘bed’. So he said to himself, I will hang my coat in the bed and then lay down in the cupboard. This really amused him. He kept going and swapped many pairs of names. When that amused him no more he made the game more complex. So now he listened to music on bread, washed himself with the radio and ate the soap. Gradually, he forgot the original names of things and communication with him became increasingly difficult until it broke down completely. All I remember about the end of the story is that it was a tragedy. 

As a teenager I was intrigued by this story, but much later I realised that there were important lessons here to learn about language, meaning and reality. Why do we call things by specific names? The name of a phenomenon is not important in itself. What is important is the shared understanding of what that name signifies. Were the infamous and unfortunate events that took place in 2002 in Gujarat riots or genocide or pogrom? These labels do not merely label an event. Our choice of a label also exposes or hides from view the dynamics of violent incidents.

The articulation of the meanings behind our explanations is a domain that is fiercely contested in Muzaffarnagar-Shamli, not unlike other episodes of ethnic or communal violence. If anything, this contestation is becoming a misbalanced and fierce battle long after the actual violence halts. In the case at hand this is true of word-of-mouth communication at the grassroots, and also in the print, electronic, and social media.

Mullon ke ghar bhar diye”.

If you visited the relief camps immediately after the violence you would notice that they were inhabited only by Muslim. If you counted the people displaced from their villages and resettled elsewhere, you would find that they were all Muslims. The provision of relief, filing of the FIRs and award of compensation was so inadequate that the Supreme Court had to intervene. Many of the displaced people (but not all) have now received the five lakh rupees per family compensation (which is the lump sum offered to them by the UP government for being subjected to communal violence and contravention of their rights). People have received grossly inadequate compensation for the material damage to houses and household things. All these processes were constantly blighted by the local administration dragging its feet, and by the requirements of proving the damages, proving that a family was present in the village at the time of the violence, or (the most contentious) determining the ‘family unit’.

The loss of homes, loved ones, familiar lives, security, mental health, and savings is not taken into consideration. The possibility of justice seems bleak and compensation received falls way short of what is needed for starting a new life. Notwithstanding all this, the common refrain in conversations among Jats and other Hindus is that the Samajwadi Party government has filled the coffers of Muslims (“Mullon ke ghar bhar diye”).


But why should the prevalence of this blatant lie surprise anyone? It is common knowledge in the country that ‘doctoring’ of communal relationships was the strategy Amit Shah used to ‘engineer’ the BJP’s electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh. In plain English, it means that communal riots were utilised as a ‘strategy’ in electoral politics. So accustomed are we to this deep communalisation of our language that not many eyebrows were raised at scores of articles written since May 16, 2014 singing paeans to the success of this ‘strategy’. Why does this abuse of language, this inability to articulate the loss and pain of victims of violence, not shame us? Paying attention to this manipulation of terms and language is important because it is aimed at miscarriage of justice.

Earlier in this article I called this contestation for fixing meaning ‘misbalanced’ because on the one hand are the vicious Sanghi campaigners, whom we would be foolish not to credit for their exceptionally successful hate mongering. This is backed by the media, the administration and the general public lapping up their tales. On the other hand is the Muslim community experiencing the trauma of violence, death and displacement.  The violence or its threat not only results in their segregation into Muslim-only villages and neighbourhoods but also induces a social disarticulation. You don’t ‘see’ them, you don’t ‘hear’ them—for all practical purposes they are not ‘living’. This ‘social death’ allows for the victimisation of the community not to be viewed as a loss to the larger society and allows the cycle of violence and discrimination to continue.

I attended a hearing held by the National Minorities Commission on June 28 in Muzaffarnagar with activists from various NGOs and groups. The Commissioner, Saharanpur Division, the District Magistrates of Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut and Baghpat, and dozens of other officials were present. The District Magistrates presented reports on the progress made vis-à-vis inquiry into claims to damages, payment of compensation to the victims of violence and the displaced families, and efforts for the rehabilitation of displaced persons by government or non-government actors. The SIC (Special Investigation Cell) chief presented progress on the criminal cases pursued by the district police/administration.

How was the responsibility for governance and law enforcement discharged merely by statements from officials that they were doing their jobs? The husband of a rape victim testified that the perpetrators of the crime were roaming free in the village and, when the police came to seize their property, they made a farce of it by collecting household things from the houses of Muslims.

Nobody witness to the proceedings would say that the pertinent questions in the matter were not asked by the members of the commission. But there was no real push, no insistence that those responsible give real answers about what was keeping them from ensuring justice delivery. It was as if I was watching the theatre of the absurd. The cupboard was being called a bed and the bed became a cupboard.

If we lose the language of shared meaning, we are bound to end in the tragedy of silence. The experience of violence may be unalterable, but its impact on the psyche of the victims and survivors can be articulated, heard and responded to so as to act as a catalyst for an empowering process. What gives me hope in this situation is that the worst aspect of violence—it having been perpetrated by neighbours and well-known people —can keep open the possibility of dialogue, questioning and fixing responsibility. Although the communal fabric in rural western Uttar Pradesh is tattered, it will not be completely destroyed as long as people can question one another, as long as they insist on getting honest, straightforward answers. A larger tragedy can be averted if shared meanings are not lost in doublespeak.    


Post the riots, there is a need for the articulation of the trauma of the survivors or we will risk the social death of a segregated community
Ghazala Jamil Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews