What happens when you are poor and get displaced during a violent conflict in this country, asked human rights activist Farah Naqvi, when I interviewed her this week. After a moment's pause, she said that one becomes part of the "great homeless story of India."
That is where 200 Muslims families were probably heading before they were pulled into a unique project, which got them designing and building their own houses, three years after they were rendered homeless by the religious violence that consumed the hinterlands of western Uttar Pradesh. After living in rows of indistinguishable tents and tarpaulins, they developed two new settlements into a parallel universe of sorts, where no two houses look alike, and each one is a reflection of its inhabitants.
"You and I don't have houses that look the same so why should they. All of us exercise agency over our lives," Naqvi told me, while discussing the two-year project which she completed with the help of three civil society groups, Sadbhavna Trust in Lucknow, Vanangana in Chitrakoot and Hunnarshala Foundation in Kutch.
More than 60 people were killed and tens of thousands of Muslims displaced in the autumn of 2013, when communal riots broke out in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts, with the worst violence erupting in the countryside. Not only have these two settlements acted like an anchor for these 200 Muslim families, this project highlights a serious problem in our country: India has no laws or policies in place to rehabilitate those displaced by violent conflict within its borders.
STATE IS MIA
What is tragic is that once the state fails in its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm, all that the state and central governments do is put a price tag on everything, be it death or injury or loss of property. The money doled out as compensation in the aftermath of large-scale violence is seldom enough to begin life anew. And, the state does little to acknowledge the enormous emotional and mental trauma endured by those who lose their near and dear ones, their homes, and often, their entire history.
There is no one to ask whether the displaced have found a way to earn a living again or whether their children are attending schools again. Often, these children fall so far behind in their studies that they are too ashamed to go to school anymore. There is no one to help the displaced recover vital documents such as ration cards and voting cards.
"These are people who have gone through a violent storm, so how do you help them recover a sense of control over their lives," asked Naqvi. She said that the idea behind getting the displaced to design their own houses and put them together "brick by brick" was to give them control.
When I asked Naqvi what stood out about the houses, she replied that even the kitchen slabs were built taking into account the height of the women who would work there. Not only did the women design what she described as "gender sensitive houses," they decided how much construction material was needed, took deliveries, and did the manual work -- all activities traditionally done by menfolk.
Naqvi said that women from these 200 Muslim families had acquired greater mobility and control over their lives than ever before. "You have to encourage, encourage, encourage," she said.
"IT WAS JUST SO UNJUST"
If you can't trust your friends and neighbours, who even for a few wretched moments considered attacking you, there really is no going back to a cozy village ecosystem. Many simply don't return because they are asked to drop criminal complaints against their attackers. The irony of the situation is that the local administration pays compensation to those who confirm that they can't go back to their villages. This is a tragic admission of the state's failure to guarantee the safety of its own citizens.
Naqvi has vivid memories of the terror on the faces of those had nowhere to go, but were forced to leave the camp in Loi -- where they had pitched tents and tarpaulin after fleeing their villages -- when the government demolished it. "It was so unjust," she recalled.
Three years on, Naqvi hoped that the diversity of the team -- comprising Hindus, Dalits, Muslims, and tribals -- that had helped the displaced families of Muzaffarpur and Shamli, will also give them an alternative and more expansive idea of India. "We are India, and this is the idea of India," she said.
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