They can’t wish her away

“I have never known a riot which has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence. There are reports everywhere of [the] gang-rape of young girls and women, often in the presence of members of their families, followed by their murder by burning alive.”

 -Harsh Mander, “Cry, the Beloved Country: Reflections on the Gujarat Massacre

Hindu Americans keep away from fellow-Indian Shabnam Hashmi. They shun hearing tales of gore. Gujarat is too pesky a mention for these smooth-speaking dudes who sell “secular” India and its Prime Minister to gullible Americans on Capitol Hill, Washington’s canonical think tanks, and at soirees arranged by swank sites such as the Asia Society.

Still, Hashmi-haters cannot wish her away. She’s resuscitated Vajpayee government’s engineered genocide in Gujarat and resurrected the ghastliness of women raped and burnt to death. Her chilling testimony of ethnic cleansing by the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and a slew of other Hindutva fascists like Shiv Sena make the most skeptical of Americans to drop their jaws!

The American media storied for going into a tizzy over one rape case, bombarding their viewers with interviews from the victim’s family and the whole neighborhood, stomached coolly the details of Gujarat gang rapes with a mere blip on their radar screens.

Now the inevitable has happened. The New York Times copiously carried a color spread on Gujarat recently with visceral details of Hindu mayhem and how they systematically killed over 3000 Muslims, brutally raped and burnt some 600 women and methodically destroyed all the businesses and homes of Muslims all over Gujarat. According to Hashmi, “they demolished 360 mosques and dargahs”.

What caused the conscience of NYT to be seared after a lapse of almost 5 months since Gujarat imploded? Talking to Shabnam Hashmi gave me an insight. On July 17, NYT’s correspondent Barbara Crossette heard Hashmi’s eloquent exposition and was visibly agitated at the lack of media coverage that Gujarat warranted. The NYT was jarred out of self complacency to see photos of burnt women like Kausar Bano, an 8-month-old pregnant victim whose unborn foetus could be seen clinging to the mother and incidents of gang rape where women were tortured and their breasts cut off before being burnt.

“Personally, I recorded 60 gang rape victims who described horrendous details of how they were stripped naked and then made to run for their lives with the mob following them and those who got caught were burnt alive.”

A week later, we saw NYT resonate Hashmi’s cold facts on Gujarat followed by one full column write-up on her by Crossette in which Hashmi was portrayed as a one-woman demolition team come to America to expose the fascist face of the Indian government and persuade Indian Americans not to bankroll charities here that fund the right-wing Hindu militants.

On the cards is yet another coup for Shabnam: setting up of an international tribunal comprising Indian and international women NGOs. Ideally, she wants Gujarat’s chief minister Modi to be in the dock like the Serb murderer Milosovich.

Having worked as a rights activist for over 20 years, Shabnam lives in Delhi with her husband and two children, a 15-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. She’s was here at the invitation of American Muslim Council (AMC), and has addressed around 25 gatherings: “the American women organizations have given me a full hearing and are driven enough to demand the setting up of an international tribunal in Gujarat.”

Belonging to a family with leftist loyalties, she says, “my father (Hanif Hashmi) was a freedom fighter who was jailed for 4 years by the British. As a teenager, I was brought up on stories of Gandhi and Nehru.” A favorite of young Shabnam was the Diary of Anne Frank.

One particular incident that spurred Shabnam to accelerate her rights campaign even at the risk of her life occurred in 1989 when a frenzied mob attacked and killed her brother Safdar during a street theater performance: “ There was a huge industrial strike in Delhi and its surrounding areas and Safdar and a group of 3 women were performing in support of the strikers when a politically instigated mob was let loose on them…he managed to save the women’s lives but was himself bludgeoned to death.”

The more hardline elements of the BJP and its affiliates, who emphasize Hindu rites rather than human rights have been thoroughly exposed by Hashmi who has irrefutable proof that the Gujarat killings were not a result of communal fighting as Vajpayee touts but a “cold-blooded”, “pre-planned” Hindu attack on the Muslims. “The RSS claims that their 52 Kar Saveks (workers) were killed in bogey “S-6” of the ill-fated train put on fire by a Muslim mob at Godhra that fuelled Hindu-Muslim riots. That is all lies. Only on August 19, the Indian Railway ministry refuted RSS’s claim by saying that according to their reserved passengers list, 42 out of 52 are alive and kicking!”

Further evidence of RSS’ concocted claims comes by looking at the photos of the burnt “S-6” bogey. “If the bogey was fully gutted to burn 56 RSS workers then how come the fans, the interior and exterior look unscathed?” According to her, the RSS themselves stage-managed the scene of murder by putting a pile of charred bodies one on top of each other (where they got hold of these bodies, none knows), locked the inside of “S-6” bogey to conveniently show to the world that Muslims were responsible for such a heinous crime.

What comes to mind is Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) when the Nazis unleashed a wave of pogroms against the Jews in 1938 blaming them for the assassination of a German diplomat. Besides, “the Hindu fascists under Modi’s (Gujarat’s chief minister) leadership planned the genocide months before and hoarded gas cylinders which disappeared from the market 15 days before the attack; trained their workers to first throw a gas cylinder at a home or business, once the gas leaked out then throw a petrol bomb to gut out the place completely.”

Interestingly, the women’s wing of RSS called Durga Vahini participated in the violence, “there are many eye-witness reports of these middle class women coming in their fancy cars to loot, some even burning other women.”

Shabnam Hashmi wants the huge amounts of money donated to right-wing organizations in India by Indian Americans and US charities to stop: “The RSS runs 30,000 schools which poison the minds of kids against Muslims who they say must be killed because they marry 4 wives and have lots of children that will soon convert the Hindus into a minority.”

She has no hope of an official US intervention because the “State Department well knows BJP’s complicity in the carnage. Their representatives were sitting in Delhi signing arms deals while Muslims were being killed in Gujarat. India is a very big market for US, they don’t want to upset the apple cart.”

What about the Indian Muslims themselves?

“I don’t see this as a Hindu-Muslim fight. Gujarat is the manifestation of an extreme fascist attack on secularism and the only way to fight the fascists is to galvanize support by the minorities and secular Hindus to fight them. It has to have a political backing.”

Shabnam Hashmi is an agnostic. “My parents were non-believers and they raised us as non-believers. My grandparents were Muslims and all I have is a Muslim name…nothing more…I don’t relate to any religion.”

She acknowledges that she’s fighting a losing battle, “because the Hindu-Muslim hatred has seeped in too deep and will take centuries before it dries out.”

Shabnam is back in New Delhi, but her son Sahir Raza, the 15-year old schoolboy from Delhi and amateur photographer who traveled to the riot-hit areas of Ahmedabad, Gomtipur and Mahendrapur in April 2002 and returned with a grim 96-frame slideshow capturing the barbarism, destruction and agony of Gujarat is in America to show his film: “And They Killed Him Again” which refers to the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi who, ironically, was a native of Gujarat. His own countrymen have succeeded in killing Gandhi again and again, as tensions between religious groups have led to large-scale violence, burying his message of amity and peaceful co-existence.

Sahir’s exhibit was first shown at Delhi’s Press Club of India to much critical acclaim. Since then, the exhibit has travelled across India and is now completing a tour of the United States.

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