Sample Chapters – Chapter 13

The organisations that made up the Shanthi Samudaya coalition were all engaged in different sectors of work, but institutionally they could be bifurcated into two types. There were a couple of very large international NGOs that had branches all over India and the world. Their branches in Gujarat were part of the coalition, and wielded disproportionately large influence over the direction the coalition took. They provided most of the relief funds in addition to providing administrative leadership and oversight but weren’t very entrenched with the local population that those funds were meant to serve.

Apart from them were numerous, much smaller, community organisations including charities, civil liberties groups, Muslim community organisations and small NGOs who all had strong local networks. They were the ones who implemented most of the relief, legal, and human rights efforts that were planned by the coalition.

Mani acted as one of the de facto organizational heads of the coalition, even though it wasn’t supposed to have a leader, per se. There were a couple of others who also had leadership roles, but since Mani was the person I had interacted with first, it was natural to work with him as the primary coordinator. It seemed quite ad hoc, but I soon also realized that Mani did indeed handle a large part of the coordination for the camps in Gomtipur. Abhay and Maria dealt with a different coordinator, who was quasi-in-charge of the camps in Vatwa.

The relationship between Mani and I had grown into a friendly one between experienced warhorse and avid greenhorn. He saw that I was hard-working and willing to learn. Granted, those traits qualified me to be little more than a well-trained sheep dog. But when he realized that I was one of the few volunteers, like Abhay and Maria, who planned on staying for more than just a couple of weeks, he seemed to respect that perseverance despite my blundering first steps. He even hugged me when he saw me come back from the camps a couple of times; patting my cheek with paternalistic affection, the way many elders in India do to young whippersnappers. He seemed to regard the organic team that had developed between Vijay, Nasir and I, quite highly. He mentioned us to newer volunteers a couple of times as people to watch and learn from. I felt proud each time he did that. It was also useful to be on Mani’s good graces. He was crucial to ensuring that we got materials ready and work done on time without too many questions or bureaucratic oversight that hampered progress.

We soon learnt how to play the game efficiently.

I found out that in order to get funds for any of the activities we undertook in the camps, we needed to requisition for them directly, either from Mani or one of the financial coordinators of Shanthi Samudaya. All of them worked for one of the large NGOs. However, in order to get the work done, we always coordinated it with one or more of the community groups depending on their strengths and the kind of work that was required. This was the most crucial link that folks like Vijay, Nasir and I played – get the materials and funding from the big NGOs, and funnel them to the smaller community organizations that had the best local grassroots networks. One such small organization that I found myself immensely inspired by was a tiny workers’ rights group based in the heart of the old city.

Maria had recommended that I contact them for the work in Gomtipur. It was founded and headed by a Muslim woman named Nasreen. It’s rather generic name was the Community Development Trust. Vijay, Nasir, and I went to meet her to start a livelihood-generation program that we were trying to coordinate in Gomtipur as part of a larger project of Shanthi Samudaya.

We met her at her office. Her beautiful, weathered face radiated strength from behind a worn out desk in a sparse office. She pointed the potential pitfalls with accuracy, and highlighted the issues we needed to be wary of as we conducted the project.

“The main issue is to ensure that those with the highest need get the first instalment of livelihood materials.” Nasreen said with poise. “Also, we will need to do some dividing up by trade. So we should cull this information from the surveys that you have already been conducting. Let’s ensure that we have a plan for those who will not get livelihood materials immediately because they will justifiably be angry…so make sure you hold a community meeting in all the camps and be very honest about the livelihood scheme, how we’re going about it, and answer all questions in a calm manner. It can get quite raucous, so we have to be prepared.”

She was intelligent and grounded in a refreshingly forthright manner. I was quite enchanted by her strength. The three of us nodded along as she spoke, while I took some detailed notes. Vijay and Nasir only understood bits and pieces of what she was saying, since she started speaking in English and none of us stopped her to request that she speak in Hindi.

She continued, “Before we do all this of course, we should make sure that we get clear numbers on what materials we need, and the quantity, from Shanthi Samudaya. That way we’ll be in the best position to bring everything to the community in a forthright manner. Whatever we do, we should be absolutely honest about how much there is, and how long it will take to get the rest of the livelihood materials for residents who don’t get anything in the first instalment. This is why we need to also ensure that a proper needs assessment is done.”

I asked a few questions on the logistics of the whole project, and we worked on the next steps that needed to be taken. It felt good to know that the project would be in partnership with a person of such ability and honesty. As the meeting wound down, the discussion eventually veered towards, of course, the carnage that had taken place.

The conversation quickly shifted to Hindi. Nasreen spoke about the hell that transpired. Her tone became darker.

“We would get phone calls every minute about this person who got killed or that family that got burnt. It was madness.” she recalled, eyes looking elsewhere as she went back to that time.

“My sister and I were so scared, but we still had to do our work. We tried to save as many families as we could, but it was not much.” she said with resignation.

Nasir asked, “Nasreenbehen what was the kind of work your group did during the dhamaal? Is there anything that could be done now after the carnage?”

“What could be done Nasirbhai?” she replied. “It was an emergency. The only thing we were concerned with was saving as many lives as we could. Since the dhamaal none of our regular projects have re-started. Now all we do is relief work, and also trying to help with the human rights campaign.”

Vijay nodded his head in acknowledgment, “That’s so true Nasreenbehen, all the NGOs in the area are only thinking about relief, relief, relief. I hope that once this relief work gets over, we can also do other forms of work.”

Nasreen nodded.

Inshallah that will happen.” she added, looking up to the sky. “But even then, whatever work we do will move towards rehabilitation. So even if some NGO is working on health issues, their work will now have to cater to the survivors. And with this legal campaign? All of us know how slow the justice system can move here, and that too in Gujarat, these bastards are there even in the courts. God alone knows how long it will take and what sort of struggles will be needed.”

I asked, “How do you think your organization will cope with all of this now Nasreenbehen? It seems like so much for the smaller NGOs to take on.”

She replied in English, nodding in agreement, “Very true Jayram. There are multiple spaces that we have to negotiate. For instance, we still have to continue applying for government grants. You see…not all of the state has been taken over by the Hindu fascists, so we have to try to use those avenues to support the work. Also larger NGOs, with massive budgets, need us. Without us, what work can they do? They don’t have any field experience, no community networks, nothing.”

She looked down at her desk, shaking her head with a cynical half-smile.

“When doing this kind of work, all the romanticism of this work goes away.” she continued. “We have to do what we have to do in order to get the work done. The larger institutions have the funds, and they want to show that work is getting done, so need to work with us. We are able to do that kind of work, but cannot access the kinds of international funding that they can and so need to work with them. It might be social work, but it’s also a bit like a business deal. If our heads are in the clouds, we won’t get anything done, we’ll just be talking.”

I had seen this resigned rationality in other activists, and it helped ground me. Nasreen was wise and experienced. Like Maria, she had a way of being commandingly intelligent in word and deed without being authoritarian – a quality I’d found almost solely in women anywhere in the world, probably because they hadn’t been socialized into domineering masculinity. But unlike Maria, it didn’t seem like Nasreen was the kind of person one could joke around with much; she had a hardened edge to her being. She looked like a workaholic, and someone who had seen too much, one of those unsung heroes who did amazing work but buried the trauma of their experiences deep inside them. It was hard not to be drawn to her seething beauty.

The conversation was drawing to an end. We made plans to meet again and reiterated the next steps that needed to be taken. We got up and said our goodbyes to Nasreen with deep respect. We were in the presence of someone who deserved at least that much. As we got ready to leave, I asked her one last question in English, hoping to end our meeting on a positive note.

“Nasreenbehen…if you don’t mind my asking,” I ventured, “you had said that you and your sister were so scared when the violence was happening, and yet you continued to work in the community. May I ask where you found that strength?”

Nasreen replied, with the same composure she displayed throughout the conversation, “My sister and I each carried a small vial of poison with us every day. We decided that if the mobs came to get us, all they would get would be our dead bodies and not us.”

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