Field Notes: A Violent Past & Unbreathable Present In Gujarat 


The start of our reporting on the 2022 Gujarat election was difficult. We found residents of the Muslim-majority neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad reluctant to talk about the dance of democracy. Tired and disheartened on 24 November, we sat inside the Jama Masjid to rethink our reporting plan. 

Our map showed Citizen Nagar was close.  We knew it was a resettlement colony for Muslim families who had fled the massacre in Naroda Patiya during the Gujarat riots in 2002. More recently, we had read about its proximity to a landfill and how 20 years on, those who had survived the violence were battling toxic chemicals and smoke from the mountain of trash and surrounding factories. 

The stories of despair and ruin were repeated by our auto driver, who dropped us on the road to the colony.

As we stood watching the smoke coming out of the landfill, we were joined by a boy named Tabrez and his friends. Soon, they were pretending to be television reporters, using their cricket bats as mics and calling the mountain of trash “Mount Abu”. As they walked around the landfill, the children told us they often climb to the top and search for toys or scraps to sell. The foul smell of the stagnant water and burning garbage are still with us. 

After descending, we spoke with women in the neighbourhood. One of them left, saying, “Nothing is going to change.” A woman named Sheena told of her life before the communal violence that claimed the lives of 1,000 people in Gujarat, the vast majority of them Muslims. She said her daughter was three years old when it happened. “Sometimes, she wakes up in the middle of the night, and I have to calm her down,” she said. 

As Muslim families spoke of their lives before 2002, we felt transported in time. This was no longer an election story. 

When we returned to our hotel room, we heard home minister Amit Shah’s speech, where he said the BJP government in Gujarat had brought “permanent peace” to the state by teaching a lesson to the rioters. 

One evening at the Sabarmati riverfront, we met a popular anchor from a mainstream Hindi news channel. When we spoke of our visit to Citizen Nagar, Juhapura, and other Muslim localities widely regarded as ghettos, the advice was to move on and cover other stories.

As journalists, we have realised stories need to be told not only because people in a democracy have a right to know, but less fortunate people have the right to be heard. 

On our next visit to Citizen Nagar, we wanted to talk to people about Shah’s speech but never got the chance. That day, we met patients battling cancer, asthma and a young woman who had recently been hospitalised for dengue. We realised the survivors of the Naroda Patiya massacre were facing a different battle, one with diseases, toxic drains, unbreathable air and unhygienic living conditions. 

Still, we came away thinking the scars of Gujarat violence were more painful to the Muslim families of Citizen Nagar than the fatal mountain of trash they live next to 20 years later. Irony was its name. It is no place for citizens. 

You can read Aquilur Rahman and Vipul Kumar’s full story here.

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