I was an intern back then. Having done my diploma in journalism and mass communication, i was working with a senior journalist to learn the tricks of on-ground reporting and developing contacts.My mentor was a veteran journalist, aged about 52 years. Everyone used to call him Haji sahab. He had gone on Haj with family twice and on both occasions used his contacts in Haj committee to get Haj subsidy. He was a smart fellow. Always getting what he wanted just by approaching one of his numerous contacts. Haji sahab was living in Gaziabad with his parents and two sons, both married and had kids. His only daughter Zuveria, whom he loved very much was married into a Bhuj based family, however she along with her husband was living in Dubai. I was living in a hostel in Noida. Life was tough for me. Brutal heat and cold of Delhi region, food in hostel mess, round the clock readiness to run for the story and above all, rudeness of Delhites. Guess its a cultural thing, it takes getting used to and in time i did get used to it.
26th Jan 2001, was a lazy day. Haji sahab had told me he was going with family to see the Republic day parade and i had decided to sleep as long as i can. I had come back from Bulandshaher the previous day and wanted to use the rare day of peace, sleeping. It had been 6 months in the city and I still had very few friends in city, Infact my neighbors in the hostel who were mostly students and the cook in hostel mess, Pradeep were my only friends. They were all Hindus. At around 4 PM, I was woken up by Pradeep for lunch. Watching TV in the mess, i first came to know of the Bhuj earthquake. Channels were saying hundreds might have died. The next day i encountered an extremely worried Haji sahab. He had been trying to reach his daughter’s in laws in Bhuj without success. Too worried to work, he sent me home for the day. By now media estimate of victims had swelled into thousands. Back at the hostel few of my neighbors were talking about doing something. We spent the day surfing channels and it seemed with each passing hour the tragedy was growing. By evening we had started a drive to collect money for the victims. By next day we had about Rs 9700 collected that we intended to donate to PM’s relief fund. I even approached Haji sahab for donation who was worried sick. He wanted to go to Bhuj but being a diabetic, idea of him going into a disaster zone was firmly struck down by his family. He said he was willing to donate Rs 10000 if anyone was going to Bhuj. That’s when the idea struck me. I proposed i can go there and cover the disaster as a reporter and check on well being of his relatives. I had his approval and the donation. Back at the hostel my friends agreed to join me as well. Surprisingly, Pradeep, the cook also wanted to join us. Said he earned enough paap by embezzling funds from hostel mess and wanted to earn some punya. We were getting ready to embark on this journey. TV reported a special train was announced by government to ferry people from Delhi to Ahmadabad free of charge. Things were getting into place. We had collected about Rs 21000 after pooling in our money as well. Pradeep had arranged another cook for the time he will be away. He had prepared 100 food packets which we intended to distribute among the needy. We were a group of five and we all pledged we would not spend a single paisa from the donations we had received on ourselves, no matter what.
Despite all the urgency we could only start on 30th night. We reached New Delhi railway station hoping to catch the special train to Ahmadabad which was to leave at 10PM. Unfortunately despite our frantic efforts we could not find that train. No one seemed to have heard of this train. How typical of Indian government efforts, mired in ineffective bureaucratic logjams. We asked a TT standing next to a Ahmadabad bound train. His response was “I know people like you hoping for a free ride, don’t you dare enter my compartment or i will throw you all off the running train.” We could not spend money on tickets, every single penny was for victims. And so despite, the TT’s warning we boarded that train. It was a sleeper bogey. We spread some newspaper on the floor and settled near door. In about couple of hours the angry TT was staring at us. He was hurling choicest of abuses,insulting us. I was upset at the humiliation but the students somehow were unaffected and just kept arguing with TT till he left us alone. Most passengers in the bogey didn’t believe we were going to Ahmadabad to help. To them we were a nuisance but no one dared to confront a group of 5 men.
The journey was excruciatingly long. We reached Ahmadabad by 8:30 PM next day. My first reaction was that of surprise. Going by media reports, I was expecting to see some damage in Ahmadabad as well but the city was unscathed. We were confused about what to do next. I called Haji sahab who gave contact and address of few NGOs engaged in relief work. We visited their offices. Some seemed as if they’ve been closed for last few years while others sounded extremely casual about relief work. We had not traveled this far to give the relief money to someone who wasn’t serious about utilizing it in a fair way. Finally someone suggested going to RSS office as they were heavily engaged in relief works. I had my apprehensions. I had heard enough about RSS VHP Bajrang Dal etc during Ayodhya movement. But i did not oppose. The RSS office was abuzz with activity. A lot of people were preparing big packets of relief material. A person said we’ve enough volunteers in the field, you can donate your stuff here if you want. Right ! give money to RSS ? never. I thought. Gladly, everyone agreed the money will be better utilized if we managed it ourselves. The RSS guy told us the epicenter of devastation was Bhuj and maximum assistance was needed there. We took an overnight bus to Bhuj. Food packets from Pradeep kept us going. I woke up at about 3 AM. Absolute darkness all around us, the bus was bouncing over cracked roads. Someone said, there used to be a village here.
About 6:30 AM, our bus rolled into Bhuj bus station. Wasn’t much left of it. There was devastation all around. Broken almirahs, computers, documents strewn around. The main road originating from bus stand towards town was deserted. Not a single building stood intact. There was debris all around. In balcony of few buildings one could see clothes hanging as they were hung out to dry on 26th morning. It looked like a scene lifted straight from a Hollywood movie. First thing my friends did was relieve themselves. They managed to get plastic bottles and there was plenty of space for attending to nature’s call. I couldn’t. It’s a personal thing. Some of you can relate i hope. Well we inquired about relief camps and headed to one setup in a college ground nearby. It turned out to be VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) camp. I could see a big crowd waiting for food there. Muslim women in their dirt covered torn burqas along with their children queued up in a line. We thought it was a good place to distribute our food packets, however the vegetable had turned stale. Poori and pickle were still eatable. We checked with VHP guys and they were only too happy to allow us to distribute food we had. People didn’t mind our poori and pickle packets and within 15 minutes we were done distributing our packets. I wanted to go to the locality where Haji sahab said his relatives lived but the VHP guy said that area is completely devastated. He suggested we should go to Bhuj Military base where most of the rescued people have been camped. The Bhuj Military camp was full of injured and homeless people rescued in past few days. I was able to locate Haji sahab’s relatives who were rescued 2 days back. A lot of people in camp were Muslims and each had a tragic tale to tell. Most of them had lost loved one’s. We started distributing some money among people. We came across RSS volunteers who were bringing quake affected people to camps. I also saw the little girl who was rescued alive after being 6 days under rubble. She had become a celebrity and i could see media flocking her.
It was getting late. We wanted to cover more camps. Someone suggested a place called Mandvi had suffered more devastation. We caught the overnight bus. First place we went to was Haji Hasan hospital. It was chaotic, the hospital was full of injured people. We distributed some money when an angry doctor stopped us. He said we’ll end up creating stampede as there are large number of desperate penniless people. We still had some money which we wanted to ensure reaches the needy. The auto driver told us about a medical camp in his village. We reached that hospital which was nothing but a school converted into a makeshift hospital. When doctors learnt we were from Delhi, everyone stood up in attention pose, They had mistaken us for bureaucrats. We explained our position and said we wanted to help. Upon inquiring, the people there said they’d prefer food instead of money. One shop that we managed to find was selling a Rs 5 biscuit for Rs 50. Ghafoor the shopkeeper was as ruthless about profits as nature was when earthquake hit the region. Sparing some money for travel back home we spent the entire amount buying eatables for the people in that hospital. There are so many stories from this trip that i wanted to tell but i do not want it to turn into a memoir. There is a beautiful message that i got from this trip, one that serves me to this day. Oh, and by the way on our our ride back to Delhi a bunch of TTs argued among themselves, each wanted us to sit in his bogey. We were still ticket less. This time they had believed us when we told we were volunteers who came to help.
Today I hear a lot about 2002. From Mullahs, Intellectuals, Media both Indian and Foreign, Liberals, Seculars and God knows who else. Almost everyone singularly blames RSS, VHP etc.I haven’t heard most of them talk about 2001 which was a far bigger tragedy where Hindus-Muslims in tens of thousands died. I did not see any of those champions of humanity serving there. Muslims, similar to those who today outrage and hate Modi for loss of Muslim lives in 2002, were out there looting other Muslims like vultures. Unfortunately none of the liberal secular narrative unfolded there. What i saw there was much maligned RSS and VHP folks serving humanity without any bias or hatred. They didn’t show any hesitation in helping, be the person a bearded Muslim or a burqa clad women. How many liberals or Muslims can maintain such neutrality when they see a man in Khakhi shorts or sporting a tilak. 2002 riots were unfortunate. One that was provoked because of a cold blooded planned burning of Hindus. In a state where riots started on incidents like bicycle collisions and cricket matches, this was a grave provocation. In a moment of madness, hundreds of innocents lost their lives. Anyone who sits on judgement about 2002 riots should ponder and think. Imagine how it would feel to be burnt alive, Imagine if it happened to your parents or your child, Imagine if they were blamed to have foolishly burnt themselves. In the land of mahatma not everyone is Gandhi. Our history is replete with Hindu Muslim riots across the length and breadth of this country and yet for some reason Media sees Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb everywhere else except Gujarat. We will move on only when we let the pain of past go. It’s time to let 2002 go. Courts have already done so. In 2008 i visited Bhuj and Mandvi again, and i was surprised at the transformation that had taken place. It was here that Haji sahab’s in-law told me of a weird incident. While being rescued by Army, the local Maulvi was upset that the Army men, all Hindus, had to touch his wife in order to rescue her. Think what would these kind of people say about 2002 riots.
On Modi and RSS i’m not asking you to change your opinion. I’ve formed my opinion based on my experiences and i’d request you to do the same. Don’t let some random guy on TV shape your opinion. I’ve seen many preachers of high morality turn into spineless cowards when the time comes to practice what they preach. This country is too precious to be held hostage by a narrow skewed version of what happened in 2002. A lot of blood was spilled by freedom fighters in the hope of seeing the glorious India of yesteryear revived again. I have every hope that despite all odds India will prevail.