Our last visit to a family targeted by hate violence in this phase of the Karwan was to a single Dalit woman Dahiben in Karola village in the tribal Panchmahals district of Gujarat, who has been persecuted as a witch or daakan in Gujarati for a more than a dozen years since her husband died. But this is also the story of a woman who spiritedly fought back, and overcame.
When we set out on this journey, we expected to meet families hit by lynching, Dalit atrocities, and communally driven state violence. But our feminist hosts first in Rajasthan and then in Gujarat reminded us that along with religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis, women, especially single women, continue to be battered by a medieval violence, by being branded as witches.
Dahiben was just 30 years old when her husband suddenly died, leaving her with two young sons. No one had detected any previous grave illness, and his death was sudden and immediate. From what she described to us, it sounded like a classic heart attack. But her husband’s older brother was convinced that his sister-in-law Dahiben was a daakan or witch, and she had brought the death upon her husband through her diabolic witchcraft. Since then, she was blamed for every misfortune, illness or death in the family, even when a nephew took ill in distant Bangalore.
Her husband had earned his livelihood as a part-time sanitation worker in a public veterinary hospital, and after his death, she inherited his job. The salary was as little as 350 rupees a month, but it was precious in helping her feed her children.
However, her brother-in-law continued to harass her, labelling her a witch everywhere she went. He frequently followed her to her place of work, and abused her. Finding her alone anywhere, he would try to force himself sexually on her. His wife became paralysed and he attributed this adversity also to her evil witchcraft. He performed many dramatic public exorcisms. He also stalked her in her home, a small earth hut which her husband had built in the fields he jointly held with his brothers. He demanded that she abandons her home, as she was destroying her husband’s family with her witchcraft. She argued back feistily that if she was indeed a witch, why would she leave him alive? She said she would never leave the home her husband had built, or his share of the land which she held for her two sons, whatever happened.
One day he accosted her as she was walking to work at the veterinary hospital. Screaming that she was a witch who must be destroyed, he hit her on her head three times with a hockey stick. She fell to the ground, her skull bleeding profusely, and her spine painfully injured. A shopkeeper phoned for an ambulance. She spent 20 days in hospital, with 24 stitches on her head. She recovered painfully. Her older son dropped out of school, and resolved that he would not let her out of his sight. He found work for both of them, making packing boxes in a milk cooperative, so that she would not have to go anywhere alone. They go to work together, and return together.
Anandi is a tribal and women’s rights organisation that comes to the aid of women who are branded as witches. With their help, they were able to get a police case registered against her attacker. But he was arrested only for a day and immediately got bail. He was an influential man in the village, a patwari.
He is unrepentant even today, perhaps convinced that his continuing misfortunes are caused by her witchcraft, or perhaps wishing to expel his brother’s widow from the land her husband jointly held with his brothers. Whatever the reason, he continues to stalk her, humiliating her publicly as a witch each time, demanding that she leaves her home and land, and threatening this time to ensure that he kills her. But she has two fine and protective grown sons, and the many meetings organised by Anandi with the local community have resulted in greater local support than we have encountered in any instance during the Karwan.
Today was the last day of the second phase of the Karwan. We arrived late at night earlier in Godhra. The day began with a meeting at the Gandhi Ashram in Godhra. The meeting was significant for two reasons. The first was that it was the burning of a train compartment at Godhra station tragically killing its Hindu travellers more than 15 years earlier that have set in motion of a cycle of hate violence that has not ended until today. The second was that the Gandhi Ashram in Godhra was established exactly 100 years back, in 1917, by the Mahatma, and he often held his prayer meetings, for peace between people of diverse faiths and for his work to fight untouchability, in the same hall with a high tiled roof in which we had gathered a century earlier.
Many friends today reject Gandhi because of his opposition to untouchability but not to caste. On this I find myself entirely with Ambedkar, who believed that untouchability is not an aberration of caste but is intrinsic to caste, and that social equality and fraternity requires not the reform but the demolition of caste. However I still love and revere Gandhi as the bravest fighter for an India built on the foundations of love and mutual respect and good will. I thought often during our travels of what we believe was Gandhi’s finest hour, the last months of his life. Think of it. A million people had died in Hindu-Muslim riots, the country had been torn apart in a frenzy of hate, trainloads of people were slaughtered in trains travelling in both directions, and angry refugees were returning in millions from what was now Pakistan with terrifying stories of communal bloodletting, loss and betrayals.
And yet amidst all of this Gandhi still had the courage to speak unwaveringly of love, unity and equal citizenship as the only legitimate basis of Indian nationhood, as he walked alone in places where hatred was at its pinnacle, like Naokholi and the country’s capital Delhi smouldering with hate. It is this radical love to which the Karwane Mohabbat has tried to pay small and modest tribute, therefore we were both inspired and sobered to sit in the same hall in his Ashram, as we paid tribute to the audacious fearless courage of his love, in a town that had become the epicentre of hate politics, exactly one hundred years after him.
In the Karwan, we lustily shout out the slogan Jai Bhim. But we like to follow this immediately with Jai Gandhi. In both these great icons we find pathways to love, to fraternity, to a sisterhood and brotherhood of all peoples. Jai Bhim! Jai Gandhi!
And here ended the second phase of the utterly extraordinary journey of the Karwane Mohabbat. A small but audacious effort to offer a garland of empathy across many parts of our troubled land. A tiny lamp lit in a tempest of hate.
Did it accomplish anything? None of my wonderful fellow-travellers, humsafars – mostly half my age or less, but some older – have been left untouched by this odyssey. Of this I am sure. They would continue to carry the painful stories they heard on their souls. But it will take a long time for us to decide if this did in the end make any sense.
Of one thing, though, we are sure. That our travels did offer precious solace to the more than fifty families we met across India who were struggling often very alone with the consequences of incredible hate and colossal state injustice. This alone makes the voyage of love worth its while for us.
We wanted to appeal also to the public conscience, and to try to accomplish this, many humsafars have already begun to tell the stories they heard and saw, and plan to continue to do so, with pictures, videos and words. In order to inform and appeal to our sisters and brothers across the country, to care, to speak out, and to resist.
Where we had the least impact in many places was to appeal to the conscience of the majority community in many local areas that we visited. There is a stunning, numbing lack of remorse in the majority communities wherever hate violence has unfolded. But we still take heart that not just stones and footwear were thrown at us, but rose petals, in so many places that we journeyed, by ordinary people who joined our Karwan of love.
Our Karwan will not end here. It has much work to do. For justice and healing of the families whose lives we touched. To chronicle our troubled times of engineered and pervasive hate. And to find ways to fight this, bravely and resolutely, with justice and love.