We spent the day in the slums today, which is an experience that I will not soon forget. The first slum we visited was called Sanjaynagar and was a Hindu slum. We had an interesting, and at times tense discussion with the residents and then got a tour of the slum, which I was able to film with the help of my assistant cameraman, a young resident who attached himself to my side and showed me the best places to film. All of the lanes were tiny and the houses were packed in tightly. There was a certain dignity to the houses, but the situation in the slum was very miserable and the houses were so packed that most people had to do their cooking in the street, next to the streams of sewage. We had to hurry out of the slum, though when a local political official came. We headed on to a primarily Muslim slum that was built on the site of a graveyard.
The second two slums that we visited had many of the same problems, but they also had a very different character. Charthoda was built surrounding a cemetery, which, although the idea of a slum in a cemetery was a horrifying notion at first, actually gave it the feeling of having a little more open space in which to tend animals and to have kids play. However, this open space was on top of the graves themselves, which gave it an added tragic element. After Charthoda, we moved on to Odhav. This slum didn’t have the open space that Charthoda had but it also wasn’t as crowded as Sanjaynagar. The general problems of garbage everywhere, open sewage, lack of electricity (or limited electricity), poor schools, lack of space and internal divisions plagued all of the slums that we saw. There is a distinct hierarchy within the slum itself that reinforces the caste hierarchy in society at large. This is the societal force that is forcing people to live in these slums in the first place, but the residents are in no way challenging the notion of caste; they have divided themselves up much in the same way that the rest of society has been divided up.
Finally, we visited a Muslim community that had many families that had been relocated after the 2002 violence. We spoke with a man who described how his entire family had been murdered while he was in the hospital, recovering from an injury inflicted on him by one of the rioters. Two other women discussed losing husbands and family members and one young man talked about losing his father. The stories were heartbreaking and it was extremely painful to listen to. In many ways we have been desensitized to brutal violence by the fact that it so often appears in headlines and on the evening news, but hearing it first hand from a person sitting a few feet away from you was a truly devastating experience. I felt completely helpless with a painful desire to try and do something to ease the suffering of these people, but with the knowledge that there is nothing I would be able to do. When asked who was to blame for the violence, they very clearly stated that it was the current chief minister, Narendra Modi, but, very interestingly, the young man who we talked to last said that despite the fact that he understands that Modi was probably to blame for the 2002 riots, he still supports him. His argument, while it was most likely politically motivated, essentially stated that the only way for the Muslims to become a part of the modern development of Gujarat was to put the past behind them and declare their support for the orchestrator of the carnage 10 years ago. The way he delivered his point was hard to argue with, but it showed his powerlessness to fight against the greater forces of power that are at play in Gujarat. Through further discussion, we also realized that he very well may have been sent there as a representative of Modi’s political party, the BJP, specifically to feed us this line.
All of the experiences in the slums today were completely heartbreaking and this was probably the most emotionally difficult days of the trip. It wasn’t completely without hope, but the intensity of the manner in which people in the slums are so utterly and completely marginalized was extremely sobering.