Yes, like so many of us, I too postponed the moment of reckoning for two whole months. But until we touch them in the flesh, see them with our own eyes, hold their hands in our hands, hear their cries of despair, they remain a statistic in the morning paper, pawns in the games of politicians. They are far removed from us, creating no disturbance in our daily lives.
In the relief camp in Ahmedabad I am aghast at the numbers. I am deeply humbled that someone rushes to offer me cold water. How can I accept this when right at the entrance of the makeshift office, a 10 day-old baby lies on the bare floor beside its mother while the grandmother fans the flies off them in a gesture that speaks of both love and despair.
Despair is the flavour of the morning, it wafts across the compound perceptibly. Outside, hundreds of women sit on gunny sacks under a thin cotton canopy. It is 45 degrees and blisteringly hot. Not a fan in sight. The children run about with great abandon, mercifully gifted with amnesia. I think of our own pampered brood at home who have to be coaxed to eat.
The women think that I am some kind of neta to whom they can address their complaints. No, I try to tell them, I am only a kalakar. I put my arms around one woman who is weeping and 20 others just want a hug, to be comforted even if I can't offer them hope, justice, money, freedom. Only apologies for what all of us have allowed to happen. One by one the tales of horror and brutality unfold as each one tells her story. Every story is beyond the pale, unbelievable. But each re-telling is a catharsis, the only therapy available for trauma. What a miracle that they sit here weeping silently. One would have expected screams of anguish,... the madness of terrible grief for each one of them has lost someone beloved.
Realising the futility of my own tears, I move to the 'office' to talk to the very competent older inmates who are running it. The camp seems to be self-run with no sign whatsoever of any government representative. Apparently in this particular camp the 'beast of Belsen' is a police inspector, who lost a relative in a riot many years ago and is now the archetypal sadist cop. A few days ago, six young boys from the camps were rounded up in the middle of the night and carted off by the cops. Then there was a sudden, unprovoked tear-gas attack. An old woman died of fright and the children howled with pain in their eyes for nearly two days. The empty teargas shells were shown to us like trophies.
The good intentions of the managers notwithstanding, it is sheer bedlam in the camps. The women sit around the whole day under the shamianas, or out in the open in some camps, the kids run wild and the men hang around in sullen groups. Used to organising things in the navy, I immediately had a wish list. Better cleanliness, play groups for the kids, getting the women to help with the cooking, cleaning, serving etc. Perhaps some organized activity would help raise the morale of those who have already spent 60 days here with apathy turning to despair.
I am shocked that no norms have been laid down as to the minimum legal requirements of a refugee camp. (UNCHR, where are you?) Seventeen rupees per head. That's it. What about the norms laid down for space per head, medical attention, a roof overhead, insect repellents, cleaning materials, sterile drinking water? How many loos for how many people? What about bedding, sanitation, a place for people's belongings? Are they supposed to exist perpetually in temperature of between 40 and 45 degrees, sitting on gunny sacks? For example, how many full-time doctors are prescribed for a camp of 6,500 people? Every tenet of decent administration is being shamelessly flouted by the government.
If the government was capable of organising the Kumbh, surely it can do what is humane and correct here, even if belatedly? Where is our pride? If Mr Modi can't manage, he should hand over the camps to the army or an NGO, to be run like relief camps, not concentration camps.
Yet, despite the nightmarish conditions in the camps, the prospect of their closure is even more terrible. These are people who have lost everything - homes, breadwinners, jobs, possessions. If they don't get attacked by a hostile neighbour they will perish from sheer want. The question each one asks is, 'where will we go from here?' If there is even an iota of good intention on the part of the government, then efforts should be already on to document the situation statistically, and put in place a comprehensive rehabilitation plan. But that is doubtful. Let's declare the Gujarat situation a 'national calamity'. Maybe this will bring help and justice to the victims to match the great public outpourings of sympathy for the earthquake or Kargil.
I appeal to the government in the name of humanity to rise above both politics and religion at this grave and shameful moment in our history and bring some real solace to the victims of Godhra and its horrendous aftermath.