The release of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case in August and the return of the 11 men to their village Singvad hits harder upon considering what this means for the survivors of the communal conflagration.

For survivors, this was the inevitability of having to cross paths again with those who had attacked their families. Singvad is an eight- to ten-minute walk from Randhikpur, the site of the horrific crime. Not surprisingly, several Muslims are reported to have fled their village when the convicts were released.

Quite like the rapists of Bano, the perpetrators of rioting and mass violence anywhere in the world are usually insiders – they rarely travel far from their own homes. Where violence is carefully planned, the involvement of insiders makes strategic sense as they play a key role in identifying victims and navigating escape routes for attackers.

All 11 convicts in the Naroda Patiya killings in Ahmedabad, for example, lived not more than half a kilometre from the victims’ residences – they were “born, brought up or have their business places in the area of Naroda Patiya”. Ninety-seven Muslims were killed in the Naroda Patiya locality during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Similarly, two of the most publicised convictions in the anti-Sikh violence of 1984 were of Naresh Sehrawat and Yashpal Singh, both of whom lived in close proximity to their victim Hardev Singh.

What is more disturbing is that many of these insiders are neighbours who had previously coexisted with their victims in apparent harmony – Sehrawat and Yashpal Singh were friends with Hardev Singh. This is true for India as much as for the rest of the world, for example, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Srebrenica massacre, the anti-Tamil attacks in Sri Lanka and others.

However, not everyone can flee to safer neighbourhoods. India has an abysmal record of convictions for rioting. In what seems perfunctory riot investigation, thousands of cases submitted to Indian courts are closed, then reopened, and closed again for want of systematic evidence. Many perpetrators are never even tried.

The first convictions in the anti-Sikh pogrom, which claimed 2,000 lives within a week in Delhi in 1984, only came about two decades later. In relation to the scale of the violence, the conviction of 88 people barely scratched the surface. The Mumbai riots of 1993, which claimed 900 lives, resulted in the conviction of only three people as of 2017. Large-scale massacres, like Nellie in Assam in 1983 – when 2,000 Muslims were killed during the movement against “foreigners” – have been completely forgotten.

In the absence of convictions, the state finds no obligation to relocate victims who are usually the poor and have little means to relocate on their own. For years, many are forced to live alongside the very neighbours who attacked their family and looted their property, with no legal or social recognition of their guilt.

In the rare instance that perpetrators are convicted, many are released early – quite like the Bilkis Bano case, the number of convictions in the Naroda Patiya massacre had come down to 12 by 2019 from 32 in 2012.

Survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots weep inside a house that was burnt and damaged in the riots at Gulbarg Society, during the commemoration of its 12th anniversary, in Ahmedabad in February 2014. Credit: Reuters.

When there are no convicts, one can only speculate who participated in the violence based upon legal data available on the accused and witness testimonies. In my study of affidavits – publicly available – filed with the Justice Misra Commission of Inquiry after the attack on Sikhs in 1984, 69% of the 167 accused in the sample came from the same neighbourhood as the victim.

For Ahmedabad, nearly half of the 240 accused, on whom I have data from legal and police records, came from the same neighbourhood as their victim and 33% from within half a kilometre.

Many had shared cordial, even warm, relationships previously. Not all the accused are perpetrators, of course, but many were – as both rioters and victims in Ahmedabad confirmed to me during interviews. Even today, they live as neighbours “cordially”.

Of course, there have been several instances of neighbours rescuing neighbours, even at the cost of their own lives. I found this during the anti-Sikh and the anti-Muslim violence, although rescues were much higher in 1984 than in 2002 indicating, probably, the long history of theological and political compatibility of Hindus with Sikhs than with Muslims. Rescues are, however, the more anticipated behaviour especially where neighbours had coexisted peacefully earlier, attacks are not.

The implications of sharing everyday spaces with one’s attacker are double-edged. Living in close proximity with perpetrators of violence can increase the possibility of violence recurring – there is greater opportunity to find targets easily.

Crucially though, living in close proximity with someone who has attacked your family but never been indicted for it can be socially and psychologically scarring. Victims of violence in India have no recourse to even restorative justice strategies that have been used, for instance, in Rwanda’s gacaca courts, a community justice system where perpetrators could be publicly identified and shamed, even if not eventually convicted.

A riot survivor walks through the rebuilt Naroda Patiya neighbourhood in Ahmedabad in March 2009. Credit: Reuters.

In Ahmedabad, in places where coexistence was inevitable, survival was about maintaining superficially cordial relationships – until the next riot was triggered. The imminent coexistence with perpetrators often urges survivors to blame outsiders for attacks, as a coping mechanism of sorts.

While moving to “safer” (which is to say, homogeneous) neighbourhoods can reduce the chance of violence, it is likely to increase levels of prejudice. Ahmedabad is known to be one of India’s most segregated cities – the apartheid of Muslims is implicit and existent since the early 1980s.

In a social experiment I conducted in 2008 in Ahmedabad, I met several Hindu and Muslim youth who had never interacted with members of the other community. “The only time I have been to Muslim-dominated areas is for shopping … it’s our family tradition to avoid Muslims and Muslimism,” one of the young men told me. A Muslim woman expressed similar thoughts: “I can never trust a Hindu.”

High levels of prejudice can increase the probability that once a triggering incident occurs, there will be a critical mass of people with a low threshold for participating in violence.

In democracies where the state approves hostility between groups and where judicial redress for victims of violence is absent or protracted, living together in mixed neighbourhoods may not produce the benefits of communal harmony one expects. Segregation is not the answer and neither is a simplistic understanding of communal harmony.

Raheel Dhattiwala is an independent sociologist, formerly a research fellow and tutor at Oxford University. She is the author of Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Also read:

Harsh Mander: Whatever happened To Ehsan Jafri on February 28, 2002?