One January day in 1993, 14-year-old Abdul Wahid Shaikh was out shopping when the police opened fire in Vikhroli, a suburb in Bombay (now Mumbai). A bullet grazed the teenager, who dropped his bags and raced towards the mosque nearby for cover. He sheltered there for a few hours, then crept back home when he felt it was safe. Shaikh had seen little violence in his short life until then. He had Hindu friends and a happy childhood.
Then, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, on December 6, 1992, violence erupted in Vikhroli Parksite and elsewhere in the city, lasting into January 1993. Night after night, Shaikh’s family barricaded themselves inside their home, alert for sounds of yelling and gunfire. He was even deputed to stand guard at his sister’s house during tense times. “I had to grow up suddenly,” he told IndiaSpend. “I was no longer a child.”
Shaikh never received psychological help or counselling – uncommon at the time, say studies and experts. None of Shaikh’s relatives died, nor was his home torched like others nearby. But the violence marked his adolescence in insidious ways, he said, as he grew up conscious of external markers of his Muslim identity, like prayer caps.
For those like Shaikh who survive or witness riots as children, the impacts can be multifold, ranging from feelings of revenge, hatred and despair to long-term psychological distress, according to studies of this especially vulnerable demographic conducted in the aftermath of riots in Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat and Hyderabad, which IndiaSpend reviewed.
These studies, among the few that examine the impacts of riots on children, say resultant mental health issues, if left untreated, can cause lasting damage. In the wake of the Delhi riots in February 2020, experts have similarly warned that impacts on child survivors’ mental health must be addressed.
A year on from the Delhi riots, our story attempts to understand how riot-affected children rebuild their lives as adults, speaking to numerous survivors, social workers, psychiatrists and researchers. Impacts need not be permanent, we found, as both studies and survivors pointed to coping mechanisms and healing processes.
As part of an ongoing project, Databaaz, the video arm of IndiaSpend, is speaking to the families of victims in the Delhi riots to understand the impact that the violence had on children. We present a few in the photo essay below:
Trauma, psychological distress
Children affected by riots might experience a cluster of physical and mental symptoms, including unexplained pain, sleeplessness, nightmares, listlessness, loss of appetite and fear of sounds in the aftermath, according to several studies and experts. “Death is visible, a broken building is visible, but mental health issues are not always visible,” Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist who worked with survivors of the Bombay and Gujarat riots, told IndiaSpend.
We spoke to children who lost friends, homes and family members, who recalled that their initial visceral reaction was of confusion and physical insecurity. “We could only understand that they wanted to kill and wound Muslims,” said Javed Hussain Sayyed, who was 10 at the time of the rioting in Ahmedabad in 2002.
His family had to flee their home one night, tripping over dead bodies in the darkened street. He also saw a friend die and a rampaging mob torturing people. “We just had to save ourselves,” Sayyed told IndiaSpend.
In Mumbai, Shanul Sayed witnessed police firing and a mob pelting stones in 1992-’93. His family also sheltered relatives whose homes had been damaged during the rioting. “At the age of 11 years you wonder, what will happen? Will my friends be fine?” recalled Sayed, now an engineer and member of the political party All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen. “Fairly soon I was able to get over the fears, but maybe it was harder for others who experienced violence more directly,” Sayed told IndiaSpend.
In February 1993, a month after the violence, 62.6% of 495 Class 3 and Class 4 municipal school students surveyed in a riot-affected area in Mumbai reported sleep disturbances including nightmares and flashbacks, 40.2% reported somatic symptoms (emotional distress felt as physical distress), and 33.5% reported anxiety symptoms, according to a study by the BYL Nair Hospital, Mumbai.
Among children who reported somatic symptoms, three in four mentioned headaches and nearly half mentioned stomach aches. Researchers also scored responses on several parameters to gauge levels of anxiety and fear, with a score of more than 10 considered significant: 21% scored more than 10 and only 9.9% scored zero.
“Adults can talk and express their feelings, but children cannot,” Hemangee Dhavale, a psychiatrist and lead author of the study, told IndiaSpend. “That’s why it could reflect in their behaviour.”
Shortly after the 2002 Gujarat riots that claimed at least 1,000 lives and displaced over 5,000 families, Rasida Shaikh, a social worker with Ahmedabad-based development institute Jan Vikas, also noticed some of these behavioural patterns among the two dozen riot-affected children she worked with.
“They had seen terrible things,” said Shaikh, herself a survivor of the riots, in which she lost her home. “The younger ones were unable to even speak.” Her aim was to help the children get over their fear of loud noises, firecrackers and even police. It took months, even years for some children to find some normalcy and work through these feelings, she told IndiaSpend.
Javed Hussain Sayyed was one of the children Rasida Shaikh worked with. “These experiences were on my mind for a year to a year-and-a-half,” he told IndiaSpend. Now, when he returns to those neighbourhoods or news of fresh riots surfaces, long-buried feelings erupt to the fore, even though they have been processed, he says. “It happened to us and has happened again,” said Javed. “Why does such violence not stop?”
Six years after the Gujarat riots, 67% of 85 Muslim children aged seven years to 10 years among riot-displaced families at a relief camp in Panchmahal district described general or specific fears and threats, a study published in 2012 found. This qualitative study found that words like “danger”, “agony” and “afraid” frequently came up in word association tests conducted with the surveyed children.
Evidence suggests that while natural disasters impact children deeply, the impact of man-made disasters could be worse. A comparison of children aged 8 years to 15 years affected in the 2002 Gujarat riots (171) and by the 2001 Bhuj earthquake (128) against a control group of 351 children that had experienced neither, found that “children exposed to violence were psychologically more affected”, according to a 2013 study.
Results showed that 7.6% of the earthquake-affected children displayed “clinically significant mental health problems”; the figure was 38.7% for riots-affected children. In the earthquake sample, 24.8% of children met the criteria for probable post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to 27.3% of children from the riots sample.
“It was the nature of witnessing. [Riots-affected children] had seen family members killed, mutilated–purposive, harmful actions which emotionally disturbed them,” said Manasi Kumar, a faculty member at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Nairobi, who authored the study. “In riots, you know who did what,” Kumar told IndiaSpend. “Neighbours turned on each other and trust was violated in a very different form.”
When asked if the difference was that the earthquake group could rationalise their experience as an act of God, Kumar said, “Definitely. [The riots group] had no rationale they could offer themselves or their families.”
In the days following the Bombay riots, one development stood out for psychiatrist Harish Shetty: Children had begun to fashion games around the violence. “They were imitating behaviours of rioting, playing as victims, enacting burnings,” said Shetty. “It was just something they had casually picked up.”
Divisive behaviours by adults may get picked up by children, the Nair Hospital study found. Among the children surveyed, 64.2% were wary of playing with children from other communities, a finding echoed in some interviews with Tata Institute of Social Sciences teams, who spoke with riot-displaced children in relief camps in Gujarat.
Social worker Shivaji Khairnar, 36, who witnessed firing and mob attacks during the 1992-’93 riots at age nine in Mumbai’s north-western suburb of Jogeshwari, remembered being told to avoid playing with Muslim children. Regardless, the children continued to discreetly meet at a park. “It was not an age when we really understood religion, but considered it a kind of foolishness,” he told IndiaSpend.
This might not hold for everyone, according to Dhavale, psychiatrist and the lead author of the study. “Some children may become violent and identify with what they see,” said Dhavale. “Talking to them and removing misconceptions about other communities is essential.”
This was one of the foci of Jan Vikas’ work with riot-affected children, according to Rasida Shaikh, adding that their approach was motivated by “peace and justice”. “Today they have no feelings of hatred or revenge,” she said.
Sometimes, however, feelings of animosity and revenge may grow and persist, one study has shown. Gangs of “child vigilantes” formed to “protect and patrol the borders of riot-affected Muslim localities” were found in an ethnographic study of a riot-affected Hyderabad slum conducted in 2005-’06, and published in 2012.
“Over the next five years, the young vigilantes emerged as self-styled retribution armies and attempted to control both the internal and external dynamics of slum areas,” writes Atreyee Sen, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Fifteen child squads, each having about 10 to 12 members (aged pre-teen to early teens), were described by Sen. They carried weapons, policed public spaces, upbraided “’deviant’ Muslim slum women for flirting with Hindu men, or attacked traders for establishing business links with ‘enemy’ communities”.
“There can be no general rules that say children affected by violence will grow up to be violent themselves,” Sen told IndiaSpend over email. “However, we cannot rely on children’s capacities to cope with their past and turn into responsible and integrated adults… it is our social and state responsibility to ensure that children have the most stable, safe and nurturing environment to help them cope with having faced crises in their childhood.”
Destructive effects on learning
Javed Hussain Sayyed spent several weeks in a relief camp for persons displaced by the Gujarat violence in 2002. Later, he was among several children transferred to a residential school in Raigad, Maharashtra for rehabilitation. Although the staff were kind and the school was good, he wanted to return home. “We were disturbed and I felt no desire to study,” said Sayyed, now a 29-year-old truck driver.
Children traumatised by riots might be unable to focus on learning whilst also facing significant socioeconomic distress. Lessons in relief camps might be impossible, or they may be relocated away from their schools, according to experts and studies.
“After 1984, there were hardly any children who were able to continue studying,” HS Phoolka, an advocate who has represented and supported hundreds of 1984 anti-Sikh riots victims, told IndiaSpend. “Many [children] were deeply troubled, but had to start earning right away.”
Seven young survivors’ of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots were unable to attend school for five to six months following the violence, an ethnographic study conducted in 2014 and published in 2017 found. Four of the five who resumed school had to repeat classes, one dropped out to work, and one was married off. Eventually, none of the seven finished school. New problems of drug addiction also emerged after the riots. “The next generation was completely traumatised and many were destroyed by drug abuse,” said Phoolka.
Healing and recovery
Survivors spoke of little or no support after the riots, in conversations with IndiaSpend. School teachers of child survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots actively avoided raising the topic, according to the 2017 study.
“The focus was to make [the children] forget, make them laugh or play’,” rather than process their grief as experts now advise, one relief camp volunteer was quoted as saying in the study. “No counselling was [available] then, whether for adults or children,” said Phoolka. “Most of them still live with a sense of having been ruined.”
After the riots in Bombay and Gujarat, there were at least some voluntary attempts at support and counselling by doctors and non-profits, according to experts. “There was no mental health package from the government,” said Shetty, who worked for a few months with survivors of both riots. “Efforts were voluntary, ad-hoc and piecemeal.” However, those who did receive community support were able to heal and recover more quickly than those who remained isolated, Shetty pointed out.
Childhood emotional trauma need not be permanent, studies have shown. When students of the municipal schools in Bombay were first assessed for levels of anxiety and fear by the Nair Hospital study in February 1993, just a month after the riots, 21% of the 104 children scored above the concerning score of 10.
In the follow-up process six months later, however, this had fallen to 11.9% of the 59 students who were still traceable. The literature reviewed at the time also hinted at a decrease in symptoms with time, the study noted.
“The earlier the intervention, the better,” said Kumar. “But mental health in general and child and adolescent mental health in particular remain neglected in India.”
Both these studies and experts found that teachers, community leaders, parents and counsellors all could play a role in aiding healing for children. “We have to empower communities in understanding how trauma operates,” added Kumar. “We need training for religious leaders, school teachers and community gatekeepers.”
After the Gujarat riots, professor Shubhada Maitra led interventions by Tata Institute of Social Sciences teams among riot-displaced children in relief camps in Panchmahal district, to design post-trauma interventions, among other aims. Symptoms such as clinginess, difficulty in articulation, extreme aggression and anger in some of the younger children were described by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences teams in their findings.
Through 12-sessions of group “play therapy”, including art, puppetry, music, dance and counselling, a “process of healing was initiated”, they wrote. “Therapy aided the acquisition of social skills like adjusting to a group, increased tolerance and acceptance of differences, conflict resolution and teamwork,” the researchers wrote. However, they continued, “for more long-term therapeutic changes to take place there needs to be sustained efforts”.
How well children recover also depends on how adults around them cope and behave, both in their own families and on wider social and institutional levels, according to some of these studies. Kumar said one potential source of despair for survivors could be failures of the justice system; perpetrators who roam free, trials that drag on. “Then there is very little to hope for and trust in,” she said.
For Abdul Wahid Shaikh, the Bombay riots were only the beginning of a tragic trajectory, he told us. Though he tried to get his life on track, he was charged and jailed for nine years in the 2006 Mumbai train attacks case. He was acquitted in 2015 but emerged a cynical man, concerned about the state of Indian pluralism and increasingly distanced from his Hindu friends.
Three survivors we spoke to described themselves as well-adjusted adults, albeit while underscoring that their experiences were less severe than others. Shivaji Khairnar says he did not suffer any long-term psychological damage, but the riots left in him a conviction to ensure they do not happen again.
Some years ago, Khairnar, other residents and community leaders formed a group to ensure peace in his neighbourhood. “One thing is on our minds,” said Khairnar. “What happened in 1992-’93 should not recur.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.