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Fear defines Muslim mindset in Gujarat

Updated May 01, 2014

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Indian election officials carry their Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) to a waiting bus on their way to various polling stations from a distribution centre in Ahmedabad on April 29, 2014. Gujarat state goes to the polls on April 30 for 26 Constituencies in the Lok Sabha - lower house - elections. — Photo by AFP
Indian election officials carry their Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) to a waiting bus on their way to various polling stations from a distribution centre in Ahmedabad on April 29, 2014. Gujarat state goes to the polls on April 30 for 26 Constituencies in the Lok Sabha - lower house - elections. — Photo by AFP

Ahmedabad was calm and quiet on the polling day. The festive environment that was typical to the final day is completely missing. There are no election posters on walls anywhere. The massive billboards of candidates, that include BJP stalwart L.K. Advani, had been taken down as the Indian laws require end of canvassing 48 hours before the polling. Now the only visible mark of the general elections left on the city scape are the Election Commission advertisements reminding people to perform their national duty.

Activists and journalist who have witnessed earlier elections in this biggest city of Indian state of Gujarat also term it unusual. Many believe that results here are no mystery as there is no way any political party could surpass Bhartiya Janta Party here. It is the stronghold of Narendra Modi, the party’s prime ministerial candidate and the chief minister of Gujrat since October 2001, currently serving his fourth consecutive term.

BJP is in power in this state since 1995, winning five elections in a row. It also draws comfort from the fact that it has had uninterrupted simple majority winning over 100 seats in the 182 seat state legislative assembly in all of the five elections.

But there is more to Gujarat politics than these overwhelming electoral figures. Muslims form 10 per cent of its over 60 million population but there is not a single one from among them who could make it to the state’s assembly. Muslims as a community here are completely marginalised. There choices are limited to just one — Congress.

They might be voting enbloc to one party but its impact is counter checked through other means. “Muslim localities are either split among constituencies in a way that dilutes their electoral significance or these are bundled with large Hindu pockets to achieve the same effect,” says Abrar Ali, a doctoral student working for improving education among Muslims here.

Gujarat has a long history of communal tensions with 2002 anti-Muslim riots that saw 2,000 killings defining its worse point. Modi was the chief minister at that time and has since faced accusations of various levels of involvement in these. While for the rest of city he might symbolise ‘fast track modernisation’, Muslims are unanimous in their opposition. “What development? Look at the streets, water supply, sanitation, education here. The state has simply abandoned us and thrown us into this ditch,” said a resident of Juhapura, the biggest Muslim ghetto of Ahmedabad.

The locality that has an estimated population of 200,000 presents the dark side of BJP’s politics and its much trumpeted ‘Gujarat model’. Juhapura is solely inhibited by Muslims and is tauntingly called mini-Pakistan. “Don’t mistake it as a slum, though it looks like one. Look at the cars and the houses here. It is the residence of the rich and the poor alike. The only reason all of them took residence here is because they are Muslims and they don’t feel safe in mixed neighbourhoods any more. Fear defines all of their important decisions in life,” says Zahir Jan Muhammad, an Indian-American journalist who has been intermittently living and working here since the 2002 riots.

Dawoodi Bohras who form a sizeable community within Ahmedabad Muslims refuse to talk politics and are cautious about discussing the contentious issues even off the record. There are only a few Muslims in Ahmedabad who dare to comment in public. Modi had personally met Bohra religious leader in January last and secured his endorsement. “The community generally follows what the Syedna directs it to and since they are all traders they naturally want to have good relations with any and all governments but you cannot say the same about the new generation,” commented a person who closely watches the Muslim politics.

There are many young Muslims who are enthusiastic about availing the new choice, Aam Aadmi Party, in 2014 elections but the senior citizens are apprehensive. “If I don’t vote for Congress,” explained a friend after coming out of a Juhapura polling booth showing his marked finger, “it will hurt us doubly. Congress will get one less and BJP will be one up.”

The strange logic may have real meaning. BJP’s vote share in 2012 state assembly elections was 47.9 per cent while Congress was behind it by 9 percentage points but the party is nowhere close to power here. Under the first past the pole system and given the highly complex nature of Indian politics, minor swings in votes can change party fortunes. Congress also has strong supporters in tribal and scheduled caste areas of Gujarat.

Few Muslims however are adamant on denying support to ‘the old scrooge’. “They (Congress) are a useless bunch. We must create for ourselves another choice and give Aam Aadmi a chance,” said a retired public servant half of whose family had migrated to Karachi in 1947.

He said he never regretted his decision to not leave this land and was not hopeless about the future of Muslims in India. “Our system is embroiled by corruption and other discrepancies but it is only this secular system that can work. All we need to do is to clean it up,” he said informing that he plans to spend the entire polling day canvassing individuals to vote for the new party. “If voting for AAP presents the risk of strengthening BJP by splitting the opposition, it is the risk that we need to take now,” he said with marked confidence.

Prakash N. Shah, a senior civil society activist and editor of the Gujarati journal Nireekshak thinks that the politics of Gujarat, and India, shall not be seen from the electoral prism alone. “Votes can swing. Election results can change. Economic needs can compel communities to interact again. But the psychological schism caused by the communal politics is here to stay. The mistrust will sustain. The ‘other’ will keep us haunting for a long time.”