A Pakistani travels through India as the world’s biggest democracy votes in the national elections. Follow his journey to know what happens and all the people that he meets on the way.
Day 2: From Ludhiana to Ahmedabad
Electricity in Gujarat is completely uninterrupted. Nobody knows what load shedding means. It is unbelievable for a Pakistani who have only known 24/7 pizza home delivery! People complain that electricity in Gujarat is more expensive than other states. I tried to compare it with what I pay back there, though not a sound way, and was surprised that most here pay not much if not less than me. But probably the more important fact is that all of them do pay — Prime Minister House and Chief Minister House included.
Women are the safest in Gujarat and you do not need witnesses to believe that. It is evident. Just take a walk on the road side and you will see women and young girls commuting all around freely and independently. I was with a group late in the night out for an after dinner cup of tea when a young female friend received phone call from her mother in Delhi. "Mom says you are out so late. Ahmedabad is spoiling you," she told her friends and the party went on.
If development is a (political) party, then everyone is certainly not invited. Nothing comes for free here and the fact that everyone cannot pay is explained away in many ways. The poor remain unserved. But in Ahmedabad there is another 'class' that remains unserved too — Muslims. The picture is of a corner of Ahmedabad's largest Muslim ghetto, Juhapura. It has an estimated population of 200,000 and makes ends meet without the state providing it any civic service.
The schism within: Ahmedabad's biggest Muslim ghetto, Juhapura, is separated from Hindu colonies by walls at most of the meeting points. People tauntingly call it 'the border of the mini-Pakistan'. The walls have not been constructed by the government but by the Hindu colonies themselves and stand as the 'concrete' evidence of the deep divisions that this state suffers from.
Housing apartheid: Each housing colony in Ahmedabad comes with a religious label. Jains do not share living space with Hindus and Hindus will hesitate giving their house on rent to Bengali Hindus who are not vegetarians and exclusion of Muslims.
Communal ghettoisation: Juhapura is the biggest Muslim ghetto of Ahmedabad. Though it looks like a slum, it is not an exclusive habitat of poor Muslims. You can easily find impressive bungalows in every street. Most of them took residence here after the 2002 anti-Muslim riots as they do not feel secure living anywhere else. Muslims do live in other parts of the city but an increased tendency of living in close clusters is more than evident everywhere in the city.
Election Commission in India is quite strict and all the stakeholders have to take its words very seriously. I roamed around in Ahmedabad on the polling day i.e. 30 April. The security staff at polling stations was vigilant and their understanding of their election duties was impressive. A security man stopped a young man with a party flag in this hands at the gate telling him to hide it as electioneering is not permitted on polling day.
Under Indian election laws, electioneering has to be seized 48 hours before the polling. I took a round of the city of Ahmedabad a day before polling. There was nothing anywhere that could tell that there was campaigning going on in the city. Billboards of the parties were taken down as soon as the deadline expired and the only visible reminders of elections were the Election Commission's advertisements calling people to vote.
Ahmedabadis are food fanatics. Every believer carries a list of items that he/she cannot eat. While some would want to ensure that their muffin do not contain any animal-based ingredient, everyone is not this strict. Food 'edicts' reflect in socialisation as well in many interesting ways as people cross boundaries to express their affection for their friends from the other side of the divide or as a sign of rebellion from their traditions. But others, like myself, are just adventurous foodies.
Jains are the most finicky about what not to eat. If one goes by the book, their negative list includes all animal-based products and everything that grows under ground. So they don't eat meat of any kind, eggs, onions, garlic, etc. They have their grocery stores and won't eat out at places that serve both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. But a friend jokingly told me that if you prepare chicken without onions and garlic, it is called Jain chicken!
Cricket wars: Like most other parts of South Asia, cricket is a craze in Ahmedabad too. But for Muslims here, it comes with a pinch of salt. Their reactions to matches between India and Pakistan are closely watched by others and any celebration of Pakistan's success is seen as 'an act of treason'. "If I support Ricky Ponting, they have no problem but any praise for Afridi's sixer can make my Indian credentials questionable," said a Muslim school teacher in Ahmedabad.
There are many Muslim localities in old Ahmedabad city that has some impressive heritage sites.
Board game at Rani's Hajira (probably meaning, hujra/living quarter) in Ahmedabad old city. In Muslim localities, people were more apprehensive about being photographed and these included not the women but younger men. Every other person here has a story of police harassment to tell.
Gujarat is the only major state in India that is dry — alcohol trade is banned. People belonging to other states and residing here get some legal relaxation but public drinking is not a norm. Alcohol though is smuggled from other states, especially from Rajasthan. On this Ahmedabad road, you can however stop to enjoy soft drinks at the cart that has named itself Kashmiri Soda Center.