Bhavnagar, Dec. 7: Yunus Bilal decided to “teach the Congress a lesson” after the Babri Masjid’s demolition.
For the 35-year-old motor mechanic, a voter in Bhavnagar (South), then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was as much to blame as then chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. Rao for being “passive” — because the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal made short work of the mosque — and Patel for doing little to prevent the communal clashes that erupted in Gujarat.
This collective ire against the Congress made Gujarati Muslims to either boycott the Assembly elections that followed the demolition or, in places, vote BJP to secure their business interests (like the Bohras and Memons) and “spite the Congress”.
But Bilal is determined to vote this time — for the Congress. Not because he has forgiven the party its “trespasses” but because he feels it is the lesser of the two evils.
“It’s certainly much better than the BJP and we have realised that those who say the BJP and Congress are two sides of the same coin are off the mark. The Congress has not produced a (Narendra) Modi or a (Praveen) Togadia and we know it never will,” he said.
Rasheeda Sheikh, a social worker in Sandiawad — one of the few Muslim pockets in Saurashtra to be scarred in the post-Godhra violence — was a BJP worker for 15 years. A couple of months ago, she switched sides and now campaigns for the Congress-supported CPM candidate, Arun Mehta, who is contesting from Bhavnagar (North).
“I always knew the BJP fanned communal riots and it was anti-Muslim. But I also felt leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and (former chief minister) Keshubhai Patel would keep the extremists under check. Modi shattered those illusions. I feel the BJP is Modi and Modi, the BJP,” she said.
Sheikh does not have too many illusions about the Congress either. She is aware that the party has fielded just four Muslims in these elections, projected a softer version of Hindutva by refusing to take a clear stand on Godhra and what followed thereafter, and rallied the support of sants to counter the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. “Most important”, it has a former RSS pracharak as its chief ministerial prospective in Shankersinh Vaghela.
But she also recognises its “rich” history. “. It cannot veer away too far from the principles taught by Gandhiji, Nehru and Sardar Patel. The BJP has only the RSS as its history,” she explained.
Haseena Amin, whose house was burnt down, did not talk of history or ideology but only her “survival instinct” which, she said, would take her to the polling booth.
“We cut our nose to spite our face. Not voting the Congress in the last two elections proved too costly for us, so we are determined not to repeat this mistake. I know of no other country but this one, it’s the country my ancestors belonged to. The VHP talks of us being loyal to Pakistan but whatever happens, I will cast my vote this time just to prove the VHP wrong,” she said.
Like the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh — who, in the elections of 1993 that followed the mosques’ demolition, asked their clergy to keep off politics and let them decide what was best — Gujarat’s minorities, too, have urged the maulvis and maulanas not to issue edicts. Even a leader like the Congress’ Ahmed Patel, who hardly fits the label of a fundamentalist, was told by Saurashtra Muslims not to campaign actively, said a local Congressman. “We fear if he appears too often, the other side may bring out the Sadhvi Rithambaras and Acharya Dharmendras and vitiate the atmosphere,” he said.
However, the “survival instinct” has not gripped certain groups of Muslims like the Chelias, who own highway hotels that traditionally offer only vegetarian food in deference to the food habits of the majority of Gujaratis. Most of their hotels were burnt down by the mobs, although every Chelia had a Hindu partner.
“We felt most betrayed because we know for a fact that it was our partners who tipped off the mobs,” said a hotel owner near Himmatnagar in Sabarkanta district. “This one big betrayal has shattered our faith in Gujaratis and we are indifferent to the elections,” he said. “It no longer matters to us who’s in power because we have lost everything.”