The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Armed with vote, hunted return

Halol, Dec. 11: Never before has the electoral battle across Gujarat been joined so passionately by the Muslims. Those from the community who work outside Gujarat, especially in Maharashtra and in Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, are returning home to exercise their franchise. There is a grim determination in the community that this time not a single vote should be wasted.

Muslim youngsters can be seen manning the offices of political parties and candidates opposed to the BJP. Others can be seen distributing leaflets saying: “Yeh Public Hai, Sab Jaanti Hai” (after a Hindi film song, which celebrates the intelligence of the common man).

“Each and everyone of us will vote against the BJP in this election. If the dead could rise from their graves, they, too, would vote on December 12,” says Ayub Khan Sheikh sitting in Halol bazaar. Halol is adjacent to Godhra and saw massive communal violence in the wake of the burning of a coach of the Sabarmati Express in February.

Sheikh and others around him are determined that they will not waste their vote. “The BJP has made Godhra an issue but we want the Congress — for sukh (happiness), shanti (peace), samriddhi (development), salamati (safety) and sadbhavna (communal harmony),” Salim Mir, a young man in construction business at Halol says.

Sitting right next to Godhra, he thinks that the BJP can be thrown out. As if buying insurance before the poll outcome, Ayub Khan Sheikh points to the sky, saying: “We have also been praying. At least someone’s dua (prayer) will reach Him.”

“I have never been to any political meeting in my life. But I will definitely vote on December 12. I will vote to ensure my own security,” says Firoze Khan Hakim Khan Pathan, a shopkeeper in the tribal area of Tejgadh in Chota Udepur. Since the population of Muslims in the tribal areas is sparse, he is not as confident as the city dwellers in openly declaring which party he will vote for.

Y.K. Pathan, principal of the Mohansinh Rathwa College of Arts in Pavi-Jetpur, has been helping with the logistics of the campaign of the local Congress candidate — the man who set up the college he heads, Mohansinh Rathwa. He has won seven consecutive times from Pavi-Jetpur and Pathan declares: “His victory is written on the wall this time too. There is no question of his losing — the question is with what margin will he win.”

“How can we vote for a party which says — either go to Pakistan or go to kabristan (graveyard)' If the BJP comes again, we will be finished. The police are theirs. They will eliminate us. Allah ke ghar jaayenge (we will all die). At least the Congress says everyone, even the poor, has a right to live,” says Mahboob Mian of Anand.

“Can a King be partial' Can he allow a citizen to be burnt alive' A human being is the creation of God. How can you let him be wantonly destroyed' A King must be kind towards his people,” says Kalubhai Retiwala, also of Anand. A grim-faced businessman who refuses to identify himself says: “Write down. Sonia Gandhi is daryadil (kind-hearted). I will vote for her.”

“Do you call this a government' Modi’s government is no government at all (Aane tame sarkar kaho cho' Modi Sarkar, khoti Sarkar,” declares a leaflet being distributed by a Muslim youngster who refuses to give his name. The leaflet asks questions such as, What is security' What is honesty' What is development' And what is pride (gaurav)' Then it answers all these questions by quoting the government’s own statistics showing its dismal performance on all these fronts. Another leaflet he is distributing is an appeal from eminent Gujaratis urging people to reject the politics of violence and hate so that not only Gujarat, but also India can be saved.

But none of this may be able to completely undo what the BJP has done in Gujarat. “They have been able to obfuscate things in peoples’ mind. By their constant rhetoric against Muslims and against conversions, a threatening image of the Musalmaan has been created. They have managed to produce a completely artificial notion of a terrorist who is a Muslim and is residing among Hindu Gujaratis,” says Prof. Iftikar Ahmed, a historian at the M.S. University in Vadodara.

Prof. Ahmed refused to move out of Vadodara though all his next of kin live abroad and he is not even a Gujarati. “My friends are here. People here still connect with secular values. The BJP has an inflated self-image and perhaps does not realise that the public opinion has drifted away from it,” he explains.

But what happens if the BJP comes back into power' “We don’t trust Narendra Modi or his police and bureaucracy. There is no doubt in our mind that we will never allow a repeat of what happened in March and April this year. We reserve the right to self-defence,” warns Prof. J.S. Bandukwala, who teaches Physics at the M.S. University and whose house was attacked by Hindu mobs.

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