Gujarat: At the edge of its religious chasm

Apr 28, 2009

In 2002, the Indian state of Gujarat was the scene of the communal mob violence that saw tit-for-tat attacks between Hindus and Muslims. NGOs put the death toll at up to 2,000. As Gujaratis go to the polls on April 30, how far will religion figure in this divided state? catches up with Soutik Biswas, the BBC's India editor, who is in the state, for a sense of the sentiment on the ground in Gujarat.

As India Votes 2009

Illustration: Vikash Sharma Over this last weekend , there were two shoe-throwing incidents in Gujarat. One was aimed at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the other at LK Advani from the BJP. Are we sensing some unhappiness here?

Soutik Biswas: It started off with a journalist throwing a shoe at President Bush and after that it has kind of caught on. The man who threw the shoe at Mr Advani, he told the police that he had done it because he wanted his 15 minutes of fame. I wouldn't take it frankly, as something that they should be worried about. Another development that just emerged is that the Indian Supreme Court has launched a probe into whether the Nahendra Modi, Gujarat's Chief Minister, and his administration were implicated in the 2002 communal riots. Modi has also been endorsing by the BJP as their candidate for Prime Minister in 2014.

How does this affect the BJP?

Soutik Biswas: Ordering an investigation is one thing and finding evidence is something else. In fact I think this could be something good for Mr Modi because he seemingly enjoys the support of many Hindus in Gujarat. Gujarat is a Hindu-dominated state and less than ten percent of its population are Muslims. 

Mr Modi has been lauded as being a great reformer for his development plans. Rightly or wrongly, he has captured the imagination of a lot of the local people. He in fact has spoken a lot about building several Singapores in Gujarat. He has fashioned himself as a pro-development, pro-reform person. 

Frankly this announcement would actually help him because the timing of it. It is interesting that the Supreme Court has announced this in the middle of the elections. With Modi enjoying the support of the Hindus and Muslims being less than ten percent of the population, is there a sense that Muslims are being disenfranchised in Gujarat?

Soutik Biswas: It is not a sense of disenfranchisement, it is more a sense of institutionalised discrimination. They will vote and they will likely vote in a larger percentage of their community than the Hindus, and most of them will probably not vote for Mr Modi and the BJP, and instead vote for the Congress Party.

But at the same time there is a huge feeling of discrimination. There is a huge feeling of inequity and a feeling that they have been wronged against. 

A lot of time has passed since the Gujarat riots but the fact is that the rehabilitation process for the 40-odd thousand people who have been displaced by the riots has been in some ways shoddy. Also compensation is not up to the mark, serious issues like compensation for the next-of-kin of the victims, compensation for damage to property. 

Two weeks ago, I spent some time talking to people who have been affected and some of them told me that they just got 300 rupees from the government, which is about US$6. $6 for a damaged house? 

There is not a sense of disenfranchisement in the sense that they do get to vote but it is a feeling of being discriminated against and losing their dignity. Is this something that the Congress Party has been able to capitalise on this sentiment among the Muslims?

Soutik Biswas: No. The state is so polarised that if they are seen to be “supporting” the Muslims, the Hindus would be polarised altogether and that would affect Congress's prospects altogether. So there is not really a very viable alternative for the Muslims in Gujarat then?

Soutik Biswas: If you are talking about a secular alternative that will possibly not stand by if there is violence, I would still tend to think that there is still some faith in the government, not a lot but some. Seven years have passed since the Gujarat riots. Have the religious faultline between the Hindus and the Muslims mended somewhat?

Soutik Biswas: This has not mended and this will never mend in the years to come. Muslims have moved to newer ghettos and the Hindus in other neighbourhoods. It is impossible for a Muslims to rent or buy a property in a Hindu-dominated part of the city. So we are talking about a total segregation. But this segregation also sometimes leads to a strange peace because there is no obvious fighting.

There is no obvious religious tension but there is a very big divide that has deepened after the 2002 riots. In your experience in Gujarat, what are the main issues that you think people are concerned about? Does religion factor?

Soutik Biswas: On the face of it, it is all about development. It is all about drinking water and electricity and schools. Frankly I am surprised to find the rehabilitation of the victims finding very little place in it. 

Just on Sunday (April 26) Mr Manmohan Singh the prime minister at a meeting with the relatives of the victims touched upon the aftermath, but it has not been a very significant issue for the local Congress Party. 

The Congress is, I think, scared that if this develops into a big issue, the Hindus will be so polarised that they will have problems getting Hindu votes in the future. Finally, can you tell us something about Gujarat Chief Minister Nahendra Modi? He is quite the character and we expect that he will figure quite prominently in the future in Indian politics. Yet he is also quite controversial.

Soutik Biswas: He is 58 and he is quite a loner in politics in the sense that he keeps his cards close to his chest. He is seen as quite an able administrator. He is someone who has taken Gujarat forward in terms of economic development. He is very reform-minded and in that way, he is quite in sync with what modern Indians want from their government. He is one of the few leaders that know development gets the votes today, not anything else.

Other than that, he is also seen as a very authoritarian leader, very authoritarian in the way that runs his party locally and the way that he deals with the bureaucrats. 

He is an interesting personality and he will lead his party to victory in this election. I would say that yes, they are continually pushing him forward as a candidate for the top job in India, if all goes well.


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