Gujarat: Communalism and the ballot box

Published on: October 1, 2005

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If the relation between electoral politics and communal polarisation needed to be explored and established, the state of Gujarat would provide a good case study. In December 2002, the architect of the Gujarat genocide 2002, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister Narendra Modi romped home with a 51 per cent vote share and 126 of the 181 seats polled. Worried by the growing critique of his autocratic style of functioning even within his own political establishment, a dissidence that has been simmering since mid-2004, Modi has reverted to doing what he does best: Making provocative and divisive speeches to ensure that ‘his’ vote base consolidates against the common enemy – Islam and Muslims.

Kicking off his party’s campaign for the Ahmedabad municipal corporation (AMC) elections scheduled for November 13, 2005, Modi declared his intentions at the very first public rally, held in Vasna on September 26, when he asked his supporters to defeat the rule of the "Mughal begum and badshah" in the city. This was followed by a spate of vitriolic speeches in the city’s most communally sensitive areas of Dariapur, Ellisbridge, Shahpur and Kalupur, making local residents apprehensive of poll-driven violence. Modi’s vitriol was an obvious reference to present mayor Aneesa Mirza and former standing committee chairman Badruddin Sheikh, and the community they hail from, using the metaphor of Mughal rule, a common ploy in communal discourse.

Several complaints have been lodged against Modi’s speeches with the State Election Commission, citing the provisions of Sections 123(3) and 123(3-A) of the Representation of People’s Act (RPA) which state that soliciting votes or winning an election by (a candidate or his agent) appealing to religious or divisive sentiments is a corrupt electoral practice. (The legal remedy unfortunately lies only through a subsequent challenge by way of an election petition under Section 80 of the Act.)

Incidentally, at the meeting in Vasna where Modi kick-started his campaign, the father of slain BJP leader Haren Pandya was reportedly brutally attacked by BJP workers and also beaten up by the police. The reason? He and his supporters were shouting anti-Modi slogans. Vithal Pandya, who has alleged that Modi was behind the murder of his son Haren in March 2003, was seriously hurt, and thereafter detained by the police along with his three daughters.

Whether Modi’s divisive stance for the Ahmedabad electorate will be successful in the November 13 elections and in the statewide panchayat polls that follow is however being strongly debated. Some legitimate apprehensions are also being expressed as this is the first civic election in the city after the 2002 carnage when Ahmedabad saw murderous bouts of violence in incidents at Naroda, Gulberg society, Gomtipur and elsewhere. Poll-driven communal violence in the 2002 civic polls left one dead in Jamalpur and killed 10 others in Dariapur.

But political observers see the dissatisfaction expressed against Modi’s government by the hardcore saffron brigade, the backbone of the BJP, as the main reason why Modi’s efforts may fail. It seems the organisational tentacles of the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal outfits still call the tune in the land of the Mahatma.

Angry Dalits, tribals

While the dissidence led by former BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel’s lobby has been much talked about within Gujarat state politics, an interesting emergent issue relates to recently expressed Dalit and tribal anger with the saffron party in the state.

In late September, public utterances against the chief minister by BJP MLA Siddarth Parmar at a massive Dalit convention in Rajkot saw the party running for cover. While the BJP has taken the usual political recourse to ‘decide the fate of Parmar’, it is Parmar’s statements that are significant here – the elected representative from the Gujarat government accused his chief minister of neglecting Dalit interests. Other Dalit leaders present at the convention also made elaborate references to Modi’s anti-Dalit conduct.

Around the same time, on September 20, six to seven thousand tribals from the tribal areas of Surat, Valsad and Navsari participated in a protest rally organised independently by Punarvasan Sangharsh Samiti, a voluntary organisation fighting for tribal rights. They were protesting the state government’s decision to hand over 1.15 crore acres of agrarian land to landlords on a 20-year lease, and reiterating other long-pending demands. Led by Pratibha Shinde, some fundamental issues were raised at the rally. "While tens of thousands of tribals in the region dislocated from the dam sites have yet to get a patch of land for their livelihood, the government has gone ahead and announced that they would hand over pasture land to landlords," says Shinde. Another serious challenge to the state’s ruling party from the voice of south Gujarat.

Saffron boycott of Muslims

If their public utterances are anything to go by, it has long been apparent that the hardcore elements within the VHP-RSS and its allies have scant respect for basic human rights or the Indian Constitution. It is an unfortunate fact that this has gone largely unchallenged by the Indian law and order machinery so far. And in BJP-ruled states such as Gujarat, and now Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, their verbal utterances and subsequent actions are ‘allowed’ with utter and complete impunity.

So it was in the village of Panvad and in Tejgadh town of Chotaudepur taluka in rural Vadodara where the VHP openly called for an economic and social boycott of Muslims in late September. The boycott, which was ‘successfully’ carried out for over two weeks, was imposed because the local Muslim community ‘dared’ name the accused in the violence and destruction of 2002 and the Gujarat police – pushed by a SC directive to re-open and investigate these cases – arrested one Mahesh Gandhi for his involvement in the same. Their bully-boy tactics even got the VHP what it wanted – the culprit released.

Archived from Communalism Combat,October 2005  Year 12    No.111, Update