Amid Gujarat polls, debate over whether Muslims are being politically marginalised

Amid Gujarat polls, debate over whether Muslims are being politically marginalised
Ahmedabad:  At a rally in Kheda on Wednesday, chief minister Narendra Modi delivered the perfect photo-op. Standing with him was cricket icon, 28-year-old Irfan Pathan, whose father used to announce namaz  at a mosque in Vadodara. This was the chief minister's pithy comeback to those who accuse him of co-opting divisive politics for political dividends. 

His return to power in Gujarat can be taken for granted, but the larger prize for Mr Modi is to be declared the prime ministerial candidate of his party, the BJP.  And his sadbhavna or communal harmony tour last year, conducted across the state, telegraphed his attempts to reinvent his persona and distance himself from the riots of 2002 which ravaged Gujarat when he was in power.

The concerted attempt to prove he can be an inclusive leader was sullied when, in the gaze of cameras, Mr Modi, who had accepted and worn a variety of turbans gifted to him by religious leaders refused a skull cap from a Muslim cleric.  He chose, instead, to drape a green chador around his shoulders.In his campaign, the chief minister has stressed among his accomplishments the development of his state and the security of its residents.

"There is no Hindu-Muslim issue in Gujarat. The state has been peaceful for a decade. The development story is what the BJP is focused on," said BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman to NDTV.

Mr Modi has suggested that Gujarati Muslims have moved on, and that it is outsiders and his critics who reference the riots to undermine his leadership and his state's unity. 
In its campaign, the opposition Congress has, in contrast to the last election of 2007, not invoked the riots either. 

So the debate around the Muslim community in Gujarat has shifted to the question of what sort of political space is offered to the Muslims of Gujarat, whether they are being forced to the margins of political discourse, and whether  they are in danger of being rendered politically irrelevant. After all, though they form 10 percent of Gujarat's population, not a single Muslim has been fielded as a candidate by the BJP.  The Congress has seven Muslim candidates.

The BJP says its selection of candidates is based purely on the likelihood of their victory, not on prejudices or the need to counter criticism. The party points to hundreds of Muslim candidates who took part in the local elections of 2010.

But the Congress alleges that the absence of Muslim candidates in these elections proves the BJP's exclusionary philosophy.

"If a government is secular and inclusive, then development is secular and inclusive.  Development means justice, security,  a feeling of belonging and feeling that the government is yours.People may have some issues with the government, but they say that 'It's my government'.  We should not make an artificial divides that there is a secular vs communal debate or development and non-development debate," says Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit.

On the ground, as always, the truth is more complex than political rhetoric acknowledges.

A select number of upper class Muslims, especially businessmen and industrialists, are now clearly ready to  engage with the Modi government. Like Zafar Sareshwala, who is from one of the oldest families in Ahmedabad.  His home and office were ravaged by the rioting in 2002. But today, his stock broking and investment advisory business  has been revived.  Holding onto the past, he says, is self-defeating.   "I was a victim I lost everything. But should I wear that as badge of honour? Should I wear my pain as an ornament? Nobody will pat me on the back for that...there is a chance for growth. In fact Muslims should secure themselves, because in the slightest disturbance, we are hurt. There is prosperity and we can feel it."

The opportunity to throw one's nets into the currents of  Gujarat's strong economic story has in some instances altered the narrative of marginalisation.  But many Gujarati Muslims are exempt from that possibility.

The geography of Ahmedadbad today tells its own story. Ghettos and separate living quarters  have now sprung up in a city where Hindus and Muslims once lived in mixed neighbourhoods. Muslim workers used to make kites for the Hindu festival of Makar Sakaranti; Muslim craftsmen produced the bangles and bindis that Hindu women wear. Those cultural synergies have been distorted by successive riots.

"2002 finalised the ghettoization of the city. For the most part,  Hindus and Muslims now live separately," says Gagan Sethi, a human rights activist.

So while much of Ahmedabad gleams from the growth story embodied by glitzy malls and car showrooms, there is  also  the congested, under-developed and noisy Muslim locality of Juhapura, which has scaled up into a separate township. At the local auto-rickshaw stand,  Jahangir Sheikh says he has little at stake in these elections. Gujarat's growth story is genuine, he says, but it is foreign to his community.

In Juhupara, the Muslims don't speak much about the days or the impact of the riots. Their concerns are that their colony doesn't have a water supply line from the local municipality, and that the sewer line that does exist does not work. Juhapura originally developed to house first the victims of floods  in 1973 and then expanded to accommodate the victims of the 2002 riots.  Till three years ago, there was no blueprint for a town plan.

Neighbourhoods like Juhupura are now virtually cities within cities. But with the BJP offering no tickets to Muslims and the Congress running a low-key campaign, people here ask who will hear their voice and speak on their behalf in the political system.

Syed Shahbuddin, a  prominent voice from the Muslim community, courted controversy  when he wrote  MrModi a letter saying "Gujarat's Muslims see some signs of change in your attitude" but added nine conditions, including a public apology for the riots,  for a reconciliation. "Modi has successfully courted upper class muslims. My letter was strategic to expose Modi," he says.

Whether Gujarat's Muslims have been politically sidelined may have no impact on the outcome of the state election, but in the age of coalition politics, the question of inclusive politics will become relevant when the focus shifts from Ahmedabad to the national stage in New Delhi for the general election.

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