Tale of two cities as India's Gujarat goes to polls


Thu Dec 6, 2007 11:12 PM EST
By Simon Denyer

http://ca.today.reuters.com/

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - In India's largest
supermarket, in front of rows of Japanese electronics,
French perfume and Californian plums, it is hard to
find anyone who does not support Narendra Modi.

This is home turf for the charismatic and
controversial chief minister of the western state of
Gujarat, who has brought development with a hardline
Hindu nationalist face and is seeking re-election next
week.

"You can see all the development in Gujarat, the roads
are very good, a lot of malls, entertainment centers,
the express highway," said 23-year-old Chirayu Patel,
a Hindu who works for Nokia and who was shopping with
his girlfriend.

"I really admire Modi's style, his attitude."

Gujarat is one of the richest and fastest growing
states in a booming India, and the gleaming Reliance
Mart in its main city Ahmedabad is a symbol of
consumerist culture in a region where money was always
important.

Modi's business-friendly and relatively efficient
government is taking credit for what he calls "Vibrant
Gujarat."

But on the other side of town, vibrancy is in
desperately short supply. Here, the minority Muslim
population lives in poverty, in what can only be
described as a series of ghettoes.

Discrimination and division is deep-rooted in
Ahmedabad. Muslims cannot buy or rent property in
Hindu parts of town, the two communities living
separately, and in fear of each other.

One of the poorest Muslim areas is Citizen Nagar, a
cluster of sorry houses beside towering, stinking
mountains of garbage, built for people who lost their
homes in communal riots in 2002.

"We are living in a pile of garbage and that's how the
government wants us to live," said 36-year-old Ayub
Ismail Sheikh, who runs a small store from his home,
amid the filthy, narrow, fly-infested dirt streets.

"Muslims are like garbage."

Modi is often referred to as the poster boy of
Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist philosophy of the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's main opposition
party.

Accused of encouraging the 2002 riots in which between
1,200 and 2,500 people were killed, most of them
Muslims, he swept the state election later that year
on an overtly pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim platform.

But Modi is vulnerable this time around, and the
Congress party, which runs the national coalition
government, is hoping to unseat him when voting takes
place on December 11 and 16. 

MUSLIMS DREAD MODI

Victory would give Congress a massive boost ahead of
national polls due by mid-2009, but for now, Modi
seems to be just ahead.

It is a prospect which fills many Muslims with dread.

"More riots, more problems for us," predicted
30-year-old Reshma Bano Syed. "No hope," said Sheikh.

Sheikh, who worked in Dubai for 10 years, said he lost
property and possessions worth 300,000 rupees ($7,600)
when a Hindu mob, armed with swords, tridents and guns
came on a spree of murder and arson through the Muslim
suburb of Naroda Patia.

He got 11,600 rupees as compensation.

Twice he tried to open a bank account, twice he was
turned away -- because, he says, he is Muslim. There
was even less hope of a loan to start a mechanic's
shop.

"The bank said 'for people from this area, we are not
giving loans. We have no time to argue with you, get
lost'."

Shama Bano Ansari lost her husband in the 2002 riots.
He was beaten unconscious by a Hindu mob, dragged into
a sidestreet, doused with petrol and burnt.

"All Modi has given us is the ashes of burnt bodies,"
she said, her 10-year-old son, the youngest of seven
children, leaving the room in tears.

"I try to forget what happened, but every week, every
day someone is talking about it," she said. "The
wounds have never healed."

Outside Gujarat, many Indians wonder how their Hindu
brothers can so casually re-elect such a divisive
figure as Modi.

"Everybody does good and bad things but the good
things he has done are so much," said Devina Bhardwaj,
who runs a clinical research company.

And the riots?

"I have not seen him doing it," she said. "There have
always been riots in Ahmedabad."

Hardik Parikh, a 23-year-old student, went further as
he sat with his girlfriend in the mall. The riots, he
says, were necessary, after Muslim militants had set
off bombs in Mumbai in 1993 and attacked India's
parliament in 2001.

"It was important to teach the Muslims a lesson. They
are mushrooming and they will start to kill Hindus."

"It should not be repeated, but once is ok."

(Editing by Y.P. Rajesh and Sanjeev Miglani)








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