There was a surprise result in the 2004 Indian general election, which I covered for RFI. Congress won despite the BJP’s boasts of “India shining” thanks to its economic management. Much of the middle class liked the BJP4S success in reconciling Hindu nationalism with mall-building multinationals but the poor, especially the rural poor, were less impressed. I visited Bombay and Gujarat. The latter turns out to have been a good choice, Gujarat being the home base of Narendra Modi, who has taken advantage of Congress squandering the good will of its voters and led the BJP to power. See the second half of this post for a visit to the scene of communal riots that are still a controversial part of the PM’s past. Here’s what I wrote on my return to France in 2004.
Mumbai, 18-21 April 2004
The behl puri sellers by the Gateway to India are going to vote Congress.
Behl puhri, a sort of spicy dry rice crispies with vermicelli, is, I’m assured, the essential Bombay snack. Actually, I’d already tasted it in London but I’m now told that can’t have been the real thing. It doesn’t taste very different to me, agreeable but not irresistible.
The promenade in front of the luxury Taj hotel, which has attracted a swarm of cheaper hotels including my own along the seafront, is popular for the locals’ evening stroll and for tourists any time of the day, so it’s a good beat for hawkers.
As the behl puri seller assembles my snack, he and his friends explain that they will back Congress when it comes to their turn to vote in the general election which is going on at the moment … in a complicated system of stages, designed to deal with the world‘s biggest electorate. The behl puri sellers are Hindus but don’t sympathise with the Hindu-nationalist agenda of the Bharatya Janata Party, the BJP, which led the outgoing government.
What do they think of Moslems?
‘‘They are our brothers.’’
What about the Hindu-chauvinist project of building a temple on the ruins of the mosque at Ayodhya, which was destroyed by a mob in 1992 with several BJP leaders looking on approvingly?
‘‘They keep talking about it but they don’t do anything.’’
It’s not entirely clear what they should do.
India has a name for the casual labour, with no rights and no security, which provides a living for these street sellers. It’s called the “unorganized” sector and it accounts for 92% of the country’s employment. There are many such neologisms here and it is difficult to know whether they’ve been invented to give nominal dignity to the oppressed or to disguise the nature of their situation.
I thought I’d seen poverty in the eight Asian countries and three Middle Eastern ones that I’d visited before coming to India but, even in war zones, I’ve never seen the widespread, everyday degradation that I’ve encountered in Bombay.
One of the city’s main thoroughfares, Mohamed Ali Road, is being widened or reconstructed. Half the road is torn up leaving a lower layer open. Families have taken up residence on this mixture of tarmac, metal and rubble. As I drive by in a taxi, a mother does her domestic chores in the open air and her baby crawls naked in the roadworks, with cars, auto-rickshaws and motor-bikes driving past, belching filth into the atmosphere.
On another route into the city, shacks made out of cardboard, wood or corrugated iron have taken over half the pavement for miles and miles and miles. Many have two storeys, although the ground floor would oblige most European to stoop and the top floor is just tall enough to crawl into and sleep. Some of the slum-dwellers have decorated their frontages. Sometimes the dwellings give way to workshops, with racks of steel bars or wood offcuts. You come to a corner and the pavement city stretches off down another long road to the left.
As in all poor countries, street-hawkers and casual labourers pushing barrows stacked with sacks or raw materials are often to be seen.
Beggars are everywhere, including mothers with babies. At traffic lights, the occupants of cars are likely to be accosted by eunuchs wearing kohl and dressed as women. Apparently, many are former street-children who were castrated when young. I’m told that this brutal arrangement at least provides them with a community which affords some solidarity among the indifferent concrete and dirt.
When the heat of the afternoon becomes overpowering, labourers sleep on the street in the baskets they use to carry building materials. At night taxi-drivers sleep on their bonnets. Under the flyover which overshadows Mohamed Ali Road, I see three men taking a siesta. The man nearest to me has a stump cut off at the knee lifted above his body, the stump patched with rags.
A causeway leads to the tomb of Haji Ali Bukhari, which sits on an island in the bay. When the tide comes in, the tomb is cut off by the sea. That hasn’t stopped the construction of dozens of improvised stalls selling flowers and sweets for Muslims and Hindus to present to the Haji, many of them perched on wooden stilts half-submerged in water. Beggars line the other side of the path. A toddler stands unattended, about a yard from the water. A group of four lie, nearly naked, chanting in the midday sun, banging their truncated limbs on the ground in time. Near the entrance to the shrine men and women sit on the ground with piles of change in front of them. It’s considered propitious to give alms after a visit and they change notes for coins for a small commission, so that the faithful can gain maximum credit by giving to as many supplicants as possible. One of the money-changers, a raggedly-dressed woman, is talking into a mobile phone.
On the way back, the handicapped men have stopped chanting and are sitting up having a fag.
Near the hotels, street-children beg off the tourists. One of them, a girl called Pinkie, tells me she comes from Pune and left because her parents kicked her out. She doesn’t know why. She walked to Bombay because she had a relation here already living on the street. She speaks quite good English and can also throw in a few words of French or Italian that she’s picked up from tourists.
The street-children tend to ask you to buy them a tin of powdered milk ‘‘for my baby sister’’. I was impressed by the altruism of the request the first time. By the third, it occurred to me that reselling the tin would bring in a lot more than the couple of rupees a tourist is likely to give if left to his or her own initiative.
The visitor from a rich country becomes prone to that sort of calculation here. We feel persecuted by persistent beggars and snarl at them, become terrified of being charged more than the locals and haggle over a few rupees. Later we realise that we’ve saved the value of a coin which we wouldn’t bother to pick up in the street back home.
One could say that we’re used to delegating our social responsibilities to the state and aren’t used to coming face to face with the inequalities that are part of the equation that creates our privileges. We see that we can’t resolve it all and have no system, like zakat, tribe or caste, which will decide our priorities for us.
Arun Gawli used to work in the organised sector. He was employed in Bombay’s textile mills, along with tens of thousands of others. A vast area of the city depended on the mills for work and, often, for homes which were made available to mill workers’ families.
But, as workers will, they organised trade unions, went on strike, improved their wages and conditions. The employers closed the mills and moved the work out of Bombay to smaller workplaces and even to homeworkers, who were likely to be more compliant.
The way to get rich now in Bombay is through real estate. So the land on which those mill workers’ tenements stand can be valuable, if the homes are replaced by cinemas, car parks and shopping malls for Bombay’s developing middle class. So evictions are widespread – malls eat men.
The strikes were long and sometimes violent. Workers found themselves locked out for years. Employers would subsidise scab unions which sometimes took on a certain independence and imposed conditions on the bosses, the promotion of the union leader to senior management, for example. Some of the young unemployed joined gangs and the gangsters became embroiled in the industrial disputes.
As the organised sector declined, organised crime grew.
Hundreds of people are gathered in the fortified compound outside Arun Gawli’s home. Apparently it’s the same every day. They want help, maybe in fighting an eviction, maybe to get a job, maybe for some other problem. Perhaps some want to help Gawli’s campaign to be elected for Mumbai South Central constituency.
For the record, Gawli denies having committed the crimes which landed him in jail a while back but he doesn’t bother to sue the news-media which describe him as a “don”, a criminal godfather Bombay-style.
To interview Daddy, as the don likes to be called, local journalist Dnyanesh Jathar and I are ushered into his multi-story home, told to remove our shoes and put in a lift, which takes us to the roof. We wait in a roof-garden, with a small temple for the household’s use, a painted cement elephant and a garishly coloured relief of the monkey-god Hanuman on the wall. As we wait, a man places his hands on Hanuman’s bright pink legs and appears to say a silent prayer.
Gawli appears in kurta-pyjama and Nehru-cap, whose brilliant white contrasts with his dark skin and black moustache, and signs namaste with his hands, smiling charmingly.
He says that he’s helped slum-dwellers improve their living conditions, cleaned up stinking toilets, some of which leaked so badly that tenants had to take umbrellas in with them, and provided water and drainage.
He says that he entered politics to work in an unspecified capacity for the Shiv Sena, the far-right Hindu-chauvinists who helped break the millworkers’ strikes and now control the city council. At one time, they reportedly backed Gawli against Muslim gangster Daoud Ibrahim on the grounds of his religious and communal affiliation. Daoud is now in hiding, allegedly in Pakistan whose secret services are supposed to have worked with him, and wanted for his alleged part in the 1993 bombings which killed 317 people, in reprisal for the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the previous months.
But Shiv Sena ditched Gawli while he was in jail, detained under the National Security Act. He claims that they joined in a chorus of wrongful accusations of crimes of violence committed by some of his associates.
‘‘How could I have done them while I was in jail?’’ he asks, with a logic that seems faultless but for the fact that his prison-guards are accused of allowing him to hold a durbar, or court, while under their supervision.
Anyway, an offended Gawli set up his own party, Akhil Bharatiya Sena, eight years ago and is now fighting Mumbai south-central against Shiv Sena incumbent Mohan Rawale. Another candidate is Sachin Ahir, for the Nationalist Congress Party, a Maharashtra-based split-off from Congress. He’s Gawli’s nephew.
I point out that Gawli seems pretty wealthy for a redundant millworker, which is what he claims to be. He says that his family had a number of cows (the Gawlis are apparently a caste of cowherds) and sold milk before the government took over milk distribution, when they invested their earnings in property.
The real estate boom is believed to have made many dubious characters wealthy but the dons apparently also protected some of the poor against other landsharks. Some people see them as Robin Hoods, although their criminal repertoire seems more extensive, and perhaps more ruthless, than that of the hero of Sherwood Forest.
They entered politics when election candidates decided to add muscle to more traditional means of campaigning and seem to have felt at home in the political milieu.
India’s Election Commission declares that 700 members of the upper or lower houses of parliament have criminal records and this election looks set to add to their ranks. The front page of the Asian Age features mugshots of 24 candidates ‘accused of serious offences’ – extortion, rape, dacoity (banditry) and communal violence, for example. Arun Gawli is among them, accused of murder, abetting murder and rioting with a deadly weapon.
Other interesting candidates include two eunuchs, Sonia Ajmeri, standing against deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani, and Sanjude Nayak, fighting Defence Minister Harin Pathak, and a record number of film stars, including Govinda, the star of 125 Bollywood greats, who’s standing for Congress in Mumbai North-west. The Economic Times tells us he has forsaken his trademark white shoes and purple shirts for the garb of white shirt and white trousers, which is apparently the uniform of the political caste.
‘‘My dancing has been compared with John Travolta and Elvis Presley and my films have offered entertainment to the lower middle classes.’’ Govinda tells the paper. ‘‘I am a common man, and in my new avtar, people can identify with me.’’
The substrata of the class system are even more conscientiously defined than in Britain.
Gujarat 21-22 April
Binu Alex is Kerala Christian, which I suppose allows him a certain distance when reporting on events in Gujarat, a long way from his birthplace and a very Hindu state.
Cows seem to be everywhere in the streets of Ahmedabad, the state’s biggest city, while other beasts, camels or human beings for example, carry the burdens and pull the carts.
‘‘The cows are better looked after than the people,’’ says Binu. The state has a Cow Services Commission, with a department for protection of cows, a department to encourage breeding and a department for making medicine from their urine and their excrement. The state is also the site of India’s space programme.
As we drive around Ahmedabad, Binu points out the invisible dividing lines between Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods. At a crossroads, he points to one corner and says: ‘‘That’s a police post.’’
The he points at a large modern building on the opposite corner and says: ‘‘That was a mall owned by a Muslim. During the riots a mob attacked that mall and burned it. The police just sat in their post and watched.’’
The riots took place in 2002 and Ahmedabad still bears the scars.
They started after Muslims in a town far away from Ahmedabad stoned a train carrying Hindu activists, who had been to Ayodhya, the city where a mosque was destroyed 10 years previously. The “pilgrims” apparently chanted slogans in favour of their claim for a temple to be built on the site of the mosque, leading the Muslims to attack the train, killing 59 Hindus.
A wave of violent reprisal swept the state, from the main cities to the villages on the edge of the forests where adivasi tribal people live. Officially 1,000 Muslims were killed, although most estimates put the figure at 2,000, their homes and businesses were attacked and often burnt to the ground. Thousands were forced to live in refugee camps for months afterwards.
As we pass a group of middle-class homes, Binu points to one and says that it was the home of a Muslim former judge.
‘‘The crowd attacked that one and not the others. They knew where to come.’’
Another well-known Muslim tried desperately to phone his contacts in Delhi, appealing to them to intervene to stop the bloodshed. When that didn’t work, he went out into the street and said to the murderers: ‘‘Spare these people – take my life instead.’’
They took his life; but as well, not instead.
Usually, it was easy to find where the Muslims lived. For example, everyone knows who lives in Narodia Patia, a poor area of dusty alleys running between two-room concrete houses. When the mob arrived, the women of the area got together and discussed what to do.
‘‘We had decided to stay,’’ says vegetable-seller Zuleika Manu Chowdry, whose bare, untidy house is on the street where the attack began. ‘‘Then we saw Kausarbano run past with her belly slit open and we thought we’d better leave.’’
Kausarbano Shaikh was pregnant. The mob cut open her womb and paraded the foetus through the narrow lanes, impaled on a sword.
The police had already told the women that they were on their own. They fled the area and spent months in a refugee camp. Over 120 people were killed in this one area. One young man we meet fled the massacre with his father. But his brother was handicapped and unable to walk, let alone run. The rioters pulled him out of his wheelchair and slaughtered him on the spot.
Gujarat voted the day before my arrival.
Before the election, 20 of its 26 seats were held by the BJP. Binu and other journalists believe that party has done well, if not better, this time round. The state minister is local BJP leader Narendra Modi, who’s now well-known throughout India because so many people have accused him of complicity in the communal violence. A success in this election could put him on track for a brilliant career at federal level.
Yamal A Vyas is a cheerful man who lives and works in a modest house in a middle-class area. He’s the convenor of the committee which draws up the BJP’s economic policy in the state.
He believes that the party has run the state well, attracting investment which ‘‘according to my understanding of economics’’ will trickle down and enrich the whole population, although he doesn‘t specify exactly when. Vyas claims that Muslim voters are deserting Congress, which they traditionally saw as their secular defender, because they’ve lost faith in it and see the good work that the BJP has done for development;
He says that he regrets the violence of 2002 and denies that the BJP colluded in it or that the police were lax in defending the victims. Hindu-Muslim relations have improved since then, he believes, but adds that sometimes Muslims behave provocatively. For example, ‘‘in cricket, when Pakistan won against India, they let off fireworks and celebrated.”
I remark that perhaps this shouldn’t be a capital offence. Vyas agrees.
Dr Hanif Lakdawala is less enamoured of the chief minister. He claims that the day before the riots Modi held a meeting with top police officers and other officials and told them: ‘‘Tomorrow whatever my boys are doing you’re not going to interfere.’’
Lakdawala is a qualified medical doctor and the director of Sanchetawa, an NGO which works with the poor of both communities. It’s well-furnished office, decorated with posters against domestic violence and for literacy, is in the improbably-named New York Trade Centre, a low-rise concrete building with a sign depicting the Statue of Liberty outside.
The doctor has become a high-profile opponent of sectarian violence, since he accused Modi of complicity with it in 2002.
He says that poverty crosses the communal barrier and reaches extremes on both sides but that he sees no sign of that bringing Hindu and Muslim together. He believes that, with the encouragement of Modi and the state government, the communal division in Gujarat is the deepest in India.
Indeed, the 2002 bloodletting was not the first such pogrom here. Lakdawala believes that it won’t be repeated on the same scale because of the national and international attention that it attracted but that further clashes will take place.
Shortly before our arrival at the headquarters of Prashant, a Jesuit human-rights and social-development centre, two other visitors had barged into the ground-floor reception area. They had threatened Father Cedric Prakash and his co-workers with violence if they didn’t stop their agitation against communal hatred and violence. They finally left when Prakash phoned the police.
It’s not the first time the Jesuit priest has been threatened, or even attacked. As long ago as 1992, he was badly beaten for speaking out against the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Since then he’s had death threats, hate-calls and (unsuccessful) pressure from politicians on the religious hierarchy to shut him up.
To stand up to all that, you need a strong personality and Prakash, who was born in Bombay 53 years ago, joined the Jesuit order in 1974 and has been in Ahmedabad for 17 years, clearly has charm and a forceful will in about equal measure.
He characterises the 2002 violence as ‘‘state-sponsored’’ and is one of a number of activists who have campaigned for retrial of cases arising from it on the grounds that they were conducted within the state and were thus subject to political and communal pressure.
During the election campaign, they won a victory when India’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial, outside Gujarat, of 21 Hindus accused of killing 15 Muslims in an arson attack on a shop known as the Best Bakery. Yesterday the state government announced that it would appeal against the decision. Prakash and his colleagues hope to get 12 other similar cases judged outside the state.
Prakash points out that Moslems are not the only victims of dirty politics in Gujarat. Christians are such an infinitely small proportion of the state’s population – 0.5% – that one would think it hardly worth a Hindu chauvinist’s time attacking them. But they do – 84 times in 1988, when the Hindu right launched a sort of turf war over the right to recruit members of tribal groups.
The local BJP’s Freedom of Religion law, named with fine bureaucratic irony, is a product of hard-line Hindu hostility to conversions to Christianity and could be a model for national legislation if some BJP and Hindu activists get their way.
The act enrols the judicial authorities into the policing of religion. A conversion cannot take place without the permission of a District Magistrate, who must also be informed of the fact afterwards. Anyone carrying out an illegal conversion may be punished by three years in prison and a fine. But the law is particularly concerned to protect minors, women and members of scheduled castes or tribes from being led astray. It raises the possible prison term to four years and doubles the fine if they are the subject of the conversion.
Throughout India’s history dalits and adivasis have not unnaturally been attracted by religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Christianity which don’t stigmatise them on the basis of caste.
Prakash and other Christian social activists are particularly worried by a ban on ‘‘allurement’’, defined as ‘‘any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind’’ or a ‘‘grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise’’.
In many poor areas they provide educational and medical facilities. The hard-liners have insinuated that these are bribes to convert and the activists fear that this could be the pretext for prosecutions or attempts to close the programmes.
Prakash is one of the few people I meet who believes that the BJP are losing ground locally.
‘‘We went to the south of the state yesterday to watch the voting,’’ he says. ‘‘I think they’ll lose seats. People are seeing through them.’’
My journalist companions look sceptical.
Two kilometres outside the village of Amirapur, just after passing a pastel-coloured temple, you come across two streets, looking a bit lost in the middle of the fields. In one a camel stands tied to a tree and broken stones create a road-surface of sorts. This is where rawals, a so-called “intermediate caste”, live.
A little further down the road on the opposite side, live the dalits, Gandhi’s “children of heaven”, sometimes called backward castes or untouchables.
Not just untouchables but unsmellables: “It has something to do even with wind direction,” says Anosh Malekar a local reporter who has joined us for this visit to rural Gujarat. “The lower castes always stay so that they don’t pollute the winds also of the upper castes. Suppose that we are on the west and we have westerly winds, an OBC house will be at the far end of the village and no upper caste will stay beyond them.”
But for the tinny echo of a radio and a couple of dogs, there’s no sign of life around the dozen or so one-storey concrete houses laid out in two rows and shaded by trees. Suddenly the radio is switched off and we can only hear birds singing. Then a few people venture out into the intense midday heat.
One of them is Ramesh Bhai Karsan Bhai, a short plump, dark-skinned man, dressed in a white tee-shirt and kind of sarong, a string of beads hanging round his neck.
He tells us that 20 years ago their homes were closer to the village, but even less sophisticated. Indira Gandhi’s government built them new homes and they moved here.
The people here belong to a sub-caste, the chamars, who make leather.
“Whenever an animal dies in the village,” says Ramesh, “we go there, we bring the carcass here, we remove the skin and make leather to use for various purposes. All kinds of animals – cow, buffalo, goats, ox … even camels.”
They sell the product to traders from the towns.
When no animals have had the good grace to die, they work the fields of upper-caste peasants or run errands for them, earning a pittance for about 12 hours’ work per day.
Feisty 57-year-old Isaben says that two years of drought have meant not enough work, meaning not enough to eat. And that’s meant debt, as the dalits have borrowed from money-lenders who settle interest rates as they see fit.
Isaben only borrows from the man for whom she usually works and refuses to pay interest. “Even today I owe him 5,000 rupees, but I told him flat on his face that if I get no work, I won’t be paying.”
She draws an “Oh, my God!” and a shocked, but impressed, laugh from Anosh, who’s interpreting, when she explains that if any of the money-lenders give them trouble, she herself will go and beat them up.
Prakash, an unemployed 22-year-old who gets occasional work on other people’s land, lives with his extended family of seven people, of whom only his married brother has regular work.
In the best of all possible worlds, if he could change his life, what would he want?
“His dream is of a better life,” translates Anosh. “He is ready to start a small business, preferably something to do with leather, because that’s his expertise. Or of a small job which would pay him something like 100 euros a month in Indian rupees, where he could work something like eight hours and come back … it’s important that he could get an income that could see survival of his large family, as well as ensure education for his next generation – because he thinks education is important.”
In the village itself, the local schoolteacher, Hasherben Patel,her husband, Prakesh, and her assistant are standing outside the school.
Patel says that 80 per cent of the children that she teaches come from poor families – “if they work today, they eat; otherwise they don’t eat.” The droughts have hit them badly and they haven’t received much help from the government.
The other 20 per cent are upper caste. “They own all the livestock around here” and, although she doesn’t know exactly how much, “have fat bank balances”.
There are two schools serving the village, one for the centre and one for its outskirts, meaning that the dalits whom we met all go to a separate school from those who live in the area that we’re now in. But the teacher insists that there is a caste mix in both schools and that they were built to conform to government regulations that mean to stop children walking too far in the hot sun.
This is a Congress-run village; the dalits had already told us that. Although they are Hindus, they don’t vote along religious lines for the BJP but for the country’s best-known secular party.
The teachers are full of praise for the small group who run things here. They seem to have a tight grip on parochial power but our informants credit them with using it to obtain good roads, water and 24-hour power-supply, which is rare in rural India.
Out of deference to central government efforts at a form of positive discrimination, the village head is a woman. But, not unusually, according to Anosh, “the village is de-facto run by her father-in-law”.
Driving out of the village, we come across a crowd following a sound-system blaring out frantic and distorted music. Two men in brightly-coloured clothes, their face painted and turbans knotted on their heads, are perched on top of horses.
They’re bridegrooms from another village who are both marrying local girls and are being paraded around the area so that the community can judge the quality of the catch.
Young men from the other village say that they think their comrades have done well marrying here. They start to praise the facilities here and then stop, local patriotism demanding that they claim their own territory is just as good.
In a new blast of pipes and percussion they set off through the greenery. I don’t see any of the dalits in the crowd.