The Karachi slum of Lyari was exultant after the 2008 election that toppled military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Populated largely by migrants from the state of Balochistan, where a separatist rebellion has been going on for decades, it is notorious for its poverty and gangsterism, which has also seeped into the cities politics. On a brief visit I met some interesting individuals, whose political activism could have been linked to other interests.
Lyari is a traffic-choked slum near Karachi’s port. Piles of rubbish fester underfoot and flies settle on anything that doesn’t move. Blocked drains spill sewage into the street, leaving puddles of filth which will become breeding-grounds for disease-bearing mosquitoes.
But many people in Lyari are exultant today. Unofficial results show a humiliation for President Pervez Musharraf and his allies. The politicians have rushed to Islamabad, as the People’s Party tries to form a government.
The PPP has come out in front, although some of the sympathy generated by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination seems to have evaporated in the polling booths. The party doesn’t seem to have lived up to the most optimistic predictions, while Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is believed to have done a bit better than expected, mostly in Punjab where it rules the roost again.
Karachi is in the PPP’s strongest province, Sindh. But the giant city’s politics are complicated by the existence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the MQM, whose vote-base is the mohajirs, Urdu-speaking immigrants who fled India at the time of partition.
There have been many other groups of immigrants since then, both from other Asian countries and from Pakistan’s poorer provinces.
The biggest group in Lyari is from Balochistan province. In an empty shell of a building, which should probably be a shop, I meet Khuda Baksh and Mahmoud Yacub.
They’re Baloches and they worked for the PPP. Baksh is clearly somebody around here. He’s tall, walks with a swagger, wears flashy wrap-around sunglasses along with more traditional Pakistani clothes and speaks passable English.
I don’t know whether he unduly influenced voters but he certainly tries to influence my interviewees. After agreeing to translate, he leans over and whispers to them, apparently anxious that they may fail to mention to his party favourably.
He doesn’t have to put words in the mouth of Air Bibi, who lives up to the reputation of Baloch women for forthright assertiveness. Without waiting to be asked, she explodes into praise of Benazir –“Benazir is in our hearts! Benazir is our star! Benazir is our daughter!” and condemnation of Musharraf “He will be out, insha’allah!”, punctuated with “aah! aah!”, “upurroopurroopurra!” and finger-clicking.
Air Bibi finishes with a declaration of Baloch pride. Further down the street, Zahid, one of a group of young men who gather around me, mixes Baloch nationalism with resentment of the poverty around him.
“Look at this area! We are not having each and everything, especially Baloch nation. And also Punjabis are providing each and everything by the government.”
He gestures to the grimy buildings. “See our areas? Nothing has been providing our nation. We are jobless and everything. If PPP governs, it gives each and everything to Baloch nation.”
Baksh and Yacub are clearly annoyed that the MQM, which allied itself to the PML-Q in Sindh and at a national level, seems to have resisted the anti-Musharraf wave in this election and won about 20 seats.
In one of those they-say-we cheated-we say-they-cheated declarations, Baksh claims to have been swindled out of votes in his ballywick.
Karachi is a violent place and in this election the city was up to its previous bloody form. Party workers have passed from polemic to shoot-out on several occasions. Five activists have been killed, the latest being a PPP member killed in a gunfight with MQM supporters on Friday.
The PPP accuses the MQM of vote-rigging and kidnapping some of its workers. The MQM accuses the PPP of using “the mafia” to improve its chances of electoral success.
Elsewhere in the city, Karachi residents amuse themselves. On the bridge by the port, crowds buy lumps of lung from ragged boys and throw them to scavenger birds. The birds swoop and catch them in their claws, never letting a single morsel fall into the water below.
On Seaview beach no-one swims. Here boys sell ice-cream and corn-on-the-cob and offer to take your photo. Families mount on camels and young men ride beautiful white and brown horses across the dark mud as night falls.
In 2005 I covered Afghanistan’s first post-invasion parliamentary election. Here’s my account, written at the time, of how women and independent candidates struggled to make their voices heard, despite quotas, in a contest dominated by warlords and ethnic-based politicians. In the eastern city of Herat the legacy of one of these ruthless operators lives on, despite his being kicked upstairs to central government. In Kabul a former minister claims a mafia of warlords, drug-runners and NGOs is running the country.
Kabul, 11 September 2005
At last, the freedom they were fighting for! Four years after the US and its allies toppled the Taliban, Kabul has traffic jams.
Our midday journey from the airport to a hotel in the centre of town is excruciating, as we crawl through streets packed with private cars, taxis and land-cruisers.
Just under a year ago, during the presidential election, there was more traffic but not this asphyxiating blockade of the city’s main arteries.
Now the smog has become thicker and the thrum of engines ticking over lasts from mid-morning to evening. Every Kabuli has been granted the democratic right to sit and curse the car in front and pump fumes into the city’s already dust-laden air, whether in his or her own car, in a taxi or in a minibus stuffed full of passengers.
Except for the beggars and hawkers, of course. Amputees, women clad in soiled and faded burkas and kids selling newspapers dodge between the cars and tap on the windows. Near the junction of Park Street and Chicken Street, where foreigners shop for rugs and antique furniture, a man dressed in rags stands in the middle of the traffic, bent under the weight of an apparently paralysed boy who is strapped to his back for the day. The man holds out his hand for alms from the oncoming motorists, as the boy lies on top of him, occasionally rolling his head from side to side, apparently oblivious to the passing traffic.
The Americans are rebuilding the road from the airport, so that visiting dignitaries have a smooth run to their main compound, which is on the way into the city.
The concrete and barbed wire fortifications around their buildings, and those around others that house foreign organisations or Afghan ministries, seem to have been reinforced, eating even further into the streets around them. It doesn’t look as if their occupants expect to leave any day soon.
The square in front of the defence ministry is cordoned off by police … not just because a convoy of cars belonging to Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was attacked yesterday – the attack missed the minister who was out of town at the time – but also because the square is occupied by several hundred former soldiers.
We have to negotiate a passage through a barricade of bikes before we can talk to the protestors. They are some of several thousand military officers, about a third of the officer corps, who have been thrown out of the army.
These men used to belong to the various militias which were integrated into the army as part of the process which is supposed to demilitarise the country.
Having noticed that army officers’ salaries are several times higher than those of the police, the government has decided to dispense with their services.
The men, who seem to represent all of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups, sit quietly in the dust around a van with a loudspeaker and a man on its roof, addressing them.
He climbs down and comes to talk to us.
Abdel Hafiz was a colonel. He says that the redundant officers could do the work now being done by the more than 30,000 foreign troops in a far-from-pacified country.
“We have high-ranking officers who are experienced and don’t need training. So we don’t need international forces to come here and secure our country.”
There aren’t a lot of jobs about nor spare fertile land to be worked.
“We’ve been borrowing from our friends and from our relatives, so now we are not able to borrow again. Now we’re out of money and our economic condition is getting worse.”
A crowd of about 40 men gathers as we talk. They all claim to be ex-mujahedin, who have fought either the Russians or the Taliban or both.
But the label can cover a multitude of sins. They could well have been involved in the brutality and sectarian viciousness which characterised the conflict and that means that many civilians don’t trust them.
Brought into the army by the post-war Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, which aimed to find places for former fighters in a peaceful Afghanistan, they’ve now been deintegrated with little training in anything other than warfare … thousands of experienced fighters at a loose end in a country already ravaged by war.
Behind the cordon of truncheon-wielding police in front of the entrance to the ministry stands a line of soldiers, guns at the ready for use against their former officers if need be.
Shah Shaheen is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kabul. The houses sprawling up the hillside and the dirt road that winds between them are all the same dusty colour. A new water-pump stands in a gap in the buildings, rigid and shiny against the jagged outline of distant mountains. The local people have themselves paid for its installation and would like the government to compensate them for the cost and provide other basic services.
Behind the shabby walls, in a house built around a traditional courtyard, Ghutai Khawari sits on a raised piece of ground, flanked by local supporters, with a small audience sitting in the shade provided by a colourfully-patterned sheet stretched between tall roughly-cut poles.
Khawari is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament which is to be elected on Sunday along with provincial assemblies.
She’s a journalist and her level of education seems to impress her audience. In a country with 70-80% illiteracy, poor voters almost always say that they want an “educated person” to represent them.
Her audience is entirely masculine, unless you count a few little girls playing in the street outside.
The men seem to have left their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers at home but they insist that they’re ready to vote for a woman candidate.
Ali, a young man who is enthusiastically moving chairs and making people welcome, speaks to us in English.
“No, it’s not important, that, it is no problem. Islam says that women and men are equal.”
Ghawari tells her audience that it would be a sin to vote for candidates with blood on their hands, a reference to the many warlords who’ve found their way onto the ballot-papers.
Earlier she told us that ending ethnic enmity is her top priority, “especially among women, where they say ‘you’re a Pashtun, you’re a Tajik’ and so on, because we’re women, we’re human, we’re one.”
She accuses the authorities of paying lip-service to helping women but not taking action.
“The government and some NGOs say they will give rights to the people but they don’t pay any attention to the majority of women, who live in the villages, in the provinces.”
She cites as examples the lack of education for girls and poor health care, which, she says leads to 1,000 women dying in childbirth every year.
To her audience she also stresses that she is running a shoe-string campaign.
“You are my only resources,” she tells them.
At least 68 seats have been reserved for women in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga, with at least two in the provincial councils, which will have between nine and 29 members.
Women’s rights campaigners are encouraged by the fact that 328 women are standing for the Wolesi Jirga. Not so many have come forward for the provincial councils, however, where the weight of tradition may be heavier.
Almost all the women standing are independents. That means that, like Ghawari, they have little money, no experience and no established network.
The regional bigwigs and established politicians may have terrorised the area where they’re standing or pocketed fortunes through corrupt dealings but they have the advantage of being well-known and, through patronage, they can find support among the men of influence in the towns and villages.
Ghawari and other women candidates in Kabul say that they’ve faced no intimidation or pressure while campaigning. But, they warn, that may not be the case in the provinces, especially the rural areas.
There women risk being chased off the street if they appear in public. What’s more women can’t go into the mosque to address Friday prayers. Many, though not all, mullahs preach against female participation in public life and, even without that, tradition militates against them.
And there’s also intimidation by warlords and the Taliban.
The Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) reports that the husband of one female candidate in Baghlan province was jailed for two days without charge and later sacked from his job because he helped her campaign.
One woman election worker has been killed during the campaign. Other women report death threats and accusations that they are “American spies”.
Little wonder then that 51 women withdrew their candidacies for unspecified reasons before the campaign started.
No-one can escape evidence of the election in Herat. Candidates’ photographs and slogan-bearing banners hang from string stretched between the pine-trees which line the streets, so that the city looks as if it’s celebrating a particularly popular festival.
Posters are plastered all over any available wall-space – on the concrete and metal umbrellas erected at crossroads to provide traffic-police with shade and on what looks like a peace monument, a structure topped with a globe and four doves which stands at one of the main road junctions.
And they’re contributing to the deterioration of the city’s historic legacy.
Enthusiastic campaigners have fly-posted their candidates’ images onto centuries-old minarets, which have survived earthquake and war but are now threatened by vibrations from a nearby road – and by electoral politics.
The long road to Herat from the airport is lined by trees almost all the way, encouraging fantasies of entering at the head of a trader’s caravan or a conquering army.
You pass through villages with traditional mud-caked buildings, past a park crowded with painted, concrete benches but no people to sit on them and over a bridge which looks down on a broad river-bed, where motorists wash their vehicles in the narrow strip of river that the sun has so far failed to evaporate.
Herat’s a relief after Kabul. Its wide, tree-lined streets are relatively clean and uncongested. There’s less dust and more visible history, most noticeably the huge and beautiful mosque in the city centre.
My translator, Hoshang, is bowled over by the city’s cleanliness and its exotic Persian atmosphere. When we see a man smoking a shisha pipe in a restaurant, he asks me what the strange object is, never having seen one in Kabul or in Peshawar, the two cities he has lived in.
Clearly the governor who built the present seat of local government in the mid-20th century, didn’t want the home of secular power to be completely dwarfed by the mosque. It’s a rambling complex of brick-clad buildings, about as tall as the mosque and pleasant enough to look at, even if it can’t compete with the mosque’s tile-clad walls, which were decorated by craftsmen skilled in a 600-year-old art form.
It’s easy to gain access to high officials. Sitting in the corner of a large room, as a handful of officials administer the citizens who have come to petition him, deputy governor Mir Abdul Khalq, “call me Haj Mir because no-one in Herat will recognise me if you give me the full name”, offers cups of green tea and chats affably. But he says it would be better if I interview Governor Mohammed Khair Khuwa.
Unfortunately, the governor is in Kabul today, so we will have to come back tomorrow.
Haj Mir is a grey-bearded, wrinkled, smiling man, who chats freely about Herat. It is probably Afghanistan’s richest city and he boasts of its public buildings and housing.
I ask if supporters of Ismail Khan, who preceded Khuwa as governoror, still have much influence.
“Oh yes,” says Haj Mir. “I myself am a supporter of Ismail Khan and was with him for seven years during the war.”
This takes me aback since I’d understood that it had taken quite a power struggle for President Hamid Karzai, who was finally elected last year, to dislodge Khan from running the city last year.
Ismail Khan became governor of Herat province in 2001, after fighting the Russian occupation, being jailed by the Taliban and escaping to take control of Herat as the ultra-fundamentalist régime was bombed out of office.
During his governorship, there were many complaints about his warlord ways – a heavy hand with potential opposition and harsh treatment of women in the province.
Last year, there was heavy fighting between Khan’s fighters and those of a rival warlord, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun. Kabul declared its support for Ismail but, shortly after the fighting ended, Karzai offered the victorious governor the post of minister of power and water – a poisoned promotion which dislodged him for his power-base.
Not everyone was glad to see him go. Riots followed his removal and Khuwa, a Hazara who arrived in town with guards from his own ethnic group, was obliged to take the oath of office in front of a picture of his predecessor.
Khan left behind a mixed reputation. He dealt with critics and suspected enemies in summary fashion – the head of the officially-backed human rights commission told us that, at the official opening of the organisation’s office in the city with national government ministers in attendance, a journalist was beaten up and dragged off to jail. Just so everyone knew who was boss, as it were.
But the ex-governor is still respected for making Herat one of the best-run cities in the country. He paid for public works and efficient administration by collecting the handsome revenue from customs duties on the frontiers with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan ¼ and refusing to pass any of the money on to Kabul.
Maybe it was that which inspired Karzai to conclude that the governor had to go, rather than the stories of armed tribal fighters doing as they wished on the city’s streets or women found alone with men being arrested and examined for signs of recent sexual intercourse.
But, once the rioting was over, the transition seems to have been relatively smooth.
Haj Mir seems to be working with his ex-boss’s successor and is happy to suggest that we interview the new head of security, Ayub Salangy, another out-of-towner who arrived two months ago accompanied by guards from his home province.
Of course, sending round a journalist may be the Haji’s idea of a practical joke; it turns out that Salangy is home sick today. But he agrees to see us.
Delivered at Salangy’s house by a military vehicle, we find him in his garden, meeting leaders of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of the PRTs, the foreign military units that carry out aid projects, leading to complaints that they have made NGOs targets of possible guerrilla attacks.
We are shown into the house and wait in a living room so generously furnished that there is a TV at either end of the room.
On a table sits a photo mounted on curved glass with blue and gold edges. It shows the lieutenant-general embracing President Karzai as he arrives for a visit to Herat.
Salangy’s assistant assures us that the commander is a good friend of the president and gives us an outline of his employer’s career, which mostly consists of Karzai begging him to go to a number of troublesome provinces, with varying degrees of success. Salangy did serve in possibly the toughest posting, Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold at the time that they took power and still the scene of rebel activity, including a recent attempt to shoot down the president’s airplane.
When he finally meets us, Salangy doesn’t seem too ill. But he undoubtedly has a robust constitution. He’s a buffalo in a shalwar kameez; tall and broad, his hand swallows mine when we shake. Unusually for an Afghan, he is clean-shaven and his hair is cut short, adding to the youthful appearance of his face. It’s a surprising fact here that the men who have probably seen the most combat are the men with the most laugh-lines on their faces.
At some point in his career the lieutenant-general has picked up the art which the French call langue de bois. He studiously avoids giving any interesting answers to my questions: everything will go fine on election day; there are no serious security problems in the province; recent kidnappings and violence were in neighbouring provinces and not on his turf.
When I ask if he’s worried about the way the Americans have used the PRTs, he gently makes a fool of me by explaining that the people he was talking to were Italians, since they have taken over that work in Herat and the west of the country.
Asked if he sees himself as Karzai’s man in Herat, Salangy replies that he’s happy to represent the president and central government here.
But the question seems to have touched a sensitive spot. When I stop recording, the commander declares that, if I’ll permit it, it is his turn to pose a question.
“Who told you I was Karzai’s man?” he asks.
Hoping that the answer will not prove compromising for anyone involved, I tell him that his secretary told me that they were friends.
Before leaving Herat, we take up Haj Mir’s suggestion and try to see the governor. It’s a long and fruitless process which entails visits to his offices, his home and, just before we leave, the recently-built governor’s mansion in the foothills of the mountains that overlook the city.
Persian script dug into the sides declares jihad the salvation of the faithful and what looks like a kilometre of steps lead up to a self-important dome perched on a rock. One gets the impression that this building is part of Ismail Khan’s legacy.
We’re already late for the rendezvous and, after an inconclusive argument with guards and our taxi-driver about whether we will have to walk up all those steps to the mansion in the baking heat, we conclude that there won’t be time for an interview if we’re to catch the plane to Kabul. As we race towards the airport, a phone-call reveals that the governor hasn’t actually left his home.
Both in Herat and Kabul, voters face a huge and confusing choice of candidates.
Ballot papers the size of broadsheet newspapers carry the names, pictures and symbols of hundreds of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga or the provincial councils; in Kabul’s case 390 for the national body and 216 for the provincial one.
Some 70-80% of voters are illiterate and, it being over 30 years since the last such elections, most of the population haven’t taken part in this sort of exercise before.
Of course, there was last year’s presidential election but that was a much simpler affair since only one post was up for grabs. The difference may not have sunk in to the popular consciousness – some punters have apparently told journalists that they intend to vote for Karzai this time round.
The process would have been even more complicated if the original plan to elect district councils at the same time had gone ahead. That vote was postponed. Not to spare the unfortunate electorate the struggle with a third enormous ballot paper. It’s just that the districts don’t really exist yet. Their boundaries haven’t been drawn and their populations have yet to be determined.
On the street most people seem keen to vote but no-one has much idea how to do it. Most Kabulis seem not to have chosen their candidate. In Herat more people seem to have made their choice for both the national and provincial assemblies.
In the cities, at least, no prejudice is expressed against women candidates. Several men declare that they are ready to vote for a woman and some say that they’ve already decided to do so.
Karzai apparently intervened personally to prevent party symbols being printed on the ballot papers, although an accompanying sheet does list the parties and their candidates. This is justified by arguing that it is political groups that have brought the country to its present condition. Karzai himself, of course, has no party although he does have a network of allies. His behind-the-scenes style of politics will probably be best suited by an atomised parliament, in which he can play off individuals or groups against each other.
The ban, along with a first-past-the-post voting system, favours a personality contest and undermines the possibility of a future development of parties formed on the basis of political platforms.
It strengthens candidates who are already well-known – religious leaders, ethnic or regional bosses and warlords, none of whom can be absolved from blame for Afghanistan’s woes.
But their notoriety may backfire, in some cases at least. Soraya Daqiqi, a woman candidate in Herat, says that village elders have told her that it’s time to give a woman a chance. “After all, look at what men have done for us – Timur Lang, Janghis Khan, and that German leader, Hitler.”
Other independent candidates also believe that they may benefit from an anti-warlord backlash.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the last few months and say that they will disrupt the election, although they say that they won’t attack voters.
Most of the violence has been clashes between their fighters and foreign or Afghan soldiers and it has mainly taken place in the south and east, where they still operate quite freely.
But seven candidates have been killed and there has been other election-related violence.
And there’s concern about the number of former commanders, many of whom have been involved in atrocities, who are on the ballot papers. Only 11 candidates were disqualified for being militia leaders before the campaign began, while human rights campaigners claim that in many areas at least half of those standing are warlords.
The internationally-staffed Election Complaints Commission says that only those who have been convicted of crimes can be excluded, which seems reasonable until you remember how difficult it is for victims to obtain justice here.
Of course, there is no clear demarcation between the terms “warlord” and “mujahed” and many violent killers have been invaluable allies to Karzai and the US.
Analysts at the International Crisis Group claims that deals were struck with some commanders, allowing them to remain on the ballot papers in return for promises to collaborate with the official disarmament process.
Nevertheless, there are no reports of candidates actually bumping off their rivals.
That may be a sign of patience, rather than of born-again pacifism. A clause in the election law has become known as the “assassination clause”. It declares that after the poll, if an assembly member dies, the runner-up takes his or her place, giving rise to fears that some frustrated candidates may revert to their old habits to achieve the victory that the electoral process failed to deliver.
The electoral law is remarkably tolerant of practices which the Asian observers of Anfrel, who know a thing or two about money politics, claim “may be regarded as vote-buying in other countries”.
They describe electoral cards being bought from voters in some provinces and mullahs being offered money in return for their endorsement (one of them boasts that his backing would mean at least 5,000 votes for the lucky bidder).
Rich candidates are able to spend large sums on fleets of vehicles, election workers and other resources, while poorer candidates struggle to raise funds.
The Afghan semi-official observers’ organisation, Fefa, says it’s disappointed that a ban on handing out gifts is only valid on election day.
The Afghan fondness for a feast may indeed prove useful in courting the floating voter. Fefa says that one candidate, who owns a hotel, has been giving free lunches and dinners “almost every day” and has hosted one lunch with music and dancing for about 5,000 people.
Uzbek warlord General Abdel Rashid Dostum proved even more generous. He invited notables in Sherbergan province to a party “in honour of his father” which lasted for three days.
One candidate told Anfrel that he was worried about what the candidates will do to recoup their outlay. “Maybe robbery or drug-trafficking. They need to get the money that they spent back.”
The Election Commission says that it can’t ban such practices because they are part of the Afghan tradition of hospitality.
strange noise disturbs the peace of Kabul’s Shah-e-Naw Park. It’s the horribly distorted sound of a television rigged up among the trees.
Nearby is a tent, which has been occupied by Ramazan Bashardost every day since he resigned from the post of minister of planning and launched a clean-government campaign.
Bashardost is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga and this is two days before polling day, well within the 48-hour period within which election campaigning has been banned, but he says that the video of him currently playing to a small audience is of a speech he made before the start of campaigning and so not in breach of election law.
Bashardost resigned in a row over the 2,355 NGOs which have mushroomed in Afghanistan in the war’s aftermath. The 2001 Tokyo reconstruction conference allotted them a third of foreign aid. But Bashardost compiled a list of 1,935 that he wanted to close, saying that many of them were fake, some operating for profit and not the benefit of Afghans, others just inefficient and nearly all spending most of the donors’ money on their staff salaries and operating costs rather than on the people they were supposed to help.
“About 70% of their budgets are used for administration or logistics or for a luxurious life,” Bashardost tells me. “There is NGOism in Afghanistan, like a Communist system. It is very strange that the Afghan poor people don’t have access to the directors of NGOs. I think it is more easy to meet Mr Karzai.”
When he was a minister he would send people to meet NGO chiefs.
“They returned to my office and say ‘Mr Minister, when the bodyguard is happy he took my paper and when the bodyguard is not happy he said very bad things to me and I couldn’t see the director’.”
Now he says that Afghanistan is run by a new nomenklatura of NGO bosses, UN and US officials, international military chiefs, Afghan warlords and government ministers.
“It is a very dangerous situation because $12 billion has arrived in Afghanistan since two years and the Afghan people believe that there is not reconstruction. I think that some people say ‘My life is now more bad than three years ago’. This nomenkaltura shares the money between its members and we’re losing the chance to show a good cooperation between Western countries and a Muslim country.”
Although he was educated abroad and speaks English and French, Bashardost mistrusts returned exiles as much as he mistrusts warlords, claiming that many have only returned for business opportunities and that those who are standing for the Wolesi Jirga are motivated by commercial, rather than political, interest.
Bashardost believes the multi-national mafia is also complicit in the drugs trade.
Since the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has returned to the top of the world league of opium-poppy growers, providing most of the heroin sold in Europe and much of Asia.
The ex-minister says that only one per-cent of the profits go to Afghan farmers and that local and international officials are involved in it.
“The new parliament may be a narco-parliament,” he says and slams Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and President Karzai for saying top officials, including six governors, were involved in drug trafficking but refusing to name them, let alone take action against them.
Few candidates speak as freely or directly as Bashardost. Those with dubious pasts – or presents – use portentous declarations to avoid addressing embarrassing subjects. And, in a country in which guns rather than discussion have decided political issues for so many years, new candidates lack any experience of real political debate. When faced with a microphone, most either launch into long autobiographies, give accounts of their educational qualifications or make vague statements about ending the violence and rooting out corruption in exactly the same terms that their rivals use.
18 September, election day. At the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is a polling station for the day, voters are encouraged to do their civic duty by music broadcast from tinny loudspeakers and banners bearing inspirational messages such as “Let’s join together to participate in the parliamentary election which is a legislative organ and one of the three pillars of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”.
But the official enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have rubbed off onto the electorate. At 8.10am, just over two hours since the polls opened, there are few voters here, an astonishing contrast to the long queues to vote in the presidential election.
Inside the building a young election official says that it’s early yet, there’s still time, and assures us that voters have had no difficulty with the complicated voting procedure.
As he speaks, a man in a voting booth behind him is turning his ballot paper this way and that with a mystified air. He calls to an official to come and explain what he should do.
Outside two young men tell us that they have voted for Bashardost because they believe he is honest, while others won’t name their choice.
When we leave the building, SUVs have blocked off the street and armed guards stand outside the polling station. US ambassador Ronald Neumann is here.
He declares the day a triumph.
“Four years ago they were killing women with stones in the sports stadium and today women are running their separate polling places here next door to the men’s polling places.”
What does the ambassador think of the presence of alleged warlords on the ballot papers?
“I think people get to actually vote, so if they don’t want to vote for a warlord they don’t have to, they can vote for somebody else.”
So, even if a candidate has blood on his hands, he should be allowed to stand?
The tone becomes slightly less affable.
“No, I don’t think that’s a correct statement. I think what you need to understand is that this is the first time that they’ve tried to run a process by rules. And it’s a country where you don’t have full evidence, so sometimes you don’t get the result that you would ideally like, just as sometimes, in your country or mine, somebody may go free in a trial where you think they should have been convicted.”
Neumann gives the impression that, so far as he’s concerned, there have been exhaustive legal efforts to find war-criminals and that they are now over.
“The fact is that they did run a process by rules … and that’s a big, important step in the transition to building a rule-based system of law.”
More voters turn out as the day goes on but there are nowhere near last year’s number.
At Shah Shaheen nobody will tell us who their choice was, although one man says that he’s voted for a woman and a man, while the women, all clad in blue burkas, huddle in a short line at the side of the polling station.
The women at Fourth Makoryan, a middle-class district, are more assertive. Many of the polling officers and voters are elegantly dressed, some wearing smart trouser suits with headscarves.
One, who’s enjoying the sun after casting her ballot, proudly declares that she has voted for a woman candidate.
“We all want to vote for women because women are the ones who care for women,” she says.
But she’s not sure how much things will change for women after the election.
“Maybe yes, maybe no. In Kabul the women vote but in some other provinces some of them don’t vote. I hope that they all vote and the women win.”
In Dehyaya, a village outside Kabul, we don’t see any women. To get there we have to turn off the fine new road that the American military have built to get to their base at Bagram airfield and on to a track across the dusty plain that lies between ranges of Afghanistan’s cruelly beautiful mountains.
The stones crunch under the weight of our four-wheel drive and the dust gets everywhere – into the car, into our hair, into our nostrils.
We follow the track round a bend and find the beginning of the village.
It’s made up of traditional Afghan dwellings; huge compounds hidden behind walls several hundred metres long.
They’re covered in dried mud, made out of desert dirt, and they look as if they have grown out of this unworldly, grey-brown landscape.
As a scorching sun burns the last drops of moisture from the land, we look down a long, straight street, flanked by long, straight mud walls, heading towards a distant perspective point.
There’s not a soul to be seen; it’s like High Noon – only with more dust.
Who knows how people scratch a living out of this arid landscape but the village seems to be large, even if you take into account the size of the compounds.
One thing’s for sure, land can’t be very expensive round here.
Down the street and around a bend, we come across a petrol station.
It’s deserted, too, but there are signs of election activity – candidates’ posters have been pasted on its walls and on the sign at its entrance.
He’s a notorious militia leader, whom human-rights campaigners have demanded be taken off the ballot paper, because of his alleged brutality during the war.
In the days of the fight against Russian occupation, Sayyaf was a friend of Osama ben Laden and mixed with the hard-line Islamists who received US funding for their anti-Communist jihad.
But, despite his dubious past, he has stayed in the running.
His position can’t have been hindered by the fact that he has recently acted as an adviser to Karzai, doing his best to keep Afghanistan’s legal system true to his severe interpretation of Islam.
A bit further down the street, and at last there are signs of life.
A small crowd of men and boys has gathered in front of the school, where voting is taking place.
As we go into the building, Hoshang suggests that maybe we shouldn’t stay too long.
“Taliban fire rockets at Kabul from these mountains.”
Inside, however, all is running smoothly, if not very busily, and the polling officers say that there have been no threats or intimidation.
One of the voters is a former mujahed. He won’t name the person he voted for but says that “he is my friend from the jihad time”. But, like all ordinary voters what he wants most is peace – “No more fighting in my country”.
To get back to Kabul, we’re told to go over the mountain.
As we climb the slope, we can at last see some patches of green in the village, hidden behind some of those long walls.
When our wheels get stuck in the dirt half way up the slope, I wonder if I should duck down in the back if men with guns appear or whether they’ll see me anyway. But they don’t appear and, when the car climbs over the peak, we see an inscription dug into the hillside.
I ask if this is another call to jihad, like the ones we saw outside Herat.
Hoshang squints at the writing. “No,” he replies, “it says ‘carwash’.”
And there, just below it, is a huge car lot, the vehicles glistening in the sun, and, beyond it, the grubby bustle of Kabul.
On our return, we hear that three rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the mountains during the morning.
Two failed to explode. One of them hit a UN compound and injured one person, although not seriously.
Turnout is low throughout the country. Officials claim about 50%, some sceptics put it as low as 35% and claim that there were no votes at all in some parts of the south, where the Taliban are active.
The electoral commission says that seven polling stations never opened at all, apparently because the security services were too scared to protect them. Security worries led to a temporary disruption of the vote in many other places and there are already allegations of fraud.
Apparently anticipating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the land, the electoral commission made a last-minute decision to bring forward the start of the vote an hour. Unfortunately, the decision didn’t get through to all voting officials, some of whom arrived, bleary-eyed, at 7.00am or later, to find impatient voters waiting for them or to hear that some had already given up.
Piqued, perhaps, by criticism of the small number of candidates banned from standing, officials took another 28 off the ballot paper during the week before the vote. Human rights groups weren’t mollified, claiming that they weren’t the roughly 150 warlords and thugs that they had in mind.
And, unfortunately, the list of these late removals was either not posted up at many voting centres or put in a position which hardly anyone saw. Even where it was visible it was meaningless to the illiterate majority of voters.
To add to the confusion, two candidates were put back onto the ballot, one because he had been confused with someone else of the same name.
Now the votes have to be gathered in, using donkeys and helicopters to bring them down from the most remote mountain villages. Definitive results are not expected for at least a month and the absence of debate and clearly defined political camps makes it difficult to guess what the Wolesi Jirga will look like.
Robert Kluyver, a fluent Dari-speaker and former UN worker who has set up the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and also represents George Soros’s Open Society Institute, believes there are three main reasons for the low turnout. Many candidates were unknown and discouraging political parties added to confusion about what they might stand for, many hopes that were raised by last year’s presidential election have already been disappointed and in some areas, especially the cities, there’s suspicion that the results were rigged in advance.
“While a lot of candidates were ex-fighters, either mujahedin or Communists, I think that there will be a strong presence of civil society.”
But he believes that the parliament will be weak.
“With this low voter-turnout they will lack the political legitimacy they need. This parliament doesn’t have any clearly defined functions. Thirdly, the parliamentarians won’t have any experience in conducting parliamentary affairs and I think that there will be a strong tendency for the parliament to be bogged down in local issues, for example about schools and hospitals in particular districts, because that’s very much how the candidates now see themselves, representing the interests of their local community.”
He believes that, although most Afghans are sick of religious interference in politics, there will be a bloc of representatives who will push a hard-line position on issues such as sharia law.
And what of the question that voter after voter raised during the campaign – the warlords’ hold on the country?
Saman Zia-Zarifi is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Being of Iranian origin, he can speak Dari and has come to observe the election along with a team from the high profile US-based group.
He says that most voters had to choose between unknown candidates and notorious ones.
Zia-Zarifi is bitterly critical of the election complaints commission’s failure to strike “warlords, former military commanders and human-rights abusers” from the ballot.
“It created a certain amount of confusion and even questions about the political nature of this process,” he says and concludes. “It remains to be seen if the Afghan electors have achieved what the electoral commission failed to do.”
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.
Jakarta is one of the world’s most heavily populated cities, its kampongs swelled by migrants from the overcrowded Javanese countryside and from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. The city took a hit in 1997 and its people had to find ways to survive … not all of them pleasant or, for that matter, legal. I wrote this when I visited in 1999.
A lot of Jakarta’s buildings are having a bad hair day. Their sexy steel-and-glass bodies soar up to a mess of girders and concrete pillars. Others haven’t even got the glass and cladding. As in the rest of south-east Asia, building stopped when the crisis hit.
Jakarta is hot and humid. Millions of lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks fart into the atmosphere and what doesn’t go straight into your lungs rises to hang in a greyish pall above the city, for consumption at a later date.
For all the business boulevards, Jakarta’s people ensure that it remains an Asian city at street level: street-stalls crowd virtually all available pavement space, selling fried rice, boiled rice, fried noodles, boiled noodles, fried chicken, chicken soup, meatball soup, fried catfish, fried tofu, smoked tofu, fried bananas, fried tapioca, sate, tripes in sauce, cow’s stomach in sauce, cow’s skin, won ton, durian, papaya, pineapple, coca-cola, tea, coffee, fanta, a strange luminous green liquid served with another brown liquid and white noodles that look like worms… and more, if you dare to try.
The crisis means an increase in the number of beggars and street-hawkers. Some literally grovel in the gutter as traffic rushes past them; being as wretched as possible is their professional qualification. Boys play guitars at the crossroads. Others appoint themselves unoffical traffic-police at the many points where motorists make U-turns, occasionally picking up a tip for their pains. A sign that they are aware of the years that they’re knocking off their lives is the fact that some wear bandanas across their mouths in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the fumes from a thousand exhausts.
A city official says that the number of street-children has swollen from 12,636 in August 1998 to 68,688 in June 1999. Parents who’ve been laid off from building sites and factories apparently send their children out on the streeets to beg.
Meanwhile, we foreigners lock the taxi doors and tell each other the story of the woman who was stabbed in the leg by a man who jumped in her cab demanding money.
Some people find Jakarta peaceful at night. I find it sinister. Perhaps it’s just the bad street-lighting and the looming trees. Drive around town after dark and you whisk by the skeleton of unbuilt or burnt buildings, a crossroads peopled by about a hundred hookers, turned to caricature by make-up and headlights, gangs of men or boys loitering, people who sleep under overhead roads and railways, and the flames of the last of the street-vendors frying the last of the street-food.