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January 3, 2003
The Graveyard of Secular Politics

Muslims wait in line to vote near Ahmedabad on December 12.
Ahmedabad, India—December’s watershed elections in Gujarat sent India reeling to the right. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a thumping two-thirds majority in Gujarat’s state assembly, washing out the opposition, the secular Congress Party. Chief Minister Narendra Modi led his party to victory with one of the most vitriolic anti-Muslim election campaigns in India’s history, in the wake of the worst religious pogroms India has seen in 50 years.

On December 15, as the BJP landslide became clear, the streets of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, burst into a sea of confetti and saffron flags. Outside the BJP headquarters, supporters set off endless rounds of firecrackers—shouting “Hindus forever!”—and handed out victory sweets to the crowds.

But for the Muslims of Gujarat, it was a day of silence and fear. Last February, after nearly 60 Hindus were killed on a train in Gujarat, reprisal killings of Muslims convulsed the BJP-led state for weeks. In the bloody month of March, armed Hindu mobs targeted Muslim-owned homes and businesses across Gujarat, raped and killed thousands of women, and burned Muslim men alive. Police and state officials stood by and watched. By the time the state finally took control of the mobs, more than 100,000 people had lost their homes, and at least 2,000 people were dead.

Dozens of human rights reports have indicted Modi and his government for complicity in the reprisal killings of Muslims. Last month, a citizens’ tribunal led by former Indian high court judges concluded that the attacks were “an organized crime perpetuated by the state’s chief minister and his government.” But no action has been taken against any government or police official.

Only a few streets away from the BJP headquarters, in a relief camp for Muslims who lost their homes last spring, women were weeping on the floor as the results came in. The camp organizer, Ataullakhan Pathan, sat with his hands tightly clenched over a bare table. “There is no future for Muslims in India, especially not in Gujarat,” he said. “After everything the BJP has done to us, for them to win with such a clear majority means we are not wanted here.”

In the weeks leading up to the elections, Modi repeatedly invoked the deaths of Hindus last spring. Campaign posters plastered across the state depict Modi beside a burning railway car. “The geography of the BJP’s victory is the hot spots of anti-Muslim violence,” points out Ahmedabad-based social worker Achyut Yagnik. “The BJP was successful because they equated Muslims with Pakistan and the rise of pan-Islamic terror.”

Over the past several years, the BJP has been losing ground across India, and Gujarat is one of only three states where the party still holds power. Yagnik fears the BJP will replicate the appeal of sectarian violence and Hindu revivalism in upcoming national elections, just two years away. In the flush of the BJP victory, Pravin Togadia of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad declared Gujarat “the graveyard of secular politics.”

Many of Ahmedabad’s Muslim ghettos were deserted as the results came in. Residents cast their vote for the Congress Party and left, fearing violence would follow a BJP victory. In some parts of the state, victory processions marched through Muslim areas, sparking riots. Two people were killed and at least a dozen injured during one BJP rally.

Jamila Bibi decided there was no point in leaving her Ahmedabad slum. Last spring, the mobs destroyed her home, and her son escaped with serious burns, leaving her as the family’s sole breadwinner. “I pray that the next time they come after us, they will just finish us. I would rather they kill me. Because I cannot go on dying every day.”


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