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Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 11:34 UK

Gujarat Muslims the 'living dead'

Mehraz Ahmed
Meraz Ahmad Jalaluddin Ansari lost everything in the riots. Pics: Soutik Biswas

Muslims in India's Gujarat state who bore the brunt of religious riots in 2002 say they have been abandoned by the political parties. The BBC's Soutik Biswas met some riot victims ahead of the general election in the state.

The acrid smell of burning oil singes your nose and eyes as you walk into Bombay Hotel, a sprawling ghetto of Muslim-owned homes on the eastern flank of Ahmedabad, the main city in western Gujarat state.

A pall of black factory smoke hangs over this untidy patchwork of squat, ugly houses. Residents pay 150 rupees ($3) a month to a private contractor who supplies yellow-coloured drinking water through dirty garden pipes. Sewage flows out into the street.

Bombay Hotel, which takes it name after a local roadside eatery, is one of the places where many Muslims displaced by the 2002 Gujarat riots moved to. Over the past seven years, it has transformed from a remote industrial colony to become a busy refugee settlement.

The anti-Muslim riots, sparked off by the death of Hindu pilgrims in the firebombing of a train, led to the death of 1,392 people in five districts, according to official records. NGOs say the toll is closer to 2,000.

Shambolic

The riots also left some 140,000 people homeless. They were put up in camps and given 2,500 rupees by the government - the majority of the displaced were in Ahmedabad city.

Thirty-six-year-old Meraz Ahmad Jalaluddin Ansari is one of them.

Bombay Hotel
Bombay Hotel is a Muslim ghetto which lacks basic amenities

He was lucky that he did not lose any relatives in the riots. He and his family fled their home in the Chamanpura area after Hindu neighbours warned them that the rioters were closing in.

But he did lose his home and livelihood.

He had hired a dozen workers and owned 15 sewing machines. He would make, he says, 15,000 to 20,000 rupees a month from embroidery work.

After fleeing the riots and panic-selling his house to a local Hindu neighbour for 275,000 rupees, Mr Ansari moved into Bombay Hotel.

His living standards are shambolic, the markets where he can sell his wares are now 10-12km away, and his children are soon going to lose their neighbourhood municipal school. It will be scrapped to make way for a bus lane.

Mr Ansari has picked up the pieces again, built a new home and managed to buy about five sewing machines to start work.

He can no longer afford to employ people. The government, he says, gave him compensation of 300 rupees for the damage to his house in Chamanpura.

"Once I was fairly well to do. Now I work a lot more and just manage," he says. "Life can't come to a halt. But sometimes I feel we are the living dead."

Noor Banu and her husband in Bombay Hotel
Noor Banu and her husband are still trying to pay back a loan

The riots do not find any echo in the general elections in Gujarat.

Seven years after the incident, both the ruling BJP and Congress party remain silent on the shoddy rehabilitation of the victims or the delay in bringing the culprits to justice.

"We cannot vote for the BJP and the Congress almost has a fixed deposit on our votes. So it's a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea," says Mr Ansari.

There is little talk of the impending polls at Bombay Hotel. When you raise the subject, the residents turn their faces away in disgust.

"Before the 2002 riots, there were just a few houses here. Now there are 15,000 houses and 80,000 people. Muslims have moved in from all over. They feel relatively safe here," says Shabit Ali Ansari, 32, who owns a sweets shop.

"But no party does anything for Muslims. The authorities do nothing for people here unless we raise a storm," he says.

Cynical

Barber shops, groceries, sweets shops and even a photo studio that have sprung up in the grubby lanes do brisk business. But residents work on pitifully low wages.

Riot victims like Noor Banu, 45, and her husband, Ashik Ali Badar Ali, 50, who moved here after their house was attacked in the Saraspur area, are struggling to make ends meet.

Children at a street-side classroom in Bombay Hotel
The neighbourhood school is being demolished

Mr Ali used to drive an auto rickshaw and bring home up to 150 rupees a day. Now he earns barely 1,800 rupees a month working as a security guard.

Their three daughters chip in making lacquered bangles to help pay back a loan of 70,000 rupees the family borrowed for the two-room hovel in which they live.

Next door, Asiyana Ahmed Sheikh, 12, makes kites. And Zarin Aslambhai Ghanchi gets less than one US cent for cutting and stitching together a campaign banner for a political party.

"Even the political parties exploit us when giving us jobs. This is the state of affairs here," says Zarin.

Ashik Ali Badar Ali says he is going to vote for the Hindu nationalist BJP, which was blamed for inaction during the rioting.

"The BJP is an open enemy of the Muslims, and the Congress is a hidden enemy. I'd rather vote for the open enemy, so I can go to them for protection."

Muslims comprise barely 10% of the population in Gujarat.

"Despite the riots and the headlines, the political parties here feel that they can ignore them, because they don't comprise a decisive vote bank," says analyst Achyut Yagnik.



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