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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 16:29 GMT
Poll fears haunt Gujarat Muslims
A mob during the riots
Violence earlier this year left nearly 1,000 dead

As election preparations get underway in the Indian state of Gujarat, local Muslims are once again beginning to feel afraid.

India's independent Election Commission decided to hold state polls in December, after earlier blocking attempts by the state's ruling right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party to hold a snap poll.


Most of the Muslims are afraid that rioting will return

Local journalist Dingat Ojha
It originally said the situation had not improved enough to allow a free and fair election after months of rioting.

Nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in Gujarat earlier this year after a suspected Muslim mob torched a train, killing 59 Hindu activists.

But now that a schedule for the polls has been announced, the Muslims fear a return to religious violence.

"Most of the Muslims are afraid that rioting will return as they believe that the ruling BJP and its extreme right-wing allies like the VHP will not refrain from playing the Hindu card to garner votes," says senior local journalist Dingat Ojha.

Ramadan

Fears have largely been fuelled by the fact that the election campaign period clashes with the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, which begins in the first week of November.

A Muslim woman
The state's Muslims feel vulnerable

That will make the surcharged atmosphere particularly volatile, and even a small spark could ignite the situation, observers say.

"A lot of people expect the communal situation to worsen as the ruling party's campaign is likely to focus largely on the Hindu-Muslim divide," says Ojha.

Mohsin Qadri, an advocate in the state's largest city, Ahmedabad, says the situation is not yet conducive for elections.

A large number of people, he says, have still not returned to their homes, so it is uncertain that they will be able to take part in the electoral process.

"The BJP and the VHP will do their best to inflame passions which will increase tensions between the two communities."

Babri anniversary

Then there is also the 10th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid to contend with.

The 16th century mosque was pulled down by Hindu zealots in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya in December 1992, sparking some of India's worst communal violence in the last decade.

But Qadri also says most Hindus are opposed to the "politics of rioting" and want peace in the state to be maintained at any cost.

This could prove a damper for the right-wing Hindu forces trying to play the religious card.

Peace could be difficult to maintain, says Shafi Memon, who was involved with the running of the largest camp set up in Ahmedabad for people displaced during the riots.

The state is still sitting on a powder keg, he says.

And he adds that the inability of the secular parties to offer a viable alternative has added to the dilemma faced by the Muslims.

The community continues to watch and wait, afraid of what the next couple of months in Gujarat may bring.

Gujarat conflict in-depth

Key vote

Tense state

Background

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See also:

25 Sep 02 | South Asia
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28 Feb 02 | South Asia
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