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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 13:04 GMT
Festive feel to Gujarat's polls
The road dividing the Muslim Juhapura neighbourhood (right) with Hindu Vejalpur (left) - police were called in to calm tension.
Police calm tensions between Hindus and Muslims

It was always going to be a unique election in the Indian state of Gujarat, torn by religious violence earlier this year.

But early on Thursday it became apparent how much so.

Despite the almost oppressive security in the commercial capital, Ahmedabad, the streets were full of people from the early hours.

Shops were open, people were drinking tea at roadside cafés and in one side street, a group of boys had started a game of cricket.

But with voting beginning at the stroke of 0800 local time (0230 GMT), it was the queues outside polling stations that were astonishing.

Brisk turnout

Naroda Patiya is a Muslim-dominated suburb in the outskirts of Ahmedabad and one that was badly hit during the riots earlier this year.
It's been a difficult time for us but we are determined to vote and exercise our franchise

Sayeeda - Voter in Gujarat

It is one of the places where election officials have made special arrangements for those displaced by the riots to vote.

Many people turned up an hour or two before the polls got under way.

Some of these include Muslims who now live elsewhere and are too frightened to come back.

But they are clearly not too scared to vote.

"We have only come here to vote," says one man standing patiently in the makeshift polling station.

"It's not too safe here anymore so I'm heading right back after I cast my ballot."

Many women are among the voters and they are equally determined to make their democratic choice.

"It's been a difficult time for us," says Sayeeda. "But we are determined to vote and exercise our franchise."

Inside the station the election official says he has never in previous elections seen such heavy voting so early in the day.

"It looks like it's going to be a huge turnout.

Festive atmosphere

In another part of Ahmedabad, the atmosphere is distinctly more cheerful.

This is Maninagar, the constituency of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a controversial figure who is at the heart of these polls.

Angry voters in Juhapura wave their identity cards, alleging their names were missing from the voter list
Some voters were angry that there names were missing from the register
Large cutouts of the leader frame the narrow streets amid a sea of BJP flags, in their traditional orange and green colours.

Young men ride up and down the street in motorcycles, with saffron scarves, flashing victory signs.

"It's looking good," one of them yells. "We are coming back."

Seeing the media crews, another group starts chanting: "We are with you Narendrabhai".

A police team arrives to check and make sure everything is going smoothly.

Satish Verma is the city's deputy chief of police and he is happy with what he sees.

"It's very peaceful and it will remain so. We have plenty of people on the ground."

The mood in the city is distinctly festive, ridiculing the reports of tension and apprehensions of violence.

There is another very good reason for this; it is also a Hindu wedding date and hundreds of ceremonies are planned across the state.

It is Rakesh's wedding day and the groom is not at all nervous, dressed as he is in traditional splendour.

But his wedding procession makes an important detour to the polling station. He is only going to exchange vows after casting his ballot.

Complaints

But not everybody is happy. Across Ahmedabad, complaints start pouring in from people who find their names missing from voters' lists.

In Juhapura - a Muslim ghetto on the edge of Ahmedabad - polling has been heavy since morning, we are told.
A wedding party on the day of the election
Weddings were also taking place on election day

But many people find their names missing from the voter list.

"I have been voting for the past four elections," an angry Javed Ajmeri says.

"Now I have been struck off [the list]."

"What is the meaning of having voter identity cards if we can't vote," says Selma Zaidi, waving her card.

Similar complaints are made in Hindu neighbourhoods as well including the chief minister's own constituency.

Across the road from Juhapura is the Hindu-majority Vejalpur area, divided by a narrow road locally known as "the border".

At the intersection that divides the two areas the mood turns ugly.

A car belonging to the camp of the local BJP candidate, Amit Shah, has been stoned and police reinforcements start arriving.

"We are not being allowed to vote," shout some Muslims who find that they have been allotted a polling station across the road.

But better sense prevails and tempers cool down as the police say they will escort the voters through.

"Maybe we should do away with elections altogether," muses one local resident as he takes in the scene. "How many riots would we have then?"

For the moment the authorities can heave a sigh or relief after an incident-free election.

Gujarat conflict in-depth

Key vote

Tense state

Background

BBC WORLD SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

12 Dec 02 | South Asia
10 Dec 02 | South Asia
08 Nov 02 | South Asia
31 Oct 02 | South Asia
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