AHMEDABAD, Gujarat — The first time I spoke with Hanif Lakdawala, about a month ago, the 67-year-old Gujarati doctor sounded calm, but his frustration over the treatment of Muslims in the run-up to assembly polls in the state was palpable even on the phone.
When I met him in Ahmedabad on Friday, a day ahead of the Assembly Elections, much of the calm had worn off and the public health activist, in soft tones, chastised Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Shailesh Mehta who recently said that he would ensure that the town of Dabhoi would not turn into Dubai if he was elected a lawmaker.
The openly-communal comment about Dubai alludes to what some BJP leaders have said during rallies about capping the Muslim population that many Hindus see as a threat to their community.
"For the majority of people in Gujarat, hatred for Muslims has become part of their consciousness. They are born with hatred for Muslims," the doctor said.
Not only has Lakdawala worked to improve public health in urban slums for four decades, he is famous for rehabilitation work in the aftermath of the 2002 communal riots that displaced tens of thousands of Muslims. The four decades that he has spent in the field have also made a him the go-to guy for journalists and politicians. Every election, his office is crowded with reporters picking his brain about the Muslim community, while party workers seek his help in reaching out to the community.
I had returned for a conversation with Lakdawala, driven by curiosity about whether he had made up his mind about voting for the Congress which had gone through its campaigning for Gujarat elections without uttering the "M" word, taking the Muslim vote for granted and publicizing its Hindu credentials.
After witnessing Rahul Gandhi's temple-visiting spree, without a single visit to a Muslim neighbourhood, let alone a dargah or mosque, would the NOTA (none of the above) button on electronic voting machines end up being a viable choice for Lakdawala?
The doctor minced no words to relay his unhappiness.
"What Muslim vote? Does Muslim life even matter in India," he said, registering his horror at the hacking and burning alive of a Muslim man by a Hindu who suspected that he was involved with a Hindu woman.
The doctor then recalled the deaths of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Alwar and sixteen-year-old Junaid in a Haryana-bound train. "I don't think Muslim life matters," he concluded.
"This is an Assembly election. AAP has no chances here. The most important thing is for us to defeat the BJP and only Congress can defeat the BJP".
The furrows on his forehead deepened as he told me that he had always voted for the Congress Party, with the exception of the 2014 Assembly election when he chose the Aam Aadmi Party candidate because he was "honest."
"This is an Assembly election. AAP has no chances here. The most important thing is for us to defeat the BJP and only Congress can defeat the BJP," he said. "We don't have a choice. We just don't have a choice."
Universal Adult Franchise
In Gujarat, Muslims, who make up nine percent of the population, have been politically sidelined especially after the BJP came to power in 1995.
From 12 lawmakers in 1980, the number of Muslims in the state legislature has been steadily declining. In 2002, three Muslims were elected as lawmakers, five in 2007 and two in 2012. In 2017, the Congress has fielded six Muslims candidates, while the BJP does not have any.
In this election, the Muslims are calling themselves the "taken-for-granted community" because the Congress believes them to have no choice.
There is a contradiction when it comes to what the Congress is preaching and practicing.
At the national level, the Congress is pushing a secularism versus fundamentalism narrative, but the party's campaign in Gujarat has been a reaction to the BJP's narrative that one needs only the Hindus to win.
"Congress is soft Hindutva that we know. Even in 2002, there were some Congress people who were involved in looting and burning. The only difference is that Congress being a conglomeration of people with different ideologies we always have some people whom we can go and talk. In BJP, if you ask me today, I don't know any BJP fellow who I can go and talk. They are not reaching out to the Muslim community," said Lakdawala.
There is no doubt that the Congress, led by a more confident Rahul Gandhi, has rattled the BJP in its own bastion. Some analysts believe this to be neck-and-neck contest.
On the one hand, the Congress has focused on the Patels, successfully tapping into the anger that demonetisation has unleashed among the trader community. On the other hand, the Grand Old Party has steered clear of the Muslims, doing and saying nothing that could be interpreted as appeasing the minority.
Many Congress leaders say that the party's policy is only a means to an end because there is no other way of beating the BJP in a polarised state like Gujarat.
Others believe it to be setting the trend for future state elections and the national election. The Congress' strategy going forward would be to exploit anger against the the Modi government, focusing on issues like the economy, unemployment, caste atrocities and farmer distress.
In the battle of Gujarat, the Muslims have been made to feel entirely irrelevant and that is extremely dangerous. In a democracy, where people express themselves by voting, rendering impotent a community's Universal Adult Franchise is a sure shot way of radicalizing it.
In Gujarat, Lakdawala said, "Universal adult franchise does not mean anything for Muslims. Our vote does not matter."
Unlike the majority of Muslims in Ahmedabad who live in "ghettos" populated with other Muslims, Lakdawala and his family has always lived in localities with mostly Hindus. But he can recall the exact moment that he first became conscious of being a Muslim. The year was 1985 and he was a 35-year-old medical practitioner in Ahmedabad.
"I was coming out of my home in a Hindu locality. My neighbor came and told me 'don't go out today'. I said why, the communal violence was at least eight to ten kilometers away. I said it is far away. But he said 'everyone knows that you are Muslim and there is a danger.' That is the first time I realized that I was Muslim and people thought that I was a different person and there is threat to me even if the communal violence is far away," Lakdawala said.
"That was the first time I realized that nothing else matters, my qualifications, my work, nothing matters in this society. In Gujarat, it is only religion. And slowly that identity of being Muslim was reinforced by various factors. We could not rent a house. Even in 1985, it was with difficulty that we could find a house but when we tried to shift to other localities, no one was ready to give us (accommodation). They flatly refused. It was only through a friend who was willing to give us a house and it was because there was a South Indian community living there that we got," the doctor told me.
When riots broke out in 2002, Lakdawala and his family sought refuge with their Hindu friends, moving from house to house. "We would move after a day or two so as not to burden any one family," he said. "The 2002 riots were bad. It was horrible."
"We would move after a day or two so as not to burden any one family."
The riots broke out after 59 Hindus activists, on their way back to Gujarat from the site of the demolished Babri masjid in Ayodhya on a train, were burnt to death by a suspected Muslim mob in February 2002. It triggered one of the country's worst religious pogroms that resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, in retaliatory violence.
If those episodes of religious violence made Lakdawala scared for his physical safety, the 2017 Assembly election have made him feel invisible.
While refusing to acknowledge the Muslims of Gujarat during its campaign, the Congress is now engaged in damage control by discreetly reaching out to the community. The party has deployed Muslim leaders from outside the state to reassure members from the community that they have not been forgotten.
Lakdawala, who was recently approached by one such Muslim leader, is appalled at the need to maintain secrecy.
"It is very humiliating. It is very humiliating for Muslims," he said.
"Congress would at least go to Muslims to get votes when there were elections, not secretly ask us to spread the word. Even though many Muslims will be happy to play a role in defeating BJP, there is no denying that is very hurtful," he said.
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