Voting for survival

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

"WHY are you taking photographs of Muslims? Where are you from? Pakistan?" a voice from a crowd asked this reporter outside a polling booth in Delol village, Panchmahal district. The people were pacified only when they saw an identity card with The Hindu written on it. If this was how the local people taunted a journalist, one can imagine how they would have intimidated a Muslim.

Yet refugees huddled in a truck, with police security, and went back to their village to cast their votes. They did not even want to set foot in the village. They just stepped into the polling booth and got back into the truck after casting their votes. Women did not step down from the truck. "It's still very tense. So many were killed," says Rabiaben Sheikh, whose son was murdered in the violence. "We have our farm here. It's lying empty. It isn't secure for us here. It's better for us to stay in Kalol (a town nearby)," she says.

Fearing violence, but determined to vote, many Muslim refugees woke up at the crack of dawn and went back to their villages to vote. "We were the first to vote as soon as the booth opened," said Bismillahbibi Kazi from Pavagadh village in Panchmahal district. "They had threatened to start riots if Muslims voted. So we went early before they started any trouble. Our vote shouldn't be wasted," she said.

"I'm getting a sinking feeling in my stomach," said Shenaz Sheikh as we walked through her village Pavagadh. She has not yet returned home after the communal riots in March. Pavagadh is a religious site visited by several pilgrims and tourists. Muslim stalls en route the temple were burned. Local goons still throw stones at Muslim homes and shout insults at the few who have returned to their homes. "The Bajrang Dal boys don't want us back. They keep staring at us. They can do anything, they could rape us," says Rashida, Shenaz's sister-in-law. But the Muslims have braved the threats to cast their votes. "We won't stay long. We'll just see our house and go back to Kalol," she said. Their family lives in a rented room in the nearby town.

Others are too afraid even to take a peek at their houses. "What's there to see? We'll just sit in the jeep and rush back to Kalol," said Hameeda Sheikh, a widow. "They drove us out and captured my tea shop. I can't support my kids anymore. We are still living off rations given by the relief committee," she said.

While some went back home for the voting, others fled their homes. In Naroda Patiya, where the most gory massacre occurred, people have fled to their relatives' homes. "Almost all houses are locked. People will return only after the results are announced. Some have stayed on to vote early. Then, they will also leave," says Irshad Sayyed, a young resident of the area.

However, relief committees brought Naroda Patiya residents, who were given accommodation in Vatva, back to the booth. They returned to Vatva after casting their vote.

Contrary to popular opinion, their determination to vote was not driven by any fatwa. It was pure survival instinct.

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