Give us bread before a ballot, say grieving massacre survivors

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:00am

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's decision to call elections five months after one of India's worst massacres left more than 1,000 people - mostly Muslims - dead was greeted with indignation by survivors, opposition parties and human rights groups.

'They can't even give us food or organise rehabilitation but they want to conduct elections,' said Farid Khan, a co-ordinator in one of the camps where 13,000 survivors still live.

Before the bloodletting had even stopped, Mr Modi was itching to hold snap polls, impervious to the widespread vilification of his administration's alleged complicity with the mobs.

But his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held him back, worried that public opinion would be horrified at an attempt to capitalise on Hindu support over the dead bodies of the victims.

Unable to wait any longer, Mr Modi has resigned, dissolved the state legislature nine months early and asked the Election Commission to fix a date.

'Certain forces have been maligning Gujarat to weaken it and this continues today. To bring an end to this, I decided to go to the people, the final decision-makers,' Mr Modi said.

The Chief Election Commissioner, J. M. Lyngdoh, had described early polls as a bad idea and said only some 'mad people' were in favour. But now he is under intense pressure, with the ruling BJP in New Delhi arguing that there is no reason why elections should not be held.

This view is disputed by civil rights groups, which say the state, though calmer, is far from normal. Sporadic violence continues. Recently a Muslim father and son left the safety of their relief camp to visit their ransacked home and decided to spend the night there. They were killed as they slept.

Amnesty International meanwhile said India had refused the London-based human rights group visas to investigate the country's worst religious violence in a decade.

Amnesty said the Indian government failed to respond to the group's visa application by a 'mutually agreed' deadline of July 12 and added: 'Amnesty is compelled to assume that the visa will not be granted.'

An Indian foreign ministry spokeswoman said she had 'no information' about the matter.

The group said: 'The refusal of the Indian government to grant access to the state will only reinforce the concerns that the government of Gujarat and the state police . . . could be attempting to cover up for their officials.'

Mr Modi's critics say the very idea of elections is a slap in the face for survivors who are not only still grieving for their loved ones but also waiting for compensation and rehabilitation.

Since thousands of Muslims have been displaced by the riots, losing homes, belongings, papers and all proof of identity, it will be impossible for them to vote.

Analysts say Mr Modi and the BJP expect to return to power on a wave of Hindu support in a state that is now polarised on Hindu-Muslim lines.