Riot victims tell of distress at poll plan
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
Pitchforked into a controversy over whether elections can be held in the troubled state of Gujarat, India's Election Commission has sent a team to make an on-the-spot assessment. Now into its third day, the team has been listening to victims pleading for food, shelter, and compensation instead of a poll.
A Muslim woman still living in a relief camp five months after the bloodshed told commission officials: 'We haven't even recovered from the nightmare of those riots so how can it be right to hold elections?'
The team visited the areas most seriously affected by the riots and neighbourhoods where tension still prevails.
'The government should remove the fear in our minds first and only then think of elections,' said another survivor who had returned home a few weeks ago but withdrew to the security of Shah Alam Roza camp when trouble began brewing again between Hindus and Muslims.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has dissolved the state legislature seven months early and asked the Election Commission to fix a date for elections. Human rights groups and opposition parties oppose the move on the grounds that Gujarat is far from normal. About 13,000 people are still living in refugee camps and a massive number of families have been displaced.
At Narodya Patiya, where scores of Muslims have been killed by Hindu mobs, the team realised that the area had been cleaned up by the state administration just two days before their visit to give the impression of normality.
At a village where Hindus have reportedly told Muslims they cannot return to their homes, the team failed to find villagers expressing such views. A woman told the team they had 'all gone out for the day' while the few who spoke said they were outsiders. The team of nine, which has split into three groups to meet as many victims as possible, is now deliberately making unscheduled stops to avoid stage-managed encounters.
The overall tone of many victims was one of resignation. 'Let Modi have his election. Let him win. What can he do that is worse than what's already happened?' said Abedabanu Pathan. 'I can't read or write but I know this is a good time for Modi to hold elections because thousands like me won't be able to vote.'
Meanwhile in the capital, the commission has been receiving a stream of visitors ranging from human rights activists to film stars urging it to say no to Mr Modi's request.
Under pressure from both sides, the commission also faces a constitutional difficulty - state assemblies must meet every six months. Since the Gujarat assembly last met in April, the Bharatiya Janata Party is arguing that elections must be held before October.
If the commission decides elections should be held early next year, lawyers warn of a possible constitutional crisis because the caretaker government led by Mr Modi cannot last beyond six months, that is, beyond January. This would entail the Modi ministry having to step down and the imposition of federal rule. But federal rule cannot be imposed unless a breakdown of law and order has occurred.
The commission will give its verdict once it has studied the team's report.