Gujarat earthquake: Land of the damned

People around the world gave nearly 2 billion to Gujarat's earthquake victims in 2001. Now, over a year later, thousands are still destitute. So where has all the money gone? Ann McFerran investigates

At 8.46am on January 26, 2001, in the village of Sukhpar in Gujarat, India, Baba Jogi and her husband, Mawaji, were drinking tea when the ground began to shake so violently they were catapulted down the front step, their house collapsed behind them, and all that they owned was buried beneath its debris. On India's 52nd Republic Day, the worst earthquake in its history devastated not only their home but one of the nation's most advanced and prosperous states. In 45 seconds, as Baba struggled to regain her feet, at least 20,000 people (possibly twice that number) were killed, and a million were made homeless.

Within hours, pictures of Gujarat's city of Bhuj - terrified people scrabbling in the wreckage for their loved ones - flashed across the globe's television screens. President Clinton was moved to visit some of the worst devastation, generating enormous media interest and sums of money. But what difference did such generosity make?

Just over a year later, Baba Jogi, 41, and her family are sleeping in a tree house in a makeshift settlement on the outskirts of their village. Visit her at nightfall, and her home, made from discarded wood and old cement sacking, holds something of the colourful romance of a gypsy encampment. Climb the ladder to the roughly-nailed- together platform where she and her husband and her two sons, aged 15 and 13, sleep and you'll see, next to a neat pile of thin blankets, a gold-painted plastic clock. It is one of her few remaining possessions, and it keeps perfect time, though her life, since the earthquake, has stood still. Some say the family were lucky to survive, but they lost the very little they had, and now their lives are unbearably hard.

Why should this be? The rescue operation to help Gujarat earthquake victims was phenomenally successful. The UK government found 10m; the British public donated 24m, a sum second only to what we gave to Kosovo (57m). The donations from the UK and the rest of the world came to nearly 1 billion. India gave a staggering 1 billion to Gujarat. That's 2 billion in all, enough for every survivor to be rehoused and recompensed. Enough for Baba Jogi to come down from the branches and return to her life in a house on the ground.Only none of this money has reached her. Not a rupee. Not a tent to keep out the cold in winter.

Nor a cup of water or some rice. Hers is not an isolated case. About a fifth of the earthquake's victims have received nothing or next to nothing from the massive funds donated to help them.

Those who did receive help live in stark contrast. Drive from Bhuj's tiny airport today, and you'll see builders working overtime. From this, you might conclude that rebuilding Gujarat has been a huge success. Indeed, many Gujaratis have been very well rehoused, some so well that they now own rather better homes than the nice houses they once lived in. A few now own two new houses instead of one. Thanks to the way aid for Gujarat was dispensed, the rich became richer and the poor poorer.

Gujarat's poor are Dalits, or untouchables. Before the earthquake, discrimination against untouchables in Gujarat was subtle; afterwards, it was blatant. Their plight has divided Indian opinion: how Gujarat's poorest families were ignored is either a human-rights violation, or the natural order of things according to the Hindu Lord Krishna. (Only very slightly better off than Dalits in this very Hindu state are Gujarat's Muslims.) Through a simple accident of being born lowest in India's caste system, poor Gujaratis are considered so unequal that they have received less food and water, fewer blankets and smaller houses (if they were given one at all) than upper castes.

Some untouchables, like Baba Jogi, are deemed so inferior that aid for them, according to a few higher-caste Indians, is almost unthinkable. Which poses a terrible question for those of us making phone pledges to help poor people in dire distress. Are our disaster- relief efforts only making the gap between the rich and poor greater?

In some cases, yes. During the earthquake, nearly all Bhuj hospital's patients were buried beneath its collapsing walls. Lakshmi Maheshwari, a Dalit, spent her first hours as a homeless widow pulling uselessly at the debris, trying to find her husband, who had been a patient there. She returned to the rubble-filled street where the Dalits were constructing a rough camp, knowing that the hospital had become a cemetery.

Nobody slept the following freezing night in the Matia Dalit colony, on the outskirts of Madhapar village, but the next morning everyone heard lorries carrying relief food, water and blankets to the high school about 100 yards away. When some Dalit men went to collect their share, the upper-caste people unloading the truck from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan shouted that this food and water wasn't for them. After that, relief trucks rattled regularly into the centre of Madhapar, from neighbouring states and further afield, sent by the government, local business and Indian charities. But the trucks were unloaded at the high school, near where upper castes live, and never came to the Dalit part of the village. When Dalits went to ask for food, they were shouted at and stoned.

Lakshmi Maheshwari, 35, the mother of Raoul, 9, Shantilar, 8, and Gita, 3, was staggered. 'When I was hunting for my husband on the day of the earthquake, everyone helped each other, rich and poor, high and low caste. Now, everything we've ever had to endure as untouchables has returned, only it's much, much worse.'

Later, she and two other Dalit women walked to the high school and implored the higher-caste people to give them food for their children. They were pelted with old cooked food that stank because it was bad; some children were so hungry they ate it, but it made them sick. Then the women walked half a mile to the main road, and begged from passing aid-truck drivers. Some threw food to the waving women; many drove on.

Lakshmi is a small, intense woman with a tired face and frightened eyes. Like most Dalits, she's dark-skinned compared with higher-caste Indians. As she relates how she begged for food, her eight-year-old daughter, Shantilar, studies a photo of her father, Bungi. She refuses to believe he is dead. In his photograph, Bungi appears as a skinny man with bright eyes and a dazzling smile. Before the disaster, Lakshmi says, he was a good husband. When he was too sick from a chest condition to work, he looked after their three small children while Lakshmi did casual shifts on a building site with other women, passing buckets of sand from head to head, earning 90 rupees (1.20) a day. Now, because her husband's body has not been found and, like most Dalits, Lakshmi has no papers, she says she hasn't been able to claim compensation. 'Surely caste should make no difference in this time of tragedy? I used to pray that when I'm born again, I'd be higher-caste. Now I no longer want to be high-caste,' she says. Being Dalit and a woman is a double negative: as a woman, she can't inherit her husband's property.

Some weeks into earthquake relief, the government made special provision for cases like hers. She just had to fill out certain forms. Only she didn't know. Nor did any aid agency make it their business to tell her. Until too late, few had any inkling of the extent of this kind of discrimination, partly because it was by default. The charity ActionAid has now said it will take up her case.Three days after the earthquake, the BBC announced that Ratnal, which lost 98% of its houses, was Gujarat's worst-affected village. For a few days, the world's media camped in Ratnal's rubble, then they all disappeared. Nine weeks later, on April 4, 2001, on his way from Bhuj to Anjar, Bill Clinton visited Ratnal for 10 minutes. He did what he does best, responding immediately and emotionally to the disaster, according the survivors some respect. Before his security staff hurried him back into his car, he talked to a young mother living in a roadside shelter, hugged her baby and promised he'd do his best to help. 'These people have faced unimaginable tragedy with courage,' he told reporters. 'Now the world has to stand by them, so they can restore their lives.'

Malbai Pafal, 29, a Dalit and mother of three small children, remembers two things about Clinton's visit: that her baby didn't cry when he was hugged by the large white stranger, and how she had invited him to stay for tea and see Ratnal. The ex-president declined her offer and said he had to press on. The overwhelming impression she was left with was that her family would be taken care of. She is surprised that Clinton's promises seem to have been forgotten and she still hasn't been given a house.

If the former US president were to walk a few hundred yards from that roadside today, he would see a once-picturesque Indian village that looks like a Taliban stronghold after western bombing. Under the remaining archway, women sell vegetables, fruit, sparkly plastic bangles. Nearly a year after his visit, the earthquake looks as if it happened last week.

Half a mile down the road, near the marketplace, is Petha Dungaria, a 48-year-old Dalit and mason, with a face that seems chiselled from granite. He and his wife, Badhi, live in a lean-to close to their old house. They guide us through their apocalypse. 'It looks like hell,' says Petha. 'Especially at night, when people are scared to be out.'

Some old belongings lie caught among the rubble: a gold tinsel garland from Diwali last year; some old clothes. Gujarati women wear a distinctive outfit of a tightly gathered blouse and long skirt in brilliant green, red and purple, creating some colour in the harsh desert landscape. When you pull out Badhi's old blouse from among the grey stones, its colours are fading and the hand-sewn material is falling apart, along with her hopes of any promises made by Clinton, or anyone, to restore their lives.

In many ways, Clinton's visit paid off, if only in the preparations: the work-for-cash programme to clear the roads of debris for his visit helped to stop Ratnal's Dalits starving. But they wait to be rehoused. Originally, they were told they would be rehoused, but their local government official refused to tell them where. So they refused to move from the rubble. Because they have no papers - often the case with India's poorest people - they're terrified of ending up nowhere, with nothing.Within a month of Gujarat's earthquake, the chief minister had promised to rehouse everyone who'd suffered before the first monsoon that June, according to what had been destroyed. If your big house costing 600,000 rupees had gone, the government compensated you with that money; if your shack cost 90,000, they'd help you when you found your papers. Just as many middle-class Gujaratis were having their houses rebuilt, Indian businesses and some charities offered to 'adopt' villages.

They rebuilt entire communities, adding a board that named the benefactor. Adoption became such a popular publicity exercise that many celebrities - Sonia Gandhi, for instance - flew into Gujarat to open a 'model' village on behalf of some part of the Indian government, business or charity. Initially, the government tried to incorporate their financial compensation with this adoption scheme, but in many cases the organisation wanting to adopt a village offered to build people another house, irrespective of money already paid. This was one way some well-off Gujaratis got two houses.

Equally, some of the poorest people, like Ratnal's Dalits and many widows, suffered twice. They weren't adopted and they had no papers, so they missed out on government compensation. And, like Lakshmi, they didn't know the government had introduced a new measure to help them.

About a mile from the Dalits, just off the main road, lives Wasan Ahir, Ratnal's MLA, the representative of the state legislature. His large, comfortable and extensively rebuilt house is guarded by fierce dogs. An imposing man in muscular middle age, he greets us in the name of Krishna, then proudly shows us a large photograph of himself greeting Bill Clinton.

Before Clinton's visit, the possibility of the village's adoption had been mooted by the government. Because of what was interpreted as a direct offer from the former president, Ahir says the government put Ratnal's resettlement plans on hold. Sadly, the ex-president's offer hasn't materialised. Ahir last e-mailed Clinton in July and says he received no reply. But surely he could have found other ways to rehouse the forgotten village?

His mobile phone rings. He chats; eventually, he hangs up and launches into a smoothly politic argument: 'There are huge differences between rich and poor in London and New York. If you lose 10 Mercedes in a disaster, you should be recompensed with 10. If I lose two, then I should only receive two. This is the way of things.' But what about Ratnal's 60 Dalit families who have received nothing? His smile stretches from one end of his silky moustache to the other. 'The Dalits must trust in God,' he purrs. 'Oh, and on your return home, perhaps you might drop a line to Mr Clinton?'

Which is just what I do back in London. Clinton's office sounded surprised by Wasan Ahir's claims. A spokesperson insisted: 'Ma'am, at no time did President Clinton promise to adopt a village.' But what has he done for Ratnal and the young mother who is still destitute? Clinton's response came via the American India Foundation, which has 'disbursed over $2m in Gujarat... to fund reconstruction... working with four grassroots nongovernmental organisations [NGOs]. One overriding concern has been to ensure that our efforts reach and assist affected individuals without regard to caste, gender, colour, creed or religious affiliation. With specific regard to Ratnal, we remain committed to finding a credible and effective NGO partner to implement suitable rehabilitation programs. While we have not yet found such an organisation, please rest assured that all of us at AIF remain extremely concerned about the plight of every adversely affected individual, including Malbai Pafal. Please rest assured that we are resolved to continue our work... with utmost regard for the principle of nondiscrimination'.

One year after Clinton' s visit, with Ratnal's Dalits still camping next to the rubble, I'm not sure this response will give them reason to relax. Being born a Dalit is regarded as a punishment in India's ancient and complex caste system, a sentence that only ends with death and reincarnation into another caste. The highest caste are the Brahmins (priests); next come Kshatriyas (warriors), then Vaisyas (traders) and finally Sudras (labourers), who see themselves as infinitely superior to Dalits. Today's Dalits, who represent about 167m of India's billion people, and about a fifth of Gujarat's population of 43m, suffer a dazzling variety of exclusions and indignities. In rural India, they live on the outskirts of villages, are denied access to wells and temples, doing labouring and scavenging, clearing human excrement and animal carcasses. From this archetypal bhangi (scavenger of human waste) work, extends a string of humiliating social cruelties: a Dalit must not touch, or even walk in the shadow of, a higher-caste person. Baba Jogi, a rag picker (the lowest Dalit caste), described how, when buying vegetables in the market, the vendor would sprinkle water to clean the polluted space in which their exchange had taken place. Dalits' occupations are partly what makes them untouchable; vested interests in India's unbuilt sewage system keep Dalits in their jobs as scavengers. The men and women who remove excrement from the public latrines, with a broom, a flat tin plate and a basket, often work at night. When it rains, the contents of their baskets trickle down their hair and shoulders. Whatever you do, they say, the smell never leaves you. Reports of atrocities against Dalits feature regularly in Indian newspapers: casual murder, routine rape, and Dalit women who are tested for their 'untouchability' levels by being made to eat human excrement.

Mahatma Gandhi, a Vaisya, denounced untouchability as the greatest social evil. He called them harijans, children of God. Dr Ambedkar, the great Dalit hero and author of the Indian constitution, described Dalits as 'the lowest in a system of graded inequality'. In later life, Ambedkar so despaired of the iniquity of Hindu castes that he became a Buddhist. The clash between Gandhi and Ambedkar, in the 1930s, looms unresolved over today's discrimination. Gandhi felt casteism would erode naturally with independence; Ambedkar argued for special electoral provision. Gandhi went on hunger strike; Ambedkar caved in and lost, reluctant to be responsible for the Mahatma's death.

Since the 1950s, untouchability has been outlawed, and legislation introduced reserving government jobs, places at schools, universities and parliamentary seats for lower castes. But this positive discrimination didn't anticipate the reappearance of Hindutva, today's Hindu fundamentalism. Throughout India, and especially in rural areas, widespread discrimination is still practised against Dalits, and few cases against Dalits ever reach court.

As a Dalit manual scavenger, Dhana Ganzaria had always lived too close to the village centre of Kharoi in the district of Bhachau for the comfort of the higher castes. When he lost his daughter and house in the earthquake, the 60-year-old bhangi decided to rebuild his tiny house out of scrap. One night, he was bullied by thugs from the village panchayat (council), who told him they needed his land to build a new school. Like most Dalits, he has no land deeds, but he had lived in his house for 15 years. The panchayat continued to harass him until, one night, they attacked him on his way home from work. His horrified wife, Radha, tried to come to his rescue, but was badly wounded in the attempt. While Ganzaria was tending to his wife in hospital, the village panchayat demolished his home.

The head of the panchayat who gave this order was enjoying an afternoon snooze in his hall when we dropped by. Hastily donning a short-sleeved shirt over his string vest, Bhimsi Oswal invited us to take tea in tiny blue-and-white cups. Although this family house is busy with builders, decorators and electricians - the fruits of housing compensation - Oswal mostly resides in Bombay, where his children have settled. Maybe I know some of the shops in London he supplies with ready-made garments?

He looks amazed when we ask about Ganzaria's violent eviction. 'What's it to you?' he asks. 'Why do you pimp for a bhangi?' Uma Pandey from ActionAid, and a Brahmin, clears her throat: 'This man is a citizen of Gujarat; you do him a terrible injustice.' Oswal seethes: 'We can't have a bhangi living near us high-caste folk.' Pandey lets rip, warning him that his bullying is punishable by law. Oswal blinks: 'I'm sorry, but what can I do? It's the way things are. You know that.'

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, casteism and chaos lethally combined to scupper fair relief. In Bhuj, the centre of the relief operations, every official had lost someone; the city was catatonic with grief. Over a million people from around 20,000 Indian and international aid agencies began arriving in a town of 175,000 people. 'There were too many volunteers, too many disaster tourists taking photographs, far too much inappropriate aid,' says ActionAid's Dharitri Patnaik. 'Everyone wanted to help Gujarat, only no one knew what anyone else was doing.'

ActionAid, a UK-based charity, was recently singled out for commendation in a report of the UK's Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) on relief after the Gujarat earthquake, for the way it works long-term helping the poorest and most disadvantaged people after emergency relief. The report was critical of the duplication and muddle of the relief effort. The authors, who spoke to 2,000 people, contend that some British charities were unaware that the local NGOs, with whom they worked, were linked to specific caste groups.

The report also touched on the fact that the Indian government saw earthquake aid as an unmissable opportunity to prove its loyalty to Gujarat, the only one of India's 21 states also ruled by the governing right-wing Bharatiya Janata party. To its credit, immediate medical aid was largely a success. But to drive the relief trucks to the outlying villages, the government sent its own band of volunteers, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu fundamentalist voluntary organisation. Amid the chaos of such goodwill and political opportunism, nobody realised just how far the earthquake had stretched, nor that the RSS were giving primarily to their own upper caste.

There were other immediate problems. For three days, relief trucks from Indian business, charities and the government jammed the tiny roads around Bhuj, going nowhere. On the fourth, government ministers met the aid agencies and businesspeople trying to devise a strategy, and failed. What happened next is a tragic indictment of political opportunism and mismanagement. There were 10 times more immediate essentials, such as food, water and blankets, than initially needed. First, the trucks failed to deliver food and water to Dalits; then tents and blankets went missing and were later found for sale in local markets; and then the housing compensation confusion began.

At this stage, few had any inkling of the extent of the discrimination. ActionAid's Dharitri Patnaik says: 'With its long history of drought, cyclone and earthquake, Gujarati people are famously tough and resilient. But the difference between rich and poor was stark and clear. Relief wasn't getting to the poor.' Patnaik had been working with women and children, old and disabled, after the Orissa cyclone in 1999. Now her all-woman team worked with people in Gujarat, arranging community centres for the poor and traumatised, supporting orphans and widows, helping the illiterate write housing applications, organising day-care centres, and finding ways for people to reconstruct their houses and livelihoods. She and her team were often threatened.

Last August, human rights organisations, led by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, put caste on the agenda at the World Conference against Racism organised by the UN Commission on Human Rights, in Durban. They argued that it fell within the UN convention's definition of racial discrimination as 'any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin'. India responded in fury and embarrassment, attacking efforts to equate caste and racial discrimination. Jaswant Singh, the external affairs minister, said: 'Racism should not be confused with discrimination in general.' Although it was not directly related to the discrimination after Gujarat, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, declared that India's exclusion of Dalits from Durban put them firmly on the human rights agenda.

On the weekend of September 22, 2001, British Dalits held their second annual international conference in a Buddhist community centre in London's Manor Park. At lunchtime, over dhal and chapatis, I met Lalji Patel, a retired central-heating engineer. When news broke of discrimination in Gujarat's relief, he phoned his old colleague, Muljibhai Parmar, a cameraman and Dalit living in Gujarat's capital, Ahmadabad, and asked him to film the Dalits' plight. As president of the UK branch of the Shree Kutch Leva Patel Community (SKLPC), he helped raise nearly 1m among British Gujaratis. He asked that these funds be distributed to all needy Gujaratis, irrespective of caste, race and creed. The money has, however, been spent by the SKLPC's organisation in Bhuj on the higher-caste Patels. Lalji waved a file of accounts detailing how these funds, raised with a UK tax waiver, had excluded Dalits. He is furious with the Bhuj SKLPC's president, Ramji Patel, who no longer answers their calls.

In Madhapar I met Naresh Maheshwari, 32, the president of the local Dalit association, who spends his days working for Dalits, and evenings working in a tiny STD phone kiosk. Before the earthquake, he had been too frightened to speak out for Dalits; now he is their charismatic and hard-working leader. Without his inventive hijacking of relief lorries, many Dalits would have starved to death. He took us to Sukhpar, where the difference between the Patel community rebuilt with SKLPC funds and Baba Jogi's Dalit quarter is like comparing a purpose-built housing estate with a cardboard city.

The Bhuj accountant Ramji Patel feels criticism against him is unjust. He argues that the people who really suffered in the earthquake are middle-class people like him, who have worked hard and given to charity all their lives. 'Most bhangis' claims are bogus,' he insists. 'So they are wasting our hard-earned money. There's this ridiculous notion that bhangis are downtrodden, but the truth is, they're lazy. Besides, you wouldn't want to sit and take your food in the same room as a bhangi.' But why didn't he help the Dalits? 'That'd mean giving 50 rupees to everyone, and there wouldn't be enough to house people properly. Surely it's our priority to help our own people first? Wouldn't you do the same?'

The DEC report in January this year concluded that more could have been done to help the poor access the colossal aid from the Indian government. Tony Vaux, the report's chief author, says that, instead of building more houses, some British charities would have been far more effective as intermediaries between the government and the poorest people, helping them with claim forms, informing them of their entitlement.

It's easy to see what went wrong in the relief after Gujarat; harder to know how to stop it happening again. The internationally recognised human rights activist Martin Macwan says: 'Emergency is a funny word; for international governments and aid agencies, it means a period of 48 or 60 hours. In real poverty, an emergency is every day.' Asked why he didn't hold a press conference to publicise the exclusion of the Dalits, he says: 'Frankly, it's news if caste discrimination doesn't happen in India.'

While it's pointless for western aid workers to rush into Indian disasters, decrying the gross inequities of caste discrimination, does that leave them as impotent onlookers? No doubt the political arguments as to how disaster relief can be effectively delivered with sympathy for local sensibilities will continue for years. For ActionAid's emergency chief, Roger Yates, one solution lies in donating long-term. 'Next time you see news of some tragic disaster, don't stop at giving 50: make a long-term commitment. A fiver a month or whatever you can afford, over a long period of time, will bring more change to the poorest and most vulnerable people.'

On my way home from Bhuj to Bombay, an old man in Nehru whites was having trouble with Bhuj airport's quadruple-checking baggage security system. When I offered my arm, I realised he was nearly blind. He told me he was a Hindu missionary working for a fundamentalist organisation building houses for Gujarat. I told him I'd been finding out about discrimination in relief aid. I'd met many Dalits living in appalling conditions.

The old man turned and held my gaze for what felt like minutes. Eventually he smiled benignly, and said, as if talking to a small child: 'We cannot help everyone. To be born a Dalit is a judgment.'

To contact ActionAid, telephone: 01460 238047, or visit the website

In reserved seats, fear keeps Dalits away


MADURAI, MARCH 22: IT'S the Government's idea of empowerment: Since Dalits are kept out of positions of power, have reserved panchayats where they hold the president's post. This is the upper castes' way of foiling it: In Madurai district, the Thevars have ensured scared Dalits do not come forward to file nominations, and they are themselves not contesting for the ward seats as they won't serve under a Dalit.

So, into the third day of filing nominations for the three reserved panchayats in the Usilampatti block of Madurai district (polls are due on April 8), not a single Dalit has come forward to file nomination. And no one among the upper caste Piramalai Kallars is filing papers for the ward membership either.

Collector Sethu Ramachandran made an impassioned plea to voters at Keeripatti and Nattamangalam (the third panchayat is Pappapatti) on Wednesday not to forfeit their rights. DSP Ayush Mani Tiwari also assured all protection and security. But the Dalits are not ready to take them seriously, and the Thevars are not moved.

Speaking to The Indian Express, members of the Thevar community in all the three panchayats made it clear they would not file their nominations for councillorship unless the panchayats were de- reserved.

They contended that since they outnumbered the Dalits 3:1, it was unfair on the government's part to declare the panchayats reserved. Incidentally, in terms of their voting strength, they would be able to secure the largest number of wards and then could go on to exercise control over affairs of the panchayats even though the president may be a Dalit, as did happen in Nattamangalam for five years from 1991.

The Thevars also insist they are not standing in the way of the Dalits who want to contest. ``Well, only we don't contest. We don't mind if they want to. But if they themselves decide not to contest, how could we be held responsible?'' they say in unison.

In fact, in Pappapatti village, the Thevars themselves bring you some Dalits who aver there is no need for an election at all as their needs are being taken care of by Thevars.

However, on assurance of anonymity, some Dalit leaders reveal there are two reasons why they cannot go against the Thevars. Many are wage labourers in the fields of affluent Piramalai Kallars and any move to rub them the wrong way could result in their being thrown.

The other is the fear of repercussions. Asked why they were afraid when the Collector and DSP had promised them protection and in fact had stationed policemen in their villages, they ask: ``How long would the police stay in the village?''

Take the example of Dalit woman, Saraswathi of Nattamangalam who told a TV channel that she would file nominations and had her house stoned. How can anyone file nominations in such circumstances, she asks. The murder of the Melavalavu Dalit panchayat president and four of his associates in June 1997 is also fresh in their minds.

Still, Narasimhan of Pappapatti, who braved the wrath of Kallars of his village in 2001, had at least tried to put his fear behind. But he could not file nominations as he was passed on from one official to another, till the deadline expired. ``You can't trust their assurances,'' he says in disgust. ``Anyway, ultimately, we have to live with the Thevars. We can't take the risk

'I am going to form the government'

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati has held the post of Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh twice in the past, on both occasions with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The first time, in June 1995, she was dumped by the BJP. The second time, on the eve of the transfer of chief ministership to Kalyan Singh of the BJP under a rotational arrangement between the two coalition partners at the end of her six-month tenure in September 1997, Mayawati withdrew support to the BJP. Later, in 1999, she deluded the BJP into believing that she would abstain from voting when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee faced a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. She voted against the government, which resulted in its fall. However, the BJP is still willing to do business with her in Uttar Pradesh. Despite her previous understanding with the BJP, the Muslims of U.P. have reposed faith in her, and this partly explains the election of 98 of her candidates in the February Assembly elections. Mayawati has single-handedly steered the party to new heights in U.P., continuously increasing her vote and seat share. How did she manage it? The firebrand BSP vice-president spoke to Purnima S. Tripathi on March 7. Excerpts:


What is the secret of your performance in Uttar Pradesh, especially in view of the fact that your party did not have any film stars or other charismatic leaders campaigning for it?

I have really worked hard for my people. I have nurtured my constituency with great care. They (voters) have absolute faith in me. They know whatever I do will be for their good. Yes, I did not have film stars or charismatic leaders campaigning for me, but I knew I will still have my people voting for me. It is the result of my long years of association with them. They trust me.

But what about Muslims? What made them trust you in spite of the fact that you have joined hands with the BJP twice in the past to form the government?

I have never compromised on ideology and principles. Despite being Chief Minister with BJP support, I ensured that there was no discrimination against Muslims. I never allowed any harm to come to them. I did not allow anyone to play around with their religious feelings. Muslims know their interest is safe with me. And I would still have proved it if I was there as Chief Minister today. Had it been my government, I would have shown how to handle the situation. (The reference is to the build-up in Ayodhya.)

You have resigned from the Lok Sabha and retained your Assembly seat. Does it mean that you are hopeful of forming the government in the State?

Obviously. If you remember, I was made the Chief Minister during President's Rule last time too. I am going to Lucknow to discuss the situation with my MLAs, and any decision I take will be in the interest of the BSP.

Does it mean you will form the government with the BJP's support?

Wait and see. I will disclose my plans only after I have discussed them with the MLAs. But let me tell you one thing, if there is a government formed in Uttar Pradesh it will be led by me.

Will you accept the offer of support from the Samajwadi Party or the Congress(I)?

No, never. I will neither accept support from the Samajwadi Party nor support it in government formation. As for the Congress(I), it is in no position to help anyone. Besides, if I considered the Congress(I) as a friendly party I would have contested the elections with them.

There is considerable communal tension in the country because of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Ayodhya programme. Don't you think the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government is responsible for this as it has taken a lenient view of the VHP's activities?

It is the Congress(I) which is primarily responsible for the Ayodhya problem. Its government allowed the unlocking (of the Babri Masjid), it allowed the shilanyas, it allowed the demolition. It is the real culprit.

Do you think the BJP government in Gujarat is responsible for the communal riots there? The Opposition parties have demanded the resignation of Home Minister L.K. Advani and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

Let there be a high-level inquiry first into the Godhra incident and the reaction afterwards. We must first know who is responsible for these incidents before making any demands.

There have been demands to ban the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Do you support this demand?

There should be an all-party meeting before any such organisation is banned. I had said the same thing when SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) was banned too.

Do you support the ongoing efforts by the Kanchi Shankaracharya to resolve the Ayodhya problem?

If a solution through mutual consent is found, we shall welcome it. It is a good thing. If a temple is built on the undisputed area in Ayodhya after all the parties, including Muslims, agree, then we don't have any objection. But we are for awaiting the court verdict on the disputed land.

Are you not afraid of another split in your party?

(Laughs) This time I have taken adequate care. I called each one of them (MLAs) and asked them personally. Some of them said instead they could get MLAs for me from other parties.

Which parties do you hope to split in order to form the government?

I do not believe in tod-fod (splitting).

How do you plan to form the government then since you do not have the numbers?

Wait and see. I cannot tell you at this stage. But I am going to form the government very soon.

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Published on: March 25, 2002
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