“Like the Himalayas protect our country from the enemy in the north, Sir Creek protects Gujarat in the west. The Congress wants to expose us to the enemy,” thunders Narendra Modi warning his audience of the PM’s nefarious plan to give the creek to Pakistan. Usually, Kutch doesn’t figure much in any political speech. It’s Gujarat’s, and India’s, largest district but sends only six MLAs to the assembly. It’s easy to see why if you travel deep into the Rann from Bhuj. As the city’s borders fade, we are quickly enveloped by a searing nothingness, the strip of road vanishing into a white haze ahead. It’s marshland on either side, but in the distance there are the Bannis—clusters of hutments amidst tall grass, and myriad birds, where the pastoral folks survive with their herds of cows and sheep. Almost all are Muslims who are not known to figure in any electoral list. As we near India Bridge, the point up to which tourists are allowed, the Bannis too slowly thin out. After a valiant effort by a friend in Bhuj, we’ve got permission to go till the last Indian checkpost deep inside the Rann, over 100 km from here. Our papers are checked and Neelam, the sniffer Labrador, nods us in. It would seem impossible, but as we drive along the vast nothingness intensifies. The terrain is un-earthlike and lifeless. There is not a single insect, a single blade of grass, not a single sound. An unbearable melancholia takes over, something like the ‘Huzun’ that Orhan Pamuk described in Istanbul, the thoughts a mix of our insignificance, the transient nature of things and the meaninglessness of things dear to us—a feeling familiar whenever placed before nature’s great expanse.
Pity, A Soldier’s Pay
The soldiers at the last Indian checkpost lift our mood. In fact, the mere meeting with another human is enough to improve things. The Pakistani checkpost across the barbed fence is only about 3.5 km away, clearly visible through high-power binoculars, and beyond them scattered villages. From here, Karachi is closer than Bhuj. A cheerful and muscular Jaswant Singh (name changed) gets us a lunch of vegetables, dal, roti, rice, salad, pickle and a sweet. Chicken and meat are on Wednesdays. He says he likes it here compared to any other border posting, as the food is fresh and the weather not very harsh. What does he make of the Pakistani soldiers on the side? “In peacetime, it’s more like pity. We can see their uniforms are in tatters and they look so scrawny,” he says.
Wrong Side Of Trucks
Gujarat roads, as promised, are as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks (or should that be Sonakshi Sinha now?). But it has always puzzled me why India has been denied passable roads for so long—roads are not as complicated as power plants or water supply or setting up industries. They are low-tech and high-labour projects and not too environmentally disastrous or socially volatile either. Anyway, the roads here are great but in recent travels, Punjab, Himachal and parts of Karnataka were as good. And they are not without hiccups. The fantastic state highway between Baroda and Surat is a breeze till you come to Bharuch, where you have to cross the mighty Narmada. The six-lane highway becomes two-lane on the bridge and if you are lucky you can get away with a couple of hours’ truck jam. If not, it can be six. But most car drivers have figured a way out—to drive on the wrong side on the extreme left. We crossed this section around midnight, with our cabbie merrily dodging the oncoming trucks with blinding lights at a fast clip. He got fed up with our oohs and aahs at every passing truck, and finally turned around and said: “Why don’t you all just doze off, I’ll let you know when we reach Baroda.”
If you are going to Agashiye for lunch, it’s best to skip breakfast. In fact, even the previous night’s dinner. And take the stairs to the third floor terrace on top of Ahmedabad’s venerable House of Mangaldas. It’s also best to avoid business lunches, or anniversary dinners. At this Gujarati thali place, only food rules. There are usually about 23 items and each one is made to perfection. The dhokla is not some spongy, watery, characterless lump. It’s substantial, uneven, a bit burnt on the sides where there are sesame seeds. It’s incredible. The kadi has the right thickness, the right sweetness that blends with the khichdi that looks gooey but is very, very light. There’s no oil floating on any of the vegetables or dals. Even the deep-fried crisps don’t glitter with grease. The basundi is the best you would have had. The chhaas may be just curd and water, but it’s just perfect. You can fight it, but you will end up taking the elevator down.
Airport is swank and efficient. But don’t depend on it to buy any last minute memorabilia from Gujarat. It has only one clothes and handicraft shop called Mir: it keeps stuff from Kashmir.
Satish Padmanabhan is Features Editor, Outlook magazine; E-mail your diarist: satish AT outlookindia.com
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
"But no better than Punjab, Himachal and parts of Karnataka"
But no worse than UP, Rajasthan, Bengal, and AP.
Undoubtedly,the road between Ahmedabad to Baroda and then onward to Surat is in a well, silky smooth motorable state. It takes hardly one and half hour journey from Ahemedabad to Baroda ( I have travelled number of times through this four lane stretch ) and have found it one of the best highways in India. Baroda to Surat,under report, is also in a good state,barring few kms.length of course not that good, till Bharuch from where the the four lane highway shrinks to two lane, as there appears no feasibility( for the present )to make it wider to four lane on bridge, across Narmada river.. This stretch being very busy with full of heavy traffic plying ,naturally,the jam situation often has to be countered.
Punjab does indeed have good roads in the indian context.
Not quite! There are any number of cases of buses falling into valleys.
They arent; as safe as they need to be over there.
I actually lived in Kutch for a good 3 years(before the earthquake).
I have seen the progress that those people have made post2001 earthquake.
Bhuj has changed beyond recognition!
And happy to know the Fauj are doing well!
This is the only group of people I would happily pay taxes for!
The only sensible approach for the road construction has to be based on heavy investment with a very high and strict quality control. The integrity of the highest authorities being the most crucial factor in the implementation of the program. Usually we end up blaming the local authorities and local contractors for shoddy quality of work, but rest assured if it was not for the support from the top-most quarter for these contractors and lower authorities, the entire chain would become very honest. Just to put an example, the Commonwealth games were an excellent example of the chance that we had to improve the quality of life in New Delhi, in one go, we could have provided the real world class roads, the high quality flyovers and an infrastructure for sports facilities for the young generation. Nothing got done, we were somehow shamed before the world, and look at what happened to the most of accused. The main cuplrit is out on bail. Now do you think any of it could have happened unless the real top did not get benefitted out from all this. It is a perfect example of the irony of Shri Vajpayee's vision and the Mr. Singh's execution!
To add to the previous commentator, the problem gets compunded further. Since the budget was already allocated for the road that was built, it is difficult to obtain the next budget except for the maintenance. But since, the first time itself, the roads built are of such a bad quality that every once or once in two years (in metros of course, in small towns the situation is much worse), some tar is poured onto it just before the rainy season. After the rainy season of course, it is back to terrible roads again. I guess this has been a perennial problem in the road construction. This is what differentiates Narendra Modi from other politicians, he has demonstrable integrity, an efficient administration and development oriented approach. To those who think of his competitors such as Nitish Kumar may visit Bihar and find that the above three qualities are precisely the ones that are lacking in them. A propaganda driven approach can only go this far.
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