In April 2014, when Gulam Umar Bhagad turned 18, he participated in his first Lok Sabha election by voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

As a Gujarati Muslim who grew up in the Muslim-majority town of Salaya in Devbhoomi Dwarka district, this was a significant shift away from the local tradition of voting for the Congress. However, inspired by the promises of development and achhe din, Bhagad and his peers in Salaya decided to set aside their image of the BJP as a “Hindu” party and vote for Narendra Modi.

Today, more than three years later, Bhagad regrets his decision. On December 9, when he participated in his first state Assembly election, he chose to return to his community’s old voting tradition.

“This time, everyone here is voting for the Congress again,” said Bhagad, who is nearly 22 now. “We made a mistake by voting for the BJP last time.”

The reason behind this change in voter sentiment is a symbol of the very development that Bhagad and other young Muslims in the small fishing town of Salaya had voted for: a Rs 1,500-crore jetty by business conglomerate Essar, being constructed right off the coast of Salaya.

The jetty, officially called the Essar Bulk Terminal Salaya Limited, is meant to serve as a port for transporting coal and other raw materials to Essar’s 1,320-megawatt thermal power plant in the town of Kajura 7 km away. The project was approved by the state’s BJP government in 2009 and then stayed by the Gujarat High Court in 2011, because of concerns about its location in the ecologically sensitive zone of the Marine National Biodiversity Park in the Gulf of Kutch.

Despite that, construction work on the jetty resumed over the years until it was stalled by a large-scale protest rally by the Salaya Fishermen’s Association in July 2016. The project location is now being probed by the National Green Tribunal, which appointed an expert panel in June this year to re-examine the validity of the environmental clearances that the jetty has been granted.

For the fishermen of Salaya, however, the building of the jetty has already meant an obstruction to their regular fishing routes, fewer fish to catch and the looming threat of losing their traditional livelihood.

“The jetty construction has already restricted the reach of our boats. If it is completed and used to transport coal, our waters will get polluted and our fish will die,” said Bhagad, whose family owns a medium-sized fishing boat.

Young Muslims of Bhagad’s age – a generation that grew up under the BJP’s 22-year rule in Gujarat – now feel betrayed by the party that they chose to briefly trust. In the ongoing Assembly election, this generation of first-time voters is hoping to see the party that their parents have always voted for come to power in Gujarat.

“At least the Congress ministers came to support us during our rally against the jetty,” said Bhagad. “The BJP just supports the big businesses.”

Gulam Umar Bhagad is a fisherman and a first-time Muslim voter from Salaya.

‘We have better roads, but…’

The town of Salaya, located 70 km from Jamnagar in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, is known for fishing, for the manufacture of wooden dhows and for its Kutchhi-speaking Muslims who comprise 90% of the 33,000-strong population. Education levels are low, and over the years, a large number of local fishermen have taken up jobs as cargo shippers and labourers in Dubai and other Gulf countries.

The town claims to have one previous instance of voting for the BJP, during the Salaya municipal council election of 2010. This was because the town’s most popular local leader, Salim Ahmed Bhagad, defected from the Congress to the BJP. “Salu Patel”, as Salim Ahmed Bhagad is popularly called, is still the corporator of Salaya, and locals believe he has brought a considerable degree of development to the town in the past seven years.

“Thanks to him, we have better roads in the main city now, and regular water and electricity supply too,” said 20-year-old Mustafa Lohru, who has never been to school and works as a labourer on a fishing boat for Rs 6,500 a month. “Salu Patel understands the needs of our people.”

The controversy over the Essar jetty, however, has made Lohru and other fishing labourers feel conflicted about Salu Patel in the past year. According to them, during the protests against the jetty in July 2016, Salu Patel and other BJP workers from the region clashed with the leaders of the protest, and the violence resulted in several injuries.

“We want Salu Patel to support us in opposing the jetty, because he is one of us,” said Lohru, who is particularly concerned about his own job on one of the small boats that that mainly fishes for the local bumbla fish. “We spread our nets in shallow waters in the mangroves nearer to the coast, so we will be directly affected if the jetty is built.”

A fishing boat under construction in Salaya. Photos: Aarefa Johari

Missing development

Besides the contentious jetty, Salaya’s young fishermen have taken issue with the state government on other questions of development too.

Gulam Umar Bhagad, who gave up a ship labourer’s job in the Gulf two years ago for the dignity of having his own fishing business, is frustrated with rising inflation and the impact of the Goods and Services Tax on the cost of equipment. “Everything has become more expensive after GST – fishing nets, motors, diesel and even insurance,” said Bhagad, who has to make an investment of at least Rs 30,000 before setting out on a four-day fishing trip. Each boat makes at least five such trips every month during summers and winters, with a break during the monsoon. “But fishermen don’t get loans or subsidised insurance as easily as farmers do.”

Two months ago, Bhagad led several boat owners in Salaya in a small protest outside the office of local marine authorities, demanding more loans, insurance and better facilities at the local bunder or port where they work. “We pay taxes to the government like everybody else, so at least they should provide us with proper lights and drinking water at the bunder,” he said. “But our protest just ignored and our letter to the Collector has not been answered.”

At the large Salaya bunder strewn with drying fish and piles of fishing nets, Elias Husain Moda pointed towards a towering light post fitted with a ring of high-power lights at the far end of the jetty. “The government people came and made this lamp post for us last year. They also made a set of bathrooms that we had been demanding for so many years,” said Moda, a 20-year-old fishing labourer. “But even after one year those lights have never been switched on and the bathrooms are still locked, with no water supply.”

Elias Husain Moda repairing fishing nets at the Salaya bunder.

A communal divide

For Moda, Lohru, Bhagad and other first-time voters in Salaya, voting for the Congress in this election is related more to their identities as fishermen rather than as Muslims. But under the surface, there is an unmistakable communal divide in voting preferences.

“We have always voted for the BJP, but the Hindus here don’t tell people about it because the local Muslims always vote for Congress,” said Vanraj Vaghela, an 18-year-old Hindu from Salaya who works as a cook at a local farsan shop. The only exception, he said, was when the whole town elected Salu Patel as their corporator, because “he is a good man”. “I am also voting for BJP in this election, like the big people of my family.”

Like his Muslim friends, Vaghela is proud of the fact that there have never been communal tensions in Salaya. But like his family elders, he cannot help looking down at the profession that sustains Salaya’s economy. “We Hindus can never work as fishermen – it involves killing,” said Vaghela. “At the end of the day, the Muslims are living on paap no paiso (sinful money).”

In another part of the town, unaware of this derogatory label, Majid Amin spoke passionately about his love for fishing and his fearing of losing his labour job. “Those Essar people have said that they will give us jobs when their jetty is complete,” said 19-year-old Amin. “But that is not the kind of work we would ever like. Our life is about being on the sea, and that’s what I want to keep doing.”

Majid Amin loves his job as a fishing labourer.