Hyderabad: I was fascinated by my encounter with Lakshmi, who wore a hijab-like cloak.
Lakshmi was one of the hundreds begging for a living on the streets of Charminar, the monument with four minarets that was built in the 16th century by the rulers of the Qutb Shahi dynasty and is still the landmark by which Hyderabad city is identified.
Like it was in the ancient days, Charminar still draws tens of thousands of visitors from across the country, across faiths. So much so that one finds its picturesque view is reduced by the trappings of the modern world.
The main square where it stands is taken over by a tide of visitors and concrete buildings on either side, with advertising hoardings ranging from gold to sandals. Fortunately, vehicles are banned within a 100 feet radius of the minarets since last year. Yet, the noise of the crowd fills the ears.
Dodging hawkers, I reached closer to the minaret to a quiet corner. It was then that a woman held out her hand for alms. She was accompanied by her daughter, a cute little child also draped with a cloak.
In the conversation that ensued, she revealed her name was Lakshmi, and admitted to have dressed up in a hijab to generate sympathy among the locals in the Muslim-dominated area.
She hails from a village three hours away and has to take care of her sick husband. When asked who she would vote for, Lakshmi first said: “Woh hai na, usko kya bolta hai?". I asked if she meant KCR, the popular shorthand by which the local people address K. Chandrashekar Rao, chief minister of Telangana. She burst into a smile. “Haan, wahi."
Why? He had brought in development and peace among Hindus and Muslims, she said. It was strange, given the reality of her life. The place we were in also stood in sharp contrast. About 50 metres away was the Bhagyalakshmi temple, a venerated site of Hindus now. It has been built and expanded in recent times and its history is shadowed by the commonplace Hindu-Muslim rivalry that can be seen across many Indian cities. Communal tensions have flared up in the past here.
Yet, Lakshmi may be right. Social harmony has been intact in the state since the communal riots of the early 1990s. Under KCR’s rule, the rivalry has reduced to a minimum. KCR is also helped by being pals with the firebrand politician among the Muslim-populated old Hyderabad region, Asaduddin Owaisi. The four-time member of Parliament (MP) and head of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) is a force to reckon with in Hyderabad. The party now also has a strong base among the state’s 12% Muslim voters, and is expected to cast its influence wider in the future to neighbouring states such as Maharashtra.
Even Shamsudheen, a Class VIII student of a school near Charminar, is a fan. The minarets are like a second home for Shamsudheen, who comes there after school, searching for customers of his white pearl-studded short necklaces, sold for double the price that he bought them for.
He is shouldering a heavy burden that came after a tragedy at home. He peppered me with questions before dropping his guard to talk. He wanted to be sure that I was not a spy of local MLAs or MPs, he later said. He may be too young to vote, but his political instincts are sharp. In a mix of Hindi and English, ending almost every sentence with “bro", he explained the iron grip KCR has on the streets of Hyderabad. “Kya hai na bro, woh log maartha hai, bro. Agar hum KCR ke upar kuch galath baath bola, phir woh humein marenge, bro (If we talk against KCR, they’ll thrash us)."
Five southern states—Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala—hold the key to 130 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. Nidheesh M.K. is on a tour across the states, covering over 1,000km, to get a sense of the popular mood. His blogs will be published in Mint and on Livemint.com.