किसी अलक्षित सूर्य को, देता हुआ अर्घ्य
शताब्दियों से इसी तरह, गंगा के जल में
अपनी एक टाँग पर खड़ा है यह शहर
अपनी दूसरी टाँग से, बिलकुल बेखबर!
(And for centuries now, praying to the unseen sun
the city has stood in the water on one leg, completely oblivious to the other.)
Great Hindi poet Kedarnath Singh poem beautifully describes Varanasi or Banaras as it is popularly known. The 3000 year old living and breathing city where even death is celebrated is at the epicenter of a crucial fight which will decide the fate of not just prominent leaders of the country but for the country itself.
As Uttar Pradesh nears the last phase of legislative assembly elections, everyone’s attention is hooked to Varanasi and its surrounding constituencies. A total of 54 seats will go to the polls in the seventh phase across nine districts.
For the last six months ruling party BJP and its leaders have been flocking the city in a last bid to impress the voters. Most of the mainstream media coverage sing paeans of the city (and justifiably so) about the river Ganga, ghats and temples. The working class on the shoulders of whose city runs have disappeared amidst the grand roadshows. It is as if it’s only the leaders who are fighting and the people are nowhere in sight.
Banaras is known for temples and ghats but it is also known for its boat rides and elegant banarasi sarees. We speak to the people who make it all possible. The weavers and the boatmen community (nishads/Mallah) are still reeling under the effect of first Demonetisation and then the COVID lockdown.
Weavers of Banaras: The threads that bind
The weaving of the finest Banarasi Silk Sarees not only employs the people from Banaras but the nearby small villages also rely on this community-based business of weaving.
Apart from the drop in sales of the product, the weavers also suffer from adverse effects of inflation. Before lockdown the weaving thread used to cost around 200-220 Rs., now the price has gone up by Rs 100 making the production process expensive.
“Apart from the fetishisation of Banarasi sarees nobody, not even the government cares about the very hands that weave these intricate and beautiful designs,” says Rehman (30), who is third generation weaver of his family.
Before the current Bharatiya Janata Party ruled state government, the weavers were also exempted from paying unit-wise electricity bills instead they used to pay 100-150 rs. per machine but things took a vile turn when Yogi Adityanath was elected to power in the year 2017 and stopped the flat-rate electricity scheme for weavers. Currently per machine electricity consumption costs up to Rs. 3000.
“Chief Minister Yogi announced to bring back flat rate electricity only when he realized that he might lose voters in Purvanchal ”, says Manish Jha, Convenor of Communist Front who has been fighting for weavers’ rights for many years now.
The silk weaving neighborhood comes under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency. Weavers say that even before the pandemic arrived, they were struggling for their livelihood. Lockdown turned out to be the final nail in the coffin as demand dropped to an all-time low leaving the weavers no option but to leave the city to meet their ends. “On some days we do not earn anything, we have to rely on the mercy of our traders to provide us loans so that we can keep the business going”, emphasizes Rehman, in a low voice.
The weavers who make the second-largest occupation of Eastern UP after farming, are struggling to make ends meet. “The Make in India campaign welcomes foreign countries to manufacture in India with open arms, this corporate- friendly campaign has pushed the small handloom industry to margins and even has thrown many out of the business leaving weavers of Banaras in a vulnerable situation”, adds Manish. According to Jha, these jullahas (weavers) are outrightly rejecting the BJP’s politics of polarization and they are solely going to vote on the basis of performance by the ruling party, on which the Yogi led government terribly failed.
Will the Nishad community in Banaras Rock BJP’s Boat?
Nishads or the boatmen community of Banaras are seen as decisive stakeholders in this election. The Nishad or Mallah community is classified as Other Backward Castes in the state and has a long history of being involved in water-related activities in this area. People from these communities work as boatmen, grow eatables like cucumber, melon, and other fruits and vegetables along the river’s sandy bank off-season and act as tourist guides during peak seasons. The Mallah community has been hit with a double whammy.
The state government decided to allow a private five-star cruise to operate on the river Ganga in January 2019. Boatmen from the Mallah village protested against it “We didn’t want the cruise to run between Ramnagar and Raj Ghat since we make a living doing ferry rounds in that area,” said Ratan Nishad, a major member of the Varanasi Nishad Raj Kalyan Samiti (VNRKS), that had coordinated the demonstrations. He further claimed that local boatmen were denied a motorboat license due to the harm caused by the use of diesel to the river’s freshwater turtle wildlife sanctuary, but the cruise owners were granted licenses.
This along with large reduction in income during and after the pandemic has brought the community to its knees and their anger is palpable.
“Government can only try to appease the upper caste, upper-class voter in the name of development and beautification of Ganga, but we know what this so-called modernity ruined for us”, says Vishnu Nishad who do not visit the site anymore as it reminds him of the days when he used to sail a boat across ghats.
Although Nishad Party is in alliance with BJP, the boatmen have decided to keep the ruling party under scrutiny. “This angst is not just the result of negligence by state and central government on economic ends, but these voters are also keen on rejecting the Bramhanical politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party ”, adds Manish.
Kashi Vishwanath Corridor: Erasing the Past
Apart from big claims of homecoming by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Yogi government proceeded with the 600-crore Kashi Vishwanath (KV) Corridor Project in the city in 2019 to create a comfortable pathway to the iconic Kashi Vishwanath temple. The demolition of stores, houses, and temples, some of which were many centuries old, yielded a total area of 5 lakh sq ft. resulting in the displacement of houses and livelihoods of around 2500 people, recalls Suresh Pratap, a senior journalist and author of acclaimed book “Udta Banaras”.
In the year 2018, the Cabinet approved the ambitious Jal Marg Vikas Project aimed at linking Varanasi to Haldia via waterway. The proposed Rs-5,369-crore waterway project is one of the flagship infrastructure projects of the government and involves a significant investment from the World Bank. Many ecologists have raised concerns over the debilitating effects due to navigation of large vessels weighing up to 1500-2000 tonnes. “Alongwith erosion, dredging will effectively destroy the river’s aquatic life and the fisher communities that depend on them,” claims Suresh. “We have not been contacted by the government for this project, instead we have been asked to show license over private players to sail our boats on the river”, says Vishnu when asked about the government’s claim to have the Mallah community in support.
The fishermen are scared that due to dredging the water might get polluted and a drop in the fishing might put their livelihood in trouble. “On another hand, this multi-modal terminal on River Ganga is completely in contradiction to the Clean Ganga Movement, they are as ambiguous as their laws and schemes,”Manish reiterated. The very project of privatization of the river throws out the very people who have contributed to the development of ghats and continue to nurture the tradition.
“Projects on and around Ganga do not seem to be in favor of people, they are for profit and private companies friendly”, says Suresh Pratap. The fear and insecurity among the voters might help the opposition parties, he remarked.
Beneficiary voters have been referred to as having the most crucial role in the election of Uttar Pradesh. This strata of voters are described as the direct beneficiaries of government schemes. Especially women and migrant workers who have returned home after the Nationwide lockdown in 2020, from several parts of the country are counted upon as the trustworthy and ‘loyal’ supporters of the ruling party. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister in a speech said that he had received a video of an elderly lady who says “Humne Modi ka namak khaya hai, vishwasghat nahi karenge” (We have been fed by Modi, we will not betray him), to which Reena Kanojia who works as a washerwoman around the banks of Ganga says, “I am migrant as well as the woman beneficiary, we have been left stranded during the lockdown as well as when our safety is concerned. We survived on salt and roti and Modi talks about returning him the favour.”
Manish challenges this narrative and adds that women from marginalised groups such as SCs, OBCs and Muslim have understood the anti-Dalit, anti-Dalit and anti-poor politics of Bharatiya Janta Party. “Schemes like Ujjwala Yojna are good to talk about but what about the cost of refilling?”, asks Reena. The rise in price of LPG refilling has pushed 8 out of 10 women in Uttar Pradesh to rely on chulha over cooking gas. Varanasi achieved the record turnout of 67% women voters in 2017 Assembly elections.
People deciding their politics
Veteran journalists of the region are of the belief that all the corporate-friendly policies and rising unemployment will help other parties gain momentum over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Due to anti-incumbency, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have become popular.
“The issue with brand Modi is that he never takes the responsibility for the failures of his party,” says Suresh Pratap. He also added that the ruling party is in denial and voters are now disillusioned and this election is going to be“people v/s BJP”. BJP has sensed the situation and due to this, PM Modi has cut Yogi Adityanath from campaigning in Banaras, and has taken charge.
The author is a a student of Convergent Journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia. Inputs from Manish Jha, Surendra Pratap and Swati S.