the bazaars of bundelkhand

the bazaars of bundelkhand
the bazaars of bundelkhand | बुन्देलखण्ड के बाज़ार

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Smart Politics: Co-option, Calculation and the Will to Win

Notes from Banda on counting day, also known as the day when the BJP tsunami engulfed U.P.

At dusk on a rooftop in Banda after the state election results, the air feels cool, the sky is luminous, so much so that the outline of a spectacular almost full moon is only partially visible. The streets are returning to their evening frenzy. Children return from tuition classes and come out to play. A pair of kites flirt in the distance, behind a fluttering blue flag with an elephant on it. Banda town is usually anything but quiet, but today the end of day brings a kind of meditativeness. Some shock, some disbelief.
On our right is a building imposing in its height and arches, yet its exposed brick and emptiness rendering it somewhat despairing. The building belongs to a relative of the BSP leader Nasimuddin Siddiqui, whose own sprawling house is behind us, where the elephant flutters. Today, it feels like an apt symbol of loss, of failure of strategies to build a new image and political success for the party, to be led by Siddiqui himself. ‘It came up this high in Mayawati’s time, then work stopped once she went out of power. Now it’s going to be in this state another 5 years atleast,’ says our slender but opinionated Dalit host. ‘I agree with Behenji, there should be a re-election. There is definitely some gadbadi.’ Shivbaran is from Kamasin in Baberu assembly constituency. ‘We heard two names only during the campaign. Kiran Yadav (BSP) and Bishambar Yadav (SP). No one had even heard of the other candidate (Chandrapal Kushwaha of the BJP) – and he won by over 20,000 votes. It’s not possible.’ When we asked if perhaps many Dalits had not voted as expected, or as claimed, for the BSP, and maybe caste had not been as predictable a card in this election, our other host interrupts, ‘But what about people in our own homes and villages, who we knew? It’s not possible. Even I went to the booth wanting to vote for someone different this time, and I was so convinced of wanting youth and modernity and change. I really thought Akhilesh was doing his best to keep the BJP out of UP. But at the end, I pressed the elephant, inspite of myself. Maybe because the BSP candidate was a woman, maybe because I had met and knew her. But whatever you say, in the end caste does matter in UP.’
Only an hour before, the streets heading away from Galla Mandi, where votes had been counted, were thick and loud with ecstatic saffron faces. The celebration slipped seamlessly from performative – saffron selfies and cheers of Jai Sri Ram and Bharat Mata ki Jai – to mob-style, expanding in size and power and fearsomeness. Somewhere ahead, Gayacharan Dinkar, the erstwhile MLA from Naraini constituency, a seat reserved for Scheduled Castes, addressed an impromptu Q and A. ‘In America, votes are cast on ballot paper. In Japan, a country far ahead of us in technological advancement, electronic voting machines have been declared faulty. But we’re still using them.’ Asked about the anger of voters at his absence in the constituency throughout his term and failure to address their problems, he responded, ‘There are some villages, like Makhanpur and Mohanpurva, who say they will boycott every time. I have made a road that connects them to the main thoroughfare. They must have had some new demands this time.’

Beyond the crowds, in a timber warehouse by the roadside, a group of local reporters gathered to discuss the results. The conversation was sealed with the understanding that they all had to take care of themselves and their expenses – footed in large part by political parties and leaders – and so no names would be named, no analysis would be too probing. But off record, they were businesslike about the repercussions of this pasa palatna, this shocking change of the political tide. ‘Look at the kind of sloganeering, isn’t it going to make some communities fearful? You mark my words, there will be violence, there will be riots.’ ‘There will be more intense casteism, Brahmanism – there will be murders, rapes – in other words, life as usual for us reporters…’ One Dalit reporter claimed that the upper castes were put out by the misuse of the SC/ST atrocities act in the previous BSP regime, and so moved away from supporting that party. Another claimed that the BJP’s promises to tackle the mining mafia once and for all swung votes in their favour in the rural belts of Bundelkhand.
But also clear from the part thrill, part fear, part exuberance at the political swing that is the BJP’s sweep of Uttar Pradesh – from Banda, a Congress stronghold, and with no precedent of allowing the BJP in – is that this was coming. Shock and disbelief, and the blaming of technology was more than misplaced. At a dhaba in Banda, a pair of students discussed how all seats had been won on Modi’s merit, and how this was what they had all expected, and hoped for, ‘Us Phd students in the University, and even all the political groups there, this is the result we all wanted.’ For months, Whatsapp groups in this district and the adjoining Mahoba and Chitrakoot had reminded journalists, administrators, businessmen, students of the consequences of Hindus not joining forces – Kairana aur Bangladesh dekhne ke liye tayyar rahen. Messages asked pointedly, if people had to chose a leader to nurture their 8-year old child for 5 years, who would they chose? The options were Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Mulayam or Shivpal Singh, Lalloo Prasad, Mamta Banerji, Digvijay Singh, and Narendra Modi. They exhorted Hindus to come together, to bring victory (abki baar 300 paar), to make the lotus bloom, to build the Ram temple and paint the world saffron.
Outsiders as they may have been to UP, as contentious as ticket allocations had been, as unfamiliar as candidates were to their constituencies, they had an ear to the ground. They were able to twist discontent with the incumbent government, and disillusionment with the too-distant vision of the BSP into an all-powerful formula. ‘Saaf kar diya is belt ko, Mubarak ho aapko,’ said a buxom travelling mate. Calculations and strategies aside, what can be more fearful than a majoritarian, self-righteous politics that feels that it is justified in any action it may take, or condone? Let us just say, we have never felt more fearful in 15 years of reporting in dakuland, as we felt in that homogenous sea of saffron, choti-wielding, male celebration.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Women Who Walked in Nobody’s Shadow

Notes from the field on polling day

They came from places where tears hold more water than most ponds. Or hand pumps.
They came from rural cobblestoned lanes where even seasoned thekedaars are too scared to build roads, lest dacoits intervene. (And the dacoits, we learn, are getting younger and younger here).
The cobblestones here are not your hill station dream stroll, so longed for, slated for holidays, but a hard, tough road where road rollers haven’t deigned yet to reach. On stones cut possibly by these women, they walked in block colours, uniformly covering face with ghunghat, feet in chappals.
Sometimes looking out for each other, in twos or small groups.
Sometimes walking in a single file.
This was no song and dance stuff. Voting had started, booths opened at 7 am and they knew what they were heading towards. Together. Clutching a white little something in their hands.
One cannot, in all likelihood, think of any other day in the year when the tar that criss-crosses India sees the shadow of so many ID cards on its indifferent turf – all in the span of a day. One can’t really tell if the fingers gripping the pehchaan patras are chapped, but visceral memories of hands held remind us of the softness that is sandpapered by circumstance and the vicious yet polite fatalism that mixes with feudalism in these parts.
What is unarguably certain is that the I-card or the parchi or the Aadhaar is held firmly, and matter-of-factly as they carry on. With the modicum of possibility, a change in leadership brings. Everything in their gait, pretty much the opposite of drama queen. As we walk past them and smile, they smile back tentatively and it is only when their eyes fully meet ours that the smile spreads full beam, as it often happens between women. A spontaneous connect.

We know these women. They are the first adivaasis to farm on hard land in hilly Bargarh, which used to be thick forest once upon a time. They are those in whose sickle-armed hands crops have grown, crops have died, due to less rain and no water channels. They are those you can hear the sighs of in Panhai just as they load their heads with wood to catch a train and sell it the same day. The equation in their heads being, one meal for their family that night.
She could be 19-year-old Sangeeta from a Dalit family in Bhauri, closer to Karwi town, who works a sewing machine after returning from college.
She could be a stone crusher. A stone quarrier. A construction site labourer, and MNREGA job card holder – the women mazdoors of Bundelkhand are, after all, keeping a very strained rural economy afloat.
But they are not a vote bank yet, enough for somebody to specially look out for them.
On a daily wage, a day off for voting is simply money not earned. How does one calculate the daily loss they must have incurred, we wonder, as we see them walk back home in the blistering noon sun? What GPS in the world can grasp these kilometres of hope against hope?

While the women walked, the men talked. In groups, on bikes and tractors that they rode on to go vote. Public transport was missing on a day which is meant to create governments for, of and by the people. And so it was that they walked through farm fields and pagdandis, alongside railway tracks, and crouching under faataks. A landscape that scrubs you into immediate submission, from the mud that falls off the craggy walls, locally called morem, which is only deceptively spongy with stones lurking underneath. It is also all dusty as subtle hell. There are plants withering away in the unexpected February heat, a heat that hits the skin like a family tree of blossoming prickly heat. As you go along this undulating cragginess, you suddenly hit a non-perennial rivulet and a rocky tapering cliff that again seems gently reclining, but is known to go from dry to slippery and steep to stuck in a matter of seconds.
It’s the kind of landscape that has a way of making a place in your heart with its ruffian turns, but it also never quite lets you forget how it holds heart crushing truths within. The Vindhyas here maybe a broken chain of mountains as is the delivery of public goods by the netas, but there was something else tangible on voting day in Bundelkhand. Something in the forgotten promise of the nation state – that we are all equal as citizens. Or can perhaps hope to be for a day.
These women didn’t wait to find out. They walked maybe thinking of these things. Not as a protest march, but a silencer guide for everyday doers. Quietly. Willingly. Showing up, in a spirit that voting percentages can hardly fathom.
The voting centres were curiously all called Adarsh Matdaan Kendras. Cynics can bullet point this as a futile urgency, commentators can go into clichéd loops about how democracy wins, but from first timers to bent by (literally) time old timers, the women of Bundelkhand came from the bruised corners of this, our nation-statehood, putting a silencer on the need to show or demand group validation, be it selfie or state policy.
Whoever wins their vote, they have already won ours.

Tisha Srivastav, a part time editorial consultant with Khabar Lahariya sends in snapshots of her experiences in Bundelkhand reporting, with Bundelkhandi reporters. Catch her live-tweeting some of the action here!

Thursday, 16 February 2017


Some straight talk with Banda's working women 

The same forthright political science teacher, Dr. Laxmi Tripathi, regales us with an unexpected story about a politician, elections and patriarchy. Apparently, a Mahavir Singh, from Banda who was a deputy minister in CM Sampoornanand’s cabinet of yore, did not allow his wife to go out and vote and is said to have lost by one vote. (A google search later throws up the name of said politician in a Paul Brass book reference, but no mention of this story) It is nevertheless a great opener for a welcome chat with a teacher, who as she says herself, encourages young students to vote for their future. What party affiliation that means, you are welcome to guess. A genial history teacher sitting next to her, reminds us that the sitting MP from BJP, has done nothing for Banda’s greatly forgotten neighbour, the Kalinjar fort. Not even in the name of tradition that they keep harping on, not even in the name of adopting villages, a la Modi, which the sitting MP too has, in Kalinjar. Kalinjar is a major site evoking multiple Indian vintage, be it Ramayana, Mahabharat, Kala Bhairava, the water tank heritage of Bundelkhand or the shell that is said to have killed Sher Shah Suri here.
Some straight speak from the women of the land, recorded by a straight shooter Khabar Lahariya reporter.
The latter continue to report on the places they call home, village, town or in between. Learning in the process to see home for what it is - changing and unchanged.
A mobile camera and jazba, ground up voices sharing editorial material pronto on WhatsApp, while continuing to have its print newspaper. Khabar Lahariya - the pyjama maybe old, but newer drawstrings, ever welcome I say.

Tisha Srivastav, a part time editorial consultant with Khabar Lahariya sends in snapshots of her experiences in Bundelkhand reporting, with Bundelkhandi reporters. Catch her live-tweeting some of the action here!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017


Political meva, Hindu-Muslim seva?

The official notice board resembling a sarkari board, bureaucrat on duty style, highlights a Muslim and a Hindu, at the SP zila office.
He praises Meera to the skies, even as she is unmoved by this very sudden public adulation. The Hindu-Muslim rhetoric in Mullah Mulayam terrain, reminds me that the story of this town which knows violence intimately, yet has an unghettoised Hindu-Muslim social fabric, deserves unravelling. But for now, this is election season and you can see rows of keds have replaced chappals, as mineral water bottles have replaced ghadaas. Meeting a politician thus, is also an exercise in watching waste being generated, one of the apathetic side-lines of generous local hospitality. 

This particular candidate’s switch from Samaajwadi Party to Congress to SP to now the gathbandhan has a local political science teacher fuming, ‘ Candidates have moved parties but this business of a daughter gets ticket from one party, another relative in another party – this is new and shows the value placed on power, not ideals.’ Her remark reminds me of the meeting with the said candidate, who when he finally arrives, proceeds to waylay reporter Meera’s question of charges against him, with a proud dabang response, ‘we got the bureaucrat who made those charges transferred.’ Meera walks out silently and also, a trifle relieved, that the chase over this guy, is done. After a day of chasing politicians with all their drama of power, it is a relief when Meera suggests a trip to the Mahavidyalaya, where we find these teachers.

Tisha Srivastav, a part time editorial consultant with Khabar Lahariya sends in snapshots of her experiences in Bundelkhand reporting, with Bundelkhandi reporters. Catch her live-tweeting some of the action here!