The clash of the titans has got star billing in Varanasi on 4 March, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his chief opponents Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, promise to bring this ancient city to a halt with their respective roadshows.
But 24 hours is a long time in this holy city. Nothing like a walk along the ghats in the early morning, or when the sun sets to allow you to enter the illusion that the city is teetering on the edge of the river. The call of the boatman dispels the moment. “Boat ride, madam?”
Nishad Community Unhappy with BJP
Certainly, you can’t take Ganga out of Varanasi. But the other cliché is equally true – you can’t take the Mallahs, or the boatmen community who have been riding the waves ever since one of them helped the Hindu God Ram cross the river – out of Ganga. To extend the mythological analogy, they are both part of the same coin that you reverentially offer at the hundreds of temples littered across the city.
These days though, as the pitch of the “chunavi mahaul” rises, with the election in Uttar Pradesh entering its last phase, the rumble among Varanasi’s boatmen, or Mallahs, is also growing.
Some of them are so unhappy that they have even floated a political party, whose acronym adds up to NISHAD – Nirbal India Shoshit Hamaara Aam Dal – led by Vinod Kumar Nishad, who is contesting for election from Varanasi South.
Naturally, the acronym represents the backward caste that the Mallahs belong to, the Nishad caste, which includes the Kashyap, Bind, Dhiwar, Kevat castes, among others.
Significantly, the Nishads comprise 16 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population. They would like, very much indeed, to become part of the Scheduled Caste population, as they make up 20.5 percent of the population in UP (the Muslims are 18 percent). But the problem is that the BJP, whom they supported in the last election, has refused to do so.
Boatmen Unimpressed by Kashi Banega Kyoto Plan
Akhilesh Yadav promised that he would accommodate them in the SC category, and even made an announcement in that regard – except the code of conduct conveniently came in the way.
The Nishads are now angry and determined to vote against the BJP – one of the many reasons why Prime Minister Modi’s own constituency has become the scene of a latter-day political Mahabharat being fought till the last breath, in the last lap of this all-important election.
Certainly, the anger of the boatmen is boiling over. A proposed jetty in the “Kashi banega Kyoto” plan, that is 500m long across the Shivala, Dashashwamedha and Rajendra Prasad ghats, and 100 m deep into the river, the Mallahs fear that it is expected to destroy their livelihood. If people stand on the jetty, and watch the evening arti from the jetty, nobody will ride the boats, they say.
As it is, demonetisation or “notebandi” deeply affected their business. As many as 2,000 boats are licensed just on the Dashashvamedha Ghat, on whose income about 5,000 families depend.
Then, there is the idea of plying cruise boats from Kolkata to Allahabad, via Varanasi, and under the plan, all the boats will have to be moved.
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Evidently, in the 2014 election, Narendra Modi wanted Vinod Nishad to be one of ten people who proposed his name for the Varanasi contest – remember that the grandson of Bismillah Khan was one of them, apart from Giridhar Malviya, the grandson of Madan Mohan Malviya.
But according to Vinod Nishad, he turned down the offer brought to him by Modi’s brother.
Certainly, the BJP isn’t giving up. Party president Amit Shah is said to have had one dinner with the Bind community. And like a lot of Banarasis, the Mallahs also believe that the Prime Minister is trying his best to improve the lot of the city.
The hurly-burly has descended upon Banaras. Irrespective of what happens in the rest of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP knows it simply cannot afford to lose all the Assembly segments in a constituency won by the Prime Minister himself. It is a battle of wits and prestige. And the party is pulling out all the stops.
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on the overlap between domestic politics and foreign affairs. She can be reached @jomalhotra. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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