Present politics of the past
Gangauli in Ghazipur district of eastern Uttar Pradesh is not just another village. Nearly 60 km from the district headquarters, this village on the banks of the Ganga owes its fame to the novelist Rahi Masoom Raza and his masterpiece Aadha Gaon (half a village). The novel examines how Muslims viewed the idea of Pakistan at the time of India’s partition. In Raza’s narrative, Gangauli appears like a microcosm of India. More than six decades later, it remains so.
It is difficult to say whether Gangauli’s story immortalised Raza or the great novelist’s imagination confabulated facts and fiction, to weave the captivating narrative of Gangauli as a miniature India. But it is readily known that Gangauli is a great attraction for those curious about India – more particularly about eastern UP. Negotiating a difficult terrain from Varanasi to Ghazipur, we took a narrow but better road that connected the village to the district headquarters. As we entered the village, oversize graffiti on a village wall offered ‘sure cure’ for low sperm count. That was the first indication of Gangauli’s eternal yearning for machismo.
The search for Raza’s house led us to a sprawling residence of the local Samajwadi Party legislator, Shadab Fatima. Her young brother, Saiyyad Saqib, who has studied engineering in Pune, greeted us. ‘We were all a family,’ he said, indicating that though Raza’s ancestral home is somewhere else, they belong to the same family tree. In the novel, this locality is called Saiyyad Bara, the place of the Saiyyads (at the top of the Muslim caste hierarchy). Posters and banners of the Samajwadi Party abound in this locality and make people’s political preference clear. ‘There is no Modi effect in this part of the town,’ Saqib said.
But this does not hold true for the entire village. A minority population of Hindus proclaims its loyalty to the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Yet there is no tension in the air. Political choices of people do not vitiate the atmosphere in Gangauli – it generates only debate. This is why a mosque with domes similar to those of the Babri mosque stands only a few yards away from a grand Shiva temple – on land donated by a Saiyyad landlord. By all indications, Gangauli is unfazed by the tempestuous politics of Ghazipur, Varanasi, Lucknow or Delhi.
Saqib described communal harmony with a metaphor: Hum log namak mirch aur masala mein paani dene ka kaam kartein hain (we dilute the communal situation when it aggravates). Thus, when Muzaffarnagar and its neighbouring areas in western UP were burning in a communal frenzy late last year, this village and its surroundings remain unfazed. This easygoing approach of village life drew Raza to pick up the story of Gangauli to explain the cataclysmic events before, during and after the partition. Aadha Gaon is a story of the Indian ethos that refuses to be swayed or defeated in the face of several onslaughts.
Gangauli is an archetypal Indian village with all its social strengths and vulnerabilities, all the while hanging on to its distinct identity. This is why we concluded our 3,000 km journey crisscrossing Uttar Pradesh, from Ghaziabad to Ghazipur, in Gangauli. Its backdrop is a valuable point of reference in the larger story of India’s largest state.
In a state polarised along religious lines – it has suffered 100-odd communal riots in the past two years – the yearning for good governance has mutated into a desire for a superman, a saviour to rid society of all its ills. The graffiti on Gangauli’s walls, advertising treatment for lost virility, is a symptom of the syndrome that afflicts the state. It prevails in western UP, the region worst affected by communal violence; riots have recently hit Ghaziabad, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. This was quite evident in our tour to the riot-affected areas of Muzaffarnagar in February. About five months after the violence that shook the nation’s conscience, Kawal township – the epicentre of rioting – was peaceful. Rioting had started on 7 September from Kawal and spread to neighbouring towns and villages, claiming 59 lives, displacing more than 50,000 from rural areas where they had been living for generations, and destroying property. An incident of harassment of a Jat girl triggered the killing of a Muslim and, in revenge, counter-killing of two brothers of the girl.
The riots tore through the social fabric of the region. Several villages in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, where Jats and Muslims lived in relative peace, have become segregated along communal lines. Refugees have refused to return home, fearing fresh violence. There is talk that western UP is intensely polarised along communal lines and that this will reflect in political choices in the coming elections. The implicit message being the consolidation of Hindu votes will favour the BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular. Ground realities, though, do not support this assumption. We met a scheduled caste man who was not particularly perturbed over the supposed polarisation. ‘There is no reason for us to hate Muslims,’ said the man, who makes his two ends meet by performing menial jobs for his Jat landlords. He added that barring a brief spell of clashes between Jats and Muslims, the area had remained largely peaceful. Shyam Khatik, owner of about 40 bigha land adjacent to Kawal town, draws from a similar equanimity. He is more forthright in his assessment of the situation. ‘We are not aware of any targeted attacks on Hindu girls by Muslims in this area, though what happened in Muzaffarnagar might be an aberration,’ he said, adding that the domineering behaviour of the Jat landlords is as much frowned upon as hooliganism by a section of Musilms. ‘Normally the internal dynamics of village politics take care of such problems,’ he said, making it clear that the riots resulted from a failure of the informal corrective mechanism.
This points to a disturbing aspect of the village polity: such failures are not episodic, they are endemic in UP. With the state increasingly seen as an effete and partisan institution, the vacuum is filled by those enjoying the clout of money and muscle. Such a setting naturally favours musclemen masquerading as politicians.
In a state beset by recurring riots, there are several omens in the run-up to the elections. People seem fed up with the usual political rhetoric, and on the lookout for the superman who can set right every wrong in society and politics. Such desperation creates a background to paint Modi as a saviour who apparently turned Gujarat into an ideal state.
The idea of visiting Gangauli was certainly not to compare the situation then and now. It was more to explore the nature of the political discourse. That remains unchanged.
By arrangement with Governance Now