On the 20th of May, when Banda was anticipating rain, Yogi Adityanath arrived in Bundelkhand for the first time since he became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Shortly after, a bus exploded into flames in Jaspura, and an unconfirmed number of people were burned alive. Scores were injured.
In all the commotion, where was Yogi ji? An incandescent flash of saffron, gone in a moment to leave behind a bunch of very unhappy people.
In Bundelkhand, we have an interesting rishta with the all-new Yogi government. We voted with all our heart for the saffron wave to come and swallow us whole – we who are known to reserve some cynicism for populist right-wing politics. We aired on the side of secularism or the politics of marginalization. But that’s history. We have a new history now, one that we’re complicit in making, rewriting. We were more than a little taken aback when the government we voted in had few representatives from this region, especially the politically significant Banda. All the while, hearing that Bundelkhand’s development was top of the pops when it came to the promises of the new government. We were in the hearts and minds of the new saffron-robed men in power, and sheer faith would get us through the next five years.
In Bundelkhand, sheer faith is a tall order, after centuries of poverty, feudalism, decades of drought and the failure of any promise of citizenship, especially for the most marginalized.
Our latent cynicism made transparent, we have to admit being moved beyond words when, in Bundelkhand, time after time, when there is a matter of staking a claim to citizenship, or holding the powers that be to account, you see the greatest number of gnarled, bony, toothless elderly people holding up placards.
Subsequently, on the 20th of May, when rain was definitely a more pragmatic expectation than a personal reception with the Honorable Chief Minister, Banda town saw queues of predominantly elderly people snaking around the area, where Yogi ji was meant to arrive. They came from Hamirpur, Fatehpur, Chitrakoot, remote blocks of Banda like Jaspura, Baberu and Naraini. They stayed all day, sitting only to open up small packets of food.
Mithai Lal (a name that almost made us cry in its misplaced irony) is an old man with sunken eyes, and a trembling voice, from Baberu who held a placard and complained about the lack of ration available to him in his village. He was part of a group of 50-60 such complainants who were protesting the inability to raise issues of the corruption of administrative officials, and the constant threat to their lives when they did complain. Behind Mithai Lal stood a group of old women complainants with the same placard, mostly toothless. Nirmala, who was at the head of this small toli, said she had been trying to get a ration card for the past 15 years, and failing. Digitalisation and ‘smart’ness notwithstanding, she is still a distance away from getting subsidized food to eat, or any of the entitlements promised by previous governments. Mithai Lal and Nirmala are fronted by a young and determined PC Patel, ‘jan sevak’ from Tehsil Baberu. His appeal is clearly to the promises of transparency and accessibility to entitlements, also promised by the Yogi government, and he was here to make the point that the system is still pretty much the same. What was Yogi ji going ot do about it? ‘We’ve been fighting against corruption for many years, in the time of the previous government too. But no one listens, and we’re given death threats when we make complaints to the administration. Even now it feels like our life is at risk.’
The irony of the challenge posed by this group falling on deaf ears, was lost.
The police force, present in great numbers, armed with laathis and women constables, barked that the Chief Minister was not here in Banda to meet with them, he had an important meeting. Fair enough. Why should issues like the concerns of the oldest voters in Bundelkhand be important enough to figure on his itinerary? Or, even, the concerns of his proclaimed centre of attention – the farmers of this region? Balram Tiwari, of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, portly and studded with beads of sweat, but ever articulate, said that he hoped to have changed the administration’s mind to not allow anyone access, by putting a formal written request to meet with the Chief Minister. ‘We’ve been told by the administration that only BJP party workers have permission to meet Yogi ji. No members of any other party or group, or petitioners. We want to tell him that electricity, water – these problems are forcing our farmers, our youth from Bundelkhand to migrate outside. They should get work here. The glass factory and Katai mill that used to run in Chitrakoot and Banda should be reinstated – we’ve given this as an application to the administration.’
Remember that juicy promise about women’s issues being another top priority of the new government? The band of women ASHA workers from across Bundelkhand, the pinkness of their saris slowly reaching their cheeks as the day progressed, and they got hotter and angrier, would have had a thing or two to say about that. ‘When they come and ask for your vote, then they don’t turn you away! Then they want everyone to vote. The CM said he will meet each and every one of us. So we’re not going away till he does,’ says the strident Vinod Tiwari, the president of the ASHA workers’ union in Banda, and behind her, a swarm of agreement. ‘We’ll remember this when they are making us do check ups and vaccinations when we’re sick with typhoid and malaria. What kind of administration are they running!’
It was the woman from Fatehpur, voice hoarse, on the verge of tears but still holding fast to her faith, that a meeting with the Chief Minister would alleviate her distress, who elicited most emotion. She had gone to the police station to make a complaint and was detained and molested by police officers and staff on duty there; her complaint had made the rounds of various offices in Fatehpur, and predictably, fell on apathetic ears. Her realization that this meeting really wasn’t about to happen had her respond with a terse, ‘pol khul jayegi [about the police], that’s why they aren’t letting us see Yogi ji…’
What kind of administration are they running indeed?