Eastern concerns: Floating bodies to stray cattle

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There are close to a hundred people on the sand banks, but it is quiet. At the Shringverpur Dham, 31 kilometres away from the city of Prayagraj, three cremations are taking place at once, next to the river Ganga. The fires burn fifty metres apart, and people being laid to rest on a Tuesday morning are unrelated, from different villages in the vicinity. There is a strange solidarity in grief. A hand across the shoulder, or a solemn nod as eyes meet. Ram Krishna Mishra, a priest who has lived close to the dham for all of his 47 years looks out at the mourning families, takes a deep breath and smiles. “When you burn in the womb of Maa Ganga, there is moksha, for both you and your family. There is healing in the sound of her water. I am just happy this silence is back. Because last year, this peace was broken.”

The time that Mishra is referring to is April and May 2021, when Uttar Pradesh, like the rest of the country found itself in the grip of a brutal second wave of Covid-19. The state administration was accused of severe undercounting of cases and deaths but even the official numbers are high: 8,108 deaths in May 2021, and 3,438 deaths in April 2021. On April 24, the state recorded its highest single day jump in cases, 38,055. At the Shringverpur Ghat, that meant fifty burning pyres every half an hour, and absolute chaos. Wood was being black marketed, people were afraid to touch their dead, and masks and PPE kits were lying all over the sand. In images that were beamed across the world, at Prayagraj’s ghats Phaphamau and Shringverpur, row upon row of bodies were left buried on the banks, pieces of cloth laid over them as markers of the dead. “You see that sand bank on the other side, which is completely empty now. At night, we would see vans come with the bodies, and bury them. We could have raised an alarm, but they were poor people, with no money for last rites. Even the Ganga must have been crying with the weight she was carrying. It was a frightening time,” Mishra said.

Eight months after that once-in-a-generation crisis, Prayagraj goes to the polls in the fifth phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections on February 27. Yet, as an electoral issue, the Covid crisis has little resonance. For Mishra, a staunch BJP supporter, the why is simple, supernatural even. “Prakritik aapda thi (It was a natural disaster). How does one blame a government for what happened? No other government could have done any better. In fact, because Yogiji and Modiji were there, there was some vyavastha (order). Otherwise, the situation would have been even worse,” Mishra said.

But this equanimity did not always exist. Two hundred metres away from the ghats is Sharan Kumar Nishad, who runs a boat on the river, and has stopped at a tea stall for a break. His memory of April and May 2021 is sharper, angrier. “People were dying everywhere. In our village they were dying, on the banks they were dying. Sab jagah maut hi maut (everywhere, just death and death). And the government was doing nothing. I’m telling you, if the elections had been held in August 2021, the BJP would have been wiped out,” Nishad said.

Politically, that “if” in his sentence is crucial, given the importance of his community to the fortunes of Uttar Pradesh. The Nishads form around 18% of the OBC population of the state, and are spread around about 150 constituencies in UP, with a significant presence in eastern UP. Sharan Kumar Nishad said, “We are very emotional about the Ganga. So when Covid was happening, we were angry with the government. But in the months since then, they have given us free ration that has helped us. That has melted some of the anger away. Let’s put it like this. In 2017, we all voted for the BJP. In August 2021, we would have all voted against them. I will still vote against the BJP. But overall? The community is divided,” Nishad said.

The BJP has allied with the Nishad Party, that claims to represent the caste in Uttar Pradesh. The Nishad Party is contesting 16 seats.

“Arre, Ganga ko BJP ke alaava aur kaun bachayega (who else will save the Ganga other than the BJP),” Raju Kumar’s loud voice rings out, interrupting Nishad. A streak of brown colour in his hair, Kumar is 18, young, impatient, impetuous and aspirational, everything a furious blur of motion. He mans a tea shop just outside the newly refurbished but empty tourism hall. But Shringverpur cannot hold his dreams, and he will soon leave for a big city, “Bambai ya Dilli” soon. With no immediate employment, he earns 1,500 a month. He is a Dalit, and a first time voter. He should have been the ideal catchment for an opposition that is looking to upset the BJP. Yet, Kumar is also the challenge. Fed on a steady diet of misinformation on WhatsApp, his smartphone has told him that the BJP is winning Punjab, and that Sunny Deol will be the next BJP chief minister from the state. Taj Mahal has already become “Raja Mahal”, the announcement made quickly after Allahabad was made Prayagraj. “Who says this is a lie? Have they not renamed Allahabad Prayagraj? The BJP is the only party for Hindus. Yes, I want employment, but Yogiji will bring it. I tell everyone, if you love the Ganga, you have to vote for a party for which it holds significance. But these are not election issues. Our viraat Hindu leader, and law and order are major issues. They have destroyed all the mafia,” Kumar says, firing an imaginary pistol with his hands.

Indeed, one of the government’s talking points is its war on crime.

It is not as if there is unanimity in what the outcome of the elections will be. Nishad has his reasons to vote against the BJP. Just that Covid is no longer a factor, its damage mitigated by the free ration. “They have given us ration, and COVID is no longer an issue, but so many other things are. Nobody has any work, and prices are going through the roof. And then there is the biggest issue of stray cattle. Can you imagine an entire village that has had no sleep for the last five years? That lives in fear of losing our crop every single day and night with no solution in sight. Raju can talk about law and order, but if we go to sleep hungry, there is no point to anything,” Nishad says.

As Nishad and Kumar argue, a van carrying a body, wrapped in a white sheet and showered with marigolds arrives at the ghat. They fall silent, and Mishra rushes forward to receive them. He has already been contacted to conduct the last rites. He begins with a small chant, and starts to direct operations. The man’s father is inconsolable, tears streaming down his face. He is not strong enough to walk to the water’s edge and watch his son burn. “You will have to complete the rituals but those will take time to begin. Why don’t you go to the water and take a little time to yourself. Find a quiet spot. Maa Ganga will console you,” Mishra says.

Eight months ago, in April 2021, a quiet spot didn’t exist.


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