Backwards refuse to be passive voters

By Smita Gupta

The Times of India News Service

VARANASI: In the village of Barhikhagri, about 20 km from Varanasi city, it is raining hard and a group of Binds -or Mallahs, a dalit caste - are drinking tea at their local adda, huddled under a plastic sheet. Across the road and behind the tea stall are lush green fields, freshly washed by the downpour.

The setting may be picturesque, but life is very hard for these Binds, all skilled weavers, but unorganised and with no land of their own as a fallback. The only dreams they have are those they weave on their looms at home - in silk for the Banarasi sari trade and in wool for the Mirzapur carpet business.

"For eight hours of work, we can hope to earn a maximum of Rs 50 a day and that is on the high side," says Shivpujan Bind. Hari Ram Bind, a father of grownup sons says, "Three of my sons are weavers, but the fourth is a car mechanic -not that he makes very much either."Nanku Bind adds:

"Those who sell the saris and carpets we make are lakhpatis, but here we barely exist. We donít have capital, and we donít have marketing skills and no one - neither the government nor the major political parties - is prepared to intervene on our behalf. Hamari lachari hain ki ham itna kam paise leten hain. Garib ki baat kaun sunat ( We have no option but to accept so little. Who listens to the poor?)."

It is this sense of hopelessness that is making these Binds opt for a virtually unknown party, the Pragatisheel Manav Party, this time simply because it has fielded a fellow Bind candidate, Rajpat Bind, in Varanasi.

But is that not a waste of votes for surely their candidate can hardly hope to win the seat? "We know that, but we are not voting in the hope that our candidate wins the seat. We are doing so, so that people realise we exist, we matter. We want to tell them: You canít do without us. Every caste is forming its own party to assert itself, " answers Shivpujan Bind as the others nod vigorously.

In Bherankatai, an Ambedkar village not far from Mirzapur, several kilometres off the main road, in the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, similar sentiments are echoed by the Chamars. "We are mainly with the elephant (the symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party). We are all going to vote for Mayawati, " says Dhanpati, a young Chamar woman, who is also a weaver.

She and her fellow Chamars - most of whom work for the carpet trade, while a few are farm labourers - earn an average of Rs 600 a month. They, too, are casting their votes to "assert" themselves, even though they are not sure their candidate, Babulal Patel, will win. Their only hope is that if they ensure that the BSP continues to poll well, then Ms Mayawati may become chief minister again in the future.

As Munna puts it: "It was during her tenure that this was declared an Ambedkar village and this pucca road which comes right upto this village was built at that time. The houses, too, were built then. Thatís why we vote for the BSP. "

Here in eastern Uttar Pradesh, for those at the bottom of the social scale, election time is an occasion to protest against the sytem that keeps them down and to tell the established political parties that they are no longer prepared to be part of a passive vote bank.

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