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The Poorvanchal paradox

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The Poorvanchal paradox

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Dear reader,

If you have seen Gangs of Wasseypur, a visit to Poorvanchal will show you that truth is truly stranger than fiction. Here, the Gangs of Gorakhpur or the Gangs of Ghazipur seem to offer far stronger plots for future films.

Welcome to the badland of Poorvanchal, whose gang wars have become the favourite plot of many OTT shows and films. Be it the web series Mirzapur on Amazon Prime; or Raktanchal and Bhaukal on MX Player, or the Swaroop Ghosh-directed Hindi movie The Poorvanchal Files, the overriding theme is the prevalence of the might-is-right credo in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls in the last two phases on May 25 and June 1.

From the seat of the Nath spiritual tradition Gorakhpur to the city of fragrance Ghazipur, three hours away and famous for its rose water industry, both have for long been under the shadow of crime lords. This part of Poorvanchal had very little place for Yogi or Yoga in the 1980s and 90s when guns and goons roared at the slightest pretext. Communism was strong in some pockets here and power literally flowed from the barrel of guns, not for ideological reasons but for pelf and power.

Besides the Gorakhnath Math, home of the current UP Chief Minister, it was Phatak, the sprawling residence of the Mukhtar family in Mohammadabad, a town in Ghazipur; and Haataa in Gorakhpur, the residence of the most successful don-turned-politician, Harishankar Tiwari, that called the shots in political discourse, not only in Poorvanchal but in all of UP. Ghazipur’s gang wars and warlords have often attracted comparisons with Italy’s mafiosi and Mexico’s organised crime syndicates.

Mukhtar Ansari, who lorded over the region like a colossal for decades, died in a jail in Banda in March 2024 after a cardiac arrest, just days after he had apprehended that he would be killed. Ansari’s fascination with crime is baffling, given that he was the grandson of Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, a freedom fighter and a Congress veteran in pre-Independence India, who was also one of the founders of the Jamia Millia University and its Chancellor in the 1930s. Mukhtar’s maternal grandfather was the iconic Brigadier Mohammad Usman, killed in action in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1967. His valour had fetched him the sobriquet of the “Lion of Naushera”.

People in Bhadohi still recall how the four-term Gyanpur MLA and bahubali Vijay Mishra was literally spirited away by the then Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav in his chopper from an election rally venue where cops were waiting to arrest Mishra.

But of late, the path to power in Purvanchal has moved from muscle to math, specifically the Gorakhpur Math. There is an unmistakable air of cool arrogance in the region. I see it right from the moment I board the Gorakhpur-bound Indigo flight from New Delhi. A middle-aged man coldly snubs a teen jostling to break the queue with the words: “Ka be marde plainwa udaiba ka? (Hello mister, are you going to fly the plane?)

At Gorakhpur airport, huge luggage boxes fill the conveyor belt. The airport staff told me that a large number of Purvanchal youth work in Gulf countries such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Gorakhpur is a transit point to the Gulf also for youths from the adjoining districts of Bihar like Gopalganj.

The region desperately needs job creation even as there has been marked improvement in law and order and road connectivity in the last few years. With most of the gangs either eliminated or behind bars, there are hopes of business booming around the swanky Purvanchal Expressway. Addressing a rally sometime ago, Modi said that under the BJP government, Uttar Pradesh is becoming Express Pradesh.

But the pace of progress has not met the main needs of Poorvanchal, which has the maximum density of population in Uttar Pradesh. The sugar industry, which employed the rural population and pushed hard cash into the economy is dying. The condition of the rose water and carpet industry in Ghazipur is bad. The regions in the lower gangetic plain of Poorvanchal have recorded several cases of Malaria and Encephalitis.

Kushinagar, which borders Nepal, is yearning for tourists to return after going bust in the Covid years. The serenity at Mahaparinirvana Sthal, where the Buddha is said to have breathed his last, is broken by the chatter of visitors ahead of Budh Purnima.

Coins offered by devotees are piled up at the feet of Tathagata, the enlightened one. (His 6-foot-long statue in reclining mode is made of a single block of red sandstone.) Since Dalits throng the site, politicians try to reach out to them through Buddha, but the voter has turned smart. Rajrani from Dhantaria in Lakhimpur Kheri, who has come to visit the stupa, says, “We vote for BSP whether it wins or not.” Harishchandra Gautam says, “There is no impact of Hindutva in our community. We do not write Hindu as our religion. We are Ambedkarite.”

Kushinagar International Airport, after a brief spell of some traffic, has become non-operational, and there is talk of massive unemployment in the region. Former journalist and strong RSS votary Rajendra Sharma admits that rozgar and caste consolidation issues favour the Congress candidate, but says “lekin aakhir Modi hi jeetega” (but in the end Modi will win).

The interesting thing here is that all the three top vote-getters of the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Kushinagar, including the winner, are now in the BJP, from the sitting MP Vijay, who is a contender again, to the then runner-up N.P. Kushwaha of the Samajwadi Party, to RPN Singh of the Congress.

In Gorakhpur, the refrain is “Baba bahut kucchch diyen hain” (Baba has given many things). The youths thronging Ramgarh Taal, a new picnic spot, say that Chief Minister Adityanath, the head priest of the Gorakhnath Math, keeps in touch with residents and has improved road connectivity and industrialisation in the region. The contest here is between two actors—the BJP’s Ravi Kishan, a Bhojpuri film star, and the Samajwadi Party’s Kajal Nishad, a famous TV actress known for playing the role of Chameli in SAB TV’s famous comedy show Lapataganj. In adjoining Azamgarh, the BJP is banking on its sitting MP Dinesh Lal Yadav alias “Nirahua”, another Bhojpuri film actor. Besides star power, the BJP is banking on the fears of Yadav hegemony and harking back to the lawlessness during the SP rule to attract voters, but a strong anti-incumbency wave surges in the region.

Maghar is where the mortal remains of Sant Kabir lie. A vocal voice against superstitions, Kabir apparently chose Maghar to breathe his last to dispel the myth that those who die in Kashi got to heaven and those who die in Maghar go to hell. Ironically, to the right of Kabir’s meditation cave, a “Sati Mata” mandir has sprung up, whose caretaker claims that it is built in memory of a village woman who became sati after joining her husband on the pyre.

Maghar is now part of the Lok Sabha constituency Sant Kabir Nagar, earlier Khalilabad, where Ansar Khan, a young man, rues that his friends from other communities are voting not for jobs but for religion. A doha or verse carved at Kabir’s Samadhi Sthal reads “Hinduwan ki Hinduaai dekhi, Turkan ki Turkaai, Kahe Kabir Suno ho Sadho, arrey in dohun raah na paai” (I have seen both Hindus and Muslims practise their religions, but listen oh friend, neither has found the right path.)

Living in the 15th century, in Varanasi, the seat of Hinduism, Kabir could take potshots at both Hindus and Muslims: “Pahan puje Hari mile, to main pujun pahar, yaate chakki bhali, jo pees khaaye sansar” (If I can get god by worshipping a stone, I will worship a hill, else this grinding stone is better, which yields grains to eat). And “kaankar pather jori kai masjid lai banaye, taa charhi mulla baang de kya bahra huya khudaaye” (You built a mosque with stone and lime and the moulvi is now screaming from its top. Has god become deaf?).

Compare it with society today where our sensitivities are so fragile that we cannot hear a word of dissent. Where have we come? Let’s ponder on that until we meet next.

Thank you for reading Poll Vault, our election-ready newsletter. Watch this space as campaign season heats up. Until then…

Anand Mishra | Political Editor, Frontline

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