BJP’s Campaign of Intimidation – A Report from Banaras: Monobina Gupta
Guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA
The narrow streets of Goduliya Chowk were bursting at the seams yesterday. It was the time of the famous Varanasi aarti at the ghats of the Ganga, a time when the crowd multiplies by several hundreds of people. Narendra Modi was preparing to head out on his triumphant road show through this area, choc-a-bloc full. The BJP’s activists were in a frenzied trance – waving saffron flags, flaunting Modi caps (a tawdry imitation of the original AAP trademark), dancing and chanting: Modi, Modi. As a person with no love lost for Modi, I responded to the exultant mood with some apprehension. My thoughts were straying to the nukkad sabha of the AAP that I attended last evening when a group of 20 young and old AAP volunteers had gone around campaigning for Medha Patkar’s meeting. I found myself thinking about the evening a couple of days ago when I stood with Anand Patwardhan and some activists who were distributing leaflets right there at Goduliya Chowk, and a group of BJP men came surrounded us. I thought about another night spent at Kabir Math Chowk after watching the Dastangoi performance – when a group of young men from Bangalore and Maharashtra were confronted by BJP supporters. I was worried about their safety standing amidst a crowd which appeared dangerous in its swaggering triumph. Yesterday, with Modi’s cavalcade approaching, frictions were reaching fever pitch – encounters one could not possibly see on the images on TV at home.
Standing there amidst the crowd, I spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman walking through the throng of people wearing his AAP topi. Suddenly a roar went up, as Modi sympathisers lunged after him shouting ‘pagal, pagal’ (mad/mad). A little distance ahead I saw another man wearing the AAP cap. The crowd spotted him too, and ran after them both, gesticulating, heckling. As I start walking quickly towards the men I saw them, seemingly unperturbed, walk right through the charging hoard, not a sign of nervousness about their gait. They were walking the confident walk of men who know no fear.
Half an hour later, some young BJP supporters standing on the raised platform dividing the street, turned and collectively pointed at a man and a woman walking past, also wearing AAP caps. Again the crowd roared at them: Modi, Modi. Once again I saw no fear, no rush to escape the hostility on the part of the targets. A vegetable vendor wearing AAP topi going through the crowds was sneered at. A scooterist was shouted at.
Two days ago, it was at this very spot that I walked into a shop where a young bearded Muslim salesman across the counter told me: “There is no one but Kejriwal for us. They are trying to create confusion. But it is Kejriwal and Kejriwal alone.” To corroborate his support he dug into his pocket and fished out his precious AAP topi. “I can’t wear it in the shop because customers don’t like it. But I keep it with me all the time. Here it is. The moment I step out of the shop, I put it on.”
In the charged atmosphere leading up to voting – and then counting – day, the AAP topi has become a symbol of resistance, of recalcitrance in the face of thuggish “activists” who want to cleanse Varanasi of anything that doesn’t resemble a lotus. The macro images of thousands of people on the street misses these smaller stories of people who look assailants in the face and refuse to be intimidated. Goduliya Chowk is a political space, open to one and all – a fact BJP workers refuse to see when they terrorise individuals for wearing a cap. While many brave people face the music head on, for others, like the shopkeeper who hides his topi during the day, the cap becomes a talisman.
During the commotion, as Modi emerged in public view, a man standing next to me indignantly said: “How dare Kejriwal come here?” I asked him: “Is Varanasi is anybody’s jagir?” He said: “No, but why are they here?”
I know why they are here. And I’m glad they are.