And the Winner is : CASTE !

As the last of the grand road-shows through the streets of Varanasi, trying to out-crowd the previous ones came to a close on the 11th May 2014, the Battle of Benaras could be said to have been truly joined by all sparring factions. Viewers the world-over, unfamiliar with the culture of Kashi, the oldest living city, or Benaras as the British chroniclers found it, or Varanasi, as the modern world sees it today, have been left with several snippets of media visuals, might find themselves quite flummoxed by what has been served to him.                                                                                                                                                                                                  

The “Lakhia” Road-shows

First, the grand road-shows of first the BJP, responded to by the AAP and then followed-up by the Congress and the SP. When the first road-show showed the entire length and breadth of Benaras brimming with saffron caps, the BJP flags, painting the entire landscape saffron, the organizers thought they had it all wrapped –up. Garlanding of the tall Mahamana Madan Mohan Malviya statue, followed by another slightly smaller of Sardar Patel, at the Kashi Vidya Peeth Chowk preceded by a sentimental Call of Ganga Mata had a a clear imprint of a master strategist, or is it an outstanding “Event Manager”, as Lal Krishna Advani chose to describe the Prime Minister Cadidate. Before the marigold-garlanded statue of the Mahatma could fully enjoy this sudden remembrance a predictable “Shuddhi” by those concerned with this sacrilege ( in their eyes) was under-way, improving the TRP of another admirers of the great educationist-reformer. Mind you, neither the sudden remembrance or the subsequent “Shuddhi” was  taking place for the first time, at this site. This writer would prepared to lay bet, that this was not going to be the last time, either. The earlier, round, however, was something which would today attract strict action under one Central Law.

The all-white AAP road-show of Kejriwal, or the Tricolor Congress with its Vice President Chief Campaigner, or the Chief Minister led SP road-shows, considerably dimmed the initial stunning effect of sea–of- saffron-caps-and-flags wave or Tsunami. The Congress road-show, with the Ustad Bismilla Khan scions playing a Gandhian verse on Shehnai, with a large mounted photograph of the late Ustad, also confused some prominent political commentator, confusing it with a support for a particular political party. The last three road-shows have certainly befuddled every one unfamiliar with the city and its normal daily life, rather its annual cultural cycle of its Lakhia festivals. What the grand-son of the Ustad explained a prominent TV journalist had already been covered in a previous piece by this columnist in his piece of Ustad Bismillah Khan. It clarified that their refusal to be a nomination-supporter was as much a matter of principle as it was to perform for any one who made a request to them in Kashi, as they were the honoured guest of the city. If the non-support did not mean opposition to the PM Candidate, their acceptance of performance, also did not indicate their support for that particular party, either. Music is universal, it is for every one. Had BJP, or the AAP or the SP had made a request, they also would have received the same treatment. The late Ustad, it was explained, considered Music to be Universal good.  

How does one explain such huge crowds, choke-a-block, in each of the road-shows, making all comers happy with the numbers, the discipline of the crowds ?  If one were to spend a full year in Kashi one will have occasion to participate in several festivals, called Lakhia Mela, that is a Festival which attracts crowds in hundreds of thousands ( Lakhs ). There are, if this writer is not mistaken, at least five such Lakhia Melas. Benia Bagh, for example, which came to lime light for first for the rally held by Kejriwal and later for the controversial rejection of request by the Returning Officer to the BJP, holds one such Lakhia Mela, every year, at the time of annual Ram Lila month, preceding celebrated Ram Nagar Ram Lila. At the same Benia Bagh ground, every year, “Bharat-Milap” event is held. The entire ground is filled up with spectators, several hours before the main event, which takes place exactly as the sun is about to set. First Ram and Laxman are made to stand on a wooden-ramp, some 25-30 feet long, 10 feet wide, they await, arrival of brothers Bharat and Shatrughan, brought on huge Palakis, held aloft by the Kahar community members on their shoulders, entering from Loha Mandi entrance, and parked at the opposite end of the wooden-ramp. Out from the Palaki, Bharat and Shatrughan, mount the other end of the ramp, run jointly towards the brothers in exile and embrace each other. This spectacle, lasting barely 30 minutes, watched by the Raja of Ramnagar, sitting atop a huge elephant under a caparisoned umbrella, also the senior officials, sitting atop smaller decorated elephants, surrounded by at least a crowd not less than 2 to 3 lakhs of people. The entire event, over under 30 minutes, is watched by a hugely disciplined crowd of mesmerised spectators, a large of number of foreign journalists watching the event. The huge crowd literally remains self-disciplined, local police almost playing no role whatsoever, except of course, that of the City SP escorting the Raja Benaras, while enters the arena, atop a caparisoned royal elephant. A festival lasting barely 30 minutes and attended by lakhs of spectators, of all ages and sex. That is Kashi for you, loving its tradition, enjoying its cultural heritage in total self-discipline.

Like Bharat Milap, one Lkahia Mela, there is another lasting the entire night and ending at day-break, which celebrates the story connected with Shoorpnakha, with younger brother Laxamn chopping off the nose of Shoorpnakah. This Lakhia, goes around a circuit, starts at around 9 PM, with District Magistrate and the SSP, as the main guests, moving with huge crowds, in a circuitous route, accepting welcome with marigold garlands and round and rounds of pan and thandai, ending at day break ! Total crows participation not less tha 2 to 3 lakhs again. Yet another Lakhia, celebrates the Kalia-Mardan, at the Tulsi Ghat ( do I remember the Ghat correctly – there are 108 ghats along the Ganga ! ). The Ghat is again fully occupied, hours before the event, which also does not last more than one hour. A tree trunk is brought to the ghat, erected as a tree, climebed by the young naughty Bal Krishna, who jumps into the Ganga ( standing here for Kalindi or Yamuna ), and after some time emerges standing erect over a muti-fanged Kalia Nag. Few minutes after mauling of Kalia, the young Krishna, helped by the Mallahs on duty, is taken towards a Royal Boat, where the Raja Benaras, is standing with folded-hands, waiting for the Darshan, post Kalia-Mardan ! Even though the Ghat is small, the crowd spills over every inch of the adjoining  ghats, astride several boats, just for participating in the barely 30 minutes show of climbing the Kadamb tree, jumping in to Kalindi and emerging atop the Kalia ! Bharat-Milap, Shoorpnakha, Kalia Mardan all are Lakhia Melas, as are the Ram Lila in the Ram Nagar Fort, across the Ganges, where the spectators move with the Ram Lila characters, Ran Charit gutka-in-hand, chanting “chowpais” aloud, without any aid of loud speakers or any other modern instruments !  

Road-shows, the Latest Lakhias

So, the various road-shows, if anything, have added to the ancient cultural tradition of Kashi, of holding political Lakhia Melas, over and above several which in any case they participate in every year. Such huge crowds, used as they are to their Lakhia Melas, are nothing new to a Banarasi. Of course, for the outsiders, it is very impressive and they are quite likely to be swayed if they have not been a part of Kashi Lakhia routine. Luckily, the initial euphoria of the Saffron Road –show was not allowed to last long as the AAP, Congress and SP road-shows were there to prove that in so far as Benaras are concerned, all are welcome.

Ustad Bismilla Khan’s scions participation in one road-show who understood the real meaning of the refusal on the part of a true Benarasi musician who went on to explain that while they are not part of any political party they are an integral part of any party that respects their profession. Ustad Bismillah Khan’s family members would have loved to be a part of all road-shows which got organised in Kashi had they  been invited to perform, which they know best. Readers of Garhwal Post were given a slice of true Benarasi spirit though a piece on the late Ustad Bismillah Khan, and to understand Ustad Bismillah Khan is to know a true Benarasi, regardless of his religion, caste, profession or stage in this life.

“Good Governance” came out more through the defence of their District Magistrate, Pranjal Yadav, who was openly appreciated by one and all for his good work, during past one year. Widening the roads, cleaning up garbage, highly accessible to a common man, and largely a-political. The Election Commissioner or the political party who tried to politicize the decision to allow or not to allow a particular request by the District Magistrate have failed to appreciate the fact that ultimately the buck stops at the desk of the District Magistrate, if the law of the land has to hold its ground. Good Governance, as voted by the citizens of Varanasi by thumbs up for their District Magistrate, and Development, which was praised by the citizens openly again, were also on show, and that mattered more than what was being promised by all politicians. Best, as they say, is the enemy of Good. Let the real-time  Good prevail over a promised Best ! Are Uttarakhand civil servants listening ?  One wonders if they are drawing any lessons from the ‘Pranjal Yadav’ episode. ‘ Lage Raho Pranjal’, as one would love shout .

And the Winner Is

As the political commentators and analysts enter into the final phase of General Elections 2014, doing their arithmetic, the political discourse that commenced with focus of “Good Governance” and “Development”, deteriorated into personal attacks, local versus outsiders, and so on and so forth. Not very surprisingly, the good governance and development discourses ultimately coalesced into a “ Nichi ” activity, the latter without any loss of time, interpreted into a Jati or Caste semantics. In a fraction of seconds the channels were discussing the “Modi” part of the Caste description from the view point of so called Higher or Lower Caste, the inexorable ladder into which the majority population finds itself destined to be boxed-in ! One political leader, all these weeks, had been demanding the Prime Minister Candidate to disclose his Caste. Her prayers stood answered, as it were, with clearest of interpretations, pre-fix and suffix-wise.

Suddenly, all visuals of Kashi which had been hitting the eye-balls of fatigued viewers – the garlanding of the Mahamana at the entrance of BHU, the “Shuddhi” that quickly followed thereafter, following a long Benaras tradition, and again the garlanding of Sardar Patel, at the Kashi Vidyapeeth crossing, by one and all, started acquiring a different meaning, as did a dip  in the Gnaga or an aarti at the ghat. The to-the-last-man calculation of voter division, Caste –wise, now takes over, the Brahmins, the Bhuinhars, the Patels, the Kushwahas, the Yadavs, the Julahas, the Shias and the Sunnis now get more sharply focussed. The various effects, the events and their impacts all have a common desidarata, the CASTE. The CASTE, that invincible factor that has defied all religious and social Reforms, all Conversions into other religions, emerges as the Ultimate Victor.

The only definite conclusion, which can safely be made, in respect of the Ultimate Winner, is that — the Ultimate Winner is the Caste, the Great Indian Phenomenon. The General Elections 2014 discourse can safely be ended with the explanation that was provided by that great reformer Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who prescribed nothing less than an Annihilation of this demon, the Caste System.

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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