Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On the Campaign Trail

I got to the AAP office on Monday morning, late for the volunteer meeting that was scheduled at 9 am, and unsure if I would contribute much in any case. My 3-year-old Seher in tow, I was recognized instantly (I had mentioned that I would be campaigning with my little one). I was handed a coffee and I waited on the sidelines while the busy planning work continued. Sure enough, I had nothing to add – I was too new. I would be going to a rural area called Nuh, I was told. I hadn’t prepared for a day trip, and wasn’t sure how it would work, but figured that I could pick up supplies along the way. Alright, I shrugged, and got in the car. My teammates that day were three starry-eyed youngsters, all set to change the world for the better, and I was just sitting in the car wondering if I would survive the day.

We got on the road and in an hour pulled in front of a barebones AAP office in Nuh, the district headquarters of a particularly poor part of the Mewat region of Haryana. We got into the big van that had been arranged for us and set off for the villages. Seher had decided at this point that she did not like villages and did not want to campaign, so I steeled myself for what was going to be an interesting day. As we approached the first village, we put on our AAP hats and got the flyers and postcards out. The modus operandi as it turned out was to find a spot where a few people were gathered, send the youngest ones of the crowd out into the village to find others, and then start talking. We gave our speeches and were pleased to see people nodding in agreement. I talked at the end, not much to add, just wanted to share my reason for campaigning for AAP.

“My name is Sherebanu, I am a Muslim [the crowd was entirely Muslim] and my ancestors come from Gujarat. I wasn’t there in 2002, I was living in the US then, but like everyone else was horrified to see what happened. When I moved back, I went to Gujarat to talk to people there and was really shaken. Uptil now, I have been so upset that I have only voted for whoever would beat the BJP. Now, for the first time in my lifetime, a party that has come that has such good people that my vote is FOR them, not against anybody else. A party that I really like, so much that I am campaigning for them. I urge you to consider them.”

One of the elders in the crowd looked at me. “Are you telling the truth beti?” I nodded. “Then our vote is definitely for AAP.” He took my mobile number, am not sure why. I was shaking a bit at this point, not entirely sure if what I had said was appropriate. It turned out that it had resonated with the crowd. As we got back into the car, the locals that were accompanying us said “Make sure you say your story every time.”

As we drove along, I learned a bit about the region. Villages are sharply divided – they are either entirely Muslim or entirely Jat or entirely Brahmin. The Hindus and Muslims maintain a shallow truce, I could sense the tension. As for the history, I asked our guide, an elderly Muslim man about the name Nuh. “Oh that would take too long to explain to you all” he laughed and said. Now of course, we really wanted to know so we urged him on. The Meo Muslims (as the Muslims of Mewat call themselves) believe themselves to be descendants of the Pandavas who spent their 12 years of vanvaas in the nearby forests. There is a famous temple in the region which commemorates this tradition. From that temple, a holy cow had set out. When the cow stopped, she clawed on the ground (Nuh means claw mark) to mark the spot where the settlement was to be built and hence the area’s name. It was a picturesque area, some ponds for aquaculture, wheat fields, small hills every now and then dotted with quaint villages. The local people weren’t happy though. High salinity in the region had ruined their water supply, the quaintness that I liked in the villages was read as extreme backwardness. Schools were few and far away, jobs were non-existent.

As we entered what I thought was the prettiest village, I noticed that the main road into the village was basically mud and sewerage mixed together. I wouldn’t even call it a dirt road. There was one TV antenna sticking out in the entire village (a good thing in my book, but not so much for the locals). After talking to the usual group of men, the young ladies in my team ventured into the village to find the women of the village. We asked passing girls to come and bring their mothers and got a decent crowd of women to form in the aangan of one home. As we started the speech, we quickly realized that the women knew nothing of Modi, Kejriwal or any of our usual speech points. We changed tactics and pulled out the postcards. We were handing these out with Yogender Yadavs home address printed on them and asking people to write down their grievances and send them in. With the ladies, we simply had to start writing down their grievances when the flood burst and everyone had something to say. I was amused – how little in common I had with these women, yet how many times have I sat in a drawing room of a Gurgaon house when we start putting forth our grievances against the government and everyone perks up to participate in that conversation.

As we got on the road, our guide told us that the next village on our way was a Jat village, a BJP stronghold. We debated whether it would be worth our time to stop there. The young ladies insisted that we try. As we got into the village, we saw a few young men hurry into their homes. They came out wearing a saffron version of the AAP hat, and a lotus insignia scarf wrapped around their neck. One such man very graciously said that we will hear you out and a small group sat down. He proceeded to pepper us with questions about the integrity of Arvind Kejriwal, getting louder by the minute. I watched from the distance. Seher had decided that she had had enough of meetings and was far more interested in the defecation habits of the village buffaloes. “Look Mama, this one is peeing!” A woman from a nearby house beckoned me in and handed me some chai. “Don’t pay attention to that fellow, he’s drunk as usual” she said shyly. We were struck by the village. Paved roads, well built houses, TV antennae sticking out of each of them (by now I had come to terms with the Development=TV equation). The starkness of the differences between Hindu and Muslim villages were clear – a pathetic example of vote bank politics I thought. Later I was told that since the 1857 revolution, the Muslims of the area (who actively participated, entire villages were hung) were oppressed by the British and their poverty is a legacy of those times. Another historical tidbit – during Partition, the entire Meo Muslim population had packed up to leave for Pakistan. Gandhiji himself arrived in the area and begged them to stay, upon which they changed their mind, even recalling some of their relatives who had already moved.

By now Seher had fully warmed to rural life. We stopped in the middle of some fields and she ran out onto a path, checking out the growing wheat (“Look Mama, this wheat is brown and this is green!”) Later it turned out this little run in the field was the high point of her day, edging out defecating buffaloes by a narrow margin.

The last village we stopped at was quite large, almost a small town, again entirely Muslim and entirely devoid of real infrastructure. A large crowd gathered here. After our speeches, we went into town looking for the women. While the young women of our team were chatting with the ladies, I was sitting aside with Seher who was thoroughly done with meetings and busy running up and down some stairs. A few women came over, very curious about us. “You’re here without your husband? Is this your only child? (One said proudly, “I have four, and I’m only twenty-two!”) Why do you have short hair? (I pointed to Seher and they all nodded in sympathy) Why no bangles?” The crowd grew. This was far more interesting, for the younger girls especially.

When we came out, we were told that word of mouth had spread about us and lots of others in the village wanted to meet us too. We had a couple more meetings like that. People plied us with cold drinks and snacks and the list of people signing up to volunteer for AAP grew quickly. As we walked down the streets I could hear people whispering – “That one, she’s Muslim, an engineer, from America”. Totally cool experience.

1 comment:

DTB said...

Amazing story. I feel like I was there. I love the work that you are doing and hope to see a positive change come through very soon - DT