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Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra

For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.

For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.

This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was drivingĀ  and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”

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A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power

The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!

The farcical liberalism of the urban elite

On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.

Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned

It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!

We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?

Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.

Politics and urban geography: Do the poor have a voice or a place in Indian cities?

Political journalism in India is clearly divided into two camps, at least the way my eye sees it. There is the neo-liberal camp that at present has Modi as its poster boy. And there is the socialist camp that has defeated communists at one extreme and liberals floating around in it without a particular form of organisation. Intertwined within this dichotomy are the strains of religious communalism, identity politics (region, caste, class) and nationalism, that both camps use in their own way to justify their stands.

My specific interest in all of this has been the status of the urban poor, a community I’ve had the opportunity to work with and that I respect for their tenacity and street-smartness (that often contrasts with a certain surprising innocence). That political battles are increasingly being played out in urban geographies in our country is apparent.

This morning, I read a very interesting post by George Ciccariello-Maher, who is an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, on the intersection of politics and urban geography in Caracas. In tracing the history of the rich and poor settlements in the city, the author sheds light on some the mutual mistrust between the elite and the urban poor over time. Many of the phenomena the highlights are visible in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, in the past and in the present.

Synthesizing Ciccariello-Maher’s piece: Exclusion, segregation and the enduring nature of class conflict

1- Deliberate forms of exclusion: Gated communities, militarised exclusion and the creation of municipalities within the city to further enhance inequalities and ensure resources for the elite were some ways the rich separated themselves from the poor at a time when the barrios sprang up everywhere. Ciccariello-Maher’s points out, of course, that this was a reaction of fear of the poor (add to that the element of racism) who had risen in rebellion in ’80s (pre-Chavez) and had to be controlled per force!

2- Discomfort with the new-found voice of the poor: Social housing appeared as a key ingredient in Chavez’ socialism, in multiple forms. Not just new housing units built by the State, but also more recently, a strong demand for the granting of title for the poor so that they can live in self-managed housing. Ciccariello-Maher speaks about how the strengthening of housing for the poor is something the elite fear very much, inducing out-migration of the educated young from Caracas. To me, its interesting that his discourse is still focused on segregation and suggests that decades of socialism have not given the poor a leg-up or eased the social segregation in any significant way. If true, it does support my hypothesis that housing security is vital for larger social transformations.

The poor in urban India: Do we fear them? Hell, no!

What does this mean for India where the voices of the poor are still not loud enough, where the elite have an enormous sense of entitlement and security (they don’t foresee a rebellion) and where the government continues to refrain from taking bold decisions on providing housing security to those who do not have any? If one assumes that the rebellion is a long time coming, it only means inclusion still remains a distant dream. As long as professionals and practitioners like us, who belong to the elite but empathize with the poor, continue to remain apolitical, its not likely the status quo will change. Is that case for renewed activism? Or a case for a change in profession for people like me!

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