Rivers can be one way to look at the history and politics of human civilizations. Humans came and settled close to rivers. Those who prospered moved away, but their ties with rivers remained intact. Rivers, which were once the principal carriers of trade and politics, are now struggling to survive due to the unending human lust, exploitation and changing times. Many rivers today are on the verge of extinction, and with them many lives too.
In the context of the Hindi belt, and specifically Uttar Pradesh, the Nishad community and their politics have taken a centre stage in the political discourse these days. This is natural, as UP is set to undergo assembly polls and identity politics has reached a crescendo. There was an exodus in the Bharatiya Janata Party soon after the election dates and the model code of conduct were announced. The mahant (head-priest) of Gorakhpur’s Goraksha-Peeth, Yogi Adityanath, is ruling over the state. The Nishad Party (NP), which defeated the BJP candidate in Yogi’s own city in the 2018 bypolls in alliance with the Samajwadi Party, is set to contest the upcoming polls as part of the ruling coalition in a complete volte-face. Political pundits are seeing many layers in the whole exercise because the Hindutva laboratory of Gorakhpur has been breached once. However, the BJP leadership has achieved damage control to quite an extent, by accommodating Sanjay Nishad of the NP.
In terms of Nishad politics, now UP also has its own caste-centric party after Bihar. Last month, Union Home Minister Amit Shah shared the stage with the Nishad Party chief in Lucknow. The mythical story of Ram and Nishad king Guha was narrated: how the boatman steered Lord Ram’s boat across the river. Nishads were hopeful that the home minister would make some concrete announcements about reservations for the community, but this did not happen. However, it is not out of the blue that the BJP is ready to offer around 15 seats to a party that could win just one in the last Assembly elections. In order to understand Nishad politics and the growing identity assertion among the community, we talked to activist Loutanram Nishad. Lautanram, who has joined the Congress after being associated with almost all major parties at some point, is considered a trusted expert of Nishad politics. Talking to Outlook, he says: “I have been a political whole-timer since 1992. Nobody even knew Sanjay etc back then. I went to the bastis and tried to make (our) people understand that if people with different surnames such as Dube, Chaube, Pande, Mishra, Shukla, Tiwari, Ojha, Jha and Pathak can come together as Brahmins, we could also make a common umbrella for Mallah, Kevat, Bind, Kashyap, Sahni etc. All of us are Nishads! The community had been divided into these castes and sub-castes, which had no coordination with each other. The divide was so wide that some people wouldn’t drink water touched by the others. Even those who were politically active and talked of Mallah politics were actually working for just the Kevats. There are many layers to this.”
He narrated how initially the community’s politics and demands for rights were limited to sand and stone mining and fisheries licenses for ponds. “When I first launched the identity-based movement, some people from the community would say that Lautanram seeks to turn us into ‘Chamars,’ and if we become ‘Chamars’, we will be treated as untouchables. They did not understand that this was just a matter of being included in the Scheduled castes. The list includes 66 castes in UP, and even after inclusion, our caste would remain the same, just under a different schedule.” Lautanram hopes that the Nishad representation in the assembly would increase this time.
While on the one hand, we have to make sense of the grammar of rivers to explain the politics of Nishads, one also has to contextualise it within the political symbolism of Uttar Pradesh. Manoj Kumar Singh, the editor of news portal ‘Gorakhpur Newsline’, tells us: “We have to go back to 2016 to track the rise of Nishad politics, when the community gathered in large numbers at Gorakhpur’s Champa Devi Park in a display of power. This was the first time that their organizational strength became visible. Although, when the Nishad Party contested the 2017 assembly elections in coalition with the Peace Party, it could win just one seat. Sanjay Nishad was himself a contestant from Gorakhpur (rural) seat and received around 34,000 votes, but the party attracted 10,000-20,000 votes on around 20 seats. This sent the message that the party has become the most popular choice of Nishad voters and could represent the community. Once the party was able to win the Gorakhpur by-election with the help of the Peace Party and the SP, its name was on everyone’s lips. However, the NP couldn’t maintain this momentum until the 2019 general elections, when it switched from the SP to the BJP. Sanjay Nishad’s son was offered a ticket from Sant Kabir Nagar and elected as an MP. In the meantime, the Nishads’ political strength has been widely accepted, and it has been acknowledged that they want to widen their power and representation.”
On the question of identity politics and who will represent the Nishad voters, Singh adds: “Let us recall the Lucknow rally (of BJP). Amit shah was himself present, and Yogi Adityanath also addressed the massive crowd. Sanjay Nishad had told his supporters that there would be concrete announcements regarding their demand for reservations. However, the BJP leadership didn’t even utter a word on the issue. This led to Nishads expressing their anger as soon as the event ended. They started saying that they have been cheated. Even though the BJP and Nishad Party leadership has tried to control the damage, there is palpable discontent in the community. The SP is trying to field Nishad candidates on seats where they have a sizable population, to counter the BJP-NP alliance. The Congress has also tried to bring many Nishad leaders onboard, apart from their Nadi Yatra (river rally). The BSP is expected to give tickets to community leaders on many seats as well. Now what would be interesting to see is, how many tickets are actually given to Nishads by the NP, which was founded on the plank of the community’s rights and representation.”
All parties have been trying their best to attract Nishad voters. The Congress held a Nadi Adhikar Yatra (river rights rally) and opposed the cruise ships being run on the Ganga in Varanasi. When the police destroyed 16 boats owned by Nishads in the Banswar village of Prayagraj (Allahabad) district, Priyanka Gandhi visited the spot in their support and even offered monetary help worth Rs 10 lakh to each affected member. The party has also declared that the Nishads have the first right on river resources and demanded that the government form a UP-level cooperative society in this regard and bring a white paper on sand mafia. SP chief and former UP CM Akhilesh Yadav announced during his Prayagraj visit that if his party comes to power, the government will distribute boats to Nishads. It is obvious that this is a message aimed at all Nishads. Everyone knows how important boats are for Nishads, but to understand the bigger picture, one has to acknowledge the role rivers play in their lives, through sand mining and other important contributions. How mining through machines and other modern technologies have almost displaced them from their spaces. This intrusion by technology has been dubbed ‘technocide’ by late Dalit scholar DR Nagaraj. The word denotes the process by which technology can take away the livelihood and respect of a community, pushing it towards extinction.
Mukesh Sahni, Bihar’s fisheries and animal husbandry minister and the leader of the Vikassheel Insan Party, is someone who is clued to the conditions and politics of Nishads in UP and Bihar. A member of the NDA in Bihar, Sahni has also tried to claim a space in UP. When the leader had visited UP to try and extend his influence there, he was unceremoniously pushed back by the state government. He told us that his larger struggle is that of reservation for Nishads, apart from the demands for a bigger political stature and representation for the community. He vowed to continue this struggle to uplift the community. On the question of contesting the UP elections, Sahni said that his party was preparing to fight on around 165 seats. He said that as the party wanted the maximum possible number of Nishads to reach the assembly, it would not field candidates on seats where members of the community would have already secured tickets by a mainstream party such as BJP, SP, BSP and Congress.
While electoral politics brings people together on the identity question, it can also lead to them going their separate ways. Chanchala Nishad, a resident of the Gorakhpur district, was once an active member of the Nishad Party but has now become a vocal opponent of Sanjay Nishad. She told Outlook that the community had the strength to make or break governments with its support, but it suffered neglect once the government formation was complete. They are not given the respect they deserve. “Sanjay Nishad championed himself as the messiah of the community but he cheated us. He became a minister and got his son elected as an MP.” She accused the NP leader of demanding money for giving her a ticket, even in a local body election. The former NP activist also launched an attack on the government over its policies, asking how would people of the community — most of whom are landless — would survive on the meagre 2 kg of ration and an empty gas cylinder, as they cannot afford to pay Rs 1,000 for the refill.
Amid the din on reservations and the popular debate on politics, Rama Shankar Singh, a former scholar at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, and the author of an upcoming book on the community titled Nadi-Putra (sons of the river), said that Nishads are being cheated by those who limit their politics to just reservations. “Reservations in education, jobs and the legislature might give the community visibility but it will benefit a very small number of people and is a slow, long-drawn process. It is not right to give up the question of livelihood, apart from reservations. A respectable life for Nishads would only be possible when they are given rights over the river. They should be allowed opportunities to take out sand and run boats without interference. For example, cruise ships were launched in the prime minister’s own constituency, despite opposition from the Nishad community. The government should offer them loans to purchase boats. Moreover, the community should be consulted before taking any decisions over rivers, because it has been dependent on our streams since ancient times.”
Although there are no official figures on the population of Nishads and their vote percentage, it is estimated to be around 8 per cent. Only the future will tell which party will be rowed across to success by this community that mainly depends on rivers to make a living. Lines penned by a Nishad poet Govind Nishad have recently become popular on social media and were even shared by Priyanka Gandhi after she reached Banswar:
“Nishadon ki nadi me ab band hoti ja rahi hai naav ki chhap chhap Setu ab logon ke khevanhar Ghaton par steamer taiyar Kagaz par balu hai unke haq me Tal par lekin kisi aur ka kabza hai”
(In the Nishads’ river the swirl of boats is almost dying It is the bridges that take people across now, and steamers stand ready on the banks too On paper the sand is theirs but the riverbed has been captured by others)
To sum it up, it is not correct or justified to confine the Nishad politics, marked by growing identity assertion and the hype around elections, to just reservations. The whole exercise runs the risk of becoming a cosmetic cure, because the community’s wounds run deep.
(Translated from Hindi to English by Iqbal Abhimanyu)