“RAHUL ke khatiya le ayila (Have you got Rahul Gandhi’s cot)?” Hours after the Congress’ khaat sabha in Deoria on September 6 wound up with a few hundred cots less, that was the question people asked each other in villages across the district. MAULSHREE SETH and photographer VISHAL SRIVASTAV travel to villages near Rudrapur — a town in UP’s Deoria district from where the Congress vice-president kicked off the party’s campaign for the 2017 election — in search of the khaats.
Six stories of why the cots mattered:
Kusuma Kumari, 34
Village: Ekla Mushrauba
Family: Husband and three children, the eldest is 10 years old and the youngest seven. Her husband is a rickshaw-puller in Rudrapur town, 6 km away, and brings home Rs 150-200 a day.
Assets: No land. An old cot; a tin box, which holds their clothes and bedding; a mud hut with a door made of bamboo poles. Her husband owns a mobile phone but they have no electricity at home so he charges it at a local market before coming home. The rickshaw he has taken on rent.
The new khaat: For most of the day, the khaat — its silver and pink strands glistening in the sun — stands leaning against the brick wall of the house, stretched out only at night or for that rare visitor. There’s the old cot, anyway, which her husband and children sleep on at night. “Earlier, the children would sleep on the cot or my husband would sleep on it with two of our children. Now, all of us can sleep on cots,” Kusuma smiles.
On September 6
That day, Kusuma and her children had walked 6 km to the khaat sabha, along with others in the village. “After the meeting ended, some people started picking up the cots. My children are young and could not have carried it so I decided to do it. I did not mean to steal anything. I took the cot only because others were taking it. Besides, no one stopped us,” she says.
But back home, her husband scolded her for “stealing”. “He was scared we would get into trouble. But when we got to know that there were others who had carried away the khaats, we decided to keep it until someone objected,” she says.
She sat through Rahul’s speech without getting a word of it, Kusuma adds. “Ka jani, ka kahat bati… Baidhan aur sukhte katir khaatiya jono mil gayil (Who knows what was being said? But at least I got a cot to sit on).”
Kishan Rajbhar, 15
Village: Amauni Khas
Family: Five members — Kishan, his two siblings and parents. Father Sudas Rajbhar works as a construction worker in Bengaluru and sends home Rs 1,100-2,000 a month. Kishan, his elder sister and younger brother go to a private school that charges a monthly fee of Rs 100 from each of them. Kishan is in Class 8, his sister in Class 9 and the youngest in Class 5.
Assets: A small plot, where the family grows corn and vegetables for personal use; a mobile phone, a cot, and a metal box to keep their clothes and belongings.
The new khaat: Kishan had got home a broken cot but his mother propped it up with two planks. The new cot is where Kishan now studies and sleeps. Since there isn’t much space in the hut, the cot is mostly kept outside, in the small courtyard, and pulled back and kept against the mud wall when it rains.
On September 6
Kishan had attended the rally with his sister Sadhna and cousin Brijesh. While Brijesh quickly found himself a cot, Kishan was not so lucky: he only found the broken one. “Nobody wanted it. People were standing on it, that’s how it broke,” he says.
When he came back with the cot and called up his father, Kishan got a yelling. “My father scolded me. He scolded didi as well, saying she should have stopped me. He feared we might land in trouble, but my mother told him that we were not the only ones in the village to have got the cot.”
Kishan sits on the new cot, his books spread out in front. The September 6 rally is now a distant memory: “I don’t remember anything of what they said there. Kaho to kise se pooch ke bataiyi (Do you want me to ask someone and tell you what they said)?”
Shakina Bano, 34
Village: Zafrabad Kutiya
Family: Shakina, her husband Balaqut and six-year-old son
Income: Balaqut works as a daily labourer and on days that he gets work, brings home about Rs 200. Neighbours say their family is the poorest in the village.
Assets: A broken cot that had been discarded by a neighbour, a few utensils and the thatched-roof hut. The hut, with no door, has only one mud wall, the others are thatched partitions. No land.
The new khaat: It is kept in the centre of the hut. The old one has been pushed to a corner and it now stands against one of the walls with a pile of clothes on it. While her husband sleeps on the older cot, she gets to sleep on the new one with her son.
On September 6
She had simply tagged along with her husband — “ghuman gayil rahini (I went for an outing)”. She sat through the rally and the speeches, she says, thoroughly bored. The only thing she remembers is the cry — “Rahul khaatiya diye rahil (Rahul is giving cots)” — and the mad rush that followed.
When Balquat wouldn’t budge, Shakina adds, “I forced him to pick up a khattiya. I used to sleep on the floor and I wanted a cot.” Villagers have assured her that the cot will not be taken back. Balquat didn’t want to carry the cot on his head so the couple tied it onto the roof of a local taxi, who charged them Rs 10 to bring it till outside the village. They also got a ride in the car.
Ram Nath, 85
Village: Ekla Mushrauba
Family: 34 members, including five sons, their wives and children. Nath’s wife died years ago. The family belongs to the Musahar community, a Scheduled Caste in Uttar Pradesh.
Income: The family makes pattal plates (out of sal leaves) and sells them in the local market. They earn about Rs 300-400 a day, but Nath says a lot of it is spent on “daaru (country-made liquor)”. “With whatever money is left, we eat one meal a day,” he says.
Assets: A tin trunk and a few clothes. Their small thatched-roof hut can’t hold the entire family, so on most days, they sleep in the open in the basti and when it rains, they squeeze themselves into the hut.
The new khaat: Until now, a raised mud platform outside his hut had served as Ram Nath’s sleeping area. The new khaat, which takes up almost all the space in the hut, has redefined rules. Only Ram Nath is allowed to sit on it. If he is in a generous mood, he lets one of his grandchildren (he cannot recall how many he has, “about two dozen, I think”) share the cot with him — “one by one, no crowding”, “stretch your legs and sleep on it”, “no jumping”.
He doesn’t think he is being too harsh. “What if it breaks? We cannot afford to repair it. Children are children, after all, they don’t understand how precious this is. A new cot costs at least Rs 900,” he says, running his hands over the plastic weaves of the cot. “Apan soye khaatir laye (I brought it to sleep on). It is mine. I worked hard to get it.”
On September 6
Ram Nath says he didn’t have much to do that day, so when he heard of Rahul Gandhi’s khaat sabha, he decided to check it out for himself. “At the end of the meeting, I heard someone shout that the khaats can be taken away. Initially, I didn’t pick up a cot because there were policemen standing around. I thought, what if one of them hits me with his lathi… I won’t even be able to run.” But when he saw youngsters hauling the cots, Nath decided to give it a shot. “I have slept on the floor all my life. Now that I was getting a cot, that too for free, how could I not take it? Hamuhu bariyare pakardle ayeni (So I held on to one tightly and brought it home),” he says.
The 6-km journey back was tough and the 85-year-old took three breaks in between. “When I finally got home, people were surprised. They said, ‘You cannot even walk straight, how did you carry it all the way?’.” He has one regret though. “I wish one of my sons was with me that day so that we could have brought one more,” Ram Nath says.
Sonu Madhesia, 25
Family: Lives with his wife, three daughters and mother
Income: Earns Rs 150-200 a day from a sweet shop that he runs out of his house. He also goes around villages selling jalebi and patasha from a basket that he carries on his head. His father used to run the shop, but he died a few years ago — “he would drink heavily”, Madhesia says.
Assets: A 100-sq ft house with a tin roof, a lot of which has been taken up by the shop and the utensils to cook sweets. He owns a mobile phone.
The cot: The new khaat stands leaning against the boundary wall of the house opposite his. There is no space inside his house during the day and at night, it is brought in after the utensils are put away. “Now my daughters have a cot to sleep on. I have always been afraid of snakes or some insect biting them, especially during the rains. Now that they sleep on the new cot, I sleep better too,” he says.
On September 6
Madhesia decided to go to the rally with his friends, asking his mother to sit at the shop. His village is about 6.5 km away from the rally ground and he had walked down. He says, “I went thinking it would be like any other election meeting, but I never imagined that there would be a cot to take back home. As soon as I realised what the others were doing, I picked up one and ran for some 6 km. I stopped only when I reached my door.”
Balai Paswan, 75
Village: Zafrabad Kutiya
Family: He lives with his daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. His son works as a labourer in Mumbai and visits home once in six months.
Income: His son usually sends home Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 a month, but the last few months have been tough. His eight-year-old grandson recently suffered severe burns when the oil from a lantern spilled on him. “My son had to borrow money for my grandson’s treatment. He is now repaying the money and doesn’t have much to spare. So we aren’t getting any money,” says Paswan.
Assets: A small plot of land, a cow, a buffalo, two big metal drums to store grains, a machine to cut grass for fodder, a fan that hasn’t been working for months and is waiting to be repaired, and the house with a thatched-roof and walls of bamboo and grass.
The new khaat: Until now, while his daughter-in-law and the children slept on a wooden plank, Paswan usually slept on the floor near the machine. Now, he sleeps on the new khaat that is kept in a shed used to store fodder. His eldest grandson, who is recovering from his burns, is the only one who is allowed to sit or sleep on this cot. “My other grandchildren and my daughter-in-law sleep inside the house.”
On September 6
That day, Paswan claims, it was a policeman who prompted him to pick up the khaat. “I was taken to the rally by Congress leaders. When everyone else was taking away cots, a policeman standing nearby said, ‘Budha, kyon taak raha hai, tu bhi leja (What are you doing there standing and gaping? Take a cot too)’. How could I have said no?” says Paswan. So he hauled up the cot and ran.
On September 14 in Mirzapur, eastern Uttar Pradesh, as soon as another Congress khaat sabha wound up and Rahul Gandhi made his way out, party volunteers made frantic pleas on the microphone asking people not to take the khaats away. But a few people still carried the cots out.
However, since the September 6 khaat sabha in Deoria, when villagers walked away with at least half of the 1,200 cots stretched out at the Dudhnath Baba Mandir ground in Rudrapur, the Congress has learnt a few lessons. Volunteers now keep an eye on the cots and, like in Mirzapur, ask people not to take them away. And if people still don’t listen, there’s little that can be done. A party leader in Lucknow explains the problem: “With elections round the corner, no leader wants to get into a fight with the public just to snatch away a khaat. We have been told to request people not to take away the cots, and if they still do, we simply let them go. But we have to ensure this doesn’t become a habit, otherwise people will come only to take away the cots. Anyway, what do you tell someone who says, ‘Rahul bhaiya ka gift hai’.”
Since that first khaat sabha in Deoria, Rahul has addressed 10 such rallies in districts across eastern UP — Kushinagar, Sant Kabir Nagar, Gonda, Azamgarh, Ambedkarngar, Ghazipur, Mirzapur, Kaushambi etc.
Party sources said that they have about 3,500 cots, most of which have been brought from western UP. About 1,500-2,000 cots are used for one khaat sabha, but the number, they said, could go up or down depending on the turnout.
Unlike the locally made cots, which cost Rs 900-1,200 and which use jute ropes, the Congress’s cots use plastic strings, mostly in gold and silver colours. That makes them easy to dry and reuse. Besides cots, there are also cane stools or “morah”, which are moved from one meeting to another in trucks.
Whatever it does though, the Congress may have a problem. As Rahul’s kisan mahayatra moves towards western UP, some of the khaat sabhas have been ending on a sour note with people saying they had hoped to get a cot, but hadn’t.
Population: 31 lakh (SCs: 15 per cent; STs: 3.5 per cent)
Sex ratio: 1,017; females per 1,000 males, according to Census
Dropout rate of children between the ages of 6 and 17 years in school: 4.6% (Annual Health Survey 2012-13)
Deliveries taking place at home: 34.3% (AHS survey)
Infant Mortality Rate (per 1,000 births): 70 (as compared to 68 of the state as per AHS 2012-13)
Assembly seats: 7; Of these 5 are with the SP, and remaining two with Congress and BSP
Parliamentary seats: 1; Kalraj Mishra of BJP is the Deoria MP