In Kamal Ghada mohalla of Jetpura, a colony of weavers of the famed Banarasi sari, the afternoon silence is shattered by the sound of power looms. Amidst the buzzing noise, the weavers, all Ansari Muslims, are wary of questions from visiting reporters. “Are you doing a survey?” “Oh you’ve come from Gujarat, so are you here to campaign for Modi?”
The Banarasi weavers have intimate ties with Surat, which they see as the hub of the textile industry. The BJP has been trying to use this to influence them. Hyder Abbas Chand, general secretary of the UP state BJP minority morcha, says, “Surat is an inspiration for Varanasi and Modi has promised silent looms to weavers here.”
Jalaluddin Ansari, 50, a weaver who gave up the handloom for the powerloom in 1995, doesn’t buy that promise. He says he went to Surat in 2006 and saw Gujarat’s “real development” . The day he landed, Surat was hit by floods. “Seventy-five per cent of Gujarat drowned . I thought I had come to the worst hell. I left by the first train.” But he feels that “one per cent” of Muslims will vote for the “Gujarat model”, which according to him, is about “farmers committing suicide and their land being sold for Re 1 per square metre”.The 2002 Gujarat riots, for him, were the “worst since Independence”.
Zeba Ansari, 18, a BCom student who belongs to a family of weavers, echoes Jalaluddin’s views. “We have seen what happened in Gujarat in 2002 on YouTube,” says the first-time voter.
Among Varanasi’s 17 lakh voters, 3.5 lakh are Muslim, and while they seem united against the BJP, they seem divided over the “secular” alternative. Anwar ul-Haq Ansari, 32, says, “We will have to vote for the man who will come out as the strongest contender against Modi.” Are they looking at the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal? Says Jalaluddin, “A Kejriwal government would be good, provided there is such a possibility. Did he ask the people before he resigned (from Delhi)?”
Besides their answers to the questions, the weavers give away a slice of Varanasi’s syncretic culture. Mehmood Hasan Ansari, a textile businessman, says he begins his day “by going to the ghats, 3-4 km away, and taking a dip in the Ganges”. There are others like him. At 5.30 am, groups of Muslims join other devout at the river to take a dip, feed the fish or the mynahs and pigeons in the palatial ghats.
The Ganges are intrinsic to every Banarasi. Which is why Haaji Noor Alam Khan Shastri, 72, from Shivala Mohalla is angry with BJP advertisements playing Narendra Modi’s quote, “Mujhe Ganga ne bulaya hai”.
“Modi has come to our Kashi and insulted us. It is a part of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb to say Ganga maiyya or Ganga ji or Ma Ganga,” he says. He also finds the “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar” ads “dictatorial”. “What is Modi going to do by himself without the party?” says Shastri, who, like some other Muslims at a tea stall, see Kejriwal as an “honest” candidate.
The BJP, despite the Muslims’ obvious aversion to it, offers otherwise. Kamalavati Singh, president of the BJP Mahila Morcha, Uttar Pradesh, shows photos taken on her phone of Muslim women sporting the lotus henna on their palms. “Today even they want security, so they want Modi because the Samajwadi Party and Congress have cheated them.”