The benches in the crowded space are few but everyone shifts and adjusts and welcomes every new arrival with mirth and some good-natured ribbing. Each gathering needs a target to get some laughs out of, and today it is the turn of Puran Chand Upadhyay, who retired as a professor from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). “Upadhyayji is not photogenic but wants to be in every photo,” a man roars with laughter. Upadhyay smiles placidly. “Theek hai (it is okay), I am like this because they want me to be like this,” he says.
The conversation soon turns to the big news of the week: Parliament approving the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, to provide 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education to the economically weaker sections (EWS) of the general category. “It’s no exaggeration to say that 90 per cent of all upper castes in villages here are living a hand-to-mouth existence,” says K B Upadhyay, a government official. “My children used to ask me, is it a crime to be born into an upper caste?
Now, at least some young people will benefit from this reservation,” says R N Singh, who retired as curator from Bharat Kala Bhavan, a museum located on the BHU campus, and who has been a regular at the shop since 1975. Singh’s observation gets an immediate dissenter in the shape of Arvind Tripathi. A young writer and a poet, he dismisses the move as a mere “chunaavi jumla (poll trick)”. “If the government was so serious about granting reservations, why didn’t they do it earlier?” he asks. The argument heats up, moving swiftly from reservations and unemployment to the government’s “wooing of big business”.
“Will economic policies be framed sitting in a chai shop now?” retorts K B Upadhyay. “If Modiji can become PM from a chai shop, why can’t we talk about economic policies here?” Tripathi replies promptly.
While the older lot is hopeful the reservation will do some good, not every youth is convinced it will help. Manish Kumar Sharma, a first-year student of political science at BHU, is apprehensive that the quota will take so long to be implemented, even if the courts do not intervene, that his hair would have turned grey by then. “You know the story about a buffalo who breaks into a run when she sees an elephant catcher? A mouse tells her, they have come to catch an elephant, why are you running? The buffalo replies, yes, but don’t you know this is India, it will take me 20 years to prove that I am a buffalo, not an elephant. So, who is to say when this will be implemented and who will benefit?” he says.
Some distance away at Poi’s, another tea shop frequented by writers and the literary inclined, including Sahitya Akademi Award winner Kashinath Singh, whose book Kashi ka Assi is peopled by the many characters who flit between these chai shops, a group of old-timers frequently declare that they have had their last cup of tea for the day before asking for another round, and then another. The tea flows as does the conversation. Gaya Singh, writer, critic and retired principal of a local college, is in a pensive mood. “That this reservation is a chunaavi jumla goes without saying. Sure, there will be people who are happy with the decision. But isn’t education, health and security a must for all?… But one can’t say much. There are Emergency kind of restrictions imposed on speaking these days,” says Singh.
“Arre, kisi ne himmat toh ki hai (at least someone has shown some courage), which other person or party had the guts to grant reservation in general quota?” says another regular, Aniruddha Narain Singh. He launches into a speech on how the reservation will help the poor among the upper castes before turning philosophical and conceding that misery knows no caste and spares none. “On the wall of the Gaikwad library (in BHU), there is a line that says, ‘Saqi please don’t mix any water in my drink, it’s diluted enough with my tears’,” he says expansively, making a comment on the general human condition, with or without quotas.
Rushing out of the shop, Nirmal Yadhuvanshi, a music student from BHU, pauses to give an enigmatic smile. “I think this 10 per cent reservation is a good thing. Sometimes to make things right, you have to mess up everything. When things go really bad, they take a turn for the better,” he says.
A few metres ahead, Sushil Pandey, the principal of a government school in Varanasi, sits outside a small general store, engaging in friendly banter with its owner Abhishek Chaurasia, who is also the general secretary of the Youth Congress in Varanasi. “In 2014, the BJP used to say that they will do away with reservations but now they have introduced more. After their loss in the recent Assembly elections, they got scared and are now offering this as a lollipop to the upper castes. But what is difficult to understand is that when you have to pay income tax if you earn more than Rs 2.5 lakh per annum, then how are you giving quotas to people earning Rs 8 lakh a year, calling them poor?” Chaurasia says.
The income cap of Rs 8 lakh a year as one of the criteria to avail the quota in the general category has left even those supporting the reservation move perplexed, like Pandey, who shouts down any suggestion that the timing of this decision a few months before the elections is suspect. “In this country, there are elections being held all the time. Kabhi Assembly, toh kabhi general (Sometimes Assembly polls, sometimes general). So, does that mean that political parties shouldn’t announce any measures ever?” he says. But Pandey has some questions as well. “My daughter who studies in Class 7 came home today and told me they discussed the reservation for the general category in their civics class. She asked if she would be eligible for it, and I said I can afford your education, why should you avail of a quota and deprive a poor person? But how is a person who earns Rs 8 lakh a year being defined as poor?” he asks.
This is a question that is reverberating across Prime Minister Modi’s constituency, amongst his supporters and his detractors, from the ghats to the chai shops, from the city to the villages.
At the ‘Pandit basti’ in Daniyalpur village outside Varanasi, farmers sit near fields brimming yellow with mustard, basking in the afternoon sun. The setting looks idyllic but their life, they assure you, is anything but. They would like to believe the reservation for the general category will help them, but their past experience, they say, teaches them otherwise. “The seeds we buy to sow are expensive, urea is expensive, to irrigate our land costs us a lot and we don’t get much for our produce. On top of everything, Yogiji (Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath) has let out all the cows. Before shutting slaughterhouses, they should have set up gaushalas (cow shelters) in every village. The farmers can’t afford to keep all the old cows and are setting them free in villages other than theirs and everyone’s crop is getting ruined,” says Ram Chandra Mishra, a farmer.
In this Pandit cluster, where everybody is a Mishra — they occupy around 70 houses in a village of over a thousand homes — the 10 per cent quota is also being seen as a last-ditch effort by the BJP before the elections to ensure the forward caste vote stays with it after its losses in the state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and following the Modi government’s decision to overturn a Supreme Court judgment diluting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Many upper caste members complain the Act is misused to frame them.
“Maybe if this quota had come earlier, I would have got admission in a Delhi college. But if the cut-off is Rs 8 lakh, then it will only help those who earn that much and whose children get a good education. The children of the poor who can’t afford a good school will compete for the quota with those who could afford good private school education, and will be at a disadvantage,” says Sameer Mishra, a first-year college student.
Miles away, on the sprawling BHU campus, opinion is divided between those who think it will benefit them and those who think that in a market where there are so few jobs, it will mean nothing. “Of course, it will help the poor in the general category. It’s a welcome move,” says Divyanshi Gupta, a second-year BSc student of BHU’s Women’s College. Riya Kushwaha, a PhD student in nutrition science who is covered by the OBC quota, lists another unintended benefit. “Invariably, upper caste students would taunt us saying ‘Oh, you have come through a quota’. Now that they are also in that line, at least they will stop taunting us,” she smiles.
Set in a large, sunny compound with an old Hanuman temple in a corner, the Samajwadi Party office is having a lean day, with most of its office-bearers out in the field, reaching out to the people with the party’s achievements and promises. Manoj Yadav Golu, secretary of the state’s Samajwadi Chatra Sabha, says the party welcomes reservations being extended to the general category but questions the timing. “The BJP is basically scared of the SP-BSP gathbandhan and it’s this fear that has prompted them to take this step. They thought the Opposition will oppose their move and they will consolidate their upper caste vote, but that hasn’t happened. They will gain nothing from it. It’s good that they gave this reservation, in fact, the reservation extended to OBCs should be extended too in proportion to their population,” he says.
Ashok Anand, who runs a school in Varanasi and who has been an office-bearer of the BSP, too feels this is not going to swing the BJP’s fortunes. “The poor should get reservation but nobody is really thinking of how to improve our education system,” he says. “There should be social justice and equality for all.”
But equality is something that has eluded many like Lakshman Kumar Kannaujia. A driver with an SP office-bearer, he says reservation for Dalits hasn’t ended the discrimination they face even after all these years. “In the cities, it is fine because everyone has economic ties, but in villages, people from upper castes won’t even let you sit near them.” That is why, he says, reservations for SCs/STs should continue. “If the discrimination hasn’t stopped, why should the reservations stop?” he asks. But despite the quota, the poor in every caste, he says, would always be left out. “I have filled so many forms for the police, the RPF (Railway Protection Force), but they ask you straight away for Rs 8 lakh for the job. A Dalit will never be able to pay that much. Now that the poor in upper castes are getting quota, they too will find out just who benefits from it.”
Rahmatullah, a 65-year-old rafoogar (darner) of Banarasi saris, is not setting much store by the quota move either. Rahmatullah studied only till Class 3 but ensured all his children got an education. The reservation for the general category includes the economically weak from all religions, but Rahmatullah says that as a Muslim, he has little hope of his children benefiting. “On many occasions, my children would not get even a deserved shabhashi (praise) from their teachers at school. They faced much discrimination. As for jobs, my daughter studied from BHU but when she applied for a teacher’s job somewhere else, she was asked to pay a couple of lakhs. So, she is sitting at home now,” he says.
“Where are the jobs?” reiterates Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a professor at IIT-BHU and a mahant of Sankat Mochan Temple, one of Varanasi’s oldest temples. “This is just a chunaavi jhunjhuna (election toy). What is the meaning of this 10 per cent?” As a professor in touch with students, Mishra thinks there is no overt enthusiasm over the decision.
The mahant, whom Modi had called upon before leaving for his first rally after declaring he would contest from Varanasi, says the city had a lot of hope from the Prime Minister, but little has been done on the ground except grandstanding gestures. “People now don’t think ki yeh ab kya achcha karenge, everyone is always apprehensive ki yeh ab kya kar denge (People don’t think now what good the government will do next, they are always apprehensive what they will do next). This reservation issue has created further confusion and diverted everyone’s attention from the real issues,” he says. “The upper castes, the Brahmins, may not show it overtly but they are unhappy with the government, and if the Congress fields a strong candidate, then with the 2.5 to 3 lakh Brahmin votes and an equal number of Muslim votes, the BJP’s fight will be a tough one here.” Mishra has another warning for the BJP. The extending of reservations, he says, will not get the BJP savarna vote and “will make the other castes say that now that you are ready to breach the 50 per cent limit the Supreme Court had set on reservations, you should extend our quotas as our numbers are more”.
The outcome for the government, he adds, is best summed up in an old saying: “Duvidha mein donon gaye/na maya mili na Ram (In the dilemma, both were lost/got neither this illusionary world, nor God).”