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In Varun country

It recently shot into the national headlines for Varun Gandhi’s hate speech,but tiny Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh still remembers the time when it was known for making music.

Written by Vandita Mishra |
April 5, 2009 11:26:47 pm

Once it was famous for its flutes,now it’s known as the place where Varun Gandhi made his hate speech. Vandita Mishra travels to Pilibhit to find a town that wants development more than politics

It recently shot into the national headlines for Varun Gandhi’s hate speech,but tiny Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh still remembers the time when it was known for making music. It was the “bansuri nagri”,the land of the flute. By one estimate,roughly 95 per cent of India’s flutes were made in Pilibhit.

The bamboo for the flute would come all the way from Silchar,on the banks of the Barak river near the Bangladesh border in southern Assam,by the metre gauge line from Silchar to Pilibhit via Guwahati. Once it had arrived,flute-makers,invariably Muslims working in small family businesses,would carefully sort through the bamboo bales,identifying each piece as first,second and third grade. Only the right kind of bamboo,with the right length and diameter,would produce the right tune.

To make a high quality professional flute—as opposed to the standard ones made for the amusement of children—the flute-maker must himself know how to play,he must be sensitive to sur,explains Khurshid Ahmed,whose family has been making flutes for four generations in a small workshop off Pilibhit’s impossibly congested Lal Road. Ahmed was awarded by the state government in 2002. His ancestors made Lord Krishna’s flute,he claims. Now he makes flutes for export,and for musicians like Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Ronu Majumdar.

Ahmed points,without emphasis,to a truth of his trade: While flute makers are traditionally Muslim,most renowned flautists are Hindu.

But things changed for Pilibhit’s flute-makers ever since the railway line between Guwahati and Bareilly became broad gauge about a decade ago,leaving the Bareilly-Pilibhit section still metre gauge. Transport of the raw material became an obstacle course. In the absence of good roads,truck operators are not keen to come to Pilibhit. As a result,the bamboo that now arrives from Silchar is vulnerable to damage and delay.

With business going steadily downhill,most flute-makers are opting out. Even in Ahmed’s family,the next generation is not interested in making flutes anymore. The absence of a broad gauge railway line is a major issue for all of Pilibhit,but most of all for its flute makers.

When Varun Gandhi joined the fray,he brought new hope,says Iqrar Rizvi,Ahmed’s younger brother. As five-time MP,Maneka Gandhi had not brought the broad gauge line to Pilibhit,but maybe her son would do so. After all,like his mother,Varun is a “national level leader”. But unlike her,he is young.

Then,Rizvi attended a meeting at Jhandewala Chauraha. Here,he says,Varun likened Rizvi’s community to termites “that will hollow out the nation”. “Ours is a quiet,peace-loving town but there is some fear now,” says Rizvi. In his heart,though,he believes that “the Varun affair won’t last long”.

At his home in a more spacious part of town,Deepak Aggarwal,president of the VHP in Pilibhit district,makes no effort to hide his satisfaction with the way things have been moving of late.

On April 1,as the bandh called by the VHP’s “central officebearers” in Varun’s support nearly slows Pilibhit to a halt,he exults: “Even vegetable sellers are not visible. Desraj halwai,who never closes shop,is closed. Even the doctors have drawn down their shutters. Earlier,we would have to put pressure on people to shut shop. This time,the Hindu samaj is expressing its support and solidarity with us on its own.” The VHP,he says,has the strongest presence in UP in Agra. Now,he hopes,Pilibhit will overtake Agra.

It is not just the bandh’s “success” that fills him with pride. “Varun is saying what the VHP is saying. He’s our voice. He has done what his mother didn’t,” says Aggarwal.

In the past,the VHP has agitated against Maneka Gandhi,MP,when she got a temple demolished on forest land,for instance. Now Aggarwal sees himself on the same side as Varun. “Look at the way he begins and ends his speeches with ‘Jai Shri Ram’. I don’t want Muslim votes,he says. And what a tilak on his forehead! The Hindu samaj is very happy. Finally the Hindu vote is united.” The VHP,he says,supported Varun,“from the beginning”. On March 28,when violence erupted at the court premises during Varun’s surrender,“five-six thousand VHP cadres were present. They wanted to go with him to jail”.

The BJP in Pilibhit is less unequivocal on the Varun issue. “The BJP does not talk in the same language,” says Suresh Gangwar,former president of the BJP’s district unit and currently a member of the party’s state executive. But,“Varun is emerging as a Hindu neta”. And,“the election has certainly changed. This time,people are telling us that we won’t have to work hard for the vote.” Local BJP office-bearers were present at the court premises on March 28,he says,when Varun surrendered amid violence. “After the 28th,the BJP will benefit even in the seats surrounding Pilibhit.”

The BJP had posted its best performance in Maneka Gandhi’s pocketborough in 1991. Those were the days when the ‘Ram Lahar’ swept UP. Pilibhit,over 70 per cent Hindu and about 24 per cent Muslim,seemed ripe for the BJP’s taking. In assembly as well as Lok Sabha elections,the party won all the seats in the district. But the BJP has only gone downhill since. If the Lok Sabha contest has been dominated by the persona of Maneka Gandhi,the SP and more recently the BSP have emerged as strong contenders in the assembly fray. The Congress has been virtually ruled out of the contest since the late ’80s.

Sukh Lal,BJP MLA from one of the district’s four assembly constituencies,blames the media for the controversy,but believes that “religious polarisation will take place as a result”. He also hopes it will not last. “I have won votes even in Muslim areas as did my father who was a seven-term MLA,” he says. “I did not get Muslim votes because of my party,” he admits,“but because of my personal image.”

In one of his speeches,Varun is said to have referred to Riaz Ahmad,the Samajwadi Party candidate for Lok Sabha 2009,as an “Osama look-alike”. “Varun is an actor,it is someone else’s script,” says Ahmad. He lays the blame on the BSP administration,instead,for acting late on the day of the surrender,and for making Varun a “hero”. Mayawati would much rather see the BJP win than the SP,he says. Riaz also talks about “the people from Gujarat BJP” who have “trained” Varun,who “are still in Pilibhit,at least 2,000 of them”.

The blame-game is on,but politicians across parties agree that Pilibhit has never seen any overt hate-mongering in earlier elections. The Hindu-Muslim cleavage was bound to be played upon in this Hindu-majority district with a significant Muslim population,but it was done so far in largely tacit ways.

Even when Varun surrendered on March 28,there was no agitation in the city,they point out,only at the collectorate. There hasn’t been a communal riot since 1986 in this crowded little town,where even the separate Hindu and Muslim mohallas cannot avoid daily physical intimacies.

The sheer smallness of Pilibhit means there is very little place to hide. The political tamasha,with all its half-truths and doublespeak,is visible to all.

It is a peculiar election this time in Pilibhit. One candidate is Maneka Gandhi’s son and each one of the other three,is her friend-turned-foe. Congress candidate B.M. Singh is her estranged cousin. SP’s Riaz Ahmad was once fielded in assembly elections by the Sanjay Vichar Manch that she floated in the early 1980s. BSP candidate Budhsen Varma was once given a ticket by the Shakti Dal,another Maneka-led outfit.

Varun Gandhi is making his electoral debut,but all the other three candidates are party hoppers. Congress’s B.M. Singh has been in the JD and SP. Riaz Ahmad was with the Sanjay Vichar Manch,Janata Party,JD,BSP,and Congress before joining SP. Budhsen Verma was in the Congress,BJP and SP before joining BSP.

Many say that Varun’s make-over into a saffron hero happened because of delimitation. The local election office in Pilibhit says that the number of voters was 10,45,207 in the Lok Sabha constituency before delimitation and it is 10,41,691 after delimitation. But those figures may not be telling the whole story.

Politicians and citizens in Pilibhit have done their own calculations. Delimitation is said to have significantly altered the constituency’s profile in one way: it has added Muslim voters by attaching the Muslim-dominated Bahedi assembly segment from Bareilly,and subtracted Hindu voters by taking out Hindu-dominated Puwain which has gone to Shahjahanpur assembly constituency.

But what is happening in Pilibhit now is basically due to the rampant illiteracy of its people,says Ayaz Ahmad Khan,advocate. “Varun sensed that Pilibhit is no longer a safe seat,the people are tiring of his mother’s record of non-development. Politicians manipulate a gullible people by working up the communal divide.” Pilibhit’s literacy figures are indeed dismal: with a literacy rate of only 49.66 per cent,it ranks seventh from the bottom among UP’s 71 districts.

Whatever the reason,says Ashwini Kumar Aggarwal,rice mill owner and president of Paschimi Uttar Pradesh Udyog Vyapar Mandal,this election means another wasted five years for Pilibhit. Aggarwal counts the many absences in the town he was born in: There is no broad gauge,of course. Also,no medical or engineering college. No industry. No regular electricity. No overbridge for the three railway crossings to ensure access and movement in case of an emergency. Pilibhit is rich in forests and wildlife,but it has no sanctuary. There are no places for evening entertainment. Of the four cinema halls in Pilibhit town,only Vishal Talkies and Lakshmi Talkies have remained open; soon there may be only one. The town has only two roads worth the name—Station Road and JP Road.

“My children can’t live with me,” says Aggarwal. “I had to send them out of Pilibhit to study. When they come back on holiday,they are always on the Internet. This town can offer nothing to them. For me,that’s the issue.”

About 50 people gather at the local kotwali on Thursday,after Varun Gandhi is shifted from Pilibhit to a jail in Etah on Tuesday. It is a ‘peace committee’ meeting that also doubles up as an occasion for key newly posted district administration officials to introduce themselves to the people.

There have been peace committee meetings in Pilibhit for years. They are convened on the eve of big festivals,Hindu as well as Muslim,and just before elections. The idea,explains Prabhat Jaiswal,chairman of the Nagarpalika Parishad,is that “the administration distributes the responsibility of maintaining peace in the town’s mohallas and narrow lanes—where the police often finds it difficult to reach —to the people.”

Speaker after speaker at the meeting warns of the dangers of rumour. There is talk of growing tension in the villages surrounding the town and exhortations to maintain the peace. Varun Gandhi is not mentioned,not even once.

The truth is,Pilibhit has a sense of itself,beyond its politics,and despite its teeming deprivations. Even as they share their views on politics after Varun Gandhi’s speeches,Pilibhit residents,Hindu and Muslim,always advise: “But there are still one-and-a-half months to go for the election. Things will change.” It is a cautionary note to all those who would rush to judge Pilibhit by its present troubled moment.

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