Pachpokhri is a bada gaon,or big village,10km off the main road and with about 300 homes,mostly Muslim. Deep inside Khalilabad in Sant Kabir Das district,it flies in the face of every tale one has heard of the self-sufficient,insular village that is still meant to be the defining characteristic that shields UP from the rest of India.
Khalilabad is an important seat for several reasons this time. It is from here that Peace Party chief Dr Ayub is contesting. The seat last time had given the party its closest shot at what might be called success,with its non-Muslim candidate bagging over one lakh votes,enough to swing the result. The SP had suffered a sudden loss and the small Muslim party factor had started annoying larger parties.
Panchpokhri,with about 800 voters,is a fascinating example of the work in progress in UP,despite all the stereotyping going on. A long history of migrations nearly 80 per cent homes have sent relatives to Mumbai and 100 per cent mobile connectivity give villagers a clear idea of what is happening outside,and define their attitudes,priorities and even approach to elections,all pointers of change.
Local postmaster Raja Ram Yadav bears testimony that Panchpokhri is no island: So many letters come here from Mumbai,Delhi,Kanpur,everywhere. I am a busy man.
Siraj Ahmed Khan,who trades in construction material,has just arrived on the Vaishali Express from Delhi. He has strong views on the polls in Punjab,which he has visited: I think the Badals will scrape through,they have built so much there.
The main migration out of here is to Mumbai,and to work with wood. It all started,it seems,with a group going there to help bring down old houses,rework the wood artistically and sell that. Others followed,including full families who joined or set up businesses. We have four-five lady doctors from here, says Pawan,who sells tea in the small market that forms the villages core.
Siraj Ahmad has three children,and a lot of his attention goes into making enough each month to afford the Rs 15,000 it costs every year to send the eldest,a girl,by school bus to Blooming Birds Academy,15km away in Khalilabad.
His two younger sons for now go to Raza Academy,a primary school run by a confident graduate from Gorakhpur. Rizwan Ahmed,42,is buying his second Innova as the first one is old. Its the best car… but will be phased out soon as it has now entered the market as a taxi. That brings down its status, he says.
There is so much change in this village. Earlier,children couldnt speak two lines straight,let alone in English… Now,look at their body language. We use the same books prescribed in convents,and our children are learning to read English and speak fluently.
Ahmed says migration from here is something that has happened for ages but,as families have settled,seen things,and educated their children,they are studying to be able to lead better lives. Money flows back to Pachpokhri,of course,but this is mostly a place for an annual picnic or to attend weddings.
The Pesh Imam of the local mosque,Qadri Saheb,has seen change for five decades. He recalls when the dhoom-dhaam around elections raised the temperature and caused tensions too. Now,life is unaffected and we can all quietly decide two days before the elections whom to vote for.
Says Dr Shah Alam,a dentist who divides his time between Basti and here,You think Muslims want this or that,but we do not. We are not like a pandit basti that demands a pulia or a road. We will make it on our own.
But,he adds,We value and get delighted when our local MLA comes and does some dua salaam… Just some connect with who represents us,thats what we want. That has not happened this time. So we will exercise our franchise and do it independently,and look for a change.
A friend of his says,The difference was that earlier,it was just about earning more money. Now for the past five or six years,people of Panchpokhri have realised its about moving up socially and educating ourselves. On elections,he says,the upper caste Muslim is committed and political but the smaller Muslims are still enthusiastic about the Peace Party.
The immediate concerns are about what the impact of the very strict Election Commission would be. Cellphones are very important in helping us finally decide.. They usually jam networks before polling. Will they do it again this time,you think?