The Hindus of Baniya Para say they support the Bharatiya Janata Party but will not vote because the local polling booth has been shifted to the middle of a Muslim neighbourhood a hundred yards away.
Aligarh: Atul Rajaji considers himself a spokesperson for all Hindus of Aligarh City. He moves busily from one Hindu home to another, refusing chai and snacks because he is a man on a mission.
With a day to go before Aligarh goes to the polls in the first round of elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly, Rajaji has decided to write one last letter to the Election Commission. It will be inked in Hindu blood.
Here lies the challenge. It cannot be just any Hindu blood. There are many willing blood donors, but finding the perfect blood is crucial to this exercise.
Choosing a woman could do the trick. “When a woman writes in her blood, it makes more impact”, he laughs and claps his hands at his own genius.
Two Hindu women, one in her thirties and the other in her seventies, laugh with him. The absurdity of this exercise is not lost on them. But such is their desperation that if blood and theatrics is what it takes, then that is what they’ll give.
Rajaji is a resident of Baniya Para, in the heart of Aligarh city. This locality, situated around Jama Masjid, is full of locksmiths and small-scale workshops where metal is polished. Most of the local businesses and residences are owned by Muslims.
All the Muslim businessmen we spoke to say they are voting to re-elect incumbent MLA Zafar Alam from the Samajwadi Party. Even those who lean towards the Bahujan Samaj (BSP) Party say they will vote for SP anyway – as they don’t want to divide the Muslim and Yadav vote.
Deep inside Baniya Para is a cluster of a few hundred Hindu homes. The Barahsaini Dharamshala marks the beginning of the Hindu part of the neighbourhood. It is here that Rajaji is doing his rounds.
I met him at the residence of Monica Varshney, a Hindu who has grown up in Baniya Para.
Varshney informs us that all the Hindus of Baniya Para are boycotting the assembly elections. This is because their polling booth – which for decades had been the dharamshala, the locus of the Hindu community – has now been moved to the Islamia Nursery.
“Suddenly, without any information, they changed the booth. They’ve moved it to a Muslim school, to a Muslim part of town. It’s not safe there, particularly for women. I don’t go there at all, you get eve-teased along those streets. It’s a long walk inside; inaccessible by car. If there’s an incident, no paramilitary, no ambulance will be able to reach us.”
Here she begins to digress. “Our friends don’t come to our homes because we live in a Muslim neighbourhood. There used to be lots of Hindus here, but now they’ve all sold their houses and moved to other parts of town. There’s hardly anyone left. We can’t play Diwali or Holi on the streets. I don’t go out after dark. And the smell of meat… Now they’re taking our polling booth too!”
Her neighbours echo this. “I will never, ever, ever go there,” another aunty chimes in. Her family members, all women, nod solemnly.
All 1600 Hindus of Baniya Para are outraged, says Varshney. While all of them support the Bharatiya Janata Party, they will boycott the election.
This “Muslim part of town” is in fact located one hundred yards from the original polling booth. The new polling booths at the Islamia Nursery are directly behind the original dharamshala.
Rajaji, who is unwilling to go to the Islamia Nursery to vote, is nevertheless happy to take me there on a tour. We begin walking to the school. The walk inside the Islamia Nursery is long. The building is inaccessible by car – the last hundred-odd meters must be taken on foot. A dargah is on the left. Rajaji points to it and scoffs silently.
We encounter no eve teasing on this occasion. Instead, we are met with sheepish smiles of school girls in navy-blue dresses when we ask to meet their principal.
Zaffar Ali Khan, the principal, is a former professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University. He is an old man, sitting out in the sun with a colleague. He sees Rajaji and knows what we’re here to talk about.
“See, I understand that they’re worried about booth capturing. But that hasn’t happened for years. This is a good neighbourhood, with educated people. Many living here are retired professors of AMU”, he explains.
In fact, Baniya Para has witnessed scattered incidents of violence in the past decade and a half. Deepak Raijada, a police officer, was killed in 2002, in a police station 500 metres away from Baniya Para. During the 2006 Aligarh riots, the 25-year-old son of BJP MLA Devikanandan Kori was killed. On Diwali 2015, Gaurabh, a 23 year-old, was killed over a firecracker dispute. All in a kilometre’s radius of the dharamshala.
Khan acknowledges the violence. “Yes, there have been unfortunate incidents. But they happen only during riots. Violence happens everywhere at those times, who can control where it will burst? But during elections the situation is different.”
He explains the change of booths. “This was a logistical problem. The dharamshala had steep stairs. And for older people like me, the nursery might be more suitable. Besides, it’s cheaper. Divisive forces are trying to make this an election issue.”
Asked which party he’s voting for this election, he laughs. “The lesser evil.” He indicates that he is referring to the SP, if only to thwart the BJP.
At this, Rajaji, who was sitting alongside us, smirks.
“Did you hear what he said?” he asks excitedly as we walk out, and on towards the dharamshala. “He’s only voting for the SP to stop the BJP! See what I mean!”
The dharamshala, when we finally arrive, is up a long and steep flight of stairs. Standing in queue along those steps for long periods (like one would at peak polling hours) could be challenging for many.
I point out to Rajaji that the stairs are steep. And that this could be a considered and legitimate change of booth.
“Yes,” he concedes. “But I have something to show you.” He digs out his voter ID card.
“My card was issued on 28th December”, he says, pointing to the date of issue. His card lists his polling booth as Barahsaini Dharamshala.
“And by Mid-Jan the booths were changed! That quickly!”
But is this really grounds for suspicion? Issuing of voter identity cards began on December 15th, 2016. It is around this time that the Election Commission began to discuss changes in booths.
Pawan Verma, the local returning officer explains, “In November/December we were asked to notify our superiors about any bad booths, so that we could weed out booths that did not comply with all norms. After that, there was a discussion, and all political parties could weigh in on the change of booths. After that, new alternatives were found. We’ve changed 15 or 16 booths this election.”
The problem with the Baniya Para dharamshala, he explains, was that it was sixteen steps above the ground. Additionally, polling should not happen at religious institutions.
This argument does not convince Rajaji, nor any other Hindu family we meet in Baniya Para. They believe that Verma, a local, has succumbed to political pressure from SP ministers.
Over the course of the past month they have invited Verma several times to the dharamshala. They have offered to help build a ramp that would circumvent the stairs. They have written letters to newspapers. Sent out WhatsApp messages. Staged three protests. Threatened to boycott the elections. And now they will write to the Election Commission in blood.
On February 6 – five days before voting in Uttar Pradesh begins – Rajaji called off writing the letter in blood. He said the “prashasan” (administration) advised him against it. He did not reveal who in the administration this was.
Asked what the local BJP candidate, Sanjeev Raja, thought of this election boycott, he said, “He is not involved. He is busy campaigning.”
It takes three days to get Sanjeev Raja on the phone. He is indeed busy campaigning. A visit from Piyush Goyal, a BJP minister from the Centre, has kept him on his toes for the past two days.
When I finally have a chance to speak to him, Raja says he believes that this shift of booths is politically motivated. “Those stairs have been around for a long time, why is it an issue this election? Obviously the prashasan is trying to discourage Hindus from voting.”
But who is “prashasan”? The Election Commission? SP ministers?
“Both”, Raja says. Raja also claims that he is concerned about the impact this will have on his chances at winning the Aligarh City seat.
(In the 2012 Assembly elections, Zafar Alam, the SP candidate, won with a margin of over 20,000 votes. The BJP candidate, Ashutosh Varshney, was runner up.)
However, a moment later, Raja adds with confidence. “Arrey, hum logon ko mana lenge. (I’ll convince them to vote.)”
Rajaji is now protesting near the Turkish gate in Aligarh, where one more polling booth had been shifted out of a dharamshala and to a Muslim area. This time, he is organising a hunger strike.
Is the BJP really willing to forego a thousand crucial votes, I ask Rajaji. Are you sure this is worth an election boycott?
“Arrey, we just want to register our protest. Once that’s done, we will vote. Of course I won’t cost the BJP one thousand votes.”
“We’re not donkeys,” he says.
Sneha Vakharia is a freelance reporter