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Defending Hinduism emerges as major occupation for men in western Uttar Pradesh as jobs dry up

Perhaps it was the bullying of the older auto-rickshaw drivers, who ganged up on him seeing his new-fangled electrickery-rickshaw, and wouldn’t let him pick up passengers. Perhaps it was because there isn’t much else for young people to do in Bhainswal, his village in Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps, then again, it was because of the unsettling feeling that there ought to be more to life than waiting by the highway, shrouded in truck-exhaust and dust, hoping a passenger shows up.

Whatever the reason, four years ago, Sandeep Kashyap set up a Dharm Jagran Samiti, or Religious Awakening Committee, in his village. “It is better I do religious work to pass the time than drink or squabble like others,” he says.

 Defending Hinduism emerges as major occupation for men in western Uttar Pradesh as jobs dry up

A Hindutva agitator

Belonging to a community officially recognised as socially and educationally backward, Kashyap is now a minor celebrity, his face plastered on posters announcing the Samiti’s gatherings. His worth is judged by how many members his Samiti enrols and how much muscle it flexes—not by how many passengers he picks up. In a social setup where life’s trajectory is tied to caste and class, Kashyap has found his own personal salvation.

The story of young men like him, who are drawn to adopt religion in an organised —as opposed to private — manner, is complex. It is sown and watered not just by hate but a generation’s desperate search for agency and self-worth in a world apparently designed to deny it.

Highway 709B swings through western Uttar Pradesh, past villages nestled in sugarcane and mustard fields, and heads north of Shamli town and past Bhainswal. The bucolic scenery, though, veils an ugly reality. An International Labour Organisation study from 2017 reports a “sharp dip in regular salaried jobs for male workers”, despite the region’s dramatic economic growth and a big drop in poverty. Self-employment opportunities shrank, even casual labour growth was almost stagnant.

Put simply, the region’s green revolution gains have plateaued, leaving the young facing the prospect of their generation not being able to sustain the gains of their parents.

For young men, this is a crisis of self-worth, even masculinity: at an age where their fathers supported families, they are prospectless. Being a man in west Uttar Pradesh includes marrying, having children, educating them, and caring for aging parents.

Kashyap’s Samiti holds out hope of escaping this morass. Each month, its 48 members donate `100 to its kitty. With this money, Kashyap has organised a Ramcharitamanas reading, four all-male pilgrimages to a Hanuman temple in Rajasthan and two visits for women to a nearby temple, all free of cost.

The Samiti is a form of collective support. “I had an accident last year and needed lakhs of rupees,” says Sonu Kashyap, one of the three founding members. “The Samiti contributed all it had—`20,000.” With traditional joint-families decaying, such support is a major draw.

Samiti-like bodies are also part of a larger project. Varun Vashisht, who prompted Kashyap to set it up, belongs to the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the militant Hindutva outfit raised by Uttar Pradesh’s firebrand chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

Kashyap claims not to know this. For him, it’s irrelevant that the Samiti is part of an enterprise to forge a Hindu political identity. Indeed, Kashyap affects disinterest in politics: “I’ll remain a labourer no matter who’s in power,” he says, stoically.

Kashyap is, however, deferential towards Vashisht, former school teacher and son of a contractor from Bijnor, and a Brahmin. He is media in-charge and coordinator of the Vahini in Shamli.

Four years ago, Vashisht was drawn to the Vahini after an official in Shamli took him to a meeting, where he first heard of Adityanath. “I Googled Maharaj-ji and discovered Hindutva,” Vashisth says, referring to Adityanath, who continues to be chief priest of the Gorakhnath temple.

For Vashisht, Hindutva is primarily Hinduism minus caste. As a corollary, his vision of a Hinduised nation is India minus caste-based reservations. “Hindutva tells us we’re all Hindus, regardless of caste,” he says.

Sah-bhoj, or inter-caste dining, is the primary source of Vashisht’s belief that Hindutva eradicates caste. Sah-bhoj rests on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s notion of inculcating samajik samrasta, or social harmony (as opposed to equality). It presupposes that subaltern castes gain self-respect and dignity upon dining with elite caste members—a tradition dating back to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and before.

This caste-free Hinduism has limits. For instance, co-dining is encouraged but not inter-caste marriage with Dalits. “That cannot happen overnight,” Vashisht protests, “eating together is a beginning.” Given that commensality as a technique to bridge the caste divide is a century old, Hindutva remains stuck in the beginning. Nevertheless, Kashyap gains status by fraternising with élite castes, a privilege denied in the traditional order.

Vahini teams are going door-to-door in Shamli and beyond, checking on government-funded schemes for housing, toilets and education. “The problem is that the administration doesn’t listen to people while people blindly trust gram pradhans, who rip them off,” Vashisth says.

The Vahini sidesteps pradhans and takes matters straight to district authorities. “Unless officials convince us why a government benefit hasn’t reached a household, we abuse them,” he says. The Vahini might not be able to obtain prized government jobs for the youth, but it does help them exert power over petty bureaucrats.

For years, Yashveer Singh, a wealthy farmer from Mundet village, helped locals with administrative matters or disputes. Mostly, his interventions failed. The scenario changed dramatically as soon as he joined the Vahini a decade ago. “The administration hears us now,” says Singh, who manages the Vahini in the district. “Earlier, they did not. The entire district knows Maharaj-ji’s instruction that no one should be oppressed.”

This usurping of state power has paid off. Vashisht reports that the Vahini, which appoints 21 members each in village, block and district, has “no position vacant”. The more credit the Vahini can claim for resolving problems, the more members it gathers. So strong was the interest that enrolments were stopped in 2017. “We were getting 5,000 requests daily to join,” Singh says. “We even suspected infiltration by rival groups.”

Favour-seeking and -granting enhance the growing appeal of the Vahini and assorted outfits. Sachin Nirwal, 28, from a Jat family in Shamli, obtained a Masters in education, believing it would help him land a job. When it didn’t, he tried the army. But farming while preparing for exams proved an insurmountable challenge.

Six years ago, his uncle, 32-year-old Vishal Nirwal, joined the Bajrang Dal. Vishal was involved in a “police case” that a local Bajrang Dal man, Vivek Premi, had helped him get out of, earning his loyalty.

In turn, Vishal recruited Sachin, who had given up on finding a job. Sachin began attending Bajrang Dal events “informally”. “I go when I can, for cow protection or dharnas against the other side,” Sachin says. As he has friends on the “other side”—with people ideologically opposed to Hindutva—he isn’t fully committed to Bajrang Dal “events”. Besides, he’s married and runs a farm.

“Only someone 100 per cent jobless can be a full-time member,” he says. “If you’re full-time, when they drop a WhatsApp message that you’re needed for a cow-smuggling raid, you have to leave meals unfinished and go.”

In mid-February, after the massacre of CRPF jawans in Pulwama, Vishal joined thousands who hit Shamli streets, clamouring for the blood of the gaddar—traitors. Nationalism is a headier opiate than religion.

Put together, the prospect of a new Hinduism transcending caste, and their networks of influence, have transformed allegiances of backward communities. They are the glue that is drawing the youth from all sections to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“People’s priorities shift when they’re given  a religious identity,” says Sudhir Panwar, a Samajwadi Party leader. “They start doing dharm jagrans instead of demanding economic and social rights.”

For members of backward communities, organising religious events has an added appeal: to them, it represents their social and political assertion in addition to their obvious identification with the Hindu religion.

For this new Hindu society to be built, one group needs to create the other—and Muslims serve that purpose. This is why, after Pulwama, the slogans raised in Shamli, Agra, Bharatpur and beyond harped on “punishing traitors”.

“But there’s no ‘traitor’ here—just aggressive nationalism fostering divides,” says Jayant Chaudhary, former Member of Parliament and Rashtriya Lok Dal leader. Other political outfits are left with little choice but wait for high-pitched campaigns against gaddars to die. “All issues, from unemployment to farm crisis, get washed away in nationalism,” says Chaudhary.

In this context, anyone who says outrageous things about other leaders, the administration, or the ‘other’, is regarded a good leader. Extreme statements become a way to get ahead, deepening the identity crisis.

“Those who separated from India—Pakistan, Bangladesh—got Muslim countries but India didn’t become Hindu Rashtra because some Hindus betrayed us,” says Ghanshyam Parcha, a farmer in Shamli.

The flip side is that high-pitched campaigns can apply counter-pressure on governments, fueling a spiral of demands and expectations. Vivek Premi, now the Uttar Pradesh in-charge of Bajrang Dal’s student outreach says, “On the thirteenth day after the Pulwama attack the Indian government sent fighters into Pakistan with our greetings. We felt content, at peace.” He is referring to the Hindu ritual held either four days or 13 days (tehravi), after death; the attack actually happened on the 14th day. Premi had been waiting for some such action by India against Pakistan.

How far this politics will sustain is unclear. Hindutva outfits in Shamli insist on state subsidy for their pet project—cow shelters—while confessing they haven’t been paid lakhs of rupees due from sugar mills. The government has failed to make agriculture remunerative. And abandoned cows are eating up crops and farmers are falling ill as they have to guard their fields on bitterly cold nights.

Competitive communalism, too, is a growing concern. Imran Masood, a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, said in March 2014, that he would “cut Modi to pieces”. Nahid Hasan of Samajwadi Party, and scores others, have made derogatory statements, hoping to attract insecure Muslims.

Probably the Gau Rakshak, as an idea of Hindu identity, will thrive so long as despair shapes young men’s lives. Hindu nationalism has provided the burgeoning youth cohort with a sense of purpose and agency that they lack in everyday life. Faith and nationalism help them cope with their sense of emasculation: through militant action against cow slaughter, love jihad campaigns, they discover a lost self-worth. Then a Sandeep Kashyap becomes more than just another autorickshaw driver—a defender of Hinduism, the sharp, priapic sword of his people’s faith.

This article also appeared in the 16 March edition of Firstpost Print

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Mar 21, 2019 19:59:49 IST

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