Political Rallies in the Indian Heartland Are Often Just a Family’s Day Out
We tag along with an 80-member family to know why a collective show of support for their politician of choice is important.
In Indian heartland, families often made up of dozens of members, head to political rallies together. Women, who usually don't step out as much and who are often relegated to homes, step out alongside men here.
The factors that starkly separate Nooruddin Chak from the other villages around are open drains, garbage dumps, gusts of dust and unplastered walls of homes. A poor village on the outskirts of Bahraich—a town near the border India shares with Nepal, in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP)—Nooruddin Chak is densely populated with marginalised workers, mostly from the Muslim and Dalit communities. The only reason any outsider will venture here would be to visit the tomb of the legendary warrior saint, Hazrat Ghazi Sayyid Salar Masood, constructed by the 14th century Turkic Muslim ruler who presided over the Delhi Sultanate, Firoz Shah Tughlaq.
Today, however, Nooruddin Chak is a significant factor in the world’s largest election. In UP—a state that greatly affects poll outcomes by the sheer strength of its population—the power of political candidates is often gauged by a simple metric: the number of people turning up at election rallies. Every election, India sees two kinds of people showing up at rallies—those whose votes have been bought through ‘gifts’ that can rage from money to goats to alcohol, and those who genuinely support their leader because their lives have been benefited under their power. Where I am, it’s mostly the latter, with entire families, including women (who are otherwise relegated to their homes because of strictly patriarchal family structures) and kids (who are far from hitting the legal voting age) halting all kinds of work and school for the day to attend the rally of the leader they love. In small towns and villages where joint family structures are still the norm, this is a trip that includes grandparents, uncles, aunts and far-flung cousins.
On a hot summer day in May, the Mikrani household has a breakfast of paratha-dahi before they start getting ready for the rally of Akhilesh Yadav, the president of the Samajwadi Party (SP), a former chief minister of UP and the scion of a powerful political family. In Nooruddin Chak, the Mikrani home is part of a Muslim community traditionally known for selling aromatic scents and goods. Living in small houses sitting wall-to-wall in a densely populated locality, the Mikranis are a close-knit joint family with around 80 members residing in 11 houses in the locality—the sorts who eat together, depend on each for livelihood, consult each other before taking big decisions and once in a while, go to election rallies together.
The head of the family, Shahabuddin Masood Mikrani alias 'Shehzade' (translates to ‘prince’) has left the job of a private driver to run a paan masala business. He wears the red party flag on his head but insists he is not a party member, but a supporter. "We support them because they help us get the benefits of government schemes and pensions. Several members of our family have received laptops, mobile phones and cycles," says Mikrani, one among the eleven siblings (nine brothers and two sisters) of the family. The most educated elder in his family and the one who takes everyone along, he is the final authority for everything, be it political or financial. "Though I am the third eldest among those alive, everyone consults me. We are poor people who survive on less, but keep honour and family values intact.”
In their region, where caste and class privilege is often the defining marker, nothing happens without a jugaad (source), and a connection with a big political name is their only social protection. "We will go to support Akhilesh as he has been to our area twice, to pay his respects at our beloved saint on his tomb," says Mikrani. Most of the Mikranis have been to political rallies in the past, some even when they haven’t been voters. "It’s not just my family; everyone in the neighbourhood has to depend on each other, including our Dalit neighbours, who stand shoulder to shoulder with us.”
As the hot morning sun washes over the neighbourhood, Mikrani starts knocking on the doors of relatives and neighbours to urge them to assemble outside his home. In a few minutes, they start pouring out, seating themselves on plastic chairs outside Mikrani’s home, and savouring biscuits, aloo bhujiya and tea.
Mikrani’s wife, Shakeel Jahan, runs a general store to contribute to family income. She is considered to be ‘outspoken’ and ‘mature’ by her family. For her, a prime consideration before voting is raising money for getting girls in the family married—something the local SP candidate Shabbir Valmiki keeps helping in. Her primary grouse is against corrupt cops. "Police sometimes pick up our boys on flimsy charges and torture them, just because they need a bribes," says Jahan. As she comes in to chat with me, other women follow to pose for photographs.
For other women of the Mikrani family, loyalty and unity among the members of the joint family and neighbourhood is a value they try to protect. In a neighbourhood that is not a stranger to violent quarrels, they are the ones who keep the flock together in cases of disagreements. Ayesha Khatoon, Mikrani’s sister-in-law, says she keeps counselling the less educated women."Yesterday, a few women raised their confusions,” says Khatoon. “They had heard that the haath ka panja (the Congress symbol) is the one that is gaining the upper hand. I told them to not get divided by rumours.” But like in most Indian families, it’s the men who get to have a final say in political affiliation and votes.
By now, dozens of relatives and neighbours with party flags have assembled outside the Mikrani home for free biscuits and tea. The old T-shirt that Mikrani was wearing has given way to a new shirt. They take turns to take a bath, eat up before the journey, and prep to leave. The family kids are given a task they’re are good at: creating a ruckus to attract more people to their flock. They wave party flags and distribute topis (caps) with political affiliations printed on them, to strangers passing by.
Mikrani’s sons insist that their political opinions are independent of their father’s, though they support the same party. For Naseem Masood—Mikrani’s eldest son who is 31 years old and runs a tailoring shop in a corner of the village—a major influence on his political ideology has been his wife. “Several people in her paternal family in Siddharthnagar are associated with SP,” he says. “She has received a laptop and some money from various schemes.”
His 23-year-old brother, Faisal Masood, is the most educated person in their family, holding a BCom degree. He is seeking political support to get a job in Bahraich. “Our country only benefits the elite people. Iss liye aata mehenga hai, data sasta hai (That’s why data is cheaper than flour),” he says, scrolling through his Facebook timeline alongside.
As everyone begins to walk out of the locality and towards the rally venue, Faisal arranges e-rickshaws for the women and the elderly. He, like most young men, is going to make the journey on his motorcycle. His poorer neighbours are going to walk the four-kilometre stretch, though temperatures are now soaring above 40-degree celsius.
As I sit on the bike of Mikrani’s youngest son, Farhan Masood—who is a Class 12 commerce student—he tells me how he dreams of starting his own business one day. “When I see better-off areas in Bahraich, I think, why can’t our area can be like that.” He often feels that he is sometimes caught between two worlds. “While some of my friends are studying to be engineers, others are working as labourers.”
Near the village mosque, people from other Dalit, Sahu, Sunar and Yadav communities begin to join the crowd from Nooruddin Chak. I decide to get off the bike and walk with the masses. While most women in the crowd are concerned about the lack of government schools and high fees of private ones, men direct their anger at local clinics which hand out painkillers for almost every ailment. “If you see, the drains are always blocked and spilling. We don’t even have a decent graveyard here,” says Mohd Rafi ‘Guddu’, Mikrani’s younger brother who runs a paan stall, as we march down the narrow streets and cause a kilometre-long traffic jam.
As they reach the security gates of the venue, members of the Mikrani family merge with the crowds from neighbouring towns and villages. In the middle of a massive ground, thousands sit under a huge tent. The women—clad in burqas and ghunghats (veils)—sit in a separate area than the men. As party leaders talk of promises meant to change their lives, people take photos on their phones even as kids continue to run amok.
After a few minutes, there is a huge cry. Everyone starts pointing to the sky. A helicopter, headed towards the rally, lands on a nearby ground and Akhilesh Yadav steps out. Standing on their chairs to get a glimpse of their beloved leader, the crowd begins to hear his speech.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.