In this season of political marriages of convenience, a village in Uttar Pradesh's semi-arid Bundelkhand region has sought a divorce from political parties. And it is no coincidence that the story has its beginning in a wedding.
Shortly before 'vidai' — the maiden journey from parental home to the husband's residence —newly-wed Sangeeta Yadav, 18, pledged to exercise the none of the above option (NOTA) in this elections at Banda's Baghelwari Attara village. She was not alone.
The groom and 600 guests, including the wedding party, took the pledge with her at an election chaupal (meeting of villagers) held at the wedding on Monday.
They said they were fed up with "good for nothing leaders" and sought full loan waiver for farmers of the region.
Baghelwari Attara village, around 200 km from capital Lucknow, falls under Banda Lok Sabha constituency. The sitting MP is Samajwadi Party's RK Singh Patel.
Sangeeta had reasons to feel that the political class did not care about the plight of the local farmers. She lost her father to a farm-loan suicide in 2011 and mother to cancer in 2008.
"I will go to the booth to press the NOTA button on April 30 after I return to the village for a post-wedding visit in accordance with local custom. My husband will do likewise at his village. I am lucky I got married. There are so many suicide victims' daughters who are not able to get married. Our demand is complete farm-loan waiver in Bundelkhand," she said.
She has two siblings — brother Vikas, 19 and sister Antima, 10. All three decided to give the wedding NOTA overtones soon after the match was fixed earlier this month.
Their move is meant to be an expression of anguish over the hardship they faced because of the loan pressure on their father and his subsequent suicide. Both Vikas and sister Sangeeta are first-time voters.
It was Vikas who fixed Sangeeta's match with Akshaya Yadav who runs a general store in another village and has refused dowry.
Since 2011, Vikas has been guardian to Sangeeta and Antima, 10. Vikas was 16 when he inherited an acre of land on which his father Suresh hanged himself from a neem tree.
The groom and 600 guests, including the wedding party, took the pledge with her at an election chaupal held at the wedding. (HT photo)
Suresh had two acres of land but an acre of it was sold to raise money for his wife Saraswati's cancer treatment. When Suresh took his own life following loan distress, Rs 21,000 of a kisan credit card and Rs 13,000 of a private moneylender were due on him.
The land is now collateral with the bank that gave Suresh the loan. Apart from tilling the remaining acre, Vikas also earns Rs 1500 per month by teaching at a private village school. He himself studies in class 12 in another school and sends the two sisters to study as well.
"Why should anyone vote? What does a vote get us? Do you know that when my father committed suicide, the death certificate issued by officials mentioned haemorrhage as the cause of death? I had to go on hunger strike for our rights," he said, anger dripping from his voice.
The hunger strike spurred the then district magistrate to issue the family a benefit of Rs 20,000 (as compensation after the father's suicide), Rs 25,000 for Indira Awas and an 'Antodaya' ration card.
Vikas organised the wedding with a budget of Rs 50,000. Many local people, voluntary organisations and some local journalists contributed a few thousand rupees each for the wedding.
One villager donated 35 kg of 'besan' (gram flour) for sweets. Another gave ghee and sugar.
At the election chaupal, 120 guests from the groom's side and 450 from bride's side discussed the elections, its relevance and how various political leaders had not done anything significant for the drought-hit farmers of the region, said Ashish Sagar, an RTI activist in Banda.
Ashish had organised the election chaupal.
"We decided to hold an election-voters' awareness event as part of the wedding programme. All of them signed a NOTA pledge," he added.