Nishads key players as riversutra flows through U.P’s poll terrain - Hindustan Times
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Nishads key players as riversutra flows through U.P’s poll terrain

By, Prayagraj/ Sultanpur/ Sant Kabir Nagar
May 23, 2024 05:42 AM IST

Key poll players are vying for support from the riverine Nishad community in eastern Uttar Pradesh, crucial in 37 constituencies, with SC status and economic empowerment key issues.

Key poll players are leaving no stone unturned to woo the riverine community of Nishads and their associated sub-castes in eastern Uttar Pradesh in the hope of sailing to victory in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections with their support.

Boatmen belonging to Nishad community ferrying pilgrims and tourists across the Ganga in Prayagraj. (Anil Kumar Maurya/HT)
Boatmen belonging to Nishad community ferrying pilgrims and tourists across the Ganga in Prayagraj. (Anil Kumar Maurya/HT)

The riverine community has a decisive say in 37 parliamentary constituencies, 27 of which will vote in the sixth and seventh phases of the current election.

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Currently categorised as OBCs, the Nishads are seeking inclusion in the Scheduled Castes and the Nishad party, led by Uttar Pradesh fisheries minister Sanjay Nishad, is spearheading the cause.

In particular, the polls in recent decades have highlighted the electoral importance of this community. The 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election was one such democratic exercise at the hustings that put the Nishads in the spotlight.

In recognition of the riverine community’s vital role, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had launched the “Nadi Adhikar Yatra” in support of the riverine Nishad community’s rights to water resources from Baswar village, 15 km south of Prayagraj city on the Yamuna riverbank, before the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election.

The yatra set the tone for the fight among the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party for the riverine community votes comprising OBCs and 22 influential sub-castes like Nishads, Mallah, Kewat, Binds, Kashyaps and Nishads in the 2022 assembly election in east Uttar Pradesh.

In a counter-ploy, the BJP launched “kamal nauka rallies” along the Ganga and Yamuna riverbanks, highlighting its government’s welfare schemes for the community.

Besides, the BJP allotted seats to its ally the Nishad party and won a second successive term with an absolute majority. The Nishad party’s tally of seats increased from one in 2017 to six in 2022. The winners included Sanjay Nishad’s son Sarvan Nishad who bagged the Chauri- Chaura seat. Sanjay Nishad’s elder son Praveen Nishad won the Sant Kabir Nagar Lok Sabha seat in 2019.

“The riverine community has been demanding inclusion in the scheduled caste category for several years,” says Prashant Trivedi, faculty at the Giri Institute of Development Studies, Lucknow.

All the major political parties have promised them the SC status but the matter is still pending, he adds.

The community is fighting for its rights at two levels -- mobilizing under the banner of the Nishad party and seeking assistance from other parties where the Nishad party’s presence is negligible.

Residing near rivers, the community has a sizeable presence in several districts of East Uttar Pradesh. Majority of community members are with the Nishad party. But in several constituencies, they support other parties if the candidates of their caste are contesting on other parties’ symbols, he says

As the vote of the community is decisive on several seats, all the political parties are working to win their support, Trivedi says.

“The demand for the SC status is being raised for the last 20 years and the main criterion for it is untouchability. Riverine community members assert that they are associated with Nishadraj whose valour is mentioned in the epic Ramayana. Since there is no caste discrimination against them, the community is not likely to get the SC status on technical grounds. The leaders of the community should focus on other issues for economic empowerment — rights to water resources, land and pond patta. The Nishad community’s agenda should be broadened,” he says.

The community has a strong presence in the Prayagarj , Devi Patan , Gorakhpur and Varanasi divisions, says NK Sinha, a political observer.

Around 22 sub-castes, including Nishad, Kewat, Mallah, Bind, Kahar, Kashyap, Dhimar, Raikwar, Turaiha, Batham, Bhar, Rajbhar, Dhiwar, Prajapati, Kumahar, Manjhi and Machua, are demanding inclusion in the SC category, Sinha says.

“They are a dominant force in the river basin area that passes through Central and East UP and no political party can ignore them,” he adds.

During the SP regime, the then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and later the present chief minister Yogi Adityanath sent recommendations to the central government their reclassification from OBC to SC, Sinha says.

Even as the campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha election is in full swing in Prayagraj (Allahabad Lok Sabha constituency), silence prevails at Baswar village.

A resident Chander Nishad says, “The parties made several promises in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2022 assembly polls, but the community’s problems have not been resolved. In the 2022 assembly election, we supported BJP candidate Piyush Ranjan Nishad who won the Karchana seat.”

Sand mining ban is a key concern of the community.

In 2013, the National Green Tribunal stopped the extraction of sand from rivers using heavy machinery, but big contractors continued the mining activities. The Nishad community residing on the riverbanks used small boats for mining but in June 2019, the government banned the use of these small boats, too, in sand mining and action was taken against the community involved in sand mining.

“We are demanding mining contracts for our livelihood, but there is no response from the government,” Chander Nishad says.

Vandana Nishad, who led the Nadi Yatra with Priyanka Gandhi, says the fall in earnings from the fisheries business, ferrying of passengers and goods on boats and ban on sand mining has hit the riverine community’s earnings.

“The much-hyped SC category status to the community is pending. We are not getting jobs in government services. The community is struggling for livelihood. The state government should allot us agricultural land and ponds for our livelihood,” she says.

Another villager Gyan Chand Nishad says there are 7% Nishad voters in Allahabad Lok Sabha constituency and 7% in the neighbouring Phulpur constituency (both in Prayagraj district).

“Our community’s vote is decisive. There is a division of Nishad votes between NDA and INDIA in 2024 Lok Sabha election but a majority of the votes will go to the BJP candidate,” he says.

On the northern periphery of the district, 35 km from Prayagraj city, Shringverpur village is humming with activity as hundreds of labourers place pink stand stone labs around the 51-feet-high statue of Lord Ram and Nishadaraj on a high platform. This a holy place for Hindus, particularly the Nishads.

According to the epic Ramayana, Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman arrived at this place to the Ganga on their way to forest exile.

The local king Nishadraj ferried them across the river in his boat.

“The development of Shringverpur Dham is a matter pride for Nishads. Our identity and legacy will be glorified as thousands of people from across the country will visit here to seek blessings of Lord Ram and Nishadraj,” says Nanhe Nishad, resident of Shringverpur.

A 20-acre park and a museum dedicated to the history of the Nishad community is being constructed. Previous governments did not care for the respect and welfare of the community, he says.

Mohammad Mansur Ali, who runs a bike service center, says Nishad party chief Sanjay Nishad has given call for removal of the mosque located in the premises of the Nishadraj fort.

“It might disturb communal harmony in the area. The NDA is trying to polarize voters on the mosque issue to get the Nishad community votes in the 2024 Lok Sabha election,” he says.

Another resident Shiv Dularey Nishad says, “Development projects have been launched for the riverine community. Our income will increase with the flow of pilgrims and tourists at the (Shringverpur) Dham. The riverine community will support the NDA government.”

At the Nishad-dominated village of Chatnag, residents village ferry pilgrims to the Sangam in boats for religious rituals and a dip at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

Dinesh Yadav is angry over “the protection given to the contractors by the state government.”

“We toil hard all day, but are paid merely 2000 whereas contractors are earning in thousands. The state government should protect our rights to improve our livelihood,” he says.

Rani Nishad, who runs a self-help group for women of the community, says, “The state government has provided us houses, health card, rations and tap water connection. The law and order situation has improved and the money lender system has ended. The Nishad community carried Lord Ram across the Ganga. In the 2024 Lok Sabha election, we have made up our mind to ensure that BJP sails through the electoral battle.”

Around 104 km from Prayagraj, the Samajwadi Party has fielded Ram Bhuwal Nishad against former Union minister and BJP candidate Maneka Gandhi in Sultanpur Lok Sabha constituency. She is seeking her second term from the seat and ninth overall.

The SP is working on its PDA (backward- Dalit- Muslim) formula to mobilise the support of the OBCs along with riverine community constituting around 8% voters.

A resident of Gorakhpur, Ram Bhuwal Nishad, a former BSP minister, wields influence over Nishads and is expected to get the support of other OBCs.

Maneka Gandhi is working on the support of OBCs, Dalits and upper caste in a bid to retain the seat. She attended around 500 meetings in rural and urban areas, meeting members of all the communities and they have assured support to the BJP, she says.

The residents of riverine community dominated Ram Bankata village, 20 km east of Sultanpur, are divided over their support to the BJP and the SP.

Ram Chandra Nishad, former gram pradhan of the village, says, “We got benefits of all the welfare schemes launched by the NDA government, but the SP candidate belongs to our caste, his defeat will be seen as the defeat of our community. In 2019, we had supported the BJP. Sultanpur votes in the sixth phase on May 25. The Nishads will hold a meeting before the polling day to take a final decision.”

After crossing the Saryu river, Nishad party chief Sanjay Nishad’s stronghold, the Sant Kabir Nagar Lok Sabha constituency represented by his son Praveen Nishad, is 150 km from Sultanpur.

Sitting BJP MP Praveen Nishad is pitted against Laxmikant alias Pappu Nishad of the SP and Nadeem Ashraf of the BSP.

In Bhadohi, Nishad party’s MLA from Majhwa Vinod Bind is contesting on the BJP ticket against Trinamool Congress candidate Lalitesh Pati Tripathi. The BJP dropped its sitting MP Ramesh Bind, prompting him to join the SP and contest the Mirzapur Lok Sabha seat against Apna Dal (Sonelal) chief and Union minister Anupriya Patel, an NDA ally.

Sanjay Nishad is highlighting the NDA government’s efforts to grant SC status to the riverine community and schemes launched by the BJP led Uttar Pradesh government for economic empowerment of the community.

Addressing a public meeting in Khalilabad, Sanjay Nishad says the Nishad party was launched for political empowerment and the identity of the community. Despite offers from the big parties, he never merged his party for political gains and the fight for SC status will continue, he says.

He started his political journey in 2008 by joining BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) launched years earlier by Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram. In 2016, he floated the Nishad party and contested the 2017 assembly election in alliance with the Peace Party led by Dr Mohammad Ayub but managed to win the solitary Gyanpur seat, where gangster-turned-politician Vijay Mishra secured victory on the Nishad party ticket.

The alliance with the SP and BSP in the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha by-poll proved to be a game-changer for the Nishad party whose candidate Praveen Nishad defeated the BJP’s Upendra Shukla. The by-poll was held as the seat was vacated by five-term Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath after he became Uttar Pradesh chief minister.

Realising his political clout, the BJP got Sanjay Nishad to switch sides before the 2019 Lok Sabha election and offered the Sant Kabir Nagar seat.

The Nishad party’s influence increased as it won six seats in the 2022 assembly election and Sanjay Nishad was made minister in the Yogi 2.0 government.

Kasarwal village on Sant Kabir Nagar- Gorakhpur district border was once the centre of Nishad politics.

In June 2015, a youth Akhilesh Nishad was killed in police firing, prompting agitated Nishad activists to block movement of trains on the Gorakhpur- Lucknow track.

The incident forced the then SP government to hold talks with Nishad leaders.

Manoj Nishad, a resident of Kasarwal, says in the nine years since then, our demands have not been fulfilled by the SP or the BJP government.

“Before each election, political parties arrive in our village, assuring fulfillment of demands after the election, but it remains pending,” he says.

Samajwadi Party backward morcha president Rajpal Kashyap says SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav gave a political platform to Nishads by fielding Phoolan Devi, a community member,in the 1996 Lok Sabha election.

“Netaji (Mulayam Singh Yadav) ignored the backlash from the upper castes. Phoolan Devi, known as bandit queen who once dominated the Chambal ravines, gave a momentum to the riverine community’s political aspirations after winning the Lok Sabha election,” he says.

Now, these parties are competing with one another to install Phoolan Devi’s statues and win over the community, he says.

When Akhilesh Yadav became chief minister, the Nishad community got a lion share’s in the 87 schemes launched by his government for welfare of the weaker sections, he adds.

“In the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the INDIA bloc is raising the issues of empowerment of the riverine community. The SP’s PDA (Pichda Dalit Alpsankhyak or OBCs, Dalits and minorities) formula is uniting the riverine community with other OBCs and Dalits. In several Lok Sabha constituencies, the SP is giving a tough fight to the NDA with the riverine community’s support,” he says.

Countering Kashyap, BJP leader and former MP Jai Prakash Nishad, convener of the party’s fishermen’s cell, says the SP, Congress and BSP governments exploited the riverine community to seek their votes.

“The political empowerment of our community and fulfilment of their aspirations started under the BJP government. The opposition parties are forced to take cognizance of our community as they are deciding the fate of candidates for over two dozen Lok Sabha seats in east UP,” he says.

A native of Umariya Bazar near the Ghaghara river in Sant Kabir Nagar district, Shiv Prasad Nishad says, “We supported the Congress till the early 1980s but when the SP and the BSP launched caste mobilization movements, our allegiance shifted to both. The riverine community played an important role in the formation of the BSP government in 2007 and the SP government (in Uttar Pradesh) in 2012. In 2017, with the support of our community, the BJP came to power. Despite the SP- BSP alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won due to the support of the riverine community. We have been ferrying the leaders of the various political parties to ensure that they sail through in the election. Now the time has come for the parties to pay back by restoring the pride of the riverine community as Lord Ram had done after Nishadraj carried him across the Ganga in his boat.”

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