Video Editor: Sandeep Suman
Ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, Pramod Manjhi, a boatman in Varanasi’s Shivala Ghat, was joyous at the prospect of BJP coming to power in the state. A self-proclaimed “former Modi-Bhakt”, Manjhi is seething with rage today.
“We are worshipers of Ma Ganga. And Modi called himself the son of Ma Ganga. So all of us got together and ensured BJP’s victory. But all we got was step-motherly treatment in return,” Manjhi said, vowing to not vote for the BJP in the 2022 polls.
Varanasi’s Mallah or boatmen community is a strong and and important votebank for the BJP. Adityanath has made multiple visits to the ghats of Ganga since taking over as CM. But one of the first and most important ones—that continues to be etched in the memories of most boatmen there—is the one he made in September 2018, to inaugurate a private luxury cruise-ship.
Private Cruise-ships and Boatmen's Woes
Manjhi is the general secretary of the Maa Ganga Nishad Raj Seva Samiti—one of the primary unions of the boatmen in Varanasi. The 30-metre double-decker private cruise-ship came as a bummer for several thousands of boatmen whose livelihood depends on customers who, in their opinion, should come to the ghats for their boats alone.
“We charge customers as per their financial background. But ever since this cruise-ship came, the high paying customers all began opting for the cruise. Our earnings took a hit. We tolerated that initially, but instead of limiting themselves to a few ghats, eventually they began covering all the ghats. The boatmen got very angry and protested for 13 full days,” Manjhi explained.
On the 13th day, Manjhi and the other boatmen protesting against the cruise-ship were told that it will be removed from the ghats.
“Today, it’s about to be four years. That one cruise is still there, and what is worse is that now there are 3-4 more cruises here,” he said.
In December 2021, PM Modi and CM Adityanath both witnessed an elaborate Ganga aarti onboard the luxury cruise.
“The cruise really hurt our businesses and it felt like the leaders don’t care about us,” said another boatman, reeling with a sense of betrayal.
Covid Lockdown Combined With Monsoon Lockdown
If the cruise-ship was bad enough, the boatmen’s grievances got compounded by the sudden lockdown in March 2020. The lockdown caught everyone by surprise, and those from the informal sector and daily wage earners were affected the most. But in the case of the boatmen, their lockdown ended up being much longer than it was for the rest of the country.
The boatmen have to moor their boats to the land during the monsoon season—from June to September. But this time, the sudden lockdown from March onwards meant that their boats remained unused for 7-8 months in total.
“This was really devastating for us. We usually manage our savings in way that we have enough during the monsoon period, when our boats are moored. But then due to the sudden lockdown, there was just not enough to last through the entire period,” said Arjun Sahni, a boatman.
Sahni had taken a loan to repair his boat just a week before the lockdown, but hasn’t been able to repay it to date. “The lockdown broke our backs,” he said.
Upset With BJP, But Might Still Support Them: Boatmen
The palpable anger against the BJP, however, might not necessarily translate into the boatmen turning their backs against the party.
For instance, Sonu Sahni’s earnings took a major hit during the lockdown. “We had to face many problems for 2 years during Covid. There are no tourists around. Moreover, the cruise ends up taking whatever tourists come here,” he said.
But asked who will support in the polls, he said he has “always been a Modi admirer and supporter.”
Asked why he continued to support Modi, and the BJP, despite his grievances, he said “it’s because while I may have personally suffered, Modi ji brought progress to Varanasi.”
Similarly, Nandu Sahni’s boat was laying unused at the ghat for nearly two years, he said. But despite this, his vote will be for the BJP. “Modi ji’s demonetisation was very good. People with black money suffered. So these are good steps,” he said.