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Kanwar Yatra: Are India’s Public Spaces Only for the Rich?

Round the year, the rich choke public places with rallies, VIP movements, or ‘baraats’. No one bats an eye.

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It is that time of the year when the roads of the National Capital Region (NCR) are taken over by ‘Shiv Bhakts’ – better known as ‘Kanwariyas’ – as they make their journey from Haridwar to their respective homes, carrying gangajal on their shoulders. It’s a particularly harsh expedition considering most of them complete the journey on foot.

Of course, local government bodies, wannabe small-time politicians and those in service of god do arrange for resting places on the way, by the road, providing much-needed rest to aching feet and legs, and food and nutrition to tired and exhausted bodies. At every major entry point or crossing in the city are banners, welcoming the holy 'warriors'. Banners with pictures of the Prime Minister, Home Minister and the Chief Minister, amongst other political figures, abound. The respect the Kanwariyas receive from the state machinery, especially the police en route, is something any modern state must do for its citizens on an everyday basis.

Snapshot
  • It is that time of the year when “well-meaning”, compartmentalised and concerned members of the society, complain, and rightly so, about how Kanwariyas have taken over the public space.

  • But are baraats, inaugurations, VIP movements, political rallies and parents outside schools jostling over each other to pick up their kids, justified in the context of breach of public spaces?

  • Kanwariyas are the doormen, cleaners, waiters, bartenders, parking boys, security guards and drivers who remain invisible to the state for most part of the year, and are treated unfairly by the privileged sections of society.

  • Kanwariyas are a part of society, a part that has no rights, security, or respect. This time of the year, as they exercise their right to use public spaces, why does society have a problem?

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The Fuss Over 'Road Congestion'

Warriors they are. If you still have doubts, check out the waving baseball bat of a Kanwariya, authoritatively commanding the traffic to stop or move. Kanwariyas have the right of way, irrespective of the traffic signal. The baseball club-waving young boy, barely 18, is the commander-in-chief, responsible for intimidating commuters with the stern eyes of a general. Police play a supporting role in the background. And like all good supporting roles, they never take the limelight away from the main characters but shine, nevertheless, on their own.

It is also that time of the year when 'well-meaning', compartmentalised and concerned members of the society, complain, and rightly so, about how Kanwariyas have taken over the public space and created havoc with traffic movement, even threatening commuters in their cars. “Ambulance bhi nahi nikal paati, agar koi serious ho to kaise hospital pahunche” (even ambulances can’t pass through, how will anyone reach the hospital if their condition is serious?) – they say. In some cases, Kanwariyas have resorted to violence and even hurt people.

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Hypocrisy of an Epic Proportion

Surely, this sort of uncivilised behaviour in public spaces has no place in an orderly and civilised country. But dare I say, neither do baraats, inaugurations, VIP movements, political rallies and parents outside schools jostling over each other to pick up their kids. None of the above has any regard for other people’s rights over public space. It is hypocrisy of an epic proportion, nothing short of that.

Try honking or driving through a wedding procession. Men, high on alcohol and testosterone, in some cases even armed, often privileged, dancing and firing their weapons in the air with gay abandon, might give you a lesson or two in urban violence.

Outside schools, eager parents occupy whole streets as if they have a moral right simply by the virtue of procreating. Sometimes, it may take hours for you to make your way through it. How on earth will an ambulance pass through a wedding procession or through a street outside a school, invaded and swarmed by people? I ask, with folded hands, dear 'well-meaning', concerned folks.

Who is a Kanwar after all? Or rather, I should ask, “Kaun hain ye log, kahan se aate hain?” (who are these people, where do they come from?) – a monologue from a decent Bollywood film, Jolly LLB, that has inspired hundreds of memes. For the most part of the year, these Shiv Bhakts mean nothing to the state and upper class/caste society. They live somewhere in the shadows of the obscene apartment complexes that NCR is peppered with. The server at wedding buffets where people are drunk on privilege, the security guard at the school gate – when and how do they assert their equal right to use public spaces? It is not a secret how men and women in wedding parties behave with waiters and servers. The utter disrespect and arrogance thrown at their face is not just humiliating, it is infuriating.

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Public Spaces are for Everyone – You Got a Problem?

I often imagine myself as this waiter. When I do that, I look forward to the Kanwar yatra as my only small window to assert my right to the public space, to demand some respect. For this is the only time the state’s politicians would welcome me with folded hands and policemen will serve me instead of abusing or hitting me. I have rage bubbling inside me for being marginalised because of my caste and class.

I have my fellow brethren alongside me, in solidarity and ready to fight for my right to use public spaces and defend my respect. And then I see the man who humiliated me at the wedding party, in the car, with his family. Rest I leave to the reader’s imagination.

Remember Ram Gopal Varma’s cult classic Satya? Disrespect and humiliation of a man created a gangster who masterminded the killing of a police commissioner.

Kanwariyas are the doormen, cleaners, waiters, bartenders, parking boys, security guards and drivers, in and around the clubs and the watering holes of NCR where the privileged go for their parties, trampling over the rights of the marginalised, disregarding the sanctity of public spaces, humiliating the weak. The problem is not the Kanwariyas. The problem is somewhere else.

Kanwariyas are a part of society, a part that has no rights, security, or respect. This part is not allowed to have even aspirations; they exist in a society that has reserved all of the above for itself. For most of the year, these men and women watch you from a distance as you drive your car into cyber hubs and throw the keys to the valet for him/her to park your car, while you party all night. These people are not allowed to enter your party space. This time of the year, it's their time to 'party' – or, in this case, simply walk – after a hard day of work. They will dance to DJs on the street, stare you in your face, wave the baseball club, have their intoxicant, and demand due respect. You got a problem?

(Sanjay Rajoura is a comedian who is also part of the 'Aisi Taisi Democracy' team. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Kanwar Yatra 

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