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Madhubani looks for road to dignity

Abdul Bari Siddiqui washes the strain of campaigning off his face in Madhubani. Picture by Nagendra Kumar Singh

Azima Khatoon (80) rushes out of her thatched hut on hearing children’s joyful shrieks.

“It is always good to see them decked up thus. Like any good Muslim on Jumma (Friday) they offer Namaaz today. On other days they are dirty and run around semi-nude,” mumbles Azima as her eyes swell up on seeing some SUVs rushing towards the mosque in Pachiari Tola locality at Kanhaara panchayat, where she has been staying since she was 21.

The heat in Madhubani, around 210km northeast of Patna, literally burns through the outer skin and hits ones bones. From a white-coloured Fortuner emerges the grand old man of Lalu Prasad’s RJD, known in the hinterlands of Bihar as ‘Lalten Chaap’. Abdul Bari Siddiqui, now touching 60, has problems getting off the vehicle. He spots us right away and a grin lights up his face.

Accha, you have also come? That’s good. You know, after my accident (Bari and his son met with a serious road accident at Ramgarh in Jharkhand on March 4), my knees ache. Also, when I cough or sneeze, my ribs ache. But I don’t want to be sitting at home when I am a candidate here. I have come to pray at the village mosque. So, excuse me for a while,” says Siddiqui as men of all age groups, all Muslims, gather around him.

Like the children, the men folk, too, are dressed in white and wear skullcaps. Their numbers increase by the minute — the diffusion of so many ittars (a type of natural perfume extracted from flowers) now has a choking effect.

By now, Ishrat Jahan, a mother of six, has joined Azima, peeping from behind a curtain. “We cannot go there as there are men folk. They (the politicians) all are like ‘Eid ka chand.’ They appear once and then disappear for ages. There is a major problem in this village. The men should tell him that. As you must have noticed, there are no roads or electricity. While we can manage without electricity, roads are a problem. There are many girls of marriageable age here. We have to try so hard to find a groom. It’s worse for marriageable bachelors. Few families want to give their daughters in marriage here, the prime reason being absence of roads,” says Ishrat. The 4km trudge to the place was a bumpy ride through a narrow path the villagers call “road”.

People in Madhubani don masks to profess their support for RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui. Picture by Nagendra Kumar Singh

“Two months ago, when a man from the tola married, his bride had to walk all the way to her new house. Isn’t that humiliating? In the monsoons, we have to use a kashti (boat) to venture out of the village. Pregnant ladies deliver on the road itself or die while being taken to a government hospital 8km away,” says Azima agitatedly, drawing more heads to peep out of from behind curtained doors.

Just then, Siddiqui, who was having a word with some males in the verandah of a house, asks for water. “I have to do wudu (a cleansing act that precedes the Namaaz). And stop photographing me doing that,” he tells the photojournalist.

“Look at this village. Do you see anything good here? That’s Nitish Kumar’s so-called development and growth model. Wait, let me offer my prayers,” Siddiqui says and turns towards the residents.

“I wanted to offer the namaaz at a bigger mosque. But I was told this mosque is also big, not quite big though,” he said as he stepped in. His bodyguard followed with a small folding chair. “After the accident, I cannot offer prayers in the conventional way,” he said, drawing sympathy from the senior citizens.

Among those gathered outside the mosque is Alok Kumar Yadav (21), a resident. “I don’t do any work. There is no work for me. There are seven ‘tolas’ in Karhaara panchayat, each having a population of Yadavs and Muslims. We are all ‘lalten’ (the RJD’s symbol, lantern) supporters. The RJD can field any candidate. We will vote for them. It is not about Siddiqui. It is about Laluji. There are around 500 homes in each tola. I don’t know much about Madhubani, but Lalu is king here,” Alok says. Then, turning a bit serious, he adds: “We desperately need roads. I also want to get married soon. With some dowry I can start some business. There is no power either. We pay Rs 70 a month to a generator owner to light up a bulb in the house.”

Some Muslim youths, 23-30 years of age, surround the correspondent. “Have you ever travelled by boat? You know how it feels when one can drown any moment? We face death during the monsoons. Why should we vote at all? We don’t have anything but they come for votes once every five years,” Ahmed cribs.

But his protests drown in a rebuke from a very angry old man. “Whatever be the problem, the person who has come to our village is a guest. Where are your manners? How dare you say all this, that too to a stranger? Will this journalist come to you after today?” the man shouts looking at the author before others take him away.

Twenty minutes later, Sidddiqui emerges and heads for the shade of a verandah. “This election is not about roads and electricity. Yeh jeewan maran ki ladai hai. (This is the question of life and death). It is a question of whether you, your son or your grandson can walk with their head held high,” Siddiqui roars for the first time since his arrival here. People around him look grim but clap all the same.

In Madhubani, Muslims — 16.5 per cent of the population — hold the key. The Yadavs form around 12 per cent of the population and Brahmins 11 per cent. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Siddiqui lost to BJP’s Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav by 9,927 votes. But Siddiqui might have the edge with the JD(U) and BJP now split. The BJP has fielded sitting MP Yadav while the JD(U) has fielded Ghulam Ghaus.

Siddiqui’s men say people here will vote for him only. In the last Lok Sabha election, the JD(U) had the BJP and Nitish’s development mantra working for it. Yadav was popular too. But he has now become unpopular because of his arrogance, a resident said.

Siddiqui arrives with a booklet. “During elections, every party brings out a manifesto. I am the first politician to have come out with a separate manifesto for my constituency. It is called the ‘People’s Manifesto for Madhubani’. Go through it,” he says.

Siddiqui is heading for his SUV when a question on Modi stops him on his track. “Who told you that Narendra Modi’s rally in Madhubani yesterday was packed? Were you present there?” he retorts as he walks past his SUV towards a household to meet 45-year-old Phulo Yadav, a farmer.

Siddiqui refuses the water that Yadav offers him but picks up a vernacular daily, which has pictures of Modi during his nomination filing in Varanasi. “All this is mere propaganda. Modi’s so-called wave is fast losing steam in Bihar. You have already seen this village. This is the real state of Nitish’s development mantra.”

He offers cold drinks people have brought for him. “That’s the best you can get here. Please drink,” Siddiqui says. Someone from the crowd gathered outside Phulo Yadav’s house quips: “I brought it from the Benipatti market, at least 8km away.”

By now, the grand old man is tired. Many want him to visit their homes. “It is enough. I have to visit other places too. I wanted to come here to offer Namaaz. I wanted to pray at a bigger mosque but it’s good. Kismat (fate) brought me here,” he said. He gets into his car, rolls up the windows and asks the driver to run the air conditioner at full blast.

As the fleet of cars pull out, it is time to ask Azima if she told Siddiqui to do something about the road so that marriages can take place. “We should not speak when there are so many men around,” she says and leaves, pulling the curtain fully but leaving the door ajar.

l Madhubani votes on April 30