On 25 April, Surendra Sahni was among a few Mallah boatmen—the Mallahs form part of the Nishad community—plying their boats on the Kuon river of Uttar Pradesh, ferrying their vegetable produce to Gorakhpur, the chief minister Adityanath’s home district. At around noon, police personnel arrived at the far bank, on the Gorakhpur side. Sahni said, “The police called us to the shore. When they called, one of the boys on the shore got scared and started running. The police began abusing him. When I reached the shore with my boat, I asked them what happened, but they didn’t say anything.” The policemen returned half an hour later, with JCB machines, “and took eight of our boats,” Sahni said.
Some of the boats were damaged while the police confiscated them, Sahni added. “They took the boats to Sikriganj police station, in Gorakhpur. My village is in Baswari, in Sant Kabir Nagar district,” he added. The Kuon river is flanked by two districts—Sant Kabir Nagar on one, and Gorakhpur on the other. Since the lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus began, the Nishad community, traditionally associated with fishing and other work centred on rivers, has been struggling to earn a living.
I spoke to Jata Shankar, the station house officer of the Sikriganj police station. He said that the border of the Sant Kabir Nagar district had been sealed after one case of the coronavirus disease emerged there. “These people were ferrying people from one side to the other. We warned them, but they did not agree,” Shankar said. He added that there was no ban on selling vegetables. “They can sell vegetables but they cannot take people across the river,” he said. He claimed that the police had returned some of the boats, and would soon summon the owners of the remaining boats and return those as well.
Sahni’s version differed significantly from the police. He said that the Mallah boatment were only trying to sell vegetables to earn money during the lockdown, and that they could not do so without crossing the river. “Here, every Mallah cultivates about fifty bighas of land around the river, growing small vegetables, which we sell in the Sikriganj market across the river,” Sahni said. “Now, the boats are broken and it will cost us many thousands of rupees to repair it. How will we get this money at this time?” I contacted Praveen Nishad, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who is the member of parliament from the Sant Kabir Nagar constituency, to ask about the crackdown on the Mallah boatmen. His father, Sanjay Nishad, founded the Nishad party in 2016, which later aligned with the BJP. Praveen did not respond to my calls.
“Nishad,” a caste group listed under Other Backward Classes in Uttar Pradesh, is also used as an umbrella term for a larger community comprising many castes and subcastes, such as the Mallahs, Binds, Manjhis, Kewats, Kashyaps, Turhas, Majhwas, and Bathams, among others. Largely classified as OBC, these communities are all engaged primarily in fishing and boating, as well as growing vegetable and fruit crop along the river banks. In addition to this work, rural Uttar Pradesh’s Nishad community is engaged in daily-wage labour such as sand mining and manual work, with many migrating to large cities such as Mumbai and Delhi for work. In the state’s urban areas, Nishads are often engaged with the religious tourism and boating industries—Prayagraj and Varanasi, for instance, where water bodies are essential to the city’s economy, are primary centres of work for them.