UP: Police Stops Kabir Janmotsav Celebrations in Banaras, Gives G20 Delegates' Arrival as Excuse
(A screengrab of a video showing the members of the Samiti and other people debating with the police)
A celebratory programme organised by the Kabir Janmotsav Samiti in Nati Imli, Banaras, was marred by the UP police an hour before the programme commenced. The Samiti organised a week-long programme celebrating Sant Kabir's birth anniversary on June 4.
A press release prepared by the Samiti post the abrupt withdrawal of permission from the police to hold the programme read, "After repeatedly approaching the UP Police Commissioner's Office for a cultural evening at Bunkar Colony in Nati Imli since May 24, permission for the program was withdrawn one hour before the event was to begin. We have still not received a written rejection for the event."
The Samiti has been campaigning in various bunkar (weaver) colonies of Banaras under the title 'Tana Bana Kabir ka', the significance being that Kabir himself was a weaver from Banaras. The city has been known for its 'Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb', denoting the syncretic and harmonious cultures of Hindus and Muslims in the city.
"The anniversary of Kabir has been celebrated every year in the city, but has always been restricted to Maths of Kabir in the city," says Faizul Rehman Ansari, a member of the Samiti and also a bunkar.
"This year, many social activists came forward and decided to organise programmes associated with Kabir and the bunkar community at large in the various bastis. We wanted to communicate the ideas and thoughts of Kabir within the community, a lot of which are strongly linked to the culture of Hindu-Muslim unity. We hoped to steer away the hatred among communities and create an atmosphere of brotherhood," he said.
Many of the programmes organised since June 4 were held in bunkar colonies, such as "Nati Imli (June 4), Vishwajyoti Kendra in Varuna Pul (June 6), Amarpur Batlohya (June 7), Bazaar Diha (June 8), Peeli Kothi (June 9) and Bhaisasur Ghat (June 10)," the press release states. It further elucidates how the Kabirpanthis from various states have also joined the celebrations.
"There were many kinds of programmes held across the last few days. It included cultural evenings, sangeet and a natak based on Kabir," said Manish Sharma, convener of the Communist Front and a member of the Samiti.
Communist Front is an organisation working for the rights of the marginalised in the city. It is one of the many organisations that came forward to mould the Samiti to celebrate the much-revered philosopher's anniversary.
(A programme held by the Kabir Janmotsav Samiti)
On Sunday, which was the culmination of the week-long campaign across Banaras, a large crowd had gathered at the tent erected in the Nati Imli maidan. UP police arrived to stop the event and told the organisers that their permission to hold it had been withdrawn.
“Around 2 PM, the area sub-inspector told us our permission had been cancelled. They have given the excuse that G20 delegates have arrived in the city and we cannot allow this programme; we haven't received any written statement,” Ansari said.
Sharma says that the permissions were granted for the events 15 days ago.
“We asked the police that given our permission 15 days ago and the arrival of G20 delegates in the city that had been preplanned perhaps a month ago, why are our events being cancelled? They told us that we had been ordered to halt this function from higher authority, an authority they refused to name,” Sharma said.
The bunkar community is predominantly Muslim, but this is irrelevant for bunkars like Ansari. He speaks on his bunkar identity, which is a legacy of Kabir.
"When one speaks of bunkars or bunkari, it is a broad umbrella term for the weaving artisans. It cannot be reduced to being a community homogeneous to religion or caste. Like the farmer, our social and political identity comes from our occupation. Indeed, bunkars within the city are mostly Muslims, but in the outskirts and rural areas, one can find Hindus who do bunkari,” Ansari said.
During COVID-19, the precarious condition of the bunkars affected by inflation and high electricity rates due removal of subsidies under the present government was further aggravated. There was a sharp decline in the economic situation of the bunkars last year, while the community was stuck in the rut of Hindu-Muslim polarising politics.
“Currently, the community is in bad condition, facing an economic crisis due to the recession in business for the past six months. We wanted to raise such concerns to highlight the plight of bunkars and plan possible solutions to this major crisis with inputs from the civil society and community. In the purview of this bleak situation, to make ends meet, the bunkar artists are forced to migrate to metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Surat,” Ansari said.
It is said that more than 20,000 bunkars have migrated to these cities in the past six months. The wages have gone extremely low due to the ever-increasing inflation rates.
“Despite the community being primarily based in Banaras, our brothers and relatives are forced to leave our community behind for mere sustenance. We planned to arrange a dialogue,” he said.
“What is happening now isn't anything new in artisans' history. You see what happened to the Pital Udyog and Firozabad's traditional bangle workers; their livelihoods were diluted to serve corporate interests. This is an attack on artisans and their art despite being of massive value to India's heritage and tradition worldwide,” Ansari says.
There is a definite effort to make way for corporate companies to take over the business of bunkari.
"The only threat to the modern machinery are the indigenous bunkari artisans who perform bunkari with their own hands,” Ansari said.
Sharma explains that they have a two-way approach, that is, first to vilify the community as Muslim by leading such attacks against their freedom to assemble and disseminate the ideas of Kabir and the association of bunkars with this important figure related to Banaras.
Then it is further used as a veil to cover up the entry of corporate companies into the business.
“They don’t want a discussion on the plight of bunkars; it is an attack on the traditional occupation of bunkari,” Sharma said.
“There have been many policy changes in the last few years. The flat rates on electricity that the bunkars used to get have been removed by the government in 2021 itself.”
Flat rates are devised by the textile ministry so that bunkars pay their electricity bill on the number of powerlooms they have and not per unit. But such relief measures have been put off long ago.
"And now that the community wants to organise against this, the government wants to hinder it,” Sharma said.
He noted that bunkari is under the threat of being tagged as an occupation of Muslims by the BJP.
“The Tana Bana of the art of bunkari is created by many different communities, be it dalits, pasmanda Muslims and Hindus. Even our gatherings in the Janmotsav had great participation from various communities,” Sharma said.
He believes that boxing bunkari into a Muslim identity creates divides in the city through religious hatred, and the government receives support from the people.
“In all this effort, another effort to push this tradition of bunkari to the corporations is hidden,” Sharma said. Thus the real problem that the bunkars face is veiled by creating paranoia about their Muslim identity.
“While the present regime garlands the figures of Sant Kabir, Ravidas, Tukaram, Basavanna and other Bhakti-Sufi saints, today's incident shows that it is afraid of discussing the teachings of these poets and saints of India. When various sections across the city celebrate Kabir Jayanti, why cannot bunkars who draw their ancestry from Kabir celebrate the same?” the press release asks.
The Samiti is preparing to challenge the abrupt withdrawal of their permission to hold the programme legally.
“The Samiti has a broader perspective. While we won’t let the authorities get away with such injustice, the campaign to bring Kabir’s essence and thought to the masses will continue. Tomorrow we will hold a meeting regarding further plans and activities,” Sharma said.
The writers are independent journalists. All views are personal.
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