The Abdul Hamid Bridge, named after the 1965 war’s Param Vir Chakra awardee, transports people beyond the Ganga and towards Gahmar. If the vast expanse of the river makes for a tranquil sight, the bumpy ride that follows after the bridge is crossed returns attention to the infrastructural poverty that defines Purvanchal.
With an estimated 30,000 residents (according to the 2011 Census, its population was 25,994), Gahmar is perhaps the largest village in the country. But its mammoth size is overshadowed by another trait: the village’s long connection with the armed forces. Nearly every home in this village, located less than a kilometre off the Ganga along the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border, has members who have served or are serving in the Army.
By the village’s own estimates, around 15,000 residents are serving in the armed forces, police and navy, while around 12,000 are retired personnel, many having participated in the wars with China and Pakistan. As we head towards the village square, a group of men, young and old, are resting under a peepal tree. The office of the Bhootpurv Sainik Seva Samiti, which helps youth connect with the Army, is located behind them.
The older ones are playing cards, while the young men are enjoying the shade. Among them is Babloo Singh, 28, who has been in the Army since he was 20. He is back home on vacation. Babloo’s grandfather served in the Army and fought in the Second World War. Following the established tradition, his father too served in the forces.
The village’s connection with the armed forces goes back to the British rule. A white stone plaque outside the Gahmar police station testifies to this. “From this village, 228 men went to the Great War 1914-1919. Of these, 21 gave up their lives,” it reads.
Desire to serve nation
While a ‘tradition’ of sending men to the Army, and a desire to serve the nation has over the years inspired youth to enlist, a prime reason today also appears to be the lack of employment avenues in the region. Gahmar has no industries in its vicinity and is poorly connected.
The Army provides youth here an opportunity to live a stable though perilous life. Even then, the competition is tough and the benchmark high. Sudhir Singh completed his B.Com a few years ago but he is still unemployed. After failing the Short Service Commission (SSC) interview, he is now searching for an alternate job. Each morning, Amit Singh joins scores of young men at the Mathiya ground on the banks of the Ganga for physical training. The makeshift training ground has old-style free weights, pull-up bars, dip bars, benches, and a 400-metre running track. Tips from the old guard help the youth, most of them barefoot, to train skilfully. Most of the young men start training the moment they reach Class 10. The Bulaki Das Baba temple here is said to inspire them.
Gahmar battles infrastructural shortcomings. It does not have proper medical facilities — doctors are hardly present at the lone primary healthcare centre. The irrigation system is also poor as the two canals in the village are often deprived of water. On the other hand, each year, floods create havoc, causing damage to property. But the village’s biggest bane seems to be its bad roads and connectivity. Villagers prefer to travel all the way to Buxar in Bihar to purchase essential items, as the road to Ghazipur, the district headquarters, is in a poor condition. A few days ago, angry locals set a truck on fire and staged a ‘chakka jam’ (road blockade) after the vehicle allegedly rolled over a few people, leaving one dead.
“The biggest crisis arises when pregnant women need to be transported to the hospital urgently. We dread travelling,” says Vinay Singh, who has made several unsuccessful attempts at securing an army job.
Given its size, Gahmar is also politically important and has the potential to impact electoral results. If PM Narendra Modi mentioned the village in his speech last year immediately after the surgical strikes, and BJP president Amit Shah is expected to hold a rally here for the last phase. Retd General V.K Singh has already held a meeting here.
The village falls under the Zamania Assembly seat in Ghazipur, currently held by veteran Samajwadi Party (SP) leader and former minister Om Prakash Singh. The BJP’s candidate, Sunita Singh, hails from Gahmar and the village appears to be strongly backing her, especially the dominant Thakurs, who are from her caste.
If the SP MLA, incidentally also a Thakur, was criticised for failing to build a new canal and constructing new roads as promised, Mr. Modi and the Minister of State for Railways, Manoj Singh, who hails from Ghazipur, are praised for launching a new railway bridge and a locomotive engine factory.