About 90 kilometers drive from Varanasi – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency in north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh – takes you to the country’s largest village.
Gahmar is home for 4,500 families who share a 12 square kilometer area. But that is not its only claim to fame. The village in Ghazipur district, on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states, prides itself as the “home of the soldiers”.
“Every second household in Gahmar has a military connect. Some have as many as six members serving the nation in over three generations,” Sriniwas Upadhyay, a retired junior officer or Subedar told Asia Times.
Upadhyay was a former mining specialist for the Army who was part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 by the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to help the island nation, which was then embroiled in a civil war.
Locals claim that over 5,000 men from Gahmar currently served in the military and paramilitary forces. The village also has an equal number of retired soldiers.
Curiously, the village was upgraded to the status of a town in 1987 but the decision was revoked within two years, following stiff opposition by residents, who were hit with hefty taxes when visiting their own farms across the Ganga [Ganges River], Vimlesh Singh, an ex-serviceman, said.
The village also has a curious culture. Gram Pradhan or village council representative for Gahmar and the MLA are both women. Indeed, most households are headed by women who nurture their sons and grandsons for the army.
Pratima Singh, the wife of Rajput Regiment soldier Ashish Kumar Singh, said: “The marriage prospects of a groom improve greatly if he serves in the armed forces. Any partners have to wait.”
World War 1 connection
Part of this began during the first World War when men from the village fought in allegiance with the British Army.
A plaque erected near a high school in the village says: “From this village 228 men went to the Great War 1914-19. Of these, 21 gave up their lives.”
“This was the first and last time when soldiers of this village were killed in war,” Subedar Major (Retired) Markandey Singh, president of the former Army men’s Welfare Society.
Since then, Gahmar has gone ahead by leaps and bounds under the patronage of army men. Money sent back home by soldiers accounts for a major share of the village economy.
Gahmar and Ghazipur are located in the Purvanchal, the poor eastern end of Uttar Pradesh and western end of Bihar State. Yet, almost every house in Gahmar is a ‘pucca’ (concrete) construction and this has been possible because there are some many servicemen who send money.
Gahmar village’s concrete roads, its railway and police station, along with branches of the three national banks with ATM machines are noticed by every visitor.
The village also boasts a higher literacy rate and sex ratio (more females), compared to the rest of Uttar Pradesh. In 2011, Gahmar’s literacy rate topped 76% compared to nearly 68% in Uttar Pradesh. Also the sex ratio in the village was 945 (females for every 1,000 males), higher than the state average of 912.
For a village where the majority of men serve in the army, proper training cannot be overlooked. Even before the sun rises, a platoon of 12 to 20-year-olds can be seen running at the 400-meter track alongside the river Ganga. That is followed by rigorous physical training with old-style free weights, pull-up bars, dip bars and benches.
“This ensures high endurance needed to clear physical tests, a vital component of the military recruitment camps,” trainer Balwant Singh, who is 75, says. Army veterans also help youths with limited resources to train.
Ambitious students like 12-year-old Dilshad Ahmad and Meraj Hashmi dream of joining the force and serving the nation. “We wish to join the Indian Airforce, which is possible with a high ranking in the entrance exam for the National Defence Academy.”
But the village lacks a proper training center.
Love Kumar Singh, 28, a soldier with the Border Security Forces, said: “If we get an army school, more youths will be able to serve the nation.”
To fill in gaps, private coaching institutes have sprung up. Some boys even migrate to neighboring cities for better guidance.
Few jobs aside from the military
While the desire to serve the nation has inspired youths in Gahmar for years, the lack of other employment prospects in the region leaves them few other options.
Gahmar is poorly connected and has no industrial development in its vicinity. The Army gives young men the chance of a decent life but not everyone is able to pass the exams.
Locals say that youths struggle to get an alternate job here and many have to move elsewhere to find work.
People in Gahmar aren’t well served by infrastructure. There is just a primary healthcare center, so villagers have to go to Bhadaura, another village 5 kilometers away for secondary care. And the nearest source of tertiary healthcare is in Varanasi, which is 90 kilometers away.
Parikshit Singh, husband of Sunita Singh, the MP for Zamania town in Ghazipur, said: “Gahmar Public Healthcare needs to be upgraded to a Community Health Centre.”
The first school in the village was set up in 1928. But today the kids still have to sit on the ground. “The purchase of furniture is stuck in red-tape,” school principal Vivek Singh said.
“Many villages in Ghazipur, including Dhamupur from where late Abdul Hamid, the Paramvir Chakra Awardee who laid down his life in the 1962 China war, have sent a lot of men to the armed forces. It would be great if the city gets an Army school to help children prepare for forces,” the District Magistrate Balaji said.
“Ghazipur is largely agriculture-based and industrial development is the need of the hour,” he said. “Hopefully, completion of four-lane highway and six-lane expressway will open the door for opportunities.”
As India’s largest village and near the prime minister’s constituency, Gahmar village is also politically important. Modi mentioned the village in a speech at Ghazipur after militant strikes in 2016, highlighting the area’s lack of development.
With a state election due in Uttar Pradesh at that time, this was followed by rallies led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah and retired Army chief and Union Minister of State VK Singh.
The BJP went on to win the elections in the state, with Ajay Singh Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, later announced as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.