David versus Goliath in Benares

[ Express Tribune, 7 Apr 2014 ; Kashmir Times, 8 Apr 2014 ; Daily Peoples Times, 8 Apr 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 21 Apr 2014; Millenium Post, 22 Apr 2014]

As the Congress(I) looks sure to reap what it sowed, the possibilities for the Bharatiya Janata Party looked exceedingly certain in almost a walk-over game. It was just a few months ago when there was an air of everything having been settled. A corruption-ridden second term government of the Indira Congress was looking increasingly out of touch with people’s issues and aspirations. And a ‘saviour’ has descended from Gujarat –a ‘saviour’ whose public image was curated by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s slick PR machine to appear in stark contrast with the Nehru-Gandhi scion. It was but a matter of time. It still is a matter of time. Much is still quite settled. But the air has cleared a bit and faces of the demi-gods don’t appear as divine anymore. The man from Gujarat still stands tall and is way ahead in the battle. However, political currents in the last few months have ensured that at the end, the winner of the battle can claim political power, legislative power, administrative power, even the power to subvert habeas corpus and other things sacred to human dignity but it cannot claim ethical and moral power with full-throated confidence. The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party has ensured that.

Touted initially as a ‘electronic media creation’ that would vanish as soon as the cameras turned elsewhere, the Aam Aadmi Party has continued to punch way above it popular weight even after much of corporate media turned hostile overnight over the party’s decision to deny the Walmarts and Tescos of the world to set up shop in Delhi. This party, which cannot claim numerical parity with either of the 2 behemoths of the political scene of the Indian Union, has been able to go strength to strength with these two in the game of political agenda-setting. This is partly due to the base it has been able to create for itself in crucial urban sectors of Hindi-Hindustan (and not in many urban centres of the Indian Union). Anything in Hindi-Hindustan is able to claim top slot in the ‘national’ agenda – such is the nature of politics in this republic. But that is not all. The Aam Aadmi Party has been able to edge past its rivals in the universe of political morals and ethics by disclosing the hitherto undisclosable donor lists to party funds, naming the hitherto unnamable individuals and families who hold the political system in an unholy grip, forcing others to respond, retaliate, ignore and thus expose themselves. The subcontinent has a special place for this sort of thing, even if ethical giants were really acting all the way. Even if silenced by fear or state violence, people in the subcontinent have shown that they have respect for those who speak truth to power. Which is precisely why other agendas for respect garnering have to be generated – ‘strong’ leadership, teaching ‘them’ a lesson and content-less slogans of the ‘India first’ type. Such respect-generation is coupled with hope-production by false promises for job-creation and material prosperity that will be ushered in by the same corporates who help fund advertisements of the ‘strongman’ in widely circulated dailies, TV channels, cell phones and websites.

Arvind Kejriwal, ex-Chief Minister of Delhi and the public face of the Aam Aadmi Party, will be challenging Narendrabhai Modi, the chief-minister of Gujarat and prime-ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in Benares in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This holy city, which is also the site of the controversial mosque that Aurangzeb Alamgir built after destroying the erstwhile Vishwanath temple, is all set for a David verses Goliath battle. And Goliath will win. When Arvind Kejriwal entered Benares for his inaugural political rally, he was pelted with rotten eggs and black ink was thrown on him. The kickback that is given by the saviour’s favourite banias in exchange of mining rights, ports, agricultural lands, tax breaks, mega-subsidies and natural resources finds it way into the petrol of the campaign helicopter, the liquor consumed by the black-ink and egg throwers, the danda that holds the jhanda. Kejriwal is astute enough to know that focus on Benares will garner publicity helping people know about the political agenda of a credible opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party, especially when the Indira Congress is in retreat. An atheist turned believer, he can publicly pull off a call upon non-sectarian divine powers to intervene on the side of the ‘aam aadmi’. Call them publicity stunts, call them what you will but the egg and ink smeared Kejriwal has ensured that in spite of a ‘chhappan inch’ chest, immaculately clean dresses and ‘Har Har’ chants, the winner this time cannot rise above the fray. The owner of the 56-inch chest will invariably see his height diminished when the duel with Kejriwal progresses, when he reacts to the Aam Aadmi challenge. The ironman may stand tall but his rusty core will not be hidden either. That is serious political currency for the Aam Aadmi Party, which really is preparing for the election after this one.

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Looking for colours beyond Holi / Are there colours that Holi suppresses?

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Mar 2014 ]

There is a high possibility that some of the readers of this column still have colour-stains on their faces and bodies from the festival of colours. Monday, March 17, was Holi. All parts of the Indian Union had a riot with colours – one would have been led to believe. The multi-colour motif of Holi comes in handy as a living manifestation of the much-touted ‘unity in diversity’ trademark of this nation-state. People sprinkled colours on each other. Unsuspecting people who were out and about wearing normal dress regretted that they did so. A lot of bhang-laden Thandai was drunk. A lot of women were taken advantage of. Some desi and many firangi photographers were shooting away to capture the colourful ‘soul of India’ that was on public display on its streets and on private display in the farmhouses of the powerful. That was the day. Or was it?

Sunday, March 16, was Dol-Jatra for tens of millions of inhabitants of Odisha, Assam and Bengal, and yes that too was a riot of colours. ‘Dol’ means a swing and Jatra means journey. Of course, Lord Krishna and Radha are the ones of the swing and the devotees take them around. Phakuwa happened in Assam around the same time. All this is accompanied with much merriment with colours. There is no thandai involved. Not all ‘festivals of colour’ are the same. When someone says, Dol Jatra is Bengal’s version of Holi, it does not sound objectionable. However, if I say, Holi is Delhi’s or Uttar Pradesh’s version of Dol Jatra, it sounds odd. At that, some will say, I am being ‘parochial’. I will be advised not to mix-up up the mainstream with the variant, the standard language with the marginal dialect. I will be shown my place. I will be forced to play along in the ‘national’ festival of colours. Some will say, how does the name matter – it’s a fun occasion after all. It is easy for people to ‘look past’ variations, when the hierarchy of variations favours their cultural world. Others ‘look past’ to be accepted by the ‘mainstream’.

The problem with this idea of a cultural ‘mainstream’ with ‘regional’ variants is that it is a sophisticated name for good old crude majoritarianism. So much for the half-hearted paeans to ‘unity in diversity’. If you thought that the state does not endorse one view over another, think again. In West Bengal, the governor notified that the day after Dol Jatra will also be a holiday in all offices under the Government of West Bengal. In the Central governments list of holidays, there is only mention of Holika Dahan. There is no mention of the name Dol Jatra. The deep ideology of a state is given by these ‘innocuous’ choices, of font-size variations of different languages in Gandhi-chhap currency notes, the automatic language of CRPF or BSF irrespective of their posting in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu and many other instances. Look for such signs. They are everywhere.

There are soft-exports too. The marriage-associated events from the Punjab and the Hindi-heartland are now increasingly part of marriage ceremonies of Bengalis and Kannadigas. The most sublime form of this cultural hierarchy is seen is diasporic communities whose marriages invariably have ‘Sangeet’ and the colour festival is always called ‘Holi’. They are nothing but Indians. The next group who embody this sublime ideology are the upwardly mobile, well-off yuppies who have voluntarily moved to subcontinental cities located outside the province they were born in. Such ethno-cultural flattening does no service to the Hindi-heartland where many cultures are in a state of decay, thanks to metro-centrism Hindianism.

Whose ‘local’ becomes ‘national’ and whose ‘local’ disappears when ideas like ‘all India’ and ‘mainstream’ are evoked? Why is the direction of traffic in this supposedly two-way street so predictable? When was the last time a Tamil marriage/religious/cultural custom went ‘mainstream’ and was picked up in Delhi? Why does the leading contender for prime-ministership focus most in areas where Holi is the uncontested name for the festival of colours. Whether that kind of politics expands the palette in this diverse subcontinent is a different matter.


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The Aam Aadmi phenomenon

[ Millenium Post, 9 Mar 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 11 Mar 2014 ; Daily Peoples Time, 12 Mar 2014 ]

While the big winner of the forthcoming general elections of the Indian Union may be the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will have achieved something grander – a shift in the political discourse around people’s everyday issues. With Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal taking the fight against the ‘Gujarat model’ straight to the Aam Gujaratis, the party has raised the stakes in what is now clearly a very dangerous game. The AAP may or may not be successful in stemming the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in urban areas of the North and the West of the Indian Union. But in taking the fight against Modi to the Hindu-Chhote-Sardar’s hometurf, he has managed to do what the party of babalogs and dole-funded Delhi-based ‘secular’ talk shops have never been able to do. Perhaps it is conviction, perhaps it is spontaneity, perhaps it is calculation and most probably it is all of the above and much more. But the AAP has made the BJP nervous and it is showing. The way it also has clashed with the AAP in Delhi and attacked them elsewhere shows that they care deeply. The established political class fears one thing more than the present AAP organization – its potential contagion effect. Politics of the poor and the deprived thrives on hope. AAP peddles that as if on steroids. Hence a politics centred on the issues of the excluded majority always has an ‘escape velocity’ potential under those who are both clever and honest. And there are many of them in the subcontinent. This is the thrust that AAP potentially represents for many and those whose reliance on Reliance is crucial for their business do not under-estimate the AAP’s potential threat.

President’s rule over any territory in the Indian Union is always an useful opportunity to study the deep consensus that exists underneath the apparently partisan bickering that is staged for public consumption and political career advancement. During such rules, the police and the administration work according to the ‘common minimum programme’ that is common to the major factions of the subcontinental ruling class. Thanks to sanitized civics books that are designed to instill state-friendly common-sense among common-folk, some people living in urban middle class bubbles might mistakenly think that this ‘common minimum programme’ is the constitution itself. The power of the deep state is seen not in how effectively it rules by its constitution, but how selective can it be in upholding the ‘rule of law’. That which can make exceptions is the true sovereign in this land – it is not the people, it is not the state, it is the deep state. Which is why a Delhi Police, apparently not under any partisan control states that 13 AAP activists and 10 BJP supporters were injured in clashes in Delhi, and decides to detain AAP supporters. In detaining the AAP supporters, the Delhi Police was upholding the rule of law. In not detaining the people who injured the 13 AAP activists, it was upholding the rule of a deeper law, that one which is not the constitution, but the one that decides when the constitution is to be invoked at convenience. The lady of justice in this latter more powerful rule of law is not blind. She sees everything but has blindspots that conveniently guard those who are committed to the preservation of the deep state. The alacrity with which the Election commission takes notice of AAP’s violations is less astonishing than the speed with which corporate media houses are rushing to report these notices as headlines and ‘breaking news’. Equally astonishing is Arvind Kejriwal’s unconditional apology on AAP Delhi’s militant protest and his stern cell to stop all such protests. No such call from those who injured the 13 AAP activists and have been periodically attacking AAP offices elsewhere. These are exceptional times.

The AAP by its evolution has not been effectively contained by the deep-state. It surely wants to make it one of these others – whose periodic musical chair games makes sure it does not matter who loses, but the Delhi-Mumbai based elite illuminati and their retinue of policy wonks, security apparatchiks, immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, bureaucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, childhood friends, civil society wallahs, media-wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and pimps always wins. There is a tiny bit of possibility that the AAP may not be easily incorportable in this way of life. Since this way of life and loot is not negotiable, the AAP is an headache, small now, but potentially a recurrent migraine. Big corporates, including foreign corporates, and Delhi-Mumbai elute interests would ideally want to coopt AAP into their model of business-as-usual. The AAP is not totally immune to this threat from the grand-daddies of vested interests of the subcontinent. Even the powerful want to sleep in peace.

It is in parts of its line-up that one sees a possibility that such co-option, even if it is being tried at this moment, will not be a cakewalk. While many suspiciously looks at AAP as a motley crowd of over-ambitious jholawalas, the reality that the party is pitching a big tent in which there are a spectrum of forces and interests jostling for space and do represent a curious collection. These include victims of police brutalities to RTI activists to single-generation knowledge-industry millionaires to veterans of people’s struggles to aam aadmi, who are actually very khaas in being veterans of quotidian aam existence but distinguish themselves by their outspokenness and conviction in the AAP experiment. The AAP Lok Sabha candidate list includes Medha Patkar, the grand dame of non-party people’s movements, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, honest to the core and deeply committed to issues of the poor and the marginalized. And incorruptible. Dayamani Barla, the indefatigable fighter from Jharkhand who led the movement for preservation of the adivasi forest rights against the mining giant Arcelor-Mittal, had joined AAP and might contest too. SP Udayakumar of the Koodankulam anti-nuclear movement has joined. In all their ‘anti’-ness, they collectively represent a humane approach to politics that has been altogether missing for a long time in the electoral arena. The people’s right to knowledge and governmental transparency has bloomed many RTI activists, many of whom have joined AAP. Among them, Raja Muzaffar Bhat is their candidate from Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. In the subcontinent, forgotten atrocities form the underbelly of this apparently calm land. This is the land of 1984, Delhi and Bhopal. HS Phoolka, the tireless warrior for 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims’ justice is an AAP candidate. So is Rachna Dhingra, a person who gave up a luxurious life in the USA to start working among the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and fights for their rights to this date, living in Bhopal. Today the parliament has more supporters of Dow Chemicals/Union Carbide in its power corridors than those who want justice for the Bhopal gas victims. AAP represents a threat to this state of affairs. The list of illustrious people in the AAP candidate list goes on – Mukul Tripathi, Jiyalal, Lingraj, Baba Hardev Singh, Sarah Joseph. Typically the state has co-opted such people by felicitations, with politicians standing beside them to be seen as patrons of such people. Just as they patronize goons. Different charades for different stages. It has attracted a fairly impressive set of tycoons and technocrats to its fold, especially those who fit the bill of being ‘self-made’ single generation millionaires. This class is averse to dynasticism and might have a certain kind of idealism that makes them resonate with AAP’s staunch anti-dynastic stance. If one suspends cynicism at some risk, one cannot also discount that some of them may be looking for redemption, at some point of their careers. Everyone wants redemption, at some level. Some of these types used to flock to the BJP before that ‘party with a difference’ simply introduced different dynasties, big and small. They also perceive themselves as non-receivers of the special favours from the political establishment, which makes them stand for clean and ‘fair’ business practises as opposed to crony capitalism and outright loot of state resources. There are civil society activists, academics, grassroots workers and quite a few aam aadmis and aurats. There is however a serious concern that its candidate list does not reflect the caste demographics of the land. While numerical representativeness is not enough, it is a start. A move away from that to faces more often than not from urban and higher caste backgrounds is a point of concern. Many from the left have pilloried the AAP for not coming clean on structural issues. If any group is most seriously concerned about AAP, it is the left of all hues, as the AAP seems to have struck an emotive cord with the people around pet issues that the left-wingers thought was their home ground. The AAP is clearly pushing the envelope on common people’s issues and that is broadly reflected in its choice of candidates. The AAP has learned from the past that small, localized movements, however spirited and however much they enjoy people’s support, ultimately suffer from a problem of failing to be scaled up to a size that matters, in an electoral and hence legislative sense. Part of the AAP leadership clearly wants to wed the politics of people’s movements to a pragmatic large-scale alternative that cannot be wished away. They have partially succeeded. The AAP is also limited by its perception of being a North-India party, with the name itself being distinctly Hindustani. A comprehensive commitment to making the Union into a truly federal one, which also is in line with the party’s focus on decentralization, should go a long way in clearing some air on that front.

At one level, AAP is like Gandhi’s Swaraj or Jinnah’s Pakistan. In the imagination of the people, it is whatever one thinks it to be, the harbinger of good rule. But what is good for one sector of the population may not be so for other sectors. It cannot be all things to all people at the same time. The long-range future of AAP, if it at all has one, will depend on which of these collective fantasies it will ally itself most closely to. Given its big tent character, there will be tussles and splits for sure. And that is not necessarily bad.

Like any populist political formation, the AAP has a demagoguish potential. The only real insurance against that is democratic control of a political formation. Similarly a state that runs rogue can only be restrained by democratic control. Some of AAP’s Lok Sabha candidates have been at the receiving end of the some of the most brutal acts by rogue state. The politics of changing the nature of politics is a means to changing the nature of the state – initially to convert a rogue state into a state having some rogue sections. This is no easy job as rogueness is not simply a character fault. It comes with wielding unaccountable and undemocratic power at any level. Unaccountable power that is beyond democratic control is the mother of all corruptions. One does not need to abuse this power. It is abusive to the people by its very existence. Many faces of the present AAP Lok Sabha line up understand that only too well. But they are not alone in understanding that. Those in power, including those who were victims of extraordinary abuse during the Panditain’s emergency regime are also aware of this. Awareness of abuse is not enough. Conviction is equally important. There is a difference between pimps and anti-trafficking activists. Both are ‘aware’ of the abuse. One thrives because of abuse, the other wants to end it. One can transform into the other – as the trajectories of many of those from the JP movement shows. Any political formation that wants claims to be difference in this age has to ponder deeply what is it beyond ‘personal honesty’ that will sustain politics, what is it beyond leadership that will sustain such politics. After all, the Patna University Student Union leader who later went to jail for the fodder scam was the same man who the Indira Congress locked up during the emergency. The AAP’s fielding of a few good men and women can be a start but not a long-range solution. If times can change people, what is it that will ensure that gains from one time idealism are not wasted. The AAP has pointed to greater and greater democratic control of political institutions at all levels, with an eye towards decentralization. If it is serious about this democratic decentralization, which in the political scene translates into a call for true federalism in the Indian Union and greater non-alienable powers to the bottom of the pyramid, then it may be onto something. Even if the AAP experiment fails, if it is successful in making democratic decentralization a key issue, just like it has done successfully with corruption, it would have made a greatly positive contribution to this Union.

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Lit fests and not so well-lit fests / Not so organic fests

[ Down to Earth, 15-28 Feb 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 5 Apr 2014 ]

My home in Kolkata happens to be very near Kalighat. This is one of the holy Shaktipeeths (centres of divine power) that are spread across the subcontinent where different body parts of Lord Shib’s wife Mother Sati fell. For Bengali Shaktos, the Shaktipeeths, especially those in Bengal and Assam are of immense divine importance. At Kalighat, the reigning goddess is Mother Kali. In my life, I can rarely remember an auspicious occasion where a trip to Mother Kali of Kalighat was not undertaken. Kali, the dark mother holds immense sway over her mortal children.

As I grew up, I have often roamed about in the by-lanes around the temple. The temple lies on the bank of the Adi Ganga, at one time the principal flow channel of the Ganga and now a near-dead, rotting creek. This area with river-bank, shops, inhabitants, ganja-sellers and smaller temples has pulled me towards it time and again. Some of the smaller temples right on the river-bank belonged to goddesses whose names I did not know. In the pantheon of caste-Hindu Bengalis like me, there was an assumed mainstream where Mother Kali and Mother Durga had very important places. It was only by chance that I went to Kalighat once on a weekday afternoon on a chance school holiday due to rains. I was quite taken aback by the huge crowd, a few thousands strong, that had gathered around the temple. But to my astonishment, they were not there for the main temple of Mother Kali but for a very small temple of Mother Bogola. The people had a very intricate set of offerings that looked quite different from what I was used to seeing. And everyone there knew this occasion and at that moment, I was the fool in town, with my pantheon suddenly seeming irrelevant. Due to my very limited immersion in what we call in Bengali as gono-samaj (mass society can be a poor translation of the concept), a divine set had been built in my head that had entirely bypassed what was so near and what was always there. The blindness and illiteracy due to my social locus and ideologies that come with it was very badly exposed. Social alienation creates culturally illiterate beings.

Thankfully, the festivals of Southern West Bengal (where my home is broadly located) gave me many opportunities of unlearning and literacy. And they are not too hard to come by unless one is of the kind whose worlds are not defined by the physical-ecological-social reality they live in but the fantasy worlds they can afford to inhabit. I started attending the mela of Dharma Thakur, whose few sacred sites spread over the two Bengals, and have a distinct character in the kind of rice product that is offered (called hurrum) among other things. There is the 500-year old fish-fair held near the akhara of the seer Raghunath Das Goswami at Debanandapur in my ancestral district of Hooghly. The many Charaker melas that I have been too have been so enriching in its cultural produce that one wishes to be a sponge. The Gajaner mela in Tarakeswar, again in Hooghly district, goes on for 5 days and the cultural action is frenzied. The number of ‘parallel sessions’ (if one were to call the things going on there) is probably more than a thousand and there are no websites to print out the schedule. And that does not matter. The Ganga Sagar Mela is different every time. This mela, the second-largest in the Indian Union, is literally and allegorically an immersion experience. The experience is different in different times of the day, on different days of the mela and in different years. The festival around Salui Puja (worshipping the Sal tree) in Medinipur has tremendous footfall. Further west, in the adibashi areas, I once attended the Chhata Parab on Bhadra Sankranti day. In Malda, the week-long Ramkeli festival is a cultural cauldron that overflows during the summer month of Jaistha. The 2 big Ms associated with this fair is music of the Gaur-Vaishnavite tradition and mangoes that are harvested around this time. While stalls selling wares are an integral part of these festivals, each festival is different in its different parts and substantially different from each other. It is sad that I have to underline this point but I say this remembering my one-time know-all attitude towards these festivals before I had even attended them. What culture can a bunch of brown people produce left to their own devices? To know that, one has to have some humility in admitting cultural illiteracy and suspend ideas of supposed superiority of textual literacy, White man knowledge systems and the artifacts they produce. This unlearning can be harsh, especially when whole self-identities are built around wallowing on these artifacts. But there are too many brown people making too many things for too many centuries to take imported ideas of superiority seriously. One can live without being exposed to this reality and that wont cause any peril. The urbanites of the subcontinent have created a wondrous system by which they can eat rice but not know the rice-type or the growing area, get a house built but not know where the masons live. But of course they know where Indian wines are grown and the life-events of authors they have read, and other details of the lives of sundry characters of their fantasy world. The mindscape of the ‘enlightened’ can be more enlightening to the rest of us than they would want to it be.

The point of mentioning these festivals is not to create a mini catalogue but mention certain characteristics. Most of these festivals have a deep connection with the local ecology – cultural and natural. These are not American Burning Man type of fossil-fuel powered ‘creative’ fantasies (I have always failed to understand what is ‘creative’ about pursuits that require high fossil fuel burning or require pollution intensive factory made accessories). They don’t say ‘free entry’; that I mention that at all is absurd in their context. They don’t ‘say’ anything at all. They happen. They are organic, as opposed to the ‘festivals’ that are primarily thronged by the ‘fashionable’, the ‘articulate’, the ‘backpacker’, the ‘explorer’ and other curious species of the top 5% earning class of the subcontinent. Most of these festivals don’t have the kind of portable artifact quality that is so popular with the rootless, possibly best exemplified both by the Great India Mall and its location (the ‘Sector’ ‘city’ called NOIDA created by destroying many villages like Chhajarsi and Hazipur, now known by more fashionable and presentable names like Sector 63 and Sector 104). Most of them are not part of the ‘Incredible India!’ imagination and hence are largely devoid of white and brown people with cameras. Such a shabby state of affairs, however, has not prevented some of these festivals to go on for centuries, without sponsorship from ill-gotten-big-money supporters.

It was sometime in high school that I started noticing newspaper headlines such as ‘Kolkata’s young heads to the clubs’ (clubs being dancing places with rhythmic music). Many more young people regularly headed (and still do) to the East Bengal club or Mohan Bagan club grounds for football matches. But this was a different club. The idea was to create a fantasy and a false sense of feeling left out, of being in a minority, on not being ‘in’. For the already socially alienated, this pull can be magnetic – particularly because these come without pre-conditions of prior social immersion. If at all, certain kinds of fantasies and ‘enlightenments’ celebrate delinking from one’s immediate social milieu and replacing that with fantasy milieus, typically with White people’s hobbies. If the products of such indoctrination happen to arrive at the Muri Mela of Bankura (a festival where hundreds of varieties of ‘muri’ or puffed rice is produced, exhibited and sold), all they might see is more of the same. However, they do aspire to tell the difference between different red wines. Anything that requires being socially embedded in a largely non-textual cultural milieu (hence Wikipedia doesn’t come in handy), they are like fish out of water, gasping for the cultural familiarity of over-priced chain coffee stores.

It is the season of a new type of festival. Like an epidemic, big-money ‘lit’ fests have spread all over the subcontinent. The sudden-ness of the epidemic reminds me of the time when suddenly, year after year, brown women started winning ‘international’ beauty pageants. That ’arrival’ was meant to signify that browns are beautiful. The present trend probably is meant to convey that now there are enough number of moneyed browns spread all over who can nod knowingly hearing English. ‘Half of Jaipur is here at Google Mughal Tent’ – read a tweet from one of the fests. This tone sounded familiar to that time when I read that youth of my city headed to the clubs, but saw that no one around me did. May be I just belonged to an odd social sector, or may be they never counted me. But I am quite privileged otherwise. I never ever saw a headline saying youth of India head to Ganga Sagar mela on Makar Sankranti. At any rate, it is a greater statistical truth than saying youth of such and such city head to such and such ‘lit’ fest. This non-counting of many and over-counting of some is a predictable and sinister game that is played by the urbanbubbleophiles over and over again till it actually starts sounding true. The believers in such a worldview fear real numbers – the ‘odd’, the stubborn, the smelly. They would much rather ‘weigh’ according to their ‘subjectivities’. The sizeable ‘hip’ throngs within their tents are never ‘masses’; they are assemblages of aficionados. They have individual minds. They can think. They are human. The rest are better kept out until some floor mopping is required.

When real estate dacoits, construction mafias and mining goondas come together for a ‘cause’, one can well imagine the effect. The well lit fests provides a good opportunity for branding and white-washing crimes. Taking prizes from greasy hands, some authors are only too happy to oblige in that project. There they are, on the newspaper –smiling. They write ‘sensitively’, argue ‘provocatively’, and entertain ‘charmingly’. Ill-gotten prize money from the infrastructure mafia can supply powerful batteries for their headlights as they reach into the dark inner recesses of the human condition through their words. All this boils down to a few days of litting, ‘Think’ing, festing and other things that may get you in jail when done to people who have dignity and the courage to speak up.

The need to distinguish oneself from others can be rather acute in certain sectors of the subcontinental bubble urbania. What distinguishes one from the others whose ‘purposeful’ lives are peppered by sampling cultures whose social roots they are alienated from, long drives, coffee-chain hangouts, mall meetups, multiplex evenings and money-powered ‘rebelliousness’. To see oneself purely as a consumer – a seeker of market defined and mass-produced hatke (alternative for the discerning new Indian) ‘experiences’ and ‘thrills’, can be bit of a self turn-off for the brand and ego conscious yuppie. In a society where they want to define taste, no quarters should be given to others to make them appear as vacuous and crude. Hence, there is the search for ‘meaningfulness’ beyond the necessary evil of quotidian parasitism. This is best accomplished while practicing parasitism with a thin veneer of ‘meaningfulness’. Practising White people’s hobbies and engagements, with a bit of Indian elephant motif thrown in, fits the bill perfectly, at home and in the head. The well Lit fests of the rich with the ‘famous’ for the aspirational and the arrived accomplishes multiple functions at the same time. It is apparently ‘meaningful’ to be an onlooker at ill-gotten money sponsored talk-shows with only a few rows of seated brown sahibs and mems separating the top 5% income audience from the gods discussing the intricacies of brown and paler experiences. This ‘refinement’ is so much more substantive than double-refined mustard oil. And then there is the extra benefit of the Question and Answer – that which gives a feeling of participation and contribution, even accomplishment and ‘production’. That should give enough warmth, inject enough meaning and experiential richness to last through a cosmopolitan, urban winter after the show is over. And if any heat was lacking, such festivals and the spotlight it brings on the ‘winners’ and other such losers gives them an opportunity to impress those who hold such characters in awe and worship them. This gives these heroes a perfect pretext and opportunity to sample some fresh, young, fan ‘meat’. Some famous winning authors frequenting these spaces are equally famous for drug binges, for serial hunting of fans half their age, with some of these hapless young ones dying early deaths. Such ‘launches’ bring together publisher and author, writer and fan and above all, potential bedfellows. When infrastructure sleaze hosts ‘intellectual’ posturing, the sleaze-fest is complete. And of course it has to be winter. That is the time when brown and white migratory birds from White lands come down to brown land. They are in much demand – hopping from one gawk-fest to another. They dare not hold it in summer, like the Ramkeli festival. Their armpits might just start smelling like those of the ones outside the gates.

The well lit festivals have as much connection to ground realities as the owners of the palaces have with the local population. The court-like atmosphere, graced by tropic-charred whites turned native and tropic-born natives itching to be white, creates much gaiety and banter. Typically and predictably, the pre-eminent language of these well lit courts is something that most localites would not identify with. That goes for most of the books and the preferred language of the authors. Collectively it represents their fantasy world, as they claim to represent much. It is not as if the writers thronging these places are most sold or most read. The English-speaking spokesperson who has captive white and coconut (brown outside, white inside) ears becomes the chosen voice. He is the authentic insider and quite often a chronicler of the urban ennui and excitement of the parasites. The subcontinent has many authors who have sold more and been read more than all brown Englishwallahs taken together, but no infrastructure mafia wants to honour them by prizes. The loot of people’s money from the Commonwealth games by a famous prize giving company is better utilized elsewhere. Why is it that the Chennai or Kolkata book fair, with more attendance of authors and readers than a desert jamboree can ever manage, will never be covered by corporate media with the same degree of detail, as an event of similar importance. One has to ask, what are these choices meant to convey, why now, for what, for whom, against whom. The benign smile of prize acceptance of some of these first-boys and the fellowship of enthusiastic clappers need to be seen for what they are and what they represent. Why this project of pumping air into the English cat so that it looks like a tiger, to assist it to punch above its weight? Who does it want to scare into submission? Who does it want to provide confidence? Cultures, especially those that come associated with upward mobility, hubris and power, seek to displace others. As Hartosh Singh Bal puts it, ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy.’ The soft hearts of sensitive beneficiaries of cultural-economic hierarchies are too sensitive to probe their complicity in this project. Elsewhere, as Akshay Pathak has shown, the way some well ‘lit’ fests have tried to replicate their foreign idiom of ‘storytelling’ through festivals in less ‘lit’ places like Dantewada shows another aspect of the dark underbelly of the ‘articulate’ beast. Such beasts hunt in packs, as shown by their excellent ‘teamwork’.

This odd idea of non-local ‘exploratory’ tourism cum weekend-thrill is a symptom of a deeper disease. This disease adds layer after layer between the earth and the birds who float atop that earth, with the organizers making sure that the undomesticated and the unrefined stench of the earth does not make its way in to this stratospheric paradise. Such ‘cosmopolitan’ inhabitants who belong nowhere produce nothing. Of course they know about the Sati ‘tradition’ and shur their book and minds with that. These are those who see no intrinsic value in any tradition but partake in its goodies, document it, sample it, sell it to visiting firangs, package it as if they were wares on sale but contribute very little to the richness of the human condition, on a long term basis. If this worldview and lifestyle becomes the dominant one, I shudder to think what kind of a cultural desert the flittering non-traditionalists will produce with their contempt of tradition and rootedness. Given their clout and power, that urban-industrial dream of an atomized society might become true, till every grain looks the same. Individual grains of sand around Jaipur have more heterogeneity and character than this.

Would the dominant idiom and language of these well lit fests survive if Whites paid reparations for colonialism and slavery? Will any of these well lit fests survive even for a year if the world magically becomes becomes crime-free? Something that owes its very survival to dirty money and claims to be a festival of ‘mind-opening’ needs to be exposed. This is true for many other creative pursuits of these times and these classes- they don’t exist without the backing of money, cannot be produced by the poor (hence most human beings) and, if the world could be flattened so that everyone was at mean income, none of these creativities would even exist. These are pursuits for which inequity is a necessary pre-condition. But there is art beyond that, in persisting oral traditions, lores, gods, non-‘cosmopolitan’ ways of everyday creativity and knowledge and earth inspired insurgents like Namdeo Dhasal and Gaddar but that is beyond the well lit faces and enlightened minds of the perfumed ones. It must be painful for the ‘enlightened’ ones to imagine that the world can actually go on without their collective knowledge being at the centre of it. But it does. It always has. And whether you like it or not, and whether you matter or not, it always will.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bahishkrit Samaj, Class, Colony, Culture, Delhi Durbar, Elite, Faith, Knowledge, Sahib, Sex, The perfumed ones, Urbanity

খেলা স্রেফ খেলা নয়

পরিবর্তনের ইঙ্গিত পাওয়া যাচ্ছিল আমাদের চেতলা পাড়া থেকে রাসবিহারী মোড় যাওয়ার অটো রুটেই। জনগণতান্ত্রিক বিপ্লবের রক্ত পতাকাগুলি নেমে আসতে শুরু করলো। তার জায়গায়ে এলো মা-মাটি-মানুষের নিশান। এখুন-ও সেগুলি উড্ডীন। এই পথেই এক-কালে বসত বিরাট রথের মেলা। চলত ১৪ দিন। এখুন সে ঐতিহ্যশালী মেলা চেতলা ব্রিজের নীচে নির্বাসিত। পরিসরে ১০ বছর আগের তুলনায় এক দশমাংশ-ও নয়। সে যাই হোক, বর্ষাস্নাত এক সন্ধ্যায় আমি রাসবিহারী মোড়ের অটোর জটলার দিকে গেলাম। দেখি কয়েকটা অটো-তে এক নতুন পতাকা। ব্রেজিল দেশের। এই পতাকা বদল সাময়িক এবং তার জন্য এই তরুণ অটোচালককে কোন চোখ রাঙ্গানি দেখতে হবে না।  কোনো সরকার, কোনো দল , কোনো ইউনিয়ন বা ক্লাব-কেই ব্রেজিলের থেকে কোনো ভয় নেই।  তাই একয়দিন নতুন পতাকা উড়বে। তা উরুক।  শত পতাকা বিকশিত হোক।

ব্রেজিল যে কজন মানুষকে গৃহহীন করে এই বিশ্বকাপ রোশনাই করছে, কত ব্রেজিলীয় সুরেশ কালমাদী রিও-সাওপাওলোর স্টেডিয়ামের ভিআইপি দর্শকাসনগুলি আলো করে আছে, তার বিবরণ আমাদের নরম হৃদয়ে ধাক্কা মারতে পারে, তাই ওই খারাপ জায়গায়ে বেশি হাতরাবো না। আর্জেন্টিনার ভক্তদের হাতে ব্রেজিলের বিরুদ্ধে খেলার মাঠের বাইরের রসদ দিয়ে লাভ নাই। এ যুদ্ধে যেই জয়ী হোক, নিখিল বাংলাদেশে একটি মানুষের কিসুই হবে না।  তবে তাতে কি? তা নয়, শুধু এটাই যে এই বাংলাদেশের বুকেই কলকাতার মাটিতে এক ফুটবল
যুদ্ধের ফলাফলে আমাদের কিসু এসে গেছিল। আইএফএ শিল্ডে কালা আদমির দল মোহনবাগান যখন সাহেবদের খেলায়ে সাহেবদের বাচ্চাদের হারিয়েছিল। এই খেলা শুধু খেলা নয়।  সমাজ-জাত কোন কিছুই শুধু খেলা থাকে না, সমষ্টিগত বোধ তাকে ক্রমে সামাজিক সত্যে পরিনত করে। বাংলাদেশের পাড়ায়ে পাড়ায়ে যে ফুটবল-চর্চা তা অনেকটাই কিআইএফএ শিল্ডের  যুদ্ধের উত্তরাধিকার নয় ? আর এই চর্চা যে খেলার জন্ম দেয়, তার দাম, তার শিহরণ, ঠিক হয়েছিল এই মাটির নিরিখে।  আমাদের সেরা দল ব্রেজিল বা আর্জেনটিনার কাছে ২০ গোল খেলেও নয়। সেটা আমাদের খেলা, আমাদের অতীত, আমাদের যাপন,  আমাদের রাজনীতির সঙ্গতে গড়ে ওঠা।  সেটা ফুটবল হলেও বিশ্বকাপ-এ যে খেলাটি হয়, সেটা নয়।
একান্তই আমাদের একটি খেলা। আমাদের ব্রাজিল, আমাদের আর্জেনটিনা একান্তই আমাদেরই।  কোন ব্রেজিলবাসী বা আর্জেনটিনাবাসী তাকে চেনে না।

ইস্টবেঙ্গল, মোহনবাগান, মোহমডান, আবাহনী  – এই নামগুলি যে স্রেফ দল নয়, বরং ভিন্ন-ভিন্ন গোষ্ঠিচেতনার প্রকাশ, তার আভাস এখুনো খেলার মাঠে গিয়ে দর্শকাসনে কান পাতলে একটু একটু পাওয়া যায়। আজকে অতি ক্ষীণ হয়ে আসা এই গোষ্ঠিচেতনায় কুমোরটুলি, উয়ারী, রাজস্থান, এরিয়ান, টালিগঞ্জ অগ্রগামী স্রেফ ফুটবল দল মাত্র থাকে না , আমাদের সমাজজীবনের নানা খন্ডচিত্রের, শহর কলকাতার মধ্যে থাকা মানুষের আত্মচেতনার দলিল হয়ে থাকে। জাত-ধর্ম-জাতি-ভূগোল-ধন-অতীতের মত  আরো নানা পরিচয়কে কেন্দ্র করে গড়ে ওঠা গোষ্ঠী ও তাদের একান্ত ক্ষোভ-গর্ব-অভিমান ও এমন শত আবেগ-কে দিয়ে তৈরী বাংলাদেশের যে সমাজ চেতনা, ফুটবল তার এক প্রকাশ মাত্র। সমাজের
অভ্যন্তরের সংলাপ সেটি। তাই ব্রেজিল-কে লুঙ্গী পরে, আর্জেন্টিনা-কে সায়া পরে বাংলাদেশের সেই অন্দরমহলে ঢুকতে হত বহুকাল।  শত শত বার্সিলোনা-মেদ্রিদ-মিউনিখ-ম্যানচেস্টারের মিলেও অন্দরমহলের সে খেলা খেলতে পারবে না। স্পেনীয়দের নিজেদের দেশে কিন্তু বার্সিলোনা-মেদ্রিদ এমন-ই নিজস্ব আত্মচেতনার অংশ। কিছু খেলা, কিছু বোধ, কিছু মনোভাব, কিছু বিশ্বদর্শন একদম নিজেদের, একদম আসল জিনিস, একটুও বিনিময়যোগ্য নয়।  এই আসলটার একটা কার্টুন রূপ যে বিক্রয়যোগ্য, তা বিশ্ব-ব্যাপী খোলা বাজারের
ব্যাপারীরা বুঝে গেছে বেশ কিছুকাল । আজকের ব্রেজিল দল গড়ে ওঠে য়ুরোপের ভিন্ন ভিন্ন শহরের, জেলার, গঞ্জের আত্মচেতনার প্রকাশের নিশানী দলগুলির হয়ে ভাড়া খাটনেওয়ালাদের দিয়ে। ব্রেজিল ও বার্সিলোনা , দুই স্থানীয় মধ্যে যোগসূত্র বিশ্ব ফুটবল বাজারের কিছু পরিযায়ী পণ্য।

শ্বেতাঙ্গ থেকে শেখা খেলাকে আমরা নিজেদের করে নিয়েছিলাম – বিলেতের ফুটবল এসোসিয়েশন যে খেলার ঠিকাদার, তার সাথে আমাদের খেলার মিল বাহ্যিক। শ্বেতাঙ্গের তালে তালে ‘মানুষের মতো মানুষ’ হয়ে উঠতে আমরা আমাদের অন্দরের খেলাটির দিকে মৃত্যুবাণ ছুড়েছি। বিকিনি মডেল, চোলাই কোম্পানি আর মোহনবাগান-ইস্টবেঙ্গল যখন তলে তলে এক দল হয়ে যায়ে , শেষের শুরু তখুনি। যে মৃত্যু গোষ্ঠ পালের বিষ্ঠাপুর্ণ মূর্তিতে মাল্যদান করে ঠেকানো যায়ে না। তাই অন্দরমহলে আনাগোনা লিভারপুল-ম্যানচেষ্টার-চেলসি দলের
নামধারী পণ্যগুলির। সদর দরজা এখন হাট করে খোলা। উঠোনের জাম গাছটির শিকড় আলগা হয়ে এসছে। এমনকি বট গাছটিও কেটে ফেলা হয়েছে – ৬ কাঠা জমিতে উঠেছে
যে বহুতল, তাকেই জায়গা করে দিতে। মাটি থেকে বিচ্ছিন্ন নবসমাজের বিচ্ছিন্নতা একে অপরের সঙ্গে।  সামূহিক আত্মপরিচয় নাকি ব্যক্তিকেন্দ্রিক আধুনিকতার পথে বিশাল কাঁটা, এবং বেশ ‘ব্যাকডেটেড’ ও বটে।  তাই নবসমাজের আভ্যন্তরীন সংলাপ নাই, সমাজ থেকে উঠে আসা খেলার দরকার নাই, আমদানি করা মাল প্যাকেট শুদ্ধ গিলে ফেলার মধ্যেই মুক্তি।  ব্যাক্তিমুক্তি।

সমাজ থেকে উঠে আসা বলেই বিভিন্ন স্তরে যে ফুটবল খেলা হয় নিখিল বাংলাদেশে। অন্ত্যজের ক্ষমতায়নের সাথে তাল মিলিয়েই উচু-জাতের মৌরসীপাট্টা নয় আর ফুটবল। তাই দেশীয় এলিটের দেশীয় ফুটবল এমনিতেও দৃষ্টিকটু লাগবে। যে কারণে দৃষ্টিকটু লাগে না টলিউড বা বলিউডের প্রধান অভিনেতা-অভিনেত্রী-কলাকুশলী -নির্দেশক-প্রযোজকদের মধ্যে উচু জাতের, রয়িস খান্দানের মানুষের প্রায় একাধিপত্য।  সংবেদনশীল ফিলিমপ্রেমীরা তা দেখতে যান, প্রশংসা করেন, খারাপ বলেন। হলিউডিও-য়ুরোপীয় তুলনা দ্যান। এও এক
ধরনের সমাজের আভ্যন্তরীন সংলাপ।  তবে সে সমাজের পা কি মাটিতে ? সে সমাজের স্বপ্ন কি নিজের না আমদানি করা? সেই সমাজের লিভারপুল প্রেমের মধ্যে নিজের
পারিপার্শিক সমাজকে ঘেন্নার একটু গন্ধ কি নেই ?

কোনো কিছুই বিনামূল্যে হয় না।  কোনো না কোনো ভাবে মূল্য চোকাতে হয়। যখন চেতলায়ে কেউ হয়ে ওঠেন চেলসির ভক্ত, মল্লিকবাজারের কোনো বহুতলীয় তরুণের স্বপ্নে দেখা দেয় ম্যানচেষ্টার, তখন আমাদের আত্মপরিচয়ের ভিত আলগা হয়। অতীত ও সমাজ, দুই হতেই বিচ্ছিন্ন বাঙ্গালীকে তাই দ্বিতীয় বিশ্বযুদ্ধে গণমৃত্যুর কথা জিজ্ঞেস করলে শুনতে পাবো ইহুদী, জিপসী ও অন্যান্য শ্বেতাঙ্গ গোষ্ঠির নাম। ১৯৪৩-এ  ব্রিটিশ শাসক ও তার দেশীয় তাবেদারদের ষড়যন্ত্রে যে ৩০ লক্ষাধিক মানুষ মারা গেছিল নিখিল বাংলাদেশে, মৃত শ্বেতাঙ্গদের সাথে তারা একাসনে জায়গা পায়না।  কল্পনা ও আত্মপরিচয় যখন সমাজ-বিচ্ছিন্ন, তখন সে নরসংহারের চিত্র উত্তরপুরুষদের জন্য রেখে গিয়েছেন যে  জয়নুল আবেদীন বা চিত্তপ্রসাদ, তাদের নাম যে চেলসির ভক্ত জানে না, তা কি খুব আশ্চর্যের? উত্তর-মনমোহন কলকাতা তথা বাংলায়ে সমানে চলেছে জাম গাছের শিকড় উপড়ে কিউই ফ্রুট খেতে শেখার গল্প। বিশ্বায়িত হওয়া মানে শ্বেতাঙ্গ মানুষের আত্মপরিচয়ের সাথে হাইফেন দ্বারা যুক্ত হওয়া। এটলেটিকো মাদ্রিদ ‘কলকাতা’কে নিলামে কিনে বানায়ে ‘এটলেটিকো ডি
কলকাতা’।  কালা মানুষে ধন্য হয়।

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Playing the ‘poor’ card to criticise caste-based reservations / Pitting class against caste – a false dichotomy

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Feb 2014 ; Millenium Post, 19 Feb 2014 ]

There is the Congress, the outer Congress, the inner Congress and the inner-inner Congress. Janardan Dwivedi, a long time fixture at the Indira Congress, has is a member of the last circle. The sovereign who wants to push something unpopular also wants to know how deeply unpopular it is. One-way to do this is to make someone very important but not supremely important to say something that the party can distance itself from given the reaction is too harsh.  Debates around caste-based reservations, especially revisiting its principles, fall in that category.

The Dwivedi has opined that economic criterion and not caste-based criterion should be the basis of reservations. That the Dwivedi heart bleeds for all poor and not only the lower-caste or tribal poor is now out in the open. In an election year, the poor gain transient importance. The Indira Congress fancies itself to be everybody’s party and is fast becoming anything but that. Cryptic winks to savarnas,‘impromptu’ eating with Dalits, scaremongering at the minority ghetto, private aircraft travellers ‘mixing’ with rail-station coolies – all these are the bamboo poles that some people hope will hold up the Congress tamboo (big tent) at the elections. But let’s return to reservations.

Remember when Mayawati was building statues in Uttar Pradesh a few years ago? A predictable class was disgusted about the crassness of Mayawati building her own statue, as if this megalomania was unprecedented. It is not surprising that the same class choses to forget that the ‘Emergency’ Gandhi was awarded a Bharat-ratna during her own regime. To her credit, Mayawati did not suspend people’s right to life so that trains could run on time. Mayawati did not only build her own statues. People who did not know and did not care about the identity of these other statues nevertheless became oceans of empathy overnight. Overnight empathizers of Dalits precisely tabulated the amount of good that the statue money could have done to Dalits. Health-care, education, sanitation and much more – Uttar Pradesh has many needs. While all this is true, these timeless needs get spotlight only at specific times. The timing gives away the apathy that is dressed up as empathy at opportune moments. This was true about statues. This was true about the intense brainstorming and ‘out-of-box’ thinking about expansion and deepening of primary education that highborn thinkers did during their Youth For Equality protests. Ingenious recipes of making the pie sweeter were proposed to stall a fairer sharing of the pie. Well-timed love can couch much hate. Experienced serial abusers know this well.

Is there any substance in Dwivediji’s concerns? When someone talks about reservation on economic basis, he is saying that poverty in itself, irrespective of caste, is an impediment to equality of opportunity. That is very true. What wrong did the poor Vaishya boy do for which he is denied certain opportunities that a not-so-poor Dalit girl may get due to the reservation system as it exists? On the face of it, this goes against the principal of natural justice. But that is true only if the society is considered a unified one, as some fairy stories would want you to believe. It is not. Reservations do not create societal divisions. The divisions are pre-existing realities. The demand for reservations is a demand for rightful share of present opportunities given such realities. Savarnas and Ashrafs should be thankful that the ‘low-born’ are not demanding reparation or separate electorate, yet.

One may fantasize that we live in some post-casteist society, but this is simply not true. Given these pre-existing divisions, the empathy for the poor Kshatriya or Saiyyad and his lack of opportunities also has a solution. That part of the pie that is at present ‘unreserved’ (‘general category’ as the lingo does) and is openly competitive to all has to be modified to reflect economic reality. Rather than ending caste-based reservations, the hitherto unreserved opportunities (the ‘general category’ pie) ought to have reservation solely on the basis of economic criterion. The proportion of economic reservation in the general category must reflect the economic inequity in the general population. The question is not whether reservation should be for the poor or the lower castes. It should be for the poor and the lower castes, separately. What say, Dwivediji?

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The Goonda first came for the Assamese / Gunday on the loose / The Bollywood Gunday threat against Assam and Bengal

[ Daily News and Analysis, 4 Mar 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 5 Mar 2014 ; Echo of India, 11 Mar 2014 ]

People in the Bengals use the word ‘Goonda’ quite liberally – to refer to anything between a naughty child to the local political thug. But in the eyes of law, who is a Goonda? One of its many legal definitions is to be found in the Control of Disorderly and Dangerous Persons (Goondas) Act (East Bengal Act IV of 1954). There is goonda is someone ‘involved in affray, rowdyism or acts of intimidation or violence in any place private or public so as to cause alarm to the people living or frequenting the neighbourhood’. According to the Uttar Pradesh Control of Goondas Act (U.P. Act No. 8 of 1971, amended by U.P. Act No. 1 of 1985), it is ‘generally reputed to be a person who is desperate and dangerous to the community’. But if film and artist communities in Assam and West Bengal have been protesting mischief and many young people in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh are disgusted at the false and mischievous retelling of its Liberation struggle, then the source of mischief can safely be called a Goonda, at least rhetorically if not legally. When there is more than one such public enemy, in Hindi they are called Gunday. Gunday are backed by deep-pockets whose ulterior projects are more extensive than the specific acts of mischief. More often than not, the Gunday of the real-world are mercenaries for other people’s projects, even part of broader, more sinister projects of which the employed Gunday may not be even aware of. The Gunday are as important as the people who dictate what Gunday does, how they do it, when they do it.

In the reel-world, ‘Gunday’ is a project of Yash Raj Films, a Bollywood centric entertainment behemoth. It is one of greatest flag-bearer of Bollywood Hindi films, that grandest by-product of ‘Indianness’. Some perverse people like me feel that the relationship is inverse – that ‘Indianness’ is a byproduct of Bollywood Hindi films, among other things. It is the thread that connects the browns to browns, with the punitive sedition laws at hand just in case some folks didn’t get the point. Whatever be the tall ‘diversity’ claims of the Indian Union, the cultural landscape after partition has a couple of winners (English being one) and a large set of losers. In the Indian Union, we all know that cultural and political clout of which language has expanded after partition, so much so that not knowing it is seen as a sign of being politically and culturally queer. This advancement comes with the retreat of Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, Assamese, etc. as playgrounds of cultural imagination and virtual annihilation of fecund tongues like Maithili, Awadhi, Brajbhasha, etc. It is not accidental that the most successful film industry is of the same language that receives the maximum preferential subsidy for its advancement. The subsidy to English in poor brown-land is a scandal of another scale altogether.

Let me not beat about the bush and come to the point. Gunday is a Bollywood Hindi film. For West Bengal, it was dubbed in Bengali. This make one, get many formula by dubbing into other tongues makes economic sense for the producer. But that also opens the flood-gates for this trend. The film and cultural community in West Bengal has protested against this. If using their mighty economic muscle, Bollywood producers can brow-beat distribution networks and cinema halls into showing such dubbed material, this will be an economic bonanza for Bollywood. Much black money will find greater returns but fledling non-Hindi film industries will fail ruin as they cannot outcompete Bollywood in black money, film volume and the cinema-hall blackmailing strength that comes with it. This desperate aggression was in full display in Assam where Rajni Basumatary’s Assamese film ‘Raag’ which was running quite well was removed by economic goondaism to make way for Gunday. Not too many films are produced in Assamese and when a good one is made with help from the Assam Film Development Corporation, this is the fate. Cultural diversity, even cultural competition, can only flourish in a level economic playing field. No amount of bleating about ‘unity in diversity’ changes that basic fact.

Let me describe a scenario. Dubbing my story and then forcing it down your throat using my economic muscle will slowly silence you. You wont be able to tell your own stories. You will have to adapt my stories. It does not matter if you have a long tradition of telling stories. Soon you may even develop an aesthetic sense for my stories, get alienated from your stories, from your people, look at them with curious eyes of an outsider. In short, I will destroy you cultural roots, replace them with mine and you will finally clap along the way. If that does not make me a Goonda, I don’t know what does.

The acts of some gansters have international manifestations. Gunday has chosen to parrot the official Delhi fiction of Bangladesh being a product of a brief Indo-Pak war. The people of that independent nation did not take that lying down. The producers have apologized. The Assamese can dream on. Pakistan has sought to protect its film industry by trying to restrict ‘Indian’ (read Bollywood) films. The states of the Indian Union have no such power, just like they do not have the power to protest the huge subsidy and preference given to one desi language. Apparently, this language ‘unites’. We know how this unidirectional unity works. No Assamese film will be dubbed in Hindi and released to multiplex audiences in Delhi and Mumbai. Not in this nation state. If slow but sure annihilation of certain cultures is a pre-condition to some kind of a ‘national integration’ project, then that nation is an enemy of those cultures. It is up to the Indian Union to decide what integration project it wants to promote – a predatory one or a harmonious one. It is up to you, the viewer, to ask whether your film ticket is filling a goonda’s pocket.



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Woody Allen and the halo of art

[ Millenium Post, 13 Feb 2014 ; New Age (Dhaka), 14 Feb 2014 ; Echo of India, 17 Feb 2014 ]

Browns are peculiar in being invested in what can only be a firangi-appreciation disease. Woody Allen is a famous Jewish-American actor-director and author. He is quite an idol to many people. They like what he films he makes, what he says, and often nod at what they think are ‘deep’ statements on life itself. Recently, he has denied the allegations by his daughter that he had sexually molested her when she was 7. She describes the sickening details and bit-by-bit the pretension behind the awkward, bespectacled one comes apart. When such idols are exposed, the reaction of idol-worshippers are a good clue to how sections of society are happy to look away from the sins of one person, if they like some other aspect of the person. Whether these aspects are different from each other is a different matter.

Somehow, some of those who think they are specially qualified to appreciate the ‘arts’ often create an exception for such idols. They would happily separate the ‘artist’ from ‘other’ aspects of his life. That this is a prejudiced stance can be shown by a related example. There may be something, say trade union activism, in which the ‘artsy’ ones may have no interest. Now, if the trade union activist is a regular wife-beater, then of course, the wife-beating aspect clouds all other things of the trade union activist. If anything, one would be doubly condemned for their pretension of trade unionism while doing such dastardly things at home. Some acts cloud everything else you do, as they should, unless of course, you happen to be an ‘artist’ or a ‘creative’ person. Then, as we say in Bangla, it is ‘shaat khoon maaph’ (forgiving seven murders). World over, there have been too many people from the film and literary world who have associated with such ‘creative freedom’ so that they are revered years after being exposed as sick creatures. Their fan base remains loyal. The romanticized notion of the ‘alternative’ and the ‘creative’, things that untutored plebians don’t understand, helps create the society of ‘alter-creative’ lovers. This gives many of them a bloated sense of exclusivity, refinement and understanding, and is crucial props to their notion of selfhood.

In the case of the ‘artist’ or ‘creative’ person, people defend him as if his ‘intellect’ and ‘creativity’ comes from a different mind than from where his ‘personal traits’ arise. The long leash these elements get, because of ‘creativity’, is shameful. This is what allows such elements to regularly prey on younger ones. Some artistic people have ‘special tastes’. Society should try to understand, I guess, and let them carry on. They are eternally ‘misunderstood’ or society-at-large is not ‘ready’ for the kind of ‘rebellious’ alternative’ lifestyles they lead. Surely, in their ideal world, perverted religious leaders, who are often rightly condemned for sexual perversions, are to be vilified while these art-types are to be glorified. But broader society does not see the fine differences between different sets of the Emperor’s new clothes. That must be because they are unrefined and cannot appreciate the true genius of the ‘creative’ ones. By refusing to put the ‘creative ones’ at the same pedestal as the other molesters, if we are to not take the allegations against an alleged paedophile seriously, then we, as a society, are in trouble. If our first instinct is one that disbelieves the victim, then we better look back at our belief system and the value that it accords to certain forms of creativity. If there is a place for benefit of doubt, I think, it should go to the survivor who was bold enough to speak up.

What is educational in the reaction of certain fans are the differential standards / burden of proof, when it comes to regular sexual perverts vis-a-vis these ‘creative’ ones. The fan either says that the ‘creativity’ and ‘personal life’ have different sources, or is simply in denial, saying they cannot believe someone so ‘sensitive’ and ‘creative’ could have done this. In the latter case, the exposure to ‘ creative work’ of this person clearly has something to do with the over-all assessment of a person. In this schema, the public creativity is deemed to be an expansion of the ‘personal self’. This is all good during adulation. But when the times are rough, the watertight non-communicating public and personal schema rules the roost. That is all very convenient as we often chose what we want to continue to believe. Nobody likes to see heroes fall, especially when portions of their brittle selfhood are derived from hero worship.

However disturbing may be its implications, at some point, one must recognize that a human being is an organism whose private is in communication with the public, each shaping the other. The one who writes also does the molesting. It is not a monster-self that molests and the gifted-self that writes. Some blind-fans would actually try to have it both ways by insisting that some forms of giftedness actually has monstrosity as its Siamese twin – there is surely no limit to excuses and white-washing. It really is up to the ethical choice of the audience, with an appreciation of human dignity, the ‘refinement’ that really matters, as to what kind of ‘creative’ human being would they like to engage with. I would like to believe not all artists are sick and just may be that the world wont come to an end if sick people’s ‘creativity’ lost popularity preferentially.

There is nothing inherent in art that would attract only the deranged and perverted to it. Art lives among people. Most artists are regular folk who live everyday lives. Most male artists – one the street, on the bus, in their not-so-rich homes live family lives. Some people may romanticize mental conditions as well as the fame associated with some male artists. That is part of the aura the older male artists develops and only a few succumb to in response. Given that we live in a society on unequal power relationships, in ‘relationships’ between people starkly different in age, fame and money, we typically know who is the male and who is the female- and it says something about them. Thankfully, not everyone is looking for a power trip and not everyone is looking for a celebrity trip. If the idea of alternative rebelliousness were more often than not a power trip for a rich old celebrity male, then I would count myself out of that ‘sexy’ alternative rebellious world. As for who cares, all well-wishers, parents and family of victims care. The world, thankfully, is still not simply a society of atomized individual, whose goal in life is to seek experience and pleasure, without heed to the power inequities that define the world.

The more crooked one is, the greater stake they have in perpetrating the notion of a world where anything goes – for everything is in ‘shades of grey’, that the world is nearly bereft of general goodness, however defined – and there is a general moral ambiguity all around. There are too many good people who are not counted and this probably has something to do with the kind of people who do the agenda setting – probably trying to cover their misdeeds, by putting everything into a morass of relativism. We have to seriously expand the ambit of the aesthetic and the beautiful. That can only expand life experiences. Then the rigidity of overlooking the sick will probably not hurt as much as it does now. Of course one has the right to appreciate and oppose simultaneously. But would such compartmentalized (if that is possible) appreciation jeopardize the opposition, given that opposition is a public political act (and not some private state of mind), especially given that ‘creativity’ can draw from various sources, including those from which the sickness/perversion arises?

There is a different question here that cannot be pushed aside. Why does it seem that the ‘creative’, ‘artistic’ types are much too often at the centre of such allegations? This is probably because, art and creativity, only when narrowly defined by powerful and their worshippers, produced such skews. This serves these people well and they would like to make art and art appreciation a non-mass thing that requires arbitrary yardsticks of immersion and engagement. The truth is most of the world aint sick and the world is full of art. There is a huge world out there for the rest to avoid paedophiles and other sick species, and still maintain a very rich conception of the aesthetic. The problem is not simply about liking some tarnished person’s ‘art’, but about the blind fan’s instinctive defence of the artist, when some disturbing facts emerge. At that point, a choice arises and the result of that choice making might be informative. To barge or not to barge into the bedroom of a paedophile or a rapist who ‘creativity’ one appreciates is a choice one exercises. This can be an ethico-moral choice for some or there can be a policy of separating art from the artist. That choice that would be exercised by someone would be a reflection of how much that person values what over what at what cost.


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Is this the Bangladesh we wanted? Analyzing the Hindu Population Gap (2001-2011)

[ Alal o Dulal, Apr 2014 ]

Garga Chatterjee and Naeem Mohaiemen for AoD

In October 2012, Prothom Alo published a frightening report that stated, in plain words, that over the last decade (which spans a BNP, an AL, and a Military “CTG” government), the Hindu population of Bangladesh has dropped dramatically and continuously. We at Alal O Dulal are a group of editors committed to a secular Bangladesh. At the same time, we are mindful that “secularism” has become a politically inert, and semantically complex, category, often providing cover for a political party’s other follies (the sentiment here can broadly be categorized as, “at least they are secular”).

Since the publication of the PA report, the editors of AoD have been having a series of discussions on what these numbers mean for the future of Bangladesh. We believe secularism cannot be enforced by force, certainly not through the barrel of a gun. A process of domination, subjugation, and political nullification of oppositions in order to “defend” secularism is dangerous. Instead of producing secularism as a normative, naturalized, and lasting category, it reinforces the perception (internally and externally) that secularism can only be defended by force. This, in the long term, weakens secularism.

Neither of the two main political parties (the AL or the BNP) have made secularism a priority, using it mainly at the polls as a strategy. A common perception that minorities were safer under an AL government, prevailed for a while, benefiting AL in a number of past elections. Riots instigated during the twilight of Ershad era, or the anti-Hindu backlash carried out after 2001 election victory of BNP-JI alliance, or the more recent anti-Hindu violence in 2013, are highlighted to support this view. We have done such highlighting ourselves in our past activist work (at Alal O Dulal, at Drishtipat, in the pages of Daily Star, New Age, Prothom Alo, and Dhaka Tribune). Our own personal political commitments have also been guided by a belief in secularism and therefore in opposition to parties that do not take a public secular stance. However, events of the last four decades prove that minorities have fared poorly under every government.

There is also the concern, in 2013, that our national politics has been degraded to such a degree that attacks against Hindu community may even be deployed as a “false flag” operation, giving a cover to target the opposition parties as the presumed protagonists of these attacks. It is difficult to believe such a scenario, but it is difficult to entirely ignore the troubling evidence.

Indeed, the BNP and Jamaat are usually presumed to be the protagonists of these attacks according to the media. However, the post-Shahbag/Shapla murky political landscape of Bangladesh forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. One question we have been asking ourselves is this: Since the Jamaat is currently hamstrung by the negative backlash it faces due to its role in 1971, and the BNP faces the problem of its alliance with Jamaat, who benefits at the present time from these attacks? What is the benefit to the Jamaat (or BNP) to attacking Hindu homes– a move certain to result in widespread national and international backlash against these two parties (as has happened). Recall that the 2001 attacks happened after BNP-Jamaat were solidly in power, and presumably considered themselves invincible. But the attacks of 2013 happened when that coalition was out of power and in fact on the defensive (in spite of public posturing)– the recent announcement that BNP would not undertake any long campaigns until they get the party (http://www.dhakatribune.com/politics/2014/apr/09/bnp-wants-overcome-frustration-first) shows the party acknowledging its (http://www.dhakatribune.com/politics/2014/apr/11/question-bnp%E2%80%99s-existence-ignites-debate) current weakness, and the tenuousness/controversy of its alliance with Jamaat. In this weakened scenario, why would that alliance, or its subsidiaries, carry out attacks on Hindu homes– an event that would surely create backlash and condemnation against the party?

A few newspaper reports have reported that, in at least some of the cases, ruling AL party affiliated activists were either involved in the attacks, or fomented them, or stood by while they happened . We at Alal O Dulal do not have the resources to investigate these reports further, but an independent, neutral probe body must look into these issues. These reports, mostly falling into silence since they do not match a national liberal-secular script, have reminded us that 2013 is not the same as 2001– when the BNP election victory saw widespread attacks against the Hindu community, and a (http://www.dhakatribune.com/law-amp-rights/2014/jan/24/judicial-commission-finds-bnp-jamaat-involved) probe found BNP-Jamaat involved. At that time, some AoD editors worked actively to rehabilitate victims of one such attack in the village of Annadaprashad– as members of the diaspora activist organization (https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/mukto-mona/conversations/topics/8110),Drishtipat. But in 2014, we find a complex situation where minority communities are surrounded by both hostile forces and “friends” who use them as chess pawns.

In his introduction to the investigative book, Ramu: Shamprodayik Shohingshota Shongkolon<, Barrister Barua shares how communalism is a cross-party, indeed pan-Bangladesh, phenomenon:
“In my professional life I often have to face a different kind of communalism. Instead of feeling pride in my achievements often I am made to feel embarrassed by trivial things. In 2001 when on the occasion of being inducted into the Dhaka Barristers’ Association I went to a courtesy meeting with committee, the Awami League backed Chairman, on examining my educational qualifications, commented,“I see that all your degrees are from India, so why didn’t you stay back there?”

Does the Chairman not know how many of young men from the majority religion go to India every year to obtain their degrees and how many of them choose to stay there? After almost nine years of studying in England when I returned home in 2011 and was interviewing for the post of the lawyer for Dhaka City Corporation, North and was asked exactly the same question by a teacher from Dhaka University, I realized that the country hadn’t moved ahead much from 2001, at least in terms of communal thinking.

Beside these, among the communal words that we hear or use often but pretend to not to notice are: the use of the word “Babu” to address to someone, to call someone “malaun” or “nere” (shaved head) despite deep friendship whenever we lose an argument with them. In recent times the Awami League leader Suranjit Sen has been a major victim of this sort of things. The roots of these ugly words go so deep that it is not easy to uproot them. On top, we have gotten so used to hearing these words that we are no longer shocked by them. But, in the words of Tagore, whether this acceptance is true acceptance is rather doubtful.

In my opinion the fact that there is no law regarding this is a contributing factor as to why we aren’t able to come out of this. The time has come for us to think about introducing an anti-communalism/anti-racism law in our country. In many countries of the world there are effective laws regarding this and these laws are implemented. If we had a similar law in our country that would help in increasing communal harmony. At least it would somewhat alleviate the everyday harassment that minorities have to face in the country.” (excerpt translated by Tibra Ali)

How gholate(murky) is our national politics that we need to consider seriously the allegation made by some newspapers, that attacks against the Hindu community may also have been deployed by the party that represents secularism, as a “false flag” operation to blame the opposition? The water is very muddy by now.

Meanwhile, the opposition BNP also continues to have a party position that is silent on support for secularism as state policy. Other than a few pro forma responses denying responsibility for these attacks, we have not seen the BNP take any strong stance for secularism. This party also uses this issue for their political advantage (no doubt some party stalwarts will take comfort from the fact that we have indicted AL equally for this issue– but again, this is simply about one party getting an advantage over another, neither party is sincere on this issue).

In this situation, where will those outside of majoritarian, Bengali, Muslim, domination-subjugation identification go for political support? They are homeless in Bangladesh.

We should also point out that, in academic discourse, “secularism” is now a vastly debated term. What it means in 2013 is not what it meant in 2001. There is a sprawling body of work and debate on this, but without delving into that, we at AoD define “secularism” as a safeguarding and guaranteeing of all non-majority communities’ political, economic, and cultural rights.

Secularism, in our view would be an embedding set of national policies which would ensure full, deep, and representative presence of such communities in all national spaces. It would foster the implementation of “affirmative action” policies that would ensure representation of these communities to counterbalance decades of under-representation and marginalization. At the same time, we caution that such policy cannot take the forms of current cynical political practice, where representation of minority communities in economic and political life is simply used as a political tool to ensure visible “loyalty”– those are policies that benefit, as with many things in our politics, party not people.

Let us take a longer view. Analysis of the Enemy Property Act (later the Vested Property Act) shows that both AL and BNP, when in power, have used this to grab minorities land. Abuse of state power to grab land from minorities, in fact, appears to be the only constant–on this issue, both major parties are on the same wavelength when it comes to grabbing minorities properties and land.

Every government has used the minorities for political gain, yet nobody has truly been on their side. In the end, no political party truly defends the rights of minorities, perhaps with the exception of small left parties who are sincere at the grassroots, but weak at national electoral level.

After the PA report, AlalODulal published the post (http://alalodulal.org/2012/10/02/hindu-2/)Final destination and quoted Afsan Chowdhury’s words. We at AoD shared his anger and shame and feel it’s appropriate to quote, again, his cuttings words: “After all the words are spent, what remains behind is the shame. We have allowed this to happen again and again (http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2012/10/01/ramu-when-shame-is-not-enough/). We didn’t need a new version of old Pakistan. Bangladesh was to be the exact opposite but thanks to inefficiency, corruption, bigotry and religious excess, we have failed to build a state we could be proud of. For us there is only disgust. On behalf of all who accept what we have said, our sincerest and humblest apology to the people who have suffered in particular and to all minorities in general.”

And of course we must nod toward the late Humayun Azad, who passed away from complications six months after he was brutally attached outside the Book Fair. He coined the phrase “Is this the Bangladesh we wanted?”

Over six months in 2013, a group of independent researchers have been looking at the data cited by Prothom Alo, from Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). They have shared it with AlalODulal, for wider dissemination. In a web exclusive we publish those research results in excel data form (go to article end  for link, if quoting these results anywhere, please cite “AlalODulal.org”).


Research Summary:

1. In the 2001 census, the total Hindu population was 11,608,268. The annual population growth rate was 1.37%. According to the published research in the Prothom Alo, by 2011 the number of the Hindu population should be 13,200,000. But in BBS` 2011 census report the actual Hindu population is 12,299,940. The gap amounts to 900,060. This is the missing Hindu population.

2. The study of the Prothom Alo had one limitation. BBS adjusted its census and its 2011-data of the Hindu population in 2012 including data of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) that were assigned for the post-enumeration check and that found 3.97 percent people were left out in the first count. Now, the actual number of the Hindu population in 2011 is 12,789,113. Considering the total Hindu population in 2001 and the annual growth rate of 1.37% the predicted number in 2011 should actually be 13,337,065 people. This means that the decrease of Hindu population would change to 547,953 (instead of 900,060). The adjusted figures data from the IRC data sheet on the population change characteristics of Bangladesh between 2001 and 2011 have certain important features.

3. To discover that the decline in Hindu population is 0.5 million, instead of 0.9 million is of little comfort. This is still a very large number and confirms the worrying trend of continuous decline.

4. Even on the adjusted numbers, there is a shortfall of 0.5 million Hindus from what would be predicted using the rate of growth of population in the decade. Unless there has been some drastic and unexplainable change in Hindu fecundity rates or large-scale conversion to other faiths (both of which we consider unlikely as explanations), the reason for this shortfall has to be explored. Prima facie, this represents the net Hindu emigration out of Bangladesh in that period. The real population growth of Hindus of Bangladesh between 2001 and 2011 was 1,148,769 (using the adjusted figures). The gap between predicted growth and actual growth is 547,953.

5. Assuming that the 1.37% annual growth in Hindu population did happen (dismissing drastic fecundity /death rate/life expectancy/conversion explanations), something around 547,953 Hindu individuals of Bangladesh origin exist, somewhere in the world. To make sense of these numbers in some other way, we can state that in the 2001-2011 decade, for 1696721 new individuals added to the Hindu population, 547,953 have left the country. That is about 1 person leaving the country for every 3 persons newly added. This is a shocking statistic.

6. Family planning depends on the long-term plans of the family – which also includes the stability of their present state, including stability of homestead and source of income. While we think that low birth-rates cannot explain a deficit as large as 547,953, it is well known that a sense of security and long-term stability affects birth-rates in a community. For example, the birth-rates of Kashmiri Pandits, after their displacement from the Kashmir valley, have taken a drastic hit. Numerous studies document this.(http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2009/03/2679 ). It is not improbable that a small proportion of the ‘missing Hindus’ were not actually born.

7. What is the geographical distribution of the deficit and does that tell us anything? Some districts have actually registered a net decrease in Hindu population in the 2001 to 2011 period. There are 9 such districts. Most of these 9 districts form a near-contiguous belt – Bhola, Barisal, Jhalokathi, Pirojpur, Bagerhat, Narail, Gopalganj and then Rajbari and Manikganj. What does this strong geographical concentration of the districts actually registering a net Hindu population decrement in 10 years tell us. Some of these districts (Bhola being the most infamous example) have been sites for serious anti-Hindu attacks. It may also be useful to note that in 2001 the BNP-Jamaat won all seats in Manikganj, Bhola, Pirojpur, Jhalokathi, Barisal and Rajbari. But Gopalganj, the ultra-identified borough of Awami League is also in the list. Hence this precludes any clear explanation in terms of local party domination, though one cannot rule it out as one of the out-migration factors.

8. Studies  which also look at the volume of ‘enemy property’ in different districts in terms of number of affected families, percentage of Hindu families affected and correlating that with the percentage of Hindu population change would be useful to trying to find out the reasons behind the ‘missing Hindus’ of Bangladesh. For example, see this 2009 ( http://archive.thedailystar.net/forum/2009/february/our.htm )summary of Abul Barakat’s research. Here are some key statistics from Barakat’s research:

a) Households: 43% of all Hindu households (1.2 million) have been affected by EPA/VPA. 57% of households that lost land lost an average of 100 decimals. Survey data shows 33% of affluent Hindu families lost land due to EPA/VPA. 50% of affluent households had at least one close relative who lost land

b) Total Land: Total area of land lost is 2.01 million acres, which is 5.5% of Bangladesh’s total land mass but 45% of land owned by the Hindu community. The research shows two numbers: one is the impact on Hindu community as measured by the official land records, the second is the impact as measured by survey data. The survey data shows 22% more land loss (2.6 million acres) than official records. The type of land lost is typically agricultural, homestead, pond area, orchard, fallow land, etc.

d) Value: Assuming average market price of land as seen in the year 2007, total value of land lost is Tk. 2,416,273 million (Tk. 3,106,636 million from survey data).

e) Sale Value: Even if land is being lawfully sold, the price of Hindu-owned land is reported as Tk. 900,000 per acre, as compared to Tk. 1,500,000 for similar Muslim-owned land

f) Methods of dispossession: Influential parties grab land in connivance with Tahsil and Thana Revenue Office, Tahsil and Thana Revnue Office itself grabs land. Death and/or out-migration of one member of a Hindu family is used as excuse to enlist the whole property. Influential parties grab the land by using violence, local thugs, and forged documents. Influentials allure sharecroppers to occupy land, and then become eventual owners, etc.

g) Accompanying harassment: Harassment that accompanies land-grabbing includes obstruction in casting vote in elections, obstruction in harvesting crops, workplace intimidation, property destruction, eve-teasing, looting, robbery, obstruction in shopping, extortion, etc.

h) Political affiliation: Barakat’s research also shows that grabbers try to change their political affiliation with each change in government. We can conclude that either party affiliation is switching after change of government, or ownership is switching from one party affiliate to another.

9. For those looking to one party or another for a solution, note that this drop has happened in both AL and BNP period. Unless there is an united political push to protect minorities and to give them full rights of a citizen, neither of the two parties will be able to reverse this trend. Where would this trend lead to? This statistical analysis has some shocking pointers. As Dipen Bhattacharya wrote in an earlier op-ed for Alal O Dulal:
“Until a few years ago, I believed that even though the Hindu percentage was declining, the absolute number of the Hindu population was increasing and would continue to increase. However, the truth is <strong>bitter and it’s statistical. It seems the trend is for negative growth numbers. For the next forty years or so, we might expect to see the Hindu population drop from a high of 13 million (in 2011) to 10 million. Whether the population will plummet drastically after 2051 is a matter of speculation. But for all practical purposes, the Hindu community will stop being a major participating community in Bangladesh. If the country stabilizes its population at 250 million, then an estimate for the Hindu number for the year 2101 could be as low as 3.75 million.

Among several explanations of  the low growth rate are (i) mass exodus to India, (ii) the disruption of the family structure and (iii) the willful underestimation by the the Census Bureau. Some say the migration to India is for better economic opportunities. Even when the existing religious bonding favors the power structure, some explanations comprise “land-shortage” and “land-grabbing” as if those words could take away the inherent religious bigotry that is present. They fail to see how – without any access to the existing power system of the current Bangladesh society – vulnerable the Hindu population is. Soft and hard intimidation, extortion, threat to family structures, illegal occupation of property, and looting and burning of households and temples are sufficient to have this population scurry across the border. The Hindus migrate to India because their lives are made unbearable through various means in Bangladesh. (http://alalodulal.org/2014/01/09/statistics/)  (The Statistical Future of Bangladeshi Hindus )

Meanwhile Ali Riaz came to this conclusion in 2012:
“Take for example the issue of the dwindling Hindu population in the country. An examination of the census data of the composition of religious minorities since 1901, led me to conclude in 2004 that there is a massive out-migration of the Hindu population: about 5.3 million in the preceding 25 years. The Hindu community in Bangladesh has been weak owing to its lack of access to resources and hence has never been able to mount resistance to the institutional persecutions faced. This has left Hindus with no choice but to relocate. In 2001, for example, a large number of Hindus from three districts (Barisal, Pirojpur and Bagerhat) initially moved to the neighbouring Gopalganj district in search of a safe haven. In the absence of a potential haven nearby the persecuted Hindus decided to cross the border. The porous border between Bangladesh and West Bengal, not to mention the cultural and historical ties between these two parts of Bengal, helped the intended migrants to move to the Indian state. Some returned later, but some didn’t…

The census reports of the past 60 years show a steady decline of the Hindu population. This decline is not consistent with the population growth rate of the country. For example, the population growth rate was 3.13 percent for 1961-1974, 3.08 percent for 1974-1981; 2.20 percent for 1981-1991; 1.58 percent for 1991-2001; and roughly 1.34 percent for 2001-2011. It cannot be ascribed to low Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of the adherents of Hindu religion. Even if one takes into account that the TFR among Hindu women is estimated at 13% less (estimate is based on recent contraceptive use rates) until 1991 and 15% after 1991, the average annual growth rates of the Hindu population would have been 2.72 during 1961-1974, 2.68% during 1974-1981; 1.92% during 1981-1991; 1.34% during 1991-2001, and 1.14% during 2001-2011.

If we factor in these assumptions and reconsider the government statistics, the numbers change drastically. By 1991 the Hindu population should have reached 16.5 million as opposed to 11.16 million recorded in census data. The rate of the missing population has increased in the past two decades. The current Hindu population, 13.47 million, is far short of the number one should expect based on population growth rates. The decline of the religious minority community is matched by the increased use of Islamic icons and symbols in political rhetoric, not to mention deletion of secularism as state principle and official designation of Islam as the state religion.”

Full data, with district wise break up on Hindu and other populations and detailed tables are available at Alal o Dulal :


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Filed under Bengal, Dhaka, Partition, Religion, Terror

A khidki into our minds / Khidki opens a window

[ Fountain Ink, April 2014 ]

Thanks to the mid-night anti ‘drug’ and ‘prostitution’ activism by the erstwhile Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti, the Khidki Village in Delhi had suddenly shot into prominence in the subcontinent and beyond. Many from New Delhi and elsewhere, who had barely heard of this place, descended upon the area in the aftermath of the ‘racist vigilantism’, to see the ‘backward’ brown creatures that inhabit that area. They wanted to see the village that lives up to its ’village-ness’, tucked in one of the armpits of the ‘cosmopolitan’ NCR metropolis. The Khidki village is older than all the malls and multiplexes of the NCR, older than all the universities of ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation’s bequeathed capital ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation, older than the idea of the ‘national’ and for that matter older than the ‘idea of India’. For all its antiquity, yuppies who claim to have a thing for brown heritage would much rather live in some sector of Gurgaon or Noida. Who wants to live in ‘Khidki village’? You know how that sounds, especially the derogation with which names like Khidki village are taken.

Outsiders (the non-village kind) from New Delhi refer to it as an ‘urban village’ (the inhabitants simply call it their village). There is a certain hip-ness that comes with the ‘urban village’ tag as it prepares the ground for using the area as a creative arts canvas by hip folks whose dads wont allow their own ‘authorised’ neighbourhoods for similar ‘creative’ projects. Khidki village and its extension have yet not earned the ‘hip and cool’ tag associated with another similar largely ‘unauthorised’ village agglomerate in Delhi called Shahpur Jat. This one has excelled as a haunt of White foreigners and brown yuppies with disposable cash. ‘Creativity’, ‘experimentation’, ‘urban village’ – brochures are full of these terms, marking out a niche as a social calendar hotspots. The elite’s ‘art’ studios feeding on low rents and insecurity of ‘unauthorised colonies’ bloom here. The inequality helps stretch the urban canvas – creative ‘arts’ indeed.

But I digress. The residents – they live there. They call it home. They have been calling it home much before six other villages were destroyed to make way for what is the New Delhi of the Union of India. Some people have roots, live in communities and do ‘come into their own’ with the fashionable beam of ‘urban anomy’.

The Khidki extension episode about Aam Aadmi Party minister Somnath Bharti’s nocturnal activism over ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitution’ has made monsters-at-large out of the minister and the complaining people of Khidki village. In circles whose voice comes most alive in European jargon, this has been called the cheap politics of ‘othering’. Worse displays of animus against African people have happened through cases of outright violence and at least one instance of vilification by a Goa minister. ‘Liberal India’ has typically swung into damage control mode. This damage control has included round after round of sanctimonious condemnation of racism against African black people. Television media knows its constituency of self-congratulation well and has followed it up with various talk shows themed around various versions of the question ‘Are we racists?’ and has invariably concluded that some bad apples are. And have added ‘I love you’ notes to Nigerians, at the end of such shows. Such shows also discuss the racism faced by desis abroad. The racism that uppity NRI desis show in their promised land and many desis show in the subcontinent can only be matched by the alarm that raised when some relatively elite brown gets paid back in the same coin in some white land.

With upward mobility for a section of the metropolis janata and the Indian Union taking a ‘greater role’ at the world stage, more of these people have white friends and acquaintances than ever before. Just when elite desis and their known whites seemed to have reached non-racist nirvana – imagining themselves as part of some universal brotherhood of idea, commerce, commodity and romance exchange, the prejudiced desi hordes are letting this emancipated side down. This is the source of embarrassment. Not themselves, but those who share their skin colour and give the whole team a bad name. During the British Raj, this embarrassed class of browns was quite well known and did well for themselves by distinguishing themselves from the ‘uncivilised’ loathsome browns. The overall rising tide of anti-colonial sentiment made such embarrassment less fashionable for sometime. Post 1990s, the sharp rise in the petulance/anger of brown consumer elites with racism they face abroad is matched by their condemnation of racism at home. This is one real contribution of GDP growth and ‘international“10 ization’ of commodity markets. With India rising and shining alongside the white world, in malls and tourist destinations, commercial and academic engagements, and anti-colonialism being passé, the time is ripe for more public display of embarrassment. The audience for this is the white World and self-image the desi liberal has created for oneself and almost believes in. They would hate to be confused with other browns.

But then, talk is cheap. The backward browns have shown their true colour through explicit racism that makes liberal, our homegrown ‘world citizens’ shudder. But what about things that are implicit in patterns of behaviour? Those are harder to track down but when done, do say a whole lot about the people practicing it. Their own displaying prejudice explicitly can be called out for it and asked to change, or at least reassess, their positions. But what about those whose public lives are epitomes of ‘ultra-liberal’ posturing peppered with condemnation of the ‘backward’ while implicit in their behaviour are exactly the for which they publicly bad-mouth the ‘backward’ every day? When you have such a class lecturing the prejudiced at every opportunity, the result is a farce of a poor quality. The farce needs to be exposed for what it is – too many people enjoy excellent views from the moral high ground that they occupy undeservedly. Too many are condemning the ‘backward’ by standing on self-constructed pedestals.When we are all naked, and the ‘liberal’ gives up the pretension of wearing ‘ultra-fine’ clothes, we can start talking truth. We can have a dialogue. We can be embarrassed or not, for what we are – irrespective of whether white people are watching.

What constitutes the ‘world’ of the ‘world citizen’– the world is mentally, if not physically located in a temperate zone OECD white-Caucasian country, given that not much of the world fits that description, the extent of the mental world of the world citizen is not so big after all. It is hard to map out the mental world but some things can give us certain clues.

The ‘free choice’ that these brown ‘world-citizens’ in matters of marriage, romance and sex can be revealing. With increasing number of non-browns coming to the subcontinent and a correspondingly increasing number of browns going to ‘foreign’ countries, there are some foreign-brown marriages that happen. That’s all good. Now close your eyes and picture such a couple. There are many such ‘cute couples’ now. Note the colour of the ‘foreigner’ in the frame. Most likely, it is not someone African or Afro-American. The ‘cute’ or the ‘angelic’, sadly is from the same races whose mental worlds have shaped the world-view of the brown liberal – typically French of Anglo.

One in eight Americans are black. More than one in six are non-Whites (including Latinos, not including other browns). Now think of some people you may know or you may have heard of, who have married Americans. Normal human interaction without any colour prejudice or special colour affinity would have resulted in one in six such marriages being with non-Whites. Is that the case? Hell no. Is that the case even among those who would declare that in their post-racist world, love runs blind? Hell no. If you ask them individually, they would have said that their own White choice is ‘incidental’. It could have been someone black. Just that it hardly ever is. Their non-prejudiced ‘choice’ is so predictable, that it takes away all suspense. Many such individual choices hide behind the mask of politically correct speech. This closely parallels the marriage choices of the ‘I don’t believe in caste’ types. Individually, they would burn the sacred-thread (if a male) and/or denounce the ‘caste system’. Just that their life choices speak louder than their speeches and posturing. The cosmopolitan Savarna liberal usually leads a schizophrenic existence.

Let us come back to the subcontinent. Darker Africans have been coming to many parts of the subcontinent in recent years. A large number of them are students. ICCR has offered 900 specialised scholarships for students from African countries. There are more than 10,000 African students in the subcontinent and the largest chunk is in the institutions of NCR. Incidentally, African students consider Kochi, a city without the intellectual pretensions of New Delhi, very safe. There are thousands of Nigerians in the NCR. As for the students, we are talking of very meritorious ones, many of them studying in significant numbers in the NCR’s most premier institutions. But when it comes to campus-coupling of browns with foreigners (especially in vogue among liberal circles of elite institutions), whites rule the roost. The students from Africa may study advanced biology, Kathak dance, journalism, architecture, literature, history, sociology, urban planning, gender studies and many other things, but they are no match. I stress the liberal and elite bit, as these are the spaces from where the shrillest chants against racism typically come, along with pronouncements that they stand above differences of race, caste, colour and such things. For the ‘radical’ and ‘liberated’, neither the African nor the East Asian students do not forms a part of their desirable cohort, for purposes of campus romance or intimacy. Those from Manipur or Nagaland are also similarly excluded, always spoken on behalf of, by the predictable crowds. But when it comes to ‘desirability’ and ‘companionship’ as equals, other aliens matter. Whites win hands on. The white on campus will have an inordinately long line of droolers. Desirability is as much about how one’s views oneself as it is about the desirable one out there.

What is the source of such desire and skewed choices? Doesn’t it have something to do with fantasies tied with the awe that power evokes in certain minds? More often than not, it comes from a weak bond with one’s living environment, developing into a hatred of things associated with one’s own community. This journey away from the self is couched in the celebratory notion of ‘liberation’ – a journey involving progress towards a universal human ‘love-in’. That suits white Caucasians on campus very well, to find suddenly themselves in the enviable position of being able to punch way above their weight. It does not matter who approaches ‘first’ but the white in skin is acutely aware of his/her ‘market value’ in postcolonial lands, especially among the tribe of those with brown bodies with culturally illiterate, trying-hard-to-be-white minds. This state of thing makes it relatively easy for the gora who only has to show a little interest in things native and might even learn a native phrase or two. Before they can show that off, the coconut native is already trying to impress by showing off his/her acquaintance with all things white – their culture (pop and sophisticated), their stories, their sitcoms, their epistemologies, their myths, their histories, their nuances with some half-baked critique thrown in so as to avoid appearing too eager. Gone are the ‘politically correct’ measures of mutual compatibility based on mutual respect – otherwise the East Asian and black African students would not be so undesirable in romance and intimacy compared to Whites, even among the ‘thinking’ and ‘elite’ academic spaces, even among the ‘liberated’ and the ‘radical’? For these coconuts, of course the next best thing after a white body with a white mind is another fellow brown body with a white-mind. Certain kinds of urban agglomerations offer excellent refuges for browns to explore their mutually shared whiteness. They are also the elite – fatafat English, chain-café hangout types, even with browns of the same mother tongue.

The ex-colony is indeed an unfortunate thing. There is always a lingering infection at the head, because the vernacular non-elites could never quite take over and are on a retreat. Transfer of power happened so that the production of brown bodies with white minds could go on with locally produced grease. Not quite Macaulay. Way sophisticated. Way sordid. At least Macaulay’s children looked like buffoons to the rest of the browns and they themselves had few illusions of reciprocal equality with the whites. Now, the illusion of reciprocal equality with whites is strong. Alienated from their own communities, they need to maintain self-respect by these means. Due to their ubiquity in media and academia, they have an inordinate influence over the aspirational dreams of the masses. The new buffoons have indeed turned the joke on the people. It must be supreme irony that some of these ‘liberated’ browns will go on to lecture us other browns on agency, structures of power, media representation, feminism, politics of culture, indigeneity, even equality.

This holding of whites in high esteem is not peculiar to certain browns. Data from millions of users of the popular US dating website OKCupid suggests exactly the same (http://qz.com/149342/the-uncomfortable-racial-preferences-revealed-by-online-dating/). Disproportionately high (as in higher than what population percentages would suggest) desirability of whites as partners cuts across most non-white races, except African-Americans. The funny bit is that the data also reveals that this special desirability is not reciprocated by whites to any non-white group. One non-white person probably gets tantalizingly close to the origins of disproportionate desire by a description. The person talks about having grown up filled primarily with white narratives and depictions of white people and felt as if she was ‘in a movie’ when she was romancing a white. From the lists of ‘hottest actors’ to ‘sexiest actresses’, from fiction to philosophy, they cast a very deep shadow on the person’s mind that felt during intimate moments with the white partner that one was living a long-pregnant fantasy, as if it was a movie. The African-Americans, having to live with the reality of whiteness, as opposed to the nurtured fantasy about whiteness, have no illusions. They are confident enough to have a spine to hold them up straight without white crutches.

The ‘conservative’ in brown-land at least makes his/her mindset clear. They probably neither like the white nor the black. However, for the ‘liberal’, among the itinerant foreigners who come for study and pleasure, it is mostly the white that gets intimate attention, with others largely avoided. The ‘liberated’ typically talks his/her way out by jargonised hypocritical bluster. In fact, the observable action of black-avoidance being same, this bit dishonesty makes them a notch worse than the conservatives – and there is the rub. For the ‘enlightened’ and the ‘liberated’ are loathe to admit that they too are products of the ‘dominant’ worldview of white-worship. That in practice boils down to racial preference and that does not sound nice. The ‘liberated’ believes that dominant world-views only affect the ‘mindless’ hoi polloi. Facts show that they are not outside but inside the circle of dominance. Such stark demonstrations can be heart wrenching. Liberation warriors become quivering and petulant balls of self-defence, alarmed at the tug at the ground beneath their feet, the ground they had fashioned into a pedestal to preach others from. All kinds of desperate and verbose ego defences come up, aided by jargonized bluster.

Those who are busy condemning and vilifying the people of Khidki extension en masse stress that some of the residents who had gathered had even uttered the ‘N-word’. It was. The ‘N-word’ was also used to build brown-black solidarity against racism and anti-communist witch-hunt in the United States of America. One does not expect the yuppie anti-racists to have heard about the song ‘Negro bhai amar, Paul Robeson’ that Kamal Sarkar composed based on Najim Hikmet’s verses, a most popular song that the legendary folk-singer Hemango Biswas extensively sang. For that matter, the N-word vigilantes probably have not heard of Paul Robeson. For them, history started with 1991. One might add that the song inspired more people in the subcontinent to develop serious anti-racist views as well as a critique of the American state that newly-learned knee-jerk political correctness about ‘N-word’ and other White speech-forms can ever evoke. The particular charge that comes with the ‘N-word’ has a certain context. Ashis Nandy has repeatedly taught us one thing – to take people’s categories seriously. Grounded social and cultural literacy is not to be expected from those who think that only white people’s categories are the ones with meaning. A peculiar kind of browns whose cosmopolitanism almost always translates into a greater understanding of nuances and contexts of things from white lands than things back ‘home’ (the flittering class actually doesn’t like to be ‘tied down’ to the concept of ‘home’) possibly doesn’t realise the ridiculousness of charging the people of Khidki extension of using the ‘N-word’. Having gained adulthood by being consumers of Anglo-American public discourse and pop trivia, they often forget that their books, TV shows, webpages and magazines are part of their bubble-existence. To think that the bubble is the world may be fine for life and times in the bubble-urbania. The problem happens when they venture out into the real world and use their bubble-derived notions and categories to judge that. While being exquisitely literate about the ‘N-word’s horrendousness, they would not be able to name even 10 derogatory words used to refer to dalits in the subcontinent. This is no sign of enlightened purity or post-casteism or castelessness but the stench of super privilege by which everyday categories and realities have been shut out of their lives. Forever coddled, forever urban, forever ‘non-casteist’, forever offended by the N-word, neither can they name 10 dalit sub-groups (not that those who can pass the ‘name test’ are virtuous, but they are at least in touch with the structure they benefit from and have no illusions of innocence). Some of the disproportionate beneficiaries of a system can afford to not know the details of the victims. What is offensive is that these are kinds who are stomping all over the Khidki residents, with a righteous indignation. The browns are an unfortunate people. Those divorced from reality are the narrative-peddlers and the chroniclers of social tension and cultural flux of the browns. Sleek presentation in elite language and idiom, coupled with political correctness has helped many of the chroniclers go places.

The reality is, hundreds of African students stayed in the Khidki area. The same cannot be said of most ‘respectable’ yuppie locations of New Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon. Not every locality allows a ‘ghetto’ to develop. The curious bit is that areas without African ‘ghettos’ are typically places where the Khidki-haters like to live in. Whites get treated differently. May be they would have been treated differently at Khidki too. But wouldn’t those who criticize the Khidki residents while regularly lounging at ‘artistic’ cafes and other upscale hangout-with-whites-like-whites locales also treat them differently? The ‘backward’ Khidki-wallas do not hide their feelings. Khidki residents have not (yet) learned the language and style of appearing to be non-racist. The ‘backward’ often responds with equal alienation to black and white. Others who hide their selective alienation, having learned the language of not letting feelings and subjectivities publicly known, uses the ill-gotten pedestal to preach against racism.

The Khidki incident has given rise to many paeans to the ‘diversity’ of New Delhi and how the ‘othering’ of the black-Africans is a blot on its ‘cosmopolitan’ image. This ‘othering’ bit, a category dutifully imported from ‘Continental’ discourse, is a non-issue here. The problem is segregation. That is a broader issue than Africans. It is also about who is typically rounded up by the police when a car-lifting happens, or who is issued an ID card or is asked to register at the local police station because one happens to work as a domestic help in a upscale area. Just because these browns do not have an explicit skin-marker, does not make the treatment meted out them any different. However, all that is normal, even as youths from these posh homes have also added their voice against Khidki. It is not a simple blind spot. What are the predictable triggers of righteous indignation? Why does it typically parallel what would trigger indignation in a supposedly post-racist Euro-American society? Why are our daily segregations, born in the belly of our society, not similarly spectacular and newsworthy? The yardsticks of whose social realities have we borrowed to assess our own? What makes us chose among the segregations? What is the rank-order in our heads? From where did we import this hierarchy? By choosing to privilege one kind of segregation over another, which audience are we signaling to? Are all these audiences domestic? What does this tacitly self-congratulatory ‘anti-racism’ vis-à-vis the silence over daily seggregations tell us about our selves?

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Filed under Acedemia, Community, Culture, Elite, Eros, Gender, Non-barbarians, Our underbellies, Sahib, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

Netaji and the politics of legacy and memory

[ Daily News and Analysis, 4 Feb 2014 ;  Millenium Post, 6 Feb 2014 ; Echo of India, 11 Feb 2014 ; Frontier Weekly online, 5 Apr 2014 ]

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Porbandar, he ensured that many decades later, all state government and union government employees get a day off on October 2nd every year. When Jawaharlal arrived in a Kashmiri Brahmin family of Allahabad on 14th November, the seed of Children’s Day was born in this brown land. For some curious reason, decades of publicly money funded propaganda has ensured that people are fed stories about unverifiable heartwarming anecdotes about child welfare priorities of the Indian Union’s first Prime Minister, father of the Union’s fourth Prime Minister and grandfather of a subsequent one. What is verifiable though is that the regime of the great do-gooder of children also ruled for long years over the highest number of hungry, starving children among United Nations member states. But then, Henry Kissinger also won a Nobel peace prize. If you have not heard of the ‘National Integration Day’ of 19th November beyond large newspaper ads with beaming faces of people your government wants to remind you at a cost to the public exchequer, you should be ashamed of yourself. The lone child of the great man of Children’s Day fame was born on that day. You should mark your calendars for another version of that auspicious day coming up this year. While you are at it, lose you eyes and take a deep breadth. Imagine your worst enemy. Do you feel any pent up anger? If yes, you may be lacking in the Sadbhavna Quotient (SQ – yes you first heard it here). Then I suggest you make the best of the Sadbhavna Day celebrations that happen on August 20th every year. On this auspicious day, the first prime minister who took over from his mother’s constitutional position without a non-family interregnum was born. The sarkar bahadur at Delhi sends memoranda on unforgetabble days to all central government departments, to do the needful. You better head to the nearest central sarkar bahadur office next time to catch the action. You might even get some chai-biskit to smoothly complement the ‘sadbhavna’ or ‘national integration’ feeling that might be evoked. One tends to get carried away at such holy occasions with free chai, year after year. Browns are, after all, very emotional people.

On 23rd January, a only MP who turned up at the Parliament of India to garland the picture of Subhash Chandra Bose on his birthday was Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP. Some MPs from West Bengal were busy in similar events in their state. The Indira Congress must have been tired from cheering the great rise of the great-grandson of Government of India’s children’s welfare champion Number one. Or they could have been tired of the burden of extra cylinders. Subhash Chandra Bose was also figured in the expanded pantheon that loomed large behind of podium from where the great grandson demanded cylinders. The curious shape of the select pantheon of past presidents of the Indian National Congress (which Indira Congress claims to be the successor of) resembled a 9-headed Ravan with the non-family Gandhi at the centre. Electoral desperation forces many things. Subhash Bose was there too, with the white cap that was snatched from his head by Nehru-Gandhi Congressites after the 1939 Tripuri session of the Congress. The military cap that Netaji put on later is too uncomfortable for those who would want to erase the various other currents and means that was part of the anti-colonial struggle in the subcontinent. Greater awareness of such trends may undercut official narratives and make many question the differences between freedom and brown-mask-government, liberation and transfer of power. That can be very uncomfortable.

This erasure has enabled the sons and grandsons of the Hindu Mahasabha and JanSangh to add past Congress presidents to their sordid pantheon of Hitler-lovers and British informers. In a subcontinent where erasure of public memory and creation of false legacies is a fine art, even the atheist, socialist, anti-communal Bhagat Singh is now wrapped in a saffron turban for 272+ mileage. The lure of power is reflected in the eagerness of liliputs to stand on the shoulder of giants.

But this false bhakti can be easily tested. The Prime Minister’s Office admits that there are 20 secret files relating to Netaji’s disappearance. Can the BJP guarantee that it will publicly disclose uncensored versions of these files if its alliance attains power in 2014? The complicity of all the players of the deep state to this conspiracy of silence and evasion needs to be exposed.

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Filed under Bengal, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Foundational myths, History, Memory

Indianness / strange thoughts on an republican eve

[ Daily News and Analysis, 21 Jan 2014 ; New Age (Dhaka), 26 Jan 2014 ]

26th January is the Republic Day of the Union of India. In spite of the high drama performed by the Aam Aadmi Party in the sanctum sanctorum of power, this week will end with another edition of an annual ritual commemorating the day when representatives of about 12% of the population of the subcontinent decided to frame the constitution in the name of 100%. Thus the Republic of India was born. In this auspicious week, one may ask with some trepidation, what is India? What kind of a question is that, one may ask. One can show the territorial limits of the Union of India in some map, point to it and say, there it is. That kind of an answer oddly makes Cyril Radcliffe the father of the nation.  So let us shift gears to a different question. What makes India and ‘Indianness’? Well, technically, the transfer of power by the British to certain sections of the subcontinental elites, the partition and the constitution framed in the name of the people makes India. But such legal definitions would sadden lovers of a transcendental ‘Indianness’ that is apparently millennia old and permeates through Ganga, Yamuna, Bollywood and Mohenjodaro (remember the weird bearded man?). A variant of this ‘Indianness’ is also to be found in our special ‘Indian genes’ and aloo tikki (aloo came to the subcontinent about 500 years ago from the continent of ‘Indians’ living half-way across the world). More recently, the fervor with which one cheers for a group of male players contracted by a private entity and sponsored by a New-York headquartered company has become a marker of ‘Indianness’ or lack thereof.

The real state of affairs of a human being cannot be ascertained by the perfume one dabs on oneself. It is to be found in the original smell of the armpits, that the perfume is designed to shoo away. The continuous tutelage in ‘Indianness’ that was explicit in mass media earlier (remember Sai Paranjpe’s Ek Chiriya style cartoons with a cute and sly message continuously aired during turbulent times when some chiriyas wanted to fly away?) has now become a monolithic cultural norm, with decades of preferential promotion of a language and a forced monolithic identity finally paying off. With enough rokra, a good, strong dandaa and pervasive indoctrination, orderly and docile queues can be created. Anek anek chiriyas have a stake in this game now.

When a Tamilian goes to New Delhi vis-à-vis Beijing, I am assuming that Beijing feels more alien. That is something undeniable. I am not including the rootless cosmopolitan class of the browns who feel at home at any place that has a chain-coffee outlet. I am talking of the earth, not of the shifting crust. However I am not sure that this even this grade of alienation holds true for the Naga – whose sas-bahoo diet is not imported from Hindustan but from Korea. Korea, thus, is not equally far from all trajectories of ‘Indianness’ – real or imagined. Even for the Tamilian’s supposed closeness in New Delhi, that is too is a project in progress. The non-alienation is less than it was 60 years ago. This is because of a common, constructed mould that has been used to make ‘citizens of a nation-state’ out of human beings. That commonality needs to be continuously manufactured even while proclaiming its transcendental pre-existence as a matter-of-fact. The shape of this mould represents what is the ‘core’ of this ‘Indianness’. Hence, more and more will come to speak a predictable ‘core’ language – the non-core will have to know it to be counted equally. That precisely is the indignity of forced top-down one-ness. One size never fits all. Some come pre-fitted, others have to try hard to fit in, excising parts of their identity.

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Foundational myths, Identity, Nation

Decentralization 2014 / When the Centre lords over federal aspirations

[ Daily News and Analysis, 7 Jan 2014 ; Millenium Post, 7 Jan 2014 ; Echo of India, 14 Jan 2014 ]

The Gregorian calendar says it is January now, so for a very many people, it is a new year. One near-constant thing about New Year days, birthdays, 100th anniversaries and the like, is that nothing is very different before and after that day. That does not stop us from making New Year resolutions or seminars about the special relevance of some dead man’s centennial. While each one of us may harbor private dreams about the year 2014 of Common Era, it is events and processes happening around us that would actually shape the year. I am tempted to string together some apparently unrelated developments in the last 30 days, to bring out what my private fantasy for 2014 might look like. It also happens to be an important public concern of the present day. I am talking about the battle between centralization and decentralization, between the hollowing and deepening of democracy. This is something that never surfaces as it is, always burrowing under some other agenda. But there it is, always, and always tense.

And it starts at daybreak. 6 am happens at the same moment all over the territory of the Union of India, because the central government had long decided so for the rest of us. However, the sun rises at vastly different moments in different parts of the world and Assam and Gujarat are indeed situated in different parts of the world. Bharat Mata’s children, held tightly together by the constitution, stand widely apart on the bosom of Mata Basundhara. Sadly, things like the sunrise and sunset, human physiological functions like sleeping and waking up and other things that predate man-made rules and nations and will outlive them too, are still not totally subject to the power of the central government. Such a state of affairs, even after 66 years after partition, is not the sign of a strong enough state. The Assam state has decided to delink its time from that of the ‘heart’ of Hindustan, Allahabad of Uttar Pradesh. If Assam has its way, it will no longer wake up according to the time governed by Mother Nature and the Sun god but go to work at a time that best suits Allahabad, the city where Ganga and Yamuna but not the Brahmaputra meet. I do not know what is more ironic – that it took 66 years for Assam to decide to abide by a time that is more in like with its geographical location or the fact that its decision is not enough and that it needs the approval of folks hailing from far-away longitudes. That many parts of the subcontinent had times more in line with their natural location before partition only adds a further layer of irony. If the Assam move succeeds, more areas might want pay more heed to chirpings in their surroundings than the ajaan from Delhi. A new force that has risen from Delhi seemingly wants to sing a different tune – this is the Aam Aadmi Party’s call for decentralization of decision-making power. If the party means what it says, the potentialities are immense. This being an election year with most parties being quite non-committal about joining one of the 2 ‘national’ parties, there is a faint possibility that some new life might be unleashed at the centre. Whether we want people’s opinion to matter in their own lives is a question that any purported democracy has to deal with. A true federal system should be capacious enough to accommodate diversity of needs and aspirations. This is the primary challenge that the subcontinent faces – beyond all the talk of development, growth, discontent and what not.

May be I am making a mountain out of a molehill. These couple of green shoots for the decentralizing ideal can easily be lost among the smoke emitted by the relentless centralizing state. The central cabinet is seriously thinking of starting the River Linking Project that aims to join most major rovers of the Indian Union. This project that will surely drown the land and culture of many a people will be don’t for ‘greater common good’. We know that not an inch of the National Capital Region (NCR) will ever be drowned for any good, however great, however common. Such is the absurdity of central decision-making in this purported powerhouse of information technology and wireless communication that the headquarters of the Coast guard and the Inland Waterway Authority are situated in a place that has absolutely nothing to do with the on-the-ground daily workings of these agencies. That is the heart of the giant that joins the NCR, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) and the Amritsar-Kolkata-Delhi Industrial Corridor (AKDIC). The naked power of centralized authority flavours these alphabet soups designed to drown the million discordant sounds from the ground. There can only be so many jobs and boom-towns, only so many rootless techies, academicians, corporates, pimps and their families that can grow up shielded from the discontent from evisceration of identities and selfhoods. But there is only so much alms that can the alphabet soup wallahs and their hip-urban collaborators can part with – so that centralizing can go on seamlessly. But there is a wide world out there that the centre cannot hold. Something must give.

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism

January on Jessore Road / The besieged Hindus of Bangladesh

[ The Hindu, 16 Jan 2014 ; The Friday Times (Lahore), 17 Jan 2014 ]

“Hey there mister can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown

Can you give me a reason sir as to why they’ve never grown?

They’ve just blown around from town to town

Till they’re back out on these fields

Where they fall from my hand

Back into the dirt of this hard land”

– Bruce Springsteen, This Hard Land

Few moments in the past century evoked as much hope in its stakeholders than the emergence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh as a secular state in the eastern part of the subcontinent. Drenched in the blood of martyrs and fired by lofty idealism that has still not completely died, this nation-state has not lived up to its ideals. Often declared by some to be the greatest achievement of the Bengali people, is at a dangerous crossroad, once again. The ruling Awami League has an unenviable record of corruption and graft tainting its last 5 years in government. To be fair, the previous elected government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami combine had a track record far worse in this regard. But the country is young and the BNP-Jamaat was last in power 7 years ago – when a significant section of the present population was had not reached adulthood. In addition to that, the opposition, especially the Jamaat, has been partially successful in using its massive economic clout and international propaganda apparatus to portray itself as a victim of state-sponsored witch-hunting. The ‘witch-hunting’ boils down to two things that can all but finish the Jamaat off as a viable political force. The first is the deregistration of Jamaat as an electoral force, as it privileged divine ideas over democracy in the party constitution – something that the Supreme Court deemed as illegal. The second is the War Crimes trial of those who committed crimes against humanity during 1971. Almost all of the present Jamaat leadership was heavily involved in murder, rape, arson and forced conversions. In a subcontinent where politics thrives on the erasure of public memory, this episode has refused to disappear. In fact, a dilly-dallying Awami League government was almost forced by the youth movement in Shahbag to pursue the war crimes trial seriously. Facing the prospect of political annihilation, the Jamaat responded by a three-pronged offensive. One, marshaling young Madrassa students and use them for blockading Dhaka. Two, lending BNP its activists to act as boots-on-the-ground. Three, carrying out targeted attacks on the homes, businesses and places of worship of Hindus, the nation’s largest religious minority. But the collateral damage is often wider.

Farid Mia, a fruit seller, had the extreme misfortune of being near the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel in Dhaka when the street-fighters of the opposition BNP–Jamaat combine hurled petrol bombs indiscriminately. They were aiming to create a scenario of fear in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of January 5, which the principal opposition combine was boycotting. By January 8th, the elections were over. So was Farid’s fight for life at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. The devastated face of the young child Mohammod Liton, Farid Mia’s youngest son, will go down as a call to conscience, however transient. Farid was unlucky. He could not have known that he would be a victim.

But there are predictable victims. In 2001, after the BNP led alliance won the elections, the usual pattern of murder, rape and arson targeting Hindus happened on a very wide scale. Hindus have traditionally voted for the Awami League. The guarantee for ‘Jaan’ and ‘Maal’ is important for the survival of any people. In the Awami League regime, although Maal in the form of property and homestead has been regularly taken away by Awami League powerfuls, the attack of life and systematic rape of minority women was not part of the party’s policy. The same cannot be said of the BNP-Jamaat under whom cadres, systematically aided by the police forces, have regularly threatened both ‘Jaan and Maal’. Thus, it is not hard to see why the Hindus chose the devil over the deep sea. The Hindus who had voted in 2001 had learned their lesson when they were targeted in massive post-poll violence, most infamously in Bhola. This time around, the Hindus seemed to be out of favour from both sides. While they were targeted by the BNP-Jamaat for coming out to vote at all, in other areas they were targeted by Awami League rebels for coming out to vote for the official Awami League candidate who happened to be of the Hindu faith. There have been disturbing signs over the last few years that at the very local level, the difference between the ‘secular’ Awami League and the communal-fundamentalist BNP-Jamaat seems to disappear, though publicly the former does not tire in parroting the secular ideals of 1971 – the much used and abused ‘Muktijudhher chetona’ (Ideals of the Liberation War).

The violence unleashed against the Hindus this time around, before and after the 5th January polls, have been worst in Jessore, Dinajpur and Satkhira, though many other places like Thakurgaon, Rangpur, Bogra, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Rajshahi and Chittagong have been affected. If people remember Thakurgaon and Dinajpur from a different time, it is probably because these were strongholds of the communist-led Tebhaga movement of the late 1940s. Part of the reason few riots happened in these areas when the subcontinent was in the throes of communal riots was the cross-community solidarity and political consolidation that had been achieved. That was then and we have come a long way since then. Malopara in Abhaynagar, Jessore, inhabited by Bengali Dalit castes, has been attacked repeatedly. Large scale attacks on villages, businesses and places on worship, able-bodied men being on night vigils, women huddling together in one place – all these things brought back memories of 1971 for many of its inhabitants. In Hazrail Rishipara of Jessore, women were raped at gunpoint for the crime that their families had voted in the January 5th election. Dinajpur has been badly hit with cases of beatings, home and shop burnings, and putting fire to haystacks and crops. Both Jessore and Dinajpur being areas bordering West Bengal, crossing the border for preserving life is a sad trek that many have undergone. Such slow ‘squeezing out’ is not new, neither is it intermittent. It is a continuously process that is an effect of a political discourses the willy-nilly aims to delegitimize the very existence of the minorities on their ancestral land by always asking the question –‘Why are you still here?’. ‘Why am I still here’ is a question the minorities have asked themselves and as the statistics show, a staggering number could not find a good answer and hence they left. The trickle has been slow and silent. The ‘Partition’ continues.

The ‘Partition’ was swift and vicious in the Punjabs and Sindh where religious minorities have ceased to exist for all practical purposes. This is not so in the Bengals, where many still live in the ancestral land claimed by nations whose legitimacies are much more recent than people’s ancestral claims over their homestead. Nearly 30% of the Bengal’s western half’s population is Mohammeddan (the figure was 19.46% in 1951, after the 1947 partition). Even in the eastern half, little less than 10% of the population is Hindu (it was 22% in 1951). In East Bengal, secular politics does exist beyond the fashionable drawing rooms of liberaldom. It was one of the four much touted foundational principles of the 1971 Liberation war. The autocratic years of BAKSAL, the long years of army rule when the barracks used Islam to create a veneer of political legitimacy beyond the Awami League and pro-liberation forces, the overtures by mainstream parties to fundamentalist groupings – all of this has given religion-based politics a front-row seat in the nation. Neither have religio-political organizations been immune to the violent turn of this brand of politics internationally in the last decade or so.

How did things come to be this way? The issue of minority targeting, one must admit has deeper roots than simple ‘communal politics’ and ‘mixing politics with religion’. Pro-Pakistan forces, which looked to faith-unity as basis of statehood, did not disappear after the Liberation War. They were broadly and transiently (as it increasingly seems) delegitimized due to the their role in the atrocities of 71. But what about the ideological moorings of the project that religion marks a nation? What about the splinters of that project stuck deep in the political and social structures? That trend did not die not did it dry up. One has to remember that even the Awami League in its inception is a faction of such a trend that reoriented later along the lines of Bengali Nationalism. In the imagination of all the ruling factions since 1947 during East Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh periods, there has been a tacit understanding of the normative citizen – a Muslim Bengali male or a Bengali Muslim male. Hindus of East Bengal are a living reminder of a Bengaliness that is not co-terminal with narratives that conflate Bengaliness (or Bangladeshiness) with being a Bengali Muslim. Their progressive marginality in numbers makes this conflation project easier. Such projects are not necessarily active political projects but often live in the underside of mindscapes that can be ‘secular’ in very many declarations. Thus they can be marginalized without being actively targeted in ‘innocuous’ everyday dealings. Communally targeted violence feeds off from a broader spectrum of support, from active to lukewarm to unconscious.

In any modern nation-state, the majority can decide to be whatever it wants and the minority has to follow suit. So Hindus were expected to become Pakistanis overnight in 1947. While Bengali Muslims politicians have the autonomous agency to un-Pakistanize themselves at will, east Bengali Hindus could only publicly do so at explicit cue from their Bengali Muslim brethren. At any rate, they are never ‘good enough’ citizens in whatever dispensation they find themselves. At one point, they weren’t good enough Pakistanis. Now they are not good enough Bangladeshis. What is the commonality between being a good enough Bangladeshi and good-enough Pakistanis, since being Bengali is not enough. Isn’t religious majoritarianism part of that mix? If yes, what did 1971 achieve for the security of ‘maal’ for Hindus, given that more Hindu land has been usurped by the Awami League than by any other party. But still the Sarkar Bahadur is responsible for jaan and maal. As I said before, the Awami League takes maal for protection of jaan. BNP assures neither. This is part of the draw for Awami League for the Hindus of East Bengal. Just like other minorities, extra-territorial loyalty is the easiest slur that is bandied about. And this is also what makes minorities lesser citizens in a polity – they cannot critique their state in all the ways a majority community person can. They are forced into living double lives and then condemned for living it. Fortunately or unfortunately for Hindus of East Bengal, West Bengal exists where their situation is nothing but information to be used tactically by Hindu-majoritarian forces to oil their own political ambitions. Thankfully, they have been more successful outside West Bengal than within it, but who can say for how long?

But still one cannot but hope that the People’s Republic of Bangladesh would live up to its original ideals. Minorities have fled the nation-state for want of security in large numbers, year after year. Numbers matter. It also matters that nothing of the scale of Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002 has happened there since 1971. The name of a ‘Hindu’ hero like Shurjo Sen can be chanted spiritedly by tens of thousands of mostly Muslim youths in the streets of Dhaka. There is no such parallel in the nation-states that are the other fragments of 1947. Even in the recent protests at Shahbag, lakhs raised slogans in his name. “Shurjo sen-er banglaye, jamaat-shibirer thhai nai (No place for Jamaat-Shibir in Shurjo Sen’s Bengal).” There is significant presence of minorities in the bureaucracy and local administration. Even in the recent spate of violence, the state has transferred police officials for failing to provide security. Gonojagoron Moncho, the youth movement that spearheaded the Shahbag protests for war crime trials, has led a road-march to violence stricken Abhaynagar to stand in solidarity with the affected. This is not a fly-by-night visit by VIPs or a handful of politicos. This reality exists too. It is this reality that partly prevents a mass exodus of Hindus beyond the levels seen at present. There is too much to lose to leave. Still. For far too many.

সুধাংশু যাবে না

–শামসুর রাহমান

লুণ্ঠিত মন্দির, আর অগ্নিদগ্ধ বাস্তুভিটা থেকে

একটি বিবাগী স্বর সুধাংশুকে ছুঁলো

‘আখেরে কি তুলি চলে যাবে?’ বেলা শেষে

সুধাংশু ভস্মের মাঝে খুঁজে

বেড়ায় দলিল, ভাঙা চুড়ি, সিঁদুরের স্তব্ধ কৌটা,

স্মৃতির বিক্ষিপ্ত পুঁতিমালা।

স্বর বলে, ‘লুটেরা তোমাকে জব্দ ক’রে

ফেলে আশে পাশে

তোমার জীবনে নিত্যদিন লেপ্টে থাকে

পশুর চেহারা সহ ঘাতকের ছায়া,

আতঙ্কের বাদুড় পাখার নিচে কাটাচ্ছ প্রহর,

তবু তুমি যেও না সুধাংশু।’

আকাশের নীলিমা এখনো

হয়নি ফেরারি, শুদ্ধাচারী গাছপালা

আজও সবুজের

পতাকা ওড়ায়,

ভরা নদীকোমর বাঁকায় তন্বী বেদিনীর মতো।

এ পবিত্র মাটি ছেড়ে কখনো কোথাও

পরাজিত সৈনিকের মতো

সুধাংশু যাবে না।

Risen from the embers of an ancestral place–plundered temple–

An unearthly voice vibrates in Sudhanshu

Are you, finally, leaving?’ At the end of the day

Sudhanshu gropes amidst cinders

For the deeds of his homestead, splintered bangles, the mute colours of a vermillion box.

The dog-eared scatters of manuscripts in memory.

The phantom says, ‘The plunderer has beaten you

Here and there

Your daylight clings to

An animal outline ambushed by a murderer’s mien,

You spend your hours crouching under the bat-wings of terror,

Despite all, do not leave, oh Sudhanshu.’

The blue of this sky is yet to

Diminish, the sacred trees

Are yet flying green

Banners, the copious river

Meanders her waist like a slim snakecharmer lass.

He won’t abandon this sacred earth for elsewhere,

Unlike a retreating soldier in defeat,

Sudhanshu would forever not leave

- Shamsur Rahman

(Gargi Bhattacharya translated the poem from the Bengali original)

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Filed under Bengal, Dhaka, Displacement, Foundational myths, History, Identity, India, Language, Memory, Nation, Pakistan, Partition, Power, Religion, Rights, Terror

Why Pakistan’s resistance to Bollywood is justified

[ The Express Tribune, 24 Dec 2013 ]

The case in Pakistan regarding the continued certification and commercial screening of films produced in the Indian Union territory has been settled. Mubashir Lucman, Film Producers Association and Cinema Owners Association have come to an agreement that would allow for the equal sharing of screening time between films made locally and those imported from the Union of India. This is a useful opportunity to discuss some issues regarding the commercial import and certification of Bollywood Hindi films in Pakistan.

Let us first understand what are these ‘Indian’ films. We are largely talking of films made in the Hindi language produced via a very cash rich industry setting in Mumbai. For the rootless young people in certain metros of the Indian Union, that is much of what constitutes ‘Indian’ films. But for those who are talking in terms of greater mutual understanding via these films, one needs to realize that much of the Indian Union does not speak Hindi. Additionally, they do produce their own films. The content of such non-Hindi films represent a much greater terrain of the subcontinent than Bollywood Hindi flicks can ever aspire to. To be fair, Bollywood Hindi films never did aspire to that. Thank the gods for that, as with the money power behind Bollywood Hindi films, they might even try to define Tamil-ness or Bengali-ness through a metro-centric Hindi medium. Are they influencing people in Pakistan with an alien commercially produced idiom? If yes, people in Pakistan better take notice.

And those who portray films as some sort of a medium to develop Indo-Pak bonhomie might also do well to look beyond Bollywood. Virulently anti-Pakistan films with a lot of ‘action’ are also a Bollywood Hindi film sub-genre. Yes, that does good business. Go find an Assamese, Bengali, Tamil, Manipuri or a Oriya film in the last fifteen years that has an anti-Pakistan theme. There are none. Are these not ‘Indian’ films? What is it about Bollywood Hindi film idiom that lends itself to making films like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha and LOC Kargil, which unabashedly dehumanize people from Pakistan? The economic muscle of Bollywood ensures that such films receive a wide audience. It is not the specific film that matters. Pakistan can choose to not allow this film or that. But it is the same set of cartels that produce most of the films – the ones that are anti-Pakistan and the ones that are unrelated. This industry understands only money and would not stop from producing the next commercially lucrative anti-Pakistan blockbuster? There is a market for such prejudice in India just like there is a market for anti-Hindu prejudice in Pakistan. Do people from Lahore and Karachi really need to add to the profits of an industry that sees no qualms in showing Pakistanis in bad light?

Most Bollywood Hindi films are set in the cities of Mumbai or New Delhi, and increasingly in cities of the Western World where people from North India live and aspire to flourish. This can be Sydney, London, New York or Chicago (Dhoom 3, an action film released a few days ago and which has already grossed crores of Rupees, is set largely in Chicago). Delhi and Mumbai choses to tell its story and wants people to pay for it. But Karachi is not Delhi and I am sure it has its own stories to tell, stories that are different from the stories of young partying explorers of Mumbai and Goa, stories that are not about aspirational or ‘everyday’ life of Delhi people. Inspite of the Zia years, one can be sure that 15 crore people have stories to tell. If the decision was left to the burgers, they might even start a juloos in support of Hollywood and Bollywood. The culturally illiterate has no investment in their own cultural milieu. That is precisely why their ‘tastes’ shouldn’t be setting agendas. Nor can they be depended on for a revitalization of films culturally rooted in Pakistan (and not cheap Bollywood remakes).

Bollywood Hindi films represent the metro-centric and homogenized ‘idea of India’ in the mind of the new Indians – 20-40 years old, in the top 5% income category, aspirational migrants with Hindi and English being their near exclusive vocabulary. They are concentrated in a few cities but they have the economic might to determine cultural policy. These multiplex consumers with their moneybags have done a great assault to the idea of mass-films, which is why now film profits are not an indication of film popularity. Pakistani film industry is up against an economic behemoth with an agenda of own-cultural expansion. Its production, distribution and broadcasting machines are well oiled. Stupendous amounts of black money from deep pockets bankroll the ‘creative’ explosion that is Bollywood.

The twin attack of a homogenizing national ideology and economic muscle has grave implications on visible public culture. The 19th Kolkata International Film Festival witnessed the extra-ordinary scene of Bollywood Hindi filmstars being feted in a manner as though they represented some pinnacle of human achievement. It was a sad moment – underlining how limited and predictable the cultural horizon of West Bengal’s film industry had become. The lack of self-confidence showed. Film industries that do not have as much black money circulating, have lesser number of casting couches, have lesser number of ageing ‘artists’ and producers targeting young actresses, have lesser number of big crooks financing films and which do not make films in Hindi or India-English, have been relegated to second and third class status. Pakistan has the legal mechanisms to stop the damage that Bollywood has done to films industries elsewhere. It better act soon.

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Filed under Culture, Delhi Durbar, Identity, Kolkata, Language, Pakistan

‘Sala Main To Sahab Ban Gaya’… and other thrills / Angrezi delusions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Dec 2013 ]

Very recently, I was on a flight from Zurich to New Delhi, operated by Swiss International Air Lines. My co-passenger was brown like me and had strong opinions on the mis-pronunciation of English words by desis. The person was especially perturbed how even proper nouns and place names were being rendered unrecognizable. My co-passenger was quite sad that this was happening. I mostly did the listening. I guess trans-continental flights are spaces that assume a kind of brown cultural homogeneity and hence a commonly held set of sensibilities. The top 5% income category browns have many worldly burdens. Defending the sanctity of the mother tongue of Anglo-Saxons apparently is one of them.

All through our journey, the captain kept us updated about how the flight was going. The captain, who was Swiss, repeatedly said that out destination city was ‘Deheli’. The firangi word pronunciation Nazi who I was sitting with it seemed to have no take on this. ‘Deheli’ was okay, given the race of the speaker. There was nothing to be ‘corrected’. It was his natural accent. There was no need to graduate into some ‘ higher’ state of correctness, whatever that is. While ‘Deheli’ of Swiss extraction was deemed acceptable, ‘Delly’ is the pronunciation of choice for the uppity. This is what some pack of pale-face marauders had pronounced a few centuries ago and what could be wrong about that. Dehli or Dilli may not sound anything like ‘Delly’ but that did not make ‘Delly’ a mis-pronunciation in my co-passenger’s sensibilities. This sensibility is more widely held. It is my suspicion that the origin and contours of such refined sensibilities and the predictable double-standards hold some clue to the increasingly rootlessness one observes in the metro-centric aspirational classes of the subcontinent.

Now try to imagine the reverse. When someone says ‘New Yaark’ as many in Punjab may do, or ‘Lawndawn’ as many in Bengal do, the brown thikadars of English pronunciation will react with thinly veiled contempt. You may even be ‘corrected’ in ‘good faith’ – ‘See, it is ‘actually’ pronounced like this’. Between these responses, the speaker of ‘Lawndawn’ will be classified by the enlightened brown ones as either being not well rounded enough or being an obstinate non-learner or worst still, getting some vicarious thrill by sticking out.

They will try to explain root-cause of ‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’  – you know, socio-economic rungs and such. And that moment of trying to explain is an illuminating moment – it explains the person who is doing the explaining. Their exasperation with ‘Lawndawn’ standing uncorrected goes much further and deeper than plain prickliness about the mother tongue of English people. It veers into the underbellies of their Anglicized exteriors – into ideas of correctness, propriety, higher and lower, sameness and difference, own and foreign, alienation and privilege.

At the centre of this probably stands the fear of being swept away in this brown subcontinent by those who think, imagine and love in their mother tongue. The alienated recognize the confidence that comes with it. That confidence is a threat that needs to be broken; otherwise it has insurgent qualities that might just want to reclaim centre-stage. What absurdity is that, in ‘this time and age’? The speed with which we label something absurd hints at something else. As Allan Bloom said, ‘The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside’. The even sadder bit is that an alienated, self-hating minority is able to dictate the terms of what is this outside.

‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’ symbolize exactly the sort of confident agency that is rootless is fearful of, partly because it reminds them of their own ‘non-place’-ness. Identifying deeply with the oppressor’s ‘refinement’, they would rather have agency always stay with the oppressor while they can take on the mantle of being gatekeepers to that enchanted world of refinement. The culturally illiterate Bombay-Delhi bubble urbania, with their undue and incestuous grip on the ideology of indoctrination systems like centres of higher learning, fear things that draw inspiration from the ground beneath their feet, and not from the words of gods from superior worlds. They love to play the role of this native priest (to lesser brown folks) and translator (to remotely enthusiastic firangis). They stand at the gates of modern citizenship in brownland, correcting their backward folks as liberated pundits. I wish it were funny. It is not.

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Filed under Bahishkrit Samaj, Class, Colony, Elite, Identity, Knowledge, Language, Sahib

Battling religious censorship / Muzzling Expression of Taslima Nasreen

[ Outlook, 23 Dec 2013 ; Echo of India, 29 Dec 2013 ]

Kolkata, the so-called ‘cultural capital’, has demonstrated the increasing emptiness of the epithet, yet again. Taslima Nasreen, one of the most famous Bengali authors alive, had scripted a TV serial named ‘Doohshahobash’ ( Difficult cohabitaions) portraying 3 sisters and their lives – standing up to kinds of unjust behaviour that are everyday realities for the lives of women in the subcontinent. Nasreen has long lent a powerful voice to some of the most private oppressions that women face, often silently. The private channel where the serial was slotted ran a vigorous and visible advertising campaign – Nasreen’s name still has serious pull among Bengalis and the channel knew it. Nasreen had made it clear that the serial had nothing to do with religion.  However that was not enough for the self-appointed ‘leaders’ of the Muslims of West Bengal who issued warnings to the effect that the serial not be aired. The commencement of the serial, sure to be a hit and a commercial success for the channel, has now been postponed indefinitely. One can imagine the pressure the producers and broadcasters have faced that led to the shelving of a potential runaway commercial success. As in the recent incident of Salman Rushdie being prevented from coming to Kolkata due to the protest by similar characters, one can be sure of the kind of role the Trinamool Congress government and its law enforcement agencies had in this affair. If the government is to be believed, it had no role in the criminal farce that is being played out unchecked. Muzzling free speech and right to expression does not always need written orders from the government. A phone call here, a verbal order there – these are typically enough.

Nasreen has been living in New Delhi since 2007, after being hounded out of Kolkata by the CPI(M) led government on the instigation of Muslim groups threatening ‘unrest’. The pathetic reality of the lives of ordinary women in the subcontinent and the extraordinary oppression meted out to them, especially due to certain religious systems, have been the single most important theme of her writing. Steeped broadly and deeply in the cultural fabric of Bengal, the specific socio-geographical setting of much of her work is in the Muslim-majority nation-state of Bangladesh. Hence, in her earlier writings, Islam primarily represented the ugly face of religious majoritarianism. However, those who have cared to read her corpus, know very well that she has been an equal-opportunity truth-teller, castigating both Hindu and Muslim religious practices and ideologies.

Taslima Nasreen is a daughter of the subcontinent. Islamists in Bangladesh wanted her head and made life miserable for her. After a few years in the West, she returned to West Bengal. I say ‘returned’ as it was an inalienable part of her cultural homeland. In Kolkata too, she lived in the face of constant death-threats there too. After her forcible ejection from Kolkata, she has never been allowed back, though she remains extremely interested in relocating back. One would think that the culture of issuing death-threats to one feels one’s religion has been slighted by is alien to Bengal – which has, for centuries, been the ground Zero of religious syncretism as well as tolerance to so-called deviants of all hues. It is indeed sad that this alien culture of extremism of relatively recent import has managed to gain the upper-hand so as to force the government of the day to pander to these elements at huge cost to the social and cultural fabric of West Bengal.

Who exactly are these vocal opposers of Taslima Nasreen’s serial being shown publicly? Whenever one has self-appointed spokespersons doing the shrillest speaking, it is useful to study their antecedents. Abdul Aziz of Milli Ittehad Parishad and Mohammad Quamruzzaman of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation are two prime examples who have been extraordinarily active in running the Taslima-denounication industry in West Bengal. Both these organizations share another distinction. They led a mass-meeting earlier this year in Kolkata protesting the punishment of Islamist leaders of Bangladesh who had directly committed crimes against humanity during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.  Thus those who defended rapists and mass murderers of 1971 (the victims were Bengalis, of whom a significant proportion were Muslims) have taken upon the mantle of community guardianship of Muslims in West Bengal. It cannot be clearer what kind of Muslim interest these folks represent. To even consider that such elements represent Muslim interests of West Bengal is tantamount to insulting the intelligence and humanity of the Mohammedans of the state.

Kolkata’s intelligentsia and youth, once known to take to the streets and chant songs to protest the muzzling of Paul Robeson, a black-American singer and artist, has had nothing but silence to offer on this one. The Trinamool Congress rulers and the erstwhile CPI(M) rulers have set a record of competing with each other on muzzling free speech on the instigation of groups in whose worldview, free speech has no place. While there may be short-term electoral gain for such posturing, this race to the bottom has no winners. The loser is the idea of a free and democratic society where dialogue and understanding is privileged over violence to ‘solve’ differences. In effect, such groups aspire for a society where there are no differences – no diversity of thought, expression, living and being. Nothing is more alien to the human condition than that. Gods only can help a society where governmental policy is dictated by sociopaths, unless a critical mass stands up to publicly state that enough is enough. Does the right to be offended take precedence over the right to free speech? If yes, we are in sad and dark times.

When insulting books, gods and other creatures has become the touchstone of ‘community leadership’, one might do well to remember the words of Kaji Nazrul Islam, the fiery poet of all of Bengal who is increasingly being packaged into a ‘Muslim’ poet – ‘Manush enechhe grontho, grontho aneni manush kono’ (Man has produced books, no book has ever produced a man). There is nothing truer than man himself and free speech is an pre-condition for that truth to shine forth, in its myriad hues.

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Filed under Bengal, Culture, Kolkata, Religion, Rights, The written word

Supremely unjust / 377

[ Millenium Post, 12 Dec 2013 ; Shillong Times, 12 Dec 2013 ; Daily Excelsior, 13 Dec 2013 ]

Many had assembled in New Delhi to hear the Supreme Court judgement on the case of Suresh Kumar Koushal & Ors. v. Naz Foundation & Ors.(SLP (c) 15436/2009), in popular terms the constitutionality of Section 377 case. Indian Penal Code’s Section 377 is a colonial era production that criminalizes what it terms ‘unnatural sex’. This has typically been one of the legal excuses behind the routine police harassment and extortion against homosexuals – not that the police needs legal excuses most of the times it abuses queer/trans people. It also means that certain sexual practices, even when indulged in without coercion, are illegal and the practitioners are criminals. This effectively makes being gay a criminal offence in the Indian Union. Many of the assembled had expected to party. The Supreme Court judgement set aside the earlier Delhi High court judgement that had effectively nullified Section 377. The court has referred this to the parliament, which alone has the authority to make and change law.

The court that has been of late accused of ‘judicial activism’ has skillfully evaded the case at hand. By doing that, it has dealt a huge blow to the lived reality of queer people in the Indian Union. Make no mistake  – in a society where increasingly legal defines right and transgression of law defines wrong, this is bad news. It is not as if the scrapping of Section 377 will overnight change what it means to be queer in the subcontinent, but its continued criminal content will make it even harder, given the amount of attention the case has received. Why is the enlightened judiciary so selective in its activism?

The judiciary does not exist in a vacuum. Well meaning elite can talk to the judicial elite via the code language of articulately argued details of Common Law. While this tactic can yield good results (the Delhi High Court judgement decriminalizing Section 377), a perception of such initiatives being elite can do serious disservice to the cause. No right can be won or defended by only employing high fangled lawyers with donor money and lobbying, bypassing the majority of the very people one is supposedly fighting for. There is no replacement to organizing among the people, including those who oppose you for whatever reason. The Supreme Court has pushed the onus of 377 to the parliament, in a shamefully smart way. The way the ‘queer movement’ of the subcontinent has mostly steered clear of the queer who are poor, who are not from the upper castes, who are non-urban, who dont speak English, who are illiterate, who dont use the word ‘queer’ to describe themselves, who do not describe their life, identity and experience in big neologisms, and has instead created a ‘movement’ that moves without those who they claim to move for. But then this is to be expected of those thriving in the Delhi-Mumbai bubble urbania.

While the Supreme Court should not be let off lightly on this, the connectedness of all assaults on human rights needs to be appreciated. We also need to appreciate, how those rights were won. If habeas corpus, banning child labour and many other things that are considered inalienable elements of human rights, were effected by movements pressuring power and not by court adjudication, why would one think this would be any different? It is also important that one appreciates the associations and dissociations of the court and the state, as well as the statist context of the court. The supreme court of India has previously upheld the suspension of habeas corpus during the Panditain’s brief dictatorship. Only recently, it has found the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to be perfectly in line with the fundamental rights of a citizen as per the constitution. Given this record, should this order on Section 377 come as a shocker? It will be infantile to suggest that people’s pressure that goes against the grain of state interest and ideology will force the courts to give rulings. But it certainly can help. And for that, one needs to start with the people. People who have direct stake in this. People who are potential allies of the direct stakeholders. There is no judicial shortcut to politics for the underdog.

To live in a state that denies the right to not be shot dead on mere suspicion or whim of state agencies needs a constant working around the state and its apparatus. Life has not stopped in AFSPA areas. Neither has people’s resistance, inspite of the court ruling it as perfectly legal. Hence, life will go on. So will ‘unnatural sex’. Given its acute sensitivity to what White people think of them, the elite of the Indian Union and their representatives in the parliament might suddenly discover that ‘unnatural sex’ is not unnatural after all.

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Filed under Class, Elite, Eros, Sex, The perfumed ones, Uncategorized

When Nagas follow the constitution and ruffle the centre / At the margins of homogeneity / When the state of Nagaland upholds the constitution

[ Daily News and Analysis, 9 Dec 2013 ; Millenium Post, 9 Dec 2013 ; Echo of India, 9 Dec 2013 ; Morung Express ; Kashmir Reader, 16 Dec 2013 ; Dhaka Tribune, 17 Dec 2013 ]

The Union of India is not a homogenous union. It never was. What I mean by this is that its constituent parts are not created equal nor does the law of the land treat them equally. There are a host of special provisions that apply to specific constituents only – thereby removing any chance of homogeneity. There is indeed a great deal of homogeneity of law – but that is in ‘mainstream India’. ‘Mainstream India’ has typically been those parts of the Union where the Indian Army is not deployed at present. Naturally, the contour of this ‘mainstream’ has been changing. Places where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in action, there are sweeping powers that the Armed Forces have over the life and liberty of people. The AFSPA has been applied at different times to most of what constitutes the Union of India’s northeast. No points for guessing in which other zone, apart from the northeast, does the AFSPA remain in force. But lets get back to homogeneity.

The non-homogeneity of the law typically remains buried from the mainstream (for definition of mainstream, see above) because most people from the mainstream simply do not have much reason to venture ‘out there’. The converse is actually true. In an over-centralized system, largesse in the form of opportunities, public facilities, institutions, universities, infrastructure, etc are inordinately showered around a zone around New Delhi called the National Capital Region (NCR). Hence, those from ‘out there’ have to trudge to the centre of the ‘mainstream’, whether they like it or not. It is very rare that this non-homogeneity comes into public scrutiny in the mainstream. Except for the big exception – the K exception. The provisions of the constitution of the Union of India that accords special K provisions has been the stick by which religious majoritarian forces have tried to show their super-special Indian-ness. Others have avoided the issue, for their supposed fear of losing religious minority vote-banks. The agreements between them are far deeper, but let us not go there.

Auspicious days have a special value in our lives. So much so that the ‘bad guys’ specially choose such occasions to mar the jubilation. They must be having a particularly twisted mind. 1st December 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the Indian Union declaring the state (in the constituent province sense) of Nagaland. As late as 1936, the British authorities were not entirely sure where to put most of the ‘northeast’ – in the Empire of India or in the soon-to-be-created crown colony of Burma. Indeed, after 1937, some Naga areas ‘fell’ in Burma. Funny, isn’t it, that the land, that inalienable heirloom of ancestors on which a people live and their identity thrives are not the most important truths – but lines drawn without consent and ‘falling’ on people are. Nagas have led the longest struggle (someone’s terrorism, someone’s insurgency, someone’s freedom struggle – we all know the routine disclaimer) against both the post-British Burmese and Indian states. Whether they are post-colonial states (and this doubtful list includes Pakistan too) depends on whom you ask.

More than 50 years ago, the then prime minister of the Union of India, Jawaharlal Nehru said in the Lok Sabha – “ The Nagas are a hard-working and disciplined people, and there is much in their way of life from which others can learn with profit. We have had for many years Nagas in the Indian Army and they have proved to be excellent soldiers. Our policy has always been to give the fullest autonomy and opportunity to self-development to the Naga people, without interfering in any way in their internal affairs or way of life.” The last sentence is critical, as it goes against the usual thrust of policies from New Delhi – typically aimed at creating a homogenized, Hindustan (Hindi-heartland) centric identity. However, the context is important. When the Brahmin from Allahabad was speaking those words, he knew the stakes. A few years before that, certain Naga groups had conducted a plebiscite. The Union of India did not consider any such plebiscite legal and of course there was no question of respecting the verdict of something it considered illegal in the first place. Legality is something. Reality is typically something else. The army was brought in. These pronouncements by Jawaharlal came shortly after his discussions with a group called the Naga People Convention (NPC). They negotiated the subsequent statehood status for Nagaland. Given the prevailing conditions, special provisions for the State of Nagaland were incorporated as Article 371A of the constitution of the Union of India.

Now on the eve of the 50 glorious years of Nagaland’s life as a state of the Union of India, the ruling party of Nagaland called the Naga People’s Front has decided to take Article 371A of the constitution and certain pronouncements by the Petroleum Ministry in the parliament of the Indian Union at face value. The Nagaland state government wants to use all its natural resources on their own and has cited the constitution to say it is constitutional. This is the kind of problem you get into when you have non-pliant provincial governments. New Delhi is not amused at the constitution being thrown at them. This is a crisis, not so much of law breaking, but of law-following. We probably know how this ends. There will be ‘high-level’ ‘meetings’ and ‘consultations’. The otherwise passive position of the Governor of a state (a New Delhi agent and probably predictably a former CBI apparatchik) will become active. The state government will probably back down. The courts will go the ‘right’ way if it comes to that. It will be ‘all peaceful’ on the Northeastern front. And the Union of India will have lost another opportunity to breathe much-needed life-blood into its federal structure.

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The vast reality beyond Narendrabhai and Rahulbaba / The potentialities of ‘regionalism’

[ Daily News and Analysis, 25 Nov 2013 ; Millenium Post, 27 Nov 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 28 Nov 2013 ; Echo of India, 29 Nov 2013 ]

If you are one of those who think that English language television channels headquartered in and around Delhi present a reliable picture of the subcontinent, it is time to take a serious reality check. Such and other Delhi-centric views would have you believe that the coming Lok Sabha election of the Indian Union is some sort of a boxing match between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi and that the sentiments of the people are neatly divided between the Indira Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These 2 parties distinguish themselves from others by the influence Delhi-based operators have on their policy and workings. Many ‘think-tanks’ that have sprouted up in Delhi, staffed with well-heeled ‘analysts’ with opaque connections to these 2 parties. Puncture one of these ‘tanks’ and what gushes forth is predictable – a lamentation about how the Indian Union cannot be left to anything but ‘national’ parties. The combined chorus of Delhi-based policywallahs, mediawallahs, academics, defence contractors, security apparatchiks and other glittering-shady characters has one tune – there is no choice beyond the Cong and the BJP. Lobbyists and pimps of all hues have invested hard in parties that are operated from Delhi. Each of these sectors has their own reasons to sing that song – but their combined howl has a terrific effect that has the power to move people. Which is precisely why they do the familiar singing when elections are near.

Let me put this cheerleading for the ‘national’ parties in some perspective. For the longest time, a single ‘national’ party ruled the Indian Union uninterruptedly. Since 1989, governments have essentially formed by a national party with a pound-of-flesh arrangement with some others. The national party makes policy while the coalition ‘partners’ keep mum and take their cut. This arrangement is at the heart of the present United Progressive Alliance (led by the Indira Congress) and the National Democratic Alliance (led by the Bharatiya Janata Party). The National Front and United Front governments were notable exceptions where parties with diverse regional origins came together to form policy. The Indian Union is supposedly a federal union – which is an arrangement in which the constituent units  (the states) and Delhi govern together.

Over the decades since partition of 1947, Delhi has consistently and systematically encroached on the rights of the states, by its ‘directives’, arm-twisting opponents or simply by using super-majorities of the Congress years and now increasingly by the unholy alliance on certain matters between the two nationals, Cong and BJP. Whereas centralization of executive power has made the Indian Union less democratic, it has also made the removal of entrenched elites harder. No wonder most members of parliament own property in Delhi and their progeny increasingly live there. On the other hand, the regional parties have been steadfast in their defense of the principle of federalism – as the recent stances by the Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal and others on the issue of opposing the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) clearly show. It is majorly due to the decline of the national parties that today it is not easy to use the kalo ain called Article 356 to remove a democratically elected state government. Balancing the over-centralization that has occurred over the last few decades needs an agenda for true federalism that can be supplied most muscularly by parties that consider their own state as the ‘centre’. Only such formations can demand exclusive state rights over their own resources and revenue. In the absence of economic autonomy of the states, ad-hocism and pound-of-flesh favouritism will keep some states happy and some states neglected. Delhi will corner disproportionate resources and subsidies anyways.

The continued use of the term ‘regional’ has another goal. This is to paint certain groups as hindrances to the speedy march of the Indian Union. ‘Regional’ has become a bad word. But the reality is that most of us (barring some post-liberalization yuppie urbanites) are not ashamed to be Tamils, Marathis, Bengalis, Oriyas and no other identity, real or imagined, can displace that.

What is the scope of these ‘regional’ parties in the global perspective? The Trinamool Congress got more votes in 2009 Lok Sabha than the victorious Tories got in the UK parliamentary elections of 2010. The DMK got more votes than the ruling Conservative party of Canada got in their 2011 federal election. Consider this. Post-partition, no national party has won an absolute majority of votes, ever. Also consider this. Even if I add up the 2 national parties, they have won less than 50 percent votes in 3 of the last 5 Lok Sabha elections. By concentrating simply on these 2 nationals, we stand to lose sight of the diverse and substantial political currents that represent the subcontinental reality. The Indian Union is a federal union. To make it a more democratic union, Delhi needs to be kept in leash by the states. The over centralized, Delhi-controlled India must die so that the Union of India may live.

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Mine is bigger / Heights of silence

[ Outlook, 9 Dec 2013 ]

October and November have been months of big-ticket items that we have been told to be proud of.  While one of these, a mission to Mars, is simply out of this world, the other is not quite so. The proposed statue of Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel will be the tallest in this world. At 182 metres, this ‘Statue of Unity’ will be able to look down upon the ‘Statue of Liberty’, standing at a mere 93 metres. Calls for unity have always cast a long shadow on liberty. Nothing too exceptional there. This latter source of ‘national’ pride will however be built by a non-swadeshi consortium – muscular MNCs from the USA and Australia. It is estimated that the project with all its paraphernalia will cost about 2500 crores.

The primary legatee of Patel’s political stature was the Congress party. But ever since the Panditain split the party in 1967, the successor party has been very selective about its pantheon. Godliness runs in the bloodline and hence the political legacies of many erstwhile Congressite stalwarts with the wrong surnames have gone largely unclaimed, till Narendrabhai really upped the ante by trying to stand on the shoulders of Vallabhbhai. For that antic to pay off, one first needs to create a giant. 2500 crores seems to be enough to build one.

Not so long ago, statues of a different kind were the talk of the town. They too were very costly, but they were numerous and the project did not seem to be particularly timed to serve some greater purpose for Mayawati, the chief patron. When Mayawati got the statues built, including infamously, her own statue, the chattering classes who have long checked out of government hospitals and government schools suddenly became acutely interested in how the money that was being spent in this project would have otherwise done so much good for Uttar Pradesh. Many reams of newsprint and many hours of primetime television were devoted to the absence of proper sanitation facilities, the high maternal mortality rate and other such sad things in Uttar Pradesh. This sharp focus invariably came twinned with the statue project – how the money could have helped Uttar Pradesh in so many ways but for its megalomaniac leader. The shabby state of health and public infrastructure in Uttar Pradesh was not new. What was new was the acute sense of empathy and concern for these timeless problems. What was crucial was the time when the concern came forth. The silence of those sectors of society and media, when it comes to the ‘Statue of Unity’, is deafening, given that Gujarat is not exactly a champion in human development indicators. It was even more deafening in 2010, when the project had been first announced by Narendrabhai. Between then and now, the Indira Congress – NCP government in Maharashtra, has announced a grandiose Shivaji statue project. But the light of scrutiny about the ‘misuse’ of public funds fall disproportionately on mass leaders of certain predictable caste backgrounds. Casteism is unconstitutional but casteism under the cover of public interest is not.

The minimal middle class grumblings that have emerged to the Vallabhbhai statue project is a reflection of some opposition to Narendrabhai’s rising stature as a pretender to Vallabhbhai’s legacy and prime ministerial aspirations. This opposition by its very nature is narrowly partisan and essentially anti-Modi. This is in sharp contrast to the nearly across the board condemnation that Mayawati’s Ambedkar Memorial project received from these very classes. Selective silences that follow many words often tell us a lot about the speakers.

What is Mayawati’s Ambedkar Memorial project anyways? The recent focus on Vallabhbhai by way of Narendrabhai has provided an opportunity for many to get reinformed about the long-dead ‘Iron Man’s’ life in excruciating detail. The audience has had its fill of ‘its’ national greatness that it ought not to forget, not after the statue. But beyond Mayawati and Ambedkar, do they know even the names of the other people whose statues were put up at the Ambedkar Memorial? Who was Sant Narayan Guru? Why do they not know? Why do we know more about certain things vis-à-vis certain other things?

Vallabhbhai has been credited with the process of ‘reuniting’ ‘India’ by forcing the lands of 500 plus princely states into the newly formed Union of India. For many, the unity of the lives of people is the unity that matters. That is the unity that Bhimrao Ambedkar envisaged. It is yet to be achieved. It is that unmet dream that makes him stand out amongst the leaders whose stature, post-partition, has only grown and grown, largely without state patronage and in spite of statue desecrations.

When the powerful or pretenders to power want to thrust forward, they often need vivid inspirations, real or imagined, preferably larger than life. Without such inspirations, certain tempos cannot be sustained for too long. Figures from the past prop up the present and vice versa – in whatever way deemed fit for future purposes. In an environment of power politics that is obsessed with projecting and executing ‘manly’ solutions for a ‘chaotic’ and disobedient subcontinent (my extra-judicial killing is more patriotic than yours), the need for a grand something that brings together the republic, the phallic and the symbolic has been quite acute. It is even overdue, some may say. The invocation of ‘unity’ as a counterweight to insurgent liberty is not new.

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The urban myth of the ‘simple villager’ / The convenient fiction of the ‘simple villager’ / Urban legend of the simple villager

[ Daily News and Analysis, 11 Nov 2013 ; Millenium Post, 9 Nov 2013 ; Echo of India, 12 Nov 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 12 Nov 2013 ]

Our family hails from Patuligram near Jirat, in the Hooghly district of Bengal. We have been there for at least four centuries and our clan has deep ties with the place. This ensured that I accompanied my parents to our ancestral village home once or twice a year. By no stretch of imagination can I claim myself to be a village boy but it was not an altogether alien thing to me. It was not ‘exotic’ or many other things apparently villages in the subcontinent are. That there are as many types of villages as there are villages is something I learned slowly, but that is another matter.

In my childhood years in urban Bengal, ‘Boshe Ako’ (Sit and Draw) painting competitions were a rage among the pre-teens. Anecdotes gathered from others make me think that this was prevalent in many areas of the subcontinent. Today, the definition of ‘coolness’ does not include such things, especially among the more Anglo-Americanized segments of society, but that was then and there. A ‘village scene’ figured among the most popular themes that one would draw.

A typical ‘village scene’ would include a focal hut and sometimes a few huts in the distance, a river, a few coconut trees, a lot of empty paper to signify open land, sometimes a few human figures to denote villagers, and most curiously, a few sharp triangles in the background that might have signified hills with peaks, with the sun peeking out from behind, much like the electoral symbol of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Most villages of the subcontinent do not look like this. This was an idea of the village generated in city-spaces populated with the scions of a generation that could not completely deny their erstwhile origin from villages but were mostly clueless about what it might look like. The tiny producers of these kitsch villages have grown up and gone on to form that generation that wears rootlessness as a badge of honour.

That urban kid of yesteryears was expressing a very distilled form of an ideology. The same kid would draw many more articles in a city scene, make it a much more ‘active’ site of human activity. The village was of one type – undifferentiated. Simple. So were the villagers. Of simple mind. The lack of a human connection with the village (as opposed to the ‘exploration’ tourism type of thing that some urbanites now do) enabled the construction of a certain idea of a village and the villager. Now that rural lands are the primary targets for the unsustainable and parasitic urban expansion, this idea comes most handy. Especially in a development discourse, the simple villager idea helps getting consent and support from crucial urban sectors for land grabbing and urbanization.

The creamier part of this sector is shameless enough to partake in ‘traditional cuisine’ in an ‘authentic’ village setting, set up false ‘village-like’ props during their marriage ceremonies, de-stress at ‘traditional’ spas (the notorious ‘Vedic Village’ is one such) and seek a pollution-free ‘green’ life ‘away from the city’ – one’s private concrete ‘ashiyana’ in a manicured make-believe ‘village’ setting. The obscenity of it all is probably beyond these urban denizens but is not lost on the evicted villagers who often hover around their erstwhile homes and lands as menial help. It is my suspicion that they hover around the Rajarhats and Greater Noidas of the subcontinent even after death.

But the villagers were not so ‘simple’ even in the recent past. Though literary representations are a poor approximation of life itself, for what they are worth, the villagers in the works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Munshi Premchad or Rabindranath Thakur are far from simple. The ‘simple’ villager fiction would not have sold amongst folks whose fathers and grandfathers were from the village and were not quite simple. Manmohan Singh grew up in a village during his ‘impressionable’ years before adulthood. Whatever be his virtues, ‘simplicity’ is not one of them.

The ‘simple’ villager is a useful product of propaganda, which dictates that villagers need to be protected against their own ‘simplicity’. The ‘simple’ villager is most commonly invoked when an obstinate and rooted one does not give up one’s land. His ‘simplicity’ makes him impressionable. He can be easily excited to protest against the state by manipulative ‘outsiders’. He, thus, has no agency. His opposition is false. His protest is false. His simplicity is true. Under these false ideas, we find the ideology of power at work, that always saves people from their own ideas. The simple village was born in a complex metropole without an umbilical cord but a voracious appetite. The objective of this infantilizing of the village is not nurture but infanticide. The paintings of our urban childhood were not that simple after all.

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Filed under Bengal, Displacement, Elite, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Sahib, Urbanity

The many avatars of Asaram Bapu / The Asarams around us

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 Oct 2013 ]

The way the likes of Asaram Bapu and other ‘godmen’ have allegedly taken sexual advantage of the iniquitous power dynamic they had with their ‘disciples’ makes any consent in their acts questionable. Especially in the case of Asaram Bapu, the image of this man with ‘fans’ and disciples half his age or even less has evoked widespread revulsion from disciples and non-disciples alike. What Asaram preaches cannot be separated from what Asaram does. Can we extend these criteria to others? Which other people get away by taking advantage of iniquitous power dynamics?

There is something called ‘artistic license’, a concept often used to create a smoke-screen of exception around activities otherwise abhorrent. Some things are apparently okay if an iniquitous power situation is perpetrated by an artist, writer, poet, musician, visual artists, film-types – some ‘creative’ person. Not everyone is like this but you know the type we are talking about. In this ‘creative’ crowd, one often discovers characteristics that Asaram would recognize. A famous Bengali poet-novelist was known for his ‘intellectual’ communion with fans, typically half his age. Another equally famous and now-deceased writer of romance from Bangladesh married his daughter’s friend who was into films. Typically, they marry or propose to people half their age. The need for ‘fresh meat’ is a sick mentality that they can couch well by their word-wizardry and their ‘artistic’ bent. Some who marry early (like the deceased poet-novelist) put their spouses through a life of shame and indignity. Those who were just too cool for marriage before their 40s make it up by marrying people half their age. Are god-men the only schemers while these are on experimental ‘journeys’? Do these writers write why they mostly like them young – or will that literary ‘exploration’ destroy the ‘opportunity’ at hand one might be nourishing? Will abstract painters paint and film-types make ‘experimental’ films on the nitty-gritties of their inner schemes? That we don’t call out what’s going on here should cause serious self-reflection in those of us who condemn the Asarams. This blind-spot is especially troubling due to the deep sexism embedded of these circles. In such inequities, the less rich, famous and younger is mostly a female.

How do these wreckers of families and individuals, get such a long leash? Just because they are rich celebrities who can charm young ones in whirlwind summer romances of ‘special attention’ when people of their own age cohort have moved on? The combination of age, power/fame and economic difference is characteristic of a predator. Sadly, the victim’s false sense of agency is characteristic of the ‘liberated’ circles. Just like god-men, predators also often have a fully liberated person in every town, you know, just in case on has to drop in for some relief and ‘catching up’. Some victims are lured into thinking that they too are part of the predator’s dreamy, ‘interesting’, ‘care-free’, ‘experiential’ and ‘experimental world. This charade of agency is important for the ‘liberated’, for from that flows a sense of consent. Tragically, the predators know this too well and use to the hilt to their advantage.

Some victims return to society to cut losses. It hurts the pride of the ‘conscious’ and ‘liberated’ victim to admit that. Society holds the bag to collect the wreckage; due to ties it considers sacred – family values, matrimony and other markers of ‘backwardness’. If only these backward types could mix in the right circles, read the correct books and be ‘articulate’, snort the right stuff in right company, then they would understand such ‘creative’, ‘consensual’ projects. But alas.

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Filed under Culture, Elite, Eros, Gender, Our underbellies, Sahib, Scars, Sex, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

Death of a general / The unconquered General Giap

[ Daily News and Analysis, 12 Oct 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 24 Oct 2013 ]

‘Amar nam, tomar naam,

Vietnam, Vietnam’

(Your name, my name, Vietnam, Vietnam)

-       a popular slogan in West Bengal expressing solidarity with the Vietnemse people during the US-led military operations against Vietnam in the 60s and the 70s.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant chief of the Vietnamese forces who gave the French, till-then the hardest kick in their back from a colonized people, died on 4th October. The development of civilizational and philosophical finesse in the form of Michelin stars, ‘fine’ dining, schools of politics and philosophy, experimental art and delicate wines have long been subsidized by the blood and tears of non-White people. So General Giap and his Vietnamese guerrillas surely left a bad, non-fruity after taste in the French palate. The French were thoroughly defeated at Dien Bien Phu. They surrendered to the Vietnamese. We had won.

For the subcontinent, whose ‘liberation’ from colonial rule did not involve surrender of the colonizers naturally did not involve liberation from the institutions that suppressed rebellions, beat up and tortured political workers, certain national liberation struggles of South-East Asia may seem from a different world. Indeed, it was a different world, where the native-staffed army and police that swore undying allegiance to some European power, did not automatically become the army of police of ‘independent’ nation-states. In the subcontinent, armed group of men in uniform loyal to the British crown, turned desi patriots overnight, with rank, pay and pension protected. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that the Indian Union’s Indian Army has conducted extensive aerial bombing of its own citizens in Mizoram and armed-uniformed wings of the state are the organizations accused of the largest number of rapes, again, of its own citizens. Its twin born out of the same transfer of power, the Pakistan Army has aerial bombed its own citizens in Balochistan for years. For a subcontinent, which has been taught to mix up transfer of power (and institutions) with national liberation, Vietnam would have showed them what the real thing looks like.

The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu shook the world. For those uninfected by the ‘White-awe’ syndrome, like Malcolm X, the meaning of this victory was clear who used this for his own political preaching. ‘White man can’t fight a guerilla warfare. Guerilla action takes heart, takes nerve, and he doesn’t have that. He’s brave when he’s got tanks. He’s brave when he’s got planes. He’s brave when he’s got bombs. He’s brave when he’s got a whole lot of company along with him, but you take that little man from Africa and Asia, turn him loose in the woods with a blade. That’s all he needs. All he needs is a blade. And when the sun goes down and it’s dark, it’s even-steven.’

There was a time when the 1905 Japanese naval victory over the Russians broadened the chest of many a brown people. There was a time when a significant number of middle-class brown people too considered themselves Asians. The idea of Asia and Asian-ness is long-gone from the subcontinent. The great-grand children of such brown Asians have their mindscapes dominated by video games and films and shows, with white winners, white saviours, white sexiness, white ruggedness, white determination, white failings, white sacrifices, white sadness and a million other minute shades of white-human personhood. To this generation, the Asian is a term for folks with ‘slit eyes’ – such is the pernicious grip of whiteness on bankrupt minds. Part of the reason that the subcontinent is saddled with false gods and extreme alienation is that we never had our own General Giap. Which is why, when this towering personality breathed his last, we did not know that we had lost our very own. The Vietnamese got a national liberation army. We got folks who pride themselves on being patted on the back for killing colored people, at home and in faraway land, for the British monarch.

My own city, Kolkata, had a special connection with General Giap and Vietnam. Even before partition, the students of Kolkata observed Vietnam Day in January 1947 in solidarity with the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle. The brown British police killed 2 protesting students. The same police would be designated loyal enforcers of law in about 8 months time. General Giap visited the city more than once and then, as a school student, I had the good fortune of seeing him with my own eyes. Thousands had assembled to catch a glimpse of him that day. I feel it is not unrelated that removing slums is still the hardest in that metropolis. Many browns have a peculiar interest in the twists and turns of the World Wars. That the chivalrous white man dropped more bombs in Vietnam to crush them than they dropped in each other in Europe during the Second World war is one of those details that do not break into brown consciousness due to the ideological predilections we have to due other kinds of story-telling that we have become specifically atuned to, as an enslaved people. We know about white successes and white failings, white truths and white fictions, but that’s about it. In our enslaved heads, we can love or critique Rambo and other ‘world’-saving White creatures, real and imagined, but many coloured people were saved for the likes of General Giaps, big and small. Let us expand our heads to accommodate our heroes.


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Filed under Bengal, Colony, History, Kolkata, Memory, Nation, Obituary, Sahib

Paying the price for a gory ideology of hostage theory / Vague vengeance driving terror / Vague vengeance and Pakistan church blast

[ Daily News and Analysis, 1 Oct 2013; Millenium Post, 7 Oct 2013; Shillong Times, 7 Oct 2013; Echo of India, 9 Oct 2013 ]

“Ekbar matir dike takao,

 Ekbar manusher dike”

 (Once, take a look at the ground beneath your feet. Then, look at human beings)

 –  Birendra Chattopadhyay, Bengali poet (1920-1985)


In the most murderous attack on what is left of the ever-terrorized Christian population in Pakistan, Islamic terrorists have killed at least 85 worshippers at the All Saints Church in Peshawar on September 22nd. Inspired suicide bombers were the weapon of choice to target the Christian congregation. The death count is still rising, as more people succumb to their injuries in the hospitals. Outright murder represents the sharpest edge of what Christian and other ‘constitutionally’ non-Muslim people endure in Pakistan. Their daily life in a nation-state that officially considers them unequal in various ways to official Muslims is not pretty. Usurpation of property, blasphemy charges, attacks and destruction of places of worship, rape and subsequent forced conversion (or the reverse order) of womenfolk form the visible tip of a much broader systemic antagonism.

Thankfully, the minorities are not completely friendless in Pakistan. At huge personal risk, people like IA Rahman, Asma Jehangir, Abid Hasan Minto and many others have been standing in solidarity with religious minorities of Pakistan, protesting on the streets, for decades together. The threat to their lives is real, as was shown by the brutal murder of Salman Taseer, governor of West Punjab, and someone who had expressed solidarity with a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, phonily charged with blasphemy against Islam and given a death sentence. The recent anti-Christian massacre has brought the predictable protestors to the streets – human rights activists, left activists and the Christian community itself. But in addition to this, a somewhat broader segment also has protested. These groups have demanded that there be no dialogue or negotiations with Islamic terrorists behind this attack.

While shunning dialogue, the society in Pakistan may do well to initiate a broader dialogue. Directed not at the clearly-defined demons like the Taliban, this dialogue may point to a broader disease that emanates uncomfortably from the holy-cows of that nation-state. Only the society-at-large can initiate such a dialogue that explores the contours and content of inherited socio-political ideology, things that take a providential status as foundation-myths of any nation-state. Should one take a closer look at holy cows and foundation myths to diagnose the disease?

Jundallah, the Islamic terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the Peshawar massacre, laid out in no uncertain terms how it justifies the attack. ‘‘All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country.’’ So, non-Muslims in Pakistan are, in their understanding, more America’s than Pakistan’s and if America cared enough for its ‘own’ in Pakistan, it had better stop doing things to Muslims in Pakistan. This equation of America = Christian = some hapless Suleiman Masih in Peshawar has widespread appeal, not only for its simplicity, but also for its antiquity. For those who have a somewhat longer memory, the subcontinent has known this for some time – most famously as the pernicious ‘hostage’ theory.

The ‘hostage’ theory has been around for some time. This was enunciated most explicitly by Mohammad-Ali Jinnahbhai, the quaid of the All India Muslim League, as a macabre formula for peace. By this notion, the safety of religious ‘minorities’ in the then still-to-be-born Pakistan and India would be ensured by the fact that the majority community A wont attack minority community B, because in other places, community A is a minority where B is the majority, and hence vulnerable to ‘retributive’ counterattack. Hence, it would ensured (or so it was thought) that violence would not happen locally, as communities that imagine themselves non-locally, would see that this could go tit for tat for ‘themselves’ elsewhere. A minority then is a hostage of the majority. If there are two hostage takers, peace will be ensured. Rather then hostage-driven peace, the subcontinent has witnessed many instances of what can be called retaliatory hostage torture. The massacre of Hindus in Noakhali on Kojagori Lakshmi puja day, the massacre of Muslims at Garhmukteshwar, the reciprocal train-massacres crossing the Radcliffe border of the Punjab, the massacres in Dhaka and Barisal – the list goes on. The list shows that hostage torture enjoyed a broad currency. The Muslim League was simply brazen enough to state it as such. Other groups also used it to their advantage to the hilt.

A tacit acknowledgement of the ‘hostage’ status of minorities was the basis of the Nehru-Liaquat pact – to protect the minorities in West Bengal and East Bengal. The hostage theory lives on when the Babri mosque demolition causes hundreds of temples to be destroyed in the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. This is why a Hindu there is more India’s than theirs – sort of an unreasonable remnant that ideally shouldn’t have been there. The hostage theory is an ideology of the book and not of the soil. The question of a human’s belonging, in that heartless scheme of things, is not with the soil beneath his ground, but with someone faraway bound by similar ideology. This binds people from disparate soils similarly, and divides people from the same soil. The modern dominance of universalist, extra-local ideologies of community definition, as opposed to the local and the ecological, has taken a very heavy toll on humanity. Peshawar shows that the ideology of the hostage theory is alive and well in the subcontinent. Jundallah is its bloody edge. The softer margins include a very many among us.

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Filed under Bengal, Dhaka, Foundational myths, Identity, India, Kolkata, Our underbellies, Pakistan, Partition, Religion, Scars, Terror, Under the skin

Tropical universities and knowledge production / University rankings and India / University rankings and Indian academia

[ Daily News and Analysis, 16 Sep 2013; Kashmir Reader, 17 Sep 2013; Millenium Post, 20 Sep 2013; Shillong Times, 21 Sep 2013; Hitavada, 22 Sep 2013; Echo of India, 25 Sep 2013]

As world rankings of universities are being discussed, we are back to that sad truth. No university in the subcontinent figures in the top 200 universities in the world. However, one would not realize this when one looks at the cocksureness and pomposity of desi academics in the subcontinent. There is a Bengali idiom called ‘Bon gaye sheyal raja’ which means that in a far-way forested village, even a fox can be king. Such is the state of affairs around us.

Some would have us believe that it was not always so. Around the time of the great uprising of 1857 led by the mercenaries of the East India Company, 3 universities were also established in the 3 presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. In no small way the result of a 1854 dispatch sent by Charles Wood, a top dog of the Company, to James Broun-Ramsay, the then governor general of Company territories in the subcontinent, these 3 institutions continue to be important institutions of higher learning in the Union of India.

Founded in the same year, all these institutions celebrated 150 years of their existence, with a lot of pomp. I graduated from one of these afore-mentioned universities and I was present at more than one such ‘celebration’. Four years after 1857, on the other side of the globe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the institution I am affiliated to at present, was established. I was also present at its 150-year celebration events. Thus I had the opportunity to compare what I had seen and heard in the subcontinent and in Massachusetts, USA. The difference could not have been starker. Much of what I heard in the sub-continental anniversary celebrations was about a supposed glorious past, long-standing ‘heritage’, a lot of talk about famous personalities associated with the institutions and gloating over all this. At MIT, almost invariably I heard about plans about the future – new avenues of research, newer expansions, and newer challenges. There was not much mention of personalities in the institute that has produced 78 Nobel laureates till date. Neither is MIT peppered with ‘museums’ dedicated to Nobel laureates. Museums are same as temples and mosques – places of praying for things to go right miraculously, not places of action.

In the subcontinent, when one thinks of MIT, a centre of excellence for research in engineering and technology is the typical impression. While that is true, according to the 2013 update of the well-regarded QS World University Rankings published last week, in the whole world, MIT is second only to Harvard in Biological Sciences and Economics. What this means is that it has not simply stuck to its one-time strengths but has actively diversified its ‘priorities’. In doing so, it has also shut down departments and divisions whose shelf life was perceived to be over. These are signs of a living institution in conversation with the cutting edge of knowledge production – situated squarely within the social needs and agendas of the society it derives meaning from.

In the QS rankings, MIT tops the list Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Princeton are also among the top 10. It may be news to some readers that not one of the top 10 universities of the world has a department of botany at present. In most cases, they ceased to exist decades ago. All that remains are museums bearing that erstwhile department’s name. Contrast this to the large departments of botany in most universities of the subcontinent. May be there is something we get that ‘they’ don’t. Given that the occidental university system and department making is something that ‘they’ taught us, could it be that there is something they get that we don’t?

It is worthwhile to continue with the example of botany. When the white colonial powers set up universities in the subcontinent, why did they set up departments of botany? What knowledge did they seek to produce? For whose benefit? What made them wind up or fuse certain departments? To cut whose loss? All knowledge production and prioritization exists in a societal context – the colonizer’s societal context fashioned their decisions, at home and in the colonies. Given that we are not only inheritors of such university systems but also active perpetuators, do we have an appreciation of our own reasons to do so? Why are there so few institutions like the Indian Statistical Institute that was conceived in a social context, whose agenda is in conversation with the society it derives funding from and blooms in and also is a centre of excellence?

But then this is part of a bigger problem. So let me broaden the ambit a bit.Why do certain things, like homeopathy and psychoanalysis, have long after-lives in the once-colonized tropics compared to places from where they were imported? Lets hone in on psychoanalysis. To understand the mind, one needs to study the mind and yes, people are studying the mind. Much of these studies are not aimed towards illness or pharmaceuticals, in any foreseeable way. If some have a muse in the form of psycho-analysis, an outdated fad which has all but died except in ‘fields’ insulated from currents around them, they can have it. Just not with people’s funds. The tropics can ill afford it. Understanding the mind shouldnt be a dead idea but unverifiable tracts cannot replace inquiry and can hardly be called a knowledge project. And again, the social context is crucial to all these things. The question in the piece is, why do such things continue to live in tropics long after they are dead in their places of origin. The answer may partly lie in the very skewed class-caste composition in the academia of the subcontinent – this enables socially insulated indulgence to a dangerous degree.

When the site of knowledge production is far off and they cater primarily to needs of alien societies, transferred knowledge and ideas create a sense of awe. This results in a lack of confidence to manipulate, to break, to discard. In so far as universities are fountainheads of societal knowledge yearnings, what do our societies want to know? Have we even asked? We better start doing that. Otherwise we risk becoming expert cleaners and preservers of other people’s furniture, even lacking the confidence of changing the arrangement. However the cleaner’s wage is paid by our own brown people. This is how the third world continues down the path of being  2nd class at the 1st world’s priorities and it is mightily proud about it.

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Filed under Acedemia, Education, Elite, Identity, Knowledge, Science

My vote for pluralism

[ Open Magazine, 14 Sep 2013 ]

On one issue, there is no doubt. If there was a murder most foul – it was Narendra Dabholkar’s. The slain leader of the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samithi was, by any measure, a well-wisher of the people. He was a strong supporter of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. He had been fighting, for decades, an unwavering war against ‘black magic’ practitioners and had ruined the business for quite a few. Threat to his life was ever-present. It is thought that the recent airing of his views endorsing inter-caste marriages and his long-term push for an anti-superstition bill finally did him in.

A doctor by training, Narendra Dabholkar cut his teeth in rural social service with another doctor-turned-activist Baba Adhav during the “Ek gaav, ek panavtha” (One village, one pond) movement. What set Dabholkar apart from many atheist-rationalists is how his work was deeply embedded in society – not preaching from above but militantly conversing alongside. He earned his legitimacy by living an exemplary life. The widespread shock and anger on his murder points to that. Urban rationalist talking heads might learn a thing or two from his life before complaining for the umpteenth time how ignorant the people are. During his lifetime, he was painted, with partial success, as someone who was anti-religion. That view also has serious currency. It is important to see why.

Dabholkar led a crusade against the deleterious environmental effects of divine idols. Water pollution was the holy cow that was used to elicit a court order banning certain kinds of idol-making substance in Maharashtra. Is that being anti-religion or anti a particular religion? Who knows. But put back in the context of a world where the people see the pollution and choking of rivers, lakes and other waterbodies by large-scale industrial effluents going unpunished, this particular focus on water pollution from idols does carry a different charge.  What conclusion should those idol-worshippers draw, who see both the ban against plaster-of-paris idols and the unchecked water pollution from other sources? Believers are not donkeys.

It is not a coincidence that nearly all the self-styled gung-ho rationalists or ‘magic’-busters of the subcontinent are also staunch atheists. A stupendous majority of the people is not. However, when preaching rationalism, the preacher’s atheism bit is downplayed or made invisible. We are not against religion but against superstition, they say. Believers are not sheep either and can identify patronizing double-speak. They are naturally left unimpressed by those who claim to be sympathetic do-gooders but actually could give two hoots about people’s beliefs and viewpoints.

The grand failure of such atheist/rationalist projects, in spite of having the full weight of the constitution of the Indian Union behind them, also has to do with the patently alien idioms of communication and propaganda that they use. That the rationalist propagandists themselves are often alienated from the living currents of their own society does not help matters.

When a miniscule minority aims to scare, browbeat and threaten people of faith by trying to get legislation passed that criminalize practices that believers voluntarily submit to, what we have is a most naked use of privileged access. This privilege follows the usual path of undemocratic access in the subcontinent – urban backgrounds, English education, Delhi connections, friends in media and so on. Every time such legislation is passed, it undercuts democracy – for, in their spirit, such legislations seek to act as wise elders, running roughshod over the beliefs and opinions of the people at large. It may befit a sociopath to assume that the masses are either juvenile or imbecile or manipulated or in darkness. It hardly is the ideal characteristic of a socially engaged being in a democratic society. Every individual is a complete moral agent with as much intelligence and responsibility as the next one.

In the absence of empathy and respect towards difference – things that are the basis of a harmonious society, we have elitocracy. When some urban rationalists shamelessly clap at ‘anti-supersetition’ bills and legislations that few believers would agree to in a referendum, they often let the mask of false empathy and democratic pretense fall off from their faces. They can afford to do this as throwing stones at glass houses far from one-self has always been a very non-risky affair. Some excel at this. It is in the context of this snooty and privileged way of looking down and talking down to the believing unwashed masses that Ashis Nandy, the shaman of our times, had said ‘There are superstitions, and there are superstitions about superstitions.’ Others chose to work amongst the people and live (and some, like Dabholkar, unfortunately die) in the consequence of their actions. It is this latter kind which has won some legitimacy from the people.

In some ways, the work of rationalists should have become easier with rise of textual religion in many parts of the world, including the subcontinent. The level of canon literacy that exists now among the believers is truly unprecedented. But text also pins down belief, making it vulnerable to the kinds of tactics that rationalists use to expose certain practices. Ostensibly, contradictions between a certain belief and empirical reality can be shown more easily as scriptures and canons have taken up a largely immutable form by now. For example, followers of scriptures which claim a flat-earth or that the sun revolves around the earth are ripe for engagement as part of the rationalists’ ‘blind-faith’ removal programme. Rationalists have failed to do even that.

Reminding the body of believers that the development of ‘scientific temper’ is one of the ‘fundamental duties’ of the citizen according to the constitution of the Indian Union does not win any friends, neither does it challenge rationalists to develop meaningful ways of  engagement for their cause. This compounded by the notion that such ‘juktibadi’ (rationalist) types even look and act in a certain way. They are not different from other posturing social types like the faux-westernized body-art loving ‘rebellious’ 20-something yuppie of the post-liberalization era or the jhola-beard-jeans-chappal type communist youth of the same era. That certain rationalists chose to boycott all social occasions like marriage, funeral and so on as religious rites are performed there does not help in their social immersion.

Lived religion, like any other aspect of human life, is not something unpolluted from a changing world. Religion is not what it used to be and that is how it has always been. Religion has also taken up characteristics and props of this age of mass production of material goods, easy transport, mass media and increasing literacy in a few languages of dominance and power. The peculiarities of this age put their stamp on religion to create bizarre products that are as much characteristics of the age as they are of religion that consents to such corruption. In a way, that is how religion has always ‘survived’ in any meaningful sense of the word ‘survive’. However, to use the specific peculiarities of an age to paint religiosity or practices in general as a timeless evil is neither honest nor tactically smart. Constitutions and new ‘values’ that disappear almost as soon as they develop cannot and should not speak down to faith. This point becomes especially poignant when one quotes Karl Marx out of context – ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’

Let me make a final point. What is it to be human is a question that is hard to answer but a significant part of the world population, including the present author, believes that there are multiple ways of being human. Faith elements that are non-textual, that are handed down in communities, that makes their presence known in myriad practices (some of which may qualify in rationalist-speak as superstition) also contribute to the multiple ways of being human. These very many ways of being human come with as many world-views and whole theories of the workings of the world. These theories, world-views and practices – to what extent are they separable from one’s special sense of self and identity in this world? Religions, gods, goddesses and other beings, in so far as they are responsive to the changing world and living communities with which they are in constant interaction, also change. Being a certain kind of Bengalee, I grew up in the thick of brotos (practices to receive divine blessings) and many other acts, from which my particular kind of ‘Bengaleeness’ is indistinguishable. The gods and goddesses of my ‘Bengaleeness’, Ma Durga, Ma Monosha (often vulgarized off-hand as a ‘snake goddess’), Dhormo Thakur, and other divines who inhabit fringes of my ‘Bengaleeness’ like Ma Shitola, BonoDurga, and the practices and ‘superstitions’ associated with the particulars of my birth accident make me, in no small way. This Bengaleeness is not a static thing – static not even in a lifetime. Faiths and gods continue to communicate and adapt with the changing world their adherents inhabit. When some gods cannot adapt, they die too. An earlier time would have produced a different notion of selfhood in me.

Without this scaffolding, what kind of human would I be? Some may have no need of such things but what about the rest of us? What does this lack of particular scaffolding look like anyways?  Why do those do prescribe leaving such things, appear so much more similar to each other? Those who have some stake in the intrinsic plurality of the human condition and think that preserving that is a good thing, where would they stand if this homogeneity were the cost of inculcating a atheist-rationalist worldview. In any case, in colonial societies, the anti-traditionalist worldview can be as much received wisdom as any other tradition. Such a formulation might hurt the bloated egos of those who think that university departments and wistfully imported and badly digested bits of European post-enlightenment thought elevates them vis-à-vis their fellow hapless and ignorant brown people. Make no mistake; the hapless also have a theory about those who hold them in contempt.

Till ‘rationalism’ finds a way of preserving and strengthening the plural ways of being human that human societies believe they have produced in cahoots with their gods among other things, it certainly does not have my vote. An imported version of the universal brotherhood of man, something that some curious residents of the tropics always take to with more zeal and seriosity than the west itself ever did, is a cheap replacement for the loss of a million gods and a billion ‘superstitions’.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Caste, Democracy, Elite, Faith, Identity, Knowledge, Plural pasts, Religion, Science

Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

Recently I was exposed to an interesting concept called Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ This means, the longer an online discussion gets, it becomes more and more likely that someone would bring in some comparison with Hitler or the Nazis. Those who inhabit the fractious world of online discussions (and I sometimes do) would be able to appreciate whether Mike Godwin has a point or not. The more general point of Godwin’s ‘law’ is that certain words, concepts and themes (like ‘Hitler’, ‘Nazi’) have such a wide currency (at least among a majority of Westerners and a minority of browns) as powerful symbols that they have been used in almost any context, to counter anything, to badmouth anyone. Of course that reflects poorly on the user of these terms. If every debate with me involves me throwing the same debate-stopping expletive at the other person, I have just put my intolerance on display. And if one cannot counter someone else’s point of view except by throwing back words that are mostly used as exaggerations out of context, then we have someone who is also petulant and insecure.

Be that as it may, this Godwin’s ‘law’ reminded me of certain similar things that I have often faced in discussion with some modern brown people (a.k.a. ‘enlightened Indians’ who have a particular distaste for those who use hair-oil). When one discusses any element that might faintly sound as a defence of things whose ethno-cultural roots are to be found among brown-people, certain alarm-bells and defences go up among the hair-oil haters. And by chance if something relatively indigenous is counterposed to something imported from a White domain, all hell breaks lose. Specifically two hells – Sati and snakebite. In that predictable and unimaginative barrage, any talk of being comfortable in one’s inherited brown mode of life in defiance of the newest imported flavor of the week makes one a supporter of wife-burning. And of course, the same person would be confronted with the ‘gotcha’ question – so what would you do in case of a snakebite?  Such is the potency of these two symbols of brown viciousness and backwardness respectively that even partner-assaulting modern males and patient-gouging medical practitioners liberally use these without an iota of shame and self-reflection. It is the ‘ideology’ that matters, stupid.

This same class of moderns typically exhibits a near-complete lack of understanding of the fall and the rise of Sati, its caste specificity, especially in the context of the subcontinent’s colonial encounter. Any engagement with modern Sati is apologia; any nuance is ‘obscurantism’. Again, when they go after ‘witch-doctors’ and faith healers with the certitude of a neo-convert, they hardly want to understand the reasons behind the continued presence of these institutions in society, against the tremendous odds of denigrating propaganda. This lofty non-engagement reminds me of those savarnas who ‘do not believe in caste’, ‘hate casteism’, have savarnas over-represented among their friend circles and cannot name even 10 shudra caste surnames.

The struggle against the practice of Sati were led by fighters with a social connect, and could not have been decisive without people’s consent. This was true then, this is true now. It is in this context that the Maharashtra ordinance against ‘black magic’ has to be seen. The anti-superstition bill criminalizes displays of miracles, doing ‘black magic’ to search for missing things, saying that a divine spirit has possessed oneself and various other things. Far from being criminal, many of these things are deemed to be within the domain of real happening by a significant number of people in whose name the ordinance has been promulgated. Paying homage to the respected rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is something, passing laws as a knee-jerk reaction that criminalizes activities which enjoy wide social acceptance is quite another. Yes, there are organized vested interests in some of these activities. But to think that whole people are being manipulated and that they need to be saved by know-it-all people is not only demeaning to the personhood of the believers, but also demeaning to the concept of unfettered universal adult franchise. It infantilizes the people, opening the gates of paternalistic legislation. And that, my friends, is not good for democratic functioning.

Beyond fundamental rights of individuals like right to life and right to consent to bodily intervention, whether a practice in society is harmful or not is not something that only ‘experts’ can decide. Social practices are multi-dimensional and can have more consent and agency built into them that have ‘uses’ beyond the immediate ‘efficacy’ of ‘black-magic’. One also has to understand how and why a witch doctor whose interventions could not save a life is looked upon as a bigger criminal than a MBBS doctor whose negligence causes the death of a patient. The social alienation of those who look upon the people as backward and superstitious might do well to ask themselves – why is it more likely that they have heard of Richard Dawkins, the fiery rationalist from England, but may not have a clue who frail, brown Aroj Ali Matubbor was? The problem is that metro-bred and metro-based alienated life-forms have infected the decision making and power centres of the nation-state – the government, the ‘NGO’s, the universities and the like. The socially alienated cannot expect people’s support and no wonder people’s support eludes them – if anything, they live in fear of their alienation and contempt being exposed in front of the people on whose name they so often speak and act. Narendra Dabholkar knew that and had been wise to avoid that posturing. I hope those who are mourning this selfless man’s death also keep that in mind.

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Filed under A million Gods, Class, Education, Elite, Faith, History, Knowledge, Power, Religion, Science, Urbanity

Next time you hear intellectual mumbo jumbo/ On the accountability of ‘intellectuals’ / Knowledge in these times / Lacking in intelligibility and accountability

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Aug 2013 ; Morung Express, 23 Aug 2013 ; Daily Excelsior (Jammu), 25 Aug 2013 ; Echo of India, 1 Sep 2013 ; Millenium Post, 24 Aug 2013 ]

A kind of human being derives strange pleasure in appreciating music that few others like. In fact, if too many people start listening to it, they get dejected. Their special thing has become too commonplace like a road-side tea stall. Such is often the case with those academicians and their acolytes who love big words and impenetrable sentences. They protect their rarified lens to the world with smugness. They are quick to defend their demi-gods of helped them build these lenses. Why would legitimate knowledge seekers be so invested in thinkers than thoughts themselves and whether such idolatry is healthy for frank and critical knowledge production is another question.

In the first year of my PhD at Harvard, I sat in a 2-semester long statistics class. Professor Jim Sidanius, a former Black Panther, taught us concepts – breaking them down for us. But he also wanted to make sure that we were digesting the broken bits. He knew that hiding behind jargon is the best way to evade clarity. And he would have none of it. So, when he asked us questions, and we started replying in jargon, he would promptly cut us short and ask with a smile – ‘How will you explain that to my grand-ma?” This was a crucial question. In many cases, it called our bluff and made us more honest to ourselves. This was more than knowledge acquisition. Jim was trying to drive in a characteristic that academicians and thinkers owe to society – clarity.

Clarity is something that ought not to be limited to knowledge acquisition, but also knowledge production and communication of ideas. But are not some ideas inherently so complex that an insistence of broad intelligibility would somehow make those ideas flatter than they actually are. And to this, a response came from Steven Pinker, another professor from our department at Harvard. To simplify is not to be simplistic, he said.

Fine, but why should we care about such issues at all? Ideas shape people, their ideas about themselves, other and the world at large. So, if certain kinds of ideas gain currency, it is important that these do not become received wisdom but are critically evaluated by the people. For that, it is necessary that knowledge and ideas are available to the people at-large, with clarity, in forms and sites they can best engage in. Academicians occupy the most privileged centre of knowledge production in our times – the university. Hence they have to be held particularly accountable in this regard.

However, when we look into the academic circles that universities have been breeding, they seem to breed a pathetic tendency to jargonize and speak in tongues that are largely (and I daresay, intentionally) unintelligible to people. The intention is not necessarily conscious for most practitioners of this dubious art – it is something they pick up to be counted. This gulf between ‘high-brow’ knowledge and its public intelligibility is most acute in those practitioners to invoke that shameful phrase ‘in our field’. Typically, this implies that one would take liberties about facts or be oblivious of contrary facts, not expose the underbelly of assumptions to scalpels, would discount fundamental criticisms as being ill-motivated or worse, expressions of ‘power’. Such a petulant water-tightness is typically seen in ‘fields’ full of ‘-isms’ or those where sentences are peppered with things like, ‘in a –ian sense/paradigm/view’. And so forth. The latter is a classic method of saying – I will say this to you without explanation. Either you will not along as you wont admit to knowing what the ‘-ian view’ is, or if you say so, I will give such an exasperated look and say, well all this has been known for so long, and you are not at an intellectual level where I deem fit to engage with you. And such elements still have the gall to say that society owes their keep to them. It takes an immense amount of hubris to think that ideas articulated in forms unintelligible by much of perfectly intelligent people have added that much to that understanding that it can demand funding in spite of being unintelligible.

In the subcontinent, a rich tradition of handed-down knowledge in the form of songs and sayings attributed to thinkers like Kabir and Lalon Shah and myriad other unnamed ones, makes one thing very clear. The subcontinent has had intellectuals who have engaged with the public in terms that were clear and have been thought leaders who have shaped people’s conceptions. In such interactions, knowledge and ideas are located within society, and not in some cabal outside it, claiming to ‘understand’ society. Song and pravachans which people still know and remember have helped people deal and make sense of the human condition for millennia.

Only in a self-important and delusional view of human existence do recently produced knowledge and ideas come to be considered so groundbreaking and crucial for understanding the human condition. This view, in which the recent is so privileged, expresses the same kind of attitude that concepts like jahalaat embody. The difference is that the last 100 or 400 years are considered unprecedented.

Some would have you believe that the last 50 years have been crucial. But then we know there is nothing special except the kind of self-importance that confuses recency with progress. In such a ‘progressive’ world-view, earlier times are deemed bland. For example, the 50 years between say 1200 AD and 1250 AD would be considered much less ‘eventful’ which the period between 1950 and 2000 apparently has been world-changing is terms of idea productions. But the world was there then and it is there now. The same is true for the humankind and the human condition.

To think of ourselves of having been born in some special time can be nice. But it gets problematic when, to make careers out of ideas generated in the last 50 years, people start over-selling these times. That the selling involves more hocus pocus does not help. And hence, public scrutiny becomes important to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the end of the day, we know that two humans make more sense of the world than one, and three more than two, other things being the same. So, claims of certain geographical locales being particular sites of production of relevant and crucial knowledge, especially when such locales are also centers of colonial capital accumulation, have to be viewed with suspicion. Ideas from these locales also are in lock-step with the idea that the last 400 years or so have so uniquely informative in understanding the human condition. Decolonization of the mind is not an easy thing. It is especially hard to accomplish when such concepts live so comfortably within us, become like our skin and self-identity. We are not only slaves in what we follow, we can also be slaves in what we deem important, how we organize our mental worlds around exotic concepts, especially when we exhibit a distinct lack of understanding of the knowledge and ideas around us, in the specific geographies where we are embedded, in flesh, descent and culture. How did we come to be the way we are is a question we ought to be asking ourselves.

I again return to the role of the intellectual, the academic, the thinker. Like most people who live off the public exchequer, earning one’s keep has to have people’s assent. Speaking over the head of the people, in the name of the people, remaining unintelligible and all the time claiming to unearth some deep understanding of the people, of their lives, desires, politics, structures and what not, is good for conversations inside such cabals. The outside world has not been scathing in asking for accountability. Like the Sanskrit mantras of today, these are performed technically in public view but are insider-talk at the end of the day. Such insider-talk, whatever its purported merits and brilliance, come with a severe lack of checks and balances, like any other priestly order. This is a dangerous thing for knowledge production as load fulls of quality bull shit can pass off as insight if its sounds and feels right to the ‘initiated’. The world, especially poorer societies, can ill afford the luxury of continually feeding white elephants whose public engagement ends within the ramparts of the university or other such spaces. It is about time that the real world asked for explanations about what is being done with their money.

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Eight tight slaps from Niyamgiri tribals / On giving up other ways of being human / Slippery slopes of development

[ Daily News and Analysis, 6 Aug 2013 ;  Shillong Times, 9 Aug 2013 ; Millenium Post, 9 Aug 2013 ; Echo of India, 12 Aug 2013 ; Morung Express, 20 Aug 2013 ]

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.


One fistful of rubble


And pour it on our shameless heads.

(Written by Gopal Gandhi on 6th December, 1992 – the day of Babri demolition)

In the United States of America, Thanksgiving Day is an example of a rather successful attempt in creating a popular and false impression of a harmonious past of North America – one of peaceful coexistence between White Christian colonizers and the colonized indigenous people. With decades of state endorsement, school indoctrination and mass-market celebration, genocide has been whitewashed into a love-in of sorts. But the descendants of the survivors still live and there is no forgetting. Certain truths cannot be buried by concrete and asbestos.

On one such day, some years ago, strolling in the Harvard campus, I saw a small group of native American youth standing in a semi-circle around a temporary structure that whispered –‘ this is a special space’. Someone elder led the invocations that exuded an unmistakable aura of sacredness to me. Before the genocide, this used to be a community celebration. Now, to the onlooker, it is a bunch of weirdos in strange gear doing their own thing in a campus that celebrates ‘diversity’ – adding to that vaunted cosmopolitan urbanscape that so many hold up as a model of all human futures, that pinnacle of rootless aspirations. Before the genocide, this was public culture. Today it is a curious performance, an act in the corner. How does it feel? I do not know. But I do know that less than 3 months from now the debi-paksha (the lunar fortnight of goddess Durga) will start and my clan-home in a village called Patuligram in Hooghly district of West Bengal will come alive to welcome the mother goddess, like every year. What if we had to do this invocation on the sly, and looked upon curiously? Could I then feel how those young people at Harvard were feeling that day? Probably not. I would not be accounting for the loss of language, community, clan-people, independence. And still they survive. For it is not that easy for everyone to give up other ways of being human.

It is partly an appreciation of this stubbornness that drew some activists, students and ragamuffins to a protest last week in front of the Orissa Bhavan at New Delhi. Niyamgiri, the holy hill, produced the valiant Dongria Kondh who have not only challenged the collective might of some of the most powerful money-gatherers and fixers of the world, but have also tripped up the trajectory of ‘progress’. What obscene cost-benefit calculation can put a price on a god and his abode? To us Bengali Shaktos (worshipper of goddess Shakti), what would be the ‘right price’ to dig up the Kali temple at Kalighat if bauxite were to be found underneath? The Dongria Kondh people have stuck to their main man, their principal deity Niyamraja for Niyamraja (the giver of law) has been sticking to them forever. Ijurupa, Phuldumer, Batudi, Palberi, Kunakadu, Tadijhola, Kesarpadi and Serkapadi are eight villages whose gram-sabhas have rejected a proposed bauxite-mining plan in Niyamgiri. In effect, these are eight tight slaps to an entire industry of consensus building that includes corporate houses, lobbyists, politicians, columnists, economists, ad-agencies, ‘development’-wallahs. CSR-wallahs, FabIndia-DSLR-NGOwallahs and probably your and my dad. Such has been the force of these slaps that the forces-that-be have pushed into action their spin-machine to concoct some ‘depth of Indian democracy’ type of bed-time story out of it. The force of the eight slaps (and there may be more) come precisely from forms of socio-political legitimacy and communitarian rights which are the bane of the forces-that-be. For all their love of swadeshi gods, like others, the saffron-party too has been exposed – that their love for alumina can easily make them sell gods on the sly.

In February, in Lakutia, near Barisal in East Bengal, I saw the ruins of a series of shiv-mandirs – corpses of places of worship. I remember muttering under by breath,  ‘never again’. Many have surrendered to those words, so simple yet so decisive – “it is too late now.” The Dongria Kondh seem to have different ideas about time and action. Far away, in southern Orissa, an explosive experiment in grassroots democracy is shaking the world. If it has not shaken your world, it better did.

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Filed under A million Gods, Americas, Bahishkrit Samaj, Community, Democracy, Displacement, Faith, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Religion

The rise and rise of portable religion

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Jul 2013 ]

I remember a time, not so long ago, when my very Bengali brahmin family would travel outside Bengal. The visits would include religious places. Their attitude towards these places was clear – these were divine all right, but it was clearly understood within the family that these places were not ‘ours’. Sometimes such places invoked awe due to size, sometimes due to the volume of the crowds.

‘Our’ gods lay elsewhere. Among the creepers and water-bodies of a small village in the Hooghly district of Bengal, a particular mother goddess was omnipresent in the vocabulary of our family. They were in the form of a snake goddess who sat in a precarious perch near our Kolkata home, in a makeshift ‘temple’ between a bridge and a river. There was the lump-shaped Dharma Thakur, again of our village, who has had steadfastly refused brahminic mediation to this day. My family has come to live intimately with their moods and powers, their vehemence and their limits. They are ‘our’ gods.

In the last couple of decades, certain sentences have been thrown at me multiple times – scenarios I would not have expected earlier. The foremost among these is one spoken with some incredulity and an equal measure of haughtiness – ‘ Hindi nahi aata?’. A new nation-state is evolving; a new consensus is being beaten out of the badlands of the subcontinent. Gods are not unaffected in this scheme of things.

It started innocuously for such things have always happened. Young people moving away from their hometowns to other cities. Unprecedented levels of rural devastation and concomitant ‘urbanization’ for those beyond the pale of growth figures. But there has been a briskness in this process, a fast disemboweling, that cannot go unnoticed. The gods watched their devotees thinning away, overgrown groves lost witnesses to their sacredness. The story is clearly more complex than this but we do have at hand now, a generation or two, who have grown up without a conception of faith and religion that only an intimate ecology of a non-atomized society can provide. What we have in its place are unprecedented levels of scripture-literacy, a forced forgetting of the naked sacred, and shame about the practices of one’s grandmother. In this new religious worldview, older ‘superstitions’ are avoided and even condemned, with a mishmash of scriptures and lifestyle demands of modern urban society forming the bedrock of ‘eternal values’. These stances have wide currency among the rootless urbanfolk who may be religious or irreligious, but are Siamese twins when it comes to being self-servingly contemptuous of the rustic and the fantastic. The shaman of these times, Ashis Nandy provided a new language against these types when he wrote – ‘ There are superstitions, and there are superstitions about superstitions.’

So we have the rise and rise of portable religion. This is religion in its new avatar where a Quddus Sheikh from Murshidabad can go to some ‘bhavya’ mosque in Aligarh and see it as his own. This is the religion where certain gods have stolen a march on many other gods, creating a poor and sad ‘national’ pantheon of sorts – dreams of a ‘unified Hinduism’ finally bearing some fruit. From Boston to Bombay, through idioms created and perpetuated by mass media, a community is being created whose religious pantheon is dictated by that pathetic yearning for uniformity that only a nation-state can display. This is where portable religion and ‘Hindi nahi aata?’ come together as symptoms of the same disease. Sixty-six years after partition, this disease is hoping that its man from Gujarat would come to lead the nation-state.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Caste, Community, Displacement, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Plural pasts, Religion, Urbanity

Close encounters of the inhuman kind / Of Sarfaraz Shah, Ishrat Jahan and the need for empathy / When protectors turn predators / The great danger of state ‘security’

[ Daily News and Analysis, 9 Jul 2013 ; Express Tribune, 9 Jul 2013 ; Millenium Post, 5 Jul 2013 ; Echo of India, 9 Jul 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 10 Jul 2013 ; Kashmir Images, 10 Jul 2013; The NorthEast Today, August 2013 ]

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of India has found that Ishrat Jahan, the 19 year old woman killed in an ‘encounter’ in 2004, was not a terrorist. It also found the involvement of senior officers of Gujarat police and the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Rest assured, no other case of ‘encounter’ involving the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Gujarat Police will be heard of in the near future. Everyone learns from past mistakes – institutions learn even faster to cover up tracks. However, the expose or ‘investigation’ of the CBI by the IB has more to do with a breach of trust – that sacred compact of looking the other way.

But is there a lesson that Ishrat Jahan is teaching us?  Staying clear of trouble is what Ishrat had done all her life. That did not prove quite useful. I maniacally walk in straight lines – only son, propertied family, the curly-haired dreamer, and old parents – lots to lose that I deeply love. Fright as a method of silencing is as old as inhumanity. And I am not immune to fright. But does walking straight help?  Does it ensure safety – of life and property, as they say? If Ishrat Jahan wasn’t safe, who is? There were the words– Pakistan, terrorism – words that do not need proof for culpability. Though I inhabit that cool vantage on an iceberg, Ishrat’s murder is a rare peek into that world in the submerged part of the iceberg, icy and ruthless. And what I see scares the hell out of me.

Those involved in Ishrat Jahan’s murder are not small fry. They include quite a few higher ups entrusted with enforcing the law. Why are those people who are more likely to murder and torture than ordinary citizens so thoroughly over-represented among the ranks of certain state-funded institutions? Why are they almost always ‘protectors of law’? What is this ‘law’ that it protects? What are its contours? Is this law to be read in between the lines of the constitution? Is this law to be found in the umbra and penumbra of the constitutional guarantee to life? And still they talk, fashionably, gracefully, fashionably – like Pythia, the oracle at Delphi. If one person knew that Apollo did not speak, it was Pythia. Unbelievers always have a way of becoming priests.

Only if one eavesdrops on the players at the top, then the code in which they talk to each other, codes that are not to be found in the formal rulebook. In an interview aired by the BBC, journalist Andrew Marr asked Noam Chomsky during an exchange on Chomsky’s views on media distortion of truth, how could Chomsky know for sure that he, a journalist, was self-censoring? Chomsky replied, “I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” And it is the production of this believer-citizen that is essential for ‘encounter’ murders to go unlamented for very few enjoy the spoils of being an cynical insider. The insiders may come in different colours, shapes, sizes, tongues and even faiths, but unless they shared a contempt for habeas corpus and veneration for this ‘other’ rule-book, they would not be sitting where they are sitting.

Similar to what Michael Moore said, I have never been slapped by a Pakistani army man for I was walking too briskly on Srinagar streets, never been murdered in broad daylight in the streets of Imphal by special forces from Pakistan, never been kidnapped in Gujarat by the Inter Services Intelligence, never been tortured for days together in jails by Sindh Police, never been detained, blindfolded and then shot through the head by a Pakistani Army man. But there is no opportunity for competitive gloating to be done here by Pakistanis either. For the near-daily murder and torture of pro-independence Baloch youth are now too numerous to deny. For Ishrat Jahan of Gujarat and Chongkham Sanjit of Manipur share just too many things with Sarfaraz Shah, gunned down in Karachi in broad daylight by the Pakistan Rangers. Sarfaraz’s howls, his pleadings, the utter helplessness in front of the law enforcement agencies, that moment when the gun fires, that look on the face of Sarfaraz a moment before he is shot – a look that shouts out ‘Please’ in a way that would make the Himalayas crumble if the gods were as benevolent as they are said to be  – these are all too familiar on the other side of the Radcliffe. Something else is familiar – that the Rangers will not pay for their crime. There is far too much that is common between the subcontinental badlands – commonalities that make a mockery of the exclusive pride that some seem to possess.

Every time we ignore an extra-judicial murder, it brings us that much closer to being a cold reptile. We have a stake in this. ‘The freedom of others extends mine infinitely’ said a famous graffiti from Paris 1968. And when this ‘other’ is the one where all our collective prejudices and hate converge, ensuring that ‘other’s’ freedom has ripples everywhere. The flood of empathy needs such ripples now. We owe it to us and to the Ishrat Jahans and the Sarfaraz Shahs of the subcontinent. We must never forget what Avtar Singh ‘Paash’ had articulated so poignantly years ago.

‘Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai
key be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey,
akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe,
tey man badkaar ghadiyan de samne
dandaut’t jhukiya rahe, tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai’ ( If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security, if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene, and the mind submits before the greedy times, then the security of the country is a danger to us).

*** DNA version ***

The man-eater insignia is so ubiquitous in the Indian Union that the pack of maned carnivores appears docile. In moments of tricolour pride, they may even look like protective mascots. The possibility that they might have been staring down at you all this time is an unsettling thought. I maniacally walk in straight lines — only child, propertied family, the enchanting curly-haired one, the old parents — lots to lose that I deeply love. Fright is a silencing method as old as inhumanity.

Does walking straight help? Does it ensure safety of life and property? If Ishrat Jahan wasn’t safe, who is? But then she was Muslim. Then there were the words– Kashmir, terrorism, Pakistan — incandescent words of certitude that stick to one’s skin till they char the flesh down to the bones. But I have never been slapped by the Pakistan military for walking too briskly on Srinagar streets, never been murdered publicly in the streets of Imphal by the 10th Balochistan Rifles, never been kidnapped in Gujarat by the Pakistani intelligence, never been detained in West Bengal, blindfolded and then shot through the head by a policeman from Pakistan. Who should you be scared of — you, of the right religion and a law-abiding, flag-saluting, Dhoni-cheering, Raanjhanaa-adoring, jhamela- avoiding citizen of the Union of India?

Ishrat’s death shows our collective helplessness and what is possible. One such death is a deep ocean of unredeemable injustice — injustice that brutally squeezes out the milk of human love out of a mother till blood oozes forth. That it is possible to kill with impunity with multiple higher-ups involved. That it is possible to expose that with ease if power-politics demands so. Ishrat is exceptional in that her murder had some scavenge value — she posthumously has become a wedge that ensured ‘investigation’. Very few such ‘encounters’ have this wedge-like quality — usually the four lions hunt together. The animals are at their vilest in plainclothes and not in khaki, just like real news is what transpires between panelists during a talk-show break.

The detailed understanding of the anatomy of ‘encounter’ that has been displayed by the principal political parties is sinister. It is akin to the knowledge that police has about every crime in a locality, but ‘solves’ specific ones based on self-interest. Then there is the deeper layer of being complicit in the crime. What does this tell us about other ‘encounters’.

Some very big-shots are involved in Ishrat Jahan’s murder. What is this monstrous system that is designed to provide upward mobility and gallantry rewards for the scum of the earth? Why are those people who are more likely to murder and torture than others found mostly among the ranks of certain state-funded agencies? Why are they almost always ‘protectors of law’? Is the Constitution really an ornate cover to some deep law of the state for whom ‘encounter’ murders are ordinary policy?

Every act of private gloating by that demon within some of us that cheers a Muslim death brings all of us that much closer to being a cold reptile. There is an acute need for a flood of empathy to sweep away our collective prejudice and hate. Where is the purifying flood? Where is mother Ganga when she is needed the most? She owes it to us and to the Ishrat Jahans whose cases would never be reopened.

I do sincerely hope that the Mother-goddess Durga will secure us against ‘security’. There is no buffalo — only 4 lions in sight that she thinks are her own. When will my demon-slayer mother open her third eye?

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Filed under Army / police, Foundational myths, India, Our underbellies, Religion, Rights, Scars, Terror

Federalism and the Indian Union / Federal front : Beyond convenience and bluster / The curious case of the federal front

[ Daily News and Analysis, 25 Jun 2013 ; Express Tribune (Karachi), 26 Jun 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 27 June 2013 ; Kashmir Images, 27 June 2013 ] 

Nitish Kumar’s parting of ways with the BJP surely is a fillip for an incipient formation whose name has been doing the rounds in political circles. With the West Bengal Chief Minister’s call for a ‘federal front’ being met with some enthusiasm in Bihar and Orissa, we face a moment that we have known before. Between the Janata Dal (United), the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, they represent about 10% of the Lok Sabha seats – not a small factor by any means. The third front is a curious organism in the political scene of the Indian Union. It is a phoenix-like organism that intermittently threatens to rise from the ashes. More often than not, its rise is arrested, not by external factors but in the dishonesty of the initial threat itself.  It is often the butt of jokes from the two so-called ‘national’ parties. But like the materialist Carvaka school of yesteryears that was vilified by the Brahminical orthodoxy for centuries, a consistent ridiculing represents a consistent perception of threat. It is the rise of this front in its various avatars, representing, in part, an aspiration to true federalism that has rendered all but ineffective that most undemocratic ‘national’ tool – Article 356. That elected state governments could be dismissed without a floor test by the centre may seem like a ridiculous idea today but it was not too long ago that the Old Congress and Indira Congress used this tool as a habitual short-cut to unseat opposition ruled state governments. There is much muck behind the copious tears of those who lament the receding relevance of the ‘national’ in politics. Others call it ‘parochial regionalism’ – a curious name for political forces that on average represent more people than most nations seated at the United Nations.The rise of these forces, especially during the heady days of the NT Rama Rao’s conclave, the National Front (Rashtriya Morcha) and the United Front, have left an indelible impact on how politics is done in the Indian Union.

But that was yesterday. Does anything remain today of such a federalist third force beyond convenience and bluster? This is especially odd given that the present parliament represents one of the lowest points for the ‘national’ if one were to combine the seats/votes of the Indira Congress and the BJP. It is not improbable that this number might reduce further in the next parliamentary elections. These 2 parties are thought to represent motherships to which others seek to anchor themselves. In reality, the appendages are nearly as big as the mothership if not bigger.

However, neither governance nor corruption distinguishes the 2 ‘nationals’ from the others. Opposing dynastic politics at Delhi, once the great rallying call for others, has lost steam due to the mini-satrapies that have developed in Chennai, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Lucknow and elsewhere.

Whatever becomes of Mamata’s call for a ‘federal front’, the thrust wont die soon. Which is why the ‘federal front’ concept needs a positive agenda to outgrow its definition in oppositional terms – anti-Congress, anti-BJP. The Anandpur Sahib resolution as adopted in 1978 by the All India Akali Conference is an extremely important document – especially those portions that have implications beyond Punjab and the Sikhs. Made in the backdrop of a Union still reeling from the Emergency (a phenomenon that could not have happened without centralization of power), the Anandpur Sahib resolution made a plea for progressive decentralization and an emphasis on federal principles. Major political forces of the time, including the Dravidian parties, CPI(M) and the Janata Party behemoth endorsed the decentralizing thrust. Ashok Mitra, the now disenchanted former CPI(M) finance minister, tried to organize opposition consensus around fiscal federalism. Now is the time to put on the table the question of fiscal autonomy – that revenues from a state should go directly to the same state without any Delhi middleman. That fiscal issue still remains at the core of the Indian Union’s false federalism and the centre has used its ill-begotten revenue wealth to divide and rule by handing out sops to pliant ‘regional’ forces. A federal front has to distinguish itself not by claiming it can manage the Union better within the present framework. It has to demand powers to be transferred from the Central and concurrent list to the state list. It has to claim back various revenue collection and disbursement powers. It has to revive the spirit of the Sarkaria commission and take it further. It has to have the imagination to offer the tantalizing possibility of a reconceptualized India – a more democratic federal Union. It has to become true its name – that is a political front that takes federalism seriously.

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, India, Polity, Power

Close the gap / NEET ways of killing off competition / Nothing ‘national’ about this entrance test / Entrance test and bias

[ Daily News and Analysis, 11 Jun 2013 ; The Telegraph (Kolkata), 26 Jun 2013 ; Millenium Post, 19 Jun 2013 ; Echo of India, 22 Jun 2013 ; Hitavada, 20 Jun 2013 ]

The medical entrance scene in India has changed with the introduction of the undergraduate National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). This was meant to be a single window test. In one go, the NEET has replaced most of medical entrance tests that were prevalent. By qualifying in the NEET, students would be able to compete for a percentage of seats in most medical colleges, throughout the Indian union, by their ‘national’ rank, while their ‘state rank’ would be useful to compete for medical college seats in states where they fulfill domicile requirements. From the very start, the NEET scheme scheme has been mired in controversy, with the initial steadfast refusal of the apparatchiks of the Medical Council of India (MCI) to allow question papers in non-Hindi subcontinental languages. In the non-Hindi states, a majority of students study primarily in their mother tongue. The status of English as the pre-eminent language of the science in the world today is clear – but that didn’t explain why the MCI was fine with Hindi (not really known to have some long-standing language of science heritage) but not with other languages. Finally, the MCI had to buckle under severe pressure exerted by several non-Hindi states like Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, etc. The disgraceful compromise was that students can opt for question papers in Telugu, Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Bengali (languages corresponding to the states that showed some spine) but those who do opt for the test in the ‘regional’ language will not be eligible for the all-India quota. ‘Regional language’ is not a term that exists anywhere in the constitution of the Indian Union – it is a figment of imagination and is a telling clue to the mindscape of Delhi-based administrators. This term has been used in the information booklet issued by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), another Delhi based outfit that is in charge of conducting the test. However, if a student took the test in Hindi, they would be eligible for the all-India quota. There have been very few instances where the federal system has been abused to such a grave degree in matters of education. The abject surrender of the states is even more sordid as they finally buckled under the pressure.

The results of the NEET were announced on June 5. The states stood in a pecking order of sorts, in terms of the percentage of students who qualified. Assuming an equal medical seat density throughout the Union ( this is not true), a worse over-all result from a state would mean that more seats in medical colleges of  that state would be bagged by out-of-state individuals while there will not be any corresponding parity. For states, which have a greater then average medical seat density and a low performance in the NEET, this is a double whammy. This has been the case with Maharashtra in the results that were announced.

One may ask, in this India-wide marketplace, it is only ‘merit’ that should matter, isn’t it? This ‘merit’ talk falls flat on its face as we know, that for decades together, private medical colleges have been admitting students who need not demonstrate any more merit than a 50% score at the Class XII examination. They have gone on to become doctors. It shows that the undergraduate medicine course-work is not something that requires top ranks. The ranks have become important as a sieving tool due to the severe dearth of medical seats in a territory as populous as the Indian Union. The problem is compounded by the fact that a MBBS degree is a sure-shot ticket to the top 5% income bracket in the nation. Hence the over-subscription for medical college seats and all the merit talk that comes with it. There is no systematic empirical evidence from the subcontinent that one’s rank in a medical entrance has anything to do with one’s success as a medical practitioner or researcher.

It is useful to ask what are medical entrance exams for. It may not be out of place to take one step back and ask, what are medical colleges for? To answer that, it is important to remind ourselves what it is not for. It is not for providing good exam takers of 12th standard science with a prize in the form of a lucrative career. It is also not for nourishing holy cows like ‘national integration’, filling the medical college seats with the most ‘meritorious’ (with all the dubious assumptions associated with that term) or worsen the already skewed urban rural divide in the density of doctors. At a very basic level, it is to produce trained health workers who would provide healthcare to the multitude and/or advance the understanding of human biology and diseases by research. The way in which the NEET is set up, is a grave challenge to these objectives. The results of the first NEET bear out that bitter truth.

Framed from Delhi, after ‘consultation’ (it has to be one of the most abused terms in a flawed federal system), the NEET syllabus favours those who have undergone their schooling and training in the CBSE/ISC framework, the syllabus being a vital component of that framework.  States  boards with syllabi that differ considerably from the CBSE are at an unfair disadvantage – they have to change or perish, for absolutely no reason. The viability or ‘worth’ of a board of education’s science syllabus then is not in how well it teaches science to the students but incredibly, by how well it has adapted (or not) the basic framework of a Delhi-based boards’ syllabus. Are students studying science at the 12th standard in the CBSE syllabus uniquely equipped with an understanding of the sciences that is unparalleled by the state-boards? Or in other words if the state-boards are being forced to emulate the CBSE (in the name of removing aligning syllabi), is it something worth emulating? By rigorous research work (published in Current Science, 2009) that reviewed the comparative performance of students from different boards, Anil Kumar and Dibakar Chatterjee, scientists at the Indian Institute of Science , showed that  when it comes to science proficiency, CBSE is not numero uno. West Bengal board students did better than CBSE students in all 4 science subjects – Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. Andhra Pradesh does better than CBSE in Mathematics and Physics. By the same metric, Maharashtra is hardly the worst performing state as it was in the NEET. Tellingly, neither West Bengal nor Andhra Pradesh were top performing states in the NEET. Independent non-CBSE excellence has thus become an albatross around their neck. the CBSE ‘pattern’ of syllabus has become the standard, even though research shows it isn’t the best.

At a time when the urban-rural divide in doctor density is a matter of serious concern, the NEET favours a certain breed of to-be-doctors. Within a state, it favours students who study in central syllabi. This means, those segments of society who study in non-state boards will be disproportionately over-represented in the NEET. What are the implications? It means, more seats in medical colleges in states will be occupied by those who are more likely to be urban, non-native speakers of the state’s principal language, from a higher economic class who can afford to send their wards to well-established entrance exam factories in Kota and elsewhere, with feebler roots to the state and so on. Central boards have a lesser penetration in the non-Hindi regions. A recent 2-page advertisement from a Kota-based entrance-exam factory mentioned nearly a score of its clients in the top 50 NEET ranks. Of these 20 odd students, almost all were clearly North-Indian names. The south, on the other hand, has a higher seat density. The implications are not very encouraging as it can be assumed that those who are from a state are more likely to serve in rural outposts of the state as a career-physician. All these speculative points can be debated, but for that we need data. The NEET was conceived without any such data being made publicly available.

The NEET was sold on the point that it minimizes the number of entrance exams. What proportion of students studying science at the 12th standard took multiple medical entrance exams? This data is crucial. This is a very low number. And those of the central board profile likely to be over-represented even in that low number. So this grand scheme forces everyone to change to help an already privileged minority. This puts science education at the higher-secondary level in jeopardy all over as it reduces its goals to professional course entrance examinations. What the whole NEET exercise may be doing is to widen the pipeline that supplies medical manpower for snazzy hospitals that are being opened in metropoles that attract capital. There is a feverish rush of activity in an industry quite ironic for India – medical tourism.

The humble status of central boards to such commanding heights of dictation ( and not necessarily excellence) has happened with a concomitant fall in the status ( and again, not necessarily quality) of state boards. This phenomenon cannot be divorced from the centre-state context of the Indian Union where federalism means what bit of power that the states have can be wrested from them under various ruses. Education was classified as a state subject after partition.  It needed the Emergency under the Indira Congress to push education to the concurrent list by a constitutional amendment. Education, like most other concurrent list subjects has seen the slow ceding of power from state to centre, ‘consultations’ notwithstanding. The long-term implications of such India-wide tests are a future two-tier education system – the CBSE/ISC route for ‘people like us’ and state boards for the rest. As it is now, more students will continue to study in state-boards. In this year of ‘federal front’ talk, the return of education to the state list should be considered seriously for greater common good. For starters, the states which take rural healthcare seriously  should consider quitting the NEET.

Disclaimer: Garga Chatterjee was educated in a state board and was once a ‘topper’ of a state medical entrance examination.

*** DNA version ***

The undergraduate National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) was conceived as a single test by which students would be able to compete for seats in medical and dental colleges all over the Indian Union and also in states where they can prove domicile. Since inception, this scheme has been controversial — Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) initially refusing to allow question papers in non-Hindi subcontinental languages. Under the

compromise formula, those who do choose Telugu, Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil or Bengali would be ineligible for the all-India quota. Hindi comes with total eligibility. Few of Delhi’s interventions have been so blatant.
NEET results were announced on June 5. States varied widely in their performance. Let’s clarify what medical entrance exams are not for. It is not for providing the kid who can answer many questions in a stipulated number of hours after months of training at costly coaching institutes with a lucrative career prospect and possibly a good bargaining chip for dowry or to provide manpower for medical tourism or worsen the already skewed urban rural divide in the density of doctors. It is to produce human resource that would provide health care to the multitude and advance the understanding of human diseases by research. NEET is a grave challenge to these goals.

The syllabus of NEET, framed by the CBSE, favours those who have studied in the CBSE syllabus. State boards with non-CBSE syllabi are at a distinct disadvantage. Are 12th standard students studying science by the CBSE syllabus uniquely good? Research by Kumar and Chatterjee shows that when it comes to high-level science proficiency, state boards like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are excellent. West Bengal board outperformed the CBSE in all science subjects — Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. Andhra Pradesh outperforms CBSE in Mathematics and Physics. Maharashtra is not the worst performing state as it was in NEET. Neither Bengal nor Andhra Pradesh makes it to the top three states in NEET.

The syllabus issue is important as within a state it also favours those segments of society who study in CBSE — they are likely to be urban, non-native speakers of the state’s principal language, from a higher economic class who can afford to send their wards to Kota- based entrance exam factories, with feebler roots to the state and so on. What are the long-term effects of such individuals occupying more seats?

The USP of the NEET was that it minimizes the number of entrance exams. What proportion of students studying science at the 12th standard took multiple medical entrance exams? This is a very low number. Higher-secondary level science education’s goal must look beyond medical/engineering entrance examinations.
In medical research, the Union is abysmally backwards. This is only to be expected from a system that increasingly produces doctors evermore distant from people’s realities with medical colleges having become assembly line for private hospitals that will be opened in the greater-greater-NCR.

Such NEET ways of killing off the state boards points to a future two-tier education system — the CBSE/ISC route for the elite, uppity and the aspirational and the state boards for the rest. Children of the elite- predominantly do not study in state boards — they too ‘national’ for the ‘lowly’ states. But at the end of the day, education is a state subject. Caesar should claim what is rightfully his and push back the encroaching beast. If equitable healthcare is a goal of medical education, the states should considering quitting the NEET.

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Filed under Acedemia, Delhi Durbar, Education, Elite, Language

A naked sendoff / Remember Rituparno / Owning Rituparno Ghosh’s death

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), June 14-20, 2013 - Vol. XXV, No. 18 ; New Age (Dhaka), 10 June 2013 ; The NorthEast Today, July 2013 ]

The recently deceased acclaimed Bengali film-director Rituparno Ghosh (31 August 1963 – 30 May 2013) went to the same school as me, the very populous South Point High School of Kolkata. He was a couple of decades senior to me. It was at one time the largest school in Asia. My secondary standard graduation class was nearly 800 strong. One thing our school used to do very well (before it turned ‘Indian’ from ‘Bengali’ in the post  economic ‘liberalization’ era of the 90s) is that it did not inculcate ‘values’. The value of this lack of school-instilled ‘values’ has stood many alumni of the school in good stead throughout their lives. For one thing, it made unlearning easy, if one wanted to. Due to lack of values, reverence was shallow and hence irreverence was easy, if one wanted to. Rituparno Ghosh represents one of the best products of our school – more by omission than by commission. She made films primarily in my own mother-language and also lived in South Kolkata, where I am from. When media outlets all over India give front-page space to the death of a film-director whose primary film medium was not Hindi, it is important we pay more attention. There are only a few in the subcontinent who will command such widespread mourning in these times when the Bollywood = Hindia = India equation has gained serious currency. Rituparno Ghosh was one such. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. Or to put it more correctly, in an increasingly monocultural nation-state, it is getting ever harder to make them like that. Her death also made it to the front page of newspapers in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. People in Pakistan may only be acquainted with him, if at all, through his Hindustani productions. I would invite people from Lahore, Karachi, Lyallpur and elsewhere to do what you know best how to, so that the Youtube ban in Pakistan does not stand between Rituparno and you.

She started his life as an ad-man and was tremendously successful at that. Then he ventured into film direction and, as they say, she never looked back. If one’s diet of films is limited Bollywood, it would be hard to know that Rituparno is widely regarded as one of the best film directors of the subcontinent in the post Satyajit Ray generation.  Chitrangada, Kashmakash , Mumbai Cutting (segment “Urge”) , Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story), Abohomaan , Shob Charitro Kalponik , Khela (as Rituparno Ghosh) , The Last Lear , Dosor (The Companion , Antarmahal: Views of the Inner Chamber, Raincoat , Choker Bali: A Passion Play , Shubho Mahurat (An auspicious time), Titli (The First Monsoon Day ), Utshob ( The Festival ). Bariwali ( The Lady of the House),  Oshukh ( Malaise ),  Dahan ,Unishe April (as Rituparno Ghosh) , Hirer Angti ( The Diamond Ring) – the long list of films are a testament to the immense fecundity of the director. But it was just not about the number of films. Over the years, his films had one 12 National awards in India and also awards in film festivals of Berlin, Locarno and Chicago among many others. He also write the story and the screenplay of many of his films.

Death often creates a strange silence in a room that was laughing a moment ago. In this case, many Bengalis had been laughing to the blatantly hostile mimicry of Rituparno hosted by one Mir Afsar Ali, a comedian and anchor of sorts. In that ‘comedy’ show, there were hapless young men trying to keep a safe distance from a comedian mimicking Rituparno.  The portrayal of the queer as a predator on the hapless went by the name of mimicry. Laughter is the best medicine for diseases we wish to keep undiagnosed. Just that, now no one is laughing. This silence also matches the broad silence at what went by the name of ‘comedy’.  Honesty about the nature of our creatures would be a good tribute to Rituparno. And that involves none of the two silences.

As we talk about posthumous tributes, I remember one of Rituparno’s earlier films, Dahon. It was a story about the trials and tribulations of a woman who was molested on Kolkata’s streets. The real-life Bollywood style twist-in-the-tale came when the Chief Minister of West Bengal ‘directed’ the cheap posthumous drama of ‘owning’ the death of Rituparno. Death breeds selective memory. This Chief Minister had, only a few months ago, termed a rape on Park Street of Kolkata as a ‘staged incident’. Another MP from her party said that it was not a case of rape, but a ‘deal’ that had gone wrong. In Rituparno’s final journey, these are the people who scripted the show. When the government wanted to project sensitivity, few saw shamelessness.  No amount of fresh scented flowers can take the stench away from wreaths so rotten.

The sexual minorities in the subcontinent know better than many others how  police lathi feels inside their alimentary canal. The daily brutalization of sexual minorities is a frequent pastime for lions in khaki. Some of these lions were lined up beside Rituparno’s corpse in Kolkata. Rituparno’s on-your-face  ‘non-standard’ sexual identity, that made many squeamish, looked harmless, even absent, in death so much so that the police offered a ‘gun salute’. We were impressed.  The lathi has a spongy cuddly heart, you see.

Only the guilty is scared of nakedness. And to hide that, they gnaw at anything, even the shroud of a corpse. The guilty covers themselves in the shroud of the dead. This makes them a very peculiar kind of kafanchor – the kind that doesn’t even wait till the burial to steal the shroud in secrecy. Rather than the darkness of the night, such kafanchors like grand send-offs and flashing cameras. It offers the twin advantage of stealing the shroud from the corpse and showing it off to many others by wearing it right there. And looking very somber.  And almost comical. And yes, to laugh at that somberness would also be a tribute to Rituparno.

Such public spectacles add to the cesspool of vested interests that politics in West Bengal has become over the last 3 decades or so. Some would argue it was always so. But earlier there would be some distance. In moments of death, the leaders would become like the public and join them in remembering some worthy. Now that has become another cause to show who really runs the show. When a government cannot improve lives and deny rights of the people, spectacles over death become their forte.

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Gender, Obituary, Power

Nakbas near home – Their Palestines, Our Palestines

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 May 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 26 June 2013 ]

Fleeing from one’s homeland after being pushed out from there was a phenomenon that bound people across the subcontinent in 1947. It was also a time of unbinding as millions were frantically trying to prevents knots from untying – knots that had taken generations to build, knots out of which selfhoods emerged and thrived. That anxious and tragic trudge, leaving behind the land of ancestors, also happened to the west of the subcontinent, in Palestine. For Palestinians, 15 May is not ordinary day either. It remembered as Nakba Day or the ‘day of catastrophe’. More than half a million Palestinians fled their lands in the wake of the 1948 war – never to be able to return. They hold on to keys, real and symbolic, asserting their right to return to their lands, adding flesh to ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’. The leaving behind the land of ancestors is something subcontinentals know too well.

Palestine has become a codeword for injustice to a people who had to flee their homes unwillingly. There very few large university campuses in the West where some form of Palestine solidarity activism does not exist. The present author has actually suffered some persecutions due to his involvement with such initiatives at one point. This also spills over to general activism against militarism and occupation – activist forces, however marginal, have a supportive stance on Palestine. Such support has almost become a sine qua non for being considered serious and passionate about human rights, in general.

Some years ago, I was chatting with a friend who is very passionate about Palestinian rights, their denied statehood and most importantly, their right to return to their ancestral homes in Palestine from their diasporic network, including many in refugee colonies.  He is a Bengali baidya born and brought up in the C.R.Park locality of New Delhi. The discussion turned to ancestral origins and he revealed that they were from Dhaka. I asked him, so what about your right to return? He looked perplexed. What do you mean – he asked? I said, I am guessing your East Bengali family, like most others, did not flee Dhaka voluntarily, and like Palestinians, their ancestral abode, even if razed or occupied, is as sacred to them, and most importantly, they did not have consent in the dispensation that made them refugees. And let the Rs.20000/sq.ft. property values of CR Park not make us forget the earlier name of this ‘posh’ locality – East Pakistan Displaced Persons(EPDR) Colony. Most ‘EPDP’ colonies are not ‘posh’ – especially those inhabited by people from backward castes. Such colonies, authorized and unauthorized, have been the site of state repression including large scale massacre, as in Marichjhhapi in 1979. Yes, there are differences from Palestine, but what prevents anyone from seeing the many similarities?

Palestine is not the site of the world’s largest or longest displacement. But what determines its pre-eminent position in the ‘global’ mindscape? Imperialism, that hollowed out word, also determines the pecking order of resistances, of solidarity causes, inside our heads. If the Bengali Baidya cared only about Bengal and  nothing about Palestine, that looking away from the priority list of the minority world into the majority world, would be termed ‘insular’ and ‘inward’ looking. That there is no such slur for those who don’t care about the displaced in the subcontinent is but a testimony to the skewed nature of our sensitibilities.

People who question such fundamental things as the nation-states in the subcontinent do not call for the right to return of Muslims who fled Ambala and Kolkata, or Hindus who fled and continue to flee East Bengal. What do these blind-spots reveal? What is so natural about the displacement from Ambala to Multan that it merits no call for justice and ‘right to return’? Surely, constitutional  ‘nationality’ cannot be a reason to suspend humanity and consider the myriad ‘right to return’s in our subcontinent as absurd.

There may be something else at play. It is harder to confront one’s immediate surround. We know them – the university rebel who is a docile son at home, the fire-eating caste-hating savarna who predictably marries someone else from a similar caste, and many others. Distant cause-mongering helps us to get away from these clearly disturbing mismatches between rhetoric and action, but at the same time preserves the semblance of an ethical self, even a pedestal.

One may ask, why not this and that?  But if ‘activism’ is to be taken seriously, tangible action is to be taken seriously, then there is a certain problem in having this cafeteria choice of causes.  Not all causes stand a crucial test – whether one is directly affected by the consequences of one’s actions in the furtherance of a cause. It matters.

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Filed under Bengal, History, Home, Identity, Memory, Nation, Pakistan, Partition, Scars

Pakistan elections : The provincial turn / Punjab’s winner, Pakistan’s ruler

[ Daily News and Analysis, 13 May 2013; Kashmir Reader, 2 Jul 2013 ]

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan held its elections on 11th May. The results till now have unequivocally pointed to the big winner of the election – the party of the Sharif brothers, the Pakistan Muslim League (Noon). They will possibly come very close to majority – there is a slim possibility of an outright majority too. In any case, the significant number of free-floating independents will ensure the majority for PML(N). There is no doubt that they will form the next federal government in Pakistan. Mian Nawaz of Raiwind is back in the saddle again. Having been removed in a coup and sent to exile after brokering a ‘abstinence from politics’ agreement, this is no small achievement for Mian Nawaz Sharif. The other big achievement is of broader import – this is the first time in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that an elected government has completed a full-term followed by an election that is all set to return a different party to power. While there have been major irregularities in Karachi city, in addition to the significant boycotts in parts of Balochistan, no electoral party has come out and claimed that the elections over-all were completely illegitimate. One can hope that there will be a peaceful transition of government. The continuance of any representative institution is a hit, however small, to the clout of undemocratic institutions like the armed forces.

There is certain narrative in the Indian Union about the ‘intrinsically undemocratic’ character of Pakistan’s polity. This is based on the long periods of army rule that Pakistan has endured. What is glossed over in such smug ideas is that the people of Pakistan have removed armed dictatorships through mass movements – not once, not twice, but thrice. That is even more true for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The Indian Union was formed by a transfer of power in 1947. A lengthy dictatorship was averted in the 70s not due to some internal mass movement that laid siege to the Indira Congress government. The dictatorship, also known as the Emergency, was a calculated move on the part of the Panditain. It is the holding of the 1977 elections that turned out to be an unfortunate gamble for her. If anything, one needs to learn from across the Radcliffe line the ABCs of removing dictatorships.

However embedded in these results is another phenomenon. To understand that, one needs to know that  Punjab province (West Punjab) has 148 seats in the national assembly, out of a total of 272. This simply means that it is possible for a party to dominate the province of Punjab and go on to form the federal government. This is precisely what has happened in Pakistan. The PML-N, the party that will form the next governmental, is a marginal or inconsequential factor in the 3 other major provinces – Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. During the early results, Mian Nawaz stepped out of his palace to declare that ‘The Nation has given me another chance to serve it.” He would have been accurate, if West Punjab was the nation it was talking about. The imminent party-of-power PML-N is simply a non-factor in Sindh, the second largest province. The erstwhile government party, the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) has essentially been reduced to a party of rural Sindh while the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) ambition could not expand beyond the towns of Sindh. The PPPP’s decline shows that families, even those with ‘martyrs’,  cannot indefinitely bank on the reverence for the dead. The MQM might as well change its name back to Mojahir Qaumi Movement. The absence of the muttahid nation is written all over the results and is the embedded subtext of the election, veiled by the numerical dominance of Punjab province. Significant parts of Balochistan went to the elections in a Kashmir-like situation with wide-spread election boycotts by forces fighting for an independent Balochistan. Worse still, the Pakistani state does not have a National Conference. Thus the representativeness of results from that province is questionable. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the campaign saw the killing of scores of leaders and activists of the secular- Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party by righteous soldiers of religion. Parties perceived to be soft on the Taliban, urbane (Imran Khan’s PTI) or traditional (JUI-F) have excelled. Terror works.

The results show that the political field of Pakistan is now dominated by a collection of regionally strong currents. An analogous scenario in the Indian Union would be if say, a mainly north-India based party like the BJP, could win a majority in parliament if it happened to completely dominate the region. The over-centralized government at Delhi is ill-equipped to deal with such an eventuality. Fortunately, Pakistan is well prepared – having already democratized its constitution by transferring a lot of power to the provincial governments. In spite of ‘elder brother’ attitudes, the Indian Union has a thing or two to learn from Pakistan.

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Filed under Democracy, Federalism, Pakistan, Polity

Mercenaries of today / When nationalism thrills, it kills / Subcontinental nationalisms –the forgotten debris of operations / Chronicle of a death foretold

[ The Express Tribune (Karachi) 13 May 2013 ; Millenium Post, 11 May 2013 ; The Northeast Today , June 2013 ; Echo of India, 14 May 2013 ; The Shillong Times, 11 May 2013 ; Daily Kashmir Images, 15 May 2013]

Formal learning about the past has a certain bias – discontinuities and differences are underlined more than continuities. This kind of a framing has a problem. It makes the human journey and experience look like some kind of a journey towards progress and betterment. So strong is this dogma that things happening later often take on positive hues just by the dint of having happened later, somewhat similar to the wisdom and respect that is accorded to people for being born earlier.

School textbooks are interesting things and the vision of the world they impart upon you can years of unlearning – in most instances, complete delearning is not possible at all. It is from such school texbooks we get our ideas of history – at least that is where I got mine.  In that framing of the past via history, kings and their stories of building and losing kingdoms have centre-stage. The history that I read in school had a good dose of battles, wars, empire-building and such things. Avenging one’s sisters slighting, avenging killing of a father, avenging one’s own usurpation from the  throne and similar personal grievances of the royals were often presented as prominent reasons for war between kings. Of course these could not have been the only reasons, but these were presented as ‘sparks’ or ‘factors’ in the mix. The thought that often occurred to me in my childhood when I sat in the class was about the people who constituted the armies that fought these bloody battles. I can understand ties of caste, clan, religion and such – but for kingdoms and their armies that encompassed more than one such category (and most did), what was in it for most of the fighting men? Why would they march and fight because some big guy had been miffed by the actions of some other big guy. They held no personal grudge either way. It is not as if their king loved them any more beyond the service that they provided. In short, there was no love lost. The part-time soldiers knew that they were mercenaries.  That made them professionals. The ‘give’ and the ‘take’ were well defined – the professionals knew what mattered most was their own life. That is precisely why certain things were quite common. Mutinies were common. Desertion was commoner. Defeat of a king often did not result from some  great reversal in actual battle, by say being outkilled by numbers – but simply because most of the army ( that is to say, most of the mercenaries ) making a quick cost-benefit ratio calculation between sticking with their employer and fleeing. The subcontinent has produced countless such mercenaries. We now like to think of many of them as ‘veers’ and ‘ghazis’. The ’cause’ of fighting was, more often than not, as irrelevant to the armed man as the ‘prestige’ of a five-star hotel is to an underpaid bathroom-cleaner.

With the rise with nation-states and ideologies of nationalism, we now have an unprecedented phenomenon that has been sweeping the world, particularly for the last couple of centuries. I am referring to permanent standing armies and agencies for dealing with ‘external threats’ of nation states. There are hordes upon hordes of young people signed up in the army and other agencies, doing exactly what mercenaries of various hues have done in the past, with a crucial difference. Many of them vaguely think they have a cause (‘the nation’, its ‘security’ and ‘prestige’) which is better than the ’cause’ of his opposing party and that they do what they do not only for money and other material benefits. In short, they do not think of themselves as mercenaries. So much so that now the term ‘mercenary’ has become a nasty word. Now it is generally associated, quite tellingly, with ‘weak’ states or ‘non-state’ actors – in short, entities that do not have a strong ‘nation-state’ ideology.

All of what I have been talking about is about the employees – patriots or mercenaries. However, what about the employers? I am sure that a nice bathroom looks nice to the bathroom cleaner, the hotel manager and the owner.  But who among these benefits more from a bathroom cleaner saying ‘I love my job’, that is it not merely a matter of cleaning a bathroom but the ‘prestige’ of the hotel?

All such loves hinge on an assumption on the part of the employee – that there is something greater that the employer and the employee are both a part of, where the vertical employer/employee dichotomy vanishes and they stand side by side, as equals. This something is the nation and is held together by nationalism – the king of ‘glues’. Sarabjit Singh and Surjeet Singh were neck deep in the glue. The former is dead. ‘Tactical kindness’ from the state of Pakistan has saved the latter. The state of India denies their claims of working for it – certifying them as free-actors. The state of Pakistan ascribes free agency to its nationals who get caught or killed across the LOC and deny any connection. The mythical glue produced by the anthem, jhanda and the danda seems to loose potency during these times. Who endangered Sarabjit Singh’s life the most? Do we have anything to fear from those who endangered Sarabjit’s life the most (and I mean the Sarabjits in jails and under cover on both sides of the Radcliffe line)? Sanaullah has been killed too. People who did not know him name when he was living will now make him a martyr. Others will try to show why this was not a retaliation, or how Sanaullah’s death was less brutal than Sarabjit’s. In this nitpicking about the level of brutality and the arrow of causality, what gets brutalized is the dignity of human beings, who have rights that predate nations and nationalisms. A few lines from the Punjabi poet Avtar Singh ‘Paash’ (killed by Khalistani militants) may have clues.

‘Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai
key be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey,
akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe,
tey man badkaar ghadiyan de samne
dandaut’t jhukiya rahe, tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai’ ( If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security, if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene, and the mind submits before the greedy times, then the security of the country is a danger to us.)

Surely, anyone is free to take pride in the hotel, but they should know who is expendable, irrespective of their depth of pride.

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Filed under Army / police, Foundational myths, History, India, Nation, Obituary, Our underbellies, Pakistan, Power, Rights

Hiding behind porn / Studied ignorance in India attributes rape to watching porn

[ Daily News and Analysis, 14 May 2013]

No son of Bharat-mata is bad himself. In the subcontinent, not for once have I heard from the parents of any errant youth that bad actions of their child might have something to do with, well, their child. Typically, it is ‘bad company’ that is the culprit of choice. The reasons of all things bad with us are to be found outside of us – a curious position that helps a perpetrator look like a victim. Externalities explain our vices; our intrinsic qualities are the source of our virtues. When this way of absolving the self gains wide public currency as a social ideology, we have a society that is always looking for scapegoats. The types of scapegoats that are found also express the subterranean ideologies and anxieties we have. When the migration of the rural poor to the city gains currency as a ‘cause’ for rapes, it tells us less about causes of rapes and more about ideology and anxieties of the people with whom this ‘cause’ resonates with. Such is the case with pornography as another cause of rape. What is even better, pornography has also been bandied about as one of the causal elements in contemporary rape. Rather than implicating the training in gender violence that society and family’s own values and norms faithfully provide on a daily basis, porn has been identified as public enemy. Legislators and the chatterati in the Indian Union are deliberating whether pornography, especially the online variety, should be banned. ‘Does porn cause rape’ is a question that has been discussed in these circles for public consumption. Certain women’s rights workers, virulently swadeshi ‘porn is Western, rape-causing evil imported into pure India’-types, free speech wallahs and freelance libertarians debated the issue in various fora. Many asked whether anyone wants their mother to be a porn-star? No one asked whether anyone wants their mother to be brick-kiln worker working 16 hours a day at slave-wages.

Beyond the obvious impossibility of showing causality of porn and rape, this debate has illuminated something quite embarrassing. In spite of web statistics that clearly document the subcontinent as being one of the top enjoyers of porn, almost no empirical work exists that studies porn and rape in brown folks in brownland. A minor part of the reason is that folks who abhor quantitative methods of research and analysis have the shrillest voice when claiming causality and/or correlation between porn and rape. A cocktail of moral righteousness, so-called ‘common sense’ and homemade theories of human psychology dominate the porn/rape discourse in the subcontinent.

This also points to a greater void. For a people so numerous, research on their sexual lives and on sex in general is scanty beyond textual and media analysis. Where are the physiological, psychological and behavior-analysis studies on sex and sexual enjoyment of brown people? Numerous journals on sex studies and sex research exist. Why do studies from the subcontinent figure in them so rarely, especially at a time when scientific research output from here has actually grown in almost all other fields? This gaping hole in the body of research closely parallels the ludicrous illustrations of the human body in the subcontinent’s biology texts, where all hint of external genitalia are erased. It is this air-brushing of reality that sustains a warped conception of propriety. What can studies inform us? Lets take the example of one of the few such studies done here. A 2011 paper by Kalra, Subramanyam and Pinto  studied the sexual behaviors of  a cohort of Mumbaikars over age 50 and report that 57% of those aged 60 and above were sexually active. Geriatric sexuality, thankfully, is goes beyond Hugh Hefner. How does that sit with the casual bundling of grand-children with grand-parents at night, with a tacit assumption that old folks do not have sex? In the January 2012 issue of the American Journal of Medicine, Elizabeth Barrett-Connor’s research group at the University of California at San Diego reported sexual satisfaction increases with age. Where is the corresponding study about our brown mothers and grandmothers?

During my student life, I have been the subject in numerous experiments, mainly at Harvard and New York University, where I have been shown sexually arousing pictures on screen. My reactions to them, in the form of galvanic skin responses (GSR) were recorded. Such work seeks to understand emotion-laden visual information processing by our nervous system and also the psychological underpinnings of certain facets of human experience. Where are such studies from the psychology departments in India?

Without research and knowledge about the full expanse of the human experience, how long shall we go on understanding society? Sexuality being an integral part of that experience, empirical research into sexuality of brown people is needed. Sex exists beyond health, disease, adolescence, safety, and reproduction. It has to be studied for its own value.

Finally, prurience is as old as life itself. Try not scratching an itch. It is hard. Do not scratch other people’s itches unless they ask you to. It is easy. Let us not mix up the two.


Filed under Culture, Eros, Gender, Scars, Sex, Under the skin

Cities that are easy on the eye / Swanky dreams and apartheid by other means

[ Daily News and Analysis, 30 Apr 2013 ]

Flights connecting the gulf-countries with Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Cochin and other cities form a large portion of the international air-traffic between them. I have been in these flights a few times. Many of the travelers are labourers coming back to their families for a vacation after being away for months, sometimes years. Because they form a large part of the air-traffic, they also provide a large part of the airport revenue. Very few of the labourers I have interacted with can read English fluently, if at all . That most if not all of the airport, its nook and crannies, only make complete sense only to an English literate person, makes one wonder which ‘public’ did the planners have in mind when designing this public utility space. The unwashed masses and their squat latrines have no place here. The architectural language of these places conform to a ‘global’ idiom, however alien that may be to most desis. Airports and sites such as these are so-called ‘gateways’ of a place that would ideally exude an up-market, ‘international’ look – never mind that non-English literates form a significant part of the market. Such places are the product of a certain imagination – that conceive places like air-ports not only as places where people catch air-planes but also where a certain kind of people should ideally be able to enter. It is also symptomatic of nationalist anxieties – of being ‘up to standard’ to the west, so that the occasional gora who steps in should not feel confused in the least. Some of us browns know English anyways and empathize deeply with that discomfort. For the rest of the brown, frankly, who cares? They walk about hesitantly in the mirror chamber of its alien interiors. There is an invisible wall and often thinly veiled disgust in the face of coconut (brown outside, white inside) desis. This invisible wall has an invisible sign hanging on it which says ‘Unwelcome’ or ‘Unfit to be the kind of Indian that South Bombay is proud of’. What am I talking about is not about airports, signage or English – the disease is deeper and more serious.

There is something deeply troubling about the nature of our imagination of the city, including the idea of urban citizenship, who is included in that imagination, who is not, who is the city for. And how ”we’ appear to the West captures an inordinately large part of those concerns. City elites are obsessed in proving that they are tropic-burnt brothers of goras – and they wish that the tropic-burnt others, whose land and labour pay for such obsessions, ideally should vanish. Given that this is not an ideal world, splendid use has been made of their control over the bureaucracy and policy circles, to make others vanish, if not from the city, but at least out of sight. It is a hard task to make a city of their wish – a city easy on their eyes – but they do try.

During the commonwealth games, that ill-fated coming-of-age ritual of a diseased and demented nation-state with ‘super-power’ fantasies, its capital city was ‘beautified’. Among other things, it involved ‘garib hatao’. Thus the urban poor were kicked out and judicial officers moved around in police vans to sentence beggars. The normally slow judiciary knows where its priorities lie. If that were not enough, large sheets have been put up in many areas of Delhi, especially near bridges, to block out ‘unsightly’ (read poor people’s) areas so that the upwardly mobile residents and visitors can enjoy a virtual-reality show on its roads. The soul of this wall is made out of the same material that the invisible wall of the airport is made up of. The T3 airport terminal does not allow legally licensed auto-rickshaws to come near it lest phoren visitors have a ‘good impression’. In Kolkata, bicycles have been banned from plying in most of its main streets. Hand-pulled rickshaws are being pushed out.They say it is ‘inhuman’ and heart-wrenching, as if loss of employment is heart-warming.  Beyond the Indian Union, residents of Baridhara, one of the elite areas of Dhaka, have banned cycle-rikshaw-wallas who were the lungi. Shame about one’s people and feeling alienated from one’s broader environ is a nasty disease that afflicts whole of the subcontinent.

The dream of being counted as a part of the global cosmopolitan class has led to the blatant exclusion of people from public spaces who do not ‘fit the bill’. This forcible homogeneity of being ‘cool’ and ‘international’ finds its twin in the Hindi-ization of various subcontinental identities – in the name of being ‘traditional’ and ‘swadeshi’. Thus emerges the new desi – Bollywood loving, English speaking, having wholesome family fun eating McAloo Tikki. In many ways, the gated community, that pinnacle of contemporary desi urban aspirations, is a concrete form of this dystopic vision. It is safe inside, we are surrounded by people like us, we talk in English and Hindi and cheer for European football leagues There is a word that sums of all this that may sound quite bitter and might hurt those with ‘liberal’ and ‘inclusive’ sensibilities. It is called apartheid.

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India can learn some lessons from Boston / Unlike Indian cities, Boston cares for its residents

[ Daily News and Analysis, 21 Apr 2013 ; The Shillong Times, 23 Apr 2013 ; Echo of India, 24 Apr 2013 ; Millenium Post, 24 Apr 2013 ]

The city of Cambridge is home to both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I work, and Harvard, where I used to be a student. I have been living here for the last 7 years or so, though the last 24 hours have been unique in many respects. After the Boston marathon bombings, there was speedy resumption of normal routine. Things got haywire from night of April 18 when a police officer of MIT was killed, in front of Stata building, across the street from my Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The chase and hunt that followed ended about 24 hours later.

During that time, Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and a few other towns were ‘shut down’ – public transport was withdrawn, people were strongly advised to stay indoors and keep doors locked. This led to the internet and TV becoming the source of information about events that were unfolding in our vicinity. As I joined many others in the Boston area in this, I could help notice certain things that made me remember the subcontinent.

I discovered from my friends here that one could actually listen in live to the wireless messages that were being exchanged between the police teams. It was called the ‘scanner’. The messahes are broadcasted in publicly accessible frequencies. It is important to point out that this sort of listening is different from the freely viewable spectator-sport that is broadcasted by the Lok Sabha TV. The listener was incidental in this case and therein lies its value. As power seeks to control society more and more through CCTVs and other such monitoring devices, this police scanner was an odd CCTV of sorts, trained at the law-enforcers themselves. No relationship of trust can develop between people and the law enforcers without transparency. I am sure that police anywhere abuses power, but such scanners are part of that repertoire in the hands of the people that rein in such abuse a little bit. Such scanners should be publicly available in the Indian Union where people can also listen in to their own khaki on their job. Otherwise, we are left with the occasional grainy MMS to implicate one policeman beating up one woman or a policeman dragging someone by tying them to a motorcycle – thus keeping the ‘bad apple’ logic always available as an escape route for decorated cynical brutes.

MIT, like all major US universities, has an emergency alert service for students, faculty and staff. Since the initial incident had taken place at MIT, SMS alerts were sent by MIT to all subscribers periodically. Between 10-48 pm on Thursday and 9-24 pm on Friday, MIT sent 17 such updates to its subscribers and also on its website. Forget a university, in the subcontinent, do governmental authorities keep the populace updated about far more fatal scenarios? The sad bit is that this is not rocket science .The same parties which control the government use this kind of technology to woo voters before elections. It is do-able – it is simple deemed unimportant in an atmosphere of unaccountability.

Finally, after one of the suspects lay dead and the other injured suspect was in custody, the police chief and other city officials did a press conference. They mostly thanked the people of the Boston area for their cooperation and gave certain details of the situation. There was not much self-congratulation. This seemed quite ordinary until I saw another police official talking to the press on TV. A 5-year old girl had been raped, an Assistant Commissioner of Police had repeatedly slapped another girl who was protesting police inaction and another policeman had tried to bribe the 5-year old’s father to keep him mum about the rape incident. Deputy Commissioner of Police Prabhakar started in that very desi barely concealed  doublespeak method – ‘I would not like to congratulate ourselves but…’


Its the night of 19th now. As per information received till now, one of the 2 suspects of the Boston marathon bombings, has died. The other suspect is wounded and been taken into custody. There were  gunfights leading  up to it. Through the day I have heard helicopter sounds above and police-car sirens. The primary theatre of  action was Watertown, a city near Boston. Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and a few other cities had been ‘locked down’ as a security-measure. This is somewhat different from a curfew. The governor Deval Patrick has requested residents to stay indoors and keep their doors locked. Public transport systems were suspended. Now that measure has been lifted.

The long string of events that started yesterday began from the evening of the Boston marathon. This marathon is a part of Boston’s urban culture – like how the Book Fair is an integral part of Kolkata’s urban culture. This is not only running a long distance. Many people running there were doing that to raise money for different kinds of charities and causes. The Laboratory where I work, has 7 members. Among us, 2 people were running that day. The proportion should give us an idea how wildly popular this is and how enmeshed this is to the city’s urban culture. Hence, after the explosion, almost as a point of defiance to terror tactics, Boston was back – walking, dancing, running, working, playing – as it generally does. This is not simply a rhetorical statement – being an outsider, if you will, I have noticed this very starkly. In the Boston marathon bombing, 3 people have died altogether and more than a hundred people were injured. Many friends of mine from Harvard and MIT went to donate blood after hearing that the hospitals were running especially low on their store of platelets. In Kolkata and Delhi, when much larger catastrophes have happened, have youths from universities and middle-classes queued up to donate blood?  I do not know.

On the night of April 18, I got an SMS alert from the MIT authorities at 10-48 pm  to stay indoors and that there had been a shooting incident near the STATA building. Incidentally, this is bang opposite to my own Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. This is the incident when an MIT Police officer was fatally shot by the Boston bombing suspects. US universities have campus police who are specifically deployed in university areas – and they are different from the city police. I got the alert within 10 minutes of the incident, pointing to the promptness of the MIT emergency alert system. Periodic alerts continued in the MIT emergency website and also by SMS – at 1-20, 11-41, 12-01, 12-28, 12-37, 1-04 and 1-31. Finally, at 1-56 am, the campus was declared safe, that the suspected asailant was not on campus anymore and the staying indoors directive was lifted. These periodic alerts were important as many researchers are present working till late into the night in any major research university in the US. So this had real relevance.

Such alerts continued through the night- updating everyone associated with MIT with the situation.The main theatre of activity had shifted to Watertown by then. Like many other people, I was also glued to the news and updates, being locked in. Early on, on the 19th of April, MIT declared that it would be closed on that day. I got similar messages from Harvard and Lesley, the other two universities I have been associated with. The extent to which they took safety seriously did evoke trust and gratitude in an affiliate like me. Later in the day, MIT President Rafaek Reif sent an email message to all of us. I must mention that such alert messages do come on other days, but very rarely. In matters of security, the police had been working, at least in this case, on the basis of written law, not on the basis of ‘orders’. Recently, at the gates of the Presidency University of Kolkata, as a mob of hoodlums belonging to the ruling party vandalized the university and attacked students inside the campus, the police forces that were posted there told the Registrar that they did not have ‘orders’ to stop this. Police in India do not seem to need orders when they slap and bloody women repeatedly when they protest and ask questions about the inaction over the rape of a 5-year old.

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Bad moon rising / A dangerous connivance /

[ The Hindu, 6 Apr 2013 ; The Friday Times (Lahore), April 19-25, 2013 - Vol. XXV, No. 10 ; Kashmir Monitor, 25 Apr 2013 ; Himalayan Mirror (Gangtok), 12 Apr 2013 ; Himalayan Mail (Jammu), 7 Apr 2013; South Asia Citizen's Web, 23 Apr 2013 ]

Many in West Bengal are looking to the Shahbag protests in Dhaka with a lot of hope and solidarity – as an important and necessary step that would usher in a rollback of the creeping communalism that has afflicted the People’s Republic of Bangladesh since 1975. 1971 is still fresh in the mind of many Bengalees from the West, when a massive relief and solidarity effort was under taken on that side of the border to reach out to a large mass of humanity trying to escape a situation that has been described variously – from ‘civil war’ to ‘genocide’. The then leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami in East Bengal and its students wing organized murder and rape squads, at times in collaboration with the armed forces. The specific crimes include mass-murder, rape as a weapon of war, arson and forced conversions. They escaped prosecution due to the by generals who used them to cast an Islamic veneer of legitimacy over their illegal capture of power. They were gradually rehabilitated until the present Awami League led government came to power – whose manifesto among other things, promised the trial of war criminals. Thus started the proceedings against them in the War Crimes tribunal. The Shahbag protests have demanded maximum punishment for the guilty.

In West Bengal, a few meetings and assemblies have happened around Shahbag. However, to the shock and dismay of many, the largest of these assemblies was a massive rally held in central Kolkata’s Shahid Minar on 30th March, explicitly against the Shahbag protests and in support of the war criminals convicted by the tribunal. Various Muslim groups including the All India Milli Council, All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, West Bengal Sunnat Al Jamat Committee, Association of Protection of Civil Rights, Milli Ittehad Parishad, West Bengal Madrasa Students Union, Ashikane Rasul Committee, All India Minority Association, All Bengla Muslim Think Tank, All India Muslim Majlish E Mushawarat, Aminia Jamiat E Muttakin Committee, Ulama Parishad, Magribi Bangla Anzumane Wayejin, Bangiya Imama Parishad and All Bengal Imam Muazzin Assiciation convened the meeting. People had also arrived in buses and trucks from distant districts of West Bengal like Murshidabad and Nadia, in additional to those from the adjoining districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Haora and Hooghly, among others. Students of madrassas and the newly minted Aliah Madrassa University were conspicuous at the gathering.

They rallied because ‘Islam is in danger’ in Bangladesh. Never mind that that post-1947, that part of the world through all its forms ( East Bengal, East Pakistan, People’s Republic of Bangladesh) has seen a continuous drop in the population percentage of religious minorities, in every census since 1951.This rallying cry is not new. It was heard in 1952 when the mother language movement of was in full swing, in 1954 when the United Front led by Fazlul Haq and Maulana Bhashani challenged the Muslim League, in 1969 when the Awami League made its 6 demands and in 1971 when Bengalees fought for independence and now in the context of Shahbag in 2013 – basically during every secular movement for rights and justice. One of the main accused in the war-crimes trial, Golam Aazam (also the leader of the Jamaat in East Pakistan in 1971), had used this old trick in the hat when he has stated in 1971 “the supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims”. Replace ‘Bangladesh’ with ‘Shahbag’ and ‘Pakistan’ with ‘Bangladesh’ and you have the same logic. Terming the struggle in Bangladesh to be one between Islam and Shaitan (Satan), it was announced at the meeting that they would cleanse West Bengal of those who were trying to support the present Prime-minister of Bangladesh and the war-crime trial effort. It was also threatened that those political forces that support Shahbag would ‘beaten with broom-sticks’ if they came to ask for votes from Muslims. Just like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, Sheikh Hasina will also be kept out of Kolkata – they added. They also supported the anti-Shahbag ‘movement’ in Bangladesh. The last assertion is especially worrisome as this anti-Shahbag movement has let loose its fury on the religious minorities of Bangladesh. This has resulted in a wave of violent attacks on Hindus, Buddhists and secular individuals, with wanton burning and destruction of Hindu and Buddhist homes, businesses and places of worship. Amnesty International communiqué mentioned attacks on over 40 Hindu temples as of 6th March. The number is over 100 now and still rising.

Given the recent trends of politics in West Bengal, this large gathering and its pronouncements are not shocking. The writing has been in the wall for a while. A collapse in the Muslim vote of the Left Front is an important factor in its recent demise after more than three decades of uninterrupted rule. Various Muslim divines like Twaha Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif, have explicitly pointed that out as a point of threat to the present government. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a continued slice of this vote. The present government has tried to hand out sops to build a class of Muslim ‘community leaders’ who eat of its hand by its unprecedented move to giving monthly stipends to imams and muezzins. Very recently, it has been decided that such a cash scheme might be worked out for Muslim widows too. Given that it is beyond the ability of the debt-ridden, vision-poor government to solve the problems that are common to the poor, it has cynically chosen to woo a section of the marginalized on the basis of religion using handouts. These are excellent as speech-making points masquerading as empathy and social justice. This is dangerous politics to say the least. It sets into motion currents and gives fillip to forces whose trajectories are beyond the control of the present political groups. The Left Front’s political fortune has not improved after its humiliating defeat. It has cynically chosen not too oppose this communal turn to West Bengal’s politics, for it too, believes that silently waiting for the incumbent to falter is a better roadmap to power. The damage that is doing to the political culture of the state in immense and may well be irreparable. The incumbent’s connivance and the opposition’s silence are largely due to decades of erosion in the culture of democratic political contestation through grassroots organizing. Both the incumbent and the oppostition parties deal with West Bengal’s sizeable minority population primarily via intermediaries, often doing away with any pretense of political ideology while indulging in such transactions.

For their part, organizations owing allegiance to a particular brand of political Islam ala Moududi, have used this disconnect to the hilt. An emerging bloc of divines and ex-student leaders of certain organizations have used the students that they can amass at short notice to launch specific protests, aimed in getting a leverage in terms of policy. Sadly, this blackmailing is hardly aimed at uplifting the living standards of West Bengal Muslims in this world. Rather, its string of victories started with successfully driving out the famous persecuted humanist writer Taslima Nasreen during the Left Front regime. The most recent example was the governmental pressure that was exerted on their direction to keep Salman Rushdie out of a proposed event in Kolkata, after he successfully did such events in Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. This slowly pushing of the envelope fits into a sequence of events that are increasingly stifling the freedom of expression. At the same time, its double-standards are explicit. On March 21st, a medium-sized group consisting of little-magazine publishers, human rights workers, theatre artists, womens’ organizations and peace activists had announced that they would march in solidarity with the Shahbag protests and express their support to the Bangladesh government’s war crimes trial initiative by marching to the deputy high-commission of Bangladesh. Even after prior intimation, the rally was not allowed to move by the police due to ‘orders’ and some of the marchers were detained. The same police provided security cover to pro-Jamaat-e-Islami organizations as they conducted a rally submitted a month earlier and again later when they submitted a memorandum to the same deputy high commission demanding acquittal of convicted war criminals. Last year, it issued a circular to public libraries to stock a sectarian daily even before its first issue had been published! The role of the state is explicit in these actions – it possibly thinks that it can play this game of brinksmanship with finesse. The flight of cultural capital from the self-styled cultural capital of India is but a natural corollary of such unholy alliances with the political class playing tactical spectators and tactical facilitators to apologists for one the largest mass-murders in the last century .

The recent bye-election to Jangipur, a Muslim majority constituency carried certain signals. Prompted by the elevation of Mr.Mukherjee to Presidency, this election saw the combined vote of the 2 main parties fall from 95% in 2009 to 78% in 2012. The major beneficiaries were the Welfare Party of India, a thinly veiled front organization of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Social Democratic Party of India, an even more radical group of a similar ilk. Such groups are armed with a programme of ‘tactical pluralism’, quite akin to the tactical defence of Taslima’s freedom of speech by majoritarian communal political forces in the Indian union. The rallying against Shahbag has blown the cover of faux pluralism. There was another significant beneficiary and predictable in the same election, the BJP. Communal tension has been on the rise in recent years – there has been serious disturbance by West Bengal standards in Deganga and Noliakhali. The majoritarian forces smell a subterranean polarization of the polity. Mouthing banalities about Bengal’s ‘intrinsically’ plural culture is quite useless – culture is a living entity, that is always in flux, created and recreated every moment. It is being recreated by the victimization discourse by fringe groups like Hindu Samhati. It is being recreated in certain religious congregations in parts of West Bengal of Aila where unalloyed poison produced by divines like Tarek Monawar Hossain from Bangladesh is played on loud-speakers. Thanks to technology, such vitriol produced in a milieu of free-style majoritarian muscle flexing in Bangladesh easily finds its way to a place where the demographic realities are different. Hence the popularity and consequent defence of one of the convicted war criminals, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who in his post-71 avatar had become something of a superstar in the Bengali waz-mahfil (Islamic religious discourse congregation) circuit. What are the effects of the subterranean cultural exchange of this kind? The rally is a partial clue. A defence of Sayedee and claiming him to be innocent, as was repeatedly done in that rally, is like perpetrating Holocaust-denialism.

Just a day after the anti-Shahbag rally in Kolkata, almost as a divine reminder of starker realities beyond the defense of Islam, nearly 45 lakh unemployed youth, Hindus and Muslims, sat for the appointment as primary school teachers recruitment examination for 35000 empty posts. Roughly 1 in 128 will succeed. There is no employment exchange worth its name, including the ‘minority’ employment exchange set up by the incumbents, which would absorb the unsuccessful 44 lakh. West Bengal is one of the few states that have petitioned for a relaxation of the minimum qualifications for primary school teachers in the Sarva Shiksha Abhijan scheme, as stated in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. There is a rot at the base with every community affected. It has been long in the making. The promotion of religious education is hardly the way to empowerment and livelihood generation for minorities, especially in a state where they have been grossly under-represented in the all white-collar services. There are no short cut solutions to this.

Majority and minority communalism in West Bengal, though not generally overt, can be found easily by scratching the surface. A combination of circumstances can awaken it. Will more such circumstances arise, or will more responsible politics prevent a potential communal unraveling of West Bengal? Bengal’s past experience with communal politics is distinctly bitter, both in the west and the east.  The west lives with half-sleeping demons. In the east, the demons never really slept, and have been in and out of power.



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The heavenly duties of stones in our punyabhumi / Just the nature of my game / The life of stones

[ Daily News and Analysis, 16 Apr 2013;  Kashmir Reader, 20 Apr 2013 ]

Police forces in many areas of the Indian Union engage people in their area of activities by organizing football tournaments. By some heavenly design, these incidents almost always make it to the media, in a subcontinent where police atrocities find it hard to get reported. A smiling lion of a man handing a cup to some sweat-soaked youths. In other nations where police atrocities happen less frequently, police organize fewer football tournaments.

The recent months have seen passionate championing of the right of women not to be raped. The Justice Verma commission set up in the aftermath of the Delhi rape and murder incident invited responses from the public. It received many inputs from many quarters on their own. Not a single Director General of Police responded to the notices of the commission. They were probably busy giving away prizes at football tournaments. Image building exercises become important when exercises  to protect the rights of common people fail. But I am dirty-minded enough to suspect that there is more to this ‘failing’. I will simply ask the question – which domestic organization, in the business of providing monthly salaries and occasional bravery medals,  happens to employ the largest number of alleged rapists and serial abusers? Hint – such lions also fight against social vices by extracting money from sex-workers of all genders after raping them. Given that the ‘rule of law’ comes down hard when certain lines are crossed, I will not answer the question. Are you thinking what I am thinking?

This punyabhumi is choc-a-bloc full of men and women whose sensitivities are often bruised by the non-desi concept of a  sexual woman – in skin, in paint, on screen, in public. Stones have often been the weapon of choice against this anti-national evil. Where do these stones go after national duty like attacking artists is done? Since every inch of the land is punyabhumi, no wonder the stones also carry that near-heavenly quality. The national fervour that is deeply embedded in each and every such piece of stone does not decay like its slightly less masculine cousin of radioactivity. The stones simply march forward to Chhattisgarh to continue their holy duty.

Some of the stones made their way into the vagina and the rectum of one Soni Sori, held by Chhattisgarh police for 8 cases. In spite of the stones that were inserted deep in her vagina and rectum, the police could not prove the charges in 4 out of 8 cases. The other 4 are going on. The patriotic stones might have continued to torment an adibashi woman like Soni Sori unless her medical examination was shifted out of Chhattisgarh to less godly Kolkata. Soni Sori has also alleged that she has been repeatedly raped. But some of the prime witnesses, the patriotic stones, have been removed by the Kolkata doctors. Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose of Kolkata, in his later years, started finding ‘the living response’ in many inorganic matters, including rocks. Nothing short of the expertise of that departed soul can help make sense of the testimony of the stones. Till such time, Soni Sori’s rape will remain ‘alleged’.

The charges against Soni Sori that were proven false in court included very specific things like opening fire and using explosives to blast the vehicles of Essar steel, attacking the police at Kirandul and blowing up a police station. If the state were a person that imagined such crimes from thin air, concerns about mental health would arise. If the state deliberately made up these cases, then it is sociopathic.The state, after failing to prove charges against Soni Sori ( incidentally, a  school-teacher), has started an enquiry to ascertain whether she should be sent to the mental asylum in Agra.

Lets concentrate on the football tournament instead. SP saheb has already arrived for the prize distribution ceremony. I think we should all stand up, clap and smile  because our culture teaches us that we should be respectful to elders, especially those who win gallantry medals. Brown women need  not fear – too many lions of Bharatmata are protecting them in every street.

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Spokespersons of darker people – a response to Vijay Prashad’s Bengal’s Slide into Fascism

[ Frontier, 13 Apr 2013; The Northeast Today, May 2013]

There is a certain way in which certain spokes-people sell ‘movements’ happening in the third world to primarily white audiences in the first world. They act as non-partisan but ideological warriors. Curiously those representing this strand from India include many from the CPI(M), the foremost among them being Vijay Prashad. A recent article by Vijay Prashad in the widely read Counterpunch is a case in point where he paints an alarming scenario about the recent happenings in West Bengal – especially with reference to the death in police custody of Sudipto Gupta, a student activist of the SFI.

Much of what is being said about the incident is true, but, to the white readers in the first world, where English language ability becomes an important point of legitimacy of viewpoint, will hardly know that this is not unprecedented and that almost all of these crimes have been previously committed by the erstwhile CPI(M) government led by the party, They will also not know that such authors also support the same CPI(M).

The article in question can be found here ( http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/10/bengals-slide-into-fascism/)

1.Such propaganda materials do not state that the student organization of the CPI(M), when it was in power in West Bengal, systematically decimated other organizations, mostly through organized violence or threat thereof. These readers will also not know that during the CPI(M) regime, student union elections with non-SFI candidates happened in only a minority of college of Bengal -as in most colleges, SFI did not let others even submit nomination papers for candidature.

2.While they will wax eloquent on the danger of ‘neo-liberal reforms’ in education, they will not state that the ‘neo-liberal reforms’ like privatization and auctioning of college-seats to highest bidders were started by the erstwhile govt. to which the ‘main’ one owes allegiance to – and never confronted the government on the streets like it is doing now.

3.It will also not say that fees were raised many times during the  CPI(M) government – and that SFI did not take to the streets in protest.

4.The piece does not go into the details of “tendency to yoke education to careers and to measure learning with fealty to rules developed in the North Atlantic” – since a laying out of this would show that the past and present government were not qualitatively different in this respect.

5. That police lines have advanced hundreds of times with unpleasant and bloody motives on opposition student groups during the erstwhile regime, bloodying them and there was no ‘slide into fascism’ article written then by the author.

6.The arresting of hundreds of students and throwing them into buses to transport to jail, a vivid picture that would rouse a Westerner, is also something that the erstwhile government perfected and routinely practiced on opposition student activists.

7.Unless one probes deeper, the reader will not know that Sudipto Gupta was the latest in a string of students killed by police violence – a student protesting forcible takeover of land from peasants for a car factory was killed by police beating in Singur. There was no slide into ‘fascism’ when that happened. None of the 4 ‘left’ student organizations mentioned protested that killing. Shamefully, the present Chief Minister termed Sudipto’s death an accident. More shamefully, there are no words on record on the Singur death from the erstwhile Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya.

8.One should not forget that there has never been a public apology on any case of custodial death of opposition activists by the police during the CPI(M) rule. Trinamul is simply continuing that shameful tradition. Between 2001 and 2010, there have been 98 government documented cases of death in police custody due to torture during the CPM rule. This data is from the National Human Rights Commission, compiled by the Asian Centre of Human Rights led by Mr.Suhas Chakma. This is a fraction of the dead and a fraction of the CPM rule.

9.Sudipto Gupta is the 93rd ‘left front’ cadre killed in recent years, but the sordid ‘score’ is not 93-0. The lack of the other number is intellectual dishonesty. Scores of opposition members have been killed during the CPM regime. Even the erstwhile CPI(M) government did not only target the right-wing opposition but also communist activists from other parties and groups.

10.In the article, Vijay Prashad refers to a ‘temple’ dedicated to the present Chief Minister and presents a picture as proof. The Bangla words sadly dont say ‘temple’ – they simply say Alipur Trinamul Youth Congress office. By that same definition, Bengal is full of ‘temples’ to Lenin, Stalin and many others. No doubt the present Chief Minister is the singular face and command of the governing party, and she also has authoritarian tendencies, but to call that a ‘temple’ is pulling a fast one.

11.The article states ‘ any state inquiry would be compromised by the culture of impunity that has begun to enfold the state’ – what he does not say is that this culture of impunity is a legacy of the last government. How many killers of opposition activists were punished during the last regime? The article does not venture there. Impunity existed and continues to exist. The novelty is not the alarming bit, the continuity is. The piece , however, knows the value of using continuity to its favor, when it remembers acts by the present CM, similar to the one meted out to her in New Delhi. Just that there is a blind -spot and an empty time of 33 years, when all of this analysis does not seem to apply.The number of opposition party offices that had been destroyed and ransacked during the erstwhile regime somehow does not figure.

12.The piece correctly alarms how offices of party-affiliated women’s organizations were attacked. The same author in a different piece in the same publication, tried very hard to absolve party activists who committed the gruesome rape, burning and murder of Tapasi Malik, a fiery young activist who was fighting against forcible acquisition of land by the party-government that the author supported. The author insinuated that her father was involved in the killing. Later CPM party activists and functionaries were arrested.There was no follow-up from the author.

Read both the original piece http://www.counterpunch.org/2007/05/23/the-political-economy-of-a-crisis/ and its counterhttp://sanhati.com/news/307/ )

13.The piece states that the media will not let this be seen in context. True. So won’t the author. That missing context is the past record. Using the evocative imagery of the Kristallnacht may be smart for communicating the ‘gravity’ to Northern world sympathizers, but that’s just about it, especially in the context that this is not the first Kristallnacht, just the latest.

Bengal’s slide into fascism did not start with the present government, and with the past record of the present opposition, may not end with it, unless honesty and repentance of past-crimes becomes an integral part of political praxis of the opposition, including the CPM. Pointing out these out will bring obvious charges of being an apologist to the present government. In the meantime, poorer nations are stuck with self-appointed spokespersons with huge blind-spots. This was not an exercise in exposing an apologist of the CPI(M). It is also to make the point that honest reporting requires full truth-telling. Partial truths discredit everyone else who is fighting for justice.

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Filed under Bengal, Democracy, Power, Terror

Clothing the sacred in the vain / The race to Riyadh / Religious imperialism at the heart of a plural society

[ Daily News and Analysis, 10 Apr 2013; Millenium Post, 11 Apr 2013; Echo of India, 14 Apr 2013 ]

In the amazing race to match cities like Riyadh and Kabul, famous for free-thinking, art and culture, Mumbai stole a march on Kolkata by threatening Maqbul Fida Hussain and disrupting the exhibition of his paintings of goddess Durga and Saraswati. Not to be culturally outdone, the so-called ‘cultural capital’ struck back by expelling Tasleema Nasreen, giving in to the threats by some angry Muslims. In a classic ‘one-two combo’, Kolkata followed up this act by successfully keeping Salman Rushdie out of its limits. Mumbai had actually hosted him – it had fallen back in the race. But recently it roared back in the race by despatching its best sons of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti to the Jehangir Art Gallery to remove paintings of goddess Kali by Kolkata-based painter Eleena Banik. Game on.

But this is a dangerous game. For people of faith, it is important that gods and goddesses be taken back from the loudest and the most threatening. Rather it should be asked that in a plural society, how is anyone able to violently attack, threaten, issue death-threats and shut down other voices. The plurality of divine forms in the subcontinent does not originate from scriptures and strictures, but from the agency of humans, however negligible in number, to be able to own, disown, partially own and partially disown the divine. No definition of how gods and goddesses ought to be or ought not to be can be enforced by force in a civilized society. If a group thinks that they are the thikadars of divine beings, I feel it is important to remind them that I did not appoint them to such a post, as far as my gods and goddesses are concerned.

The Hindu Janjagruti Samiti’s targetting of mother goddess Kali has forced me to respond, especially because I am from a Bengali Shakto ( followers of the divine mother) family. Our ancestral worship of the divine mother goes back at least four hundred years. We take our Kali seriously. Till now, Bengali Shaktos have not had the need to look to any Hindus from Mumbai or elsewhere for its ‘jagruti’. We have been worshipping mother Kali before Mumbai got its first temple for Mumbadevi.

The saffron neophytes who forced Eleena to take down her paintings of goddess Kali did not approve of the fact that she had painted her without the garland of skulls. Her breasts were visible, because she has them. The mother goddess does not wear garlands to cover her breasts from the scandalized. She is both maternal and sexual. And if your like your goddess to have lesser qualities than my mother goddess, that is your problem. If you feel ashamed of my naked holy mother, thats your problem, not mine. Keep your shame to yourself. Dont come draping my mother with your cloth. Your mother may like being told by their devotee-sons what to wear. My holy mother has a divine mind of her own.

People have conceived goddess Kali variously in different times, in different places. For someone to dictate how my conception of the goddess ‘should’ look like is religious imperialism. While a monolithic Indian Union nation-state helps such pan-subcontinental ‘standards’ to gain wider currency, the goddess is older than the constitution. Those who take their definitions of shame from the sensibilities of the Victorian British have long been ill at ease with the naked glory of goddess Kali. They have tried to make make the garland an essential accessory, have made the garland-heads bigger, have made the goddess always have her hair in front of the shoulder spread out on her body – essentially every cheap trick in the book to cover her breasts. Breasts are sexually desirable. Breasts are also symbols of motherly love. If you have a problem with a sexually active, breast-feeding mother goddess, try a ‘nirgun’ god. Don’t come draping my goddess.

Sometimes we do not realize how recent some of our imaginations of gods and goddesses are. For example, many consider the blouse of the goddess to be a ‘sanatan’ item of clothing – just that it was virtually unknown in the subcontinent in that peculiar form before Empress Victoria’s reign. My holy mother is older than that. Maqbul Fida Hussain, that sterling admirer of goddess Durga, had liberated her form from the patently mid-19th century blouse clad look, re-imagining her in naked matriarchal glory. You expect me to give up my holy mother’s timeless antiquity for your second-rate desi version of imported Victorian sensibility?

By way of distortion of an oft-half quoted line by Karl Marx, one can say that in a plural society, religions have to be defended from becoming the tool of bigoted creatures, the face of a heartless worldview, the mechanical output of scripture-reading zombies. It has to be defended from becoming the enemy of a plural society. So-called ‘distortion’ is the long-term life-blood of plural, democratic societies. Joy Ma Kali.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Culture, Eros, Faith, Gender, Plural pasts, Religion, Sex

Bihar’s just demands / Haq se maango

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Apr 2013 ; The Shillong Times, 6 Apr 2013; Millenium Post, 6 Apr 2013]

The recent induction of Narendra Modi to the to the parliamentary board of the Bharariya Janata Party (BJP), added one more chapter to the cold war between Janata Dal (United) and its no-as-secular ally. The BJP has been slowly pushing the envelope and this NDA partner is has been resisiting. When a chief minister of a opposition ruled state makes a visit to the New Delhi Durbar to meet Manmohan Singh, there is reason enough to follow it. When that chief minister in question is Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, one must sit up and take notice. This swift forward move from the backward state’s satrap is partly designed to polish Nitish’s ‘figher for Bihar’ image. Additionally, this also gives a clear signal to its supposed ally in Bihar, the BJP, that his party is not averse to two-timing. The ball is in the BJP’s court as this puts pressure on it to anoint a prime-ministerial candidate agreeable to Nitish’s party, Janata Dal (United). The BJP secretly wishes that New Delhi does not ahead and grant a substantial special package or the coveted ‘backward’ status to Bihar. Any such move from New Delhi will constrict the options in front of the BJP even more. It then has to match the Indira Congress bribe or play distant. The matching bribe may come in the form of a more Nitish-friendly prime-ministerial candidate for the NDA. Additionally, Nitish may simply call any grant from New Delhi inadequate and derive some kind of understanding from the BJP in that front if NDA comes to power. In short, Nitish’s Bihar can have its cake and eat it too. Nitish has played a masterstroke.

Sometimes such politicking overshadows genuine and substantive issues at hand. Case in point is the whole issue of ‘backward’ status or special financial package for Bihar. Bihar is one of the ‘sick’ or BIMARU states of the Union whose mineral wealth has been actively mined for a very long time. The clues to its special, but not unique, situation are to be found in the enthusiasm with which ruling party leaders from two other states – Orissa and West Bengal, have come out in support of Bihar’s plea and have added their own name to the queue.

To many, this might be appear to be an opportunistic gang-up moment to extract as much as one can from a fragile government with thinning numbers in the Lok Sabha and unsure of the reception at the hustings next time. And that is exactly correct. But what is forgotten in this age of short policy memory is that New Delhi shares a major part of blame for the pathetic industrial scenario in these states for decades – not as an innocent bystander but by active policy. The mineral rich states of Orissa, erstwhile Bihar (with Jharkhand) and West Bengal have been devastated for decades by the freight equalization policy of the centre. By this policy, the central governmental would subsidize the transportation cost of minerals from mining zones to anywhere else in the Union. Basic ideas of efficiency and cost considerations were thrown to the wind as the centre decided to create an artificial system by which production factories could now be uncoupled from the mines themselves. The locational and natural advantages of these states were neutralized by subsidizing their deindustrialization. This process went on for 4 decades, from 1952 to 1993. In addition to other factors, the present industrial map of India is based on the policy driven destruction of the competitive advantage of the mineral-rich states.

These eastern-states are textbook cases of what devastation centralist policywallahs can do in a pseudo-federal polity. The begging bowls in the hands of these states are not accidental, as these states have never received any reparation for this punitive central policy. That is long due. If the centre is too broke to give reparations, then a genuine federal solution must be found where states would control mineral revenues found under their soil. It is absurd that coal-producing states often pay more to the centre than non coal-producing states to buy their own coal. Revisiting the central, state and concurrent lists are the need of the hour. There is a limit to New Delhi keeping states at tenterhooks by dangling the carrot of central grants. Local control of revenue will blow the cover of this false sense of importance.

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Filed under Bengal, Delhi Durbar, Federalism, India, Nation

Politics of remembering and forgetting Shurjo Sen

[ Daily News and Analysis, 30 Mar 2013; Kashmir Reader, 1 Apr 2013; Bargad; Alal o Dulal]

If you live within the territorial limits of the Union of India, it is very likely that you were unaware of two important red-letter days in late March. You are not alone. Bhagat Singh was executed on 23 March, 1931 and Shurjo Sen was born on 22 March, 1894. Governments that utilize half a chance to put full page ads and billboards with various fathers, mothers and other demigods of the nation silently let those dates pass. For dwelling too much on these characters can create doubts in the mind of subjects brought up on a steady dose of ‘swaraj’ via Congress mid-wived ahimsa. The anti-colonial struggle ( even keeping aside other kinds of contemporaneous struggles for the moment) might start taking many more hues beyond the tri-colour. Hue-expansion is not easy, especially after more than 60 years of mythification. Myths solidify in time, memories that contest those myths fade. In a nation-state that has successfully been able to portray violence that is not sanctioned by the state as intrinsically evil, the role of violence being a constitutive part of the anti-colonial struggle (the good fight) might give such kind of oppositional forms legitimacy if not legality. All the more reason, certain characters will go unsung or passed over.

In today’s Lahore, few want Bhagat Singh. In post-partition India, few beyond West Bengal ( and there too, a dwindling tribe) remember Shurjo Sen. Such is the fate of the selfless and childless types. There is one thing common among the people the state wants us to forget.  They don’t have children and grandchildren sitting in the parliament. But keeping alive certain fat cats’ ancestors’ names is not anyone’s duty as a citizen, is it? The nation-states in the subcontinent provides a long afterlife to such ancestors.

The Indian Union also fancies itself as the ‘successor’ to all things sub-continental. It is true that this successor status is partly due to the overtly sectarian ‘national-culture’ idiom in the successor states of the Republic of Pakistan. Its all good to appropriate the dead – they don’t physically spit back. Masterda Shurjo Sen’s armed insurrection against the colonial occupation in Chittagong and myriad such events, ideas, conceptions, ownerships, get projected exclusively, onto the post-partition Indian Union. This has given rise to a misshapen, smug and imperial vision of one’s past. Shurjo Sen punctures this fancy. He remains palpably alive in East Bengal than anywhere else. Even in the recent protests at Shahbag, lakhs raised slogans in his name. “Shurjo sen-er banglaye, jamaat-shibirer thhai nai.” (No place for Jamaat-Shibir in Shurjo Sen’s Bengal). While such chanting is tactical ( no such ‘Hindu’ name in the post-47 stars of that nation-state), that such a tactic is even possible points to a different kind of political idiom and remembrance. No such mass currency of his name in West Bengal, let alone the Indian Union.

In the Indian Union, many viewers of the two recent Shurjo Sen movies (‘Chittagong’ and ‘Khele Hum Ji Jan Se”) came to know of him for the first time through the movies. The language of both films is Hindi. The Indian Union has never had jurisdiction over the area where the actual events and the film-plots are largely set. Bollywood has taken this location without its people and has managed to mangle it, to make it palatable and understandable to a Hindi-understanding audience. Shurjo Sen and his compatriots largely spoke Bengali and Chittagonian. Shurjo Sen and Chittagong can be packaged with technological finesse. The past is always better suited for appropriation. Hence Shurjo Sen, the ‘Indian’, can be sold – distinct and divorced from the contemporary ‘Bangladeshi’ backdrop of illegals and border-killings. Of Shurjo Sen being a ‘Bangladeshi’ in the post-71 nation-state sense is also dubious, but atleast it is a complicated appropriation – partly reflecting the lines of fissure of that polity. Nation-states are the worst possible short-hand for identities, or for anything that humanity holds sacred.

However, not everything can be packaged like this. For example, to make a Hindi film on Chawngbawia, a legendary hero of the Mizo people or a romantic drama set in a Naga village with Naga characters, will be dismissed as absurd. Shurjo Sen talking to his comrades in Hindi is also absurd – but it can pass off. The Naga or the Mizo does not. It cannot be mere coincidence that most of the areas where infamous kala ain Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in force are also those whose heroes are deemed unfit for appropriation and marketing ‘nationally’, whatever that means. So there is a geography Bollywood has conceived, of what is ‘ours’, what is partly like ‘ours’ and what is very unlike ‘ours’. Though not spelt out, these conceptions need to be taken seriously.  For people kill and occasionally get killed with such conceptions in mind.

Who is remembered and who is not, has to do with who has held the power to shape our textbooks and ‘common sense’ and who didn’t. Most official heroes now have well-heeled scions staying in what is what yuppies increasingly call the NCR (National Capital Region). Albert Einstein said that ‘common sense’ is a collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen. The questions to ask are – How did we acquire our conceptions of the past? From whom? Is there a pattern in the things we have been told? Are there other stories to be told? Why were they not told? What is the connection between the ownership of the machinery and infrastructure of story-telling and the nature of our ‘common sense’? Could there be other senses, as ‘common’, for people beyond the pale of propaganda? Do they have lesser rights to voice their opinions? Why so? Because they can be put behind bars, or worse still, never heard of again? In short, do we have any understanding of our past (and present) that does not, in the final analysis, derive its ‘legitimacy’ from ‘might is right’ and ‘we are good’?

Let us take the Bollywood make-up off Shurjo Sen. This has to go beyond the language issue but also into the meta-contestation of the synergy of the film industry and ‘cultural past’ formation projects of the nation-state. Is there a film on Shurjo Sen made in post-71 Gonoprojatontri Bangladesh. If yes, what is the narrative? If not, why not – given the claim that the People’s Republic of Bangladesh is also ‘Shurjo Sener Bangla’? Let us study the silences of the textbooks, that pages that were excluded, the stories that were mis-told. We might be amazed and disturbed at we find. Adulthood, among other things, is the loss of simple heroes and self-affirming binaries. Unlearning common sense is painful – we build our conceptions of selfhood around them. But becoming adult humans, as opposed to being pupils of the state, is a necessity, to protect right from might.

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Filed under Bengal, Delhi Durbar, Foundational myths, History, Identity, India, Language, Media, Memory, Nation, Partition, Power

Where is compassion for our own / Jail return tales / The underside of national pride

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Mar 2013; Millenium Post, 27 Mar 2013; Echo of India, Mar 2013; Frontier Vol. 45, No. 41, Apr 21- -27, 2013]

2 Italians came, shot 2 fishermen off the Kerala coast, got apprehended, were parked in a hotel and then they left for Italy. With the Italian government finally saying that they will not give back the 2 accused sailors in the Kerala fishermen-in-sea murder case, the ground was fertile for some reaping of patriotic crops. Nothing works better than some good-old Italian bashing to make ‘patriotic Indians’ out of us. The Italian government agreed to send them back, cutting short the tournament of competitive patriotism.  But for these Italians, how else could the homegrown saffron Goths, constantly plotting the fall of an imagined Roman regime in New Delhi, rehearse another episode of their ‘India, good or bad’ drama. How else could certain khadi-clad centurions grab this opportunity to show off intense love for peninsular fishermen? As the khadi and the saffron match each other’s love for fishermen, decibel for decibel, they also compete in actively plotting the destruction of life and livelihood of thousands of fishermen at Koodankulam, beating for beating, 144 for 144, arrest for arrest, tear for tear. Irony is not a very effective genre of public performance in the subcontinent. May be because there is just too much of it around us, making it plain and non-newsworthy. Just like hypocrisy.

Italy is not alone among European states in irking the mandarins of the government at Delhi. In a less publicized series of events, Denmark did it too. Was Sanjeev Bhaskar was right when he famously asked – is it ‘coz I am brown? Most probably not. One of the prime accused of the almost-forgotten Purulia arms drop case of 1995 is a Danish citizen Niels Holck (famously known as Kim Davy). Authorities of the Indian Union wanted him extradited. A Danish court said that the conditions in jails run by the Government of India are inhuman. Between 2001 and 2010, 14231 people died in police and prison custody in Ahimsa-land. Sadly, this is no foreign NGO data but statistics from the National Human Rights Commission. Mumbaikar Arun Ferreira closely avoided becoming a part of that statistic. If J.L.Nehru had received from the British the same kind of prison-treatment as Arun Ferreira received from the Government of India, he would have discovered another ‘India’. His fatherly letters to his daughter would have sounded very different. Actually, this is the ‘India’ whose power was transferred during Partition. Norwegians simply did not want to risk a rediscovery of this ‘India’. Incessantly claiming to be the world’s largest democracy probably did not help. The Danish court did not want Kim Davy to suddenly jump off from some height, hang oneself unnoticed, meticulously commit suicide deceiving the prison and police-folk or simply die of ‘unexplained’ internal bleeding. We would love to call this ‘racism’, that is, us minus some fourteen thousand.

Most of these 14231 deaths were due to torture, typically occurring within 2 days of being taken into custody. We will probably never know the exact details – your  ‘right to information’ has its limits. Unfortunately, the dead do speak – if not in words, then in numbers. The Government of India has no anti-torture law satisfying the United Nations Convention Against Torture guidelines. Denmark and Italy have such laws. The honourable and reasonable Government of India also promised that Kim Davy would be housed in a ‘special jail’ so that Danish fears are laid to rest. Browns are second-class for a regime jail that can give an undertaking to produce a ‘first-class’ jail, when it wishes, for international PR purposes. We browns are not fit for such treatment. No ‘India first’ Saffron-wala will accuse any Khadi-wala for this preferential treatment, or vice-versa. Third degree treatment is reserved for its own ‘nationality’. This predictable closing of ranks around this ‘India’ is deeply revealing about their sense of pride and patriotism.

The twisted sense of patriotism and the opportunistic use of the charge of ‘racism’ came together in producing another spectacle around which much tear was shed , much pride was hurt, many hearts bled and many  professional fire-eaters ate fire on camera. The daughter of a junior-level Indian Union embassy staff in New York was in police custody for less than 48 hours with others in the cell, due to a faulty investigation. The familiar parade of Saffronwalas and Khadiwalas came again, spouting pride and honour. P.Chidambaram (then home-minister), S.M.Krishna (then foreign-minister) and diplomats became vocal.  It was declared that a lawyer would be employed for the girl’s case and that they would ask for compensation for distress in custody. This is rather rich coming from the nation of 4 custodial deaths per day. Add to it the hundrerds of millions of days of torture, hopelessness, broken families, lost aspirations and insanity. Will our khadi and saffron patriots ask for such compensation? If one believes that girls case has merit (and I believe it has), then the whole exchequer has to be emptied many times over to pay back the citizens of the Indian union who have been brutalized by the state’s criminal justice system. Coming back to Italy, it’s alright to love or hate pizza. Lets not talk about pride being hurt and loss of dignity of the justice system. If there was any pride and dignity at all, it should have been hurt at least 14231 times in the past decade. One should have some shame to qualify as human.

What is this thing that changes even human physiology, numbing our compassion, making us cheering spectators of contemporary gladiator games? It is the civic duty of a nationalist. My nation is good. You, sir, are bad.

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Filed under Army / police, Diaspora, Nation, Our underbellies, Rights, Scars, Terror, Under the skin

Chavez – a subcontinental remembrance

[ Daily News and Analysis, 7 Mar 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 11 Mar 2013]

I never met the just-deceased leader of the neo-Bolivarian movement of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in person. However, living in this subcontinent, somewhat fortuitously, I have seen him in various forms. What does his death mean to the subcontinent? Did he mean anything to us when he was alive? I have a couple of personal snapshots to offer. It can be considered a tribute.

When I say that I have never met Hugo Chavez, it is only half true. I had seen him up on the stage at a mass-rally in Kolkata in 2005. At that point, I was in Medical College, Kolkata and a member of an independent students association, which was regularly threatened and sometimes physically beaten by members of the ‘Party’s’ student wing. Rakesh, a class-mate of mine and now a humanitarian doctor at the Shramajibi Hospital in the Sundarbans, and I saw the posters in the city that the ‘Party’ was organizing a mass rally at the Lake Stadium and Chavez would speak. At that time, the coup that had briefly deposed him and his valiant and popular return had gained wide currency in our minds. We did not have too much access to the Internet and online videos never smoothly streamed anyways. But what we had seen and heard, from here and there, had made us realize that this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. A ‘red’ leader whose action, mannerism and style was in such contrast to the Dodos that walked about in Kolkata neighbourhoods back then – this was reason enough for us to go to his rally that evening.

I must confess that we were rather scared. Rakesh had been repeatedly threatened and assaulted by the ‘Party’ and I was a known face too. And here we were, among thousands of the Party faithful. We hoped nobody recognized us – realistically the chances were slim. Half-jokingly, half-nervously, I whispered to Rakesh that in this 10000 (or more) versus 2 scenario, we could be vanished without trace.

The event was nominally organized the government. But the ‘Party’s top brass was in full attendance – some on stage and some very near it. Events like these were a strange version of universalism that only Kolkata used to experience. Once, the city was also treated to an event where Che Guevara’s daughter had come visiting. Around the time of these events, the public posturing of the ‘Party’ and the tone of the columns in the ‘Party’ daily used to be such as if the dhoti-clad were very uncomfortable in their air-conditioned offices, and were itching to hit the trenches. The last installment of this periodic farce was when Maradona came to Kolkata.

And then Chavez spoke. There was an interpreter who translated his Spanish to Bangla realtime. That poor soul drew angry jeers from the ‘Party’ faithful when he said ‘Karlos Markos’ – a name Hugo Chavez had just mentioned in that form. And I perked my ears up. Over the cacophony of the mujahideen disgusted at the Holy Name being taken in a non-divine Spanish ( and not divine English, but not German, mind you), a different Hugo emerged to us. The person on stage had been engaging with Karl Marx, on his own terms, with a confidence that comes from being deeply embedded in one’s cultural ethos. Rakesh and I were won.

There were layers upon layers of irony that evening. In the Panchayat Elections held less than two years earlier, as many as 5030 Gram Panchayat seats were won ‘unopposed’ by the same party that was hosting the character who had unleashed the most democratic regime that part of the world had seen in recent times – even facing a recall election. At some point in his speech, Chavez mentioned Gandhi (I don’t remember whether it was the Father or the Mother). The crowd fell silent – evidently, Hugo had not been briefed about the time and place. Rakesh and I, dirty-minded as we were, deliberately chose to clap hard at that moment, amongst angry looks of people around us. Looking back, I feel, that bit of bravado was not worth the potential risk.

When he left the stadium, he stuck out his torso the car-window, waving spiritedly. For a moment, he waved directly at us, or so I thought. A day later, there was a picture of him in the ‘Party’ daily from one of the ‘agricultural progress’ tours they must have organized. He smilingly held a giant-sized pumpkin on top of his head – with the dhoti-wallas around him not sure how to react. That moment, from the unlikely vantage of a still-photo in a Party daily, he spoke directly to irreverents like us. Such was Hugo.

And then, 8 years later, I saw ‘Hugo’ again, in Shahbag, Dhaka. He was about 25, wore a similar beret cap, and was leading the sloganeering. I saw a few others in Shahbag, sporting the ‘Hugo’ look. Surely Hugo was more alive in the East, beyond the clutches of the dodos of the West.

On Hugo’s death, my friend Aiyan Bhutta of Lahore, improvised an old Pakistan People’s Party slogan that had originally been coined after the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. ‘Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai’. ( From every home a Hugo will emerge, how many Hugo’s will you kill?). I remembered the 25-year old Bengali at Shahbag. Indeed. Tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai. Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga.

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Filed under Americas, Bengal, Democracy, Kolkata, Obituary, Power

Shahbag: A story of two hangings; differences in their dynamics / Shahbag live from Dhaka / Shahbag Live

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Feb 2013 ; Millenium Post, 21 Feb 2013 ]

It is indeed unfortunate that the name Shahbag will not evoke much response from the Indian pretenders to ‘global citizenship’. They may have heard of Tahrir Square and in their amateur glee, may have done the absurd comparison of an antic or two in Delhi and Mumbai to it. Dhaka is the city many Indians believe that ‘they’ liberated in 1971. In fact, the liberation war has not ended. It is still ongoing at Shahbag. Shahbag is one of the main street intersections of Dhaka where the events taking place as I write may have historic consequences.

Take the road that leads from Dhanmondi, Dhaka towards Nilkhet. Turn left at Science Lab and keep on walking. If you hear passionate slogans from the young and old shaking the ground beneath your feet, you have reached Shahbag. After the 1971 Liberation war of Bangladesh, the governments of the states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh reached a tripartite agreement. One of the despicable results of this was the granting of clemency to some of the worst perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the last millennium. The few Bengali collaborators of the Pakistani occupation forces indulged in mass-murders and rapes that have few parallels in recent memory. They have never faced the judicial process, until now. The International War Crimes tribunal in Bangladesh has been pursuing some of the biggest leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Razakar, Al-Shams and Al-Badr militia – a process that has stupendous public support in that nation. One of the most hated of these characters, Kader Mollah, has been handed a life sentence and not a death sentence. This resulted in a protest assembly started by a bloggers and online activist network that was quickly joined by progressive and left-wing student organizations. The result has been an unprecedented mass assembly that has been going on continuously since February 5 with people from all walks of life joining in. People are singing, making new slogans, giving new life to old slogans which had been made into lifeless clichés, drawing giant murals on the streetside, doing multiple street theatre performances at the same time in different locations of that busy urban intersection and what not. Having been witness to the Anna protests in Delhi last summer, all I can say is that if that was warm Jacuzzi or a stove-flame (depending on your perspective), Shahbag is a veritable volcano. It was briefly called off after February 21 only to start again a day later.

As I stand in Shahbag, soaking in this immense human energy, I cannot help compare this to another such urban assembly I was recently witness to, where too, calls for hanging (something I am personally opposed to, under any circumstance) were the primary chant. These were the India Gate protests after the Delhi rape and murder case. At India Gate, Kavita Krishnan and others tried their best to inject sanity into the folks demands for death and castration. There the political was trying to reason with the expressly ‘apolitical’. Here in Shahbag, from the very outset, it was very political. However, it was not partisan. The difference showed. In Shahbag, the politicized students and youth mood that bordered on uber-nationalism was blood-lust was interrogated, at the square itself, by mass chants, that challenged simplistic understandings of nation, nationalism and revenge. The slogan ‘Tumi ke, ami ke, Bangali, Bangali’ (Who are you, who am I? Bengali, Bengali) was often changed to ‘Chakma, Marma, Bangali’ to include other ethnicities in the state of Bangladesh. The former 2 ethnic groups were involved in a long armed insurrection with the government. This is not easy, especially in a nation-state formed primarily on the basis of an exclusivist ethno-linguistic nationalism. Imagine saying the K-word or the N-word as different from ‘Indian’ in the Delhi chants. But Dhaka could, and they could precisely because Shahbag is political. The media covers Shahbag, it does not dictate it. It does not repeat the world ‘apolitical’ like a ghost-busting mantra as those in Delhi studios did as soon as the ‘Damini’ protests started. In Shahbag, it was demanded that whole organizations that were involved in rapes and murders be banned. In the Indian Union, can we even dare to name the organizations and agencies to which the highest numbers of alleged rapists are affiliated? The amateur flash-in-the-pan nature of Delhi protests showed when it was all but broken but a Lathi-charge. The brutal murder of one of the organizers of the Shahbag protests, blogger Rajeeb Haidar, only strengthened the resolve of the square. In Shahbag, the government is trying hard to appropriate the movement for justice. At the India Gate, the Delhi Police meted out instant justice of another kind. Shahbag is also a call for a different political direction – the youth wanting to resolve issues that happened before their birth. This bursts the myth that today’s young only react when things affect them directly. The hip metro youth of India, are still sadly, in a state of political infancy in this regard.

I stood mesmerized by the slogan-chanting figure of Bangladesh Chhatro Union’s Lucky Akhtar, who has now been nicknamed ‘slogankanya’ by Shahbag itself. Lucky has been hospitalized multiple times, once after being pushed by the ruling party operatives keen to take the stage. Whenever Lucky led the sloganeering, it was hard to separate the aesthetic from the political. And why should one? In this assembly for justice against crimes that also includes innumerable rapes, there were thousands who were there not as somebody’s mother, daughter or sister, but as politically inspired women. And it matters. And that showed.

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Filed under Bengal, Change, Democracy, Dhaka, History, Religion, Scars, Terror