Category Archives: Class

বোর্ড, শিক্ষা, আদর্শ – দিল্লী আমাদের ভবিষ্যত লুটছে

আমি যখন ডাক্তারী পড়তাম, একটা কথা বেশ চালু ছিল।এই যে পৃথিবীতে ডাক্তারদের বাজার কখুনোই কমবে না।  কারণ জনসংখ্যা বাড়তেই থাকবে, ফলে রোগীর সংখ্যাও বাড়তেই থাকবে। এই যুক্তিটি জন-সংখ্যার সাথে যুক্ত অনেক কিছুর ক্ষেত্রেই খাটে – যদি না ভয়ানক গোলমেলে কিছু ঘটে।  ঠিক তেমনই কিছু একটা ঘটছে আমাদের এই পশ্চিমবঙ্গের শিক্ষা-ক্ষেত্রে। এবং আমরা উদাসীন।  একটু খুলে বলি।

শত্রুর মুখে ছাই দিয়ে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের জনসংখ্যা দিন কে দিন বাড়ছে, স্কুল পড়ুয়ার সংখ্যা বাড়ছে আর এসবের মধ্যেই এই বছর মাধ্যমিক পরীক্ষার্থীর সংখ্যা কমে গেছে ! ভাবা যায়? তাও সামান্য, নয় – নয় নয় করে প্রায় ১৫ হাজার। একই সাথে অবশ্য এ বাংলায় প্রতি বছর বেড়ে চলেছে দিল্লীর নানা বোর্ডের পরীক্ষার্থী সংখ্যা। পর্ষদ কর্তারা বেহায়া হয়ে অদ্ভূত সব কারণ দিচ্ছেন। কলকাতা শহরে পশ্চিমবঙ্গ মধ্যশিক্ষা পর্ষদের পরিচালিত মাধ্যমিক পরীক্ষা দেওয়া ছাত্র-ছাত্রীর সংখ্যা এতই কমে গেছে যে নানা রকম অজুহাতের শাক দিয়ে পচে যাওয়া মাছ থেকে দুর্গন্ধ আটকানো যাচ্ছে না একেবারেই। এ কেমন করে হলো? এবং এমন চলতে থাকলে, ক্ষতি কি? ক্লাস টেন পাশ করাই তো মোদ্দা কথা – মাধ্যমিক হোক বা সিবিএসই /আইসিএসই। ব্যাপারটা এত সহজ নয়।

শিক্ষা নাগরিক গঠন করে। তাই একজন স্কুল-পড়ুয়াকে কি শেখানো হবে, সেটা গুরুত্তপূর্ণ। আমাদের বাংলাদেশের জাতি ও সমাজের ভবিষ্যত এই ‘কি শেখানো হবে’র আদর্শের উপ নির্ভরশীল। একেই বলে সিলেবাস। মাধ্যমিক ও দিল্লী থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাস এক নয়। পার্থক্য আছে।  এই পার্থক্য মানের তারতম্যের প্রশ্ন না , ভিন্নতার প্রশ্ন। ভারতীয় যুক্তরাষ্ট্রে এতগুলি রাজ্য বোর্ড, তাদের সিলেবাসের ভিন্নতা আছে কারণ এই এলাকার মধ্যে বিশাল বৈচিত্র ও ভিন্নতা রয়েছে। তাই সিলেবাসকে যদি হতে হয় বাস্তবমুখী ও ছাত্রের আপন পরিবেশের সাথে নিবিড় সম্পর্কযুক্ত, রাজ্য বোর্ড ছাড়া তার গতি নেই।  আর যদি ছাত্রটিকে তার পারিপার্শিকতা থেকে বিছিন্ন করে, তার বাঙালিত্বকে ছেঁটে দিল্লি-নির্দেশিত এক কল্পিত ভারতীয়ত্তর জোব্বা পড়ানোই হয় সিলেবাসের লক্ষ্য, তাহলে দিল্লির বোর্ড-গুলির জুড়ি মেলা ভার। যা শুরু হয়েছিল সৈন্য বাহিনী ও বদলির চাকরির লোকেদের সুবিদার্থে তথা মিশনারী কিছু প্রচেষ্টায়, সেই গোষ্ঠী-গুলির দ্বারা পরিচালিত বোর্ড-গুলি এখুন কেন্দ্রীয়-সরকারী নীতির মদতে এক-কালের শক্তিশালী ও খ্যাতিমান রাজ্য বোর্ড-গুলিকে পরিকল্পনা-মাফিক মুমূর্ষু করে তুলছে – শিক্ষার বানিজ্যিকরন তথা নাগরিকদের বৈচিত্র হরণের দ্বিমুখী উদ্দেশ্যে।  তার ফল ভয়ানক।

বাংলার বোর্ডে ইংরাজি, বাংলা বা হিন্দী মাধ্যমে পড়া ছাত্রটি জানতে পারে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের ভূগোলের খুঁটিনাটি বা বাংলার ধানের খেতে কি কি বোকা লাগে। তার ইতিহাস শিক্ষা স্রেফ দিল্লির  প্রাচীন ও বর্তমান সম্রাটদের গুনগাথায় সীমিত থাকে না। ভবিষ্যতে, জলে আর্সেনিক দুষণের প্রভাব দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাসে না ঢুকলেও আমাদের ছেলে-মেয়েদের তা নিয়ে শিক্ষিত হওয়া ছাড়া গত্যন্তর নেই। আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশের বৈশিষ্টগুলিকে বিশেষ-ভাবে অন্তর্ভুক্ত করা ইচ্ছা বা দায়, কোনটাই দিল্লীর নেই। ওদের থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ড-এ  আপনার ছেলে-মেয়ে এই বাংলায় বসে ক্লাস-টেন পাশ করতে পারে এক বর্ণ বাংলা না শিখে। এই বঙ্গদেশের অধিকাংশ দিল্লী-বোর্ড-ওয়ালা ইস্কুলে প্রথম ভাষা হিসেবে বাংলা পড়ার কোন সুযোগ নেই। ভারতীয়ত্বের হাঁড়িকাঠে বাঙালিত্বের বলি দিয়ে যারা গুরগাঁও-বেঙ্গালুরুর দিকে শিশুকাল চেয়ে থাকবে চাতকের মতো, স্বপ্ন দেখবে হিন্দীর দেশের ইংরেজি মরুদ্যানে খেজুর গাছ হবার, আমরা কি সেই সন্তান গড়তে চাই? আত্মঘাতী হবার জন্য এর চেয়ে অনেক সহজ পথ আছে। 

এই বোর্ড-গুলি কার, এবং কাদের প্রাধান্য রক্ষা করতে গঠিত ও পরিচালিত, তা তামিল নাডু বা কর্ণাটকের অনেক শিক্ষাবিদের কাছেই পরিষ্কার।  শুধু এই অধম বাঙালি তার নিজের বোর্ড-এ পড়া ছেলেমেয়েদের ভবিষ্যত অন্ধকার করতে চায়, দিল্লির বোর্ড-গুলির সুবিধা করে দিয়ে।  কি ভাবে ? অনেক ভাবে।  একটা উদাহরণ এরকম।  অনেক  ছাত্র-ছাত্রীর স্বপ্ন পশ্চিমবঙ্গে ডাক্তারি বা ইঞ্জিনিয়ারিং পড়ার।  তার জন্য দিতে হয় জয়েন্ট পরীক্ষা। তার সিলেবাস অধুনা বদলানো হয়েছে – যাতে কিনা পশ্চিমবঙ্গের বোর্ড ও দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাসের মধ্যে যে অংশটুকু কমন, প্রশ্ন আসবে শুধু সেখান থেকেই।  অথচ, কেন্দ্র যে আইআইটি বা  অল ইন্ডিয়া প্রি-মেডিকেল পরীক্ষা নেয় , সেখানে কিন্তু কোন কমনের বালাই নেই – একদম সোজাসুজি দিল্লির বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাসকে অনুসরণ করা হয়।  অথচ, যেটুকু সুযোগ আমরা আমাদের ছাত্রদের দিতে পারি, সেখানে আমরা তাদের লেঙ্গি মারছি ‘কমন’ ‘কমন’ খেলায়।  আর বাংলার মেডিকেল কলেজগুলি থেকে যে ডাক্তার বেরুবে, যে কলেজগুলি বাংলার মানুষের টাকায় গড়া, তা কার  স্বার্থে? নিশ্চই কতিপয় কলকাতাবাসী ‘এস্পিরেসনাল’ যুবক-যুবতীর কেরিয়ার গর্তে নয়।  বরং তা বাংলার মানুষের স্বাস্থ্যের স্বার্থে।  আজ-ও বাংলার কনে কনে যে ডাক্তার , তারা অধিকাংশ সেই পশ্চিমবঙ্গ বোর্ড-এই পড়া  .গুরগাঁও-বেঙ্গালুরু-লন্ডনের স্বপ্নে বিভোর আধুনিক শহুরে ভারতীয় দিয়ে এই বাংলার স্বাস্থ্য পরিসেবা চলবে না, তার জন্য চাই সেই বাংলা বোর্ডের ছেলেমেয়েগুলিকে  – যারা জেলাগুলিকে চেনে, বাংলার গ্রাম-মফস্স্বল চেনে, এলাকার ভাষা জানে।  কোথায় আমরা তাদের আরো আরো সামনে আনব – তা না করে আমরা  ‘আধুনিকীকরণের’ নাম বাংলার নিজের বোর্ড-কে ধ্বংস করছি। এ সকলেই জানেন যে পশ্চিমবাংলায় দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ডে পরা শিক্ষার্থীরা তুলনামূলকভাবে  বেশি  শহরকেন্দ্রিক, বেশি বিত্তশালী বর্ণহিন্দু প্রভাবিত। পাশ করলেই বাংলা ছেড়ে ফুরুত হবার স্বপ্নে বিভোর শ্রেনীর ত্যালা মাথায়ে তেল দিয়েই কি আমরা  সোনার বাংলা গড়ার চেষ্টা করছি ?  গুরগাঁও-এর কর্পোরেট হাসপাতালের ডাক্তার গড়ার কোন দায় পশ্চিম-বাংলার মানুষের নেই। বাংলা বোর্ডের সিলেবাস নির্ধারণকারী আধিকারিক যারা, জয়েন্ট এন্ট্রেন্স বর্ডার পদাধিকারী যারা, তাদের সন্তানেরা কোন বোর্ডে পড়েন, সেটা জানা দরকার। নইলে এসব ক্ষেত্রে  অন্য কি কি ধরনের স্বার্থ  কাজ করতে পারে, তা জানা যাবে না।  আমাদের বুঝতে হবে কাদের চক্রান্তে বাংলা বোর্ড ক্রমে পরিনত হচ্ছে দ্বিতীয় শ্রেনীর বোর্ডে, যেখানে বনের জলে ভেসে আসার ঠাই পাবেন।

বাঁকুড়া জেলা স্কুল, বর্ধমানের সিএমএস। সিউরী জেলা স্কুল – এই নামজাদা প্রতিষ্ঠানগুলিকে জোর করে হারিয়ে দিলে শেষ নিরিখে বাংলা হারবে। দিল্লির নামধারী ইস্কুলে দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি সিলেবাস পড়ে শহুরে বাঙালির  বাচ্চারা মানুষ হবে – বাংলার ভবিষ্যত আর যেখানেই হোক, এই উড়ে এসে জুড়ে ব্যবসা করা ইস্কুল্গুলির অলিন্দে খোঁজা অনুচিত। ব্যাপারটিকে যেন আমরা  মাতৃভাষায় শিক্ষার সাথে গুলিয়ে না ফেলি।  পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মধ্যশিক্ষা প্রসদের অনুমোদিত স্কুলগুলির সিলেবাস বাংলা ও ইংরেজি মাধ্যমে অভিন্ন।  আমি পড়েছিলাম সাউথ পয়েন্ট-এ , এক কালের নামজাদা ইস্কুল, পশ্চিমবঙ্গ বোর্ডের মুকুটের একসময়কার মণি।  এখান সময় পাল্টেছে – সেখানেও দিল্লি ও কেন্দ্র ঢুকেছে। শুনি ব্যবসা বেড়েছে। বেনিয়া কেন্দ্রীয়করণের এই প্রকল্পে, বাংলার মাজরা পোকা ও আলুর ধ্বসা রোগে নিয়ে শিক্ষার কোন জায়গা নেই।  তবুও কি আমরা আশা করতে পারি না, আমরা আমাদের বাংলার বোর্ড সেই ভাবে গড়ব , যাতে কিনা শহুরে বাঙ্গালী  ‘মিডিল-কেলাস’-এর গ্লোবাল ও ইন্ডিয়ান পোলাপানের সাথে মফস্স্বলের, গ্রামের, শহরের মধ্যে অন্যত্র শহরের সেইসব ছেলেমেয়েরাও সুযোগ পায় সাফল্যের – যাদের আজ দিল্লি ও তাদের বাঙালি দালালেরা জোর করে হারিয়ে দিচ্ছে।

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Bostonian accent and coconuts / Urban vision blind to the poor and their languages

[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Apr 2014 ; The Independent (Bangladesh), 16 Apr 2014 ; Millenium Post, Apr 23 2014 ]

The greater Boston area of the United States of America has a very good public transportation system. This comprises of buses, local trains, boats and the metro rail. The Red line is one of the metro routes, stopping at Harvard and MIT, the two institutions where I have spent all of my academic-professional life outside Bengal. This means that I have taken the Red Line metro many, many times. One of the stations on the route is called Porter Square. Soon after the metro leaves a stop, there is a recorded voice which lets the passengers know what the next station is. The way that voice said ‘Porter Square’ was in what can be called a Bostonian accent. That is apt since the metro is in Boston, most users of the metro are from Boston and that is the accent they are most comfortable with.

The Unites States of America exists much beyond its territorial limits. Specks of California and Manhattan are scattered in urban centres of the southern world, including our subcontinent. Here, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and beyond, those specks of Amerikana exist with a lot of vigour thanks to the brown-outside-white-inside coconut desis whose rootlessness attracts them to these ‘cosmopolitan’ areas. The subcontinent lives with such offsprings, proudly alienated, consciously ‘liberated’ and hip. With sentences peppered with ‘like’ and liberally spreading their ‘sh*t’,‘cr*p’ and other four-letter jewels among the rest of us, they constantly want to signify their ‘cosmopolitan’ awareness, maturity and liberation. Picking up the expressions of their own life’s many moments not from their living environment but from but from American/western popular media styles is the principal marker of these types. The problem is, it does not end there.

Given their numbers, they wouldn’t have mattered unless wielded inordinate power over policy and public life, given ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy’, as Hartosh Bal astutely puts it. They speak English in ‘cafes’ and restaurants, Hindi to their domestic helps. They prefer to live within self-created bubbles where they perform predictable ‘firangi duniya’-philia rituals with a commitment that often amuses the West. This is like the amusement of a father who has just come to know that the rape he had committed actually resulted in a child who loves him more than its mother.

Coming back to public transport. The coconuts constantly lament that brown cities are not ‘outsider’ and tourist friendly. This is rich coming from those who are voluntary outsiders in their birth-lands. They lament that the buses often have things written in ‘local’ language. The same goes for street signs, shop names and so much more. This constant reminder of brown-ness is an eyesore that they have successfully removed from their bubbles. Their all-English restaurant menus, their all English working spaces, get-togethers, poetry-readings, book-launches, debates, discussions, malls and supermarkets help them, at least in certain hours during their daily life, forget the horrid brown land whose imprint they carry, whether they like it or not. And so they complain of their spaces being ‘too vernacular’, harbor ideas of transforming the subcontinent’s urban areas into ‘world class’ – which is a code for a place where a firang would not feel lost. The fact is that in the last couple of decades, in the language of street names, public signage, private spaces and much more, the staggering majority of the people have been progressively told to ‘get lost’.

The poor and their language have been excluded for long. Now even the middle-class is under attack. In the brown subcontinent, even a telecaller now starts in default in English or Hindi, irrespective of whether it is Chennai or Mumbai. We are staring at an increasingly exclusionary urban vision which is undemocratic and downright insensitive which consciously overcounts the few and ignores the majority. At the root of this is an elite idea of citizenship, what constitutes a human being, who is counted as a person of value.

Yet, our languages live among the people on whose back breaking work everything is made, while angrejiwalas have their sausage, wine, banter and sophistication, building tapestries and ‘narratives’. If there is good in this universe or there are gods and goddesses who care about human dignity, something must give.

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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

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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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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Filed under Class, Elite, Gender, Scars, Sex, The perfumed ones

‘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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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

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

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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Filed under Class, Elite, India, Kolkata, Language, Our underbellies, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

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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Filed under Army / police, Class, Kolkata, Our underbellies, Power, Rights, Terror, Under the skin

In defence of Ashis Nandy / Stir against Ashis Nandy exposes laziness of elite anti-casteism / Of caste, corruption and the Indian chatterati… / A skirmish in Jaipur

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 Jan 2013 ; Millenium Post, 31 Jan 2013 ; Echo of India, 8 Feb 2013 ; Jansatta, 4 Feb 2013 (translated in Hindi) ; Frontier (web) 18 Feb 2013 ]

Whatever else it is, this is not a good time to be Ashis Nandy. In this age of ether when spoken words travel faster than sound leaving comprehension behind, it is not surprising that some ‘casteist’ words of Ashis Nandy, spoken by him at a literary festival, have been taken up by the chatterati. Token anti-casteism like token anti-communalism is one of the easiest paths to salvation for the elite chatterati. But even in the month of Magh, the Kumbho mela is too plebian for the comfort of such folk. No wonder, so many have chosen to sanctimoniously pounce on his statement, as a Plan B.

It is important to note what Ashis Nandy has not said. He did not say that people from the OBC, SC and ST communities are most corrupt. What has Ashis Nandy said then? “Most of the people who are doing corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities and as long as it remains Indian republic will survive.” The difference between most of the corrupt and corrupt-most is crucial. An audience whose interaction with the OBC, SC and ST communities is limited mostly to house-maids and drivers made sure that his comment did not go unchallenged. Later, he also tried to clarify that corruption from these communities are more likely to get caught, due to absence of mechanisms of saving themselves, unlike the upper castes.

At the most banal level, there is no way for the statement to be statistically untrue. ‘Most of the people who are doing corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities’ because most people who live in the Indian Union are from OBC, SC and ST communities. Together they form a stupendous majority of the population. That they also form a majority of the corrupt is only natural, unless corruption flows along caste lines. The problem with looking at corruption in this way is that it does not unpack this thing ‘corruption’ into the myriad forms it takes – and that matters. Limiting us only to economic corruption, by form I do not only mean the quantum of corruption but also the method of execution. Given that corruption is something that all communities indulge in, asking who does what how is important.

But there is also the public life of corruption, its most talked about form being corruption in public life. In that elite congregation in Jaipur and their kith and kin beyond it, if one were to ask for the names of 2 most corrupt politicians, Madhu Koda, A Raja, Mayawati, Laloo Prasad Yadav will jostle for space in their lists. That people from OBC/SC/ST communities are over-represented in the imaginary of this ‘public’ along with its pronouncements of wanting to see beyond caste needs some reflection. The charge of corruption is looked upon as a non-casteist charge and by bringing it up, prejudices and animosities, which may otherwise have casteist origins, can be sanctified and presented in public discourse. The devil, then, is not in the commissions but in the omissions. This brings us to the question of ‘visible’ corruption.

‘Visible’ corruption, the eye-ball grabbing variety, is visible mostly due to a crude job in covering up tracks. The visibility is due to getting caught. A clandestine political group escapes persecution by building a networked system of subterranean safe-houses. Caste groups with pre-existing socio-political hegemony have a long experience in building safe-houses so as to channelize their corruption into ‘internal channels’ rather than public-private ones. So much so that some such forms of corruption are not considered as such and do not need to be clandestine any more. Systems of aggrandizement are built into the system so that corruption happens even on auto-pilot. Just like old money begets new money. Older and much-maligned extractive capital becomes today’s fashionable finance capital. All this requires time. OBC/SC/ST communities, by and large, have not had the time to develop the art of reducing corruption to making the papers correctly. They do not have a well entrenched system of trustworthy accomplices who are well grounded in this management science. Upper castes elites have. They are its fathers. For example, they make green-laws and mangle them to their benefit. But the corrupt that this ‘public’ sees are squatters and ‘encroachers’ who pollute. The irony of the fact that all this corruption-talk happened in an event sponsored by a giant real-estate company should not be lost. But then, there is no corruption in corporate-sponsored, free-flowing red wine. It is only the water in the milk from the neighbourhood milkman that is corruption.

In the subcontinent, few opportunities exist for someone to undo the lack of caste or economic privilege at birth. Aspirations and accomplishments are pre-determined by a legal framework that does not acknowledge realities of the past or the present. The few viable ways to negotiate this disadvantage happen to be extra-legal. We love to call this corruption. Indeed, in the absence of this conduit, things would be even more skewed than they are.

Some anti-reservationists are jumping at joy at what Ashis Nandy has said. This is both tragic and comic at the same time – how the same lazy understanding gives rise to joy and uproar in different quarters. They shout – in anger and mirth – united by the pre-judging lens through which they view what he said.

His words on West Bengal being ‘clean’ has also been twisted out of meaning. Given how commonly the relatively ‘corruption-free’ politics is touted as some kind of virtue attributable to either the Bengalis as a people or the bhadralok political culture spanning the communists and the congressites, Ashis Nandy tried to drive a hole into that too.

If Ashis Nandy had said, most corrupt come from the forward castes, there would not be any furore. That is because, in the Indian Union, the potency of implicating hegemonic groups has been defanged by the enthusiastic appropriation of the mantle of fashionable anti-casteism by the very same groups. Which is why the persecution of the Kabir Kala Manch does not attract the ‘freedom of speech’ wallahs who also double up as ‘anti-casteism’ wallahs, as and when required. The reaction to Ashis Nandy’s statement exposes the laziness of elite anti-casteism. If condemnation is the best response we have, it is sad indeed. The essence of what said was that ‘visible’ corruption is rare in West Bengal because in this state, the political empowerment of SC/ST/OBC communities has not happened. This means that a political sphere which is dominated mostly by the upper castes will mostly have the long-entrenched kind of well-lubricated and ‘clean paperwork’ corruption, systems that these groups have developed over long periods in power. This is the mystery behind West Bengal’s apparent cleanliness. Thus he says that West Bengal appears cleans because the nature of its corruption bears imprints of long-entrenched elites and not new rising groups. To take this argument, albeit a roundabout one, to simply mean that West Bengal is actually non-corrupt and the upper castes who have long been in power in West Bengal as the reason behind some real lack of corruption, shows that we do not want to engage with arguments and understandings that are even a little complex.

Finally, it is the limitation of the non-printed form that when one speaks, words like ‘clean’, ‘corrupt’ or anything which one may be using in multiple meanings cannot be put in quotes like I just did..One has to understand grimaces and what not. I do not think that Ashis Nandy is best suited for the sound-byte medium, for the way he speaks and has always spoken. All that was said was in response to something said to Tarun Tejpal is important – that is the context. In the sound-byte and one-liner world, things acquire lives of their own after the words have been spoken. They acquire meanings based on the filters each one of us have in our heads. Ashis Nandy’s style is highly vulnerable to this. He is not an ‘academic’ academic. For decades, he has been an activist-intellectual for the underside, a champion of exiled sensibilities, a public speaker for what many publicly deny and privately acknowledge and I thank him for that.

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Filed under Acedemia, Bengal, Caste, Class, Culture, Elite, India, Knowledge, Media

Deconstructing elite ‘concern’ and ‘action’ on rape / Shinde’s ‘Common Man’ Approach Is Just Rhetoric / Rape, rapists and politicians / Hope, that foul, deceitful thing

[ Daily News and Analysis, 24 Dec 2012 ; Kashmir Times, Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 1 Jan 2013 ; Millenium Post, 28 Dec 2012 ]

When powerful people show concern and promise speedy action on injustice, there is a transient moment of home. Given how many times this charade has been played in front of the people, including this time with regards to the Delhi rape and violence incident, it may be useful to take this incident and analyze. This may be a useful exercise in calling out double-speak from the Indian nation state.

Not always does one see a failed presidential candidate come out to defend the ‘sanctity’ of the residential-palace of a successful presidential candidate. On 22nd December, Sushil Kumar Shinde, the home-minister of the Indian Union, tried his best to appear statesmanlike at the press-conference at the Press Information Bureau. Flanked by a couple of other ministers and a smattering of bureaucrats, he announced to the assembled media and through them to ‘people-at-large’ that the government had heard the rape-protestors of New Delhi. The poor should learn something – it is not enough to be displaced, raped, maimed, killed, brutalized for years. It is also important to know how to chant slogans in English and write them in chart-paper. The star-studded press conference was not so much about firefighting – after all, youths holding placards written in English are not a major electoral constituency.  It was more about appearing sensitive to a larger populace. Shinde saheb even tried the ‘common-man’ approach.

He said that he understood the outrage for he too was a father. Oh, the connect! Lesser mortals are lesser in more ways than one. Rare are the moments when people in power include themselves in ‘everyone of us’, as if we are one community. When the ‘common bond of humanity’ ploy is used in such moments – those in the charmed circle in Lutyen’s Delhi and its South Delhi spill-over nod liberally in agreement. One would almost want to believe that Shinde saheb’s daughter would buy a 10 Rupee ticket on a green Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus and travel from Daryaganj to Kapashera border after a hard day’s work, you know, like many, many others. No such luck. Shinde saheb has Z plus security. One of his daughters, Praniti madam, is a MLA. With more police force out to protect his powerful daughter than what would be deployed to protect an average neighbourhood, it is hard to imagine an anxious father of a commoner here. Unless of course she was meeting aspiring legislators of his own party. After all, in the last five years,  Maharashtra, Shinde saheb’s home state, has had the largest number of candidates with declared cases of crimes against women, including rape. Atleast 26 Indira Congress candidates to different legislatures had such cases against them (source: Association for Democratic Reforms). Shinde Saheb may say that all of these cases are politically motivated or ‘law will take its own course’, but surely, as a father, would he take chances? If not, what have the people done to deserve these candidates from his party? That the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party also has numerous such candidates does not help matters, does it? What do Smriti Iraniji and Sushma Swarajji think about the ‘jewels’ that their party has been nominating? Why is the tirade against the bad guy always directed towards an inchoate other or society at large, when there are more tangible alleged-rascals inside the party? There have been calls for ‘fast-track’ legal procedures for such cases. Ostensibly, this fast tracking should also apply to alleged crime committed against women by tricolour and saffron ‘social workers’. Shouldn’t it?

In a statement after meeting the Prime Minister of the Indian Union, Manmohan Singhji, Shinde Saheb stated that “To ensure a strong law to deal with crimes of this nature, the government will take immediate steps for the amendment of the Criminal Law for enhanced and more effective punishment in the rarest of the rare cases of sexual assault such as this”. This is something that has a resonance with a significant section of the protestors where public hanging and castration have been demanded. But there is rape and there is rape. The state has hinted that it might toy with the idea of death penalty or something more severe that the present punishment for ‘rarest of the rare cases’. Is the alleged rape of a 56-year-old woman in Gujarat by a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawan a ‘rarest of rare case’? Does the alleged repeated sexual brutalization of Soni Sori  in the custody of Chhattisgarh police qualify as a ‘rarest of rare case’? Was the alleged gang-rape of a 12 year old mentally challenged deaf and mute girl by 3 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) near their Warangal area camp a ‘ rarest of rare case’? What about the alleged gang-rape in Basirhat, West Bengal by 5 jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF)? Is the alleged rape of a Congolese child a by Indian Army jawan posted as a ‘peace-keepers’ a ‘rarest of rare case’?  Did the forensic evidence of DNA match matter in that case? Did anything matter? Did anything get fast-tracked, or was a clean-chit thrown back on the face of the victim? What about the Kunan Poshpora tragedy of February 23, 1991 – the alleged gang-rape of more than 50 Kashmiri women by jawans of the Indian Army? It has been 22 years. Does ‘morale’ come before justice or does ‘honour’ look different when viewed through tricolour blinders? Or are these not ‘rarest of rare cases’ not ‘rarest of rare’ precisely because they are not rare? I sincerely hope the Delhi youngsters who spectacularly besieged the Raisina Hills only to be lathi-charged back have all this in mind, when they chant, ‘We-want-jus-tice’.

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The Great veil / A pecking order falls / The veil of civilisation and Hurricane Sandy / The veil of civilization / After Hurricane Sandy blew the veil

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) December 14-20, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 20 ; Down to Earth, 15 Dec 2012 ; Frontier (web), 7 Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 13 Dec 2012 ; Millenium Post, 7 Dec 2012 ; The Social Science Collective, 9 Jan 2012 ]

“ Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.

Ashole ar nokole take boror moto dekhaye.

Gachher kachhe giye dnarao

Dekhbe koto chhoto.“

–       Shakti Chattopadhyay (poet from Bengal)

Translation:

Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

With the real and the unreal, they appear big.

Go stand near the tree

You will see the small-ness.

We live in a world filled with theories of human nature, or more correctly, theories of human nature that explain differences between people. Such theories have a wide ranging currency and explain differences between people in things as varied as poverty, labour efficiency, honesty, graciousness, violence (or lack thereof), scientific progress, cleanliness of streets, alcoholism, sexual prowess and what not. The power of these theories are in that they set the agenda, around which we create our perceptions of ourselves and others, our assessment of the present, our hopes for the future, our aspiration and desires. This is why it is important we take such ‘human nature’ theories seriously and critically, for they define our present and limit our future.

The cold-blooded violence of the Taliban, the ‘simplicity’ of Chhattisgarh adivasis, the mathematical ability of Tamil Brahmins, the ability of German companies to build precision instruments, the courteousness (‘How are you doing?’) of a white bus driver in Boston, the ‘sense of justice’ of the British, the ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’ of immigrant Europeans in North America, the dapper look of a New York police officer, the sense of duty, discipline and punctuality that is apparently absent among brown folks – this long list is only a small set of qualities that are attributed to the intrinsic nature of a group of people. The Pashtun are prone to gratuitous violence ‘by nature’. The other examples I cite also have this quality of being explained by the nature of the people, an ethnic-quality, so to say, that specially marks them out, for good or for bad. This way of explaining away differences between people not only obfuscate strands of commonality between them, but also work against initiatives of transformation of societies from within (Pashtun women cannot ‘save’ themselves and Pashtun men cannot have any role in such an initiative). Such ideas also make us permanent prisoners of an inferiority complex (lazy, dishonest, unclean brown men) – piecemeal personal liberation coming through some kind of an internal theorizing that one is among the very few with the ‘wrong’ skin but the ‘right’ nature. Our world has this organization, this ‘civilizational’ pecking order of sorts, which manages to encroach upon our innermost subjectivities, deeply colouring our attitudes and aspirations. It even warps our sense of aesthetics, so much so that we cannot even make ourselves dislike what we may know to be bad. For example, my modern urban aesthetic can only imagine beauty in concrete while I know that paving the ground makes rain-water run off, causing water tables to drop. The alternatives, soil, dust, clay, have lost all aesthetic appeal, irrespective of my public posturing. This crisis has multiple far-reaching implications – environmental effects are only one of them.

It is not easy to see the world bare naked, without the ideological veil of the civilizational pecking order, especially when it has been naturalized. Rare are the moments when the veil is lifted. It is the witnessing of such rare moments that helps one unlearn, cleanse oneself off handed-down ideologies and breathe easy. And here comes the story of the hurricane. For Nature in itself (not our perception of nature) has not been brainwashed.

Because it has not been brainwashed, it can be irreverent, indiscriminate. It can lash Haiti’s coastline and lower Manhattan in similar ways and in one stroke can be the great equalizer when dehumanized Haitians and refined New Yorkers, the ‘animal’ and the ‘ideal’ both are frightened and shiver. Rare are these moments when layer upon layer of ideology, constructed over centuries, can be briefly peeled back to show what is generally concealed by the apparent disparities between the garbage-scavenger of Mumbai and the iphone-totting yuppie New Yorker. The approaching Hurricane Sandy caused panic. People tried to stock up on water and food. There were fistfights to buy water. There was no queue. There was no ‘discipline’. There was no ‘West’. There is no ‘West’ without surplus – the genie that bankrolls the breathing space between mere survival and the life of consumer dignity.

A friend from New Jersey called. There was no electricity. ‘Whats the correct way to wash my clothes without the machine – you are from India, you know right? Alas, I am from elite Kolkata, but I knew by seeing. Put water, put clothes, put soap. He said ‘ and then spin by hand?’ He wanted to mimic the machine. With the power gone, the powerlessness showed. Notions of differential ‘progress’ due to difference in ‘intrinsic’ nature felt dubious, the arrows pointing to paradise momentarily did not all point in the same direction. Rare are these moments when the inclined plane of progress, where difference in ethnic location becomes difference in ‘developmental’ time, caves in near the peak. It self-corrects fast. Electricity will be restored. But in the intervening darkness, if you remember what you fleetingly saw, you will never believe again.

To be able to look at your belief-system being battered by a hurricane is not easy. It is not easy to see unclean public lavatories that you thought you had left behind in the tropics. Just one day of a Hurricane blessed holiday of the underclass janitors is enough to create a stench that one has learned to associate with some and not with some.  In the gullet of Manhattan, from where the Empire State Building cannot be seen, pecking orders briefly collapse. They collapse without Hurricanes too, on a daily basis, between the rounds that the janitor makes, in the obnoxious splatters in lavatories of Michelin starred restaurants, in the toilets left unflushed in the most exclusive of hotels. The anonymity of the restroom latch lets out a ‘West’ that is more like something we associate with our skin that we have learned to hate. To take away a single-minded aspiration, from those who are otherwise alienated from all other aspirational trajectories, can be destabilizing. The frequent restroom cleaning keeps the ideological veneer on, for us to aspire and be awed. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Surplus makes near-godliness achievable in this earth. For a significant part of the year I live in a locality of Kolkata. This is also where I grew up – a distinctly ‘down-market’ area called Chetla. People often wear lungis on streets and near the rail-bridge, there are lumps of human excreta on the roadside every morning. As I stroll down the manicured streets of Boston, a dirty thought emerges. If the surplus were to evaporate, would the sauve Bostonian come to resemble my people from Chetla? How would the sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue look, early in the morning then? Would the air still be filled with the nauseatingly the high number of ‘Thank you’s’ , ‘Sorry’s ‘and  ‘Excuse me’s’ I say and hear every day? Would this veneer of gracefulness, thankfulness, personal space, yoga retreats and wine-tastings still mesmerize? What does it take to lift the veil? The ease of unraveling might hold better clues to our commonalities and differences than ideologies of progress and development.

Barbarians say that surplus is the stake that holds the veil to the ground. The stake is deeply embedded – it has taken centuries to ram in thousands of them. They are only getting deeper. Hurricanes can only pull out a couple of them, that too very briefly. The stakes have slave labour, usurped lands and colonial extraction written all over them. Reparations can send the veil flying off.

Meanwhile in other parts of global urbania that are playing catch-up, elaborate mechanisms of creating lavatories and frequently cleaning them are being finalized. However they do not have the advantage of acquiring shipfuls of humans from Senegal. Their dreams of creating a ‘world-class’ Delhi need more than a few fingers of Katam Suresh of Gompad, Chattisgarh. One needs many Chhattisgarhs, millions of fingers to adorn the necks of lakhs of unreformed ‘Angulimalas’. To ‘naturally’ fit in to the class of connoisseurs of ‘Belgian’ chocolate, one needs to be better than King Leopold. King Leopold of Belgium. Google him. Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor. Even their names sound better between hurricanes.

“ Ashole tumi khudro chhoto,

Fuler moto bagane foto.

Birohe jodi dnariye othho

Bhuter moto dekhaye.

Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.”

Translation :

Actually you are small, tiny,

Blooming like a flower in the garden.

If you stand up in sadness

You look like a ghost.

Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Environment, Knowledge, Kolkata, Non-barbarians, Power, Scars, Under the skin

A Harvard state of mind

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Nov 2012 ]

Having been associated with the Harvard University since 2006, I have attended a very many events there. On 13 November, I witnessed an event, which led to some thoughts that I would like to share. At a panel-discussion titled  “ The Supreme Court of India and the Implementation of Human Rights”, I got to hear Altamas Kabir, The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Indian Union, Swatanter Kumar, a judge of the Supreme Court of the Indian Union and Ashwani Kumar, the freshly minted Law Minister of the government at Delhi.

I arrived at the newly built Wasserstein building. There were absolutely no entry bars – precisely what a public event in a university should be like. If such an event were held in Kolkata where I grew up, the amount of frisking that would have gone on, can be imagined – apart from the self-appointed managerial positions that young and not-so-young functionaries of the local Youth Congress would have taken up. There were no flower bouquets, no thhali girls.

The event happened in a class-room with a seating capacity of 86. Not all seats were filled. Having studied in an elite college in Kolkata, I could imagine that an event like this would easily fill the huge centenary hall of the University of Calcutta. But during my 6 years (1999 -2005) in the University of Calcutta (West Bengal’s largest university), I had no opportunity to attend an event where the union law minister and more than one sitting judge of the supreme court spoke. More importantly, there was an opportunity for questions after they were done speaking. While I am individually fortunate, I come from that unfortunate stock whose ability to interact with their own minister and high functionaries of the government comes easier when they are out of their native land. In my years at Harvard, I have been in the same room with Pranab Mukherjee, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Kaushik Basu, Kapil Sibbal, Nirupama Rao and others. In my years at the University of Calcutta, I had no such opportunity. Harvard University’s own funds are about 30.7 billion US Dollars at present. This figure is close to the total GDP of Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In 2009, the University Grants Commission of India gave about 12 crores to Burdwan University (awarded a NAAC 5-star status) as its tentative 11th plan period allocation. Such is the love for elite spaces in America in the mind of the government at Delhi that in 2008, it donated about 22 crore rupees to Harvard University. We surely have got our grant priorities right. But I digress.

I heard the minister speak. Hearing his crisp English, I remembered how many people were concerned at the possibility of Mayawati become the prime minister. The anxieties were not about policy but about public speaking and interaction skills at the global stage. As I sat hearing the minister, I realized how much like music must this accent of the minister sound to ‘global Indian’, how much his seamless comfort in suits soothes their nerves. The event had no surprises except for a brief moment when Altamas Kabir felt thirsty and reached for water that was on the table in front of him. Someone from the front-row, probably some government functionary, literally leapt to assistance without being asked, trying to get the bottle and the glass to the judge before he could get to them himself. The agile response looked oddly out of place but then most of the spectators were also from the subcontinent. They understood.

Humans from the subcontinent seem to acquire more rights and privileges and access to the eminent, when they are in some elite centre in USA. They can ask question without intermediaries. They can walk up without being stopped. However transiently, it feels like the eminent are also fellow citizen. Back in the subcontinent, this is not possible unless one belongs to a certain bubble. This is precisely why the pronouncements of the government on human rights have to be compared with the reports on the status of human rights in India, coming from the United Nations agencies and other human rights organizations. A good human rights record speaks for itself and does not need public relations acrobatics from the government. Which is why even a St.Stephenian accent is not enough to sell a positive human rights record to the AFSPA affected Manipuri youth. It is easier sold at Harvard, or so the government may think.

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The art of brewing a telegenic storm / Hurricane Sandy

[ Millenium Post, 7 Nov 2012 ; Echo of India, 14 Nov 2012 ]

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston. This is not a town in the USA. It is a city in Jamaica, immortalized among many people by Harry Belafonte’s soulful voice in ‘Jamaica farewell’. It is very probable that by now audience in many parts of the world through TV and newspapers know of very small town of eastern USA. Some might have picked up names of neighbourhoods in New York City. In an iniquitous global media regime, the size of the basic unit of human assemblage, that is capable of capturing attention and only thereafter be injected with properties of humanity, varied widely from place to place. If it is an OECD nation, chances are you will have heard and read not only stories of neighbourhoods but also of individual people and their struggles. But I digress.

I came across this ‘wind-map’ of over the North American subcontinent. This was quite an internet rage for sometime – a strange thrill of sorts, of being in the midst of it, and hovering over in a helicopter at the same time. This participation has limits. For if the map was not insular and showed places were other people lived, one would have known that when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston, its highest winds were blowing at 130 kilometres per hour. For good or for bad, there was no minute by minute live update.

If the media cameras has panned away from New York Mayor Bloomberg’s press meet, one would have seen the death and destruction in Haiti and Cuba where not whole towns and settlements have been destroyed. However, we do not know of the names of those towns, let alone specific neighbourhoods. Their pictures, their human conditions, will not flashed across front pages half way across the world. Lesser people have lesser print space, if at all. While every human being is equally precious, the fact that most media outlets have carried no follow up of the news of the 100 fishermen who were stranded off the Carribean coast during the Hurricane, tells us that beyond the quantity of humanity, there is a notion of quality of humanity – a conception of quality that is sickening to the core.

While we had so much sympathy about loss of electricity in North America, that nearly 70% of Jamaica lost electricity is something that I had to try hard to unearth. This is especially rich and sad at the same time as the contours of such reporting are replicated dutifully even in those parts of the world where the reach of electricity does not even reach 70%., including the Indian Union. In that feverish reportage of flooded subways of New York, not only a large part of the Carribean coast gets flooded. The appeal for emergency aid from those areas also got drowned.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston, Jamaica and has killed over 70 in the Carribean till now. This is greater than the total number of casualties in the USA, till now. Carribean islands, Haiti, Dominican Republic. Hispaniola actually. Columbus had made his landfall there.

But I was not watching some US channel – why did they only show the US part of the hurricane on Indian TV? May be it’s the same reason why even storms, hurricanes and cyclones that have killed many more in India also did not get so much live coverage.

In his live-beamed press conference, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sounded so confident and reassuring and looked so smart in his coat and tie. The New Yorkers were giving such articulate interviews to the channels. What do we have? Our cyclone-affected are a bloody disgrace. Remember Cyclone Aila? They show themselves half-naked on TV, stare weirdly at the camera and cant even speak English. I hope they show New York subway water removal when Cyclone Neelam makes landfall. Much more civilized. And in any case, Haitian, Dominican and Jamaican companies don’t own stakes in Indian media outlets. At least somebody has got their priorities right. I mean, anchors sitting in Delhi looked seriously worried about the disruption of public transportation in New York.

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Why all roads should avoid leading to Delhi

[ Daily News and Analysis, 22 Oct 2012 ]

A Congress-man for much of his life, the President of the provisional government of Free India (Ārzī Hukūmat-e-Āzād Hind) Subhash Chandra Bose’s legendary call ‘Delhi Chalo’ for the Azad Hind Fauj became a legend before such calls became clichés. It was not to direct it towards the urban agglomeration of Delhi (New by then) per se, but as a call to storm the seat of the British colonial administration in the subcontinent. That was to be expected for the British regime of Delhi while bleeding the Subcontinent white also wanted to slip into the shoes of the long line of erstwhile dictatorial rulers from Delhi. The colonial extraction machine needed to be supremely centralized – that is one of the tell-tale hallmarks of an undemocratic set-up. To try to dislodge George VI, Rex Imperator, is something – but now that the browns have taken over for some sixty odd years now, should we continue to view Delhi as the venue to lodge the ultimate protest or to the venue to celebrate the ultimate triumph, as the case may be. This questions needs serious introspection – especially because the Indian state governs a massive number of people, nearly one sixth of humanity, who have many different stories to tell.

Lets take the recent Anna Hazare dharnas. This activist and his band of anti-corruption activists sat on a dharna and hunger strike this summer. The place of choice for the public display of protest was Jantar Mantar- the sanitized ‘democracy footpath’ in New Delhi. This ‘free for all’ stretch of democratic expression under the watchful eyes of the police and plain-clothes intelligence is akin to the sham ‘happy farms’ of USSR minus one important element – none but extreme nitwits were fooled by Moscow. If the anti-corruption protests by Hazare and company is compared to a spectator sport (and I do not want to demean the earnestness of the protestors or suggest that they are anything less than well-meaning), it seems like Delhi is the stadium where it is worth playing, its inhabitants are the people in front of whom it is worth playing. It is possibly tactically smart too – the headquarters of major ‘national media’ (whatever that is) are here, the lush Lutyens bungalows of the men ( and few women) against whom their ire is directed are here. The problem with that is that the media yardstick of success and failure of movements and protests played out in this mode is disproportionately influenced by the daily mood of an urban area that is unrepresentative of the subcontinent at so many levels. For starters, it lacks a robust culture of street-democracy that is so characteristic of many other places. It is also a cosmetic town, with much of its underclass in the erstwhile-slums shoved out of it and chucked trans-Yamuna. The smoothness of that operation and how similar operations are not that easy in Mumbai or Kolkata are important pointers to the political culture and awareness of the cities, and if I may add, the human quality of the cities. That the words ‘Turkoman gate’*1 may mean nothing to today’s Delhi-ites tells us something. It is indeed a ‘New’ Delhi.  If Delhi were a human being, it would be a grotesque caricature – an extremely well-fed fat man, without armpits, buttocks, thighs, skin folds and hair tufts, but reeking with the smell of presume that can be smelled from a mile off.  A state-subsidized veneer of opulence by design affects the self-perception of the populace of significant portions of the city, especially the post-1991 aspirational segment, that includes the elite and uppity, migratory, rootless class. The artificial tweak of the demography of New Delhi by forcible slum ‘clearing’ also affects how issues of poverty and justice come to be viewed in the public square of the city.  It is no surprise that a Delhi-based middle-class turn-out at the Anna Hazare events made it a ‘success’ by Delhi standards. That acute dependence on so economically and geographically unrepresentative a set is a bottle-neck for any party or movement that seriously aspires to speak for more people. This dependence on the Delhi theatre has another disadvantage. Protests and initiatives are forced to play by a set of restrictive rules of the game – a game that the specific ecology of Delhi has helped the powerful hone to perfection for decades now. Malcolm X’s critical words about the August 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom ( and for  rights of African-Americans) come to mind – ‘They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out town by sundown.’

Worse things have happened in Delhi. Malcolm X was talking about manipulation but criminal apathy is quite another thing.  In March 2006, a large group of survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster marched on foot from Bhopal to Delhi. This was years before the court verdict on the Bhopal case made shedding crocodile’s tears on camera by national parties fashionable and politically encashable for what its worth. The 2006 Bhopal protest sans young yuppies and cameras resulted in police beating up the protestors, including the inspiring female gas-survivor Ashraf, a senior citizen. 35 children under 12, most of who had walked from Bhopal to Delhi, were taken into police custody. There was a similar dharna this year too – you may have missed it between the toothpaste ad and the show about India’s latest ‘idol’. More likely, it was never ‘on’. Innumerable others have marched to Delhi on other occasions over the years. Most of them, with robust and popular support in the areas they come from, came to a city whose idiom they did not get and the city which in return could care even less. This loss of dignity of some of the most powerful and compassionate actors of grassroots democratic practice just because they are forced to perform in an alien and hostile terrain makes each of us that much more complicit in their blank, dust-lashed look at the end of their Delhi day. And this will happen again. And again. And again.

In early October, the Gandhian local-governance oriented alliance of many grassroots groups called the Ekta Parishad marched from Gwalior to go to Delhi. 48000 adibashis constituted a major part of this march for legal rights over their ancestral lands. This is not the first time the Ekta Parishad organized a march. Because this mass of non-perfumed humanity managed to grab 15 seconds ‘between the breaks’ and could potentially cause some traffic disruption, a minister showed up to cut is short at Agra. In return, they got homilies that may be mistaken for heart-felt solidarity. Tens of thousands of hungry and landless, have marched before and will march again, only to be looked at with derision and suspicion, or most tragically, avoided by using alternative traffic routes. At a deeper level, this is not a Delhi-specific problem – it is Delhi where it is at its worst. The problem lies with the idea of a power centre – any centre.

When Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist-activist was temporarily disappeared from Beijing by the Chinese authorities, the spotlight turned not to Beijing but Hong Kong, an area with a relatively better contemporary culture and tradition of public expression and protest. One suspects, even the famed Chinese capital was watching the protests in Hong Kong about events that were happening in the capital. An imaginative use of the ‘home-turf’ can project democratic aspirations to others, without entering the city of snake and ladders.

Multiple centres that have a spectacular living culture of other kinds of political awareness and practice exist beyond Delhi – Koodankulam comes to mind.  In a nation-state like the Indian Union, the Delhi idiom limits the hues of democratic practice. Multiple centres that have a living culture of other kinds of political awareness and practice exist beyond Delhi. Might India have something to learn from China? Why not  ‘Chalo Bhopal’ or ‘Chalo Lavasa’*2 or ‘Chalo Niyamgiri’*3 for that matter? Durjodhon’s thigh *4 might be right where you are standing at this moment.

Explanatory notes:

*1  Turkoman gate – Refers to the massive eviction of the poor, primarily Muslims, from this area of Delhi in the 1970s.

*2  LavasaA hill-city made from scratch in Maharashtra, famous for flouting environmental norms with impunity.

 *3  Niyamgiri – The hilly spiritual and physical home of the Dongkria Kondh tribe in Orissa, now under threat as the holy mountain contains something that non-tribals consider holier, bauxite.

 *4  Durjodhon’s thigh –  As mentioned in the Indic epic Mahabharat,Durjodhon was the eldest son of a Kandahari princess (Gandhari) married to the mythical blind king of Hastinapur in the Upper Gangetic plain. His mother Gandhari manages to make him invincible using her powers, except his inner thighs – something that is taken advantage of in an ensuing mace-fight. The term is somewhat analogous to the Greek Achille’s heel.

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The United States of non-Walmart America

[ Millenium Post,  24 Oct 2012 ]

USA or ‘America’ is as much an idea as it is a swathe of land with people. It lives in different forms in minds of people all over the world, beyond the USA. A serious number of non-poor urban youth from the Subcontinent have grown up with American sitcoms. Now they partly live that reality, fired by ‘onsite’ assignments and contract-labour opportunities in IT of the last 2 decades. This first-hand experience of  by the prodigal children of the middle class also comes with second hand experiences of America in the extended families and friends, back in India. Visiting parents lodged for a few weeks in the suburban homes of their children see the America of the malls – a place where anything one think one might need ( or not) exists, the warehouse of Santa Klaus. The ease of the push-cart, the smooth and snappy non-bargaining retail experience is an important part of the legend that is relayed back. In the pantheon of these multi-brand retail palaces, Walmart is the unquestionable Indra. Almost all of what it sells is also sold by others, and is indeed, made by others, mostly Chinese others. It is the brand of brands – it sells cheap but easy buying as a fundamental right.

In the east-coast of USA, stand two famous cities – New York City ( with over 8 million people) and Boston ( Metro Boston’s population being upwards of 3 million). Together, they are home to more than 3% of Americans. Both are iconic and enduring symbols of America to the world. But there are no Walmarts. I live in the Boston area. As I do no have a car and locally travel on a bicycle or by public transport, I simply do not encounter a Walmart.

This is peculiar as America has nearly 4000 different stores all across the nation, with presence in every state and multiple stores in many major cities like Houston and Philadelphia. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. I slowly started finding a clue among the ‘No Walmart’ signs that started popping up in my neighbouring towns – Watertown and Somerville. None of these two cities had any Walmarts, but on inquiry I found that it had plans to set up shop there. Many people from the area had been organizing against Walmart. These are but everyday people who do like low prices. But many of them feel that they would pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite Walmart’s ‘low price’ bait. A moneyed entity like Walmart left no stone unturned in its public relations offensive  to make people see the ‘benefits’. The civic opposition gathered steam. Their elected representatives in the municipal council, many of who were supportive of Walmart, started feeling the heat. This year Walmart announced that they were suspending plans of setting up shop in these two areas citing profitability issues. The reasons might have been something else.

These towns too were divided on the issue, but the current was clearly on the side of the opposers. Much north of Boston is the picturesque state of Vermont. In the town of St.Albans, Vermont, residents have been debating whether to let Walmart in, for 19 years now. With the lowest number of Walmart stores among all the states, Vermont has been an especially tough nut to crack. If St.Albans falls, it will open up newer markets in northern Vermont to Walmart. That has not happened, yet.

These clearly are not stories of every town and urban community – the huge number of Walmart stores all across the USA is a testament to that. But towns that have successfully blocked Walmart are not just a handful either. From Hercules (California), St.Albans (Vermont), Hood River (Oregon), Damariscotta (Maine), Skaneateles (New York), Taos ( New Mexico) and many others. Join the dots and the contours of the United States of non-Walmart America emerges. That too is America, if we care to look.

How exactly can a town or a  municipality oppose a the entry of a perfectly legal business? Democratic deepening is an important feature that can be seen in the governance of these town by which they can veto or oppose many kinds of decisions that they deem inimical to the interest of the local community. This includes railways, roads and other ‘development’ projects. Walmart and other such retail giants  profit and outcompete many partly by having huge warehouses and stupendous variety – a question of scale. This requires the availability of a large amount of floor area. Rather than target one specific big-box store company (that is what Walmart type of stores are called because of their shape and size), which is not legally tenable, the city councils opposing the entry of such stores effectively ban such stores by setting an upper limit to the floor area of the shops they allow in their jurisdiction. This favours small and medium size, largely local stores over super-size big-box stores. In this way, people’s opinion matter in policy – what they want and what they do not want.

This right to host a Walmart is what the Union government in India has used in its framing of the Walmart debate. They ask why states which want Walmarts should not be allowed to have them? The core appeal of this logic is of democratic justice – if a fraction of the people want something for themselves, others should not be able to deny them that. The union government untiringly tomtoms its purported advances in promoting local governance, does not have the courage to give municipalities and village councils the right to embrace or veto Walmart or other projects that might affect them. Singing paeans to democracy and people’s will is one thing, taking democratic empowerment and devolution seriously is another matter. More Nandigrams and Koodankulams can be avoided if local government becomes real government and not an elected but powerless charade under bureaucrats who take orders from the top. Attitudes and aspirations differ between states and within states too. If people of Walmart’s home country have a greater say on where Walmart can or cannot be, why should brown folks settle for any less? They may chose to embrace Walmart, they may chose to block it. But it is important that they do the choosing directly.

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Let grass roots decide on Walmart / This land is your land – Walmart and the other America

[ The Hindu, 12 Oct 2012 ; Down to Earth, 31 Oct 2012 ; Globeistan, 16 Oct 2012; IndiaResists, 13 Oct 2012; The Shadow (Jammu) Oct 2012 ; The Morung Express (Nagaland) ]

There is the United States of America and then there is the ‘idea’ of USA that exists in the minds of significant portions of the middle classes all across the globe. How this looks in real life varies slightly according to the region of the world, reflecting specific aspirations and anxieties. In the subcontinent, the latter idea is increasingly not made in a Hollywood basement, given the ‘IT-coolie’ fired traffic to the USA. One important element of the newer idea of USA that flows back daily by television, Skype, photographs, phone conversation and emails is the ease of the consumer experience in multi-brand retail stores as big as football stadia, with the variety of wares on offer seemingly endless – from bananas to bikinis and beyond. Walmart is unquestionably the most prominent of these chain-stores, a super-brand. Viewed in another way, it is a ‘shop’ whose name is more famous that than the brand names of the things it sells.

I have been living in the United States of America for the last few years, more or less in  east coast cities. The last 6 have been in the Boston area.  A map of the area (Figure 1) shows the many separate municipal towns that constitute much of the Boston area. My location however deprives me of the quintessentially ‘American’ experience of shopping at Walmart. In the map of the area, B and C represent the two Walmarts in the vicinity. I live in Cambridge and hence I am atleast 10 miles away from each of those. Given that I use public transport and my bicycle to move around, both these locations are quite inaccessible for me. Walmarts and stores like that cannot exist in the USA in the absence of the stupendous subsidy to the highway systems that make the stores viable, not to mention the ultimately unsustainable mass-culture of individual car-ownership that makes such stores reachable. However, the map (Figure 1) may be misleading as it gives an impression that Walmart stores are relatively sparse in the United States of America. That is far from true, as evident from this 2006 map (Figure 2) of Walmart locations in the nation. This corresponds very well with a population density map of the nation, in case anyone was inquisitive about the large patches of virgin territory in the western half. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.

It is not that Walmart did not want to set up a store in my vicinity. In fact they tried and tried hard. When I was a student, as a part of my on-campus job as a server and bartender for the Harvard University Dining Services, I would be deputed to various addresses around the area to serve at parties, clean dirty dishes and similar chores. One such assignment was in the neighbouring municipal area of Watertown. When I was going into the house, I saw a sign on the lawn that said  “No Walmart – No more big boxes.” ‘Big box’ incidentally is the nickname for Walmart and other such stores, for that is what they look like. Given that I knew that there weren’t any such stores in the area, I wondered what this was about. After my working hours were over, I talked to the house-owner and he informed that he was part of the burgeoning local citizens movement ‘Sustainable Watertown’ which was opposing a proposed Walmart ‘big-box’ store near the central square of Watertown. In the United States of America, citizens of town and villages have a say in what happens to their areas, and elected officials can veto proposals – be they of setting up stores, building highways or railways. He informed me that they have been getting a lot of support, which had translated into some elected city councilors getting pressurized not to court Walmart.

Fast -forward a few years. In November 2011, the incumbent vice-president of the Watertown City Council came very close to being defeated by a candidate fighting almost solely on the agenda of stopping Walmart from gaining a foothold in Watertown. In June 2012, Walmart announced that it was shelving plans to set up shop in Watertown. At the same time, it also suspended plans to build in a store in the neighbouring town of Somerville. The Walmart spokeserson Steven Restivo said, “In the case of the Somerville and Watertown sites, we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.” There was another thing common to these two towns – both had popular citizens’ initiatives opposing the entry of Walmart in their areas. In response to this, Barbara Ruskin of Sustainable Watertown issued a statement that read “”We, the members of Sustainable Watertown, applaud the news of our campaign’s success and pledge to continue to work with town residents and members, supporting neighborhood groups, taking an early role in planning and development projects, and providing venues for discussions of sustainability. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the town for a positive vision of a healthy, just and prosperous community.”

This is not a long-winded argument against Walmart or other large multi-brand retail chain stores and their pros and cons vis-à-vis the local community. This simply is a reminder that there are gaps in the network of stores Walmart wants to establish. Those gaps are populated by real people, who, like most of us, are consumers who love low prices.  But at the same time, many of them feel that they would have to pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite the ‘low price’ bait. These gaps, in the shadow of the glorious network of Walmart, when joined together by an alternative perspective of what really matters, also forms a USA. It extends beyond Watertown and Somerville and beyond the faux anti-corporate sensibilities of affluent white hipsters. Among the cities, towns and villages all across the nation which have put a low upper limit to the maximum area that can be covered by a ‘shop’, one can count Ashland (Oregon), Oakley (California), Madison (Wisconsin), Ravalli County (Montana), Sante Fe (New Mexico), San Diego (California) and many more. Join the dots and you see the contours of a nation. This is a USA of Walmart-gaps that few hear about, but it exists nonetheless.

The central government of the Indian Union has cleared foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. This adds diversity and capital-power to the already existing scene of Indian multi-brand retail giants. In a rare and cunning gesture of state’s rights, it has added an enabling rider so that individual states can chose to not permit the entry of foreign multi-brand retail entities in their respective areas. The centre has made a lot out this enabling clause, and has waxed eloquent about its commitment to state’s rights as well as democratic principles. It has also driven home the opposite point that the refusal of certain provinces should not hold up the power of other areas to host Walmarts. This is quite reasaonable, in my opinion. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the centre is indeed sensitive to the differing aspirations and ‘development’ trajectories of different regions, why does it not have such clauses across the board, in all aspects of trade and commerce and beyond that, in much of what are called the ‘central’ and ‘concurrent’ lists. The Indian Union never tires to tout its successes in the devolution of power by the Panchayati Raj system.  In fact, taking the logic of devolution to its logical end, why does it not accord the lower units of the local government to veto decisions and policies that affect the area but the local body thinks is inimical to the interests of the area? By feverishly canvassing for the rights of the individual as a consumer, this apparently libertarian rhetoric is exposed when the centre devolves powers to local bodies without giving them veto powers over most decisions that govern life on the ground, including the right to refuse certain kinds of entities to set up shop in an area. As long as the fundamental rights of the individual citizen are not compromised, what does the centre fear? If the gram panchayats could decide the fate of what comes up in their areas, Nandigrams of the future could be avoided. They might choose to have Walmarts or not. On being liberated from ‘New’ Delhi notions of constitutionality, that is what democracy looks like. There is no second-guessing the potentialities of human plurality.

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Freedom and access in times of market / Free knowledge versus freedom of the market / MNCs, Indian firms & IPRs

[ Millenium Post, 12 Sep 2012 ;  Echo of India, 12 Sep 2012; Frontier, 20 Sep 2012 ]

New Delhi is always in news. It is perhaps not a co-incidence that two events are happening almost back to back in the capital of the Indian Union.  One is the final hearing at the Supreme court of the Novartis Glivec patent case. This case involves Novartis’ contestation of what qualifies as a significant innovation of an existing product, to be deemed separately patentable. Novartis considers Indian statutes to be too stringent. The Indian statutes aim to prevent ‘evergreening’ – the extending patents by making small changes and claiming them to be substantially different from the original.  The other event was a police raid on a photocopy shop at the Delhi School of Economics and simultaneous legal proceedings initiated by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis. There is a common strand connecting these apparently disparate events – both involve multi-national business houses suing Indian entities for depriving them of their intellectual property rights benefits.

In the latter case, legally enshrined rights of the publishers were clearly being violated. Anyone whose education and research was dependent on obtaining photocopies of copyrighted books and chapters has been affected. A campaign has been initiated to protest this. This brings us to a deeper disease that goes beyond copyrights. Beyond generic textbooks, much of specialized and critical knowledge taught in Indian universities is either produced by the West or is commercially owned by entities in the West. This academic produce is largely unaffordable in the subcontinent. By handing out these reading lists to students without helping them obtain the material, the faculty has been passing the buck. This is no different from doctors who prescribe medicines irrespective of the paying capacity of the patient. The doctor, or the university faculty, maintains a glib adherence to the ‘highest standard’, for nothing makes them accountable to make education or healthcare accessible. With their academic seminars on sundry topics, these guard the catacombs posturing as vibrant gardens, open and free. University faculty have now for decades continued to force students to resort to bootlegging while preaching academic freedom from their 6th pay commission padded perches. This is nothing short of a scandal. Unfortunately, in a stratified society, the elitism of the faculty, even in disciplines that never cease to extol their ‘sensitive’ approach to the human condition, is not surprising. What is surprising that stuents have not seriously confronted them on this. While their outrage is directed at the 3 publishers, there is another self-serving goliath in the room.

As a point of illustration, if one peruses the bio-data of full professors at the Department of History, at Delhi University, with the bright exception of a minority of them (like Amar Farooqui, Farhat Hasan, Sunil Kumar, Rampal Rana, R.C.Thakran etc.), others have had some or much of their major books and volumes published by the very same publishing behemoths that are acting to keep photocopies out of the hands of the students at their own university. This pattern is replicated across disciplines. Does the faculty plan to make their own work freely available for download? Surely access to scholarship is at least as important as excellence in scholarship. The choice of publisher for one’s scholarly work or an edited volume can either be a personal or a social one. In the former, one owes nothing to society, though society owes the person his/her monthly paycheck. Elites have a lot of agency. The feigned helplessness that is often passed off as the reason for not publishing in more accessible places gives out the deep politics of the academic elite, irrespective of their champagne socialist public posturing. If they have little agency when writing chapters in volumes edited by others, why not upload those chapters in websites post-publication? In a society of great inequities, this is not simple laziness but really an inability to see through the exclusion practiced by oneself and putting one’s academic production in a social context. With such access barriers, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of professors are more likely to continue down the ‘academic’ path than the less fortunate ‘photocopy’ castes. But Arjuna’s ‘merit’ cannot be excuse for Ekalavya’s destruction.

This can continue because the elite, which selectively interacts with the riff-raff through well-guarded entry and exit points, has long created a separate world where books are cheap, talk is cheaper. Having retracted from public spaces like government hospitals and pavements, they have created a parallel world where they can do without those. That is why one can have universities paying for pricey books written by people in its payroll, in the name of student welfare. Academic publishers are professional businesses – they depend on making money by selling books. Understandably, photocopying hurts their bottom-line. But publishers do not write books, academics do. Can people not expect that publicly-paid academics make affordability and accessibility a criterion for their publication? In the Western academia, universities and academic bodies are making large-scale moves towards open access publication. Harvard, with its war-chest in billions of dollars is leading the way for making research more accessible. Other leading universities in many parts of the world have been having serious discussions and debates on these issues. Till now, there has not been any such concerted move from the browns. Why? Are they so rich? Where is their much-vaunted independence or is that only reserved for duels that help carve out a niche when engaging with the West? The answer partly lies in the socio-economic origins of much of what passes off as the academia. Themselves being products of privilege and inequity, apart from customary and fashionable nods to the concept, they have not accorded issues of broadening of access to scholarly produce the status of urgent priority. This deafening silence is well matched by the silence of another similar caste, the physicians – on the issue of access to life-saving drugs. Similar to the academic castes, their response ranges the full spectrum ignorance to apathy to outright complicity couched as ‘quality’. Neither the destruction of the generic drug industry or the continued expansion on the patent regime will adversely affect the earnings of the physician. Freedom of thought and expression also tacitly assumes the freedom to access thoughts and expressions. Right to health assumes the access to right to means of maintaining health while maintaining human dignity. Cutting off broad access to academic material is as good as killing the university just like cutting off access to generic drugs is another name for policy-driven genocide.

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Unequal glory: India and the ‘other’ medal tally

[ Daily News and Analysis 21 Aug 2012 ]

A few days have elapsed since the Olympics and now even the Independence Day is over. With some trepidation, one can assume it is safe enough to make a few points. The 2012 London Olympics have been the most successful one for the Indian Union in recent memory. On the field, it has won six medals. This is the highest number of medals that this nation has won at any Olympics, giving it a rank of 55, placing it between the upper two third and the bottom third. More desis attended this Olympics than ever before, packing events where the Tricolour went, embodying the spirit of the Olympics by hooting and cheering when a badminton player from China hurt herself as she led her bronze-medal match against an Indian. The bronze in boxing may momentarily help people of Manipur forget about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or so the Union wishes.

There is another way at looking at the medals — a way that brings the cheering and the hungry, the Jatt and the Kuki, the prince and the servant together. What about a per capita analysis of the medal tally? Given the collective gloat, how many medals does the nation win, per person? It is easy to do this. One simply needs to divide medals by population. There can be multiple ways of counting medals – one can count only golds, one can add up medals irrespective of colour, one can add up giving differential weights for gold, silver and bronze. Fought in the name of the nation, such an analysis brings the ‘national’ participation (or the lack thereof) in the picture. Doing a gold only analysis does not suit the Indian Union – this time it has not won one. One might imagine that a larger population would lead to a larger talent pool of sportspersons and hence a correspondingly larger number of medals. Negative deviations away from this would not represent a system that does not nurture its population in general, be it sports or otherwise. The medals then are achievements of the individuals, sometimes due to grit and talent, sometimes due to the added factor of wealth. Their grit is in spite of the nation that wants to appropriate the glory. Abhinav Singh Bindra, the Punjabi Sikh, had won an individual gold medal in the 10 metre air rifle competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In his memoir he has a chapter named ‘Mr Indian official: Thanks for nothing.’ The Union of India’s dispossessed millions might say the same of the state.

So here is the data at the close of the 2012 Olympics. 85 countries had won medals. The following numbers are calculated using a weighted formula where a gold gets 4 points, silver 2 and bronze 1. So, if a country won 1 gold, 1 silver and a bronze medal, the total points is 7 and dividing 7 by its population in millions gives the number of medals per million. Topping this modified chart using the weighted number of medals per million population was Grenada. This is not surprising given a success by chance from a very small nation like Grenada takes the cake. However, some small Caribbean nation or the other has been topping the list since 1996, pointing to something more than fluke, but a regional ecology of excellence. By this measure, People’s Republic of China gets a rank of 67. The United States of America is at 42, the Russian Federation at 31, France, Cuba, Great Britain and Australia are at 33, 15, 13 and 11 respectively. The reason I have mentioned these nations is because their population is relatively substantial. With this historical best medal haul, in 2012, India comes last, 85th out of 85. Going back to the medals per population data through the Olympics, India was 87th out of 87 at Beijing 2008, 75th out of 75 at Athens 2004, 80th out of 80 at Sydney 2000 and 78th out of 78 at Atlanta 1996. In 1992, 1988 and 1984 its tryst with destiny at the Olympics did not result in any medal.

Domestic inequity shows up in unlikely ways in international pageants where Hindustan tries to show off its turbaned best. As though it was natural, the Indian Union, for all these years, has sent an Olympic contingent where the middle and upper-middle classes are heavily over-represented. Through this whole period, India topped the world tables for the largest number of hungry people, beating Sub-Saharan Africa (yes, ‘those’, them) hands down, who in turn have beaten India at the Olympics. There you are, hauling the least number of medals in the name of the greatest number of people, consistently. The parallel with India’s billionaire list and its dismal per capita income could not be starker. And so it goes. Unfortunately, fudging poverty lines and pretending to be the world’s largest democracy does not help win medals at the Olympics.

( In a longer version, the following parts preceded the piece)

The words ‘bullion’ and ‘billion’ have always sounded quite similar to me. That is possibly why every time I hear about browns in the Forbes billionaire list, I am reminded of gold. Vice-versa, when I look at the gold-silver prices in the newspapers, images of the polyester shahzadas and their ilk come to my mind. For that kind of a person, the gold and silver rush during the Olympics makes me think of brown folks who have consistently been topping charts – be they the medal tally or the Forbes’ list.

The annual Forbes’ list has been featuring an increasing number of brown people for the last two decades. The publication of the list is accompanied by an odd sense of pride and intimacy with people whose homes and dreams are strictly off limits for 99% of us brown folks. One can understand the inevitable celebrations, newsflashes, articles and talkshows that significant sections of the media peddle to the rest of us. It is similar to film magazines for whom celebrating glitz is their ideology and the raison d’etre. Similarly, ownership patterns and ideological milieu nearly guarantee that the large sections of the media mark such rich lists as ‘national’ accomplishments. The accomplishments are largely ‘national’ in an oft-unacknowledged way. Talking about the role of anything other than capital, technology, creativity and business acumen has become passé and blasphemous. Not talking about something does not take away the role of the sweat of the multitude and the surrender of their commons in so ‘national’ a cause. But that is another matter.

However, constant banging on the walls can cause a breach in the broad consensus around the meaning of such lists. Nowhere is it more relevant than in ‘Shining India’ where increases in per capita income ($1410 in nominal terms and $3703 in comparable purchasing power terms, in 2011) is widely interpreted and propagandized as a stand-in for well-being of people at large. This grew by 15.6% in 2010-11, the $3703 representing a unimpressive global rank of 129 in a list of 183 nations. Even this figure hides reality, as income inequality in the Indian Union has risen significantly in the last decade. The average Indian is a figment – a supposed cross between the Polyester prince and the migrant labourer, a ‘face in the crowd’. For Grenada, that figure was $13,896, and with significantly less income inequality than the Indian Union. This means, the ‘average Grenadian’ with an income of $13,896 is less of a figment than the ‘common Indian’ making $3703.

This harping on Grenada has a bullion connection. This time it has to do with the Olympics.

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A non-Bengali greeting this Ramzan / Fasting, feasting and politicking

[ The Hindu  11 Aug 2012 ; South Asia Citizen’s Web  12 Aug 2012 ; Globeistan 15 Aug 2012 ; Glimpses of Future (Jammu) 11 Aug 2012 ]

In this subcontinent of a million gods, a cynical display of public secularism is played out on specific days that mark particularly holy events. The federal ministers, chief ministers and other demi-gods gladden newspaper owners by buying full-page ads, typically exhibiting their own beaming faces, often with a nimbus that makes it hard to distinguish who the god or goddess of the day is – Durga, Krishna or the ‘dear leader’. The quarter page or full-page advertisements generally pass on bland greetings which sound uncannily like telegram messages to ‘the people’ for this occasion or other. Given that a large proportion of the citizens of the Union of India cannot read, one wonders why almost all such greetings are directed towards the literate, but lets put aside that macabre example of distributive injustice for the moment. There is a certain tragicomic element in the fact that people’ money is spent in crores to greet and congratulate them hapless souls. The Islamic month of Ramjan has already seen its share of greetings in newsprint this year.

There was nothing extraordinary in these annual banalities till an advertisement from the Ministry of Information and Culture of the government of West Bengal came along. In newspapers and magazines, it has published a large advertisement that shows the smiling face of the Information and Culture minister (who also happens to be the Chief Minister) with the silhouette of domes structure, ostensibly a mosque with two tall minarets – a design that was virtually unknown in West Bengal during much of the Islam has been around in this area. Bengal developed its own exquisite syncretic architectural style mosques which are as Mussalman and as Bengali as they get. Given that this advertisement is directed towards the ‘Mussalman brothers and sisters’ of West Bengal, it was the first departure from things that are both Bengali and Muslim. There is also a faint hint of an intricate design of Indo-Persianate extraction that is quite commonplace in the upper Gangetic-Indus plane but not in Bengal. For centuries, Bengal has had its own designs traditions interwoven with its Muslim practices. This was the second departure, but the design is faint and could have been the only things can came up on Google image search that could be photoshopped into the design. So that is fine too, I guess. But the most striking feature of the advertisement is the text.

It starts “ The holy roja (roza) of Romjan, mandatory for the adherents of the Islamic faith, will start.” This is quite an extraordinary statement coming from the head of administration of West Bengal. The government, using public funds, has made a publicly advertised pronouncement on what kind of behaviour is mandated (or not) for adherents of a particular faith – something it has no business doing. However, the subtext is more important than the text. Mussalmans of Bengal are a varied lot – some fast for the whole month of Romjan, some fast for a few days, some do not fast at all, some offer the namaz 5 times a day or more, some once, some do not, some are teetolares, some drink. At its core, it is a human society – not marked by its fallibility but resplendent in its human variance and vibrations. When the government of the day marks out its job to point out what the some of them are mandated to if they are adherents of Islam, it is clearly overstepping its own mandate. What is the more sinister is an official sanction and patronage of certain behavior forms among the Musslamans of West Bengal, in effect delegitimizing the Mussalman-ness of those who are doing (or not doing) certain things.

Much of this is posturing in front a class of go-betweens that have developed between the government and the Mussalman communities of West Bengal. The government cynically uses Nazrul Islam to announce certain initiatives that carry the poet’s name more vociferously in Mussalman congregations, Recently the government has stepped up its patronage for Urdu in a state where Mussalmans are overwhelmingly Bengali-speaking. It has announced monthly stipends for thousands of imams and muezzins to be paid from the public exchequer. No wonder these divines are happy to advice the government on the faith as they see it. These divines need to remember that Bengali Islam is much older than they would like it to be and it was an adult confident faith acting as the ballast of millions way before Roja became commonly practised in Bengal or the Koran was translated in Bengali. Arabo-kitsch like the palm tree motifs, the copied minarets styles dwarf in front of the creativity and adaptivity that Bengali Islam has shown for centuries. It is largely Manik Pir, Satya Pir, Bonobibi, Bahar Shah,Bagha Pir and rice-eating Aulia-Ghaus-Qutubs who have made Bengali Islam what it is. Official patronage of the interlocuting divines, whose mindscapes are exposed by their frequent Hindustani peppered Bengali, can only diminish the potentialities of this deltaic faith.

Talking to a community of people through the limited lens of religion is at best, ill conceived and at worst, dangerous. It privileges certain kinds of voices within the community over others, who then go on to call the shots and seek to determine socio-political trajectories and limit the possible futures of the community. The Mussalman in Bengal is not only a Mussalman – he/she has aspirations not quite different from other inhabitants of Bengal, lives much more in the world of Bengali than in the world of Arabic, spends much of the day not praying, not in the mosque, not thinking about afterlife. And they are hungry. Very hungry.  According to the National Family Health Survey III, 43.5% of children (0-3 years) of West Bengal are under-nourished. A 2006 study by Mallik and colleagues showed in a sample study that the proportion of children suffering from malnutrition is even higher among Mussalmans, at about 66.7%. With 2 out of 3 children of Musslamans in Bengal suffering from malnutrition, along with endemic poverty, it can be predicted with certainty that many of them with grow-up to be malnourished and diseased adults. Rather than ‘naseehat’ about obligatory fasting, they might appreciate some food. In much of rural West Bengal, it is semi-roja through the year, whether they like it or not, and I have a suspicion and this Romjan, wont be an exception. This is a world very distant from haleems and iftars.

It is Romjan. And in keeping with Bengal’s tradition, it ought to be a Romjan for Muslims – fasters and non-fasters, hungry and haleem-packed, Hindus and others. Rather than posturing around Romjan, the government might want to stamp out corruption from Wakf boards and ensure that encroachers of Wakf properties are brought to task. It just might want to think about employment- for Hndus and Muslims. Islam does not suffer from malnutrition or unemployment, Mussalmans of West Bengal do. If a survey is done, I doubt the wish list of Mussalmans in Bengal will read – Roja greetings, Haj house, Imam and muezzin stipend and madrassah education. I have a feeling, food, shelter, employment and functioning government schools might top that list.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Class, Community, Elite, Faith, History, Identity, Plural pasts, Religion

This land is my land / Decoding the Assam riots / Loss of familiarity

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) -August 03-09, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 25 ; Daily News and Analysis (Mumbai) 2 Aug 2012 ; Millenium Post (Delhi) 4 Aug 2012 ; The Kashmir Monitor (Srinagar)  4 Aug 2012 ; Countercurrents 2 Aug 2012 ]

The Assam state of the Indian Union has seen violence flare up suddenly from July 6th.  With more than 40 people reported dead and upwards on one and a half lakh displaced in a week, the Kokrajhar riots between Bodos and Muslims have again brought in focus certain issues that are not limited to Kokrajhar district, or for that matter to Assam. There will be the usual game of getting as much mileage from the dead and the displaced. There will be a lot of talk Assam becoming another Bangladesh or even Pakistan, with careless fear mongering thrown in for good measure. There will be others, who will sell the absurd fiction that almost no illegal migrants from the Republic of Bangladesh exist in Assam. To go beyond this, let me focus on two contexts – regional and global.

If one looks at a special kind of map of the world, the type where different population densities are marked with different colours, something sticks out very starkly. The part of the world with one of the biggest continuous stretches of the highest range population density is Bengal – East and West. Now incompletely split along religious lines, the Bengals are veritable pressure cookers – with millions of desperately poor people looking to out-migrate to any area with slightly better opportunities. At this point, it is important to realize that when ethno-religious communities are awarded a ‘home-land’, be it a province or a country, a process of myth-making starts from that time onwards, which aims to create a make-believe idea that such a formation was always destined to be. In the minds of later generations, this solidifies into a concept as if this demarcated territory always existed, with vaguely the same borders, with vaguely the same culture and demography. This process is both creative and destructive. It is creative in the sense that it gives the ethnic-mentality a certain ‘timeless’ territorial reality that is often exclusive. The destruction often lies in the twin denial of the past of the region and also the rights of those who are neither glorious, nor numerous. With this in mind, let us come to Assam.

To take the issue head on, the elephant in the room is the Muslim, specifically the ‘Bengali’-speaking Muslim in Assam. I saw ‘Bengali’ in quotes, as many of the ‘Bengali’ speakers in Assam are more correctly described as Sylhoti speakers. And Sylhet is an important part of the story. Today’s Assam state with its Axomia core and a few other communities is the successor to the much larger province of yore, which included the whole district of Sylhet, much of which is now in the Republic of Bangladesh. Sylhet has for a long time represented something of a frontier zone between Bengal and Assam. And most Sylhetis are Muslims. So when Sylhet was a part of the province of Assam before partition, the idea of Assam was very different. In the Assam legislature, most Muslim members were elected from Sylhet. In short, they were an important contending bloc to power. In fact, before partition, the premier of Assam for much of the time was Mohammad Sadullah, a Brahmaputra valley Muslim, who was solidly supported by the Sylheti Muslim legislators, among others. Though a Muslim leaguer, he stayed back in Assam after partition. Unknown to many, the Assam province, like Bengal and Punjab, was also partitioned in 1947 – the only one to be partitioned on the basis of a referendum (held to determine the fate of the Muslim majority Sylhet district). The largely non-Muslim Congressites is Assam in fact did not even campaign seriously for the referendum, for they were only too happy to see Sylhet go, so that they could have a complete grip over the legislature minus the Sylheti Muslim threat to power. The Sylhetis are but reluctant Bengalis, but that is another story. What I want to impress here is that the origin of the feeling of being slowly outnumbered and besieged also has a certain past. This feeling never died out. The post-partition demographic shift of Assam has again started sliding back, with an increasing proportion of the populace now being Muslims. Whether it is differential fecundity rates or Bengali-speaking migrants from the Republic of Bangladesh, or a combination of both, the net effect is a slow growth in this siege mentality. It is important to note that really are many illegal settlers from the Republic of Bangladesh. This has often led to accusation leveled against the Congress party that it shields the illegal migrants by creating captive vote-banks out of their insecurity. This may be partially true, given its reluctance to fulfill the terms of Assam accord that was signed to end the Assam agitation of the 1980s. Among other issues, it sought to identify illegal settlers and take legal action. Given that onus is on an accuser to prove that someone is not a citizen of the Indian Union, rather than the onus being on a person to prove whether one is a citizen of the Indian Union, the illegal settler identification process has been a gigantic failure. So the issues remain, the tempers remain, so does the politicking and the volatility that could flare into violence, as it has done now.

Now let us come back to the population bomb that is Bengal. If it appears from the story till now that this is some Muslim immigration issue, one will be mistaken. To the east and north-east of Bengal are territories that have been inhabited by tribes for centuries. Due to the post-partition influx of refugees, some of these zones have essentially become Bengali-Hindu majority homelands. One prominent example is Tripura. This tribal majority kingdom, inhabited by many tribal groups, most notably the Riyangs, is now a Bengali-Hindu majority state. There is the same kind of tribal son of the soil versus settler Bengali conflict as in Assam with a crucial difference. Here the game is over with the Bengalis being the clear victors. The future of the tribal groups possibly lies in tenacious identity-preservation in ‘Bantustans’ called autonomous councils or slow cultural assimilation into the Bengali ‘mainstream’. Sixty years can be long or short, depending on who you are.

A similarly sad saga is unfolding in the Republic of Bangladesh where the government in its immense wisdom settled large groups of desperately poor landless Muslim Bengalis in the hill tracts of Chittagong. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, one of those ‘anomalies’ of the Radcliffe line, had a solid tribal-Buddhist majority, all through the Pakistan period. The large group of tribes, the Chakmas being the foremost, have a distinctive culture, lifestyle and religion, quite different from the Muslim Bengali settlers. After active state supported migration schemes, now the Chittagong Hill Tracts are Bengali Muslim majority, except on paper. The army is stationed there largely to protect settler colonies as they expand. Clashes between the indigenous tribes and the settlers are common, with the military backing the settlers to hilt. Human rights violations of the worst kind, including killings, rapes, village-burnings and forced conversions, have happened, aided and abetted by the state machinery. The indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill tracts are fighting a losing game. Like Assam, here there has been an accord in response to insurgency by the tribes. The accord remains unimplemented. The state possibly believes that the indigenous tribes will take to Sheikh Mujib’s heartless advice to them in 1972, ‘to become Bengalis’.

All of this is happening in a global context, where the questions of ‘special’ indigenous rights are being raised. Some of it takes the form of racial politics of the majority as in certain European nations. There are the interesting cases of ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like Mumbai and Karachi – with sons-of-the-soil in and out of power respectively, but both with a strong undercurrent for rights of the local. It is easy to label these as ‘xenophobic’ or ‘prejudiced’, especially in the ‘interconnected world of the 21st century’ or whatever global consumer culture calls such dissidents now. Yes, this too is dissidence and of a primal variety that dare not tell its name in these times when the contours of what is dissident and what is sociopathy have lost their human connection, to become ‘discourse’ categories. I am not talking of ‘nationalism’ but a variety of ‘ethnocentrism’ which has known and lived in a territorial space and now finds too many ‘outsiders’ in that space, playing by different rules, making their ‘own area’ less recognizable, all too sudden. The reaction to this loss of familiarity and challenge to position from ‘outside’ groups constitutes a strain that cannot be shouted down for its supposed political incorrectness. While many may think that it is inter-connected-ness that feeds life, and that there are no ‘pure’ indigenous, the rate of such change is crucial. When some clans of Kanauji Brahmin migrants to Bengal became Bengalis no one knows, but now they are undeniably Bengali. At the same time, modern transportation now enables mass movements in short periods of time that was unthinkable earlier. Such migrant communities change local demography all too quickly and by quick I mean decades. Often, such migrations happen in spurts and successive waves, where kinship ties are crucial. Such settlers have more in common with co-settlers than the indigenous. Often the settlers have a perilous existence, partly due to the animosity of the indigenous. This leads to huddling with knowns rather than huddling with unknowns. Thus this new ghettoisation, both geographical and psychological, inhibits the kind of integrative processes that in the past led to the formation of new, syncretic communities.

The notion of a legally uniform country, where anyone is free to settle anywhere else, is geared towards the rights of the individual, with scant heed to the rights of a community to hold on to what it has always known to be its ‘own’. The modern nation-state forces such communities into playing by the rules of atomization, for the only entity that the state seriously recognizes is the individual. And in a flat legal terrain, the rights of the citizen can be used against rights of a community, not even his own. Bengal, Assam, Burma – have hard cartographic borders and soft physical borders. The nation state aspires to a uniformly hard border, often working against the reality of culture, ethnicity and terrain. In the specifically charged context of demographic change, it is useful to realize that no one comes to live a precarious life in an unknown place with few friends and many enemies to embark on a 200 year plan to effect demographic change. People simply live their lives. However, from the vantage of the indigenous, this sudden settlement is a change and a concern, a concern that animates itself as demographic projections. In the absence of any sanctioned way of controlling the speed of change or the nature of influx, ethno-religious theories of ‘being besieged’ provide a way to gain a wider moral sanction for extra-legal intervention. Our porous subcontinental realities require an approach that devolves power and rights that would protect against such massive change. Just like the elite quarters of the cosmopolitan city, everyone has a right to preserve what is dear to them, before it becomes dear to someone else. If this sounds like a scheme to rationalize the tyranny of a communitarian xenophobia, that is possibly because many of us have loss the sense of intimate belonging to a community. Living creatively with differences assumes a certain element of consent between the communities. That consent is important. Fear of total change, loss of self-identity and self-interest hinders consent. Metropolitan diktats of assimilation deny communities that dignity. Communities assimilate in their own way. Speed is a new factor that needs to be dealt creatively. Lack of a serious move towards according communities to determine the future of their locale and futures would end communities as we know them.

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Filed under Bengal, Class, Community, Foundational myths, History, Home, Identity, Memory, Partition, Power, Religion, Rights, Terror

Unholier than thou – a rice eater’s confessions / All the king’s men

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) July 6-12, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 21 ; Globeistan]

 

As Kolkata was being scalded by a particularly oppressive and damp south Bengal summer, in the middle of the erstwhile Anglo district of the city, a tragedy was unfolding. In the once-greatest city between Aden and Singapore, the Calcutta Race Course maidan, with its turf Club and Derby, had been the ‘pride’ of a certain kind of people of the Orient. On 6th June, on that very ground, Abhishek Pal, a Bengali youth of 22, was running a race to get a police job in spite of his martially-challenged, rice-eating race. He lost consciousness and died shortly thereafter. Such is the trial by fire one needs to overcome to be able to serve Bharatmata. Such is the poverty of Bharatmata’s sons that there will be thousands of Abhisheks running that race again, whatever the heat, whatever the cost. The lay and the non-martial often feel inadequate as they are given an impression that the hearts of the Indian Union’s ‘finest men’ beat in step with its national anthem. The goddess of fate had a curious way to capture the ‘finest’ and ‘darkest’ aspects of the Indian Union’s 65-year old nation-state-hood in that desperate dash that Abhishek Pal made. As his heartbeat became faint, I suspect it also started getting out of tune with the Indian Union’s national anthem. And then it stopped beating altogether.

This was not the first time, nor will it the last time – such is the pull of service, especially in a nation where such a job is one of the few ways to escape the endemic poverty and the cycle of daily humiliation that the impoverished know as life as usual. Abhishek was running to join the police service in Bengal, a force developed by the British along the lines of the Irish constabulary to keep a restive population in check by any means necessary. Like police anywhere, some of its members form that rare set of men who actually take money from sex workers after raping them. In the post-partition era, these means of keeping in check have acquired a vicious edge, as many older people recall with a sense of tragic wistfulness that the British generally aimed below the knees when they shot. Abhishek possibly saw the police in its many avatars as he was growing up. As I sat thinking, a sequence from a Western flick seen two decades ago flashed in my mind. Boss kicks his underling, underling shows rank by slapping his aide, aide comes out and punches a guard, and guard finds a commoner to thrash, who finally takes it out on a dog. Everyone wants to rise up in the chain to bear a lesser number of kicks and slaps, even at the cost of death. The lines to join the police and army grow. So do the number of people who gave the ‘supreme sacrifice’ even before being recruited – 2 youths in Chandauli, UP in July 2009, 2 more youths in Khasa, East Punjab in December 2008. A twisted director could have made a surreal slow-motion shot of the stampede moments that would have surpassed Chariots of Fire. You cannot beat the ending. Fervour, tragedy, action, emotions. There will be more such races and recruitments. We cannot change neighbours, or masters. At recruitments events, those with non-religious tattoos are also rejected. Tattoos represent ties, ties that bind man to man, to thoughts, to life. Hence they are sure signs of a subterranean unknown, a second life. Those without such explicit marks are better – they are tabula rasa, ready to be imprinted with the state, ably represented by the commanding officer.

Qaumparast or not, joining the armed forces forms a far less viable option in the mindscape of the middle-class Bengalee young man. In my whole family, and we are a large family (my grandfather had 6 brothers and 3 sisters), there was not a single person who was in the army. Nor did I know anyone who was in the army among my friends’ families. My overt knowledge of anything that was both ‘Indian’ and ‘Army’ was the Indian National Army of 1940s vintage, which, though headed by a Bengalee, unsurprisingly, had few Bengalee combatants. Once, when I was less than 10 years old, I had asked (I don’t know where the thought had come from) – Ma, Should I join the army? Ma answered in a concerned tone – Are you crazy? I had pushed on – Ma, somebody has to join the army? If not me, who then? Let other people’s sons join, not mine. Thus spake my rice-eating non-martial mother whose martial skills were limited to whacking me with a comb or a rolled newspaper. What can I say – I just had the wrong kind of upbringing. Looking around me, in school and college in West Bengal, I realized that rather than being the exception, I was a very typical specimen. At that point, I did not think that Bengalees, Tamils and many other people of the Subcontintent have very low army sign-up rates. Not knowing this growing up in Calcutta, a few visits to Delhi made me understand what a rice-eating non-martial chicken I was. There, every now and then I would meet someone whose father was in the army, or whose elder brother had returned home from ‘posting’, or someone who was preparing hard to crack the National Defence Academy / Naval Academy exams. This was another social reality, another society actually, with a different set of ‘normal’ expectations – the world of sarfarosh, a lot of talk of ‘dushman’ and ‘tujhe pata nahi mai kaun hu’. Here, being in the army was a part of public culture and imagination. When they said ‘our men in uniform’, the ‘our’ had a different truth-value to it and rightly so. I was in Hindustan or Al-Hind, far away from rice-eating lands. It is in Hindustan ‘over here’ and the Al-Hind ‘over there’ that Fauji and Alpha Bravo Charlie were runaway hits, while we in the Deccan and Bengal ate rice and dreamt other dreams in blissful oblivion. There were testosterone laced recruitment ads on television asking “Do you have it in you?” Another said – Join the Indian army – be a winner for life. I wondered who the losers were. The mirror never lies.

There is a running joke about the Indian Railways. The Railways often declares something to the effect that we should take care of the rail as it is our ‘national property’. One person who took this seriously removed a fan from one railway compartment and left a note ‘I have taken my share of the ‘national property’. When it comes to the Army, Bengalees, Tamils and some others seem to be largely disinterested in their share. Are they genetically non-martial? May be C R Datta, Surya Sen, Bagha Jatin and Bagha Siddiqui could answer that. But I have met none of them. Two of them have been killed long ago.

Who killed Bagha Jatin? Who captured Surya Sen? Which army? Who was it loyal to? Who did it serve by killing Bagha Jatin? Did anything substantially change in that army on that fateful August day in 1947? What did not change was the sense of regimental accomplishment in having been awarded Victoria crosses, barrah khana traditions, fake ‘Sandhurst’isms, subsidized liquor, that peculiar brown-skinned sense of pride of having served the House Saxe-Coburg Gotha and the House of Windsor in Iraq, Egypt, France, Belgium, Burma, Thailand and most poignantly, in the Subcontinent, including Jallianwala Bagh. If some Union of India citizen were to do the same today by making a career out of serving the House of Windsor militarily and then go on to claim loyalty to Bharatmata the next day, what would one say? The crucial difference however lies in the formal idea of loyalty to a state – often confused with the country. Nationalism apart, there is another thing Bengalees call “deshoprem” or love of one’s own land. The definition of land is mostly left to the person. Which is why there can be deshoprem for a 30 square mile area around one’s home. I don’t know if there is a Hindustani word for it – qaumparast does not quite do it, which I reckon is nearer to nationalism. I am sure they too have a word or expression for it – for they too like everyone else came to know their own land before they came to heed their nation-state which tells them what their land ought to be and how much does it extend. Ideologies that reverse this sequence are sociopathic.

Most Bengalees are not into shoes – especially those that cover the whole foot. They are not into shirts either – having given up being topless quite late. I was sent to a ‘proper’ Bengali middle-class Inglish school. Here, while the text was in English, the subtext was unrepentantly and unabashedly Bengali. I never quite liked wearing the black shoes that we were mandated to wear. That was the case with some of my other friends. So in class, especially in the middle and back benches, some of us would get out of our shoes and sit cross legged, in what we call babu style. In giving in to what was second nature, we managed to partially keep the shoe out of us. However, many in the subcontinent take shoes seriously. A friend of mine, a batchmate at the Medical College, Kolkata, recounted this to me. He hailed from one of the laterite-red districts of Bengal, I had visited his very modest home. There I had met his father, an upright man who had briefly worked as a shoeshine to educate his children. My friend went on to join the Indian Army. Years later, he told me of a strange encounter. As one of the ‘finest of men’ in the ‘officer grade’, no less, he was entitled to assisted shoeshine services. This means there was another human being, employed by the Indian Army, among whose job description was to clean and tidy up the shoes of officers and higher-ups. Paying for this, is perhaps, the minimum the citizens of the Union of India can do, to show thankful they were. This particular friend of mine, a rather conscientious fellow who dabbled in left wing student activism in his student days, felt a pang of unease every time his pale shoe was made to glow. No order to stand at ease would cure that. However nothing would surpass the strange feeling he had when his father came visiting where he was stationed. The army shoeshine came forward to shine his shoe in presence of his father. His father had come to see how much his son had risen. ‘As I endured the shoeshine ritual in front of my father, I felt I was falling in my father’s eyes, every passing moment.’ He left his job after the stipulated years of commission, discharged honourably. He did not have ‘it’ in him, I guess, to gather greater honours. Unless one has ‘it’, it is hard to be loyal till death to a white man sitting continents away, then be loyal till death to the constitution of sickly brown people the next day and still be taken seriously. But it was and still is all very serious.

The subcontinent is a land of many gods. There are as many holy cows as there are gods. Looking at the holy officer grade Jersey-Shahiwals, I wondered why are the jawan-grade desi cows so sickly? After all, they give  the milk, plough the land, pull carts and what not. In archaic commie-speak, in a class-divided society, one can imagine a  conversation quite similar to the one I had with my mother. Ma – Shall I become a jawan or a lance-naik? No beta. You will become an officer. Who will then become a jawan then? Other people’s sons of course, otherwise how will my grandson be able to attend a foreign university? All cows are holy but some are holier than others. Nothing joins Pakistan and the Indian Union more than this shared two-tier holiness. Very few like Laxminarayan Ramdas and Asghar Khan have developed mad-cow disease. Thankfully, this virus can cross the Radcliffe. After all, it is not natural to have a sense of visceral belonging to the snowy tracts of Siachen, and a concern that it might be taken away or held on to indefinitely, while we really are steaming like potatoes in Karachi and Kolkata in summer. Our napaak-ness keeps it real.

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Class, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Elite, Foundational myths, History, Identity, India, Nation, Our underbellies, Pakistan

Their privacies, our privacies – the case of Abhishek Manu Singhvi

[ The Echo of India, 10 Jun 2012; Globeistan]

Abhishek Manu Singhvi wants to be forgotten, but not in the way his party is forgetting him, by removing this articulate Cantabrigian from its list of people entrusted to talk to the electronic media. His name seems to have disappeared from the official Indira Congress website. The board bearing his name as the top-honcho in the party’s human rights and legal affairs department has been removed. All this is quite ironic for I suspect that his sense of belonging and yearning to be accepted in the party has never been stronger than it is now.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi became news a few weeks ago – garnering spotlight he just did not want. Few people would want that the public be able to freely access a video that allegedly shows one in a sexual encounter. Just when the dust had somewhat settled, the effective blocking and removal of the ‘offending’ content has affecting the TRP ratings of the grainy Internet video. The elite-media has closed ranks for reasons both legal and fraternal and has let the video disappear from public memory. Of course the digital divide helps, given that the primary (if not the only) form in which this voyeuristic material was available was online – thus keeping out the rabble. The otherwise vociferous Indira Congress spokesperson remains muted at present, and possibly for the intermediate future. Lesser mortals will never know when exactly will poor Abhishek Manu be rehabilitated, what forces will line up to make it happen, how do these forces make a call on a thing like this. It is sad that we will never know – it is sad because precisely these forces also make calls on public affairs too, hush up issues more embarrassing – like the nakedness of those who cannot afford basic clothing.

Lesser mortals are lesser in many other ways. Rare are the moments when people of stature appeal to ‘everyone’ opting for the humble ‘we’ to refer to all of us, addressing us, as if we are one community! In a well-articulated statement that essentially said nothing, Abhishek Manu Singhvi did however mention something interesting. In a half-philosophical tone, he called upon society to ponder upon the destabilizing consequences of extreme invasion of privacy in these times, done with technology that any small-town in India already has. He said “promoting or participating in a person’s natural and understandable discomfiture, we must respect privacy issues. Hear, hear.

When the common bond of humanity is used at such moments – those only in the charmed circle nod in liberal agreement. It is a case of the denizens of the fortress calling upon the impoverished city around it , to rise to some idea of ‘common citizenship’, when the chips are down. This statement, almost comically Niemolleresque in spirit, in a strange way underlines the apartheid society that exists in Lutyen’s and South Delhi, engaging in motions and rituals of respecting privacies, oblivious to this vast and hard land. In Bangla, there is a common proverb – “haati kadaye porle byangeo laathi mare” – “when the elephant gets stuck in mud, even the lowly frog does not miss a chance to kick  the giant.” This urge to kick comes from soured dreams, from being the spectator of gold-adorned elephant processions for decades.

There is a reverse voyeurism, one that does not even register in our refined minds as such. That great procession of the dispossessed, under trees, by the urban roadside, Jumna-paar, in the underbellies of Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, teeming with unfulfilled rehabilitation promises act out their lives in public view. This daily debasing, where one’s anger, happiness, cuddling, cooking, making love, illness, even death – cannot be an event protected from public eyes, creates and recreates an army of toads, ready to kick and pounce at the smallest indication of an elephant getting stuck. Call it giving in to prurience, call it whatever. In these rare moments, doctored or not, the esteemed become human, like the rest of us. The non-urban swathes of the Indian Union are being disemboweled daily. Almost like vomit from mangled bowels, people end up in the cities, in splatters and streams, providing endless live footage of the kind no court order can restrict. The million honeymoons on dusty concrete is not a number. It is not even news in a country where an Indian diplomat’s daughter’s 48-hour detention in a New York City police station churned the collective sentiment of those who watch the gory roadside spectacle every day, could careless about the million plus women dehumanized in Indian jails, are mute about the rape and murder of ‘anti-national’ Manorama and think domestic-workers asking for two hundred rupees more are a nuisance.

I support  Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s  right to privacy, not to be harassed, intruded and violated in full piubluc view, even if notionally or in a doctored footage. No one deserves to be dehumanized like that. The question is, as a Congressite human rights honcho ( now official or not), does he support the same right to dignity for other brown people –  the more sunburned kind.

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Filed under Class, Delhi Durbar, Elite, India, Power, Rights, The perfumed ones

A matter of roads – elite panaceas and encroached commons : Emerging urban dystopias in the Subcontinent / Hope in jaywalkers

[ Himal SouthAsian Jan 2011; The Daily Star (Dhaka) Dec 4 2010; The Daily Mirror ( Colombo) Jan 4 2011; Down to Earth, 15 Oct 2013]

“ I have been to Houston and other American cities. Europe too. Traffic is fast. People wait for the traffic signal to walk. They are so disciplined.There are few people walking anyways. When will Kolkata become like that? Possibly never. Not with people like this. Not with so many people.They are not fit for a modern city.”

There is a certain angst at play when some look at Western cities and then look at cities of the subcontinent like Kolkata or Dhaka, only to sigh deeply (I exclude ‘planned’ dystopias like New Delhi from this discussion as they represent the defanging of the people at a very different level. I write about cities where there is still hope and obstinacy). Slow traffic, roads  of inadequate width, people on the streets, non-observance of traffic rules are cited as major reasons. Add to that rickshaws and bicycles – and  Paris like traffic looks like a perfectly unattainable dream. At this point, the nature of the voiced solutions should be predictable – widening of roads in the city but not tearing down middle-class homes, getting people off the streets by tightening and enforcing traffic rules and possibly, keeping rickshaws and bicycles off the busier areas. If some are already mentally nodding in agreement by now, there is something deeply troubling about the nature of imagination of our city we have, including the idea of urban citizenship, who is included in that imagination, who is not, who is the city for.

Among the upwardly mobile in the cities of the Subcontinent as elsewhere in the Southern World, there is an evolving homogenizing vision of what the future of global urbanity should look like – who is included, who is not. This vision has been long in the making , expressed privately in frustration at drawing rooms – now this progressively exclusive vision has the confidence of being forthright about itself, under the garb of urban  development  in the new century.

As a counter-force to this restrictive idea of urban citizenship,  one might ask, who  does the city really belong to?  And whether one likes it, cringes at it, celebrates it or wants them gone – some facts are worth mentioning. At least 40% of the population megalopolises of India like Kolkata and at least 50% of Dhaka live in slums (bostee). Slums are not only the underbelly of a city, they are a living critique of the dominant socio-political order of the sun-lit city. Hence the question of roads and traffic and the typical set of wants and frustrations that the elites express about the city is really another extended stage where the contestation of the question of ownership of the city is acted out. In such a contest, there really is a more plural view of the city from one side as opposed to a restrictive view – no slum ever dares or imagines that it will gobble up the quarters of the perfumed. The city that the slum and the lower middle-class imagines necessarily includes those who want to see the slums gone from the city and the jaywalkers gone from the street. The dominant urban vision has no time or imagination for such plurality in vision. The city that the perfumed classes of the Subcontinent want almost never looks like the city they live in. Many are ashamed of it. I grew up and lived in Chetla – a locality in Kolkata that is not really throbbing , in short, not ‘posh’. Some of the unfortunate ‘posh’ people who lived there used to say they lived ‘near New Alipore’ – New Alipore being a ‘posh’ area where much fewer people wearing lungi and brushing their teeth in the morning on the street could be found.This has interesting implications about how adjusted one is to reality in its full import. I wonder what some of these maladjusted would have thought about their great-grand father from the village, garu (water carrying vessel)  in hand, crossing a meadow in the morning to defaecate in the field but that is another question.

Given this, in contemporary times, the thrusts towards “cleaning-up” the cities and its streets have something holy at its core – distributive injustice. The city’s commons belong to everyone and so do its streets. The streets being common property to be used for transport, it deems fit that the proportion of a metalled road to footpath or side-walk in a given street should be commensurate with the nature of use. The proportion of people using the footpath to the proportion of people on cars on the streets are a good indicator of how common transport-intended land is to be divided in general , with adjustment space for specific situations. But has anyone every heard of footpath widening as opposed to road-widening ? What is especially ironic is how the shrinking , unmaintained footpath has become lower priority in the urban development discourse – this development is really a staking out of territory for some, the nature of thrust showing who is in charge. Footpaths are fast becoming in the mind of the upwardly mobile what government hospitals have already become to them – places they do not go to and hence they do not care about. Given its restrictive view of the urban future, the group wants to mark out a city for its own, within the city.This progressive loss of free walking space and the sophisticated and exclusionary plans of “urban development” represents this thrust to mark out a city for people-like-them, with ‘cleaner’ habits, ‘orderly’ manners and ‘refined’ sensibilities. There is an barely implicit collective will, laced with power and interest, and when those things combine, there surely is a way. The arc of that way, bends sharply towards to the interests of the new mandarins of the city- in whose vision, an increasing proportion of the city dwellers are quasi-traspassers.

In a situation where much of the city is considered trespassers to be avoided and given the stupendous majority of the city being formed by such ‘quasi-trespassers’, one sees the perfumed classes conjuring up a feeling of being besieged and finding ‘order’ and ‘security’ in that spectacular physical expression of this maladjustment to the living ecology of a city – the gated communities. An entire generation is growing up with limited or no consciousness of the bostee, jhupri, khalpar and rail-line jhupris and udbastu ( refugee) colonies. This lack of consciousness is not because they do not exist in the city, but the elites have now managed to carve off a sterilized existence where much of the city dare not show itself. Gated communities are also gates in the mind. All this would not have mattered if these elites were not disproportionately influential in conceiving the future of the whole city and not only their gated communities. Although these people have their gated communities, to much gritting of  teeth, there are not many gated roads – at least, not yet.

By top-down orders, increasing number of streets in Kolkata have seen bicycles being banned from plying on certain streets and consequent harassment of the bicyclists. Something is to be said of this ‘sanitization’ of streets of non-motorized transport. Given that the perfumed ones inhabit the same earth ( if not the same world) as those who smell from armpits, the central question of a sustainable ecological future is not really irrelevant to the future of our cities. Cornel West says that justice is what love looks like in public. In the context of urban resource allocation, distributive justice has to come from love of the city and all its people. This includes the rights of the pedestrian, the thhelawala ( cart-plyer), the bicylist and also the motorized. In case of the motorized, the question of passenger density is conceivably at the heart of the ecological question. With criminalizing non-motor transport and encouraging the rapid expansion of low passenger density private four-wheeler transport – the policy-makers show which world they belong to. They sadly, still belong to the same earth as before.

This brings us to jay-walking.The men and women behind the wheels hate these people- uncouth, running across streets, everywhere. They just keep on coming, running, getting into buses and now, horrendously, into underground railways too. And so there are calls for tightening traffic rules with more punitive fines and calls for more vigilant and numerous traffic police.In the absence of gated streets, at least one can ensure a semblance of that by keeping “jaywalkers” out of the streets. These filthy impediments of the city are partly what go into making the idea of a ‘long-drive’ so inherently appealing for some of the scions of the elite.And of course they also love the greenery in Amazon rain-forests as shown in the National Geographic channel. Some of them have also worn wrist-bands to “Save the Tiger”.

The traffic police make half-hearted attempts to control jay-walking. They recruit from schools with poorer children who spend days volunteering at busy traffic intersections of the city. A gaudy T-shirt from the Traffic Department, a badge of false-self importance saying “Traffic volunteer”, some stale snacks in a packet to take home – we have all seen them. The “Save the Tiger”s have better things to do – studying harder for engineering entrance, now that more seats are ‘reserved’. But the effort is bound to fail – the the hapless homeguard doubling up as traffic police, the child in the gaudy T shirt, their fathers, mothers, uncles, brothers, sisters are right there, right then, somewhere, on some other intersection, jay-walking across the street, holding up progress of fast traffic and smooth urbanity, crossing on to the other side, living to fight another day. No wonder the volunteers and their minders do not push hard, beyond a point. There is the rub- it is not a question of who is jaywalking the streets. Rather it is a mixture of contending ideas of who the city belongs to, of predictable eyesores counter-posed with the want of Paris and Singapores in Kolkata and Dhaka – the stuff of fantasies of resident non-Indians, as Ashis Nandy might put it.

But the jay-walkers keep on walking.The urban-industrial vision of the elites is a totalizing one-it brooks no dissent. It is distinctly irked by every interstice that is unfilled – it deems that as a nuisance at best and a law and order problem at worst. In our cities of ever decreasing interstices, of all crevices having been accounted for by census and survey, watched ever sternly by law, every such act of daily risk-taking, in that act of brisk jay walking restores a measure of dignity to vaunted idea of the city’s commons. In this act, they are joined by ‘other Wests’, like those espoused by the Reclaim the Streets (RTS) collective’s non-violent direct action street reclaiming and those that inspire the massive motor-traffic jamming bicycle-rides of Critical Mass.

I have a feeling that it is in those jay-walkers and in their haphazard trajectories, in their at-times-hesitant-at-times-wanton disregard of the impatiently honking Hyundai Santro, in their collective stoppage of a small fleet of Boleros, Marutis and Indicas to cross the street just in time even though the state has given a green-light, lie the multiple trajectories to plural, open and just futures for our beloved cities.

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How Chhattisgarh shames “us” – memories, nightmares and dark underbellies

( Himal SouthAsian , Nov 2009 – Web Exclusive )
“As a person born and brought up in Bastar I have been studying the recent happenings in this district with deep concern and I have come to the conclusion that in the long drawn out battle of nerves between the Government and you-know-who, the obvious casualty is the poor Adivasi, who has been constantly ignored and misunderstood.The Government has completely failed in understanding the sentiments of the people of this region. Economically depressed, and perpetually exploited by the urban settlers, these tribals are easy prey to the corrupt and high-handed administrative and police machinery.As a result a permanent wedge has been driven between them and the Government. Community development schemes and tribal welfare departments of doubtful utility will not save the situation” – reads a letter by a certain S.R.Naidu to the editor of a weekly magazine . Of late, most of us have heard similar views which seek to paint the state as a corrupt force, ruling by police intervention in Chhattisgarh. Such writers dont want to understand that development schemes take time to show effect and deep down harbour a sympathy for the Maoists – right? Wrong.Do you really know who S.R.Naidu was talking about? It was Prabir Chandra BhanjDeo, local MLA and ex-ruler of the area.The letter was published on 6th May in NOW – a political and cultural weekly.That was 1966.

Let us look into the thoughts that rushed through our heads and the conclusions we made, before we were told it was 1966.Does tell us something about the automatic consumers of packaged “information” and viewpoints we have become, when certain buttons are pressed.None of this is new – not the packaging nor the consumption. Yes, it was 1966.Naxalbari was still an unknown village in Darjeeling district.There were no armed Maoists in India then.In the 1967 general elections, in Bastar, the Congress came 5th after 2 independents (including the winner), Jan Sangh and the Samyukta Socialist Party candidates.Times change. Or do they?

In 1967, 40% of the 20 million babies born in India each year were projected to eventually suffer some degree of brain damage.The International Food Policy Research Institute in its 2008 India State Hunger Index classified the state of hunger in Chhattisgarh as “alarming”.The best performance came from Punjab, classified as “serious”, a notch better.An Indira Congress minister admitted to the Time magazine in an interview in 1967 “we are producing millions of subhumans annually”.The minister’s name was Chidambaram.He died in 2000.Times change.

Some of the subhuman babies of 1967 are 38 years old now.What creatures have they developed into? Some of them inhabit Chhattisgarh.According to the much-denounced Arjun Sengupta commission report, in 2004-05, a total of 836 million (77% of the population) lived on below Rs. 20 a day.To people like us, caught between 20-20 , Sensex  and MacAloo Tikki, these numbers come as anti-national conspiracies to denigrate the emerging giant that is India.What image are we projecting to the world – we ask detractors. Shouldnt we be united in this hour of initiation at the big table ? We are preoccupied with what the world thinks of us.I wonder what do those millions of subhumans think of us – what do they think of our cafes, our news anchors, our “sufi” music , our engineering colleges, our BPO “revolution”, our Dial-a-pizza.When the sun goes down in Chhattisgarh tonight, with one of the subhuman women, after having loved a subhuman man and potentially aggravated the “population problem”, tries to close her eyes in sleep – what does she see. Does she dream that a four-lane highway come to her village? Are there cars on those roads? Is that me at the steering wheel of one of those cars? or is that you? How do we appear to these creatures in their dreams and nightmares – do we look human?

Abujhmad for Gonds of Chhattisgarh is the unknown forest.It is the universe of the Madia Gonds which holds within itself chronicles, snake-bites , culture and much more.And this is true for much of Madia-desh.91 percent of the Madia Gonds lived below poverty line in 1997-98.These are the people of whom Verrier Elwin wrote “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old.” Our cities are expanding – our gated communities need iron gates and wrought iron furniture is all rage.Our eyeing of their land and the iron-ore beneath them is not new – their eyeing us back is not new either.They have been there since the Iron Age.They are not “innocent” tribals – they have never been.No human is.Am I? Are you? But their lack of innocence is a different one. Those of us, in the sun-lit megalopolis, who learn the past from history books, with worlds as broad as TV channels, feel distinctly uneasy about all this talk of moral rights and thousand year old claims.We know our high cholesterol and lack of exercise epidemics.And there are the overworked anaemic Gonds. The possibility of a connection is bound to be distinctly unpalatable. I might even change the channel.

Godless ideologues of the Maoist variety , who possibly imagine the ghotuls as future Red-Guard commmunes , are now arming the Gonds for their own violent ideological ends – pawns in their  macabre “revolutionary” game. But what paths have we left for Gonds – we, who think that an armed Gond is unnatural but a hungry Gond is natural.What happens when all that constitutes a  people’s dignity – Gods, pasts, grandmother’s tales, stubbornness, honour, ghotul, groves, hills -are sold off ? Should they apply for a stay-order, through proper channel, in triplicate?Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian if there was one, says with a sad rage “For how long will middle class ‘bhadralok’ remain silent spectators to State’s colonization of tribal territory to subsidize urban growth in the name of ‘tribal development‘ ? ” It does not portend well for our democratic society.

During a showing of his documentary on the Narmada Bachao Andolan, film-maker Sanjay Kak said he was possibly filming an obituary of non-violent struggles in India. Is Himanshu Kumar a voice in the wilderness? Have we finally accomplished what Nathuram Godse tried to do? In 1966, Prabir Chandra BhanjDeo lead the Bastar Gonds into a non-violent struggle for famine relief and cheaper rice against the Madhya Pradesh government.The government declared he was insane and finally shot him dead at his home along with many of his supporters when the Gonds had come to greet him during dusshera.Gonds still rever his memory and were recently dispersed by force at his memorial day.That is how that story ended.I shudder at what new story ideas our collective greed is coming up with. We have no shame.

“The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”  – Milan Kundera

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Coolies under attack: What to make of the racist violence on Indians in Australia?

( The Telegraph, Kolkata – June 11, 2009)

The shocking racist attacks on an young Indian student in Australia might bring flashbacks of such assaults meted out to another young man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aboard a train in South Africa, more than a hundred years ago.

Living and studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT and arguably the liberal capital of the United States of America, it is easy for me to presume that overt racism displayed to Indians in foreign lands to be a thing of the past. But what I have come to know about Ravi Raj, an IT specialist at the Harvard-MIT Data center, challenges presumptions. Allegedly, his supervisor at work called him “fucking towelhead” (mistakenly using slur to mark him as an Arab) and a “dothead” (this time getting the ethnicity right- the dot being the teep or bindi worn by some Indian women) and getting food splattered on his table at work, in addition to racially motivated poor work performance reports. This does not match the treatment meted out to Shravan Kumar Theerthala, the 25-year old Indian student who was non-fatally stabbed in what appears to be a racially motivated attack in Melbourne, Australia.

Racially motivated attacks against Indians in countries like Canada, United States of America and United Kingdom are not new. These events only show that certain strains of intolerance are alive and kicking, amidst the cosmopolitan love-in that urban centers of such nations purportedly provide. Not so long ago, Indian residents of New Jersey faced spent the year of 1987 in mortal fear as the community came under a series of racist attacks from an organized anti-Indian group calling themselves the “dotbusters”. The attacks continued till as late as 1992.The street attacks against Indians, mainly Punjabis in Canadian cities continued through the 1970s and 80s and only tapered down with the formation of “resistance” groups like the East Indian Defence Committee where youths took to policing neighbourhoods when the community felt helpless in the face of racist attacks in the backdrop of an apathetic state. In Britain, the racial slur of “Paki” sticks to Indians as well, ironically undoing the carefully constructed image, of late, of the ‘good’ brown (the Indian) as opposed to the ‘bad’ brown (the Pakistani).

Australia, which is the center of present attention, has a long history of racially inspired hate-crimes. The aboriginal inhabitants faced the brunt of it in the earliest years and then it was the turn of the Chinese. United States of America, Canada and Australia, all have at various times, tried to make race homogenized societies by law, by limiting immigration from non-Caucasian ethnicities. Such laws have now been reversed – but then discrimination by castes is illegal in India too-it is the dismantling of the embedded hierarchy that really matters.

What also ties these nations in a common thread is a long state of denial of racism as an original sin based on which these nations were founded in their modern form – to be more precise, the genocidal racist violence by which entire populations and communities of the original sons and daughters of the soil were wiped out. To admit it and atone for it as such shakes the foundational myths of nations, which can be very unsettling – every people have holy cows in the form of their founding fathers. So, the results of the non-atonements for such original and devastating racist ethos are generally the continuation of an underbelly of racism, which finds covert resonance with significant portions of the populace.

It is easy to divert the angst of hopelessness of working class youths in such societies into a sense of pride in race – xenophobia and overt racism follow close behind. There is always demagoguery in abundant supply to feed these youths – stories of pride and victimization, of the greatness of the “white-washed” past and the eyesore-ness of the fact that communities now “look different” that is more racially diverse. I had heard this refrain from such a fellow in Boston who complained why the immigrants could not act like us and eat like us and have to stick out. This talk of “assimilation” was rich coming from a person who did not see the irony of calling part of the eastern coast area of the North American continent as “New England”. Assimilation of the kind he wanted has never really happened but this exceptionalism is but a result of feeding foundational myths for centuries. No wonder, in both the USA and Australia, the reverential remembrance of Christopher Columbus and James Cook, serve to underline the exceptionalism – for if they were discovered, there is nothing to be assimilated into. Playing down the presence of large living indigenous communities and their violent uprooting are relegated to footnotes at best.

But for the white-collar Indians, “assimilation” was always a natural forte- or so we thought. We, the white collar Indians in these countries, are the “model minority”. We work in silence, follow the rules, play by the book, pay taxes in time and when we hear about racist attacks , whether they be against African-Americans in the USA or the Chinese in Australia, we also diligently change the channel. In other words, we were perfect! In fact, holding signs and joining marches in solidarity against things inhuman don’t behoove us – that is for the rabble you see.

The incidents in Australia and the marked absence of Chinese and aboriginal groups from the Indian protests in Australia show the futility of the hope that being disdainfully aloof and gently avoiding the trouble of the main street is effective insurance against such attacks. The brown sahibs conveniently forget the example of Ram Manohar Lohia, who on 28th May, 1964, “broke” the rules by trying to eat at a racially segregated restaurant in Jackson,Mississippi. This solidarity is what creates bridges- the white collar Indian community has generally shunned such bridges. We, who read English papers, are hearing this story and getting agitated, because, people like us, people whose lives we can identify with – the student in the university, the clean professional have been affected.

Perhaps, it is not out of place now, to think about the daily brazen racist exploitations on undocumented low paid Indian workers in construction sites or the slurs to be faced daily by working class Indians in these countries. The NRI affairs minister Vayalar Ravi has issued statements calling for the protection of Indians in Australia – with India’s supposed new clout of quasi-superpowerdom, this, we are to believe is effective. But time and again, a certain Gandhi and a certain Lohia has shown that, on the street, in the community, a cross-class, cross-race alliance against intolerance is the best bet.

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