Category Archives: Community

Why the Tamil struggle for Jallikattu is historic

[ Firstpost, 19 Jan 2017]


All over Tamil Nadu, tens of thousands of people, largely not under any political party banner, have assembled in protest. The most widely broadcasted protests are from Marina beach. That massive protest at Marina beach is actually very small compared to ones happening in other parts of Tamil Nadu including Madurai, Erode, Salem and Coimbatore. And its not only big cities but small towns and villages, where such protests are taking place – thus uniting the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu in its demand “We want Jallikattu”, which is both a cultural demand and a political demand. Thousands of people had assembled from last night in protests, but “national media” didn’t live-telecast this since this was not Delhi and hence didn’t matter to the “nation”. As the day progressed on 18th January, young people from all walks of life spilled on to the streets, from students to IT professionals to farmers, including many, many women. As we speak, this has become too big for “national media” to ignore, and since this is not Kashmir from where independent media and telecom connectivity can be blacked out at will, “national media” wants to explain to the ‘rest of India’, why are Tamils angry and why are they protesting? While they ask that, they are quick to add that the protests are apolitical. Nothing could be farther from truth. The protests are not partisan but are intensely political – uniting the Tamil national polity in a united voice. More things unite Kashmir and Kanyakumari than the Delhi establishment would like to admit.

In its limited imagination, the non-Tamil media is likening this to Tahrir Square of Cairo. If they had more local grounding and less of an imaginary that is inspired by Anglo-American talking points, they would have reached back into the not so distant Tamil past. They could have looked closely at the site the protesters chose. The Marina beach is not an ordinary spot. It houses the memorial to C.N.Annadurai, the giant of Tamil politics, the biggest votary of Tamil pride, a staunch oppose of Hindi imposition and one of the fathers of federalism in the Indian Union. If they had tried to understand Tamil Nadu from the Tamil stand point and not from the Delhi stand point, they would have found that the present protests, in their spontaneity, intensity and popularity come close to the anti Hindi imposition protests of 1965 when Union government tried to forcibly shove Hindi down the throats of non Hindi citizens of the Indian Union. While protests happened in various states, Tamils took the lead. The response from New Delhi was swift and central forces killed nearly 400 Tamil protesters that year. In 1967, the Congress was voted out and never again has any Delhi headquartered party ever held power in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu branches of Delhi –headquartered parties failed miserably in 1965 and are failing miserably now in representing the Tamil sentiment for their priorities are ideologies are decided elsewhere, without an eye to Tamil interest. Since 1967, Tamils have politically opted for their own representatives and not Tamil agents of Delhi interests. It is because Tamil Nadu stood up against Hindi imposition that all non Hindi states have been able to protect their cultural and linguistic turf against homogenization ordered from Delhi, that is designed to benefit a certain ethno-linguistic group that holds huge sway on power in Delhi. Even today, with the Jallikattu protests, Tamils have opened the space for the rest of us to assert of cultural rights against whims and fancies of Union government agencies about animals and humans that imagine the Indian Union as a bloated form of the NCR. The way the Union government has been criticized by the Tamil protesters on the ground show that they understand this political dynamic very well.

The huge presence of women for a “male sport” shows that this issue goes beyond the particulars of Jallikattu and stems from something bigger and wider. This has been joined by Non Resident Tamils around the world ( in USA, Ireland, Mexico, Thailand, South Korea, Uktaine, Russia, Malaysia and elsewhere) as well as the Tamil social media space where unlike in NOIDA, Whatsapp messages about bovine animals are being used to unite people and not dividing them. The Jallikattu protests show that against the cosmo-liberal stereotype of “Indian young people”, there are young people,, millions of them, to whom roots matter, identity matters, culture matters and they do not aspire to lose their Tamil-ness to make the cut in the Delhi-Mumbai idea of Indianness. These are the people, who know English very well but have chosen to respond in Tamil to Delhi media questions posed to them in English. If this appears odd, remember the number of times Delhi-based English media carries responses in Hindi without any translation. Try to think why that is not considered odd, when a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union do not understand Hindi.

In the protests, a recurring theme is that the Tamil interests have been marginalized in the Indian Union. Tamil culture is older than the Indian Union and all its institutions and self-respect is a very important part of that culture. The situation that Tamil Nadu now doesn’t have control over its own maritime trade, foreign relations or for that matter most aspects of Tamil internal affairs is hardly two centuries old. The Tamil political memory and historical consciousness goes far beyond that and is a living thing that influences politics of here and now. Thus, whenever the Union government has destroyed state rights, the Tamils have been at the forefront of protesting it – a strain of politics that has recently widened to include of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, who has been regularly voicing concerns about the destruction of the federal structure. Tamils gave up their autonomous rights over their land, resources and people, when they signed up for the Indian Union. Any giving up of rights have to come with concomitant compensatory benefits. That has not happened. While Tamil Nadu produces a huge amount of revenue, much of that is siphoned off by the Union government through its constitutional powers and through the discriminatory schemes of Delhi, it gets much less money (so-called “central funds” which originate from resources based in states) than the amount that Delhi makes from resources in Tamil Nadu. In short, Tamil Nadu’s resources are used to subsidize Union government schemes outside Tamil Nadu. During the Eelam Tamil genocide, the Union government explicitly sided with the Sri Lankan government, thus making clear that Tamil Nadu’s sentiments matter little to Delhi even when it comes to genocide of Tamils elsewhere. Thus it is only natural that many Tamils that many Tamils have a feeling that they are getting cheated in this deal called the Indian Union.

At this juncture, it doesn’t help when the so-called “national opinion” brands makes fun of Tamils as irrational or barbarous people who love to be cruel to their animals. If at all, it is quite duplicitous, since Delhi doesn’t mind the revenue that is extracted from Tamil Nadu while using its institutions like the Animal Welfare Board of India to undercut Tamil cultural practices. That is the tragedy of a centralized administration where bureaucrats from high female foeticide states get to decide the women’s rights policies of socially progressive states like Tamil Nadu. Whether Jallikattu is right or wrong, should it be discontinued or continued or continued with modifications, is an out and out Tamil affair. That the Animal Welfare Board of India, which doesn’t exactly reflect Tamil opinion, gets to decide on this shows how Tamils are infantilized as being incapable of deciding their own affairs, including their own cultural practices or for that matter, animal welfare issues. This stems from the two long lists called the Union and Concurrent lists of the Constitution of India that gives almost unfettered right to distant people from Union government agencies over the lives and issues of people of various states. It is this false federalism, in which state rights have been completely disrespected, are the source of most of the problems and solutions to this are achievable within the ambit of the Indian constitution by large scale move of subjects from Union and Concurrent lists to the State list in keeping with the federal democratic spirit of the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946, to which most elected lawmakers of the time agreed, only to turn their back on it after 1947. Yes, reforms are needed and they can take many shapes. The ambit of the Supreme Court can be limited to Union and concurrent list subjects with state based apex courts becoming the highest authority on state subjects. This along with a move of most subjects to the State list can realize the full federal democratic potential of the Union of India. Otherwise, such deep-rooted political grievances promote alienation and make their presence felt in some way or the other, in not so palatable ways.

The defence of Jallikattu on the basis of practice and culture has been likened to the defence of Sati. That so many have learnt to instinctively make this Sati argument in fact has a long past in British imperial pedagogy’s imprint of brown colonized lands. As my friend Ritinkar Das Bhaumik said, “we should stop drawing parallels to Sati. We already have one group that sees an analogy between cattle and women. We don’t need others.” While deciding to hang Afzal Guru, in spite of many grounds of reasonable doubt about the case, the Supreme Court of India said, “The collective conscience of the society will be satisfied only if the death penalty is awarded to Afzal Guru.” If “collective conscience” of the society has already been admitted by the Supreme Court to be a decider in handing out judgements, what prevents it from listening to the “collective conscience” of Tamils regarding Jallikattu that is on display in the protests all over their land today?


Filed under Change, Colony, Community, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, Foundational myths, History, Identity, Madraj, Memory, Nation, Uncategorized

গোলাম আলির গজল সন্ধ্যার নেপথ্য রাজনীতি

গত অক্টোবর মাসে, পূর্ব পঞ্জাবের পাটিয়ালা ঘরানার প্রবাদপ্রতিম গজল গায়ক পাকিস্তানি পাঞ্জাবী নাগরিক গোলাম আলির একটি কনসার্ট অনুষ্ঠিত হবার কথা ছিল মহারাষ্ট্র রাজ্যের রাজধানী মুম্বই শহরে।উগ্র-হিন্দুত্ববাদী শিবসেনা দলের হুমকি ও চাপে সে অনুষ্ঠান বাতিল হয়। ফলে ক্ষমতাসীন বিজেপিকে এনিয়ে কিছুটা বিড়ম্বনায় পড়তে হয়। এই ঘোলা জলে মাছ ধরে নিজেদের  “সহনশীলতা” প্রমাণ করে  বাহবা পাওয়ার প্রচেষ্টায় জুট যায় বেশ কিছু অ-বিজেপি রাজনৈতিক শক্তি। পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মুখ্যমন্ত্রী মমতা বন্দোপাধ্যায় তাদের মধ্যে অন্যতম। তিনি গোলাম আলিকে আমন্ত্রণ জানান পশ্চিমবঙ্গে এসে তাঁর অনুষ্ঠান করার জন্য। এই বছরের ১২ জানুয়ারী কলকাতার নেতাজী ইনডোর স্টেডিয়ামে ১৫০০০ শ্রোতার সামনে অনুষ্ঠিত হয় গোলাম আলির গজল সন্ধ্যা। সেদিনের সব ব্যবস্থাপনাকে ব্যক্তিগত ভাবে তদারকি করেন মুখ্যমন্ত্রী মমতা বন্দোপাধ্যায় স্বয়ং। গোলাম আলিকে তিনি সংবর্ধনাও দ্যান। দৃশ্যতই আপ্লূত হয়ে অভিজ্ঞ গায়ক মমতাদেবীর ভূয়সী প্রশংসা করে বলেন, “আমি তাঁর প্রতি কৃতজ্ঞ। তিনি সরস্বতী রূপে আমাদের সকলের উপকার করেছেন”।  

মমতা দেবীর গোলাম আলির অনুষ্ঠানের হোতা হওয়া নানাভাবে ইঙ্গিতময়। সবচেয়ে বড় করে যে সংকেত তিনি দিলেন না হলো এই যে ভারত সংঘরাষ্ট্রের সকল এলাকায় সকল মানুষ পাকিস্তানি সবকিছুকে বয়কট করার প্রশ্নে এককাট্টা নয়, সকল এলাকায় অসহনশীলতা শক্তিগুলির খবরদারিও চলে না । উপমহাদেশের বৃহত্তর রাজনৈতিক পটভূমিতে এটি অবশ্যই একটি সুস্থ ও শুভ লক্ষণ। কিনতু আমরা যদি এই অনুষ্ঠান ও পশ্চিমবঙ্গে সাম্প্রতিক আরো কিছু অনুরূপ ঘটনার খুঁটিনাটি তলিয়ে দেখি, তাহলে দেখব যে ব্যাপারটি অতটা সহজ নয়। বিশেষতঃ পশ্চিমবঙ্গের অভ্যন্তরে  ধর্মনিরপেক্ষ ও  সাম্প্রদায়িক সামাজিক-রাজনৈতিক স্রোতগুলির মধ্যে যে আপাত সহজ বিভাজন আছে, তার প্রেক্ষিতে মমতা দেবীর  কিছু সংকেত ও কিছু চিহ্ন ব্যবহারের রাজনীতি কোন স্রোতগুলিকে পুষ্ট করে, সেটা পরিষ্কার করে বোঝা প্রয়োজন।

কলকাতায় পাকিস্তানি গায়ক গোলাম আলির গজল সন্ধ্যার উদ্যোক্তা ছিল পশ্চিমবঙ্গ সরকার।  কিনতু  পশ্চিমবঙ্গ সরকারের কোন দফতর? পাকিস্তানি গায়কের উর্দু গজলের যে আসলেই কোন  ধর্ম হয়না, তা বোঝাতে এটির উদ্যোক্তা হতেই পারত সংস্কৃতি দফতর বা নিদেনপক্ষে পর্যটন দফতর। উদ্যোক্তা ছিল পশ্চিমবঙ্গ সংখ্যালঘু উন্নয়ন ও অর্থ নিগম। পশ্চিমবঙ্গের “সংখ্যালঘু”-দের মধ্যে ৯০%এরও বেশি হলেন মোসলমান। তাদের সাথে একজন পাকিস্তানি গায়কের কিভাবে কোন ‘বিশেষ’ সম্পর্ক থাকতে পারে, তা পরিষ্কার নয়, যদি না পশ্চিমবঙ্গ সরকার বোঝাতে চান যে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের অন্যান্য জনগণের তুলনায়  গোলাম আলি কোন অর্থে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মোসলমানের বেশি কাছের। গোলাম আলির উর্দুও কোন ‘বিশেষ  সম্পর্কে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মোসলমানের সাথে তাকে আবদ্ধ করে না কারণ এ রাজ্যের মোসলমানের মধ্যে ৯০%এরও বেশি হলেন বাংলাভাষী, বাঙ্গালী। এই উদ্যোক্তা চয়নের মাধ্যমে যে ভাবে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের জনগণের এক অংশকে স্রেফ তার ধর্মীয় (পড়ুন  মোসলমান ) পরিচিতির মধ্যে সীমিত করা হলো এবং সেই গোদা পরিচিতিটিকে বেশ প্রকট ভাবেই পাকিস্তানের আরেক মোসলমান গায়কের সাথে ‘বিশেষ ভাবে যুক্ত করা হলো, তা ভারত সংঘের রাজনৈতিক আবর্তের সাম্প্রদায়িক ধারায় মোসলমান সম্বন্ধে চালু সবচেয়ে ক্ষতিকারক  স্টিরিওটিপিকাল ধারনাগুলিকেও হাওয়া দেয়। এই ধারণার সংক্ষিপ্ত আকার হলো – মোসলমানদের পাকিস্তানের প্রতি বিশেষ প্রেম আছে। উপমহাদেশের প্রায় সকল রাষ্ট্রেই প্রধান ধর্মীয় সংখ্যালঘুকে ‘অন্যের মাল’ বা ঘরশত্রু হিসেবে কল্পনা করার একটি সুদীর্ঘ লজ্জাজনক ঐতিহ্য চালু আছে, এমনকি রাজনৈতিক ভাবে যারা ধর্মনিরপেক্ষ অর্থে মন্দের ভালো বলে পরিচিত, তাদের মধ্যেও।

প্রসঙ্গত, মমতা দেবী  এই প্রথমবার  সংখ্যালঘু উন্নয়ন ও অর্থ নিগমের ঢাল ব্যবহার করছেন আধা-রাজনৈতিক স্বার্থে, এমন নয়। এই নিগমেরই অনুস্থানগুলিতে তিনি ধর্মীয় সংখ্যালঘু, প্রধানত মোসলমানদের জন্য বিশেষ প্রকল্প ঘোষণা করতে করেছেন। নানা বিশেষের মধ্যে একটি বিশেষ ছিল বড়ই দৃষ্টিকটু। সেটি ছিল পশ্চিমবঙ্গে একটি বিরাট নজরুল কেন্দ্র স্থাপনার ঘোষণা (যেটি ইতিমধ্যে রাজারহাটে নজরুলতীর্থ নামে  চালু হয়ে গেছে)। নিখিল বাংলাদেশে মোসলমান ঘরে জন্মানো ব্যক্তিত্ব খুব কম ছিলেন বা আছেন যাদের প্রতিপত্তি ও যশ হিন্দু-মোসলমানের ধার ধারে না, যদিও ১৯৭১ পরবর্তী কালে (এবং কিছুটা তার পূর্ব্বেও) নজরুলকে গনপ্রজান্তন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশের জাতীয় কবি বানিয়ে আলতো করে নজরুলকে ‘বিশেষ’ ভাবে পূর্ব্ব-বাংলার করে গড়ে তোলা হয়েছে। এই ‘বিশেষ’ এর মধ্যে ধর্মের ছাপ অনস্বীকার্য্য এবং মমতা দেবীর রকম-সকম দেখে মনে হয়, তিনিও বোধহয় নজরুলের এই ভ্রান্ত চরিত্রায়নে আস্থা রাখেন, অন্ততঃ রাজনৈতিক স্বার্থে।  একটি সংখ্যালঘু উন্নয়ন মঞ্চকে ব্যবহার করে মমতা দেবীর নজরুল সংক্রান্ত ঘোষণা আবার করে দেখিয়ে দেয় পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মোসলমান কি শুনতে চায়, সেই সম্বন্ধে তাঁর ঠিক বা বেঠিক ধারণা।

২০১৫র মে মাসে, মমতা দেবীর সরকার প্রখ্যাত উর্দু কবি আল্লামা ইকবালের নাতি ওয়ালিদ ইকবালকে কলকাতায় ডাকেন সরকারী সাহায্যে চলা পশ্চিমবঙ্গ উর্দু অকাদেমির বার্ষিক সম্মেলন উপলক্ষ্যে। সুদূর লাহৌর থেকে এসে তিনি তাঁর দীর্ঘদিন আগে প্রয়াত ঠাকুর্দার সম্মানার্থে দেওয়া একটি পুরস্কার গ্রহণ করেন।  আবারও, কোন উর্দু কবিকে সম্মান দেওয়ার ব্যাপারে আপত্তির কিই বা থাকতে পারে? আপত্তির কিছুই নেই।  সমস্যা হলো, তৃনমূল দল যেভাবে উর্দু ও মোসলমানকে যুক্ত করে ফেলে সেটা নিয়ে , যার পরিপ্রেক্ষিতে আল্লামা ইকবালের নাতিকে এনে সেই ব্যাপারটিকে বিশাল সংখ্যক হোর্ডিং-এর সাহায্যে কলকাতার মোসলমান প্রধান এলাকাগুলিতে প্রচার করার পিছনের রাজনৈতিক হিসেব-নিকেশ ও ধারণা নিয়ে। তৃণমূল দলের ২০১১সালের ঘোষণাপত্রে তারা যেভাবে মাদ্রাসা ও উর্দু স্কুলের ব্যাপারটি সহজেই একসাথে বলেছে, তা থেকেই  ধারণা পাওয়া যায় তারা মোসলমান ও উর্দু, এই দুটি ব্যাপারকে কি ভাবে দেখে। ঘোষণাপত্রে তারা প্রকট-ভাবে গুলিয়ে ফেলে মোসলমান ও উর্দু, আর তাদের অনুষ্ঠান-সম্মান্প্রদানের মধ্যে অন্তর্নিহিত থাকে  উর্দু ও পাকিস্তানকে গুলিয়ে ফেলার, এবং পরিশেষে আভাস থাকে মোসলমান ও পাকিস্তানকে গুলিয়ে ফেলার। শেষের ভ্রান্তিটিই সবচেয়ে বিপদজনক।

পশ্চিমবঙ্গের ৯০% মোসলমান  বাংলাভাষী। আল্লামা ইকবাল  বা উর্দু বা গোলাম আলি পশ্চিমবঙ্গের  হিন্দু  বাঙ্গালীর থেকে যত দুরে, ততটাই দুরের সেখানকার মোসলমান বাঙ্গালীর থেকেও। অথচ তৃনমূল দলের মোসলমান নেতৃত্ত্বের মধ্যে আনুপাতিক হারে বাংলাভাষীদের প্রতিনিধিত্ব বেশ কম। তৃণমূলের জন্মসুত্রে মোসলমান সাংসদ-দের মধ্যে ৪০% হলেন উর্দুভাষী, যেখানে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মোসলমানদের মধ্যে তারা ১০%ও না। এদেরকে নেতৃত্বে রাখার একটা সুবিধে হলো, জনভিত্তিহীন নেতাদের বসিয়ে একাধারে যেমন দলের মোসলমানদের মধ্য থেকে স্বতন্ত্র জননেতা তৈরীকে আটকানো যায়, আবার একই সাথে এই নেতাদের মোসলমানত্ব ভাঙ্গিয়ে  সংখ্যালঘু প্রতিনিধিত্বের দায়টিও সারা হয়। পশ্চিমবঙ্গের ২৫%জনগণ হলেন মোসলমান বাঙ্গালী। সেই বর্গ থেকে উঠে আসা স্বতন্র জননেতা যে শর্তে দর কষাকষি করবেন, যে ভাবে নিজেদের রাজনৈতিক প্রভাবের মাধ্যমে ক্ষমতার ভাগ-বাটোয়ারার অন্য বিন্যাস তৈরীর সম্ভাবনা ধারণ করবেন, তা প্রাতিষ্ঠানিক রাজনীতির মধ্যে আজকে বর্তমান কায়েমী স্বার্থগুলির স্থিতিশীলতার পক্ষে বিপদ। দেশ-ভাগ পুর্ব্ববর্তি সময়ে শের-এ-বাংলা ঠিক এটিই করেছিলেন কৃষক-প্রজা পার্টির আমলে, সামন্তপ্রভু নিয়ন্ত্রিত কংগ্রেস ও সামন্ত্রপ্রভু নিয়ন্ত্রিত  মুসলিম লীগের ‘শরিফজাদা’ নেতৃত্বের বাড়া ভাতে ছাই দিয়ে। ৭১-ও এক অর্থে এই আপাত বাঙ্গালী  ছুপা  ‘উচ্চকুল্শীল“ উর্দুপ্রেমীদের ক্ষমতা থেকে উচ্ছেদের আরেকটি ধাপ। দুঃখের বিষয়, পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মোসলমান ৪৭-এর পর থেকে কোন ফজলুল হক-কে পায়নি। তাই কলকাতায় উর্দু-পাকিস্তান আপ্যায়ন করে মোসলমান -মোসলমান খেলা করা সম্ভব।  গোলাম আলীর গজল সন্ধ্যাকে বুঝতে হবে সেই পরিপ্রেক্ষিতেও । সম্প্রতি পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মালদা জেলার কালিয়াচকে প্রায় লক্ষাধিক মোসলমান জনতা এক জমায়েত করে সুদূর উত্তর প্রদেশের এক অখ্যাত হিন্দু সাম্প্রদায়িক নেতার হজরত মহম্মদের প্রতি অবমাননাকর বক্তব্যের প্রতিবাদে। জমায়েতটি সহিংস হয়ে ওঠে এবং বেশ কিছু গাড়ি জ্বালায় এবং হিন্দু দোকান ভাঙ্গচুর করে। এই দুরের ঘটনার উপর ভিত্তি করে, সামাজিক মাধ্যমে ঘৃণার প্রচার যেভাবে এতগুলি মানুষকে এককাট্টা করলো এক সহিংস প্রতিবাদে, তা চিন্তার বিষয় কারণ রাজনৈতিক দল বহির্ভূত  এত বড় হিংসাত্বক জমায়েত প্রাতিষ্ঠানিক রাজনৈতিক সংগঠনের অক্ষমতা ও মাঠস্তরে অনুপস্থিতিকেই প্রমাণ করে । যে কোন গোষ্ঠীর উপর ভিন্নতা আরোপ করতে করতে তা এক সময় ফ্র্যন্কেনস্টাইন দৈত্যে পরিণত হতেই পারে।  বরং পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মোসলমান বাঙ্গালীর আর্থ-সামাজিক ক্ষমতায়নের যে রাজনীতি, তা গজল সন্ধ্যা ও নজরুল তীর্থের চমকের মাধ্যমে সম্ভব না। কারণ তার চাহিদাগুলি বিশাল-সংখ্যক হিন্দু বাঙ্গালির থেকে আলাদা নয় – যথা  খাদ্য নিরাপত্তা, কর্মসংস্থান, শিক্ষা, স্বাস্থ্য, ইত্যাদি। এই পথটি কন্টকময় ও  লম্বা – অনেক বিরোধিতাও আসবে আশরাফ মোসলমান ও সবর্ণ হিন্দু কায়েমী স্বার্থে ঘা লাগলে। কিনতু সে কঠিন পথের কোন সহজ  বিকল্প নেই।

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রোহিত ভেমুলা ও ঘরের কাছের অন্ধকার

১৬ জানুয়ারী ২০১৬ অর্থাৎ যেদিন প্রধানমন্ত্রী নরেন্দ্র মোদি  ঘোষণা করলেন যে ২৫ কোটি টাকা অবধি দরের ‘স্টার্ট-আপ’ কোম্পানি খুলে ব্যবসা শুরু করলে ৩ বছর আয়কর দিতে হবে না, শ্রমিক অধিকার ও ভাতা ঠিকঠাক দেওয়া হচ্ছে কিনা, পরিবেশ দুষিত করা হচ্ছে কিনা, এসবের কোন কিছুরই সরকার ৩ বছর অবধি পর্যবেক্ষণ পর্যবেক্ষণ করবে না, ঠিক তার পরের দিন,  গত রবিবার একজন ছাত্র আত্মহত্যা করেছে। এরম আত্মহত্যা তো কতজন করেই থাকে, কতরকম কি হয় আজকাল – প্রেমঘটিত, অবসাদ, ‘ড্রাগস’। একজন পিএইচডি গবেষণারত ছাত্র আত্মহত্যা করেছে।  সে ক্ষেত্রে আবার যোগ হতে পারে ‘স্ট্রেস’। কিনতু তারপর যদি বলি গ্রামের ছেলে, ইংরেজি মিডিয়াম নয়, দলিত – এমন একজন আমার-আপনার শহরের নামী বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে দু-চোখ জোড়া স্বপ্ন নিয়ে এসে আত্মহত্যা করেছে, তখুনো আমরা একটু হাতরাবো একটু ‘স্ট্রেস’, একটু প্রেম, একটু ‘ড্রাগস’। কিনতু তারপর যদি আরো বলি যে তার বৃত্তির টাকা পাঠাত সে বাড়িতে, তা দিয়ে তার বিধবা মায়ের চলত, তখন হয়ত ‘ড্রাগস’টা বাদ পড়বে। তারও পরে যদি বলি যে সে স্বাভিমান নিয়ে প্রকাশ্যেই বলত যে সে বাবাসাহেব আম্বেদকরের  আদর্শে বিশ্বাসী, সে মৃত্যুদন্ড বিরোধী – তা সে ইয়াকুব মেমনেরই হোক বা কাশ্মীরে কুনান-পোসপোড়ায় কাশ্মীরি নারীদের গণ-ধর্ষণ করা সৈন্যদেরই হোক (পরের মৃত্যুদন্ডটা হয়নি, কোন দন্ডই হয়নি) এবং সে কারণে সে ছিল আমার-আপনার রাষ্ট্রের ঠিকাদারী নেওয়া বিজেপি দলের ছাত্র সংগঠন এবিভিপির চক্ষুশূল, তালে হয়ত বলবেন ব্যাপারটি ‘গোলমেলে’। এবং আরো যদি বলি যে মৃত্যুদন্ডের বিরোধীতা করে মিছিল বার করার জন্য বিজেপির এক সাংসদের অঙ্গুলিহেলনে নতুন  দিল্লীর হুকুমে জো-হুজুরি করা এক কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় উপাচার্য্য তাকে ছাত্রাবাস থেকে বহিস্কার করে।  যদি বলি যে তার সেই বৃত্তির টাকা, তার হকের টাকা সে পায়নি বেশ কয়েক মাস? যদি এটাও বলি যে তাকে দলিত বলে সামাজিক বয়কটের মুখোমুখি হতে হয়েছিল নতুন দিল্লির কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের এদেশে চলা হায়দ্রাবাদ কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে? আর কি কি তথ্য লাগবে, সত্যের আর কত পরত ছাড়াতে হবে এইটা বুঝতে যে হায়দ্রাবাদ কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের বিজ্ঞানে পিএইচডি-রত ছাত্র রোহিত ভেমুলার মৃত্যু স্থুলভাবে একটি আত্মহত্যা হলেও একটি অন্য সর্বার্থেই একটি রাজনৈতিক হত্যা?

এই রাজনৈতিক হত্যা কে করেছে, তার একটা সহজ এবং চালক- দায়সারা উত্তর হয়।  সেটা হলো ‘সমাজ’। কিন্নতু  তাকে কি দলিত সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি হিন্দু সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি মোসলমান সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি উচ্চ-বর্ণের হিন্দু সমাজ মেরেছে? বৈষম্যের পৃথিবীতে সমাজ বলে কিছু হয়না, বৈষম্যের টানাপোড়েনে, ঘাত-প্রতিঘাতে লিপ্ত থাকে নানা গোষ্ঠী, নানা সমাজ। বৈষম্যের কারণে এই বিভক্তি আবার এই বিভক্তিই হলো শক্তি। কারণ বহির্শত্রু নিপীড়ক গোষ্ঠীর বিরুধ্যে আত্মশক্তিকে সংগঠিত করার জন্য দরকার আভ্যন্তরীন ঐক্য। আর নিপিরিতের এই নিজে নিজে গোষ্ঠী তৈরী করে নিপীড়ক-কে মোকাবিলা করার প্রয়াসের বিরুধ্যে নানা পাল্টা চেষ্টা চলে, চেষ্টা চলে বৈষম্যগুলিকে বাদ দিয়ে নিপীড়কের ধান্দা অনুযায়ী বিশাল একতার দোকান খোলা, এমন দোকান যার প্রধান মালিক হবে নিপীড়ক, অংশ-মালিক হবে নিপীড়িতের মধ্যে থেকে তৈরী করা দালাল আর লাভের গুড় খাওয়া হবে সকল মানুষের ঐক্যের নাম।  নিপীড়কের ঐক্যের নানা দোকান আছে – সেসব দোকানের নানারকম নাম আছে – যেমন হিন্দুত্ব, ইসলাম, ভারত, ইন্ডিয়া, সমাজ, সুশীল, ইত্যাদি। রোহিত ভেমুলা এইসব স্বপ্ন দেখত এইসব দোকান ভেঙ্গে একদিন খোলা মাঠে মানুষের হাট-বাজার তৈরী হবে।

আমরা বঙ্গবাসী। রোহিত থাকত দূরে। সেই দূর থেকে তার বন্ধুরা জানিয়েছে যে দলিত বলে, তেলুগু মাধ্যমে পড়াশুনো করে উচ্চ-শিক্ষার স্বপ্ন দ্যাখার ধৃষ্টতা দ্যাখানোর জন্যে রোহিতকে এবং তার বন্ধুদের শুনতে হতো টিপ্পনি , হাসাহাসি করা হত মফঃস্বল গুনটুরের গন্ধ গায়ে লেগে থাকা স্বপ্নালু মানুষগুলিকে নিয়ে। আজকে চুনি কোটালের মৃত্যুর প্রায় ২৪ বছর পরে আমরা এমন এক শিক্ষা-

সংস্কৃতি তৈরী করেছি যেখানে মেডিকেল কলেজগুলিতে শহুরে আইসিএসই-সিবিএসইর রমরমা (যদিও পশ্চিমবাংলার ১০% ছাত্রছাত্রীও এইসব বোর্ডে পড়ে না), উত্কর্ষ-কেন্দ্র প্রেসিডেন্সিতে নানা বিষয়ের প্রবেশিকা পরীক্ষা যাতে বাংলায় না হয়, তার পাঁয়তাড়া করা হয় এই বাংলার মাটিতে থেকে, বসে, খেয়ে মোটা হওয়া একধরনের আরকাঠি  গোষ্ঠীর চক্রান্তে, যাদবপুরের তথাকথিত ‘কুল’ বিভাগগুলি থেকে বাংলায় কথা বলাদের পরিকল্পিত ভাবে হতে হয় হীনমন্যতার স্বীকার, সেখানকার  ইতিহাস বিভাগে বাংলায় স্নাতকোত্তর স্তরের উত্তর লেখার জন্য লাঞ্চিত হতে হয় প্রতিবন্ধী ছাত্র রামতনুকে, অন্য সময়ে ভুলে যাওয়া দিনে এই রকম-ভাবেই বাংলায় লেখার জন্য হেনস্থা হতে হতে আত্মহত্যা করেছিল যাদবপুরের ইতিহাস বিভাগের ছাত্রী পৌলমী সাহা। এই বাংলা বাংলা করলাম এতক্ষণ কারণ বৈষম্যের জন্য  বাংলা একটা উছিলা মাত্র। বাংলা মানে শহর কম মফঃস্বল বেশি গ্রাম আরো বেশি, বাংলা মানে বড়লোক কম গরীব বেশি, বাংলা মানে হাতখরচা কম টিউশনি বেশি, বাংলা মানে গাড়ি কম সাইকেল বেশি – অর্থাৎ বাংলা মানে সেই সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ যাকে জোর করে হারিয়ে দেবার চক্রান্ত চলছে আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশে। প্রেসিডেন্সি যত বাংলা-বিরোধী শহুরে-ইংরেজদের আখড়ায় পরিণত হবে, ততবেশী অসবর্ণ  অধ্যাপক  মহিতোষ মন্ডল লাঞ্ছিত হবেন এই-সকল ‘সুপার-কুল’ পোস্টমডার্ন আখড়ায়। মেডিকেল কলেজগুলি তত বেশি করে গুরগাঁও, নয়ডা ও ক্যালিফোর্নিয়ার ডাক্তার তৈরীর কারখানা হবে। বাংলার গণ-মানুষকে, অন্তজ জনতাকে  জোর করিয়ে হারিয়ে দেবার এই চক্রান্ত বন্ধ হওয়া দরকার। দরকার জনসংখ্যার অনুপাতে সর্বস্তরে সংরক্ষণ। দরকার বিরাট একতার বুটিক দোকান ভেঙ্গে হাট-বাজারের দাপাদাপি। রোহিত ভেমুলার  সুইসাইড নোটটি ইন্টারনেট-এ পাবেন। সেটিকে পড়ুন। বামুন-কায়েত বিপ্লবী আর রেডিকেল-দের অপরাধ-বিলাসের জন্য চে গেভারার মৃত্যু অবধি যেতে হবে না। রোহিত ভেমুলার মৃত্যু আমাদের অন্তরের অন্ধকারগুলিকে  প্রকাশ্যে আনতে সাহায্য করুক।                                        


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কুমিল্লা সংস্কৃতি উত্সব – স্পর্ধা অন্যতর

আমি যখন মার্কিন যুক্তরাষ্ট্রে পৌছলাম পড়াশুনো করতে, তখন ওখানে স্থিত পশ্চিম বাংলার বাঙ্গালীদের মধ্যে অদ্ভূত আবিষ্কার করলাম। আপনি কোথাকার, এটা জিগেশ করলে, কেউ তার জেলা শহরের কথা বলেন না। প্রশ্নকর্তার ‘সুবিধার্থে’ বলেন যে তিনি কলকাতার।  কলকাতার একটা ব্যাপ্তি আছে।  ১৪৪ ওয়ার্ড-দিয়ে গড়া। আমি কলকাতা থেকে  বরানগরে  কর্মস্থলে যাই।  এটা কলকাতা নয়। কলকাতার উত্তরে একটা এলাকা। এখানকার অনেক মানুষ সহজ ভাবেই বলেন যে কাজে কলকাতায় যাচ্ছেন। আরেকটু উত্তরে ব্যারাকপুরে  কথাই নেই।  সেখানে এটা আরো পরিষ্কার ভাবে কলকাতা নয়, মানুষের ভাবনায়, চেতনায়, কল্পনায়। কিন্তু এই সব কিছু-কে কলকাতা মহানগরের মধ্যে মিলিয়ে দেবার প্রবণতার পিছনে আরেকটা কিছু রয়েছে। একটি শ্রেনীর হয়েছে, যারা কোনো কিছুরই নন গভীর-ভাবে।  তাদের ক্ষেত্রে স্থানীয় পরিচয় অপ্রাসঙ্গিক।  ‘গ্লোবাল’ দুনিয়ার ম্যাপে একটা খুঁটি পোতা  এবং অন্যদের কে বোঝানো – এটাই সেই আত্মপরিচিতির লক্ষ্য। এক সাথে রয়েছে স্থানীয় অনেক ব্যাপার থেকে এলিয়েনেশন। সেটা শ্রেণীগত কারণে হতে পারে, ‘গ্লোবাল’ সংস্কৃতির লেজুর-বৃত্তির ইপ্সায়  হতে পারে, স্থানীয় সংস্কৃতিক ধারা নিয়ে নিরক্ষরতাও একটা কারণ বটে। কিন্তু সকলে এমন নন। পূর্ব বাংলার যে মানুষদের সাথে আমার পরিচয়, তাদের মধ্যে অপেক্ষাকৃত ভাবে স্থানীয় পরিচয় গৌণ  নয়, বা নিজেকে ‘ঢাকা’র বলে জানানোর প্রবৃত্তি কম।  এটা অনাবাসীদের ক্ষেত্রেও সত্যি। আমার বাড়ি চেতলা এলাকায়। আমি এখুন সেখানে থাকি।  পড়াশুনো ও গবেষনার কারণে ৮ বছরের প্রবাস জীবন কাটিয়ে বাড়ি ফিরেছি। আমি অতি ভাগ্যবান যে এমন এক নিবিড় পারা-সংস্কৃতি, ধর্মাচার ও নানা রকম মানুষ ও বাজারের সাথে পরিচিত হতে পেরেছি বড় হবার সময়ে। যেহেতু আমি চেতলার, বাকি কলকাতা বা ‘কলকাতা’ কে দেখার আমার যে দৃষ্টি , যার মধ্যে চেতলার ছাপ অনস্বীকার্য।  আর সেটা হবে নাই বা কেন?  মাটি থেকে সংস্কৃতি গড়ে ওঠে, হাওয়া থেকে নয়, এলিয়েনেটেড মানুষের আমদানি করা ভাঁজ থেকে না। স্বেচ্ছায় শিকড়হীন শ্রেণী যে পশ্চিম বঙ্গে ও কিছুটা পূর্ব বঙ্গেও রাজনীতিতে, ক্ষমতায়, সংস্কৃতিতে – অন্দরে ও বিশ্বের কাছে নিখিল বাংলাদেশের মানুষের ‘মুখপত্র’ হয়েছেন মূলতঃ শ্রেণীগত ভাবে এক ধরনের ইংরেজি ভাষায় সমাজকে স্থুল ভাবে সাহেবের কাছে ও একে অপরের কাছে প্রদর্শনের কারণে, এ আমাদের লজ্জা। দোষ তাদের না – দোষ বাকিদের, যারা এই জায়গা ছেড়ে দিয়েছে ভয়, স্পর্ধাহিনতায়। মাটির থেকে, স্থানজ সংস্কৃতি থেকে বিছিন্ন শ্রেনীর এই আধিপত্যের বিরুধ্যে লড়াই একটা গভীর লড়াই – এর সাথে আমাদের যুগের সংস্কৃতিক সংকট, ও তার সাথে ক্ষমতার সম্পর্কের প্রশ্ন অঙ্গাঙ্গিভাবে যুক্ত। এই ‘আব্সেনটি ল্যান্ডলর্ড’ শ্রেনীর বিরুধ্যে সংগ্রাম কোন প্রতিক্রিয়াশীল সংস্কৃতিক প্রতিরোধ নয়। পশ্চিম-চালিত একমুখী বৈচিত্র-বিরোধী যে দানবের দুনিয়া জোড়া আস্ফালন আমাদের পোড়ার দেশগুলিতে, তার শিকড়হীন দেশীয় দালাল-দের বিরুধ্যে সংগ্রাম আসলে গণতন্ত্রিকরণের সংগ্রাম। এটাই এই যুগের গণ-লাইন। নানা বৈচিত্রের, নানা বিভন্গের মানব-জমিন কে দখলদার মুক্ত করা, যাতে কিনা ‘ডকুমেন্টেশন’ এর বাইরেও কিছু হয়, যাতে সে জমিতে নতুন ফসল ফোটে , যে জমিতে পূর্বসুরীরা ফসল ফলিয়েছেন – তার ধারাবাহিকতায় ও এবং সেই  স্থানীয় পরিপ্রেক্ষিতে তার থেকেই বিচ্ছিন্নতায় – যে বিছিনতায় রয়েছে, যার থেকে বিছিন্ন, তার গভীর ছাপ।

এই কথাগুলি বলার কারণ হলো আমাদের সংস্কৃতিক ভাবনা ও পরিকল্পনার ক্ষেত্রেও, কলকাতা-ঢাকা কেন্দ্রিকতার ঝোঁক স্পষ্ট। কল্কে পাবার যে সংজ্ঞা গুলি, কোন উদ্যোগ হলে সেটি কোথায় হতে হবে, করা করা না দেখলে তা প্রায় দেখার মতোই হলো না – এই ধরনের প্রশ্ন নিয়ে বেশ কিছু কুসংস্কার কাজ করে। ‘গ্লোবাল’ সংস্কৃতি থেকেও তাহলে কিছু কিছু কুসংস্কারের উদ্ভব হয় – সব কিছু আমাদের স্থানজ যাপন ও চর্চার দোষ না। কি বলেন ?

অনেক কিছুই হয় কলকাতায়।  কিছুতে লোক আসে, কিছুতে আসে না।  অনেক ক্ষেত্রে অপাত্রে দান হয়। যদিও সে চর্চার মাহাত্ম্য বোঝার আসল লোক অন্যত্র।  কিন্তু সেখানে হলে মহানগরবাসী আদৌ যাবেন না।  অত দূর যাওয়া যায় নাকি। বাঁকুড়া – সে তো বহুদূর।  কিন্তু সে বাঁকুড়া থেকেই তারা আসেন, কলকাতার অত্যধিক ত্যালা মাথার তেল একটু গায়ে লাগানোর জন্য।  এই ধরনের সংস্কৃতিক কেন্দ্রিকতা সংস্কৃতিকে একটা নিষ্প্রাণ ধারণার সাথে ঠিক আছে, কিন্তু যাপন ও স্থানের পরিপ্রেক্ষিতে, এলাকার জল-আবহাওবায় ভেজে না সে সংস্কৃতি। তাই হয়তো তা  ‘এক্সপোর্ট কোয়ালিটি’র না। ডানা ছেঁটে, তাকে সাইজ করে, ‘ডকুমেন্ট’ করে, রামের জিনিস শ্যামকে দেখিয়ে,  সংগঠক হিসেবে নিজের নাম দিয়ে, এক শ্রেনীর ঠিকাদার নাম কামান সংস্কৃতির ধারক বাহক ও সমঝদার হিসেবে।  এদের শিকর-হীনতার জন্যেই, স্থানীয় ভ্যালুস এদের জীবনে অপ্রাসঙ্গিক হবার কারণে, এদের গর্জে ওঠেন ‘ঘষা-মজা’ না-করা স্থানীয় সংস্কৃতিক প্রকাশের বিরুধ্যে। কেন্দ্রিকতায় এদের কায়েমী স্বার্থ। ‘কস্মপলিটানিজম’ এর নাম এক বিশেষ ধরনের সংস্কৃতিক আধিপত্যবাদ এদের মূল-মন্ত্র, যেখানে ল্যাজ-কাটা শেয়াল ল্যাজ-ওলা শেয়ালদের নিজ ল্যাজ সম্বন্ধে লজ্জিত করানোর চেষ্টা করে, ‘উচ্চমার্গ’ ও সূক্ষতার দোহাই দিয়ে। গণসংস্কৃতি, জনসংখ্যা -এদের বড় শত্রু। তাই সেগুলিকে জোর করে অদৃশ্য করে দেওয়ার চেষ্টা চলে নিরন্তর। তাই তো মনে হয় অনেকের কথা শুনে না ‘ইউথ’ মানে সে যে কফির পেয়ালা ধরে এক ধরনের চর্চা করে।  বাকি কিছুই ইউথ না। অন্ততঃ তাদের ইউথ হয়ে উঠতে অনেকগুলি ধাপ পেরোতে হবে, পরীক্ষা দিতে হবে শিকড়হীনতার – মাথায় তেলের চেয়ে সেম্পু বেশি লাগানোর।

এত কথা বললাম, কারণ ক্ষমতার সঙ্গে সন্ধি করে যে সংস্কৃতিক স্রোত বইছে মহানগরে, তার থেকে আলাদা যে কোন উদ্যোগ-ই বিরুদ্ধতা।  দহয়ত এটা দুঃখের যে স্বাভাবিক ভাবে বাঁকুড়া তে থেকে বাঁকুড়া নিমজ্জিত থাকাও আজকে একরকম দ্রোহ। এতেই ‘গ্লোবাল’ সংস্কৃতির অসহনশীলতার প্রকাশ। এরই মাঝে দাঁড়িয়ে আছে – এক, দুই, তিন নয় – ৫ বছরের কুমিল্লা সংস্কৃতিক উত্সব।

এই বাত্সরিক উত্সব কুমিল্লার মানুষের, অবারিত দ্বার সেখানে। সংগঠক এলাকার মানুষ, নতুন মানুষ এবং কুমিল্লার চশমা পরে বিশ্ব দেখে এসে ফের কুমিল্লায় আস্তানা বাঁধা মানুষজন – মনজুরুল আজিম পলাশ যার অন্যতম। এলাকার সংস্কৃতি, তার উপর যে নানা স্বার্থান্বেষী, বিদ্বেষী আঘাত – আধুনিকতার নাম, ধর্মের নাম – সে সকলের বিরুধ্যে দাঁড়িয়ে আছে এই উত্সব। ঢাকা, কলকাতা, চিটাগাং, টরন্টো, চীন এসকল জায়গা থেকে মানুষ কুমিল্লা গেছিলাম।  বড় শহর থেকে মানুষ ছোট শহরে যাবে কিছু পাবার জন্য – জজ-জুরি হিসেবে না, অতিথি হিসেবে, নিজেকে ব্যাপ্ত করার সুযোগ হিসেবে – এটা আজকের সময়ে বড় কম কথা নয়। এবং সেখানকার গণ-সংস্কৃতির কাছে মাথা নবাবে, আঁজলা  ভরে নেবে, হয়ত বা কিছু দেবেও।  এই ভাবেই অতিথির চোখে দেখলাম এই অসাধারণ উত্সব।  সুসু অতীত চর্চা নয়, শুধু ‘সনাতন’ চর্চা নয়, আবার সেসব বাদ দিয়েও নয়, আবার সমসাময়িক প্রাসঙ্গিকতা কে সামনে রেখে, অনেক স্বেচ্ছা-সেবকের উদ্যোগে হলো এই উত্সব।  এলাকার গণ-সংস্কৃতির ও গর্ববোধের কাঠামো যে মজবুত তা বুঝলাম কুমিল্লার একাধিক স্থানীয় দৈনিক কাগজ দেখে – এবং সেখানে এই উত্সবের উত্সাহী রিপোর্টিং দেখে।  আলাপ হলো কুম্মিলার কাগজের নির্ভিক দরদী সম্পাদক আবুল কাশেম হৃদয়ের সাথে।  আরো কত জানা হলো, কত কিছু শিখলাম।

এই সময়ে, এই স্পর্ধা করা যে কুমিল্লায়, তাদের কাছে যে মাল মজুত আছে, তা ঝুলি থেকে বার করে দেখালে, বাইরে থেকে লোক আসবে। তারাও আসবে নিজেদের একটু আধটু নিয়ে, নিয়ে যাবে অনেক বেশি।  আজকের কেন্দ্রিকতার দুনিয়ায়ে কুমিল্লা সংস্কৃতিক উত্সব ( কুমিল্লা কালচারাল ফেস্টিভেল) -এর স্পর্ধা অন্যতর বিশ্বায়নের এক মেনিফেস্টোর মত – গণসংযোগ, স্থানীয় সংস্কৃতিক স্বাক্ষরতা, মাটির সাথে সম্পর্ক, মানুষ সম্পর্কে শ্রদ্ধা, বিকেন্দ্রীকরণ, গণতন্ত্রীকরণ এবং নিজেকে পৃথিবীর কেন্দ্র মনে করা এক বহুকেন্দ্রিক পৃথিবীর কল্পনা করা।

গেছিলাম আমন্ত্রণে।  ফিরলাম এলাকাকে ও তার মানুষকে একটু চিনে, আর এও জেনে যে ঢাকা ও কলকাতার দিয়ে সংস্কৃতির সকল ধারা কে বাধ দেওয়া যায় না, এবং সেগুলি অনেক কিছুর জন্যই আদর্শ স্থান নয়।  আমার-ও কিছু পাওয়ার আছে কুমিল্লা থেকে। কাউন্টার ভ্যানগার্ড হয়ে হয়্তো তা ভ্যানগার্ড ধারণার সঙ্গে একটা সমালোচনা-মূলক সংলাপ। সেদিক থেকে কুমিল্লার এই উত্সব পথিকৃত। এলাকার গান ছিল, এলাকার নাটক ছিল, বিশ্বের নানা প্রান্ত থেকে আশা মানুষের একাধিক মাস্টার ক্লাস ছিল, মোটর সাইকেল স্টান্ট ছিল, আলাপ-আড্ডা-হেঁটে বেড়ানো ছিল। পর্যালোচনা ও আত্মসমালোচনা ছিল।  স্থানীয় অশুভ শক্তির সাথে যুগপত সমঝোতা ও বিরুদ্ধতার যে কঠিন আভ্যন্তরীন সংগ্রাম, তাও ছিল।  শুধু অনুষ্ঠান সূচী দিয়ে এই উত্সব কে বোঝা যাবে না।  তার জন্য নিজ এলাকায় এমন উত্সব সংগঠিত করতে হবে, মানুষকে জুড়তে হবে।  কুমিল্লা সংস্কৃতিক উত্সব কোন তীর্থ না, এটি একটি মডেল। সতী মাতার শরীরের নানা অংশ বাংলার নানা স্থানে পড়েছিল , এক স্থানে পড়ে নি। তাই এত গুলি তীর্থ কে কেন্দ্র করা এতগুলি ধারা, এতগুলি চর্চা ও ভাবনা। পুরনো তীর্থ গুলু ধুঁকছে, নতুন তীর্থ জন্মাচ্ছে না,  ঢাকা-কলকাতা ‘মহাতীর্থ’ হয়ে উঠছে।  এই সময়ে দাঁড়িয়ে কুমিল্লা সংস্কৃতিক উত্সব একটি আলোকবর্তিকা হয়ে ওঠার আভাস দেখায়। পরের বার ষষ্ঠ কুমিল্লা সংস্কৃতিক উত্সব।  চোখ কান খোলা রাখব আমি, আপনারাও রাখবেন। বিকল্প অন্বেষণের  একই প্রয়োগশালাটি  আবার দেখা সুযোগ যেন হাতছাড়া না হয়।

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রাম ও রামীর পয়লা ফাল্গুন

কালকে ভ্যালেন্টাইন্স ডে।  আপনার জীবনে যদি প্রেম-পিরিতির কেউ থাকে এবং  নগদ টেকা-টুকা থাকে, তাহলে এটা আপনার আধুনিক  নাগরিক কর্তব্য যে আপনি কাল চকোলেট কোম্পানি, মাল্টিপ্লেক্স কোম্পানি, রেস্টুরেন্ট কোম্পানি, গ্রিটিং কার্ড কোম্পানির মতো হরেক কোম্পানিকে কাল বেশি মুনাফা দেবেন।  আপনি উত্তরাধুনিক  নাগরিক হলে দেবেন ডার্ক চকোলেট, দেখবেন আর্ট ফিলিম, দেবেন অন্যের হাতে আঁকা কার্ড।  খাবেন  রেস্টুরেন্টে কারণ কুকিং বর্জন প্রগতিশীলতার এক প্রাথমিক শর্ত। এই সকল মাজারে চাদর না চড়ালে আপনার প্রেম খাঁটি নয়। যারা নরসিংহ রাও পরবর্তী যুগে লায়েক হয়েছেন, তাদের অনেকের এতদিনে প্রতি ভ্যালেন্টাইন্স ডে-তে যা যা প্রেমের প্রমাণ জমেছে, তার একটা আর্কাইভ করলে বেশ একটা সমাজতাত্ত্বিক ব্যাপার হবে। কিছু ক্ষেত্রে এই উপহারের আর্কাইভ আবার অনেকের সিরিজ প্রেমের আর্কাইভ ও বটে – কে কার পেছনে কত টাকা খরচ করলো বা করলো না, স্মৃতির মনিকোঠায় সেই অনুযায়ী বরাদ্দ থাকে বর্গফুট কার্পেট-এরিয়া। হয়ত যারা কালচার-ফাল্চার স্টাডি করে শ্বেতাঙ্গদের কাছে দিশি মানুষের জীবনকে উজাগর করে নাম কামান, তারা দুর্বোধ্য ভাষায় কিছু পুঁথিও লিখে ফেলবেন। আমার কথা নিশ্চই তেকেলে জ্যাঠার মতো  শোনাচ্ছে।  আমার ঠাকুরদার বাপ, আমার ঠাকুরদা, আমার বাপ – এরা সকলেই কুলের বড় ছেলে, অতয়েব নানা মানুষের জ্যাঠা। আমি এদেরই ডাইরেক্ট উত্তরসুরী। আমি মূলতঃ চট্টোপাধ্যায়।  গর্গ নামটি উছিলা মাত্র।

বাংলা জুড়েই একটি খাঁটি বাঙালি জিনিস আমার আপনার সকলের আছে। এটাকে বাংলায়ে বলে ফিলিংস। অনেকে এই মোক্ষম দিনে এহেন মোক্ষম ফিলিংস প্রকাশ করেন প্রথম বার। কে বলে যে শুধু আমরাই পাজি দেখে শুভ কাজ করি? আপনারা যারা আধুনিক-উত্তরাধুনিক – তার বেলা ? এই যে চেনা ছকে চেনা কোম্পানির চেনা উপহার দিয়ে চেনা ফিলিংস-কে দৃঢ় করা, এ কি “রিচুয়াল” না ? যত স্বকীয়তা আর স্বতস্ফুর্ততা, তা আপনাদের ক্রেতা-আচরণে? আর যত দোষ ও ব্যাকওয়ার্ড রিচুয়াল আমাদের সিন্নি চটচটে ধুনো ধূমায়িত পরিসরে ?

যখন প্রেম-পিরিতির সম্পর্কে যা গভীরত্ব জানান দিতে হয় বাজারী জিনিসপত্রের মাধ্যমে, এবং প্রেম-পিরিতির যাচাইও হয় বাজারের নিরিখে, তখন সে ভালবাসা সর্বার্থেই অর্থপূর্ণ। বাজার আজকে মোটামুটি এটা বুঝিয়ে ফেলেছে যে চাষের জন্য যেমন লাঙ্গল দরকার (বড়লোক হলে ট্রাক্টর), তেমনই ১৪ ফেব্রুয়ারী প্রেমের জন্য ফুল-চকোলেট দরকার (ধনকুবের হলে ছোট্ট হীরে)।  মনের সঙ্গে মালের এই সহজ কিন্তু কুটিল সম্পর্ক প্রথমতঃ কল্পনার শত্রু। দুইটি মানুষ যখন এই দিনকেই ইস্পেসাল করে তোলে, এই দিনেই জিনিস -প্রদান করে, তারা নিজেদের স্বকীয়তাকে গৌণ  করে দেয়। রামা-শ্যামা-যদু-মধু সকলেরই প্রেম একদিন বেশি করে জাগে, একই দিনে তারা চেনা চকে চেনা জিনিস করে, তা রাম ও রামীর অথবা রাম ও শ্যামের যে নিজস্বতা, তাকেই নস্যাত করে।  দুই প্রেমীর কাজ হয়ে যায়  গ্লোবাল সংস্কৃতির পাতায় সামান্য ফাঁকা জায়গায় নিজেদের নাম লেখা – ফিল আপ দি ব্ল্যান্ক। বাকিটা এক। কিন্তু মানুষ তো এরকম এক না। তাই পিরিতির এই ভালেন্তিনীয় প্রকাশে কোন কোন সম্ভাবনার মৃত্যু হয় ? নগদ-হীন ভালবাসা প্রকাশে কার লাভ, কার ক্ষতি? কাগজে ছাপাঅশোকস্তম্ভের সিংহের কাঁধে ভর করা এ কোন ভালবাসা ?  অশোক স্তম্ভ ছাড়া যেমন ভারত রাষ্ট্র নেই, চকলেট-খানাপিনা-সিনেমা-ফুল-গিফটের মোড়ক ছাড়ালে যেটা বাকি থাকে, সেটা কি ? এগুলি না থাকলে, কি বাকি থাকে? কাদের ক্ষেত্রে বাকি থাকে, কাদের ক্ষেত্রে থাকে না ? এগুলি স্রেফ প্রশ্ন।  কার ভালবাসা খাঁটি আর কারটা মাটি , সেটা মাপার  জ্ঞান আমার নেই। তবে গদাধর চট্টোপাধ্যায় বলে গেছেন – টাকা মাটি, মাটি টাকা। মা সারদা আজকাল টাকার ব্যাপারে কম বলছেন, মাটি নিয়েই মনোযোগ বেশি। মার্কিন দেশে ২০১৩-তে একেকজন মানুষ গড়ে ৭৮০০ টাকা খরচা করেছেন ভালেন্টাইনস ডে  বাবদ। যদি মার্কিনি হয়োনের শখ থেকে থাকে, তালে ওই ৭৮০০ সংখ্যাটিকে পাখির চোখ মনে করে এগিয়ে চলুন। খ্রিষ্টীয় সন্ত ভালেন্টাইন আপনার সহায় হোন।

ভ্যালেন্টাইন্স ডে আমাদের বাংলাদেশের জনজীবনে, বিশেষতঃ শহুরে এলাকায় একটা জায়গা করে নিয়েছে।  জায়গা করে নিয়েছে আরো অনেক কিছুই।  এসবের ক্ষেত্রে একটা কথা খুব শোনা যায়।  চয়েস।  আমি যা চাইব। আমি চাই ভ্যালেন্টাইন্স ডে – এটা আমার চয়েস।  ভালো কথা।  কিন্তু চয়েস বা বাচাবাচির মধ্যে  যা বাছা হয়, তা যাপনে হোক, ভাষায় হোক, বসনে হোক, দিবসে হোক – তার ভৌগোলিক উত্পত্তিস্থল যদি পৃথিবীতে সংখ্যালঘু যে শ্বেতাঙ্গ মানুষজন, তাদের  এলাকা থেকেই আগাপাশতলা আমদানি করা হয়, তাহলে চয়েস আসলে বাড়ে, না কমে ?  বিশ্বায়নের ফলে তো আমাদের  বিশ্ব আরো ব্যাপ্ত হবার কথা ছিল – বসনে, ভূষণে, ভাষায় সবেতে বৈচিত্র বাড়ার কথা ছিল।  তাই না ? গলদটা কোথায়?  তার জন্য হয়ত আমাদের এই ১৪ ফেব্রুয়ারির বাংলায় আমদানির গল্পটি জানতে হবে, সেই আমদানির ফড়েদের কথা জানতে হবে, আমাদের কল্পনা ও ফিলিংস কেমনে  শ্বেতাঙ্গ পপ-কালচারের গারদে আটকা পড়ল, সেটা একটু ভাবতে হবে। শ্বেতাঙ্গ আক্সেন্ট ও জোক্স মুখস্ত করতে করতে আমরা আমাদের বগল ও কুঁচকি দেখতেই ভুলে গেছি। ময়লা জমবেই।  তখন সেন্ট যদি আমদানি করতে হয়, সায়েবের কি দোষ ?

আমি যখন মার্কিন দেশে থাকতাম, তখন ১৪ ফেব্রুয়ারীকে কেন্দ্র করে নানা জিনিস নতুন মোড়কে পাওয়া যেত।  ১8 তারিখ কাটলেই সেগুলির দাম হয়ে যেত অর্ধেক।  আধুনিক ও উত্তর-আধুনিকদের  বিশ্বেও  তিথি অনুযায়ী জিনিসের দর বারে কমে, ঠিক কোজাগরী লক্ষী পুজোর দিনে সবজির মত। এবার ভ্যালেন্টাইন্স পড়েছে পয়লা ফাল্গুনে।  শুনতে কি বোরিং লাগছে না? পয়লা ফাল্গুন আর ১৪ ফেব্রুয়ারী কি এক হলো ?

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লাভ জেহাদ – তথ্য কই ?

[ ArekRakam]
অধিকাংশ মানব সমাজেই বিবাহ বা তারই কোনো অন্য সমাজ-স্বীকৃত রূপকে মানব-মানবীর প্রেমের স্থায়ী বন্ধনের সবচেয়ে বিশুদ্ধ রূপ বলে মনে করা হয়।  যদিও বাজারে প্রেমে ‘অন্ধ’ হওয়ার কথাটি বেশ চালু আছে, সমাজ স্বীকৃত সম্পর্ক বা নিজেদের রেডিকাল বলে প্রচার করা মানুষদিগের তথাকথিত ‘বিকল্প’ সম্পর্ক-ধারনায় হোক, অধিকাংশ ক্ষেত্রেই তার চোখ অন্ধ তো নয়,বন্ধ ও নয়।  যদি বিবাহের দিকেই তাকানো যায় , তাহলেই দেখব যে ধর্ম, বর্ণ, শ্রেণী, জাত, ভাষা অথবা এ সকল জিনিসের এক সংমিশ্রণ অধিকাংশ ক্ষেত্রেই স্পষ্ট ভাবে নির্ধারক ভূমিকা নেয়। তাদের ব্যক্তিগত আদর্শ বা চিন্তাধারার কারণে এহেন অবস্থাকে কেউ কেউ অপছন্দ করতেই পারেন, কিন্তু এটাই সামাজিক বাস্তবতা।  শুধু ‘সাধারণ’ মানুষ নন, স্ব-আখ্যাত ‘অসাধারণ’ ও ‘রেডিকেল’ মানুষজনেরও যুগল ভাবনা মুখের বুলিতে যাই হোক, বাস্তবে তাদের
বাছ-বিচারেও ‘সাধারণ’-এর মাপকাঠিগুলিই প্রকট। চড়া গলায় প্রকাশ্য দ্রোহের অন্তরালে দেখা যায় যে ‘অসাধারণ’ রা আসলে সাধারণ।  ক্রিষ্ঠান ধর্মাবলম্বী পরিবারে জন্মানো শ্বেতাঙ্গ পুরুষ-মহিলাগণ, যাদের জীবন ,
আদর্শ ও দর্শন অনেকাংশেই শহুরে দিশি ‘রেডিকেল’ দের অনুপ্রাণিত করে, সেই নরোত্তমেরা অধিকাংশ ক্ষেত্রে সেই ক্রিষ্ঠীয় বংশোদ্ভূত শ্বেতাঙ্গ পরিবারের কাউকেই বিবাহ করে। নানা রকম ‘কসমোপলিটান’ কল্পনার শাক দিয়ে এই মাছ ঢাকার অপচেষ্টা চললেও, এটাই ঘটনা। সংখ্যাগরিষ্ট কে লঘু করে দেখানো আর সংখ্যালঘু কেকে ফাঁপিয়ে দেখানোটা ঈসপের ল্যাজ-কাটা শেয়ালের কৌশলের অংশ।একটা জিনিস বুঝে নেওয়া দরকার। কিছু মহলে, ভিন্ন ধর্ম বা ভাষা বা জাতীয়তার মানুষের মধ্যে বিবাহকে কিছুটা ‘উচ্চতর’ মর্যাদা দেওয়া হয়। যেন এগুলি সাধারণ বিবাহের থেকে একটু উচ্চকোটির জিনিস।  নিজেদের পারিবারিক
ধর্মের মানুষকেই বিবাহ করেন মানব জাতির বিপুল সংখ্যাগরিষ্ট মানুষ। ভালো-মন্দ অপ্রাসঙ্গিক। এইটেই বাস্তব।
‘লাভ জেহাদ’ হলো এমন এক ঘটনা যেখানে মোসলমান পুরুষ পূর্ব-পরিকল্পিত ভাবে অ-মোসলমান নারীকে বাছাই করে, অনেক ক্ষেত্রে নিজের মোসলমান পরিচয় গোপন করে  তার সাথে  প্রেম, বিবাহ বা যৌনাচার বা সবকটিই করে শেষ অবধি তাকে ইসলাম ধর্মে ধর্মান্তরিত করার উদেশ্যে বা অ-মোসলমান নারী ও তার সমাজের সম্ভ্রম-হানি ঘটানোর উদ্দেশ্যে। পাকিস্তানে (বিশেষত সিন্ধু প্রদেশে) ও ইংলন্ডে এমন কিছু ঘটনা ঘটেছে। ভারতীয় ইউনিয়ন-এ কেরল, কর্নাটক ও সম্প্রতি উত্তর প্রদেশ  থেকে এমন কিছু ঘটনার অভিযোগ এসছে।  এই ঘটনাগুলিতে পুলিশী তদন্ত কিন্তু এমন কোনো ব্যাপক তথা পূর্বপরিকল্পিত ‘লাভ জেহাদ’-এর মত ঘটনার  প্রমাণ পায়নি।  উত্তর প্রদেশের মতো এলাকা, যেখানে সাম্প্রদায়িক রেষারেষির সুদীর্ঘ ইতিহাস রয়েছে, সেখানে এই ‘লাভ জেহাদ’ নিয়ে ব্যাপক প্রচার চলেছে কট্টর হিন্দুত্ববাদী কিছু চক্রের সাহায্যে।
ভারতীয় ইউনিয়ন-এ যে আইন প্রচলিত আছে, তাতে কোনো মোসলমান পুরুষ-এর কোন অ-মোসলমান নারীর সাথে প্রেম বা বিবাহ করতে বাধা নেই, বাধা নেই সেই মহিলাকে ইসলাম ধর্মে ধর্মান্তরিত করতেও। একই ভাবে, কোন হিন্দু পুরুষ-এরও কোন অ-হিন্দু নারীর সাথে প্রেম বা বিবাহ করতে বা ধর্মান্তরিত করানোতে বাধা নেই।  যখন এই জিনিসগুলি ঘটে, তখন খাঁটি প্রেমের কারণে হয় নাকি মনের গোপনে গোপনে তা কেউ অপর ধর্মের নারী-দের ফাঁসানোর উদেশ্যে করে, তা জানতে মনের খবর জানার যে প্রযুক্তি প্রয়োজন, তা ভাগ্যিস এখুনো কল্পবিজ্ঞানের স্তরেই আছে। কিন্তু কেউ যদি ইচ্ছাকৃত ভাবে পরিচয় গোপন করে (  উদাহরণ স্বরূপ, কোন হিন্দু পুরুষ যদি তার হিন্দু পরিচয় গোপন করে সে মোসলমান , এমন ধারণা দেয়ে কোন মোসলমান নারী-কে আকর্ষিত করতে), সে ক্ষেত্রে ব্যাপারটা জালিয়াতি বলেই গন্য করা উচিত এবং এর পিছনে অন্য অসাধু উদ্দেশ্যের কথাও উড়িয়ে দেওয়া যায় না।  যদিও এমন জালিয়াতির ঘটনা কিছু পাওয়া-ও যায়, তার ভিত্তিতে এটা বলা  সম্ভব না যে এই ঘটনা বৃহত্তর কোনো ষড়যন্ত্রের অংশ কি না। কিন্তু ‘লাভ জেহাদ’ নিয়ে যে উত্তেজক পরিস্থিতির সৃষ্টি হয়েছে, তার পরিপ্রেক্ষিতে এ ব্যাপারে পরিষ্কার তথ্য সামনে আসা প্রয়োজন।  যখন তথ্য থাকে অপ্রতুল, তখন বাগাড়ম্বর, গুজব ও ঘৃণা-উদ্ভূত কল্পিত ‘তথ্য’-ই সত্যের স্থান দখল করে নেয়।  সেটা একটা বিপজ্জনক খেলা। অনেক সময় নিরীহ মানুষকে  রক্তে সে খেলার দাম চোকাতে হয়।
ভারতীয় ইউনিয়ন-এ প্রচলিত নিয়ম অনুযায়ী বর্তমানে অবিবাহিত যে কোন পুরুষ  বর্তমানে অবিবাহিত যে কোন মহিলাকে বিবাহ করতে পারে।  যদি কোন ধর্মের থেকে অপর ধর্মের মহিলাদের বিশেষ-ভাবে ‘টার্গেট’ না করা হয়, এ ব্যবস্থার ফলশ্রুতি হিসেবে বাস্তবে এই দেখতে পাওয়া উচিত যে হিন্দু স্বামী – মোসলমান স্ত্রী যুগলের সংখ্যা মোসলমান স্বামী – হিন্দু স্ত্রী যুগল সংখ্যার মোটামুটি কাছাকাছি। রাজ্য স্তরে বা জেলা স্তরেও এই প্যাটার্ন দেখতে পাওয়া উচিত।  তার থেকেও স্থানীয় স্তর-এ সংখ্যাতাত্ত্বিক বিচার করার মত সংখ্যায় তথ্য নাও থাকতে পারে।  যদি রাজ্য স্তরে বা জেলা স্তরে দেখা যায় এক ধরণের যুগলের সংখ্যার সাথে  অন্য ধরণের যুগলের সংখ্যার অনেকটা অসাম্য রয়েছে, তখন বৃহত্তর কারণের কথা ভাবতে হবে।  কিন্তু ঘটনা হলো, এসব কোন তথ্যই কারো কাছে নেই।  এমন তথ্য কেন নেই, সে প্রশ্ন করা দরকার – বিশেষত যখন এই ধরনের ব্যাপার বর্তমান রাজনৈতিক পরিপ্রেক্ষিতে এমন বিভেদকারী পরিস্থিতির সৃষ্টি করছে। ভারতীয় ইউনিয়ন-এ জ্ঞানীগুনী  গবেষকের কোনো অভাব নেই।  ভালো করে সমাজ-বিজ্ঞান ভিত্তিক একটা কাজ করে, জরিপ করে এগুলি জানতে পারা কি এতই শক্ত? দেশ ও দশের সামাজিক-রাজনৈতিক  জীবনের সঙ্গে প্রাসঙ্গিক গবেষণাতে এহেন অনীহা এই উপমহাদেশের জ্ঞানী শ্রেনীর  সমাজ-বিচ্যুত অবস্থানের দিকেই দিক-নির্দেশ করে। অথচ টিভি তথা অন্যান্য সংবাদ মাধ্যমে  প্রায়শই দেখা যায় পন্ডিত ও আলোচকদের , ‘লাভ জেহাদ’ সত্য বা মিথ্যা, এই নিয়ে জোর গলায়ে দাবি রাখতে, এক তিল তথ্য প্রদান না করেও।  এটা শুধু হতাশাব্যঞ্জক নয়, দায়িত্বজ্ঞানহীন ও বটে।
জনসংখ্যার ধর্মভিত্তিক অনুপাত ইত্যাদি নিয়ে উদ্বেগ ও সাম্প্রদায়িক রাজনীতি, দুইই বাস্তব। গুজরাটের সুরাবর্দি এবং অধুনা ভারতীয় ইউনিয়ন-এর প্রধানমন্ত্রী নরেন্দ্র মোদী এক সময়  নিয়মিত ভাবে তার রাজনৈতিক জমায়েত-এ মোসলমান সম্প্রদায়-কে ব্যঙ্গ করতেন  ‘হাম পাঁচ , হামারে পচ্চিস ‘ ( আমরা পাঁচজন , আমাদের পচিসজন ) বলে।  অর্থাত , এক মোসলমান পুরুষ, তার ৪ স্ত্রী, ও তার ফলে ২৫ টি সন্তান।  এর মাধ্যমে ইসলাম স্বীকৃত ও ভারতীয় আইন স্বীকৃত  মোসলমান পুরুষের বহুবিবাহের বৈধতার দিকে যেমন খোঁচা আছে, তেমনি আছে বেশি সংখ্যক সন্তান উত্পাদনের মাধ্যমে জন-সংখ্যার ধর্মভিত্তিক অনুপাত বদলানোর প্রচেষ্টার ইঙ্গিত। এই নিয়ে প্রচার ‘লাভ জেহাদ’ এর থেকে অনেক বেশি।  এই যে দাবি, যা নিয়ে প্রচার-ও বড় কম নয়, তার কি বাস্তব ভিত্তি আছে। অন্ততঃ বহুবিবাহ প্রশ্নে উত্তর স্পষ্টতই না।  কারণ এক্ষেত্রে তথ্য আছে। যতদিন আদমশুমারিতে বিবাহিত স্ত্রীর সংখ্যা গণনা করা হত, তার শেষ তথ্য ১৯৬১ সালের আদমশুমারির। তাতে আমরা কি দেখতে পাই? আমরা দেখি যে ৫.৭% মোসলমান পুরুষের একাধিক স্ত্রী আছে। অর্থাৎ মোটামুটি ২০ জন-এ ১ জন মোসলমান পুরুষের ১৯৬১ নাগাদ একাধিক স্ত্রী ছিল।  সেই একই সময়ে হিন্দু পুরুষের বহুবিবাহের হার হলো ৫.৮% – অর্থাৎ মোটামুটি এক, এবং চুলচেরা বিচার করলে অতি সামান্য বেশি-ই। অর্থাৎ বাস্তব তথ্য বহুবিবাহ সংক্রান্ত  মুসলমান-বিদ্বেষী প্রচারের বিপরীত।  ঠিক এই কারণেই তথ্য প্রয়োজন, প্রয়োজন সংখ্যার – ষড়যন্ত্র ও চক্রান্ত, আছে না নেই, এই সব দিয়ে পরিস্থিতি বিষনোর আগে।এ প্রসঙ্গে জানিয়ে রাখা ভালো যে ১৯৫৫ অবধি হিন্দু বহুবিবাহ-ও আইনত বৈধ ছিল। আজও মোসলমান সম্প্রদায়ের বিরুধ্যে অন্য সম্প্রদায়ের থেকে বেশি হারে বহুবিবাহের অভিযোগ আনা হয় হরদম কোন তথ্যের ধার না ধেরেই।
তথ্য ভিত্তিহীন প্রচারের ভুক্তভোগী কুলীন ব্রাহ্মণেরাও।  রাজনৈতিক প্রচারে, ব্যঙ্গে এবং ‘অন্তর্জলি যাত্রা’র মতো  চলচ্চিত্রের ফলে এক ধারণা জনমানসে বেশ বদ্ধমূল।  তা হলো এক কালের  কুলীন ব্রাহ্মণ মাত্রেই বহুবিবাহ করা লোক।এ কথা সত্য যে কিছু কুলীন ব্রাহ্মণ বহুবিবাহ করতেন – তাদের মধ্যে একটি ক্ষুদ্র অংশ বিশাল সংখ্যায় করতেন এই কদর্য  কাজ।  এ নিয়ে বিতর্ক নেই।  কিন্তু কুলীন ব্রাহ্মণ বলতেই যে একরকম চরিত্র-অঙ্কন তার মধ্যে রয়েছে গোঁজামিল। যে সমাজে কন্যা ভ্রুণ হত্যার সুদীর্ঘ মর্মন্তুদ ইতিহাস রয়েছে এবং বিবাহে জাতের বাছ-বিচারের ফলে নিজের জাতেই বিয়ে হত কুলীন ব্রাহ্মণ-দের, সেই পরিপ্রেক্ষিতে সেক্স রেসিও (অর্থাত জনসংখ্যায়  ১০০০ পুরুষ প্রতি কজন মহিলা) ১০০০-এর কম হওয়াটাই  স্বাভাবিক।  যেখানে অনেক কুলীন ব্রাহ্মণ পুরুষের স্ত্রী জতারি কথা নয় সরল সংখ্যাতাত্ত্বিক বিচারে, সেখানে বহুবিবাহের ব্যাপক প্রসার এক কথায় অসম্ভব।  ঠিক যেমন যে কোন সমাজে একই সাথে একধিক স্ত্রী থাকার ব্যাপারটি এক ক্ষুদ্র অংশেরই আচরণ হতে পারে।  অন্যথা হওয়াটা গাণিতিক-ভাবেই দুষ্কর।
কাউকে কেউ অপছন্দ করতেই পারেন, সে মোসলমান হোক, কুলীন ব্রাহ্মণ হোক, শ্বেতাঙ্গ সাহেব হোক। কিন্তু সে ঘৃণার বর্শায়ে বিষ হিসেবে বাস্তব-ভিত্তিহীন প্রচার মাখানো অন্যায় ও পাপ।  ‘লাভ জেহাদ’ নিয়ে যে বিতর্ক, তা এই ধরনের প্রচারের সাম্প্রতিকতম উদাহরণ মাত্র।  বরং প্রশ্ন উঠুক – তথ্য নেই কেন ? সামাজিক বাস্তবতা নিয়ে তথ্যই তো গণ-বিতর্ক-কে শক্তিশালী করে।  অন্যথা চলে ঘৃনা-প্রতিঘৃণার এক প্রাচীন খেলা। প্রশ্ন যখন সংখ্যা নিয়ে, তথ্যই হোক হাতিয়ার। গুজবের মাঞ্জা দিয়ে একে অপরকে ভো-কাট্টা করার অপচেষ্টা বন্ধ হোক।

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

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Mar 2014 ]

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

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

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

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

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


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Filed under Bengal, Community, Culture, Delhi Durbar, Faith, Identity

A khidki into our minds / Khidki opens a window

[ Fountain Ink, April 2014 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.


One fistful of rubble


And pour it on our shameless heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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The rise and rise of portable religion

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Jul 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad moon rising / A dangerous connivance /

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Filed under Bengal, Community, Democracy, Dhaka, History, Identity, Kolkata, Language, Pakistan, Polity, Religion, Scars

Unholy winds from Jangipur / Disturbing signals from Jangipur

[ Echo of India, 27 Oct 2012 ; The Daily Star (Dhaka) 19 Nov 2012 ]

It used to be said, what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. That was a different Bengal and a different idea of ‘India’. If the recent by-election results from Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency of West Bengal is any indication of how Bengal might start thinking tomorrow, that would indicate no small shift in the political landscape of post-partition West Bengal as we have known it. So, what has happened?

After Pranab Mukherjee was made the President of the Indian Union, the Jangipur seat fell vacant. The Indira Congress had declared that Abhijit Mukherjee, the President’s son and MLA from Nalhati, would be their candidate for the seat. In the post-schism scenario between UPA and Trinamool, the latter in an apparent gesture towards the president, decided not to contest the seat. This was astute, as this put the Trinamool in a win-win situation. A triangular contest might have caused a CPI(M) victory, inspite of Trinamul participation. A CPI(M) victory in Trinamul’s absence would not have been so damaging. The Indira Congress candidate won the seat by the slimmest of margins, 2526 to be exact. His father had won the seat by a margin of 1,28,000. There are no indications that there is a sudden ground-swell of support for the CPI(M). In fact, its own vote percentage came down by nearly 2 percent since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The Indira Congress vote was down by a staggering 15%. A rather damaging revelation is that a significant portion of Abhijit Mukherjee’s ‘lead’ came from booths were opposition polling agents were allegedly not allowed. So the established parties, both of which can be considered secular, together polled about 95% of the votes during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. This time, their combined total is about 78 %. Where did all those votes go?

They went to what are parties which have not had much traction in West Bengal politics and are distinguished by their sectarian appeal to voters, however concealed they may be in the language of generality. The demographic status of the Jangipur constituency is relevant. It is in the district of Murshidabad, with about two-thirds of the voters being from the Mohammedan community. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has for long tried to develop a base in such areas with a significant Mohameddan population by playing on real or perceived insecurities of the Hindu population. Typically this has involved playing up the issue of illegal immigration from East Bengal, but this time around, that was not really important. Curiously, the BJP partly benefited from a portion of the Muslim vote which swung away from the Indira Congress due to the central government’s decision of forcible acquiring vast swathes of land at Ahiron, Murshidabad to set up the much touted second campus of the Aligarh Muslim University. Something else also helped the BJP. This was the entry of two parties into the fray, namely the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the Welfare Party of India (WPI). Much like the BJP, these are outfits that are formally secular, but are implicitly sectarian. Like the BJP’s non-Hindy faces, the Mukhtar Abbas Naqvis and Shahnawaz Hussains, these groups also have show-piece non-Mohameddans. The SDPI is for all practical purposes an extended arm of the Popular Front of India, a sectarian organization whose members have been implicated in creating communally charged scenarios in Kerala. The WPI is a newer outfit, created in 2011 by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. Between the SDPI and the WPI, they polled  66311 votes (  8 percent ). The BJP received 85,857 votes (about 11 percent). In 2009, the BJP polled less than 2.5% of the votes.

It is well known that in a communally polarized polity, the poles feed each other. In the process, people’s issues that cut across sectarian lines, take a backseat. The question is, whether this result happened due to the peculiar characteristics of this election in this constituency or this has the potential to become a broader phenomenon in West Bengal in the days to come. It is true that the land dispossession of farmers and a non-local Indira Congress candidate helped the opposition. But the principal opposition party, the CPI(M), could not reap its benefits. The Trinamool too has its own vote, however small, in the area. In the event of its non-contestation, it is clear that all of it did not transfer to the Indira Congress. Part of this vote went to the BJP, SDPI and WPI. Significantly, it is suspected that ‘town’ Hindus have voted for the BJP in significant numbers.

It is now generally agreed that among the reasons behind the CPI(M)’s demise from power in West Bengal, a collapse in their Muslim vote was a significant one. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a more permanent slice of this vote. This has resulted in a slew of largely cosmetic measures like giving monthly stipends to imams, opening minority employment exchanges, building a gigantic Haj house, vaguely promising reservations, inaugurating trains that go from Bengal to Ajmer and the like. This rather public posturing, especially things like the imam stipends, have ruffled feathers in sections of the majority community. West Bengal’s veneer of secular politics is not something that has a very long past – both Shyama Prasad’s Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League had strong bases in various parts of Western Bengal. Those strands of political thought have not found legitimate expression for sometime and hence generally have not shown up in voting numbers. But they exist nonetheless. BJP’s performance in Jangipur could be replicated in other areas – it depends on how large is the majority community that has not taken well to the Trinamool’s courtship of minorities. In a scenario where the CPI(M) can only oppose the substance of the courtship but not the courtship itself, it is unlikely that the disgruntled will go to them. The assertion of parties like the SDPI and WPI may help such a communal consolidation of the majority community. And that cannot be good news. Communalism in West Bengal, though not generally overt, can be found easily by scratching the surface. A combination of circumstances can awaken it. Will more such circumstances arise, or will more responsible political parties prevent a potential communal unraveling of West Bengal politics? Bengal’s past experience with communal politics is distinctly bitter, both here in the West and in the East.  The west lives with the sleeping demons. In the east, the demons never really slept, and have been in and out of power, thus seriously undermining the plural heritage of Bengal.

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Eternal ‘outsiders’ – Marwaris of Kolkata / KaliKatha via Bypass

[ HardNews, Nov 2012 ]

Salt Lake City, a satellite township located east of Kolkata, was developed from 1958-1965, largely during the regime of Bidhan Chandra Roy, West Bengal’s longest serving Congressite chief minister. ‘Reclaimed’ by destroying wetlands and a rich pisciculture zone comprising of large salt-water lakes, the land-filled erstwhile marshes came to be known as Bidhannagar. The area was then parsed into sectors, plotted and allotted largely to Bengali service and professional classes, except for occasional lollies to various loyalists of the ruling parties, through the decades, till such plots lasted. These were not sold as free-hold plots but were given on lease. There had been no provision of lease-transfer, so complicated procedures were devised by the ‘leasees’ so that ‘selling’ could happen – primarily by naming the buyer as the legal inheritor of the plot. Money changed hands as usual, just that the government did not get a piece of this extra-legal action. It was losing a lot of potential revenue as Bidhannagar has emerged as an elite residential hub. This year, it has been decided that the government would make legal provisions for lease-transfer and collect revenue from these transactions.

The recent outpouring of concern around legalizing lease-transfers of property in Salt Lake City, is a potent cocktail of entrenched prejudice and false victimhood concocted and vouched for by a sizeable section of the Bengali urban middle class. It is being said quite openly that the original intention behind sealing up ecologically irreplaceable wetlands and turning them into residential plots was to enable members of the Bengali middle class to make their homes. Not going into the patently classist and racist connotation that gives to a public project like Bidhannagar, one thing is clear. Even if many Bengalis in Salt Lake City do transfer their leases to non-Bengalis (read Marwaris), we will see quite a few Bengali crorepatis emerging in the process. Neither will these Bengalis transfer lease under the kind of coercion many of their peasant brethren have faced over the last few years. In short, these would-be crorepati Bengalis are neither victims nor middle-class. Some will park their cash in Rajarhat, a new real-estate boomtown created during the previous regime largely by forcibly acquiring land from Bengali peasants, adding an ironic twist to this evicted Bengali victim story. What emerges from this is that the villainous Marwari is alive and well in many urban Bengali minds.

I know this mind well, for I too possessed it at one point. I daresay, like many Kolkata-bred Bengali children, I too grew up with a dangerous concoction of socially replicated prejudice and received wisdom. Utterly false binaries were created and perpetuated – the wily, slimy Marwari poaches upon the unsuspecting, honest Bengali so that our tragic hero loses his ancestral home, his financial status and advantageous social status vis-à-vis the baniya. The victimhood fiction masquerades as a definitive answer to a variety of questions – the decline of Bengali culture to the changing demographic compositions of certain Kolkata localities. 1943 famine is a key year in this narrative when many Marwaris who ran a significant portion of the disgraceful wartime grain-speculation racket did hoard food grains. While that is condemnable, the vicious racist edge to that is problematic. The middle class Bengalis do not harbour any visceral hate against the subinfeudatory (madhyasattwobhogi) class from which many of them come, which for decades slowly extracted the life blood out of the Bengali peasantry. While the Calcutta Marwari lobby is partly blamed (and rightly so) for scuttling the 1947 United Bengal scheme of Sarat Bose and Suhrawardy, and consequently for the partition of Bengal, the other staunch Bengali opposers of the scheme like the Congress High Command darling Bidhan Chandra Roy have gone on to become unblemished cult figures. To try to explain all misfortune by invoking ‘external conspiracies’ is a lazy route to absolve oneself of blame – a comfortable but ultimately self-destructive position.

There seems to exist a small but fashionable cottage industry that simultaneously laments the disappearing cosmopolitanism of Kolkata by documenting the present and past of its resident Armenian, Jewish and Chinese populations among others. Given that, it is also the right time to change the narrative about the Marwaris – a more numerous group that is constitutive of the famed Kolkata cosmopolitanism, or the shreds of it that remain.

The Marwaris have been part of the Bengal landscape from pre-British times. They were a conspicuous part of the entrepreneurial and industrial initiatives that was partly responsible in once making Kolkata the ‘greatest city between Aden and Singapore’. The philanthropic initiatives in Kolkata by the Marwari business houses are second to none. The dismal condition of the state’s apex health facility, the SSKM hospital does not do justice to its large Marwari benefactor Seth Sukhlal Karnani, who was also instrumental in bringing a precocious virtuoso from Kasur (near Lahore) to Kolkata, giving the world Lata Mangeshkar’s early idol, Noorjahan. Walk over to the Sambhunath Pandit Street and you will be standing in front of the only specialized Neurology institute in West Bengal, the Bangur Institute of Neurology. The Marwari House of Bangurs were also the donors behind setting up the Bangur Hospital near Tollygunge. Successive state governments could only manage to turn these great institutions of public good into dismal caricatures of their earlier selves. This closely parallels our best attempt at caricaturing Marwaris, by portraying them in films as slimy creatures who speak bad Bengali. Few of these Bengalis, including those who serve at the Bangur Institute of Neurology or who live in Bangur Avenue, know how to pronounce the name of the benefactor properly (‘Bangar’ and not ‘Bangoor’). The Marwari Hospital in North Kolkata is in shambles but does show the philanthropic imprint of this community on the city, especially on the public healthcare infrastructure.  That the Bengali ‘prince’ Dwarakanath Tagore (Rabindranath’s grandfather) was financed in his indigo ventures by Marwari trade houses of Sevaram Ramrikh Das and Tarachand Ghanshyam Das is conveniently forgotten.

When Bengali-origin people like Jhumpa Lahiri and Jaya Bhaduri, who were neither born in Bengal nor grew up here, achieve fame, we quickly feel proud to claim them as our own. Few Bengalis proudly own up in the same way people like Jagmohan Dalmiya and Bimal Jalan who were born and brought up in the city .For stalwarts like Lakshmipat Singhania and GD Birla, who made Kolkata their karmabhumi, this same sense of ‘owning’ is largely absent even though we do celebrate past Bengali entrepreneurs like Biren Mukherjee and even the semi-mythical Chad Showdagor! At a time when chit funds represent the pinnacle of Bengal based entrepreneurial skills, we forget the houses of Goenka, Birla, Oswal, Jalan, Dalmia and many others started their journey from this city. The community even got its ‘Marwari’ name from this city, a name that has become a self-identity tag. A friend of mine, from the Marwari Somani family of Kolkata, a PhD scholar in Economics at Harvard, found his match in a Kolkata Marwari family girl. This alliance between Kolkata Marwaris is very common and there is much more than locational convenience at play. There is a lot Kolkata about Kolkata Marwaris – something Bengalis find it hard to acknowledge, treating them as eternal outsiders.

At a time when subinfeudation was gasping for life, many literate middle class Bengalis landed in Burma for better opportunities. In part, Marwari trade networks in South-East Asia helped these Bengalis gain employment and remit money from Burma, the ‘Dubai’ of those days, back home to Bengal. Bengalis have arrived from the hinterland to Kolkata in batches. Some of these Johnny-come-latelys, with hardly a 50 year relationship with the city, still manage to lay a greater claim to Kolkata, of being more authentic ‘Calcatians’ vis-a-vis Marwaris. They also have arrogance of looking upon the Marwaris, who have century old residential connections with the city, as interlopers and outsiders.

Cosmopolitanism is better lived than remembered. Bengalis, whose lungi carry an unmistakably Burmese-Arakan influence, whose ‘authentic’ Malai-curry is derived from the Malay peninsula, ought to know better. An insular mediocre middle-class bengalism is surely no way to show love for Bengal.


Filed under Bengal, Community, History, Kolkata, Our underbellies

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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Filed under Americas, Class, Community, Diaspora

Subcontinental illusions of equal citizenship / Is everyone Indian (or Pakistani for that matter) / Imaginary homelands

[ The Friday Times, August 31-September 06, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 29 ; Globeistan, 7 September 2012 ]


August is the month of state-funded high patriotism in the subcontinent. In my childhood, ‘patriotic’ films would be shown in the state television channel. The ‘patriotic’ genre has continued, producing many films. Recently, Bedobroto Pain has made a film on the valiant rebellion that took place in Chittagong in 1930, led by ‘Masterda’ Shurjo Sen. This recent film is simply called ‘Chittagong’. A few years ago, there was another film on the same topic called ‘Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey’. The language in both cases is  Hindustani, except for some Firangi characters. And this set me thinking though August may not be the best month to think about these things.

Chittagong now falls under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Bangladesh and before that was under the jurisdiction of the government of pre-71 Pakistan. The Indian Union has never had jurisdiction over an inch of the soil over which large parts of the 1930 story is set. But, for a certain kind of audience that Bollywood caters to, this location and its people, can be mangled partially to make it palatable and understandable to a Hindustani understanding audience. The audience can also conceive, with some stretch of imagination, of some place called ‘Chittagong’ where people speak Hindustani as they fight the British. Of course, Shurjo Sen and his compatriots largely spoke Bengali and Chittagonian, but that is immaterial. What is important is, Shurjo Sen and Chittagong can be packaged, with some cinematographic skills, for a Hindustani audience. Not all things can be packaged like this. For example, to make a similar film in Hindustani on a story set on the life of  Chawngbawia, a legendary hero of the Mizo people or a romantic drama set in a Naga village with Naga characters, will be dismissed as absurd. From a linguistic point of view, Shurjo Sen talking to his comrades in Bollywood Hindustani is also absurd – but it can pass off, with some awkwardness. The Naga or the Mizo does not. So there is a geography that the Hindustani audience and Bollywood has in mind, of what is theirs, what is partly like theirs and what is very unlike theirs. Of course it does not say that aloud – but their conceptions need to be taken seriously. They apparently have their fingers on the pulse of the nation. In a significant sense, their target audience constitutes the nation. And they don’t target everyone living under the jurisdiction of the Indian Union.

One of the enduring myths that most nation-states serve the people inside its borders is a conception of equal citizenship. The Union of India does it with some pomp and pride. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan does it after ceding some space to a particular creed. It is this idea of equal citizenship, of the poor and rich, of the tall and the short, of the one-legged and the one-eyed, of the prince and the pimp, that nation-states point towards, when it claims, ‘we are all Indians’ or ‘we are all Pakistanis’. Equal citizenship is the foundational myth on which the castle of uniform nationality rests. And every copy of the constitution will tell you about equal citizenship. This formally flat legal terrain, like a blanket that cover all beings uniformly, with the edges forming the frontiers, is crucial. Those under the blanket need to be calm and believe in this uniformity. For unless one stays still, it is impossible to tie up the edges of the blanket into a sack, stitch it up tightly, and write on it in big letters ‘ the eternal and inviolable nation’. Now this uniform blanket is as real as the emperor’s new clothes. To understand what lies beneath, this blanket needs to be pulled off. Some people underneath it will try to hold it back, some will be surprised, and some will be happy that the charade this gone. Reactions to snatching of the blanket rather than the smug illusion of the warm, caring blanket reveal more about the folks underneath.

Since we cannot snatch the blanket, we have to resort to thought experiments to ascertain what epithets like ‘citizen of Indian Union’ or ‘citizen of Pakistan’ hide. I invite my readers to play a game. Let us start with the ‘citizen of India’. Such a soul is, whether he or she likes it or not, an ‘Indian’. And nation-state narratives would like us to believe that this ‘Indian-ness’ is some kind of a colour that paints us uniformly, making people uniformly Indian. Is it so? So here is the experiment. Rather than asking ‘Who is Indian’, we shall ask, ‘How likely is a citizen of the Indian Union to be anti-India or  secessionist?’. Let me now throw some names – a Mizo from Aizawl, a Hindu Rajput from Jaipur, someone from Himachal Pradesh, a Meitei from Imphal, a Bihari Brahmin from Patna, a Vanniyar Tamil from Chennai, a Hindu baniya from Baroda, a Brahmin from Kanauj, Uttar Pradesh. This list will suffice. These epithets are combinations of caste, creed and ethnicity. They refer to huge groups of people, not any particular individual. Now rearrange this list from most likely to least likely to be anti-India or secessionist. I do not need your answer. But think about it. Ask the question ‘How likely is a citizen of the Indian Union to be anti-India or secessionist?’ to each of these descriptors. Some of them will be very unlikely – it will be absurd to think of a member of that group to be a secessionist. The exact order is immaterial, but there is a pattern to this answer to which will have a broad agreement. This scale, from the absurd to the probable, measures how much we still disbelief the idea of equal citizenship, even after 65 years of constant preaching. This really is an exercise in inversing the idea of citizenship to lay bare what lies beneath the velvet blanket of the nation-state. But more importantly, that this exercise can be done at all, tells us that some kinds citizens of the Indian Union are deemed more or less ‘Indian’ than others, even as faceless groups. Even as faceless groups, some of them have nothing to prove vis-à-vis ‘Indian-ness’ and are beyond suspicion just by the accident of birth. Others have to ‘prove’ it and are not above suspicion irrespective of life trajectories. This is what such a group ranking tells us. There are tacit grades of citizenship, tacit grades of loyalty, tacit grades of ‘Indian-ness’ and the constitution reflect none of this. Apparently, all ‘Indians’ constituted it.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan can also be involved in a game of being ‘Pakistani’ by asking ‘How likely is a citizen of Pakistan to be anti-Pakistan or secessionist’. Here is a list – a Baloch from Dera Bugti, a Sindhi from Ratodero, a Seraiki from Dera Ghazi Khan, a Muslim Jat from Lahore, a 3rd generation Dakkani mohajir from Karachi, a Hindu from Tharparkar. Again, the specific order does not matter, but the broad agreement in the order gives away who constitutes the deep state, the core state, the first people, the troublesome people and the unwanted people.

Standing under the mehr-e-nimroz are the chosen people. The others jostle for space – in the umbra, pnumbra and the antumbra, in the Indian Union, in Pakistan, in every unitary nation-state that cannot come to terms with the fact that peoples pre-date nation-states and will outdate them too. To keep up the pretense of the uniform citizenship, nations use diverse mascots – as prime ministers, chief justices and what not. The question really is not who they are but are they legitimate representatives of diverse peoples. The mascots are hardly so and that gives away the game – and though they are held aloft during the game, they are not really players. If one listens to the real players on the field, the code in which the main players talk to each other, codes that are not to be found in the formal rulebook, then the unitary nature of the  ‘team’ cracks. Inspite of their irrelevance, the mascots are well chosen. In an interview aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1996, journalist Andrew Marr asked Noam Chomsky during an exchange on Chomsky’s views on media distortion of truth, how could Chomsky know for sure that he, a journalist, was self-censoring. Chomsky replied “I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” And that is true for this mascots – they may come in different colours, shapes, sizes, tongues and faiths, but unless they shared and deferred to the implicit pecking order of the deep-state, they would not be sitting where they are sitting. Caged birds are no less colourful. For they can be Bengali, or Tamil, but when in the Highest office, they have to wear that unmistakable achkan. Surrounded by the ardali whose get-up is alien to Tamil Nadu and Bengal, it gives a hint of that code of propriety in the sanctum sanctorum, a code that is unmistakably Ganga-Jamni. But the Jamuna covers only a small part of the Union of India. And for Pakistan, the presidential high-couture has to be imported. The Republic of Hindi and the Republic of Urdu together rule the subcontinent. The late George Gilbert Swell in a sterling speech in the parliament of the Indian Union talked about his people, who were not part of any Hindu-Muslim bind but for whom beef was a food as good as any other. He talked about the cow-belt and the non-cow belt. He was saying this in a House that is run by a constitution that encourages the state to take necessary steps to single out cows for protection. Whose principles are these? Clearly not Swell’s or his people’s. All the eloquence about ‘unity in diversity’ notwithstanding, some of the diverse are necessarily silenced, and the list of the silenced is predictable. It is predictable due to the public knowledge of the ‘archetypal’ Indian, the same knowledge that helps one play the rank order game I introduced. This is why somebody’s local ideology has to be repackaged under the garb of some supposedly universal principle, so that the tacit definition of the archetype remains tacit. This tacit ‘Indian’ is at the heart of the nation-building project, the archetype to which all types must dissolve. One must never spell out the archetype – that is too discourteous and direct. The ‘traitor’ or the ‘potentially treacherous’ is also the ‘exotic’ and easily ‘the feminine sexual’ in the imagination of the core nation. For the core nation, except itself , everyone else has a box–  Tamils wear dhotis, Malayalis wear lungis, Bengalees eat fish. The core nation does not have caricatures – it is the default. It is what male athletes wear on their head in the Olympic march-past.

The perverse scale of absurdity that I floated earlier also leads us to foundational myths around which nation-states are formed. They go Bin Kassim – Khilji –Mughal – darkness –Muslim League- 14th August or Vedas-Ashoka-Akbar-darkness-Congress-15th August. The gulf between arbitrariness and  ‘historical inevitability’ is filled up with sarkari textbooks and besarkari subtexts. Why is such concoction necessary ?  For whom? Who does it serve? The archives have keys for open doors, not for trapdoors. People of the subcontinent have to find their own destinies, by freeing themselves of ‘national’ myths. They need to think about the unsettling possibilities of truth if it had a megaphone as loud and powerful as power.

Somewhere in this scale of Indian-ness or Pakistani-ness, is the sarkari potential of making tighter nations, and the bleak hope that some foster of unmaking them as they are. Intimately connected to this conception of the ‘Indian’ (or not) is the ‘idea of India’. Depending on who you are in the scale of imaginary troublesomeness, it can be a bloody idea or a bloody good idea.

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Filed under Community, Foundational myths, Hindustan, History, Identity, India, Nation, Non-barbarians, Pakistan, Plural pasts, Polity, Rights

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.


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