Category Archives: Democracy

Why the Tamil struggle for Jallikattu is historic

[ Firstpost, 19 Jan 2017]

jallikattu-poster

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?

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আমাদের সংস্কৃতি, আমাদের দেশ, এবং আমাদের সংগ্রামে আজ অবধি গড়ে তোলা যা যা আছে

জুলাই মাসের প্রথম দিকটি মণিপুরের ইম্ফল এলাকায় চলল টানা গণ-আন্দোলন। গণ-আন্দোলনের প্রত্যুত্তরে ভারতে রাষ্ট্র-যন্ত্র মণিপুর বা কাশ্মীর গোছের এলাকায় যা করতে অভ্যস্ত, তাই করলো। অর্থাৎ কারফিউ জারি করলো, নিরস্ত্র আন্দোলনকারীদের সশস্ত্র রাষ্ট্র-শক্তি বেধড়ক মার দিলো দিনের পর দিন, একজন তরুণ আন্দোলনকারী যার নাম রবিনহুড, তাকে গুলি করে পুলিশ হত্যাও করলো। মণিপুরের এই আন্দোলনের একদম সামনের সারিতে রয়েছে হাজার হাজার রাজনৈতিক চেতনা-সম্পন্ন স্কুল ছাত্র-ছাত্রী। তারা পুলিশের মার খেয়েও নিজেদের জাতির ও সংস্কৃতির অস্তিত্ব-রক্ষার দাবি, অর্থাৎ ‘ইনার লাইন পারমিট’ প্রচলনের দাবি নিয়ে আন্দোলন চালিয়ে যাচ্ছে। যখন ‘ইন্ডিয়া’র ‘কুল ও ট্রেন্ডি’ টিনেজারেরা তাদের ‘এস্পিরেসনাল’ বাপ-মায়ের সুশিক্ষায় ‘পার্সোনাল স্পেইস’, ‘টিম ইন্ডিয়া’ এবং মল-মাল্টিপ্লেক্সে বিভোর থেকে তাদের সমাজ-সচেতনতার পরিচয় দিচ্ছে, ঠিক তখুনই তাদের মণিপুরী ভাই-বোনেরা জানান দিচ্ছে যে তারা অন্য ধাতু দিয়ে গড়া। মণিপুরী কিশোর-সমাজের এই রাজনৈতিক ভাবে পরিপক্ক ও বিস্ফোরক আন্দোলন নিয়ে আমাদের কিসুই আসে যায় না কারণ, এক, মণিপুরে যে কিছু ঘটছে, সেটাই আমাদের ভাবনার মধ্যে নেই, দুই, ‘ইনার লাইন পারমিট’ জিনিসটি কি, তা আমরা জানিনা, তিন, এতে ভারতীয়ত্বের কোন নামগন্ধ নেই, তেরঙ্গা দ্বিচারিতাও নেই, মোমবাতি নেই, সেলফি তোলার সুযোগ নেই। অতয়েব আমরা এতে নেই। তবু একটু খোঁজ নেওয়াই যাক না, কেসটা কি।  কারণ স্কুল-ছাত্র রবিনহুডকে খুন করা হলো যে ‘আইনরক্ষা’র নাম, সে আইন তো আমার-আপনার সম্মতিতে তৈরী বলেই বৈধতা দাবি করে।

ইনার লাইন পারমিট বা আই.এল.পি হলো অরুণাচল প্রদেশ, নাগাল্যান্ড (ডিমাপুর বাদে) এবং মিজোরামে ঢোকার জন্য এইসব এলাকার বাইরের ভারতীয় নাগরিকদের জন্য আবশ্যিক একটি সরকারী ছাড়পত্র। এই আন্দোলন মণিপুরেও আই.এল.পি প্রবর্তনের দাবিতে, যার নেতৃত্বে রয়েছে জয়েন্ট  কমিটি অন আই.এল.পি সিস্টেম নামক দোল-নিরপেক্ষ নাগরিক-রাজনৈতিক জোট। আজকে যে অঞ্চল ‘উত্তর-পূর্ব্ব’ নামে পরিচিত, উনবিংশ শতাব্দীর দ্বিতীয় ভাগে ফিরিঙ্গিরা এই এলাকার স্বাধীন রাজ্যগুলিকে দখল করছিল এবং তাদের তৈরী ইন্ডিয়া-র মধ্যে সেগুলিকে জুড়ে দিচ্ছিল নানা অসৎ উছিলায়। যেহেতু এই এলাকায় স্বাধীন অসম-কে দখল করে  সেখানে চা সমেত নানা ব্যবসা শুরু করলো ফিরিঙ্গিরা, তাদের এই ধান্দাকে সুরক্ষিত করতে তারা আনলো আই.এল.পি।  এর ফলে অসমকে ঘিরে থাকা এলাকার (অর্থাৎ আজকের অরুণাচল প্রদেশ, নাগাল্যান্ড ও মিজোরাম) মধ্যে বাইরের কেউ শুধু অনুমতি সাপেক্ষে ঢুকতে পারতো। ওই এলাকার মানুষজন মোটামুটি স্বায়ত্ত-শাসন-ই চালাত ( যা ছিল বাংলা বা বিহারের মতো সোজাসুজি ভাবে ফিরিঙ্গি-শাসিত এলাকায় কল্পনাতীত), দিল্লী বা লন্ডনের নাক গলানো ছিল নগন্য। বদলে ওই এলাকার রাজ্য তথা জন-গোষ্ঠীগুলিও অসমে ঢুকে পড়ত না এবং ফিরিঙ্গি সরকারের জন্য নিরাপত্তা খাতে খরচা ও মাথাব্যথা কমে গেছিল।  এর ফলে অসমে অর্থনৈতিক মুনাফা প্রকল্পে ফিরিঙ্গিরা সম্পূর্ণ মনোনিবেশ করতে পেরেছিল। এই এলাকারগুলির ‘স্বরাজ’ অবলুপ্ত হলো ১৯৪৭-এ দিল্লী-রাজ শুরু হবার পর থেকে। ১৯৪৯-এ মণিপুরের অনির্বাচিত মহারাজা-কে শিলং-এ গৃহ-বন্দী করে, ভারতীয় বাহিনীর কুচকাওয়াজের মাধ্যমে ভীতি প্রদর্শন করিয়ে ভারতের মধ্যে মনিপুর-কে জুড়ে দেবার চুক্তিপত্রে একপ্রকার তার পূর্ণ সম্মতি ছাড়াই সই আদায় করা হয়। অথচ এই সময়ে মণিপুরে জনগণের দ্বারা অবাধ গণতান্ত্রিক পদ্ধতিতে নির্বাচিত একটি সার্বভৌম সরকার বর্তমান ছিল, যারা কিনা সম্পূর্ণ-ভাবে মনিপুরের আলাদা অস্তিত্ব বজায় রাখার পক্ষপাতি ছিল। সেই  নির্বাচনে ভারত-পন্থী কংগ্রেসীরা লড়েছিল কিন্তু সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠতা পায়নি। প্রজা শান্তি দলের নেতৃত্বে, কংগ্রেসকে পর্যদুস্ত করে গড়ে উঠেছিল সেই মণিপুর সরকার – মহারাজা ছিল স্রেফ আনুষ্ঠানিক প্রধান।যেহেতু নেহরুর ভারত ছিল প্রবলভাবে গণতান্ত্রিক, তাই তারা মনিপুরকে জুড়ে নেবার সাথেই সাথেই মনিপুর-বাসীদের নির্বাচিত নিজস্ব সরকারকে বরখাস্ত করে দেয় ! আফ্স্পার মাধ্যমে মিলিটারি শাসনের প্রেক্ষাপটে ভারতীয় পৃষ্ঠপোষকতায় গড়ে ওঠা এই নয়া গনত্রন্ত্র এগিয়ে চলেছে অপ্রতিরোধ্য গতিতে, ‘এনকাউন্টার’ খুনের নিরালা পরিবেশে খাকি উর্দির কঠিন নজরদারিতে।

মণিপুরে আগে থেকে আই.এল.পি নেই কারণ এই রাজ্য কখুনো ফিরিঙ্গী শাসনাধীন ছিল না। যে সময়ে ফিরিঙ্গিরা এই এলাকায় তাদের দখলদারি ও শাসন বাড়িয়ে তুলছিল, মণিপুরের  সার্বভৌম মহারাজারা ছলে-বলে-কৌশলে ফিরিঙ্গিদের ‘ইন্ডিয়া’ উপনিবেশ থেকে নিজেদের আলাদা করে রাখতে পেরেছিল, পেরেছিল নিজেদের বহু-শতাব্দীর রাজনৈতিক স্বাতন্ত্র। মনিপুরীদের নিজভুমে বাইরের কে প্রবেশ করবে-না করবে, এটা ঠিক করার প্রায় নিরঙ্কুশ অধিকার-ও ছিল মনিপুরি-দের। ফলে মনিপুরের জন-গোষ্ঠীগুলোর ক্ষমতাগত ও সাংস্কৃতিক অস্তিত্বগুলিও মুছে যায়নি। কিন্তু ১৯৪৯-এ ইন্ডিয়া-তে জুড়ে যাওয়ার ফলে, মণিপুরীদের এই বাইরের লোকের ঢোকাকে নিয়ন্ত্রণ করার স্বাধিকার আর রইলো না। তাই এই আই.এল.পি প্রবর্তনের দাবীর মূলে আছে মনিপুরের নিজস্ব জনগষ্ঠিগুলির নিজেদের পারম্পরিক আবাদভুমি তথা জন্মভূমিকে নিজেদের জন্য রক্ষা করার স্বাভাবিক বাসনা। তার কারণ, ইন্ডিয়ার মধ্যে বিলয়ের ফলে বাইরে থেকে আসা বিশাল সংখ্যক মানুষের ভিড়ে নিজভূমে পরবাসী হয়ে যাবার আশঙ্কাটা একদমই অমূলক নয়। উত্তর প্রদেশের জনসংখ্যা মণিপুরের থেকে ৭৫ গুণ বেশি। ইতিমধ্যেই ইম্ফল উপত্যকায় মণিপুরী ও বহিরাগতের সংখ্যা প্রায় কাছাকাছি হয়ে দাঁড়িয়েছে। কিন্তু কাশ্মীর থেকে কন্যা-কুমারী, আমরা সকলে ভারতীয়, এই বহুল-প্রচারিত স্লোগানটা কি সত্যি নয়? আমরা সকলে এক জাতীয় হই বা না হই, যেটা একদম নিশ্চিত সেটা হলে যে আমরা সকলে একই রাষ্ট্রে সহ-নাগরিক। নতুন দিল্লীর কিশোর-যুব সমাজের যেমন নিরাপদ-ভাবে নির্ভয়ে জীবন কাটানোর স্বাধীনতা আছে,  মণিপুরী কিশোর-যুবসমাজের একই-রকম স্বাধীনতা নেই। কেন তাদের সে স্বাধীনতা নেই, তা নিয়ে তুলনামূলক আলোচনা করলে ভারতীয় রাষ্ট্রের চরিত্র সম্বন্ধে কিছু অপ্রিয় সত্যপ্রকাশ অনিবার্য হয়ে উঠবে।  ওদিকে না যাওয়াই ভালো। পাঠকদের শুধু এটা লক্ষ্য করতে বলি যে দেখবেন ভারতের ‘জাতীয়’ মিডিয়া দিল্লীতে মনিপুরি যুবদের উপর হয়রানির ঘটনা নিয়ে যতটা প্রচার করে,আসল মনিপুরের মণিপুরী যুবসমাজদের জীবনের  দৈনিক ত্রাস ও লাঞ্চনাকে নিয়ে তার সিকিভাগ-ও করে না। করা সম্ভব না। দোকান বন্ধ হয়ে যাবে।

সাম্প্রতিক অতীতেও নিজভূম নিয়ে ব্যাপক অর্থে স্বতন্ত্র ছিল, এমন জাতি-গোষ্ঠীর পক্ষে হঠাত করে কোন বৃহত্তর ব্যবস্থার মধ্যে ‘ক্ষুদ্র’ স্থান পাওয়া বা নিজভূমে সংখ্যালঘুতে পরিণত হওয়াকে খুব সহজ-ভাবে নেওয়া সম্ভব না।  এমনটাই স্বাভাবিক। ভারত-রাষ্ট্রের মধ্যে নানা জাতীয়তার মধ্যে বহিরাগত জনস্রোতের ফলে নিজভূমে সংখ্যালঘু হয়ে পড়ার বাস্তব উদ্বেগ-কে ভারতের সংবিধান সাধারনতঃ কোন স্বীকৃতি দেয় না। কিন্তু তাই বলে উদ্বেগ-গুলি উবে যায় না, বিশেষতঃ যখন কাশ্মীর  থেকে কন্যাকুমারী অবধি বিস্তীর্ণ ভূখন্ডের বিভিন্ন এলাকায় মধ্যে অর্থনৈতিক অবস্থা, কাজের সুযোগ, জনসংখ্যা বৃদ্ধির হার ইত্যাদি বিশাল তারতম্য আছে। অন্গামী জাফু ফিজো, প্রবাদ-প্রতিম নাগা জননেতা, ১৯৫১তে বৃহৎ জনসংখ্যার রাষ্ট্র ভারতের মধ্যে নাগাদের নিজস্ব আবাদ-ভূমির সন্ত্রস্ত অবস্থার প্রসঙ্গে বলেছিলেন ,’আমরা খুব সহজেই ডুবে যেতে পারি, হারিয়ে যেতে পারি : আমাদের সংস্কৃতি, আমাদের সভ্যতা, আমাদের প্রতিষ্ঠান, আমাদের দেশ, এবং আমাদের সংগ্রামে আজ অবধি গড়ে তোলা যা যা আছে, সব ধ্বংস হয়ে যাবে এবং তাতে মানবসমাজের সামান্যতম উপকার-ও হবে না’। কেউ নিজেদের পারম্পরিক আবাদভূমিতে প্রান্তিক হয়ে উঠতে চায় না। আজ বৃহৎ জাতীয়তার সামনে  ক্ষুদ্র জাতীয়তার ক্রমশঃ বিলীন হয়ে যাবার সংকটময় সময়ে  হয়তো কোথাও ফিজোর ঘোষণায় নিহিত বহুত্ববাদী ধারণা, অর্থাৎ সকল জাতীয়তার ও জাতি-গোষ্টির নিজ এলাকায় নিজেদের মত বাঁচার অধিকার নিয়ে আরো গভীরভাবে চিন্তা করার দরকার আছে। বাংলায় বা তামিলনাডুতে কি যথাক্রমে বাঙ্গালীরা বা তামিলরা সংখ্যালঘু হয়ে যাবার কথা কল্পনাতেও আনতে পারে? তা কি কখুনো মঙ্গলময় হতে পারে? এমন যদি কখুনো ঘটে, তার প্রতিক্রিয়ায় কি ধরনের শক্তির উন্মেষ ঘটবে, আমাদের কোন ধারণা আছে ? কোন জাতি-কে এমন ভাবে কোণঠাসা করা অনুচিত। তাই মণিপুরে আই.এল.পি দাবি এক ন্যায্য দাবী।

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উবার চড়ে যাচ্ছি কোথায়?

খুব বেশিদিন আগের কথা বলছি না, কলকাতায় একটা সময় ছিল যখন গাড়ি চড়ে কোথাও যাবার মানে ছিল হয় প্রাইভেট গাড়ি বা টেক্সী। কিন্তু স্মার্টফোন ভিত্তিক আপ-এর দৌলতে ২৮ ঘন্টা  তত্ক্ষণিক ভাড়া গাড়ি বুকিং ব্যবস্থা ভারতের কিছু কিছু শহরের এক বিপুলভাবে জনপ্রিয় হয়ে উঠেছে। উবার বা ওলা গোছের কোম্পানিগুলি এখানে খুবই ভালো ব্যবসা করছে।  এছাড়া তাদের জোরদার বিজ্ঞাপনের ফলে তাদের নাম ছড়িয়েছে যথেষ্ট। আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশের পশ্চিমাংশে  তাদের এমনই রমরমা ব্যবসা যে উবার কোম্পানি জানিয়েছে যে মার্কিন কলকাতাই তাদের  বাড়তে থাকা বাজার এবং তাদের এই বৃদ্ধির হার তাদের লন্ডনের ব্যবসার চেয়েও বেশি। ভারতে  কলকাতার পরে তাদের সবচেয়ে দ্রুত গতিতে বাড়তে থাকা বাজার হলো মুম্বইর। এই ধরনের পরিষেবা বিশ্বের অনেক জায়গাতেই চিরাচরিত লাইসেন্স প্রাপ্ত টেক্সী ব্যবসার লাভের গুড়ে থাবা বসিয়েছে। সেটা এখানকার ক্ষেত্রেও সত্যি। ফ্রান্স থেকে দক্ষিন আফ্রিকা, নানা জায়গায় ট্যাক্সি চালক তথা মালিক ইউনীয়ন্গুলি উবারের ব্যবসা পদ্ধতিকে অনৈতিক ও বে-আইনি বলে প্রতিবাদ জানিয়েছে – যে ধরনের সরকারী নজরদারির স্বীকার সাধারণ তেক্সীরা, বা যতরকমের কর তাদের দিতে হয়, তার ফলেই উবারদের সাথে তারা প্রতিযোগিতায় পিছিয়ে পড়ছে। উদাহরণ স্বরূপ, টেক্সী না যেতে চাইলে আইনে জরিমানার ব্যবস্থা আছে, উবারদের ক্ষেত্রে এমন কোন আইন-ই নেই। সাধারণ টেক্সীগুলি বেসরকারী মালিকানাধীন হলেও সে ব্যবসা বেশ ভালো পরিমানে সরকারী নিয়ন্ত্রনের আওতায়।  টেক্সী ভাড়ার তালিকাও সরকারের সাথে বোঝাপড়া করে ঠিক হয়। উবার-ওলারা তাদের রেট্ ঠিক করে ও বদলে নিজেদের ব্যবসা মাফিক, নানারকম ছাড় ও অন্যান্য বিপণন-ফন্দিরও তারা সাহায্য নিয়ে থাকে, যা সাধারণ টেক্সী আইনত পারে না।

এই ভাবে যখন কোথাও এক ধরনের ব্যক্তিগত ব্যবহারের জন্য বেসরকারী পরিবহণ ব্যবসার একটা রেকর্ড প্রসার ঘটে, তখন সেই জায়গার গণ-পরিবহণের অবস্থা ও মান সম্পর্কে প্রশ্ন মনে চলেই আসে। তাই ভারতের প্রধান শহরগুলির গণপরিবহনের মান বিশ্বের নিরিখে দেখে নেওয়া যাক। ‘ফিউচার অফ আর্বান মোটিলিটি ২.০’ নামের বিশদ একটি জরিপ-ভিত্তিক গবেষণার ফল সম্প্রতি প্রকাশিত হয়। এই জরিপ রিপোর্ট-টি প্রনিধানযোগ্য কারণ এতে বাজার-আদর্শ ও শ্বেতাঙ্গ-বিশ্ব ‘প্রগতি’ ও ‘উন্নয়ন’ বলতে যা বোঝায় (মূলতঃ চওড়া রাস্তা ধরে হুস-হুস করে যাওয়া রাশি রাশি সমাজ-বিছিন্ন প্রাইভেট গাড়ি) , তার কিছুটা বাইরে গিয়েও গণপরিবহনের মানের একটা মানাঙ্ক কষা হয়েছে বেশ কিছু গুরুত্বপূর্ণ ফ্যাক্টরকে মাথায় রেখে। এই সব ফ্যাক্টরের কয়েকটি হলো – মোট যাত্রা-সংখ্যার মধ্যে গণপরিবহনের সাহায্যে করা যাত্রার হিস্যা, স্মার্ট কার্ডের ব্যবহার, রাস্তার ঘনত্ব, গণপরিবহনের বৈচিত্র এবং সেগুলি কত সময় অন্তর অন্তর আসে, সরকারী পরিবহণ ব্যবস্থার ক্ষেত্রে নেওয়া উদ্যোগ, ইত্যাদি। সারা বিশ্বের ৮৪টি বৃহৎ শহরে এই নিয়ে গবেষণা ও জরিপ চালানো হয়।  তার থেকে পাওয়া ফলগুলি এইরকম। ভারতে দ্বিতীয় স্থানাধিকারী মুম্বই-এর হাল মার্কিন রাজধানী ওয়াশিংটন ডিসি-র চেয়ে সামান্য ভালো, লস এঞ্জেলেস পিছিয়ে আছে চেন্নাই-এর থেকে। অনেকের ধারনায় ভারতে ‘উন্নত’ দিল্লির হাল এই বহুমাত্রিক গণমুখী ফ্যাক্টরগুলির নিরিখে বেশ খারাপ – সেটির স্থান ৮৪টি শহরের মধ্যে শেষের দিক থেকে ৫ম। কলকাতা হলো ভারতের মধ্যে শ্রেষ্ঠ – ৮৪র মধ্যে তার স্থান ৩১, যার মানে আমরা নিউ ইয়র্ক, মন্ট্রিয়ল, টরন্টো ও সিডনির থেকে এগিয়ে আছি। জনসংখ্যার অনুপাতে ব্যক্তিগত গাড়ি মালিকানার হার ভারতের মেট্রো শহরগুলির মধ্যে কলকাতায় সবচেয়ে কম। পয়লা স্থান অধিকার করে হংকং। প্রসঙ্গত এই পরিমাপে ঢাকার রেঙ্ক করাচীর থেকে খারাপ কিন্তু বেঙ্গালুরু বা ওসাকা বা মায়ামির থেকে ভালো। এই রেঙ্কগুলি আমাদের যদি অবিশ্বাস্য লাগে, তার থেকে এই বোঝা যায় যে দুনিয়ায় উন্নয়ন ও প্রগতির জনবিরোধী হেজিমনিক ধারণা আমাদের কল্পনা ও ইপ্সাকে কতটা গুলিয়ে দিয়েছে যার ফলে আমরা সামনে ঘটমান বাস্তবকে দেখেও দেখি না, হাঁ করে অন্যত্র তাকাই। মাথার মধ্যে ভালো-খারাপ-গণমুখী-জনবিরোধী এইসব ব্যাপারগুলি কেমন গুলিয়ে মিলিয়ে দিয়েছে বাজার ও ক্ষমতার যুগলবন্দীতে তৈরী আমাদের এই ‘কমনসেন্স’। আর কলকাতা ও মুম্বই-এর তুলনামূলক ভালো স্থানের কারণে এরই রহস্যময় ও বেমানান লাগে সেই প্রাথমিক তথ্যটি – যে ভারতে উবার যে ধরনের  ব্যক্তিগত পরিবহণ ব্যবসা করে খায়, তাতে তারা সবচেয়ে সফল ঠিক এই কলকাতা ও মুম্বই-তেই।  আসলে ঘটছে তা কি? আমার কিছু আন্দাজ আছে।  আর সেই আন্দাজের হাত ধরে মনে আসে কিছু আশঙ্কা।

ভারতের শহরগুলির প্রায় সবকটিই অতি বিভক্ত শহর – বিভক্ত শ্রেণী, জাত ও অন্যান্য নানা ফেক্টর দ্বারা। আমরা এলিট বলতে বুঝি টাটা-বিড়লা।  আর বাকি সকলেই নিজেদের মনে করে মধ্যবিত্ত – অথচ এই মধ্যবিত্ত প্রায় কিছুতেই কোন কিছুর মধ্যস্থান অধিকার করে না – অর্থ-সামাজিক ভাবে তো নয়-ই। এই উপমহাদেশে এই গোষ্ঠিকে তুলনামূলক-ভাবে কম এলিট বলা যেতে পারে, কিন্তু এলিট তারা বটেই।  এই গোষ্ঠির নিজের গাড়িতে চেপে সবসময় সবজায়গায় যাবার সামর্থ্য নেই, যার ফলে তাদের অনেক ক্ষেত্রেই না চাইলেও অগত্যা গণ-পরিবহণের শরণাপন্ন হতে হয়। তাদের জীবনের এই অংশটি তাদের খরুচে ‘ট্রেন্ডি’ জীবনযাত্রার সাথে খাপ খায় না। গণপরিবহনে তাদেরকে এমন সমস্ত মানুষজনের পাশে বসতে হয়, এমন সমস্ত মানুষের গায়ের গন্ধ ঘামের গন্ধ নাকে আসে, ভিড়ের মান্ঝে এমন মানুষের থেকে ঠেলা ও গুঁতো খেতে হয়, নিজে দাঁড়ানো অবস্থায় এমন সব মানুষকে বসা অবস্থায় দেখতে হয়, যাদের কিনা তারা তাদের জীবনের অন্য সকল অঙ্গন থেকে নির্বাসিত করেছে সফলভাবে – নানা ধরনের প্রকাশ্য বা ছদ্ম ভৃত্য ভূমিকা ছাড়া। উবার-ওলার সাফল্যকে এই আঙ্গিকে দেখা প্রয়োজন। প্রথমতঃ।এর ফলে ‘পাবলিক’ থেকে নিজেকে স্থানিক-ভাবে আলাদা করা যায় – অর্থাৎ একই জায়গায় বসে যাতাওয়াত করতে হয় না, একই যানের মধ্যে বসে। দ্বিতীয়তঃ, পাবলিকের থেকে কালিক ভাবেই আলাদা হওয়া যায় – তাদের ২৪ ঘন্টা তত্পর পরিষেবার কারণে। অর্থাৎ সাধারণ মানুষ যে সময় গনপ্রবহনের অপ্রতুলতার জন্য বেশি ঘোরাফেরা করতে পারে না, যেমন ধরা যাক গভীর রাত, এই শ্রেণী সেই সময়গুলিকে কেন্দ্র করে নিজেদের জীবনধারা সাজিয়ে নেয়। সমাজের কিছু পাত্র-পাত্রীর মধ্যে জনসাধারণের থেকে নিজেদের আলাদা করে স্থান-কালের মালিকানা নেবার যে মানসিক ইপ্সা, উবার-ওলারা সেই বৈকল্যের ইচ্ছা-নদীতে সাঁকোর কাজ করে।  তার উপর দিয়ে আমাদের মত কিছু মনুষ তরতরিয়ে চলে যায় ইপ্সিত ওপারে, ধরা-ছোঁয়ার বাইরে, সুরক্ষিত ভাবে। বৈষ্ণবঘাটা-পাটুলি থেকে লেটনাইট পার্টি করে হিন্দুস্থান পার্কে ফেরত আশা হয়ে যায় জলভাত। শহরেরএলিটদের  জীবনে কিছু নতুন স্রোতের জন্ম হয়। কে কোথায় কখন কি ভাবে আসছে-যাচ্ছে, তাতে কারোর কিছু এসে যেত না, যদি না এই অর্থ-সমাজিক গোষ্টির প্রভাব ও প্রতিপত্তি তাদের সংখ্যার তুলনায় দৃষ্টিকটু ভাবে অনেক বেশি না হতো। কিন্তু বাস্তবে, তাদের উদ্বেগকে পাত্তা দেওয়া, তাদের সুরক্ষাকে সিরিয়াসলি নেওয়া, তাদের ইছাগুলিকে প্রশমিত করা হয়ে ওঠে  নগরের সরকারী ও বেসরকারী অধিপতিদের প্রথম কর্তব্য – কারণ যে মাছের মুড়ো এরা. তারই পেটি হলো উবার-ওলা শ্রেণী।  সংবাদমাধ্যমের বড় অংশও এই ক্ষুদ্র অংশের উদ্বেগ-সুরক্ষা ইত্যাদিকে এমন ভাবে ফুলিয়ে ফাঁপিয়ে একটা ‘গণ’ চরিত্র দেবার চেষ্টা করে যে মনে হতেই পারে যে আমরা ইতিমধ্যেই একটি আর্থ-সামাজিক বৈষম্যহীন মিডিল ইনকাম সমাজে পরিণত হয়েছি।

এর একটি কুফল দেখা গেছে সম্প্রতি।  যখন ভারতে রাস্তা-ঘাটে নারী নিরাপত্তার মত একটি গুরুত্তপূর্ণ বিষয় নিয়ে বেশ একটা জনমত তৈরী তৈরী হচ্ছিল, উবারের একজন চালক দ্বারা এক মহিলা যাত্রীর ধর্ষিত হবার ফলে নারী নিরাপত্তা সংক্রান্ত পুরো বিষয়টি এই প্রতাপশালী গোষ্টির উদ্বেগের জোরে পর্যবসিত হলো উবার গাড়ির নিষিদ্ধকরণ ও উবার চালকদের নিয়োগের আগে পূর্ব অপরাধ বিষয়ক খোজখবর নেওয়া গুরুত্ব ইত্যাদিতে। ভারতে, নারীদের এক বিপুলভাবে সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ অংশের কাছে  ভাড়া করা বা নিজ মালিকানাধীন গাড়িতে একা চলাফেরার সুবিধে-বিপদ সংক্রান্ত যে আলোচনা, তা একদমই অপ্রাসঙ্গিক কারণে তাদের জীবনের বাস্তবতার সাথে এর কোন সম্পর্কই নেই। অথচ ‘নারী নিরাপত্তার’ মোড়কে মিডিয়ায়ে আদতে চলল এলিট নারীদের নিরাপত্তার পুঙ্খানুপুন্ক্ষ আলোচনা।

যখনই সমাজের ক্ষমতাধারী ও গনপরিসরে-কি-আলোচিত-হবে-তা-নির্ণয়কারী গোষ্ঠীগুলি সর্বসাধারণের জন্য তৈরী পরিষেবাগুলি থেকে নিজেদের গুটিয়ে নেয়, তখন সেই সেই পরিষেবার মান নিম্নগামী হয়। কারণ পরিষেবাগুলি থেকে নিজেদের গুটিয়ে নিলেও সেই পরিসেবা চালনা সংক্রান্ত সকল ক্ষমতা এই গোষ্ঠীই কুক্ষিগত করে রাখে। তখন এদের নির্দেশে-উপদেশে সরকার যা করে তা হলো অপেক্ষাকৃত গণতান্ত্রিক ভাবে বন্টিত গণপরিষেবা থেকে অর্থ শুষে বার করে তারা ঢুকিয়ে দেয় এমন সব পরিষেবায় যা আপাত ভাবে সর্বসাধারণের জন্যে হলেও বাস্তবে কাজে লাগে মূলতঃ এলিট শ্রেনীর-ই। পূর্ব্বে উন্নত মানের এবং নির্ভরযোগ্য সংস্থা যেমন বৃহৎ সরকারী হাসপাতাল বা সরকারী ইস্কুল এই গোত্রে পড়ে। এলিট শ্রেণী এক-কালে এসব জায়গায় যেতো।  তারপর যখন তারা সরকারী ভর্তুকি ব্যবহার করে নিয়ম বদলিয়ে বেসরকারী পুঁজি দিয়ে এসব ক্ষেত্রে নিজেদের বিকল্প ব্যবস্থা করলো, তখন সরকারী সংস্থাগুলিতে তাদের আর কোন আগ্রহ রইলো না।  যে সর্বসাধারণের গরুর দুধ তারা রোজ খেতো এবং সেই কারণে বিচালি দিত, পরিষ্কার করত, সেই গরুর দুধ বেচে তারা তৈরী করলো নিজেদের মালিকিনাধীন গরুর  প্রাইভেট গোয়াল। কলকাতায়, টিবি হাসপাতাল ১ টাকা দিয়ে বেসরকারী সংস্থাকে বেছে তৈরী হলো কেপিসি হাসপাতাল।  ঢাকুরিয়ার এএমআরআই হাসপাতাল ও সরকারী মালিকানা থেক বেসরকারী মালিকানায় দেওয়া হলে ১ টাকার নাম-কে-ওয়াস্তে অঙ্কের বিনিময়ে।  শর্ত থাল এখানে একটা বড় শতাংশ বেদ থাকবে গরিবের জন্য সংরক্ষিত।  বলাই বাহুল্য, সেই সংরক্ষণ থেকে গেছে কাগজের পাতায়, এগ্রিমেন্টের দলিলে। আমি যেটা বলতে চাই সেটা এই যে ভারতে সরকারী হাসপাতাল বা ইস্কুলের মানের নিম্নগামী মানের সাথে এলিট শ্রেণীর স্বাস্থ্য ও শিক্ষা ক্ষেত্রে নিজ বিকল্প করে তলার ব্যাপারটি অঙ্গাঙ্গী ভাবে জড়িত। দুটো আলাদা ঘটনা নয়। তাই আশঙ্কা হয়, হারত সরকারের জোরদার প্রাইভেট গাড়ি তৈরী ও বিক্রির ক্ষেত্রে নানা রকম আর্থিক উত্সাহপ্রদানের যুগে উবার-ওলার বিস্ময়কর ব্যবসায়িক সাফল্য দেশের মোটামুটি ভাবে চলনসই গণপরিবহন ব্যবস্থার জন্য কোন অশনি সংকেত বয়ে আনবে ? আরেকটু ব্যাপক ভাবে বলতে হলে, যে দেশ ও সমাজের শক্তিশালী নীতিনির্ধারক অংশ ব্যাপক গণ-মানুষের কোনরকম ছোয়া থেকে নিয়েজদের দূরে রাখতে চায়, এমন বৈসম্যযুক্ত সমাজপতি-ওয়ালা সমাজের ভবিষ্যত কি?

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আমার শহর, আমার আশা

সামনেই আমার শহর কলকাতার পৌর নির্বাচন। এ শহর আমার জন্মের শহর। এখানে বস্তিবাসীকে নিমেষে হটিয়ে দিয়ে শহর ‘পরিষ্কার’ করা যায় না – কাউন্সিলর এম-এল-এর বেনামীতে প্রমোটারী ব্যবসা সত্ত্বেও। এখানে প্রধান প্রধান রাজপথে লক্ষ লক্ষ্য হকার সৎ ভাবে আয় করেন – মানুষের পেটে লাথি মেরে সূর্যোদয়ের বিরূদ্ধে দাঁড়ায় এ শহরের সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ মানুষ। এ শহরের পথে বিহারের দ্বারভাঙ্গা জেলার গরীব খাটিয়ে মানুষ বাংলা ভাষার জ্ঞান ছাড়াই ক্ষুন্নিবৃত্তি করে। অন্য কিছু শহর যেমন বাঙ্গালিকে হিন্দুস্তানি বা ইংরেজি বুলি বলতে বাধ্য করে, আমার শহর সেই পংক্তিতে পড়ে না। এ শহরের মন বড়। এ শহর আমার গর্বের শহর। তাই শহরের পৌরসভায় আমার প্রতিনিধিত্ব করবে কে, এটা খুব এলে-বেলে একটা সিদ্ধান্ত নয়। তেরঙ্গা পতাকার রাষ্ট্রর থেকে এই শহর আমার রোজকার জীবনে অনেক অনেক বেশি প্রাসঙ্গিক, অনেক বেশি বাস্তব।

আমার এ শহর নিয়ে ক্ষোভ আছে – যেমন মানুষের থাকে একদম একান্ত নিজের কিছুকে নিয়ে। আমার ওয়ার্ডের পৌরপিতা আমাদের এলাকার নতুন কাজ বা পরিকল্পনা নিয়ে অরাজনৈতিক নাগরিক সভা করেন না। আমার এলাকায় আমার প্রতিনিধি যিনি, তার কাছ থেকে এইটুকু কি আশা করা খুব অন্যায়। আপনারা যারা এবারও আমার পৌর-প্রতিনিধি হবার ইচ্ছা রাখেন, এলাকার নানা পরিকল্পনা দলের রং না দেখে, নাগরিক-দের সাধারণ সভা ডেকে করবেন – এমন কথা দেবেন? এই টুকু চাইব না? অথচ আমার করের টাকাতেই তো পুরসভা চলে। বাড়ির বাচ্চাকে আলু-বেগুন কিনতে বাজারে পাঠালে আমরা পাই-পয়সার হিসেব নিই, আর কোটি কোটি টাকার বরাতে কর্পোরেশনের বাজার-রাস্তা-ইস্কুল-ত্রিফলার হিসেব নেব না ? হিসেব চাইব আমি নাগরিক হিসেবে। শহরের সৌন্দর্যায়নে আমার আপনার মতামত নেওয়ার দরকার নেই আমাদের প্রতিনিধিদের? নইলে সে কেমন প্রতিনিধি ? আমার আপনার ভোটে জিতে সে তাহলে কার প্রতিনিধিত্ব করে?

যে চরিত্রহীন, তার হীনমন্যতাই তাকে বাধ্য করে অন্যের চরিত্র ধার করে নিজেকে চরিত্রবান প্রমাণ করাতে। যার গায়ে কাপড় নেই, সে অন্যের জমকালো কাপড় গায় জড়িয়ে লজ্জা নিবারণ করে। যারা কলকাতাকে লন্ডন-নিউয়র্ক বানাতে চান, তারা না চেনেন কলকাতাকে, না চেনেন লন্ডন-নিউয়র্ককে। তাই তো তারা পরমা আইল্যান্ডের ‘পরমা’ স্থাপত্যকে ভেঙ্গে দেন অবলীলায়, বৃটেনের সাম্রাজ্যবাদী আগ্রাসনের প্রতিবাদ করে ইংল্যান্ড থেকে কলকাতায় এসে আস্তানা গড়া বিশ্ববরেণ্য বিজ্ঞানী ও সমাজচিন্তক জে বি এস হলডেনের নামাঙ্কিত রাস্তার নাম বদলের পায়তাড়া করা হয়। মধ্যমেধা ও মধ্যকল্পনার সাথে চাটুকারিতা ও দুনম্বরী মেশালে তিলোত্তমা গড়ার তিলের যোগান হয় না, লন্ডন-সিঙ্গাপুরের কয়েক তাল স্থুল অনুকরণ গড়া যায় ঠিকাদারী ব্যবসার মাধ্যমে। এ শহরের নিজস্বতা, এ শহরের প্রাণ-ভোমরা – শহর সাজাতে যদি তাকে যদি মন্থন না করা হয়, তখন সৌন্দর্য্য হয়ে ওঠে নগর ও নাগরিকের মধ্যেকার একটি দেওয়াল। সে দেওয়ালের উচ্চতা দেখে ভয় ও সমীহ হতে পারে, কিন্তু কেউ সেখানে গিয়ে চুমু খাবে না, আল্পনা দেবে না।

এ শহর দাঁড়ায় সিঙ্গুরের পাশে। তাই এ শহরে বিজনেস ক্লাসে উড়ে আসা লোক কম। আর খুব কম সম্বল করেও অমাবস্যার রাতে একটুখানি চাঁদের আলোর স্পর্শ পেতে চাওয়া লোকের সংখ্যা অনেক। আমার শহরের নায়কেরা শহরের নাম ভাঙিয়ে ক্রিকেট দল খোলে না , বিনোদন টেক্স বাকি রেখে নেচে কুদে ‘আই লাভ কলকাতা’ বলে বোম্বাই পালিয়ে যায় না। আমার শহরের আসল নায়কদের একজন হলো শমভু সিং। এ শহরের দক্ষিণে গগনচুম্বী বহুতলের খোপ-ঘরের আধুনিক হুল্লোড়ের উপর ঘুরপাক খায় জয় ইঞ্জিনিয়ারিং-এর নিহত কর্মী শমভু সিং-এর বিদেশী আত্মা – অপরাজিত সৈনিকের মতো। এহেন শহরের যথার্থ প্রতিনিধিত্ব করা যে-সে কাজ না। এ শহর দিল্লি-বেঙ্গালুরু-নয়ডা-গুরগাঁও হতে চায় না। এ শহর এখুনো দোকানের নাম ও রাজনৈতিক পোস্টার লেখে মাতৃভাষায়। এ শহর হিন্দুস্তানের মরুভূমিতে মরুদ্যান নয়, ভাগীরথী-হুগলীর ব-দ্বীপের কোল ঘেঁসে গড়ে ওঠা মহা-গঞ্জ। এ শহর নিখিল বাংলাদেশের বৃহত্তম শহর। এ শহর অতীত-বর্তমান-ভবিষ্যতের সকল বঙ্গবাসীর।

আমার শহরে থাবা বসিয়েছে অনেক দুর্বৃত্ত। তারা শহরের রাজপথে সাইকেল চালানোকে বে-আইনি ঘোষণা করেছে। তারা গাড়ি থামিয়ে মানুষকে সিগনাল পারাপার করতে একটু বেশি সময় চায় না। তাদের কাছে ট্রাফিক মানেই গাড়ি, রাস্তা মানে শুধুই গাড়ীর পথ। আমি চাই আমার পৌর-প্রতিনিধি এদের সমঝে দিক। আমি চাই আমার শহরে গাড়ি কমুক, বাস বাড়ুক, পথিক বাড়ুক। আমি চাই আমার আগামী প্রজন্ম সুস্থ থাকুক, ভালো ভাবে শহরে নিশ্বাস নিতে পারুক। যিনি আমার প্রতিনিধি হবেন, তার প্রতি আমার দাবি অনেক, আশা অনেক। তারা পারবেন-ও, যদি ইচ্ছা থাকে। আর যদি থাকে শহরের প্রতি ভালবাসা, শহরবাসীর প্রতি দরদ।

আমি চাই আমার ওয়ার্ডে আরো গাছ লাগানো হোক – ফলের, ফুলের। সবুজ রং দিয়ে শহর মুড়লে সবুজায়ন হয় না। নীল রং দিয়ে মুরলে নীলকন্ঠ হওয়া যায় না, পাপ পাপ-ই থেকে যায়। সাদা রং করে পবিত্র হওয়া যায় না – প্রায়শ্চিত্ত করতে হয়। লাল নিশান ওড়ালেই সংগ্রামী হওয়া যায় না – তাপসী মালিকের কাছে ক্ষমা চাইতে হয়। আসন্ন নির্বাচন পুরনো হিসেব বুঝে নেবার নির্বাচন, নতুন দাবি রাখার নির্বাচন।

আমার শহর দেশভাগের শহর। এ শহরে একাধিক বাজারের নাম বাস্তুহারা বাজার। এ শহরের অনেক হকার প্রথম-দ্বিতীয়-তৃতীয় প্রজন্মের রিফিউজি। এ শহর বিস্থাপিতের অভয়ারণ্য। এ শহর শুধুমাত্র মধ্যবিত্ত ও উচ্চমধ্যবিত্তদের দিয়ে তৈরী ‘বস্তিহীন’ হকার-হীন ‘ছিম-ছাম’ ও ‘শান্তিপূর্ণ’ নকল শহর না। বাস্তুহারা বাজারের প্রতিনিধিত্ব বড়বাজারের দ্বারা সম্ভব না। ওসব এখানে হয় না।

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10 interesting facts about the 2014 Indian elections

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), 23 May 2014 ; Kashmir Monitor, 26 May 2014 ]

The results of the 2014 elections of the Indian Union parliament are out. In the subcontinent, this has been one of the most watched elections ever. The neighbouring nation-states of the Indian Union, particularly Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka watched these elections closely – given that these nation-states and their names come up in various degrees and forms in the Indian Union’s domestic political scene. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic, divisive leader Narendrabhai Modi, are the two big winners of the election – one will be the party in power and the other will be the prime minister of the Indian Union. The ‘Modi wave’ is the phrase that has been used to characterize the nature of the results. Here are 10 pointers about the 2014 verdict, within and beyond the ‘wave’.

  1. This is the first time since partition, or for that matter, first time since the 1937 elections, that any party other than the Congress won an absolutely majority of the total number of seats. In the 543 seat lower house of the Indian Union parliament, the number 272 represents an absolute majority. The BJP has won 282 seats. It has won 31% of the all the votes polled, representing a staggering 12.2 % increase in vote share. Though it is the largest non-Congress party ever, in terms of seat number, in terms of vote share, it was bettered by the Janata Party in 1977, which inflicted a crushing defeat on Indira Gandhi’s Congress, post-emergency.
  2. The BJP has benefitted from much its vote being heavily concentrated in the Hindi-belt of the Indian Union. This has resulted in a high number of seats, compared to the vote share. Indeed, for a party winning a majority of seats, this is the lowest vote share since partition. In terms of vote share increases, the BJP has got about 50% more than its last time. While this is impressive, even more impressive are the results of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the ruling party of Tamil Nadu and the Telengana Rashtra Samithi, the soon-to-be ruling party of Telengana, a new state that was carved out of Andhra Pradesh and its contours similar to the Nizam of Hyderabad’s territories in 1948. Both of these parties doubled their vote shares, a 100% increase over the previous parliamentary election.
  3. This was also the costliest parliamentary election ever, anywhere. That also includes the 2012 US presidential elections, which cost about 2.6 billion US Dollars. By cost, I mean the campaign cost and not the cost of actually organizing the elections. The 2014 Indian Union parliamentary elections saw the candidates and their backers spent 5.2 billion US Dollars. This is a ‘conservative’ estimate arrived at by the respected weekly Outlook. The official spending limit per constituency (as per the Election Commission of India) is 70 lakh Indian Rupees. The joke is not lost on us. Sadly, the joke is at the people’s expense, whose resources have to cough up many times the 5.2 billion dollars to line pockets of entities that invested this astronomical amount in these elections. An important loophole that allows parties to have such huge amounts of unaccounted donations is the rule that parties do not need to divulge the name of donors who pay under 20000 Indian Rupees. Most parties, as a rule, present audit reports, where a huge majority of the fund comes from a large number of small donations from unnamed persons. The Aam Aadmi Party demanded that this rule be changed, so that electoral spending and political funding becomes transparent. BJP and Congress, both opposed it vociferously. The new government is very unlikely to change that. BJP or Congress, certain things remain the same. This is one of them.
  4. Given that the electoral exercise aims to ensure people’s representation, to what extent are the elected legislators ‘representative’ of the general population is an important question. In a year, an inhabitant of the Indian Union earns roughly 70000 Indian Rupees on average (this is the nominal per capita year income). This utterly poor nation-state will be represented by 442 crorepatis among its 543 members of parliament. The total assets of these 442 newly-minted members of parliament is to the tune of 7850 crore Indian Rupees (source: Association for Democratic Reforms). This is the figure arrived from ‘declared’ assets. Modi wave, Congress wave – all waves of recent years has had mostly crorepatis riding the waves. This is the richest parliament ever, in a literal economic sense. As a result, this might well be the poorest parliament ever, in every other sense.
  5. 34% of the members of the 16th Lok Sabha (Indian Union parliament lower house) have declared criminal cases. That is 186 have declared that they have criminal cases against them. Of this186, 112 have cases of very serious nature, like murder, attempt to murder, crimes against women, dacoity, etc. (source: Association for Democratic Reforms). If one were to interview each these 186 proud sons and daughters of Mother India, they would reply that the cases against them are politically motivated, that is, they are false cases. Curiously, most of these cases remain in suspended animation indefinitely. False or not, they do not seem to be too interested in getting their name cleared. The good news is that many members of parliament do not have murder charges against them.
  6. You can actually start walking from Kolkata in West Bengal and reach Chennai in Tamil Nadu and not pass through any constituency won by the BJP. West Bengal, Orissa, Telengana and Tamil Nadu have voted overwhelmingly for political parties that represent provincial interests. The ‘national’ parties are marginal players in these large states. You can walk from Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir and reach the eastern end of Bihar or the southern tip of Gujarat and not have to pass through a single non-BJP constituency. If you start from any Congress-won constituency, you don’t get very far unless you step into a non-Congress constituency. This election has seriously punctured the Congress claim of having a ‘nation-wide’ presence. In the Hindi-belt of the Indian Union, the Congress managed to win 7 out of 251 seats. The BJP swept this area, underscoring its reputation as a party of Hindi and Hindustan. The Kishanganj-Goa line that I had referred to in my article in The Friday Times last week has been breached in Karntaka and Assam. Otherwise, the line still is a broad demarcation of the BJP’s core sphere of influence.3 out of 4 seats won by the BJP came from the Hindi belt or Gujarat.
  7. Among major parties, the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal has the largest proportion of female candiadates among their seats won – more than 30%. Uma Soren of the Trinamool Congress is also the poorest winning candidate in this parliament. She has less than 5 lakh Indian Rupees in total assets. 12 out of 60 female members of the just elected parliament, that is 20%, are from West Bengal. This is more than double of proportion of West Bengal population in the Indian Union. Also, this parliament will have more women members of parliament than the last one.
  8. This is the first time in the Indian Union parliament’s lower house that the largest party (BJP) will not have a single Muslim member of parliament. The BJP led pre-poll alliance called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won more than half the seats where the proportion of Muslims among the voters in more than 20%. Unless one assumes that a significant proportion of Muslims in Muslim-heavy constituencies voted for the BJP-led alliance, what comes to light is a partial consolidation of non-Muslim votes. Many of these constituencies are in Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where three, four and even five cornered contests helped the BJP win handsomely.
  9. The combined vote share of the two ‘national’ parties, the BJP and the Congress, is 50.3%. The rest of the votes come from parties that did not win seats in more than 2 states, making them ‘regional’ entities for all practical purposes. The combined vote-share of the 2 big national parties have not significantly changed over 20 years or so, this indicating that the BJP’s gain this time came largely from the Congress’ collapse.
  10. Bahujan Samaj Party, the third largest party of the Indian Union in terms of number of votes, did not win a single seat.

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The 2014 India election review / A question of power

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), 16 May 2014]

When the grand parliamentary elections happen in the Indian Union, certain changes are always visible in the commentary around it. The more systemic critiques are replaced by adulation-with-minor-faults type of views. We hear less of the diseased orchard and more about bad apples. There is a reason. Elections of these kinds are periodic revalidation of the state’s legitimacy itself, much like a car’s license renewal before the expiry date. Any aspersion on the basis of continuity creates deep anxieties. The Indian Union is no exception. What is exceptional is the number of people from which it claims to get its legitimacy from, thus earning the much used, tired epithet of being the ‘world’s largest democracy’. This makes the present elections and all elections to the lower house of the Indian Union parliament the ‘world’s largest democratic exercise’. The reality makes that claim patchy at places – heavens on earth do not need legitimate worldly elections for peace and development. This does not take away the fact that a large majority of the adult citizens living in territories administered by the Indian Union government voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

A lot is at stake this time around – depending on the nature of the stake. What started as an exercise in cosmetic beautification of Gujarat’s tarnished reputation by government hired PR agencies after the riots of 2002 slowly grew into a united corporate cheer about Gujarat chief minister Narendrabhai Modi’s governance style. The Ambanis, the Mittals and other such paragons of 101% honest and clean business practices sang frequent paeans to Narendrabhai and the Gujarat that he had made at the biennial investors summit called Vibrant Gujarat. A few years ago, this became the site from where India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, publicly declared Narendrabhai Modi to be the best person to become India’s next prime minister. When such endorsers talk, the endorsed better walk. An ambitious one will run. The rest, as they say, is history. The Bharatiya Janata Party anointed Narendrabhai Modi as its prime ministerial poster-boy. This cut short the octogenarian ambitions of a Sindhi old man who in many ways had politically mentored Narendrabhai. Advani sulked and then relented. What followed was an unprecedented spending spree to create a larger-than-life helmsman image for Narendrabhai. The Indira Congress also spent many crores of Rupees to present its latest Gandhi as the young and youthful future of face of India. As if on cue, Delhi media has sought to make this battle for the parliament of the Indian Union look like a two-horse presidential election. The truth is, between them, the two national parties have won less than 50 per cent votes in three of the last five Lok Sabha elections. This time will only be marginally different. So-called ‘regional parties’, which are mostly presented as spoilsport in the ‘national’ scene, will again be crucial to any government formation at Delhi. What is the scope of these ‘regional’ parties in the global perspective? The West Bengal-centric Trinamool Congress (TMC) got more votes in 2009 Lok Sabha than the victorious Tories got in the UK parliamentary elections of 2010. The Tamil Nadu-centric Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) got more votes than the ruling Conservative party of Canada got in their 2011 federal election. Consider this: Post-Partition, no national party has won an absolute majority of votes, ever. The Indian Union remains and will remain a politically diverse landscape, irrespective of the terrific howls from policywallahs, mediawallahs, academics, defence contractors, security apparatchiks, lobbyists, pimps and other glittering-shady characters of all hues invested hard in the Delhi circuit. This diversity is the greatest hindrance in the smooth entry of global capital as well as cultural homogenization of the Indian Union. Such a rocky and uneven political landscape needs a wave. This time around, even sectors of the deep state has deserted the Indira Congress and put its bet on the ‘Modi wave’.

If you draw an imaginary line from Kishanganj in Bihar to Goa, you can roughly divide the territories of the Indian Union into two parts. The part to the left of this line contains much of Hindi-ized India or greater Hindia. This is where the pull of Hindutva politics is at its strongest. This is also where the politics of social justice powered by parties that organized themselves around lower castes have long kept the BJP in check after the terminal decline of the Indira Congress in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There is a feeling that some of these levees make break in the face of the ‘Modi wave’, which might acquire great strength in the fertile communally divided ground created by the 2013 Muzzafarnagar riots in western Uttar Pradesh . This would mean that stalwart leaders of lower castes like the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, Mayavati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar led Janata Dal (United) will mostly hold on to their core support groups and lose significant portions of their peripheral support to the BJP. That might well be true if the exit polls by CNN-IBN, suggesting an unprecedented sweep of Uttar Predesh and Bihar by the BJP turn out to be correct. This TV channel like many others has seen huge investments from Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited. CMS, an independent media research organization, has reported that in this personality-driven campaign, Narendrabhai Modi got 33.21% of primetime news telecast. Rahul Gandhi got 4.33%. Since the BJP will not get 8 times the number of seats or votes than Indira Congress, the disproportionate coverage that has been given to corporate India’s chosen successor is quite clear. The top 10 list of persona who were given most primetime media coverage did not contain a single person from the southern part of the Indian Union. It is not accidental that the south is not the BJP’s strongest territory. The urban Hindi-heartland bias of Delhi-centric media is rather shameful. More worrisome are its implications.

The urban Hindustan has thrown up the newest and probably the promising kid on the block of these elections, the Aam Aadmi Party.(AAP) Formed about one and a half years ago, upset all known political equations by decimating the Indira Congress and stopping the BJP in its tracks in the Delhi provincial elections. This time around, its charismatic leader Arvind Kejriwal has successfully projected himself as the most vocal critique of Narendrabhai Modi. He has challenged Narendrabhai in Benares, a seat that the BJP held in the last parliament and where AAP had no prior organization whatsoever. Thus every vote that Arvind Kejriwal gets is a vote won or transferred from others. The difference between the votes Narendrabhai will get above and beyond what the BJP’S ageing brahmin top dog Murli Manohar Joshi got in Benares can be attributed to the ‘Modi wave’. That is the relevant comparison. We shall see who will win but the AAP through its shrewd manoevering and its no nonsense stance on corruption has captured the imagination of a significant section of the urban youth. It really is trying to capture the historical political space of the Indira Congress and wants to position itself as the ‘national’ opposition and alternative to the BJP next time around. That is a tall order, especially given that the AAP’s stated list of enemies includes not only the BJP but also the Indira Congress, the Gandhis, the Ambanis and the newest Gujarati ‘110% honest’ millionaires, the Adanis.

On the morning of May 12th, I stood at the voting line in the Chetla area of Kolkata, the capital of Bengal. As a Bengali, my interests are most focused here. In almost all seats of Bengal, BJP is not among the top 2 forces in contention. This is broadly true for most of the regions east of my earlier stated Kishanganj-Goa line. Here the non-Congress non-BJP forces more or less hold on to their spheres of influence thought there is a huge increase in the visibility of the Modi campaign. This will surely reflect as a general bump in the percentage of BJP votes, but on the whole, in the south and the east of the Indian Union, what we have may at best be called a ‘Modi trickle’. In many places, event that hint of saffron ghairat is absent. This is not odd for a multinational super-state like the Indian Union but these elections will probably underline that fact quite clearly.

These elections kept Muslims in particular focus all through the campaign. This started at first as a part of the old Indira Congress and Samajwadi Party tactics of buying Muslim votes by fear-mongering. Among many Muslims, there is deep distrust and suspicion of a Modi government, if not outright fear. But if fear alone is able to herd a people together to the arms of the cynical fear-mongerer doubling up as protector, it is unfortunate for the community and its politics. AAP aimed to change this narrative at many places. When asked my Muslim community leaders about what could AAP do for Muslims, Arvind Kejriwal famously replied that he could not do anything special but will ensure that people from every faith are treated equally under all circumstances. This is in line with what G Shah commented on Kejriwal’s letter to Muslim – ‘As a muslim voice, dare I say that we do not want any special benefits, aka appeasement. Even if the regular / common state welfare mechanisms are made available to everyone (including us) that would be more than enough for everyone (including us).’ The loss of Muslim support might be a significant blow to the Indira Congress, which prides itself as being the sole ‘national’ embodiment of the Indian Union’s secular ethos.

During his campaign, Narendrabhai Modi assailed Mulayam Singh Yadav saying “do you know the meaning of coverting to Gujarat? It means 24-hour electricity in every village and street. You can’t do it. It requires 56-inch chest.” People of the Indian Union will soon come to know the advantages or disadvantages of pectoral girth in poverty alleviation, human rights, civil liberties and a list of other issues that almost always has required a big heart, not a big chest.

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Next time, electing a sarkar from Great Nicobar

[ Daily News and Analysis, 29 Apr 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 22 May 2014 ; Millenium Post, 2 May 2014 ; Echo of India, 7 May 2014]

At the very outset, I should make my position on certain things very clear. I believe that there are many, many ways of being human – none of them being ‘better’ or ‘worse’, ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’, ‘forward’ or ‘backward’ than others. There is no rank order of ‘civilizations’, cultures, millenia and the like. For that matter, I am not sure what ‘civilization’ means, unless you define it by a set of arbitrary parameters and ascribe those parameters some kind of inherently positive value, just because you fancy them. This line of thought may be particularly irritating to those who, after their unfortunate birth in brown-land, were born-again when exposed to White people’s worldviews. But the irritation of such dwijas (twice born) is irrelevant. They would have been altogether irrelevant if a deep democracy were able to function in the subcontinent. I hope such a time comes soon, before the dwijas are able to stamp out all diversity and cultural rootedness from this world. I hope they are soon kicked off the centre-stage that they have occupied for too long, by keeping the people out by sheer power. Till such time, before the story of the hunt is rewritten and the lions still lurk, some will continue to make hay. But let me get back to the many many ways to being human.

Now that we have the clap-trap about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ humans out of the way, let me come to the ongoing elections to the Indian Union parliament. Using the principle of one-man one-vote, this exercise seeks to present an opportunity to the people to determine and influence the nature of the power that will rule over them. But that is not all. This exercise also relegitimizes (kind of like license renewal) the structure and apparatus that imposes itself on the people. Thus power structures seek legitimacy by offering a pre-determined amount of decision-making power. It does not give all powers to the people. For example, the people who are supposedly the only sovereign in this schema cannot alter the ‘basic structure’ of the Indian Union constitution, even when fundamental rights of the individual are protected.

The crucial part of such schemes is that they are all-pervasive. The intense focus of resources and energy by modern nation-states on maintaining and defining territorial limits is not accidental. Within that zone, it is supreme. Which is precisely why territories where such monarchic supremacy is not established are sources of unending paranoia for the powers-to-be. The smokescreen of people’s welfare is used to unleash the non-pretentious forces of a nation-state – money and military. In places where people don’t live, powers dangle the notion of ‘strategic importance’.

We are born from our mother’s womb. We are born where our mother lay pregnant with us. When we are born, we are as human anyone else. This is before there is consciousness of the state, constitution, Gandhi, Nehru, tricolor, New Delhi, etc. Is it a pre-condition of being human that these notions have to be built up within our heads for an individual to be considered fully human? Clearly not. Our bloodlines and human consciousness predates all flags and constitutions and gods willing, will outlive them too. So one has a right to be fully human and not be impinged upon, counted, exercised power upon, demanded loyalty from by institutions like the nation. One has a right to exist in the land one was born upon, to mingle in the society into which one is born or welcomed, live a glorious life among one’s kins and so on. Institutions that place themselves as mediators of these rights, without being called to mediate, are inhuman and anti-social in a very fundamental sense. They may well be legal, depending on how many guns back up the self-imposed mediator. Legality is different from justness– only the people can create the latter. No paper document written in their name can.

Whether one votes or not votes or boycotts it, all of these positions are vis-à-vis the voting process and the state that sponsors it. The all pervasiveness of such schemes means that you will be counted, not matter what – you will be classified, even if you don’t belong. Lack of ‘consciousness’ is not an option and in any case, irrelevant. Institutions that intensively survey uninhabited islands, wrap the remains of the dead in distinct flags, ‘teach’ loyalty through school syllabi do face a problem when they face people who regard the state as alien. Some of the indigenous peoples of Andaman and Nicobar Islands like the Shompen are such aliens. But they are ‘Indian’ citizens, irrespective. Are they proud of Gandhi? Do they respect the tricolour? Do they have a stake in Siachen and Sir Creek, given what happens there is done in their name too? Do they believe in ‘unity in diversity – given that their numbers have sharply dwindled ever since they were ‘claimed’ as ‘Indians’? It is from the perspective of the Shompen people of the Great Nicobar island that the all pervasive state starts looking not so pervasive – a hint that there is an outside, even when high resolution maps and detailed anthropological surveys have been done. This ‘outside’ consciousness is an extremely dangerous thing. Hence, when the Shompen people voted in Indian Union elections for the first time, whatever that act means, there was a sigh of relief at the deepest heart of the state. A portal to an outside, however small, was technically sealed. There is an outside and there will always be an outside. It comes with every child who is born. Hence there is a persistent and dangerous glimmer. To live without certain indoctrinations makes a dynamite of a people, even if they don’t ‘know’ it. The distance from birth-rights to full-citizenship is a journey that requires surrender of rights, without consent or with indoctrination that there is no outside.

I remember a 4-panel cartoon. At first, a bear stands in a jungle. Then some trees are cleared, encroachers arrive. The bear looks on. Finally, everything is ‘clean’ and someone is taken aback that there is a bear in the midst of ‘civilization’ and asks where it came from. The bear was always there. I am sure they created a ‘sanctuary’ for the bear thereafter. May be it will start speaking Hindi and English and straighten up its spine when the band plays Jana-Gana-Mana. With enough ‘aspiration’, it might go on to sing ‘the world will live as one’. There wont be any bears left any more. Such is progress in a world without outsides.

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AAP is too much of a wild card for the deep state

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Apr 2014 ; New Age (Dhaka), 26 Apr 2014 ]

Not everyone starts at the top. Some do. This is very true for politics. Similarly, not everyone starts out cynically. Some do. This again holds true for the kind of politics that has benefits in terms of holding power – financial, controlling other people’s lives or both. Not everyone needs to control the whole world to feel like a dictator. In the subcontinent, dictators and wanna-be dictators come in all sizes, big and small, from the local area tough to the president-style prime minister in waiting. They support each other by being involved in a complex pyramid of power. What binds them together, across apparently different ideologies, is the notion that certain individuals are more important than people. It takes an immense amount of narcissism to think that most people are worthless or fools. The ‘people’ can be tactically utilized, but they should never be empowered in the sense that they could question power hierarchies that maintain this relationship of the powerful individuals lording over the people, sometimes even in the form of the most benevolent despot. The people variously are a ‘bag of potatoes, ‘disunited, non-martial Hindus’, ‘ignorant and superstitious masses’ and a host of things that are irritating to the small or big wanna-be dictator a.k.a. the people’s most ‘earnest’ well-wisher or to the ‘enlightened’ narcissist.

The government is not like a bicycle, a neutral piece of machinery that can be driven by anyone towards any end. There is the deep-state to contend with. Unelected bureaucrats, big business, planners, policy wonks, academics, military and security men, mediawallahs, contractors and pimps in collusion with narcissitic inviduals with some network among the people form the deep-state. The deep-state is a reflection of the collective interest of such individuals. It is also by requirement and design a system of preserving the continued disempowerment of the people. While they swear by the constitution, they decide when to suspend the applicability of its humane sections. This makes them the real sovereign, the decider of exceptions. In the jails, a great deal of care is taken to see to it that inmates don’t have anything like a wire or long pieces of cloth or other things by which they could commit suicide. At the same time, deaths by ‘encounters’, torture in jail or in police custody are also ordered and implemented. It is the deep-state’s interest that binds these two apparently contradictory things. This sovereign decides the time and place or illegality.

But can the people not organize themselves, into parties, take over government and change all of that? Theoretically yes but one of the many ways that path is made nearly impossible is by power centralization. If a gram-panchayat or any other level of administration could decide on their own issues and no one from above could veto that, then we could be seeing real democratic gains. Centralization loves to accord greater ‘wisdom’ and ‘power’ to those who are ‘above’, keeping those below in strict control like a kid who is allowed to suck on lollypops of certain approved flavours and even that can be snatched away at will.

But the people are hardly a ‘bag of potatoes’ or passive victims. Otherwise such a large police and military establishment would not be required. And they have used every means necessary, including the electoral means, to throw up challenges to power. When a genuine broad-based democratic challenge appears and gains critical-mass, the deep-state brings forth its greatest weapon – that of co-option of individuals who come to represent people’s resistance. It is a measure of the depth of the deep-state. Having personally had some opportunities to sit-in as an unnoticed (who knows) guest in ante-chambers of the deep state, one thing is clear. The goings-on in there and the whole scene have a seductive charm to it. Even those who grew up viewing such things cynically also slowly crumble. The trappings of power make them want to suspend their commitment to the people and believe in the special value of the unbridled power, that there is real accomplishment lurking, that there really, really is no alternative, but this. This isn’t simple cooption, but seduction at a visceral level, for wanting to let go of long held albatrosses of people’s interests around one’s neck, and feel curiously light and accomplished and important. They want to fit-in. The deep-state is more than welcoming.

But not everyone can be co-opted. Many sons and daughters of this hard land have not simply been brave but good souls in a way that matters, of overcoming seduction that is even soothing and designed to not give guilt to those who give in. Stuff of greatness is born out of those who cannot be co-opted. They don’t need monuments for their acts sustain human liberty when monuments crumble.

The magnitude of difference between the characteristics of an at-least nominally democratic constitutional state and the deep state, is a measure of transparency and democratic functioning. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is yet another expression of people’s unending hope for dignity and rights. Whether the AAP is up to that challenge is another matter. It too has some characters who are stuck waste-deep in the existing power establishment. Whether they will chose to rise or sink into seduction, only time will tell. But one thing is clear. The deep-state is not sure about AAP. It has not found a way to fully co-opt it. It is still too much of a wildcard.

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David versus Goliath in Benares

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

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

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

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

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The Aam Aadmi phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netaji and the politics of legacy and memory

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

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

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

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

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

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Decentralization 2014 / When the Centre lords over federal aspirations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My vote for pluralism

[ Open Magazine, 14 Sep 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.

Lift

One fistful of rubble

Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chavez – a subcontinental remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Floating in the Durbar / Floats in the Delhi Durbar

[ The Friday Times , February 22-28, 2013 – Vol. XXV, No. 02 ]

Sometime last month, it was the 26th of January in the Indian Union. It was January 26th at many other places but the date has a special significance for the Union of India nation-state. And Delhi has a special significance for the Union of India. I was, in fact, in Delhi that day. Not in that ‘New’ Delhi – built on the land ‘cleared’ by displacing numerous villages, villages that had been there for centuries. Some descendants are still fighting for compensation for the land where present day Lutyens and Baker designed palaces stand. I am told that in some of these palaces, there are crisp-khadi-wearing sages who are busy determining compensation amounts for village-destructions and community-annihilations that are being planned right now. Some say, in the subcontinent, the notion of time is not linear but cyclical. I have an odd feeling that it is more like a downward spiral. By mistake, one may think it is an upward spiral, especially if one just sees a snapshot without a past. For every displaced village there is a trendy and hip urban ‘village’ in Delhi. For the hip, it is a world ‘pregnant’ with opportunities – some bellies need to be torn apart in the process, that’s all.

Since the day is a state holiday in the territory of the Indian Union, I will write and ramble. It’s a chhutti after all. So, I was in Delhi on the 26th. There is this splendid kababi on the road through the Delhi gate of Shahjahanabad. They call themselves Captain’s Kabab and claim to be more than a century old. They earlier had a signboard called Tundey Kabab. That had a different establishment date – again more than a century old. The signboards are very new. They haven’t even thrown away the Tunday Kabab signboard – the date discord is for all to see. But more importantly, the Kabab is there for all to taste. And it is sterling. The powers to be had fenced off the whole stretch of this road till the Red Fort and beyond. This made things hard for me as I had to walk quite a bit to simply reach the opposite side of the street where the Kabab shop is. This went on for a few days to the run up to the 26th. I had been in the same area, in a similar fix around August, the 15th. But then that occasion had brought cheer to my life. Ostensibly to portray that the Union’s diversity goes beyond humans, different kinds of animals are brought to parade on this day, on top of which men sit wearing gaudy military uniforms, ready to defend me. Some of these four-legged beasts used to rest in front of my hotel, taking a break from their patriotic duty. I had seen the mouth of a camel up close and had marveled at the size of its teeth.

For some reason, the morning sun of the 26th of January in Shahjahanabad reminded me of an anecdote that a gender studies scholar had once related to me. She grew up in Allahabad, no less – the city that housed the Nehrus’ and the city which saw its first motor car quite early – also of the Nehrus’. So there was this custom of standing up, with a spine as much erect as one can, when the Indian Union’s ‘national anthem’ is played. This ranked high among the set of ‘values’ to be inculcated in the young and the impressionable. So one day, when she and her sister was near about their father and his friend at a local tea shop, they all heard the ‘national anthem’ – Rabindranath’s words overworked to death for reasons of state. The father and his friend kept on drinking their tea, seated as before. Fresh with patriotic righteousness in such matters, the sisters castigated the elders, making them somewhat squeamish. After high school, she went to university and there she was starting to learn that there are many other in the world beyond the tricolour. But certain old habits die-hard. One day as she lay supine in her hostel bed, the radio decided to dish out Rabindranath’s co-opted verses. Her former tricolour self and her present multi-coloured self reflexively reached an instantaneous compromise – she continued laying on her back but stiffened her spine, stretched the fingers of her feet as much as she could. She lay ‘in attention’. Strange are the ways in which the tricolour evokes an erection. But I digress.

Whether I understood Gandhi wrong or the state read him wrong is an open question but a big attraction of the 26th in this Republic of self-proclaimed non-violence is the parading of its latest guns, tanks and missiles with concomitant cheering by its naturally, culturally, historically and physiologically non-violent Delhi citizenry. After the display of arms and ammunitions have soothed the anxious hearts of the non-violent people, gaudy floats or tableaux from various provinces and some central government agencies capture the road in front of the Red Fort. Lest someone may think that this kind of ‘diversity on display’ is inspired by the similarly annual spectacles organized by Stalin in Red Square (Square, Fort – what does it matter?), one simply has to look into the past of the eternal Republic. Not ‘Vedic  past’ but ‘Durbar past’. During the British rule over the subcontinent, Delhi was, for a few occasions, the venue of a spectacular and costly farce called the Durbar – a symbolic act of collective obeisance to the janaganabhagyavidhata of the time. The armies of the British crown (which continued uninterrupted under the Congressite crown) and the diversity of the spine-less native princes’ procession in front of the King-Emperor or his Viceroy for long provided the template from which today’s spectacle grew. The continuity is telling in more ways than one. A major project of post-partition history and civics in the Indian Union has been to manufacture a discontinuity. It is increasingly successful. Eternal republics have endless resources for such projects.

I was woken up early by the processions and I joined others to watch the annual Republican ritual. My peculiar location helped me get the view for the show that was otherwise ticketed. Lack of sleep does not suit me well. Last night’s food was making its presence felt. Standing by the march-past, I farted. Thankfully, there were lots of patriotic noises to drown me. I made a mental note to myself – radish, cabbage and Bengal grams, within 12 hours of consumption, are incompatible with patriotism. A man learns something every day.

I stood on the street-side as the floats passed one by one. Given my dirty mind, I could not help notice a little piece of ‘heaven’ floating as a float on this earth, right here in Delhi. Oh, the joy! On that float, there were people looking happy. They were looking happy continuously, a rare feat for even the happiest on this earth. They were happy up until the float finished its course. I do not know whether they continued to be happy ever after – those characters on the float. Some party-pooping voice in my head whispered that on this day, there were more people on this float in Delhi than there was on the streets of the capital of the province that this float is supposed to represent. The eternal Republic did not deny the whisper, its ‘independent’ media did not confirm it either. Cutting through the fog of unconfirmed discomforts, a little piece of heaven floated alongside the Red Fort. The atmosphere was gay and many a brown cheeks wore tricolour paint. Such was the glory of that splendid January morning.

One by one came floats from many areas – the affected mirth of one trying to vanquish the affected mirth of the one in front of it. This reminded me of Soviet show-farms but only better. They only managed affected mirth. The republic has managed to introduce the unique spectacle of competitive affected mirth. No kidding.

Then came the tableau of ‘Paschim Bangaal’, written in Devanagari, no less. Thankfully, this one did not have any affected mirth as it was decorated with statues of confirmed dead but famous people and one Subhash Chandra Bose. But that’s not the point. What is this ‘Paschim Bangaal’? Ostensibly, it has something to do with the western half of Bengal after its second partition in 1947. ‘Paschim Bangaal’ is not what a stupendous majority of the people living in that land calls it. The script in which that was written is understood by very few in that land. But to be ‘represented’ and made intelligible (to whom?), Delhi seems to have specific ways to caricature our names, a process to which we have to necessarily submit. The Hindi-Hindu republic is free to call anyone in whatever way it deems fit, and by dint of an ideological veneer lubricated with cold cash, this ‘way’ has now been normalized in the minds of many. Such is the insidious nature of a centralizing uni-lingual nation-state. When Bengalis pronounce other people’s names in their way, it is termed ignorance. When they stick to pronouncing names in their own ways, after being reminded of the correct way, it is termed obstinacy and parochialism. When the Hindi-Hindu mandarins do the same, it becomes a standard, a benchmark – to be emulated and propagated. All peoples have their own ways of making sense of others, except the hegemon who has a unilateral right to not only caricature others but also make sure that such caricatures enjoy the status of ‘official’ and ‘approved’ portrayals. The ideology runs deep. The Tamils or the Bengalees can be caricatured for their dress and pronunciation, but there is no fiddling with the Hindu-Hindi. The core is never caricatured. Or rather, what is not caricatured is a hint to what is the core. It is the sovereign and as Miss Roy points out, sovereign is the one that alone can decide on exceptions. It sits in the Red Fort, it sits in our school syllabi, it sits inside the heads of the subject peoples. To make a core-periphery distinction is unpalatable to some. Some from the periphery are complicit in this show – following to the minutest detail the correct and ‘standard’ way to bend over backwards, how to prostrate at the right moments, so as to have the privilege to strut in front of power.

The core is most comfortable, no doubt, in Delhi, where it all began. After all, what better place to institutionalize inequity and marginalization of ‘misfits’ than a new ‘city’ whose founding is based on the total uprooting of whole rooted communities. Rootedness is something it hates like a plague. This is a mecca of the rootless but even here, true success is only for those who are ready to reach for the stars on the shoulder of others. The state signals its favour for this ilk in no uncertain terms when it awards its badges of honour. The ‘Padma Shri’ for ‘distinguished service in any field’ is the award that is most commonly given away and is typically announced just before the 26th of January every year. Delhi accounts for less than 2 per cent of the population living in the territory of the Indian Union. This year, nearly 20 per cent of the winners of Padma Shri were from Delhi. There is something about Delhi, some believe – as the thick and rich cream generated by distributive injustice is made invisible as such, and transformed into the ‘spirit of Delhi’ and other such curious concepts.

From Delhi’s own float, a rock-star looking character sang –

‘Dilli khushion ka angan

Dilli sadio se raoshan

Dilli kala ka sagar…

Dilli sab ka dil hai yaaro,

Desh ki dharkan Dilli’

So, if you want to be counted, you know what tongue to speak and where to stay. For the rooted, the obstinate and the rest, there is ‘the idea of India’ to suck on.

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Foundational myths, Hindustan, Identity, Language, Nation, Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This my people / Irom’s Manipur, Pazo Bibi’s Balochistan and Obama’s America – lessons for the Subcontinent

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), December 28 – January 03, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 46 ; Frontier(web), 27 Nov 2012; The NorthEast Today, May 2013 ]

The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

—Allan Bloom

When there is a festival, it may create an illusion as if the ‘whole world’ is happy at this moment. Or so we like to think. Solitary wails cannot be heard above the sea of laughter. For a certain segment of inhabitants of the Indian Union, the high note of last November was Barrack Obama’s victory in the US presidential elections. He asked for 4 more years. He got it. Resident and non-resident desis watched his victory speech of hope.  USA may or may not have 4 more years of hope, but that November also marked 12 years of hopelessness in a part of this subcontinent. Irom Sharmila Chanu, the Gandhi that Gandhi never was, finished 12 years of her epic fast, protesting the torture perpetrated by the armed wing of the Indian state in Manipur, especially in the cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). And she is not finished, yet. She may get 12 more years. I sincerely hope not.

A major part of the reason why the cries of Manipuri women, as exemplified by Irom Sharmila Chanu, can be ignored is the purported ‘insignificance’ of Manipur in the ‘national’ scene. This ‘national scene’ effectively came into being in the Indian Union after the Republic was proclaimed in 1950. Even before the Indian Union was a Republic, it had managed to dismiss the democratically elected government of Manipur led by the Praja Shanti party. The Congress had fought the elections of Manipur and lost. Manipur, with an elected government and at that point not an integral part of the Union, was annexed by the Union of India, which was still not a Republic. Original sins often create particularly bad ulcers.  Excision is not an option for a ‘modern nation state’. Hence ‘insignificant’ ulcers bleed on as the rest of the body is on pain-killers, reading history and civics dutifully from official textbooks.

The focus on the US presidential election also focused the minds of some desis on to the two other elections happening in the USA at the same time – those to the US Congress and the US Senate. Let us understand a few things carefully. The US Congress is analogous to the Lok Sabha of the Indian Union. But the USA is a nation constituted by a more real commitment to federalism rather than a semantic charade in the name of federalism. Hence its upper house, the US Senate is not analogous to the Rajya Sabha of the Indian Union. In the lower house in both USA and the Indian Union, the numbers of seats are meant to be proportional to the population. This represents that strand of the nation-state that gives precedence to the whole. This whole is ahistorical and is a legal instrument, though much time and money is spent in the Indian Union to create a fictional past of this legal form. The upper house in the USA represents that strand where past compacts and differing trajectories and identities are represented in the form of states. The states form the ‘United’ States of America – hence in the Senate the unit is the state, not the individual citizen. That is why in the US Senate, each state, irrespective of population, has 2 members. This respects diversity of states and acts as a protection against the domination of more populous states and ensures that smaller states are respected and are equal stake-holders of the Union. In the Indian Union, the so-called ‘Rajya Sabha’ is simply a copy of the Lok Sabha, with multiple staggered time offsets. Even in the Rajya Sabha, the seats allotted to each state are roughly proportional to its population – and hence at its core does not represent any different take on the Indian Union. In the Sabha of the Rajyas, the Rajyas are not the unit, making a mockery of the name itself. Manipur has 1 representative in a Rajya Sabha of 245 members. Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura altogether have 7 members in that Rajya Sabha. No group thinks of themselves as ‘lesser people’ for being fewer in number. A federal democratic union is not only for the children of Bharatmata. It is a way of having a joint family with many mothers, for no one’s mata is less important than my mata.

This pattern is replicated all across the subcontinent. When one looks to the west, once sees the autonomy of the Khanate of Kalat being usurped unilaterally as part of the ‘One Unit’ scheme, again by a fresh Pakistan state that itself did not possess a republican constitution. And there too, one sees a festering ulcer that bleeds intermittently. Sweeping powers given to the Frontier Corps do not help. Nor do the extra-judicial killings and torture of young Baloch activists help. Piercing an ulcer with a dirty knife risks a general blood poisoning. Every missing person, every body-less head, every tortured torso that ‘appears’ by the highway in Balochistan makes the lofty pronouncements about human rights made from Islamabad that much more hollow. And even if the Baloch decided to try to democratic path, what can they do in a system where they count for less than a tenth of the seats, in the national assembly. In November, the extra-ordinary powers of the Frontier Corps were extended in Balochistan again. Maintaining ‘law and order’ is the universal answer to all protestations – that same cover that the British used to beat brown people into pulp. If the brutal actions of the Frontier Corps as well as the impunity enjoyed by themselves sounds familiar across the border, it is because their colonial cousins in Khaki also have a similar record of glory. It is this impunity that has broader implications. Live footages of Sarfaraz Shah’s killing or Chongkham Sanjit’s murder will not lead to anyone’s pension being withheld. Behind the scenes, there might well be pats on the backs for the ‘lions’.

It is useful to understand why it is in the best interest of a democratic Union that the Rajya Sabha be constituted on a fundamentally different paradigm than the Lok Sabha, rather than replicating it. In contrast to the ‘whole’ viewpoint, the regions of the Indian Union and Pakistan have diverse pasts, some of which have hardly ever been intertwined with the ‘centre’, however defined. This also means that concerns, aspirations and visions of the future also differ based on a region’s perceived attitude towards a monolithic ‘whole’. A federal democratic union is one that does not discriminate between aspirations and is rather flexible enough to accommodate differing aspirations. Rather than using ‘unity in diversity’ as an anxious mantra of a paranoid monolith, one might want to creatively forge a unity whose first step is the honest assessment of diversity by admitting that the Indian Union or Pakistan are really multi-national nation-states.

Irom Sharmila’s struggle is failing partly because in this fight for dignity of the Manipuri people, the subcontinental constitutions drowns the voice of the victim in the crowd of the apathetic and the indifferent, inside and outside the legislative chambers of Delhi and Islamabad. Violence then becomes a way to be heard above the high decibel ritual chants of the ‘idea of India’ or ‘fortress of Islam’ or ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’. Ideologically vitiated ‘national’ school syllabi and impunity of military forces do not produce unity – it produces a polarization between unity and diverse dignities. There is no unity without the constitutive parts’ dignity. Hindi majoritarianism or Punjabi-Urdu majoritarianism may not appear so to its practitioners but from the vantage of the step-children of the majoritarian nation-state, the world looks very different.  When such questions are raised in the subcontinent, one may see tacit agreement or opposition. As far as the opposition goes, it is important to make a few mental notes. Is the person who opposes the idea for whatever reason, from Delhi/Islamabad/Lahore or broadly from North India / West Punjab? Also, has the concerned person lived most of their adult life in a province different from where his/her grandfather lived. If the answer to either if this is yes, there is a high likelihood that the pattern of response to questions raised in this piece will be of a certain kind. Inherent majorities with the noblest of democratic pretensions end up forming imperious centres in the name of a union. A democratic union of states takes into cognizance the subcontinent as it is, not the subcontinent that delhiwallas and isloo/lahorewallas would want it to be like.

A point often made by legal honchos of the subcontinent is that neither Pakistan nor the Union of India is a union of states in the same way the United States of America is. What they mean is that these nation-states did not come into being due to some agreement or treaty between states. Rather they maintain that the states/provinces are arbitrary legal entities/ instruments created by the respective constitutions for administrative ease. What such a reading aims to do is to delegitimize any expression of aspiration of the states/provinces that may not be in line with the centre. How can an arbitrary legal entity created by central fiat and also alterable by fiat have autonomous will? This legalese collapses in the face of sub-continental reality where states/provinces as they exist today are broadly along ethno-linguistic lines. These entities are along ethno-linguistic lines ( and more are in the pipeline in Seraiki province or Telegana) because ‘administrative’ units can only be arbitrary to a point, irrespective of the total arbitrariness that constitutions permit. The ethno-linguistic ground-swells are real, aspirations to homeland are real, and since the capital cities do not have enough experimental chambers to convert all inhabitants into ‘nothing but Indian’ or ‘nothing but Pakistani’, these are here to stay and do not seem to have any immediate plans of committing suicide. While the specific drawing of the lines may be arbitrary (something that applies to the whole nation-state too), that in no way makes the reality of ethno-linguistic community habitats vanish. A legal stranglehold that denies this reality also ends up denying that the subcontinent existed before the constitutions were drawn up. If the BritIsh didn’t happen to the subcontinent, and if one or more large nation-states had to happen in the subcontinent, such entities would have been due to agreements between different near-sovereign entities. That states/provinces did not have such agency to make such a compact in 1947 is a legacy of British rule. Ironically, such a scenario bequeathed from the British is the bedrock of the post-colonial nation-states of Pakistan and the Indian Union. Both like to call themselves federal, for no one else calls them so.

A creative re-conceptualization of the distribution of representation and power in the Indian Union as well as Pakistan may show that one does not necessarily need to choose between the unity and diversity. Accounting for more than a sixth of humanity and a serious breadth of non-domesticated diversity, that subcontinental experiment is worth doing, irrespective of its outcome. A people’s democratic union is not only feasible but also humane. For far too long, bedtime stories commissioned by the state have been read out in schools and in media outlets, so that our deep metropolitan slumber is not interrupted by real nightmares in rougher parts. But there are just too many truths to spoil the myth.

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Action, inaction, defection and the FDI saga / When parties come before people / Holding democracy to a whip / Why the ant-defection law must be abolished / Anti-defection law

[ Daily News and Analysis, 9 Dec 2012 ; Millenium Post, 12 Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 14 Dec 2012]

In the FDI debate that happened in the Lok Sabha, a particularly painful moment saw ‘Netaji’ Mulayam Singh Yadav take the name of Ram Manohar Lohia. He talked about Lohia and Gandhi. Even as he made tired statements to the effect that he opposed FDI in multi-brand retail in principle, it was getting ample clear to everyone that he and his party would walk out when the moment of truth would in the form of voting. Paralysis and hypocrisy are two conditions where one’s action is not in line with publicly expressed wish. At any rate, they are not among the desirable characteristics of ‘peoples representatives.’ Some old Samajwadis in his contingent might have wanted to defect and vote their conscience to avoid the ignominy of being associated with either of the two conditions.. But that would effectively end the parliamentary career of such people. So they followed their ‘Netaji’ out of the house. Avoidance of trouble is preferable to happiness. The Anti-Defection law drawn up by party bosses have ensured that no Samajwadi Party member of parliament or for that matter, any member of parliament of any party cannot vote in accordance with what he/she deems right. One has to slavishly follow the party diktat or lose the their membership of the parliament, unless at least a third of the MPs of a party find their spine.

It may not be a totally idle exercise to think how the FDI vote would have turned out if the anti-defections law was not in place, given the murmurs of discontent that exist even within the Indira Congress. The anti-defection law is supposedly a counter against horse-trading. In the period from 1985 to 2009, only 19 members of parliament have been disqualified for violating the party whip. The party leaderships don’t have faith on people winning on their ticket, partly because they know on what flimsy self-serving ground such an assemblage of champions is created in the first place. The leaderships also know that enticements of greater value may sway legislators – irrespective of the publicly stated reason of coming together as party – Gandhian socialism, Indian nationalism, Hindutva, OBC rights or whatever. At a deeper level, these are signs of crisis in the very nature of the political class – namely, the absence of inner party democracy and ideology based politics. That crisis has only deepened. Hence the need of the anti-defection law to make parliamentarians falls in line with high command dictates. This form of quasi-Stalinist centralism somehow has a long afterlife in those nations (India, Bangladesh, Kenya) where freedom of expression is also under constant threat from the government of the day. I have a feeling that it is not accidental. UK, France, Canada, Germany and USA have no such anti defection law for their legislators.

It is important to understand what a member of parliament represents. One is not simply a ‘proxy’ for the people but a representative of the changing wishes of the people of one’s constituency. That is to say, things change and so do people’s wishes, above and beyond the programme of the party on whose ticket one was elected. Party programme cannot be the sole guide if parliamentary democracy is to be a living entity. In a first past the post system, many MPs do not win by majority but by plurality. Parties command all the representative abilities of a MP by issuing whips. This is when democracy takes a beating at the hand of partycracy.

Parties are important tools of organizing opinion and force multiplication, especially across larger geographical spaces. Do people vote for a party or a candidate or both? The answer is variable. Candidates use parties and parties in turn use candidates. The Mohammedan MPs of the BJP are a fine example of this symbiotic relationship. In some cases, parties change candidates and win. In other cases, some people win, irrespective of their party affiliation at the time. Clearly parties are not the last word in a democracy. The individual representatives matter too.

In the presence of  party-whips, voting records of individual MPs are a monotonous copy of party stances, or worse still a continuous testimony to the nature of cynical machinations that the party-head has executed. The anti-defection laws were purportedly drawn up to avoid Matsyanyay – the condition where the big fish eat the small fish. In has resulted in a system where even the minimally conscientious fish is too scared to make its opinion known by voting one’s own opinion. The anti-defection law does not penalize anyone, even the leadership, when it deviates from stated party programme. With the rise and rise of parties that have dynastic or persona-based leaderships, a different Matsyanyay is at play. Only the top fish needs to be ‘managed.’ The top issues the whip and the rest of the shoal falls in line. This surely cannot be a good sign for an aspiring democracy representing such variegated shades as the subcontinent. The anti defection law only solidifies the false majorities of parties in a first past the post system.  It must go. Without it, there will be problems of a different kind. But nothing justifies making people representatives secondary to parties in an aspiring democracy.

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Why all roads should avoid leading to Delhi

[ Daily News and Analysis, 22 Oct 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explanatory notes:

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

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

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

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

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Opposition as sin : symptoms of a decaying federalism

[ Daily News and Analysis, 5 Oct 2012 ; Globeistan, 9 Oct 2012 ]

In the last millennium, Delhi could dismiss elected state governments at will. The yearning to do so still remains, but the once-sharp blades have become blunt. Commanding majorities are a thing of the past. Some deplore this lack of decisive punishment and call it the ‘fracturing’ of the polity.  It is also increased representativeness. Monotheists have never been at peace with the idea of robust polytheism. The post-partition Indian Union is no different.

But Delhi knows other ways to make worshippers of other gods submit or pay tribute to it. These ways, enshrined in the constitution and vigorously cemented by the servility of a whole generation of Congressite politicians to the High Command have to do largely with two things – lists and revenue. The lists of jurisdiction, which mark out what is Caesars’ and what is not his, and what he shares with others, have been one of the choicest methods by which the Delhi imperium has run roughshod over the diverse policy aspirations of different regions of the Subcontinent. Especially brash is the concurrent list where marks out that a province, say, Tamil Nadu, cannot make a law for Tamil Nadu that contravenes what Delhi has in mind for Tamil Nadu. The other big stick is of course the Union centre’s control over taxation, mineral resources and the stupendous amounts of revenue that come with it. From angrez to kangrez, the mastery over revenue collection from the provinces to keep them in a state of permanent dependence is an art that has been passed on like Dronacharya would pass it to Arjun. As a self-respecting person who has elected his/her provincial government, it is not easy to imagine a future with the Article 356 intact. But there it is. However, even in the absence of it, the Union centre is trying to punish provinces for policy pronouncements that are well within the ambit of provincial rights, however moth-eaten they may be.

This was in naked display when Anand Sharma, the Union cabinet Minister in charge of commerce and industry, a prominent jewel among the ones that Sanjay Gandhi, the peerless gem-master, chose. Before the Trinamool Congress parliamentary party walked out of the Union government, the Government of West Bengal was given to understand that the Global Partnership Summit 2013, a high profile investors meet organized jointly by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the Union Commerce ministry would be organized in Kolkata in winter. After the pullout, suave Commerce minister said “given the strident opposition and a hostile approach to FDI in general, it would not be appropriate to invite corporate leaders of the world and the global investors to Kolkata when the government is totally opposed to FDI.” The said summit, he said, would now take place in Agra. Apart from the politicking aspect of it, it is important to realize the deeply anti-democratic strands inherent in pronouncements of this kind and why this is not a matter of concern for Kolkata alone.

I will not visit the question of relative merits or demerits of FDI in multi-brand retail here. What is important is that in the last election manifesto of the Trinamool, its opposition to it was clearly mentioned. It is not opposed to FDI in general – the right honourable Mr.Sharma knew this even at the moment he was publicly stating otherwise to the press. The world beyond the New Delhi ‘Municipal’ corporation or the India International Centre is very different. The frightening thing is, Sharmaji knows it.

He announced that the new location of the event is Agra, a city in a province ruled by the Samajwadi Party that has assured that it will come to the rescue of the Union government when oxygen supply may be threatened. Importantly, the Samajwadi party is also opposed to FDI in multi-brand retail. In the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, two each of the four seats in Agra were won by the BJP and the BSP, SP trailing third in terms of votes. Thus, the top 3 political parties in Agra and Uttar Pradesh have publicly opposed FDI in multi-brand retail. Agra seems to be a curious choice if local opposition to FDI in multi-brand retail is a consideration as Sharmaji suggested. Something does not add up.

If the Trinamool has ignored or even reversed in practice more than one promise it had made in the election manifesto, including political appointments of university administrators and denial, even criminalization, of the right of protest and free expression. It is clear that such hypocritical practice had also extended to FDI in multi-brand retail, no shifting of venue of the proposed meet would have occurred. Ironically, it has received a rap on its knuckle from Delhi for actually standing by its manifesto on this one. Sudhangshu Shekhar Roy, a Trinamool MP, reacted to this asking whether Bengal was a colony of Delhi. Although it is posturing, still words such as these underline the long dysfunctional federalism in the Indian Union.

This is not a matter of West Bengal alone. The constitution of the Indian Union does not mandate penalization of a constituent state, if the party leading the state government takes a certain position on a policy matter of the Union government. Such penalization is unconstitutional. It is the job of the state government to maintain law and order so that private and public life is not disrupted. The centre’s job is not to second-guess the law and order maintenance ability of a state. Using the hypothetical ruffling of sensibilities of corporate mandarins as a basis for retribution against a state government whose policies the centre does not like is Article 356 by other means. How can so-called ‘threat’ perceptions be used to counter rights of opinion as enshrined in the constitution? Is the centre then working on the basis of another, ‘higher’ constitution? Can pesky provincials have a look at it?

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Filed under Bengal, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, India, Kolkata, Nation, Power

Bigmother is watching / Have censored websites broken any law

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2012 ; Countercurrents 3 Sep 2012; Globeistan, 9 Sep 2012 ]

Bigmother has not been around for 28 years now. But she sure is watching over us. She died before the internet happened, yet her devotees celebrate her sacred memory by blocking websites. That is some legacy. When I was growing up in Bengal, there would be seminars about the contemporary relevance of Vivekananda. Seminars about the contemporary relevance of India’s holiest cows are rampant. Banalities are timeless, and hence ever relevant. When a pre-internet disease infects the web, it is a sure sign of a living ideology.

In a throwback to times when Bigmother would lock some of us up and tell the world that this is for our own good, her devotees in charge of the Government of India have tried the same. But they lack Bigmother’s courage – she used to be rather public about her harsh dealing and silencing of her wayward children. They have secretly blocked certain webpages. The irony of ironies is that the list of ‘blocked’ websites has been ‘leaked’. Who knew there were desi Julian Assanges around. May be some bloke did it for some money, or someone was trying to be funny. Or, he was simply following orders. We will never know. Does the much touted right to information extend to right to information that the state wants to hide but has been leaked? Lets not go there.

Transparency and freedom are fundamental to the health of this democratic organism. Without them, it is like a life size sex doll, which can be inflated, paraded and used at will, only to be deflated till next time. This is why we need to look very seriously at the quivering wizards of Oz at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology
who blocked internet content without explanation.

Altogether, 309 items are known to have been targeted. Many of these websites ostensibly could have fanned the flames of communal hatred. That the flame-carriers of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or hyenas of Gujarat 2002 have not been banned from the grand old party and the saffron sangh is another matter. Websites are apparently more damaging than kerosene.

No reason has been given why a certain website or webpage or twitter/facebook account has been blocked. That explanation is important because that potentially opens up such unilateral silencing to legal challenge. How so? Incitement to violence, communal or otherwise, is an offence under the Indian Penal code. If the government thought that it had a legally tenable basis of pre-emptively blocking a website for that reason, it could have said so. Its secrecy and subsequent silence is akin to the hubris of the policeman who is seen taking a bribe but looks on nonchalantly as he knows that the onlooker is powerless. It also signifies a distinct brand of shamelessness that only the powerful have.
If the Government of Indian Union thinks that these contents in the web would indeed incite violence, has it proceeded to press charges against the banned websites in Indian and foreign courts? Does it fear that whim of the powerful is at not a full-proof good legal defence?

A summary look at the blocked list is important. Twocircles.net, an Indian Muslim news portal, has been targeted. Its reports of a fatal communal flare-up in Mathura have been blocked. Incidentally, this website, which has received several accolades, did sterling service in trying to check rumours by publishing in toto the Myanmar government’s response to doctored images claiming to show massacred Muslims in the Arakan province. Did the government media, the Doordarshan do its part is rumour checking that this news portal did? Pages from prestigious news sources like Al Jazeera, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dainik Bhaskar and others have been blocked. Prestige is immaterial here, but I still list these to make a point. It is sad that one has to use this ploy and possibly tells us about the thick skin we have developed to censorship. But what really is at stake is the voice of the frail dissenter, the small fish, us. If a website is lying or is inciting violence, they can be taken to court. But to cede the state the right to indiscriminate, unilateral pre-emption without explanation is to give up our liberties.

Does the internet even matter, in the Indian Union? It increasingly does, the state knows it and you should too. For, if we think that there are ‘legitimate’ reasons for shutting out certain unsavoury words, then we all risk being shut off, piecemeal, at a time that suits the incumbent power of the day. The BJP has cried censorship and they are right. But I
also have three words for them – Maqbul Fida Hussain.

The government with the heritage of Emergency has learned from the past. Now it wants to build an atmosphere where Emergency need not even be declared. It is important that is resisted. For an unaccountable state approximates Coco Chanel who said “I don’t care what you think about me, I don’t think about you at all.” And that stinks.

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Unequal glory: India and the ‘other’ medal tally

[ Daily News and Analysis 21 Aug 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Bahishkrit Samaj, Class, Democracy, India, Nation, Our underbellies

Two-party system in US

[ The Echo of India 23 Aug 2012 ]

 

Many middle-class people in subcontinent are attracted by the discreet charm of  an authoritarian state – ruthless and decisive. A pluralist democracy is deemed to be slow and inefficient by them. Which is why they also regard a two-party system as the next best thing. This of course is said keeping the United States of America in mind, which is the pre-eminent poster child of a two-party system. Of course a two party system is not one which limits participation to two parties or two poles. Rather, it is a system that has been developed so that it manages to keep other voices out, or co-opt them. In fact, that a nation of 300 million has 2 parties to represent nearly 95% indicates a serious representation crisis that needs to be addressed. Far from its strength, a two party representation for such a large populations weakens the democratic foundations. This project is ably served by systemic forces including the mainstream media, who take it upon themselves to herd popular opinion along narrow bipartisan lines.

The outcome of presidential elections in the USA has its ripple effects in every part of the world. The powerhouse that it is in many respects – economic, military and academic, a slight twitch in the behemoth causes ruckus in some other part of the globe. Hence, US elections have undeniable effects on the world. So much so that some have even suggested that the world ought to have voting rights in US elections. Leaving that aside, in this presidential election year, the world is watching and so is the subcontinent. Having lives at both places, certain differences are worth discussing.

As the presidential election campaign will gain more and more momentum, there will be rallies. Now, in the USA, if a candidate manages a turnout of 10000 at one of these rallies, it will be considered outstanding, a groundswell of support and what not. In most parts of the subcontinent, a turnout of 10000 at a centrally located rally of a senior politician would be considered a failure. In fact, very few politicians would dare to even call a central rally if they think that the turnout would be around that figure. The rally turnout in the subcontinent is largely managed by political organizations who pack such rallies with adherents by enticements and threats. Some also attend by a since of belonging and loyalty to a party and its ideology. But typically, such gatherings have few ‘innocent bystanders’. The US rallies I have been to, have less of a stage-managed quality in its turnout but the stage is managed quite well. In such management of the stage, often trivial aspects of a speech like diction, voice, or things like posture become points of judging a person. This does not mean that political issues are not involved, but simply that in the USA, only a certain kind of grooming makes the cut, irrespective of political inclinations.

The politics of the subcontitent, due to its robust multi-cultural reality, with a million fault-lines, is a different game altogether. This is partly why ‘big tent’ parties have had their limits. Politicians of every level have to contend with more parameters than his or her US counterpart can ever imagine. This kind of politics requires a grade of acumen, one-upmanship, posturing and brinksmanship that more homogenuous societies cannot even start to fathom. If one imagines a video game form of politics with controls, knobs and joysticks thrown in for all the possible parameters, the typical US presidential candidate might not even be able to figure out the function of all the controls. In such a contest, Laloo Prasad would bodyslam George Bush every single time. Add to this the explicit role of armed violence in politics, and also the management of violent partisans. The subcontinental scene is filled with such proto-generalissimos and cunning politicians rolled into one. In the United States, explicit and large-scale political murders in the domestic scene, is more or less a thing of the past. The difference partly comes from a electorate whose concerns have moved somewhat beyond life and death, to starve or to eat, to be killed or not. Questions of the latter kind inject a kind of viciousness to the political competition that finds expression in murder of political opponents and a serious democratic deficit. A  person who vociferously opposes or heckles Barack Obama or Mitt Romney can be booed and firmly pounced upon by ‘security’. There might be background checks. However, if someone does that to Mamata Banerjee, Biman Bose or Uma Bharti in a rally, depending on the locality, one can get into serious trouble. So much so that hardly any sane person who is alone ever opposes or challenges such politicians in public.

Most of the top-level ‘new’ generation leaders who have emerged in the subcontinent are sons and daughters of established politicians. This has led to the political system that increasingly looks like a multi-tiered dynastic oligarchy, with enough stakeholders spread in the various layers of the system to give it a pretense of the popular.

The US presidency retains a monarchical imprint and I do not mean the ornamental kind. Legend has it that the first US president, George Washington, was even asked to become king. It was possibly an apocryphal story but you get the drift – templates out of which it the presidency is partly moulded. This includes being an over-arching commader- in chief. That is why female aspirants to the US presidency like Clinton had to be appear tougher than the toughest to allay any doubts.

Neither in the US or or in the subcontinent does one need a majority of the votes to win an election. For the US election, the Electoral College system allows even for the minority candidate to win if the numbers so stack up. And it has happened as recently as 2000 when George Bush won the presidency with Al Gore winning more votes nationwide. However, an implication of a first-past the post system as it exists in US Congress and Senate elections and in the subcontinent at all levels is more ominous for a multi-party democracy. Due to the absence of proportional representation, shallow pluralities spread tactically can return commanding majorities. Democracy and decentralization means nothing when one can achieve majorities with about 1/3 rd support, as in the Indian union. Devolution means asking the powerful to legislate the relaxation of power from their own hands. Such debates are there in the US too, on the issue of 3rd partiesand on state rights versus central rights. The states in the USA, though more homogenous, have lots of power and autonomy, In the Indian Union, the states are alm-seekers during the day, cash-cows at night.

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Political memoirs: Why not tell all? / A risk-free shot at paradise

[ Daily News and Analysis 13 Aug 2012 ]

 

The Indian Union has a Right to Information Act for stuff on paper – files, communiqués, data, clarifications and things like that. But these jottings of the powerful do not and cannot divulge the dealings of the powerful. And the shadow state that is the private sector does not even figure. Keys to open doors do not open trap doors.   No such hint of any trapdoor could be found in Arjun Singh’s autobiography with a title that reeks of that unmistakable desi style of faux-humility. His less than 400 page production, ‘A grain of salt in the hourglass of time’, quite predictably, did not shake up the hour-glass of time. It could have. He was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 1984 when the Bhopal gas tragedy happened. Warren Anderson might not write an autobiography. Rajiv Gandhi died before writing one. Apparently, the new president of the Indian Union has been writing a memoir too. And this has been going on for quite some time. However, it will not be out in his lifetime. That is good news – for lesser mortals can then hope for a memoir without an eye out for this life. After all he lived through the Emergency, the rise of the polyester prince and much more. Still, there is the vexing problem of legacy. People want to go with a bang and want the firework display to be permanently etched on the sky. The search for immortality, that is sad and pathetic at the same time, has led almost all big men and women to write legacies, not autobiographies. Politicians, fixers, executives, and tycoons – all refuse to believe that they will actually die, till they actually die.

This had leads memoirs and autobiographies of people of power to be filled with stories of childhood, stories of rise, often ghost-written passages of visions and ideas, private small talk. So much so, they often read like a hagiographies written in the first person. Few examples of candour are generally limited to those that are not libelous and hurt no existing deity. Given how intertwined autobiography writing and legacy making is, omission and concoction may not even appear so to the autobiographer. But autobiographies have a potential to be heretical and blasphemous, if only people of power would chose to redeem their pledge to the people, even partially. Crimes, murders, conspiracies against the people, defrauding, sleaze, and intrigues – are a part and parcel of the life of the powerful. Given so many people actors in this play, that nothing much actually comes out is an indirect testament to the terribleness of truth. Struggle against truth can tie public political adversaries in compacts that weather life and death.

To live the life of the powerful, to be witness or party to crimes, to lead double and triple lives, to see ‘great’ men and women in their purulent nudity, to be a ‘great’ man or woman of that sort, is common if not the rule in the corridors of power. I too have a second or a third life. But the crucial difference is that my double or triple life, in comparison, affects very few. Not all-lifelong charades cast their shadow on the people in the same way – the more powerful one is, the longer is the shadow. I have often wondered something. Just like the priests at Delphi, the ones deemed closest to Apollo knew the fraud, similarly the society of elite insiders also know what they deny. Given that the entourage of the powerful minimally has bodyguards, hanger-ons, pimps and others, why do we have near to nothing in the public domain. I have a feeling that partly the reason lies in the threat of swift and fatal retribution if the compact is breached. I cannot totally blame the entourage. For it is a choice between riding a luxury car and being squashed under a truck or disappeared. As the playwright said, assassination is the extreme form of censorship. The other part of the reason is that this entourage is not formed overnight, but through a long process of continuous pruning and screening. As a result, when one starts approaching the top, the product is impeccable. We have to look elsewhere for public disclosures.

All people, including those without a moral-ethical compass one can boast of, want to come clean to someone. People caught in the web of posturing in public life, in relationships, often wish that they could admit their life to someone and face no consequence. Amnesty, even from one person, can be powerful. That is why I suspect that for many, their deepest bonds are not with people with whom they have greatest consonance, but those who known their life more substantially, in front of whom the weigh of posturing is that bit lighter.

The urge to admit is dismissed during life, for being too risky. And it most probably is. Why not try it in death, by writing an autobiography that has everything that one was party to but could not admit during life? It can be opened after death. Technology might do away with untrustworthy middlemen. May be even Wikileaks. Fingerprinting the pages for is a good idea – for a posthumous tell-all will surely be disputed on grounds of authenticity. What is there to lose? Why lose a chance to gild one’s afterlife after having gilded this life? For the believer of the Hindu type, a parting shot, even one that hits the target after the archer is gone, would give the person a fighting chance to have a decent sort of re-birth. For the Abrahamic ones, they might just escape hell on judgement day. For the non-believer, there might be a surge of righteousness, an end of the road high like Timothy Leary, sans the substances. One can have one’s cake and eat it too.

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Our roads, their roads / How ‘national’ is the NHAI

[ Echo of India 17 July 2012 ; Hitavada 29 July 2012 ]

In the first 18 years of one’s life, if one manages to escape without getting one’s brain deeply dyed in tricolour, merely by being present and about in Delhi, one cannot but see certain things. The vision tends to be sharper if one is among those millions in the subcontinent, who after 60 years of exhortation and vilification, much to the chagrin of Delhi, are not ‘only Indian’ but continue to be Tamil, Gond, Rarhi, Naga, Bengali, Marathi and so forth. Some even continue to be just from Delhi – just ask those who have been shoved trans-Jamuna or those live in the urban ghettos of Shahjahanabad or Jamia Nagar. Indians in Delhi are unaware that on a road map of India, the Delhi urban agglomerate, officially called the ‘National Capital region’ (‘NCR’ for uppity blokes), has a very special place. It sits at the convergence of a large number of ‘National Highways’ – the densest convergence by far. The density of National Highways is far out of proportion when one considers economic output or population. In a proportional sense, the Indian in Delhi has access to a far higher number of National Highways than their numbers or economic output would command. This throws to the wind all ideas of federalism and distributive justice. The Delhi National Highway ‘node’ is like a Pamir knot on the road-map of the Indian Union, except for the fact that this one is not natural. The rest of the union paid for it and continue to pay for it.

One might see such Pamir knots around other cities like Kolkata and Hyderabad too, but there is a difference. If one looks closely, for these cities, most of the highways that make their knot are state highways, that is, not fully funded by Union government funds. Compare this with Delhi and the difference becomes very clear. This is where the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) enters the scene. What is the NHAI? The powers to be tell us “The National Highways Authority of India was constituted by an act of Parliament, the National Highways Authority of India Act, 1988. It is responsible for the development, maintenance and management of National Highways entrusted to it and for matters connected or incidental thereto. The Authority was operationalized in February, 1995 with the appointment of full time Chairman and other Members.” It also tells us that its vision is “to meet the nation’s need for the provision and maintenance of National Highways network to global standards and to meet user’s expectations in the most time bound and cost effective manner, within the strategic policy framework set by the Government of India and thus promote economic well being and quality of life of the people.” It is headquartered in – surprise, surprise – New Delhi.

Roads are arguably the most important component of infrastructure development in these times. Hence the maintenance of the National Highway network in keeping with ‘global standards’ should indeed be a priority. In the last few days a series of apparently disconnected events concerning the NHAI and roads show the geographical priorities and the biases of such Union government establishments in its true light. Recently, the NHAI approved the widening of National Highway Number 24 into a wide 6 – line structure, which will ensure better connectivity between Delhi, Noida and Ghaziabad. The planners also have in mind the burgeoning real estate development in areas like Indirapuram which have developed alongside the NH 24. Again, quite recently, the NHAI swung into action to unclog the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway and also resolve disputes around running it. The proactive stance by the NHAI in securing the clear alignment of the Delhi-Jaipur expressway also shows what such bodies are capable of when Delhi is associated. The amount of micromanagement, eye for details, the agile action, level of maintenance that the National Highways around Delhi have will almost make one think that the Union of India indeed delivers on its word – a ‘global standard’ highway network. If only the NHAI and other Delhi-centric federal government bodies would treat other parts of the Union with the same care and diligence.

The chief minister of West Bengal ( Paschimbanga) Mamata Banerjee on her recent visit to the northern part of the state pointed out the dilapidated conditions in which the  NH 34 and NH 31 exist. The utter disrepair of these ‘national’ highways in West Bengal compared to the snazzy ‘national highways’ around Delhi give away the game. Some highways are national, but some are more national than others. And it is not only Bengal. While the NHAI has decided against raising highway tolls in the Delhi Gurgaon sector, it cites Union Ministry of Road and Transport norms to do annual hikes elsewhere. The people not in the charmed circle of Delhi-centric subsidy do not take it lying down either – as the proposed protests around the NHAI owned Vallarpadam-Kalamassery Road proposed toll hike shows.

An analysis of the amount of NHAI owned roads in the 2 provinces surrounding Delhi – Haryana and Uttar Pradesh- throws up something interesting. Ostensibly roads cover land and connect people. So states with bigger geographical areas ought to have larger stretches of such highways, when other things are comparable. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -all larger than Uttar Pradesh in area, have lesser amount of National Highways than the Delhi adjoining UP. Similarly for Haryana, it has longer stretches of National Highways than Punjab (larger than Haryana) and Kerala (only slightly smaller than Haryana).

Such things beg the question – who funds the NHAI? The people of the Indian Union do – through buying NHAI bonds and by submitting to taxation of their income, services, businesses and natural resources to the government at Delhi. By what logic is such distributive injustice maintained when Delhi does not pay for itself. The people of the union need to be vigilant and audit road schemes by Delhi centric planners inch by inch. After all, a very small portion of the Indian Union’s population has real estate interest in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dilli dur ast / Delhi and the rest of us – a gangrenous old saga

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), April 27-May 03, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No.11; United Kashmir Journal(web); Frontier(web); Globeistan(web)]

 

Contrary to the claims of the Indian National Congress (INC), the 1946 Indian election results showed that though the INC was by far the largest force in the British governed territories in the Indian subcontinent, there were other players with considerable mass support, including the All India Muslim League, Communist Party of India, Scheduled Caste Federation and others, who altogether won nearly 40% of the seats. The false dominance of the Indian National Congress in the Madras province was largely due to the election boycott by the Dravidar Kazhagam, in part a continuation of the Justice Party current.  Indeed in some British constituted ‘provinces’, the Indian National Congress was a minority force. This was largely true for the 1937 elections, where the results were similar – a Congressite dominance in most provinces, but its marginality in populous provinces like Punjab and Bengal. The All Indian Muslim League (AIML) in the 1937 election had received a serious drubbing, virtually everywhere it contested. Though compromised by the factor that all these elections, 1937 or 1946 were far from representative in the absence of universal adult franchise (a point that is often forgotten in discussions around the events of 1946-47), one thing is clear – significant sections of the population were not with the INC, for whatever reason. A considerable section of the INC’s leadership always harboured ‘strong-centre’ ideas, though their inspirations were varied. It ranged from the necessity of a strong policy-driving centre congruent with ideas of command economy in vogue, the need of a tutelary centre that would provide the right lessons of modern citizenship so that a ‘sack of potatoes’ become ‘Frenchmen’ to the outright fantastic one that wanted a strong centre that would make sons of Bharatmata out of the wayward multitude that practiced ‘non-classical’ and plural Indic religions.

Given the INC’s serious marginality in more than one province at that point, the future of an Indian Federation was envisaged as a liberal union of provinces, where the Union government would only administer a few things and the provinces (or states) would be having pre-eminence in most matters.

The centralizing hawks of the INC were kept in check, for the time being, by the political realities and power equations. It is in this backdrop the Cabinet Mission plan, the blueprint of a future self-governing Indian Union was proposed.  Not going into the validity and judgment of making communal provincial groupings envisaged in the plan of May 16th, one does see the other aspect of the plan. The ‘centre’ would be in charge of defence, communications and foreign affairs – everything else would be within the ambit of provincial rights. Indeed, the centre would be the meeting ground of the provinces, not the imperial powerhouse from where the provinces would be governed. The latter was the British model of colonial domination – and such systems do facilitate smooth extraction of resources from far-flung areas but they are hardly the model of welfare where democratic aspirations of the people for self-governance has the priority.

In the political class, there was a general sense of resignation ( not necessarily agreement) to the basic thrust of the cabinet mission plan as a way to contain the diverse aspirations that India constituted and also politically expressed. It is this thrust or rather the destruction thereof that has grown to be a serious issue which goes largely undebated in post-partition Union of India.

In 1946, when the Cabinet Mission plan was proposed, the India that was conceived in it had provinces with powers that would put today’s Kashmir’s moth-eaten ‘special status’ to shame. Senior Congressites like Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabh-bhai Patel and numerous other mandarins of the party publicly and privately were more than prepared to give this dispensation a shot. The problematic idea of a sectarian grouping notwithstanding, the plan was overtaken by a breakdown of agreements between the INC and the AIML. The intense ground-level hostility in ‘mixed’ provinces in 1946 no doubt seriously undercut the chances of a grand federal Indian union, in the immediate context of prevailing circumstances. Whether the AIML’s motive on a sectarian grouping of people was holy or cynical, anti-people or liberating, is a question I will not visit here. But what is true is that the exit of the AIML due to the partition of India in 1947 suddenly changed the entire scenario. Till then, the field was a contested one. Now, one opposing side had left. Virtually unchallenged in the legislature, the Congress centralizers started scoring goals after goals in the unguarded field. These goals for the Indian centre turned out to be disastrous same-side goals as far as a democratic federal union of India was concerned.

Post-partition India was hardly any less heterogeneous and the principle of provincial autonomy with federal non-imperious centre still made democratic sense. But in that field without serious political opposition, the centralizing proponents of the INC had smelled blood, taking the idea of a strong-centre to the extreme. The lists that divide power between the union centre and the states in India are a stark testimony to this process by which states were reduced to dignified municipal corporations. They would thereafter be found forever standing with begging bowls, making depositions and cases in fronts of central government bureaucrats and ministers. Among the elite’s of that generation, the strong centre idea had appeal – it provided an excuse and an opportunity, of ‘shaping the masses’ into what was the elite’s definition of an ‘Indian’, a presentable citizen of a new nation-state.

The erosion of provincial rights in the post-partition Indian Union has seen a concomitant development of a veritable army of carrion-feeders who have mastered the process of carrying the spoils from the length and breadth of the land to pad their Delhi nests. These are the new ‘Indians’. In some way they are no different from Hindustan’s emperors and their hanger-ons who would deck up the capital by squeezing the country. What is different is that the earlier forms of ferocious extraction, of explicit carriage of loot to Delhi is now replaced by the fine art of legislative injustice. The process has been honed to near perfection over the decades, now designed and lubricated to work smoothly without making a sound. Delhi and its surrounds are showered with money that Delhi does not produce. It is peppered with infrastructure that India’s provinces had toiled hard to pay for. It is lavished with highly funded universities, art and cultural centres, museums that are designed to sap talent from India’s provinces and handicap the development of autonomous trajectories of excellence beyond Delhi. Over the decades, numerous white elephants have been reared, maintained and fed in Delhi – none of them paid for by those of live in Delhi. Of late, there is the perverse politics of infrastructure development. Who could oppose a cow as holy as infrastructure? In essence what infrastructure development in Delhi has become is the following – a method by which revenues extracted from India’s provinces are lavished in and around Delhi by making good roads, snazzy flyovers, water supply infrastructure, urban beautification projects, new institutes and universities, big budget rapid transport systems like the metro and numerous other things that India’s impoverished wastelands as well as other towns and cities can only dream of. This is perfectly in line with the new ‘expansion’ of Delhi in which Delhi’s political class has major stakes. Essentially this is cash transfer of a very sophisticated kind. Delhi’s richer classes acquire nearly uninhabited land or rural farmland. The ‘centre’ chips in by ensuring the areas get ‘developed’ from scratch. This ensures that these areas become quickly habitable or investable by Delhi’s perfumed classes, thus pushing up real estate prices, making the rich of Delhi richer. This is backed up by real infrastructure that is backed up by real cold, cash from India’s central government. The only thing unreal here is the process of pauperization of India’s provinces, of the great cities of Chennai, Kolkata and Bhopal, which have been systematically decimated by this distributive injustice. The other pauperization that has happened is more insidious, though equally corrosive. I am talking of the process of internal brain drain. Delhi’s bevy of highly funded institutions, lavish research funds, impeccable infrastructure, creation of a semblance of high culture by governmental khairati, has made Delhi the centre of aspiration for the brightest in India’s provinces. Delhi poaches on the intellectual capital of Kolkata and Chennai by the way it knows best, the baniya method.

The largesse that Delhi gets flows over to various other sectors. The large concentration of central government jobs in and around Delhi ensures that those who live there or are from those areas are more likely to end with those jobs, especially the jobs in the lower rung. This artificial support to a certain geographical area with ties to the national capital goes against all principles of natural justice, let alone those of a federal union based of equality. The Delhi-based political class uses various events and excuses of ‘national pride’ like the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games to bestow Delhi’s residents and in effect themselves and their families, better infrastructure, inflated asset values, a better life, so to say – underwritten, as always, by India’s parochial and provincial masses. The provinces, West Bengal, (East) Punjab continue to pay for partition, by paying for Delhi.

Even the media is a part of this process. A summary look at newspapers in Kolkata and Delhi will show that Delhi-based newspapers have page after page of central government advertisements – while the population of the two cities are not too different. The media is an integral part of that Delhi-based illuminati, also consisting of policy wonks, security apparatchiks, immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, bureaucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, civil society wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and all the stench that connects them. This cancerous network of self-servers are curiously termed simply ‘Indians’ – largely devoid of the visceral rootedness that this large land provides to its billion. Their regional identity is hidden shamefully, displayed diplomatically, cashed in cynically and forgotten immediately. This is a window to the mind of the deep state at Delhi. This deep state – eating away at our plural fabric, creaming at the thought of the Delhi-Mumbai urban corridor, holds a disproportionate sway over the billion who are not simply Indian. This unacknowledged billion comes with its proud identity and sense of autonomy. Its diversity is still a robust one, not a browbeaten domesticated version fit for India International Centre consumption.

The preference for things Delhi-based or things ‘Indian’ and not ‘provincial’ has resulted not only in cash transfer of epic proportions, but has surreptitiously help develop the ideology that the roots of success in India go through Delhi, by denying one’s own rooted identities, clinging onto some rung of a ladder to Delhi, moving away from one’s origins. In short, this distributive injustice serves to disincentivize aspirations that don’t hold ‘Indianism’ as the ideology, Delhi as the location.

In the era of long indoctrination, Delhi has been built up as an imperial zoo, where all we provincial rustics have to come to gawk, to be awed, and expunge ourselves of our ‘parochial-ness’ to become ‘Indians’, hailing a very specific kind of motherland. But we are people who happen to have our own mothers, those on whose lap we slept, those whose milk we drank, that whose smell we recognize. She is beautiful in a sari. She does need ornaments of gold to make her beautiful. But there sits a woman, decked up with precious jewels, none earned by herself, but brought as tributes by servile ones who want to be seen in a photograph with her, the queen. That queen is called Delhi.  And she is the reigning goddess, gathering devotees by throwing money – devotees who are working feverishly to move closer and closer into the charmed circle, into Delhi’s gilded embrace.  For all her glitz based on loot, the queen attracts awe and fear, not love and respect, from peoples who have mothers less shiny.

Some final thoughts on India’s provinces. States, provinces, nations – none are designed to contain the aspirational trajectories of the plural multitudes in the Indian Union. Democracy is a deity that has seen a lot of empty, cynical and faithless obeisance be made in her front. Increasing democratization, transfer of the locus of power away from the centre, is a way of deepening democracy. There have been very few attempts to do this. The Sarkaria Commission of 1983 was a positive step in this direction with clear recommendations of making a more inclusive, federal and democratic union of India by transferring certain rights from the central list to the state list. Predictably, the commission’s report is in suspended animation. For all that we know, it might have died already. The Indian state may not admit it. All too cynically, the centre has often tried to bypass the provinces by speaking over the heads the state governments through its army of central bureaucrats and law enforcers posted as imperial minders in every district. This friction between the different levels – between the local bodies and the state governments, assures the centre’s stability. It has also tried to project an ultimately false sense of autonomous empowerment at the local level by the Panchayati Raj institutions by not giving the local bodies any power to veto decisions and proposals that affect their own futures. The blatant disregard of these institutions when ‘higher authorities’ push a project through in the face of massive opposition to loss of livelihood, destruction of homestead and displacement shows what lofty catch-words peddled by the higher level of administration like ‘local empowerment’ or ‘deepening democratic institutions’ really mean, when push comes to shove.

Some ‘states’ in India vaguely are entities that existed even before the modern idea of India was conceived and will probably outlive the idea too. Some of them would have been among the top 20 entities in the whole world in terms of population. They are repositories of plural cultures that the myopic Delhi-based circus called Dilli-haat cannot even fathom, much less domesticate, package and consume – with a bit of ‘central funding support’ thrown in for window dressing. The union of Indian exists, but it is and never was an inevitable union. To take that myth seriously, for that matter to take foundational myths of any nation-state seriously, is a dangerous error – realities are glossed over by textbook manufactured pride. The past of the constituents of the Indian Union were partially intertwined and largely not. To change this balance decisively, so that a Delhi-prescribed and Delhi-centric path to the future becomes a pan-Indian obsession is dangerous dream.  Whether the future of the Union of India will look  a joint family where the feared patriarch sets the rules for all or more like a split joint family living in proximity who are in good terms but cook separately, is a choice we need to make. The latter is much closer to our social reality anyway. Structures that limit aspirations and exile imaginations are fundamentally sociopathic. I am sure, Delhi wants to be loved. Like the plural pasts, to unlock the greatest potential, we need a plural future – an Indian union with thousands of sisterly centres. Delhi no doubt will be one of the sisters in that love-in. Distributive justice would be the glue holding together that future circle of sisterhood. I hope.

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Filed under Democracy, Elite, Foundational myths, Hindustan, History, Identity, India, Jal Jangal Zameen, Kolkata, Madraj, Nation, Open futures, Pakistan, Partition, Plural pasts, Polity, Power, Urbanity

Darker than coal – the centre-state politics of mineral revenue

[IPA, 20 April 2012 ; Frontier (web), 1 Jun 2012]

India was supposed to be a democratic federal union. The daily debasing of that compact goes largely unnoticed among our chattering classes and policy makers.  The states in India have long been reduced to impoverished alms-seekers – mass leaders from its great provinces prostrating daily in front of federal bureaucrats and policy-makers who represent no one. This is nothing short of disturbing, to say the least and cannot be a good sign of health in a democracy.

Let is come to the specifics. Why are states forever standing with the begging bowl in front of the centre? It is not that the city of Delhi knows any secret formula to grow money in the manicured gardens near the North and South block. This false opulence comes from the constitutional provisions by which the centre captures most of the revenues that are produced in the states. The centre has also awarded itself the right to grab the revenues from the pre-existing wealth of the states, namely their minerals and other subterranean resources. It is from this wealth gathered from distant lands that the ‘National Capital Region’ or British-built Delhi awards itself with infrastructure and services that other parts of India can only dream of or can only pay for by the traditional Indian method known as toiling hard to earn one’s own bread.

Except Maharashtra, all the other coal-producing states are stricken with poverty – near about fifty percent of the people in these states living even below the Montek-line, mockingly known as the poverty line. This includes West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. These also include some of the most impoverished zones of the Indian Union, where contractors, mining mafia, government officials and goons rule the roost as a dehumanized and starving populace looks on. What the centre gives as coal royalty to these states is a pittance. Delhi siphons that off through its channels keeping the states impoverished. The states have repeatedly asked for the coal royalties to be increased. Such requests have fallen on deaf ears – coal is lucrative and the thief knows that. Geography books in India inform students that West Bengal and Jharkhand has coal deposits. What it does not inform that is the coal does not belong to them. They are more like encroachers on the land under which there is coal deposit – the centre throws some spare change at these beggar-states as it makes off with the loot. While nationalization of prime resources is indeed a positive step, the divorcing of the fruits of the bounty from the very people in whose areas these were found goes against all elements of distributive justice.

In such a scenario, honourable Shriprakash Jaiswal, the coal minister from Delhi’s Shastri Bhavan, has given West Bengal a few pearls of wisdom. He has suggested that work be stopped at the almost-completed Bengal Aerotroplis project at Andal near Durgapur as coal was locked under those lands. This ambitious project, which is projected to make Andal a major air-cargo hub of South and South-east Asia, has been a project longtime in the making. Similar clamours from the centre a few years ago had made the West Bengal government take the drastic step of reducing the project area by 400 acres so that certain areas with purportedly rich coal deposits are left out.  From minister Jaiswal’s recent pronouncements it seems that our mai-baaps in Delhi want more as coal is a national property and hence, projects should not come up on coal-bearing land so that mining activities are affected.

It seems that having coal, or other mineral deposits, is like having a curse. Dongria Kondh people of Orissa and Gond people of Chhattisgarh know it too well as the central paramilitaries effectively suspend the fundamental rights of the citizen in these places to uphold the rights of multinational mineral magnates to plunder and run. Equally bad is the scenario of states like West Bengal. The centre will not increase royalties on coal. At the same time, it is threatening to throw a spanner into a major potential employment and revenue-generating project in the state. The coal is national, but the revenue loss is West Bengal’s. The coal is a national resource, but land in West Bengal will be quarantined for such purposes without reasonable compensation to West Bengal. If a respectful relationship between the Union centre and the mineral-bearing states are to evolve, the central government might want to make the states equal partners in decision-making as well as royalty and revenue sharing. It is rather shortsighted to expect that West Bengal and Jharkhand will forever pay for Commonwealth Games and white elephant infrastructure in Delhi while its own people starve. The expression of sharp discontent and dogged resistance by Baloch nationalists on very similar matters of natural resource exploitation by Islamabad is a subcontinental example. One expects that Delhi will learn from its neighbour – that uncompensated exploitation of a province’s resources is unjust, that a functioning union needs co-operating partners, not imperious masters and sulking servants.

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Filed under Bengal, Democracy, India, Nation, Polity, Power, Rights

No closure in sight: the US Republican primaries

[IPA – March 29, 2012; Echo of India, April 1 2012]

In the United States, the presidential candidates are chosen through a far more democratic process than the one we follow in India. In India, the political parties and their bosses unilaterally announce candidates and force them on the people. The problem of a deep democratic deficit is compounded by the fact that most of the major political groups are ancestral parties. The organizational elections are either stage managed or worse still, the panels ‘announced’ by the incumbent cabal (generally a family or a group of powerfuls) go uncontested. The US system is radically different in some ways. Large numbers of people vote in what are called ‘primaries’ – which are designed to choose a party candidate for the general election against adversaries from other parties. Very few primaries go uncontested, ensure a say of the party loyalists and supporters in party affairs, candidates and directions directly.

The US is now in the middle of the primaries for the Republican nomination. This primary would throw up the person who would challenge the obvious Democratic Party candidate and incumbent president Barrack Obama for the US Presidency in late 2012. Starting with a much larger set of competitors, only four candidates now remain in the race – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, with Mitt Romney leading the pack having come first in nearly 2/3 rd of the primaries that have happened in different states. Generally, the nomination is grabbed by this time, but that has not happened this year, giving Republican Party loyalists and supporters a lot to be concerned. Why this concern with the primary process dragging on till the Republican party convention in Tampa Bay, Florida in the last week of August. The character of a primary can be very different from the general election. In the primaries, the typical voter is more often the party loyalist, or the ‘base’ or ‘core constituents’ of a party. The message and the rhetoric that is employed by candidates to win primaries are naturally tailored towards the party faithful – such messages may not work on the general populace and would generally backfire. The more a primary process drags on, going on from one to another, more internecine bad blood if spilt by the candidates within the same party, thus weakening each other and also providing useful fodder and attack points by contenders from Democratic party, come general election time. The longer this process is, the less time the winning Republican nominee will have to substantially modify his message for a wider electorate. This system of speaking from a certain ideological slant and tone during the primaries and then after having won the nomination, changing the message to pragmatism is at its core nothing but cynical manipulation. It is precisely this that a major section of the Republican primary voters have not come to terms with this time and hence the primary is still on.

Mitt Romney, the most ‘moderate’ among the Republican candidates is the front-runner. A corporate animal, Romney has outspent his opponents many times over. This means, his face is seen in TV advertisements, his glossy campaign material is seen stuffed in letter boxes all over the country, much more than other candidates. While this visibility has translated into a kind of reluctant acceptability, an important part of the Republican base, namely the Christian conservative segment has not warmed up to his candidature. This segment, nurtured by Barry Goldwater’s insurgent campaign decades ago, is now a major force that has played a very important part in the agenda setting and campaign platform positioning in this election cycle. There is a view that Romney is simply a career politician, one of those slithery one without principle who whose conservatism on display during the primaries is largely false. That Romney is also a Mormon, a very non-mainstream Christian sect, much like the Ahmadiyya sect in the Muslim world, does not really help him, in general. This segment and some other have been desperately seeking an alternative to him, the ‘anti-Romney’, so to say. First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, even Newt Gingrich, but now it seems to have coalesced around Rick Santorum whose Christian conservative credentials are impeccable. That is largely why even after being outspent by Mitt Romney by huge amounts of money, Rick Santorum has won state after state in what is called the ‘Bible belt’ in the deep south of the United States, at times by very large margins, as in Lousiana and Kansas. There are increasing calls for the other 2 candidates – Gingrich and Paul to bow out – calls that they have not heeded till now.

It can be assumed that Mitt Romney will be the eventual nominee, after a little more intra-clan warfare among the Republicans. At the same time, the Democratic candidate, Barrack Obama, supported by both large corporate donations and shallow pocket party loyalists has amassed a war chest of 172 million US Dollars, as of February. This amount is 12 times the cash on hand as Mitt Romney at the same time. Though certain large Republican funders are holding off till the nominee is clear, it is not easy to close such a gap. Unless Republican Politican Action Committees (PACs) get into serious fundraising, the half-black Goliath will trounce all white David come November. The anti-immigrant posturing by most Republican candidates, including Romney, will only hurt them, as the Hispanic-Latino (persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American ethno-cultural origin) vote becomes more crucial than ever before.

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Envisioning excellence: Academic quality and autonomy in context

[ Frontier (web) 6 May 2012; Sakaal Times (Pune) 24 April 2012; The Hitavada (Nagpur) 30 April 2012; Daily Excelsior (Jammu) 28 April 2012 ]

In a recent piece, Prabhat Patnaik ( The Telegraph, 2 April, 2012) lays out what he thinks are major  threats to the  autonomy of the domestic intellectual discourse in India. He comes up with ‘coercion to conform’ to academic fashions of the North and its hegemony in deciding the worth of ideas as a prime suspect. He also reserves special fire for the insistence on quality when assessing academics. Finally, he talks about the anxiety of the NRI academic about being increasingly irrelevant in India’s academic circles. If one were to go beyond aimed-to-disarm self-congratulatory banalities resting on wistful anecdotes that the level of intellectual discourse in India was superior to Bangladesh, one might come to see the boy who cried wolf and the real wolf itself. I cannot argue for the autonomy to cheat millions of students, by posing the demand for quality as simply a conspiracy to defang heterodox ideas. The victims of the wolf may want  a hearing. That affair can get very dirty.

For academic discourse, two things that are of utmost importance are quality and iconoclasm. Both are easier stated than implemented.We need iconoclasm in the world of knowledge to both expand and question our conceptions of the world. Ideas, especially those on which the  reputation of stalwart academicians and their ‘intellectual’ children depend, those which conform to ideologies of the state, are especially hard to challenge and discredit. It is important to foster iconoclasm so that knowledge does not become a tool in the sustenance of the powerful, but becomes  Those who claim to want to change this equation between ideas and power, more than often recreate stifling power hegemonies themselves, if they happen to capture some part of the academic sphere themselves. All through the euphoric seventies and the pre-doomsday eighties, the way Marxist   academics in India coerced budding students into their ideological predilections, through thinly veiled carrots and sticks, peppering departments all over the country with their ideological kith and kin, should serve as a grim reminder of what intellectual fascism can be unleashed in the name of fighting conformity and hegemony. The veritable boom in the number of thesis and research papers coming out of JNU, CU and JU during that period, that employed ‘Marxian analysis’ is a sad testament to this. Ideological limitations, the need to reward loyalties and conformity,  combined with an intricate system of informal mutual back-scratching helped permeate close-mindedness in academia, right upto departments in small colleges. Atop this hierarchy sat the nomenklatura – now, not so much out of favour as it touts to be, more out of fashion than it wants to be. The pariah status that an academic of the class of Ashis Nandy was accorded is a telling reminder how erstwhile champions of things heterodox can quickly transform themselves into defenders of status-quo, discouraging multiple heterodoxies. Iconoclasm, while being aimed at existing hegemons, cannot be a pretext for spreading petty mediocrity, so as to entrench vested interests, making their uprooting that much harder. West Bengal is still reeling from this phenomenon. It is not clear yet whether the ‘greenwashed’ future will be  any different. Though employed here for the purposes of illustration, encouraging nepotism, spreading mediocrity, propagating hegemonies, creating a nomenklatura based on in-group loyalties, shrillness and service to power, is by no means an exclusively ‘red’ disease.

An ecology where reasoned iconoclasm reigns supreme needs, among other things, a democratic setup and the student-professor relationship that is like that one between peers. It needs to be a  space where deference to truth and evidence comes foremost, where plagiarism is dealt with ruthlessly, where students and research scholars who oppose the academic ideas of their mentors cannot be threatened with ‘dire consequences’, where individual brilliance of a student that surpasses that of the professor causes celebration rather than anxiety, where ‘stalwart academics’ can be heckled by sound logic and shown their place if need be. Finally, it needs to be place where that great unmentionable called quality reigns supreme. The last point is especially important for research, as many of the researchers will come to populate the teaching departments of India.

One way by which hegemonies are perpetuated in academia in India, are by faculty appointments on the basis considerations other than academic quality. In a scenario so rife with  nepotism and favouritism based on academic lineage, political inclination and other vested interests, setting an objective quality bar hits right at the heart of these informal structures of patronage. Though by no means perfect, one useful index of academic quality is impact factor or H-index. Academic research, in the natural and social sciences, is mainly published in specialized journals. Impact factor  or H-index are various measures of citation and quality of journal where one published their work, indicative of how many other people deem your research important or relevant enough to refer to it in their own work published in an indexed journal. There are many indexed journals in India too. While not prostrating totally at the altar of impact factor, a deference to that deity might serve well to separate the wheat from the chaff generated by prejudiced, ideological and nepotistic calls that faculty recruitment committees often make, using the cover of subjective assessment.

The claim that NRI academics in Harvard and Stanford suffer from some kind of relevance-to-discourse-in-India envy is a just that, a claim. There is absolutely no evidence to show that  academic in India is cited more than his or her Boston-based NRI counterpart by academics based in Pune or Nasik or Satara. In fact, for all the fire-eating talk of undercutting and inverting the global academic pecking order, the reality is much more sobering. Pre-eminent warriors of ‘autonomous’ discourse make their beeline for Oxford University Press, Routledge or Ivy-league university presses, be it Harvard University Press or Columbia University Press, to get their thick books published. These books cost a fortune to libraries in India.

There have been for sometime currents within the world of science that seek of remove the commercial barrier to knowledge access. Open-access journals which can be read freely all over the world are part of this. The charge that peer-reviews may be prejudiced against those espousing uncomfortable and heterodox ideas is now being countered with innovations in the methods of review, open review and even scope for open-debate during the review process. Journals with open access and newer forms of review are being cited highly and many have established themselves repute in a very short time. It is this process of open-access and open review to level the international playing field in knowledge production that India can ride high on, rather than viewing the demand for quality as a conspiracy.

On the question of quality and the conspiratorial scorn heaped at ‘refereed journals of repute’, let me mention P.C.Mahalanobis’s Sankhya. Sankhya, was and is, a refereed journal of repute, and at the same time, is published from India by the Indian Statistical Institute. It calls itself the “Indian journal of statistics.” Its impact factor is comparable to the better  journals of general statistics. Sankhya’s latest issue (Volume: 73, Series: A, Par: 2, Year: 2011) has 7 papers from 15 authors. All but two are non-Indians. These numbers vary but the underlying point is clear. It is simply a quality Indian outlet of academic research, that is also coveted by foreign researchers as a place to be published in. It would be absurd to argue that its high quality and concomitant stature in the globe hurts its autonomy or that it discriminates against research workers in India. The Sankhya project is no narrow nationalist project that some might paint it to be – rather it is a product of a certain confidence that a research journal can be Indian and of high quality at the same time.

Of course, all that there is or should be, has a context. It exists in the backdrop of India’s stark social inequity, a global order that seeks to promote and reward certain voices and stifle others, an increasing commercialization and corporatization of the vehicles of public discourse, a culture that equates research utility with the private profits that it can generate. India needs vigorous affirmative action and democratization of academic and institutional cultures. The institutions need quality and autonomy and the imagination to wed the two.

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India versus the Union of India

[ Frontier (web)  17 Mar 2012 ; Frontier Vol. 44, No. 42, April 29-May 5, 2012 ; Echo of India, 10 Mar 2012]

So the states have spoken through Mamata Bandopadhyay. The chief ministers, the ones who atleast publicly posture that they believe in the constutionally mandated federal character of the Indian union, have opposed the proposed NCTC (National Counter-terrorism Centre). Manmohan Singh has fired letters to chief ministers. It appears that those letters have not pacificied nor clarified. The chief ministers are more interested in the letters of the proposed draft legistlation of the NCTC. This organism, a brainchild of P.Chidambaram, is the latest in a series of initiatives ( inclduing the infamous UAPA) that have been chipping away the the civil liberties and democratic fabric of the country, slowly but surely.Sure, it is not Stasi-like times till now but the powers that have been accorded to the NCTC would make anyone who care about basic human rights sit up. Not all the chief ministers who are in tow with Mamata opposing the NCTC, are champions of civil liberties, but their united stand in defence of federalism is to be commended.

The  constitution of the Indian Union has powers laid out in different baskets. Some matters are for the the union government to decide ( what we sometimes misleadingly call the ‘centre’). Some matters are in the jurisdiction of the states. Some are concurrent. Law and order, where any matter about combat of terrorism would typically fall, is a state subject. The dangerouslu dismissive attitude of the union government towards state’s rights and its intent and attitude towards the federal nature of the constitution is clear from the nature of the proposed powers of the NCTC – the police/enforcers under the NCTC can a person from any state, without informing or consulting the state police agencies. This, in common parlance, is as glorious as unilateral kidnapping of private citizens without much accountabillity.

The union government at Delhi has, post partition, created through its policies a discourse  of inevitable move towards a unitary super-strong centre like where states are reduced to dignified municipal corporations, forever standing with begging bowls, making depositions and cases in fronts of central government bureaucrats and ministers. Some ‘states’ in India are entities that existed even before the modern idea of India was conceived and will probably outlive the idea too. Some of them would have been among the top 20 entities in the whole world in terms of population. They are repositories of plural cultures that the myopic Delhi-based circus called Dilli-haat cannot even fathom, much less domesticate, package and consume – with a bit of ‘central funding support’ thrown in for window dressing. The union of Indian exists, but it is and never was an inevitable union. To take that myth seriously, for that matter to take foundational myths of any nation-state seriously, is a dangerous error – realities are glossed over by textbook manufactured pride. In 1946, when the Cabinet Mission plan was proposed , the India that was conceived in it had provinces with powers that would put today’s Kashmir’s moth-eaten ‘special status’ to shame. This proposal enjoyed wide-spread support inside and outside the Indian National Congress, as Abul Kalam Azad’s autobiography so clearly reveals. Scuttled by visions of a strong centre wielding a big stick to shape up the multitude into a ‘modern India’, the Nehruvian tendency prevailed. Post-parition, with a open field without serious political opposition, this political tendency took the idea of a string centre to the extreme – essentially hollowing out the powers of states by serial violations of state rights, impositions of Article 356 and legislations rubberstamped by huge unquestioning Congressite majorities.The long practice of High-command ‘appointments’ of chief ministers in Congress rule states, especially after the demise of the Congress syndicate, have also contributed to the steady degradation of the power and prstige of that office. The Mahasabha-Jan Sangh-BJP tendency always relished the unitary monocultural homogenous motherland idea and have always been big champions of strong centres, draconian laws that suspend basic civil liberties and the like. Their opposition to the NCTC is supremely cynical, to say the least, given its sordid past of advocating very similar legislations like POTO which had provisions for federal policing and were as anti-federal any other.

Who would have thought that there is still life in the regional forces of India to stand up united against calculated attacks of India’s federal character? Almost all regional parties, ruling and opposition, inside UPA or NDA or non-aligned, have made it known that they take serious exception to the NCTC, precisely because it encroaches on state’s rights.

A supreme ignorance of the nature of the constitution and political evolution of the Union is apparent in the media coverage by photogenic faces who serve inanities by the mouthful. And why not? The media is an integral part of that Delhi-based elite circle who constitute the new mandarins of India – politicians, bureucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, policy wonks, civil society wallahs and alll This cancerous network of self-servers are curiously simply ‘Indians’ – largely devoid of the visceral rootedness that this large land provides to its billion. Their regional identity is hidden shamefully, displayed diplomatically, cashed in cynically and forgotten immediately. This is a window to the mind of the deep state at Delhi. This deep state – eating away at our plural fabric, creaming at the thought of the Delhi-Mumbai urban corridor, holds a disproportionate sway over the billion who are not simply Indian. This unacknowledged billion comes with its proud identity and sense of autonomy. Its diversity is still a robust one, not a brow-beaten domesticated version fit for India International Centre consumption.

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Mamata’s shining moment : India versus the union

[ Daily New and Analysis, 23 Feb 2012 ]

In the wake of the NCTC (National Counter-terrorism Centre) controversy, the Prime Minister of the Union of India, Manmohan Singh has written to the Chief Ministers that “In forming the NCTC, it is not the government’s intent in any way to affect the basic features of the Constitutional provisions and allocation of powers between the States and the Union.” But words are as just that – words. It is the wording of the proposed legislation that matters. The proviso provided in the draft legislation flies in the face of the pious banalities about the central government’s intent and attitude towards the federal nature of the constitution and lays it out rather clearly – the police/enforcers under the NCTC can a person from any state, without informing or consulting the state police agencies. Draconian and Gestapo-like to say the least, there is another problem. As it happens, the constitution, law and order is a state subject. In the long process post-independence where the provinces have been reduced to impoverished alm-seekers, this legislation goes for the jugular. This is serious stuff from a section of the India Congress think-tanks.

The constitution, at its outset, reads, “India, that is Bharat, is a union of states.” Without the states uniting to form a federal system, there is no India. All the power and legality that the union government at New Delhi wields stems from this act. Same goes for its hubris when it dictates as Rex Imperator to the states through its non-statutory, non-elected appendages like the planning commission. The Sarkaria commission of 1983 had a large set of specific recommendations to review centre-state relationships and power sharing in the spirit of a federal union. The commission’s recommendations have essentially been frozen to death. Given the persistent encroachment of the centre on state rights on various issues, review of the concurrent list in favour of decentralization is a pipe-dream at present. What could have embodied the spirit of the Indian federal union, the Inter State Council, has been made into a toothless talking-shop, rather than the real state of policy review and consultation it should be.

The chief minister of Paschimbanga (West Bengal), Mamata Banerjee, has thrown spanner into such province vassalization designs – now twice in a row. For long described in mainstream corporate media as a speed-breaking tantrum thrower, she has been able to line up almost every chief minister except  Congress appointees to chief ministership to certain states. First through opposing the mandatory provisions about the Lokayukta in the Lokpal bill and now opposing the draft NCTC legislation, she has done what every state, including Congress-ruled states, should be doing – opposing the anti-federalist designs of the Union government. The  pundits who detest  the ‘disproportionate’ clout of ‘regional’ political forces should for once thanks these forces for standing up for the constitution, where the pre-eminent ‘national’ party has been found wanting. One can only note the cynical opposition of the BJP to the NCTC, the big ‘national’ group, given its sordid past of advocating very similar legislations like POTO which had provisions for federal policing and were as anti-federal any other. UPA ruling forces like the Trinamool Congress and National Conference,  non-UPA ruling parties like JD(U), AIADAMK, TDP, BJD, Nagaland People’s Front and  CPI(M), regional opposition parties both inside and outsie the UPA like the DMK and TDP  have also made clear that they serious exception to the NCTC as proposed.

The Delhi-controlled Indian Union as it stands today is in a big way the product of a reverse swing of the pendulum that started with the rejection of the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946. In the eve of parition and subsequent formation of the Indian Union, the ultra-centralized beast that we have at hand was unthinkable. While many Indians gloat at Pakistan’s long tryst with the ghosts of partition and separatism, partition and the resultant elimination of the major chunk of non-Congress political sphere enabled the central government of India to create a state that is a federal union only in name. This old Nehruvian disease, not surprisingly, also infects the Mahasabha-JanSangh-BJP lineage, who have their own delusions of unitary nationhood.

The portrayal of the NCTC impasse as some kind of a Mamata versus Congress flavour of the week shows the degradation of the level of public discourse, especially in the television media. A supreme ignorance of the nature of the constitution and political evolution of the Union is apparent in the coverage by photogenic faces who serve inanities by the mouthful. And why not? The media elite is an inseparable part of that Delhi-based illuminati, also comprising of policy think-tanks, security apparatchiks,immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, the higher bureaucracy and all the stench that connects them. This cancerous network of self-servers are curiously simply ‘Indians’ – largely devoid of the visceral rootedness that this large land provides to its billion. Their regional identity is hidden shamefully, displayed diplomatically, cashed in cynically and forgotten immediately. What is most dangerous is that their plan of destroying India’s federal structure is not  conspiratorial but inadvertent – a joyride by default where speedbreakers were not expected. This is a window to the mind of the deep state at Delhi.

This deep state – eating away at our plural fabric, creaming at the thought of the Delhi-Mumbai urban corridor, holds a disproportionate sway over the billion who are not simply Indian. This unacknowledged billion comes with its proud identity and sense of autonomy. Its diversity is still a robust one, not a brow-beaten domesticated version fit for DilliHaat consumption. Be it calculated manoevering, Mamata has twice taken the initiative to bell the cat. But forces need to gather like the ‘thuggies’ of yore. This cat called India needs to be strangled, so that the Union of India lives.

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Dhaka Street – The ‘coup’ attempt

[ Echo of India, 29 Jan 2012 ; Frontier (web) Jan 2012 ; Frontier Vol. 44, No. 34, Mar 4 -10, 2012 ]

On January 19, the Bangladesh army declared in a press conference that a possible coup attempt had been foiled last month. Dhaka has had a shave with destabilization of the elected government. How close the shave was, we might not know soon – especially because the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) government, quite predictably, has seized this opportunity to bolster its image, which had taken a serious beating in the last one-year, as evidenced from the results of the local body elections.

Already from certain AL quarters, there are allegations being thrown about the involvement of the principal opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the coup attempt. According to the Bangladesh army press
brief, the main players in the coup attempt were “some non-resident Bangladeshis” and “some retired and serving army officers with fanatical religious views”. Specifically an Islamic fundamentalist organization with branches world over including Bangladesh, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HUT), has been implicated.

This eastern part of Bengal has seen successful and unsuccessful coups in the past. The last such unsuccessful coup was partly a standoff between the president and Chief of Army Staff and then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on the other. While both General Zia-ur-Rahman and General Ershad were beneficiaries of a coup, their immediately loyal constituency does not exist in the Army as it did some decades ago. In spite of the AL allegation, it is unlikely that he top echelons of the BNP had any systematic collective ole in the purported coup attempt last month. During the oft-coup by Moin U Ahmed, under the garb of the care-taker government, both AL and BNP leaders had been tortured. Extremely active in certain mosques of London’s East end, a Bangladeshi hub, the HUT also enjoys considerable support in Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries with large Bangladeshi immigrant populations. Hence it is not uprising that certain nodes of the alleged conspiracy point to these places of HUT presence. However, the fertile reception of the toxic, anti-democratic ideology of the HUT n the Bangladeshi army can be partially traced back to the Zia and Ershad years when under their programme of conscious Islamization of the Bangladeshi polity and state institutions, the army was one of the first institutions where this was carried out.
It has been a slow process. It is not easy to transform the Army of 71 into the Army of Islam. Neither has such a complete transformation happened. But what cannot be denied that the some of the young captains and lieutenants who were recruited in the Bangladesh army during the Zia and Ershad years of Islamization are now Colonels, Brigadiers and other higher-ups. The Junior Commanding Officers (JCO) of the units have also grown up with them.
They have grown up in a period when a not so veiled communal discourse ran rife in official circles of East Bengal. In addition to realpolitik, it is this ideological bent that might have the biggest potential to bring down the elected government. The people of Bangladesh have never voted overwhelmingly for staunch Islamic groups. Their leaders and people of influence though have quite willingly allied themselves with illegitimate governments of Zia and Ershad. Much of the BNP and Jatiyo Party top brass are essentially erstwhile civilian collaborators of illegitimate martial administrations, be it that of Zia or Ershad. Even during the dangerous flirtation with the caretaker government, many civilian leaders sent not so covert signals that they would have to have an extended honeymoon with the unelected dispensation.
That the Bangladesh Jatiyo Sangshad (parliament) is largely dysfunctional does help matters and only serves to alienate certain sections of the opposition spectrum into finding ways of securing change, as they would like to see it, via roads that run opposite to that of an elected national assembly. The BNP has done a marathon boycott of the Jatiyo Sangshad. They can claim that the AL had done the samewhenBNPwasinpower.Thereismorethanagrain of truth in that allegation. The physical absence of the BNP in the Sangshad as well as the small number of seats the BNP holds anyways may give the AL leadership a false sense of an overwhelming majority. Recent BNP street mobilizations and their win in local body election show that they clear represent much more than what their Sangshad strength might suggest. AL’s ham-handed suppression of opposition political rallies will only serve to delink certain fringe elements of the opposition from open street politics to conspiratorial politics that has its own discreet charm.
The Indian Union fits into the Bangladeshi political scene as a convenient punching bag for the opposition – the street ones to the underground fundamentalist cells. India’s trigger happy Border Security Force which routinely liquidates and tortures Bangladeshi ( as well as Indian) nationals in the border areas provides real ground for hostility. Add to this India’s brewing plans on the Tipaimukh dam and not doing a comprehensive settlement of outstanding water sharing issues, especially that of Teesta. This leaves the AL government in Dhaka in a distinctly unenviable position. Whether the Indian state wants to help rout the AL at the hustings next time is really upto it.
The next legitimate election in Bangladesh will see an unprecedented combat. The AL plans to tighten the noose around the Jamat-e-Islami and certain BNP leaders implicated in war crimes as collaborators of Pakistan during 1971. This is a high stakes game. If the AL loses, it is almost inevitable that there will be political violence against AL cadres, the constant trickle of Hindu and Buddhist emigration to West Bengal and Tripura might spurt, while the top AL leaders might decamp to safety to UK and USA, where most of their sons and daughters live anyways. The results of that election will have huge effects on the security, demographics and struggle for resources in the Subcontinent. This coup does give a small but real fillip to the AL in that struggle.

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Chidambaram’s regret: Proding a sleeping beast

[ Sakaal Times (Pune) 31 Mar 2011 ; Echo of India (Port Blair) 1 Apr 2011 ]

For what its worth, the Wikileaks cables have been providing an unabashedly frank set of commentaries and report-backs from Unites States diplomats on the conversations and activities that the power elite of the world engage in. What must be a rather painful pinprick to the ego of über-nationalists of third-world nations, the leaks reveal that petty to hefty political
operatives feel way more comfortable about airing views about their own nation and polity in front of foreign diplomats than in front of their own people. A place at the big table comes at a price.The sine qua non for being a trusted lynch-pin in the Washington consensus based model for the new century is to be at home with the idea of being part of a global power elite with trading vital national interests and bandying information being a standard method of operation. But this can have blow-back in the nations the comprador elite inhabit, as the recent uproar in the Indian parliament shows. An alleged comment attributed to the Home Minister P Chidambaram was perceived to be particularly egregious, leading to calls for his resignation from a wide spectrum of the opposition – especially from the cow-belt.

According to the cables, in 2009, Chidambaram commented to Timothy Roemer, the United States ambassador to India, that higher growth rates in India would could be achieved “if it were the south and west only” and that “the rest of the country held it back”. By implication, ‘rest’ would mean the north and the east. What is all the more interesting is the sense of the world ‘it’ – the idea that the majority of the population of the country was holding the minority back from
launching into the big league. The extreme non-rootedness and disparaging attitude that such lines show are unfortunate, where whole peoples and their abodes come to be conceived as surplus production units by the GDPwallas. In fact, Chidambaram is on record stating that “My vision is to get 85 percent of India into cities”. With such visions doing rounds at the helm, it has the potential cause incremental social unrest and destroy certain compacts, which for good or for bad, have been an important basis of the Indian Union. Let me explain.

The alleged statement touches a rather raw nerve in the large sections of the cow-belt, especially those who champion the cause of peoples of Hindi dialects. The Hindi issue, till recently, was an political plank of the socialist formations in the cow-belt and going by the characters who were the shrillest in condemnation, one does see those forgotten political
contours re-emerging in a rare moment of solidarity among the various factions of the erstwhile cow-belt socialists – spanning from the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal to the Janata Dal ( United). The Bharatiya Janata Party with its core constituency in the cow-belt was active too. Political leadership have mostly chosen to not open the can of worms along a North-South divide and for this, credit is partly due to the politicians of the BIMARU states.There are serious divisions in opinion about the nature power sharing compacts in the Indian Union. The centre-state relationships in the union as well as the relationship between the North and the South in terms of power leveraging at the centre is at the end of the day pegged to the parliamentary representation of these zones in the Union parliament. At present, the basis of
such representation is that of he 1971 census. Article 81 and 82 and the 42nd constitutional amendment (1976) essentially froze the North-South power relations at 1971 population levels. By the 96th constitutional amendment ( 2003) extended the 1971 scenario till 2026.Until that time, territorial constituencies, in the Lok Sabha with regard to the number of seats allocated to each state, cannot be altered.The 96th constitutional amendment bill was passed with opposition support, including the cow-belt socialists who were politically more influential in 2003. It was a BJP government in centre, the Janata Dal (United) being the second largest faction of the ruling coalition and Samajwadi Party being the 5th largest party in parliament with 26 seats.

It is important to note the implications of this for the BIMARU states. Population changes between 1971 and 2001 have thrown up newer demographic realities. If parliamentary constituencies were allocated to states in proportion with 2001 census figures, all the BIMARU states stand to gain seats , even after adjusting for cleavage of some of the states in the
meantime- Uttar Pradesh (adjusting for Uttarakhand) – 6 , Rajasthan -4, Bihar (adjusting for Jharkhand)- 3 and Madhya Pradesh (adjusting for Chhattisgarh) – 2. This means that in the present parliamentary representation, the BIMARU states are underrepresented by 15 seats, not a small amount at all. This also leads to a democratic deficit when the population and
representation start having an assymetric relationship. This scenario of events will continue till 2026. By that time, the skew or the under-representation of the BIMARU states will be more acute,possibly between 25-30 seats, if the present population growth rates are any indicator.

In 2026, if parliamentary representation is brought in line to population proportions according to the 2021 census, we are looking at an adjustment of 25-30 seats in favour of he BIMARU states. The fallout of this shift would depend on the political climate vis-a-vis North-South relationship at that point. Admittedly quiescent in recent years, the nature of North-South relationship has the potential to become tenuous in the face of such a huge shift in power equations in the Indian Union centre. It is in this context that alleged comments made to the US Ambassador have the potential of waking up a sleeping beast. If such antagonisms develop, the Southern states would feel being victimized and squeezed out of resources and power leveraging for having done a better job at population control. We have already heard such grumblings on issues of central resource allocation to states. The Home Minister will do well to remember the Dravida Nadu movement in his own state. That project’s present political nonviability does not predict its future when population truths, however bitter, will hit home. While he might want 85 percent people to be rootless and bereft of sub-national identities, toiling away
in the cities to raise GDP numbers, the tapestry of human plurality of India is much more resilient than urban-industrial fantasies of nothing-but-Indians. That tapestry has numerous untied ends. Chidambaram can chose to pull them at his own peril.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Change, Class, Democracy, Elite, Open futures, Our underbellies, Urbanity