Category Archives: Elite

For the self-serving elite, mother tongue poses hindrance

[ DNA, 27 May 2014; Echo of India, 7 June 2014; Dhaka Tribune, 3 June 2014]

My parents, both of whom went to Bangla-medium schools, had decided to send me to an English-medium school. Among other things, this was a marker of relative affluence. From Kolkata’s insular perch, it was perceived to be an essential lubricant to socio-economic ascendency. It was also true that much of Kolkata’s upper-middle and middle classes had deserted public institutions – schools and hospitals were the major casualties of this trend because institutions of the poor and administered by the rich without a stake in them run very poorly. This reality may have also worked in my parent’s minds – the only son needs to succeed and earn. In the 144 municipal wards of Kolkata, there were only a few Bangla-medium schools that matched the English-medium schools in public imagination. This illusion of being the choicest medium of successful (however defined) education was perpetuated partly by a cabal of ‘good’ English schools (places where the superiority of people-like-us was ingrained as ideology), which competed against in other and created their own legends. Public imagination is not the same as a public examination and this is where many of these English-medium schools were cut to size. The state board examination results (Delhi head-quartered boards are numerically marginal and hence irrelevant in this discussion) brought into our consciousness these ‘others’, some in Kolkata but mostly in other districts of West Bengal, who competed successfully with ‘us’ and often out-competed us. What one must not forget is the competitive advantage English as a medium had, given that the elite had invested hard in English medium schools when it came to infrastructure and most other things that state-funded public institutions could not match. But still they matched. And when I gained admission to my undergraduate institution, a medical college, I saw that a majority of my classmates came from a non-English-medium background. The odds of gaining admission to a medical college were higher if one was from the Bengali-medium Bankura Zilla School than from my alma mater South Point High School. One saving grace of my high school was that its English-medium was only in name. We wrote our answer-scripts in English but the instruction and rebuke was in Bangla. Thankfully, there was no ideology or ‘manners’ that was taught – making unlearning an easier and less self-destructive process. The alienated chose to be alienated and they had their circles and ‘hobbies’. By Mother Saraswati’s grace, most of us remained Bengalis writing answer-sheets in English. I felt that this long introduction to my background was necessary for readers to know where I come from. Disclosure is good practice.

On May 6, when the 5-judge constitutional bench struck down the 1994 language policy of the Karnataka government that mandated that either Kannada or mother-tongue be the medium of instruction for Classes I to IV. The judges cited the lofty ideal of freedom expression and speech as well as protection of minority rights. It has been widely documented that mother-tongue instruction is far superior when it comes to grasping ideas and foster creative thinking. In fact, all the judges agreed that children ‘learn better’ when initially taught in their mother tongue. One can easily guess which sector of society will feel most ‘persecuted’ by the 1994 language policy. This is the same class that increasingly converses in English with people from the same mother tongue. Some of them even scoff at the idea of mother tongue in this ‘globalized era’ of ‘cosmopolitan ethos’. Lord Macaulay must be a happy man today.

The judgement goes against the spirit of the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 that also points out that the child’s mother language or home language is the “best medium of instruction”. This judgement is a triumph of the powerful Anglicized class which has typically punched above its weight. The implications of this judgement go beyond the court matter. It signals the confidence of the elite in using the language of rights to marginalize the masses.

Let us be clear on a few things. This push comes from English and Hindi-ized sectors of the Indian Union, the most vociferous cheerleaders of the new Indian project. By their inordinate grip over certain urban centres (Bangaluru, Delhi, Mumbai), they have been exerting an influence over policy that they cannot otherwise gain by democratic means. Karnataka’s populist Chief Minister Siddaramaiah knows that his people have no great clamour against mother-tongue instruction. In recent times, Karnataka has been one of those few states that have tried to restore dignity of their languages. The deliberate marginalization that comes with terms ‘regional’ / ‘vernacular’ language has now become normal. If the judiciary is so concerned about freedom of speech and expression and rights of linguistic minorities, it might want to look at the primacy accorded to English and Hindi. A staggering majority of the people in the subcontinent does not know English. The same goes for Hindi outside the Hindi-ized belt.

The elites and decision-makers of the subcontinent comes from a class that would start perspiring if they were asked to speak their mother’s tongue only, even for a week. The classes of people who actually perspire due to hard labour that puts food on the tables of the urbane and the entrenched elites can accomplish this easily. The subcontinent is almost unique to have a class that looks to non-mother tongues with so much pride. No wonder, when it comes to scientific creativity, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, etc surpass this nation. What is common between these nations is that their mother-tongue is their language of instruction, often all through the university level. The narrative of incompatibility between ‘higher education’ and mother-tongue is a creation of the self-serving Anglicized classes of the subcontinent whose privilege and entitlements would be threatened and their ‘authentic spokesperson to goras’ status threatened if mother-language education in the subcontinent went the Japanese way. But privilege doesn’t self-destruct. Hence we remain a self-hating land of forgotten mothers and persecuted tongues, good for creating a class of cyber-coolies and enthusiastic documenters of Euro-American mood-swings. From building high-rises to making highways, the real heavy lifting in the cosmopolitan cyber-coolie haven of Bengaluru is done by Kannada mother-tongue folks. Next time, look at the counter-girl in a chain-coffee store, uncomfortable in her dress. You walked up to her and placed an order in English. She breaks into Kannada when you are not looking. We are all complicit in the annihilation of her cultural self. Perverse word play is displayed when the calls for the rights of the marginalized majority is denounced as chauvinism. Freedom of speech and expression, anyone?

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গোলাম আলির গজল সন্ধ্যার নেপথ্য রাজনীতি

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

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

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

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

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

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

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রোহিত ভেমুলা ও ঘরের কাছের অন্ধকার

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

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

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

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

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কলরব ও সংহতির জাতবিচার

কদিন আগে বর্ধমান বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে ছাত্র-ছাত্রীদের উপর সরকার মদতপুষ্ট ‘শিক্ষাকর্মী’ ভেকধারী কিছু গুন্ডা বর্বর আঘাত নামিয়ে আনলো। শুনছি এস.এফ.আই এবং ডি .ওয়াই.এফ.আই-এর টগবগে তরুণ-রা নাকি এতে ভীষণ ক্ষুব্ধ। এই উঠতি চে গুয়েভারারা ধুতি-পাঞ্জাবী পরে কয়েক দশক ধরে হোলটাইম স্তালিনবাদ করা পার্টি শিরোমনীদের জিজ্ঞেস করে দেখলে পারেন যে এই মারকুটে ‘শিক্ষাকর্মী’দের মধ্যে কারা কারা ৫ বছর আগেও কর্ডিনেশন কমিটির সদস্য ছিল এবং নিয়মিত কিনতো ‘সংগ্রামী হাতিয়ার’? অতীতের শুরু ১৯১৭-তে না, ২০১১-তে তো নয়ই।  তা সে যাই হোক, বর্ধমানের ঘটনার  প্রতিবাদ করতে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের
‘স্বশাসিত’ রাজ্য বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়গুলির ‘স্বাধীন’ উপাচার্য্যরা যে লাইন দিয়ে নিন্দামূলক বিবৃতি দেবেন না, সেটা বলাই বাহুল্য।  ঘটনাটা সত্য কি অসত্য, কুকুর মানুষকে কামড়েছে না মানুষ কুকুরকে কামড়েছে, এই বিতর্কে তেরঙ্গা ঝান্ডাধারী ‘শিক্ষাকর্মী’দের দ্বারা ছাত্রীদের প্রহার ও শ্লীলতাহানি শীঘ্রই চাপা পড়ে যাবে। বর্ধমানের সত্য জানতে কোন ‘রাষ্ট্রীয়’ চ্যানেলের ওবি ভ্যান ছুটে যাবে  না সেদিকে। ‘সত্যমেব জয়তে’ হলো ভারতীয় রাষ্ট্রের স্লোগান – অর্থাৎ শুধু সত্যেরই জয় হবে। যেটা উহ্য, তা হলো এই ‘সত্য’ পয়দা করার মেশিনগুলির মালিকানা যাদের হাতে, জয় হবে তাদেরই।

কিন্তু আমি ভাবছি অন্য কথা। এই যে বর্ধমানের ঘটনা, বা সবং সজনীকান্ত মহাবিদ্যালয়ের ছাত্র কৃষ্ণপ্রসাদ জানার খুন হবার ঘটনা, এগুলি নিয়ে কোন ‘কলরব’ হয় না কেন? এর কারণ কি ? বড় শহর থেকে দূরের ঘটনা বলে? ইংরেজিতে জ্বালাময়ী ও ক্ষুরধার বক্তব্য ফেইসবুকে তারা দেয়নি বলে ? এখান থেকে পাশ করে তারা দিল্লি-মুম্বই-বিলেতের নানা জায়গায় প্রাক্তনী-চক্র তৈরী করতে পারেনি বলে? আমাদের এই সংহতির জাতপাত, পাশে দাঁড়ানোর বাছ-বিচারের সাংস্কৃতিক রাজনীতিকে বুঝতে হবে। নইলে আমাদের বর্ধমানে শ্লীলতাহানিগুলি, সবং-এ খুন গুলি চিরকাল থেকে যাবে ব্রাত্য, ঠিক যেমন মোমবাতি সংহতি থেকে ব্রাত্য থেকে যায় দলিত মেয়ের উপর গণধর্ষণ। আর এফ.টি.আই.আই-গজেন্দ্র বা ‘নির্ভয়া’ ঘটনার ‘সচেতন’ সংহতির কলরবে হারিয়ে যায় ‘বাকিরা’,
সংখ্যাগরিষ্টরা – ইংরেজির ক্রাচ ব্যবহার করে ‘গভীর’ মনোভাব প্রকাশে যারা এখুনো সাবলীল হয়ে ওঠে নি – তারা।

মনে পরে যাদবপুরের কলরব? সে ঘটনার সংহতিতে দিল্লীর জহরলাল বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে, দিল্লী বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে, পুণের ফিল্ম ইনস্টিটিউটে এবং গরিব দেশের শিক্ষা ক্ষেত্রে বরাদ্দ স্বল্প তেলের বেশিরভাগ অংশ যেসব টাকে লাগানো হয়, সেইরকম সব শিক্ষা প্রতিষ্ঠানে সংগঠিত হয় সংহতি আন্দোলন। যাদবপুরের পাশে থাকা। পুণের ফিল্ম ইনস্টিটিউট-এ সরকার সত্যবাদী গজেন্দ্রকে বসিয়ে জায়গাটাকে একটু আয়ত্তে আনতে চাইছে, আবার সংগ্রামের দিনে পাশে থাকা মানুষগুলিকে কিছু উচ্চপদে বসিয়ে কৃতজ্ঞতাও জানাচ্ছে – যেমনটা জনগনের সম্পত্তিকে বাপের মাল তথা লুঠের মাল মনে করা দলগুলি মনে করে থাকে চিরকাল। তার প্রতিবাদ করেছে ফিল্ম ইনস্টিটিউট-এর শিক্ষার্থীরা। তাদের যারা পাশে দাঁড়িয়েছে, তাদের মধ্যে বলিউডের প্রধান তারকাদের মধ্যে খুব কম মানুষই আছেন। এই মর্মে হলিউডের সাথে তুলনাটা জরুরি, যেখানে নানা সাধারণ রাজনৈতিক প্রশ্নে ফিলিম জগতে গুরুত্বপূর্ণ অনেকেই রুপোলি পর্দার আড়ালে নিজেদের ঢেকে রাখেন না। চার্লি চ্যাপলিন থেকে সুসান সারান্ডন – নিজ রাষ্ট্রের দ্বারা সংগঠিত অত্যাচারের প্রতিবাদের মাধ্যমে এরা দেখিয়েছেন যে চলচ্চিত্র একটি মাধ্যম মাত্র এবং চলচ্চিত্র-জগতের সাথে জড়িত বলেই সেটাই তাদের একমাত্র মাধ্যম নয় – অন্য সকলের মতই, তাদের মুখ আছে, হাত আছে, পা আছে। হিন্দী ফিল্ম সংস্কৃতির টপ লোকেরা অবশ্য কংগ্রেসী টুপি পরে ১৯৮৪-র শিখবিরোধী দাঙ্গায় প্ররোচনা দিতে অথবা মদ্যপ অবস্থায় ফুটপাথবাসীদের গাড়ির তলায় পিষে দিয়ে খুন করতেই বেশি ভালবাসেন (গুজরাট পর্যটন সংস্থার দালালি করে বা অনাথাশ্রমে ছিটে ফোঁটা দান করে সেসব পাপ ঘোঁচে না), তাই এই ধরনের জীবগুলির থেকে কোন ধরনের সংহতি আশা করা শক্ত। তবে পুণের পাশে আছে এলিট নানা বিশ্ববিদ্যালের ছাত্র-ছাত্রীরা, কলরবিরা, মতলবিরা এবং আরো অনেকে। জহরলাল বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে কিছু হলে সংহতি জানায় প্রেসিডেন্সি, সেখানে কিছু হলে পাশে দাঁড়ায় যাদবপুর। এরা অনেকেই একে অপরকে চেনে, পৌছে যায় একে অপরের কাছে, একে অপরের হোস্টেল-এ ওঠে, পাশে থাকে, সাথে থাকে, এলিট প্রতিষ্ঠান-জাত বুঝে নিয়ে এক থালায় খাবার খায়। খবর ছড়ায় প্রাক্তনিদের মধ্যে, সংবাদ-মাধ্যমের ‘সিনিয়র’দের মধ্যে। এইটে হলো একরকম সাংস্কৃতিক পুঁজি – যার রন্ধ্রে রন্ধ্রে উচ্চ-কুল-শীলের আল্পনা আঁকা।   কিন্তু তারপর সংহতির বৃত্ত বাড়ে না – খুজতে থাকে সেই চেনা এলিট-দের, চেনা ভাষ্য, চেনা ভাঁজ, চেনা স্লোগান, চেনা অবিন্যস্ততা – অসাধারণ ও ঐতিহাসিক ছাত্র আন্দোলনে তাই ‘সাধারণ’দের কোন জায়গা নেই। যাদবপুরের পাশে মফস্স্বল থেকে অনেকে এসে দাঁড়াতে পারে বৃষ্টির দিনে – যেন সেটা তাদের দায়িত্ব, কিন্তু বর্ধমানের পাশে গিয়ে যাদবপুরের দাঁড়ায় না – দূরত্বটা এক, তবে সংহতির গতিপথটা একমুখী।

যখন নানা বিষয়ে রাষ্ট্রের, সরকারের, সরকারী দলের নিপীড়ন ও নগ্ন স্বেচ্ছাচারিতায় গণমানুষ আক্রান্ত হয়, তখন এলিট সংহতির বৃত্ত তৈরী করে ক্ষুদ্র বৃত্তে বাহবা ও অন্যান্য জিনিস পাওয়া যেতে পারে, কিন্তু তার থেকে দীর্ঘমেয়াদী বা দায়িত্বশীল কিছু আশা করা অনুচিত। তারা ক্যাম্পাসে ‘ফ্রীডম’ চান, সেই ‘ফ্রীডম স্ট্রাগেল’-এ জনমতকে আবার পাশেও চান, আবার সবং-এর মতো ‘আনকুল’ নামের জায়গার ‘সাধারণ’ কলেজের নৃশংসতার পাঁকে ঢুকতে চাননা, পরমহংসের মত গা না ভিজিয়ে ডুব দিতে চান গভীর জলে। সত্যই তো তাদের স্পেশ্যাল কোন দায় নেই, কিন্তু স্পেশাল দায় আছে বৃহত্তর সমাজের, তাদের কষ্টকে বোঝার। ‘আমাকে আমার মত থাকতে দাও’ এই সময়ের শিক্ষার্থী এলিটের জাতীয় সঙ্গীত। মরুঝড়ের মাঝে এলিট মরুদ্যানের নেটওয়ার্ক বানিয়ে কোন প্রলয় কখুনো বন্ধ হয়েছে আজ অবধি? একটা পুরনো সময়ের কিছু লাইন মনে এলো – ‘আমরাও তবে এই ভাবে, এ মুহুর্তে মরে যাবো নাকি, আমাদের পথ নেই আর, আয় আরো বেঁধে বেঁধে থাকি..পৃথিবী হয়তো গেছে মরে, আমাদের কথা কে বা জানে, আমরা ফিরেছি দোরে দোরে, কিছুই কোথাও যদি নেই, তবু তো কজন আছি বাকি, আয় আরো হাতে হাত রেখে, আয় আরো বেঁধে বেঁধে থাকি।”  বাংলার এলিট শিক্ষা প্রতিষ্ঠানগুলির মধ্যে চাহ্ত্র-ছাত্রীদের আর্থ-সামাজিক ব্যাকগ্রাউন্ড ছাড়াও মিল রয়েছে সেখানে অবশিষ্ট অবাধ গণতান্ত্রিক রাজনীতির চর্চায়। এর একটা বড় কারণ হলো যে এলিট নেটওয়ার্ক-এ থাকলে কলেজ পরবর্তী সময়ে শাসকদলের ল্যাজ না ধরেও ঠিকঠাক কেরিয়ার বানানো সম্ভব। এই তুলনামূলক নিরাপত্তার ফলে যে সাহসটুকু আসে, তাতে হিস্যার দাবি কি করতে পারে না
‘সাধারণ’রা? দিল্লী-পুণের হ্যেপ ও কুল বৃত্তের বাইরে অন্য জাতের হাত ধরতে এতো কুন্ঠা কিসের? এই প্রবন্ধটি কলরব বিরোধী নয়। এলিট না হয়েও স্রেফ
রবাহুত হয়ে যারা কলরবের পাশে দাঁড়ায়, তাদের জন্য কলরব হয় না কেন, মূলতঃ প্রশ্ন সেটাই।

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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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বোর্ড, শিক্ষা, আদর্শ – দিল্লী আমাদের ভবিষ্যত লুটছে

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

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

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

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

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

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

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কলকাতার গাজী ইলিয়াস

কলকাতার পথের মধ্যে গল্প থাকে। শীত কাল বলে সে গল্প ভালো করে শোনা যায় – শীতে নিখিল বাংলাদেশে মানুষ একটু কম ঘামে। গল্প চেঁচিয়ে কথা বলে ফাঁকা রাস্তাতেও। তাই অনেক গল্প পথিকের মিস হয়ে যায়। এই তো কদিন আগে আমি ভাগ্যক্রমে এক গল্পের সাক্ষী থাকলাম যেটা কিনা একটু হলেই আড়ালে ঘটে যেত। কলকাতার সেই ছোট গল্পের আগে ঢাকার একটি গল্প দিয়ে একটা  গৌরচন্দ্রিকা করব।
সে ছিল আরেকটি শীতের মরশুম। ২০১০-এর ডিসেম্বরে ঢাকায় লাইভ প্রোগ্রাম করতে এলেন হিন্দী চলচিত্র জগতের জনপ্রিয় নায়ক শারুখ খান, ‘কিং’ খান। হয়তো অনেকেরই মনে আছে। সেদিন শারুখ ছিল স্টেজে।  দাপাদাপি করে সে জনতাকে বিনোদন দিয়েছিল।  এটাই তার পেশা ও কাজ। লাইভ শোতে একটি জনপ্রিয় ক্যারদানি হলো  হঠাত করে দর্শকদের মধ্যে থেকে কাউকে স্টেজে ডাকা। সুপারস্টার ও ভক্ত – এই ব্যাপারটি নিয়ে একটি তাত্ক্ষণিক নাটক মঞ্চস্থ করা আর কি। হঠাত করে ডাক পাওয়া ভক্ত স্টেজে উঠে নায়ক-কে বলবে আপনি মহান, আপনার জন্মদিন-বিয়ের তারিখ-সন্তানের অন্নপ্রাশনের তারিখ সকলই আমার মুখস্থ, কোনদিন-ই আপনার একটি বই-ও মিস করিনি, এখুনো বারবার দেখি বউবাচ্চা নিয়ে, চিরকাল ইচ্ছে ছিল আপনার গা ঘেঁষে একটু দাঁড়াই , আজ সে সুযোগ পেলাম, যেন লটারি-ই জিতলাম আর কি, ইত্যাদি, ইত্যাদি ।  নায়ক-ও ধন্যবাদ জানাবেন, একটু ‘মাটির মানুষ’ বা ‘আমি তোমাদেরই একজন’ গোছের একটু বিনয়, একটু  হাসি ঠাট্টা করবেন আর কি।  এমনই  দস্তুর। সব কিছুরই নাকি একটা ব্যাকরণ আছে অর্থাৎ সকলে তথাকথিত ভাবে ‘সর্বজ্ঞাত’ অনুযায়ী নিজের নিজের ভূমিকা পালন করবে। ‘কিং’-এর শুনবে, আহ্লাদিত হবে, প্রায় পায়ে পড়বে আর এহেন ‘ফ্যান’-এর গ্যাঁজলার গন্ধে  দর্শকেও মত্ত হবে।  প্রোগ্রাম তার ব্যাকরণ মেনে হবে সুপারহিট।
 কপট হয়েই হোক বা অকপট হয়েই হোক, এই ব্যাকরণ যখন লাইভ প্রোগ্রাম-এ কারুর দ্বারা কোন  ভাবে ভঙ্গ হয়, তখন আর এডিট করে ব্যাকরণ-মত করার সুযোগ থাকে না।  বরং ব্যাকরণ  একটি ভান, একটি আস্তরণ, একটি কিম্ভূত নির্মাণ, সেটাই প্রকাশ হয়ে পরে নগ্ন ভাবে। যে পৃথিবীতে কোথায় কেমন ভাবে ঠিক কি করে আচরণ করতে হয়, তা জানা এবং না জানা দিয়ে মানুষের ভাগ্য ও ভবিষ্যত নির্ধারিত হয়, সেই পৃথিবীতে যারা অজান্তে হোক বা জ্ঞানপাপী হয়েও হোক, ব্যাকরণ ভাঙ্গেন, তাদের সাধুবাদ প্রাপ্য। তাই সাধুবাদ দিতেই হয় গাজী ইলিয়াস-কে।  মনে পরে গাজী ইলিয়াস-কে? শাহরুখ খান যখন তাকে স্টেজে ডাকে, সে এসে বলে যে সে বাংলা জানে, দাবি করে যে সে হিন্দী জানেনা। না জানাটাই স্বাভাবিক। ইলিয়াস কিন্তু একরকম চালিয়ে দেবার ইংরেজি জানে। এরপরে সে লম্ফঝম্ফ করা শাহরুখের জন্য রাখা জলের বোতল চেয়ে জল খায়, পিপাসা নিবৃত্তি করতে। তাকে দেখে মনে হয় সে ‘নার্ভাস’, কিন্তু তবুও যখন শাহরুখ বলে যে স্টেজে সকলে দেখছে, ইটা লাইভ প্রোগ্রাম, তাই ‘ঠিক করে’ আচরণ করতে, ঠিক স্টাইলে দাঁড়াতে, তখন ইলিয়াস জানায় যে শাহরুখের স্টাইল এক, আর ইলিয়াসের স্টাইল অন্যরকম।  মঞ্চের কাঠামো অটুট থাকলেও ব্যাকরণ ভেঙ্গে পড়ে।  এর পরে ইলিয়াস আবার বোতল থেকে জল খায়, সবার সামনেই। অনেকের কাছে সে হাসির খোরাক হয়। সে উপযুক্ত ভাবে তার ভূমিকা পালন করতে পারে নি। ইলিয়াস কিন্তু তার নাম ভূমিকা পালন করেছিল সেদিন। গাজী ইলিয়াস ছিল গাজী ইলিয়াস। আর উজ্জ্বল নক্ষত্রের সামনেও গাজী ইলিয়াস থেকে যাওয়ার ফলে শাহরুখ খান-এরই কিছু সময়ের জন্য  করতে হয়েছে, ইলিয়াসকে ধমক দিতে হয়েছে, তারপর ‘ইমেজ’এর স্বার্থে দ্রুত সামলে নিতে হয়েছে। এরই মাঝে এক মেরু-দণ্ডযুক্ত বাঙালিকে শাহরুখ তার বলশালী মারকুটে পাঠান পরিচয় দিয়েছে এক হুমকি-ইয়ার্কির মাধ্যমে। কায়িক বলের এই খেলাচ্ছলে আস্ফালনের জবাব দেয়নি গাজী ইলিয়াস – দিতে পারত। দিলে আরো রসভঙ্গ হত। শাহরুখ খান অভিনেতা।  ইলিয়াস গাজী নার্ভাস কিন্তু অভিনেতা নন।  তার জল পিপাসার ফলে জল খাওয়া শারুখের প্লান-মাফিক মায়া তৈরিকে হঠাত করে রুদ্ধ করেছে।  শারুখের অভিনয়ে গাজী ইলিয়াস সাময়িক যতি চিন্হ এনে দিয়েছে – স্ক্রিপ্ত্হীন নায়ক-কে একটু ঘামিয়েছে। শাহরুখ যে আসল নয়, সে যে অভিনয়, তা ওই সাময়িক যতির কারণে আরো বেশি বেশি প্রকাশ পেয়েছে। প্রকাশ করেছে নার্ভাস গাজী ইলিয়াস।যেখানে যে কথা বললে খাপে খাপ হয়, সেটা না করে বা করতে না জেনে। আমরা গাজী ইলিয়াসকে চিনি।  আমাদের অনেকের মধ্যে সে বাস করে।  আমরা তাকে চেপে রাখি, আমি নিজেদের ভেতরের গাজী ইলিয়াসকে ঘেন্না করি। আমাদের মনের মধ্যে গাজী ইলিয়াস  আছে  বলে আমরা লজ্জা পাই। আমরা নিজেদের ভেতরের গাজী ইলিয়াসকে হত্যা করতে চাই।  আমরা রাস্তার গাজী ইলিয়াসকে নিয়ে নাক সিঁটকোতে চাই , তাকে দুয়ো  দিতে চাই। আমরা আমাদের বাপ-মায়েদের-আত্মীয়-স্বজন-পারা-প্রতিবেশীদের নিচু নজরে দেখি কারণ তাদের অনেকের মধ্যে গাজী ইলিয়াসের সুস্পষ্ট ছাপ।  হয়ত  তারাও নিজেদের অপছন্দ করতে শিখে গেছে। কোথা থেকে আসে এই ছিছিকার, এই নিজেকে লজ্জা করা? আমরা চাই, তারাও চায়, যে তাদের সন্তান যেন দুধে-ভাতে থাকে আর তাদের মধ্যে যেন এক ফোঁটা গাজী ইলিয়াস না থাকে।  তারা যেন স্মার্ট হয়, তারা যেন স্টেজে তুললে পটাপট খাপেখাপ জবাব দিতে পারে।  তাদের দেখে যেন শাহরুখের মাথা একটুও গরম না হয়, একটুও যেন রাগ না চাপতে হয়। যেন শুধুই থাকে ‘সভ্য ব্যাকরণ’ সম্মত হাসি আর আনন্দ। এভাবেই রস গড়াতে থাকে। গড়াতেই  থাকে।
স্থান-কাল-পাত্র বোঝার, তার ব্যাকরণ বোঝার একটা রাজনীতি আছে।  এই রাজনীতির প্রকাশ আচরণে – স্থান-কাল- আচরণে। কিন্তু সে আর নতুন কি? নতুন হলো এই আচরণকে সারাক্ষণ অভ্যাস করে যাওয়া।  এই আচরণকে, এই ভানকে সত্য ও সুন্দর মনে করা। কোন কোন আচরণ? আমি গোদা ভাবে বলতে হলে আমি বলব আমাদের মত কালো মানুষের কল্পনায় শ্বেতাঙ্গ মানুষ যেমন আচরণ করে , তেমন আচরণ। এই আচরণ যে সাফল্যের চাবিকাঠি তা আর কেউ না জানুক,স্পোকেন-ইংলিস সম্রাট সাইফুর স্যার প্রচন্ড ভালো জানেন। এই উপমহাদেশে অন্যের হীনমন্যতা ভাঙ্গিয়ে ব্যবসা করার ঐতিহ্য বেশ পুরাতন। আমরা চাই আমাদের যেন ‘পাতে দেওয়া যায়’। এই পাত কিন্তু কলাপাতা বা শালপাতার না, এমনকি ভূমিজ এলিটের কাঁসার থালা ও না। একেবারে ম্যালামাইন। তাই দরকার পরে চামচ ঠিক করে ধরতে শেখার, আওয়াজ না করে স্যুপ খাওয়ার, এবং আরো হাজারো ‘সভ্য’ ঢং।
ঢং শিক্ষার দুনিয়ায়ে যে অশিক্ষিত, তাকে দেখলেই বোঝা যাবে যে এখুন কোথায় কখন কি করা উচিতের যে বিশ্বজনীন ‘স্বাভাবিক’ সহজপাঠ, তার শিক্ষাগুলি সত্যই শেষ প্রান্ত অবধি পৌঁছয়নি। তাই হঠাত করে আলোকিত করে দেয় অকপট গাজী ইলিয়াস। তাই রক্ষে। আর সে যদি ছুপা রুস্তম কপট হয়?  আমি তাহলে  বলব, সাবাস ইলিয়াস । কত লোকে ক্লিষ্ট ইংরেজি লিখে ভুঁরু ফুটিয়ে সাবভার্সন মারালো, তুমি করে দেখালে।
অথচ কোথায় কেমন করে কি কতক্ষণ করা উচিত – অপিসে, ক্যাফেতে , শ্বেতাঙ্গ পন্ডিতের সামনে, ইংরেজি-কপচানো আমাদের দেশেরই হাপ-পন্ডিতের সামনে, সিনেমা হলে, জলে, স্থলে, অন্তঃরিক্ষে, যারা তার পাঠ বিলোয়ে ‘আধুনিক’ স্বকীয়তার মোড়কে এবং ইলিয়াস্দের প্রবল দুয়ো দেয় ‘অন্কাল্চারড’ হিসেবে – তারাই আবার পরিবার, পারিবারিক আচারআচরণ, বয়স্জ্যেষ্ঠেকে সম্মান, পারিবারিক চেতনা, কোথায় কার সাথে কেমন ভাবে কি আচরণ করতে হয়, বা করতে হয় না,তাকে পদে পদে প্রশ্নবিদ্ধ করে। ঐযে বিশ্বজনীন ‘স্বাভাবিক’ আচরণের সহজপাঠ, তার প্রথম পাঠ হলো – নিজের সবকিছুকে প্রশ্ন করো, কিন্তু প্রশ্নের উছিলায় তুমি নিজে যে অন্যতর বিশ্বকল্পের দাস হয়ে যাচ্ছো, সে প্রক্রিয়া কে প্রশ্ন করো না। একবার কাছি কেটে দিলেই সহজপাঠের কাজ শেষ, তারপর মানুষ জলে না দবার জন্যই অন্য ডাঙ্গার সন্ধানে জোরে দাঁড় চালাবে, পৌছক আর না পৌছক। এই প্রক্রিয়াটাই খাপে-খাপ। যে ডাঙ্গা থেকে কাছি কেটে আসা হয়েছে, সেখানে ফেরা যাবে না।  সেখানে ইলিয়াস্দের বাস।  ফিরলে সে যদি হাসে? ইলিয়াস্দের উপর হাসা যেতে পারে, কিন্তু ইলিয়াস্দের হাসির পত্র হওয়াটা ঘোর অপমানের। আসলে আমরা আমাদের ক্ষমতাই বুঝি না।  অধিকাংশ ইলিয়াসের মেরুদন্ড আমরা ভেঙ্গে দিয়েছি কবেই। ওই হাড়ের গুঁড়া দিয়েই আমাদের কালো ত্বক সাদা করার পাউডার যোগান হয়। সাদা পাউডার মেখে নিজ সমাজের নরম মাটিতে আমরা নৃসংশ ভাবে আঁচড়ে  দেখাই স্বকীয়তা,  মুক্তিকামিতা, স্বাধীনতা, স্পষ্টবাদিতা , আর কত কি। আসলে যে অন্যকে ‘আন্কাল্চার্ড’ বলে,সে যে ভীষণভাবে সংস্কৃতিক ভাবে নিরক্ষর হতে পারে। বিশেষত দেশ-দশ-সমাজ যদি দায়িত্বজ্ঞানহীন ব্যক্তিস্বাধীনতার অন্তরায় হয়, তখন কাছি কাটাই হয় নবধর্ম। আর ভূমিজ ধর্ম ছেড়ে নবধর্ম ধরলে প্রথম প্রথম যা ঘটার তাই ঘটে – চূড়ান্ত আত্মবিশ্বাসী, চূড়ান্ত পূর্ব-আত্মবিস্মৃতি এবং আত্মসমালোচনার নিদারুণ অভাব। যা কিনা চলতি ক্ষমতার সংস্কৃতি,  হাজার রকম বড় বড় ইংরেজি শব্দ দিয়ে ‘ক্রিটিসিজম’ হবে, মোটা বই হবে।হারেমের স্বেছাবাশিনিরা এবং দ্বাররক্ষীরা কেমনে -বলবে  রাজা তোর  কাপড় কোথায়? রসভঙ্গ করতে লাগবে মানুষ। সে কাজটি করবে অন্য মানুষ। সহজ কিন্তু সরল নয় , এমন মানুষ। এবার ফিরি কলকাতার পথে।
আমি যাচ্ছি বরানগর থেকে হাওড়া স্টেশন, দিল্লীগামী রাজধানী এক্সপ্রেস ধরতে।  আমি ট্যাক্সি করে যাচ্ছি। সাধারনতঃ আমি ট্যাক্সিচালকের নাম, ধাম জিজ্ঞেস করি, কিন্তু সেদিন নানা ব্যাপারে একটু চিন্তার মধ্যে ছিলাম।  তার-ই মধ্যে তারস্বরে চালু হলো এফ এম রেডিও, ট্যাক্সির মধ্যেই লাগানো। এক নারী উপস্থাপিকা সুন্দর গলা করে বললেন, শীত তো এসে পড়ল।  আপনার শীতে কি কি ভালো লাগে? এক ব্যাক্তি উত্তর দিতে শুরু করলো – আওয়াজের ধরণে বুঝলাম ইটা লাইভ টেলিফোন কলের মাধ্যমে কোন শ্রোতা বলছেন।  একজন পুরুষ। সে জানায় যে শীতকাল মানেই বিয়ে ও নানা সামাজিক অনুষ্ঠানের মরশুম। এত অবধি ঠিক-ই ছিল।এত অবধি রাজার, বা ঢপের চলতি বিনোদনের কোন লজ্জাহানি হয়নি। এরপর জল গড়ায় অন্য দিকে।  সে বলে যে শীতকালে তাই মেয়েদের অসুবিধে আর ছেলেদের একটু সুবিধে। অনুষ্ঠানে মেয়েরা সেজেগুজে যায় – শাল জড়ালেও সুন্দর পোশাক আশাক সাজগোজ করতে হয়। কিন্তু ছেলেদের একটা জ্যাকেট বা ফুল হাতা সোয়েটার পরলেই হয়ে যায়ে , নিচে কি পরা, তা ইস্ত্রী করা না কুচ্কোনো, কেমন দেখতে, কিছু এসে যায় না।  পুরনো হলেও এসে যায় না। সুন্দর জামা, সুন্দর দোকান, সুন্দর ক্রেতা ,বিকিকিনি কেন্দ্রিক জীবনকল্পনা, ভালো থাকা কাকে বলে, তার জনসমক্ষে প্রকাশের যে ‘আধুনিক, সুশীল,পাতে দেওয়ার মতো’ ব্যাকরণ, তা টেলিফোন-কারী শ্রোতা লঙ্ঘন করতে শুরু করে।  আমি তখন স্ট্র্যান্ড রোড-এ। বিরল এক মুহূর্ত। উপস্থাপিকা একটু বিষয় বদলাতে চেষ্টা করে কিন্তুপ্রাণবন্ত সচল ডাকসু-তে শুধু সুন্দর গলা দিয়ে অচল করা শক্ত। শ্রোতা থামে না, সে বলে যায়  অবলীলায়, ‘প্লাস ২-৩ দিন কাপড় না  কাচ্লেও শীতকালে গন্ধ কম হয়।  ধরেন চান টান হয়নি তখুন  ভালো করে সেন্ট টেন্ট মেরে জ্যাকেট দিয়েও বিয়েবাড়ি  যাওয়া যায়।  কেউ বুঝতে পারবে না।’ ‘স্টাইলিশ’ ফরফর ইংরেজি-বাংলা মিলমিশ  উপস্থাপিকার গলায় অপ্রস্তুত বেকুব হাসি শুনতে পাই। এর পর বিজ্ঞাপন বিরতি। আর আমার ট্যাক্সি পৌছে গেছে হাওড়া স্টেশন, হাতে কিছুটা সময় নিয়েই। এই ভাবেই, আজকের  সময়ে, কলকাতার পথে যেতে যেতে শুনলাম, যেন আরেক গাজী ইলিয়াসের গলা – ‘রাজা, তোর কাপড় কোথায়?’ কোন এক অজানা কারণে আমার মনে পড়ে  যায় ছাত্রজীবনের স্লোগান ‘তাই তো বলি কমরেড, গড়ে তোল ব্যারিকেড’। ঠাকুর সব দেখছেন, কিন্তু কি ভাবছেন?

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বাম্বু ও বিষ্ণু

যে জাতি মাতৃভাষার অধিকার ও সম্মান রক্ষা করতে মানভূমে, ঢাকায়, বরাক উপতক্যায় বারবার রাস্তায় নেমেছে, মার খেয়েছে, মৃত্যুবরণ করেছে, এমনকি দেশ স্বাধীন করেছে, সে জাতির মুখের ভাষার প্রশ্ন যে রাজনৈতিক প্রশ্ন হয়ে ওঠে, সে আর আশ্চর্য কি। তবে পশ্চিমবঙ্গে সাম্প্রতিক কালের যে বিতর্ক দানা বেঁধেছে মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর মুখের ভাষা নিয়ে, তা ঠিক ভাষার অধিকার নিয়ে নয়, সর্বসমক্ষে শালীনতা বজায় রাখার দায়িত্বজ্ঞান নিয়ে। সে কথায় একটু পরে আসব। প্রথমেই বলি আমার নিজের কুল-গরিমা নিয়ে। আমার পিতৃকুল হুগলী জেলার পাটুলিগ্রামের অনেক বহুকালের (মানে বহু শতকের) বাসিন্দা এবং এই ‘দেশ’-এর সঙ্গে এই প্রজন্মেও আমাদের সম্পর্ক বেশ গভীর। আমরা রাঢী ব্রাহ্মণ এবং কৌলিন্যপ্রাপ্ত (অর্থাৎ কুলীন)। আমার পূর্বপুরুষেরা বিবাহ-সুত্রে ফুলিয়া মেল প্রাপ্ত হন। অর্থাৎ হিন্দু-প্রধান পশ্চিমবঙ্গের সামাজিক বিন্যাসে আমরা একদম যাকে বলে টপ-ক্লাস। আমাদের কুলের একজন রায় বাহাদুর ছিলেন, যা কারণে অকারণে (যেমন এখুন) আমরা টুক করে জানিয়ে দিই (ইংরেজিতে যাকে বলে নেমড্রপিং)। এর থেকে একটা জিনিস পরিষ্কার। তা হলো যাকে কিনা কিছু পন্ডিত এক বিশেষ ধরণের ‘সাবল্টার্ন’ বলেন, এবং আমাদের ‘নিজেদের’ মধ্যে চর্চায় বলি ‘ছোটলোক’ (প্রকাশ্যে বলি অন্ত্যজ, ব্রাত্যজন ইত্যাদি ), আমরা আর যাই হই, তা নই। আমার এই কুলেরই আমার প্রিয় এক জ্ঞাতি জ্যাঠামশাই আমাদের পৈতের পরের বছর দুর্গাপূজার সময় এক সংস্কৃত মন্ত্র শেখান। এটি আচমন মন্ত্র। কোনো অস্ট্রিক ব্যাপার স্যাপার নাই। মন্ত্রটি এরকম – ‘ওঁ বিষ্ণু তদ্‌বিষ্ণোঃ পরমং পদং সদা পশ্যন্তি সূরয়ঃ। দিবীব চক্ষুরাততম্‌।। ওঁ বিষ্ণু ওঁ বিষ্ণু ওঁ বিষ্ণু।’ কুলীন টু কুলীন জ্ঞান ট্রান্সফার হিসেবে আমার রসিক জ্যাঠা ফাজিল ভাইপো-কে এর মানে বলেন। ‘ওঁ বিষ্ণু’ অর্থাৎ একটি বাঁশ , তদ্‌বিষ্ণোঃ অর্থাৎ সেই বাঁশ, পরমং পদং সদা পশ্যন্তি অর্থাৎ পরের পশ্চাতে সদা প্রবেশ করাইবে, ইত্যাদি ইত্যাদি। বলাই বাহূল্য, আসল মানেটা তাই ছিল না। সেই অর্জিনাল-এ বিষ্ণুর বঙ্গায়ন হয়ে বাঁশ হয় নাই। আমাদের পাটুলিগ্রাম তথা জিরাট-বলাগড় এলাকায় বাঁশঝার বেশ ঘন। তাই হয়তো বিষ্ণু যখন হিন্দুস্তান থেকে বাঁশঝার নিবিড় এই বাংলাদেশে আসেন আমাদের হাত ঘুরে, একটু অদলবদল হয়ে যায় আর কি। ইয়ার্কি মারছি বলে রাখলাম – বিশেষতঃ বোষ্টমদের প্রতি এই ক্ষমাপ্রার্থনা। আমরা শাক্তরা একটু ইয়ে হই। এবার ফিরি রাজনীতি, ভাষা ও শালীনতা প্রসঙ্গে।

পাটুলিগ্রামে যা বাঁশ, লন্ডনে তাই ব্যাম্বু, আর এই দুইয়ের মাঝামাঝি জল্পাইগুড়িতে মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর কাছে তাই হয় ‘বাম্বু’। এতে বেশ একটা ‘বিতর্ক’ হয়েছে। এক দল বলছেন, রামঃ, বঙ্গেশ্বরীর মুখের এই ভাষার ছিরি? একদম ‘ঝি-ক্লাস’। কোটি টাকার আঁকিয়ে ও গল্প-কবিতার বই লিখিয়ের আড়ালে এই তাহলে স্বরূপ? আরেকদল বলছেন, আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশের লক্ষলক্ষ মানুষের মুখের ভাষা এরকমই। যিনি জননেত্রী তার ভাষাও যে হবে গণমানুষের মতো, নন্দনে বসে মার্কেজ পড়নেওয়ালাদের মত নয়, তা বলাই বাহূল্য। দুই পক্ষকেই বলি, ভাবের ঘরে চুরি করে কি লাভ? বাম্বু দেওয়ার কথা শুনে আকাশ থেকে পড়া, প্রবল ভাবে শ্রেণী-ঘৃনা উগরে দেওয়া মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর শব্দচয়নকে সমালচনার উছিলায়, এগুলি ভন্ডামি ও ন্যক্কারজনক। একই সাথে, যারা এমন ভাব করছেন যে কিছুই হয়নি, ভাষা তো ভাষাই, শব্দ তো শব্দই, মানুষে তো এমন করেই কথা বলে গোছের অজুহাত দেখিয়ে বাম্বুর খুঁটি দিয়ে নেত্রীর সাথে জনগনের হৃদয়ের সম্পর্কের গভীরতা মাপছেন, তাদেরকে বলি যে বাংলার গণমানুষকে অপমান করবেন না।

এটা ঠিক যে সব শব্দই সমানভাবে একটি ভাষার সম্পদ – বেশি সম্পদ বা কম সম্পদ নয় । ভাষা জীবন পায় তার ব্যবহারে। সেই ব্যবহারের একটা প্রেক্ষিত আছে। ঠিক যেমন আমরা মাষ্টারমশাই-এর সামনে সিগারেট খাইনা ( যারা উচ্চতর লিবার্টি চেতনার ভারে কুঁজো হয়ে গেছে, তাদের কথা বাদ দিলাম ), ঠিক তেমনই মা-বাপের সামনে কিছু ধরণের শব্দ প্রয়োগ করিনা যা কিনা ইয়ার-বন্ধুদের সাথে চলে। ব্যক্তিগত জীবন ও যাপনকে উলঙ্গ ভাবে মেলে ধরা যাদের জীবনাদর্শ, তারা এই স্থান-কাল-পত্র বুঝে শব্দ প্রয়োগের মধ্যে দ্বিচারিতা দেখতে পারেন। তাদেরকে অনুরোধ, যে ধরনের গণমানুষের কথা বলে বাম্বুর সামনে পর্দা টানা হচ্ছে, সেই রকম ভাষা তারা পথে যেতে-আসতে রোজ ব্যবহার করে দেখুন। গণমানুষ বলবেন ‘মুখ সামলে’। এই গণমানুষ ‘গালমন্দ’ বোঝেন, আবার বোঝেন কারুর মুখের কথা সুন্দর। তাই জনগনের ঘাড়ে বন্দুক রেখে বুলেট বা বাম্বু, কিছুই ছোঁড়া অনুচিত। জলের লাইনে ‘ঝি’-দের ঝগড়ার ভাষা টুকুই যারা শুনেছেন কিন্তু শীত-গ্রীষ্ম-বর্ষা রোজ সক্কাল সক্কাল উঠে কিছুক্ষণের কর্পোরেশনের জলের সাপ্লাই-এর জন্য একাধিক বালতি নিয়ে অপেক্ষা করা যাদের জীবন-যাপনের অংশ নয়, তাদেরকে বলি – এরা গান গায়, ভালবাসে,ঘুম পাড়ানিয়া গান শোনায় শিশুদের। আপনারা যাদের লোকসঙ্গীত বিশ্ববাজারে বেচে খান ও ফান্ড আনান, এরা সেই ‘লোক’। গালি দেওয়া বা বাম্বু দেওয়া, একটিও সহজাত নয়। হয় তা পরিস্থিতির সামনে একটি প্রত্যুত্তর, চরম হতাশার প্রকাশ কিংবা জিঘাংসার উদগিরণ। আমি অবশ্যি কলকাত্তাই সেই ভদ্দরলোক শ্রেণীকে এসব গালি-চরিত থেকে বাদ দিলাম, যাদের কাছে f-ওয়ালা ৪ বর্ণের ইংরেজি গালি হলো কুল (অর্থাত নব্য কৌলিন্যের চিহ্ন) কিন্তু বাংলা গালি হলো চীপ ও ভালগার। তারা অন্য গ্রহের বাসিন্দা। তাদের দূর থেকে প্রণাম।

বাম্বু দেওয়া বা বাম্বুর দ্বারা তাড়া খাওয়া, এ যদি রাজনীতির ভাষা হয়, তাহলে আমি বলব এ ভাষা অশালীন হোক না হোক, চরম হিংস্র তো বটেই। রাজনীতি যখন এলাকা দখল বা এলাকা ধরে রাখার খেলায় পরিনত হয়, সেই প্রতিহিংসার রাজনীতিতে বাম্বু এক প্রতিশোধমূলক একক। প্রধানমন্ত্রী তার মন্ত্রিসভার আরেক মন্ত্রী সাধ্বী নিরঞ্জন জ্যোতির কুকথার বলেছেন যে নিরঞ্জন গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ। গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ উঠতে বসতে সাম্প্রদায়িক বিষ ছড়ান না, বাংলার তৃণমূল স্তরের মানুষ বাম্বুর চিন্তায় আচ্ছন্ন থাকেন না। তারা চাকরি চান, নিরাপত্তা চান, বাম্বু দিতে চান না, নিতে তো নয়-ই। বাঁশকে কেন্দ্র করে রাজনৈতিক সংগ্রাম কল্পনা আমাদের বাংলাদেশে বেশ পুরনো। বাঁশেরকেল্লার মধ্যে যতটা ছিল ‘সাবল্টার্ন’ ততটা ছিল হিংস্র সাম্প্রদায়িক মৌলবাদ। প্রধানমন্ত্রী তার মন্ত্রিসভার আরেক মন্ত্রী সাধ্বী নিরঞ্জন জ্যোতির কুকথার সাফাইতে বলেছেন যে নিরঞ্জন গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ। গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ উঠতে বসতে সাম্প্রদায়িকতার বিষ ছড়ান না, বাংলার তৃণমূল স্তরের মানুষ বাম্বুর চিন্তায় আচ্ছন্ন থাকেন না। তারা চাকরি চান, নিরাপত্তা চান, বাম্বু দিতে চান না, নিতে তো নয়-ই। রাজনৈতিক দল একটি তাঁবুর মত, তা দাঁড় করিয়ে রাখতে বাঁশ লাগে। বাঁশ যেন বাংলার রাজনীতিতে স্থায়ী কাঠামোর কাজ করে, সচল না হয়। নইলে তাঁবু-ও ভেঙ্গে পড়বে। তাঁবুর ব্যাপারীরা বাঁশ সচল করার আগে আশা করি একটু ভাববেন। কারণ ফেইসবুকে সেদিন দেখি এক জায়গায় লেখা , ‘সময় থাকতে পিওর হন,নইলে বাম্বু দেবে জনগণ’।

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Filed under বাংলা, Bahishkrit Samaj, Bengal, Caste, Elite, Kolkata, Language, Polity, Power

Quitting Modi’s India / Fleeing from Narendra Modi and other urban liberal maladies

[ Daily News & Analysis, 12 May 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 15 May 2014]

Soon after May 16th, the nature of the Union government due to be formed at New Delhi should be clear. While a coalition of parties led by Narendrabhai Modi is the most talked about scenario, the possibility of a non-Gandhi, non-saffron helmswoman buoyed up by political forces outside the Delhi establishment cannot be ruled out. Some well-heeled liberal types, half-jokingly (you never know), have declared a desire to leave the country, if Modi eventually happens, while looks increasingly likely. U.R.Ananthamurthy and Kamaal Khan are the most famous among this species.

This joking about fleeing a place whose emerging reality you do not like is another clichéd Anglo-American import. This unoriginal venting style was copied from those who disliked the George W. Bush regime in USA. Many of them wanted to move to Canada if Bush won again (he did). Other Bush-haters jokingly wanted the Eastern and Western coasts of USA (where Bush had less support) to secede. The ‘liberated’ brown person’s international imagination has predictable import locations. Beyond the joke, the difference is that most residents of the subcontinent do not have the means to move anywhere. The emigration ‘joke’ only highlights the disconnect of this class from the masses.

The problem is that the Modi-hate of urbane left-liberal types does not stop at Narendrabhai. Their hate list is long and includes hundreds of millions who didn’t vote for the BJP. These objects of urban liberal disgust includes those who are most comfortable in dhoti, lungi or saree, women wearing sindoor, namaji Muslims, ritual fasting Hindus, people who scratch themselves publicly, people who have not heard of white thinkers of the last two centuries and don’t need their ‘eyes opened’ by intellectual mumbo-jumbo, people who think family and community are important, people who can clearly reply to the question ‘where are you from, which community do you belong to’, people who create and recreate culture rather than using fancy technology to ‘document’ it, people with faith in gods, goddesses and other divine beings, people who are able to express their innermost feelings with ease without book-learned western conceptual crutches, people whose self-identity would not be in peril if white colonizers never appeared in the subcontinent, young people who don’t say ‘ohmygod’ in sitcom accents, people who love and dream in their mother-tongue and who sing their children generationally handed-down lullabies. And so on. Ashis Nandy has taught us to take people’s categories seriously. That talisman also helps distinguish between people and their parasites.

Thus those who don’t attend any political rallies (too many people, too much sweat), do not know the name of their local councilor, anglicized ‘aspirational’ migrants who do not care to change their domicile when they move to another city (and neither visit their parental home to vote), those who love to paint most brown people as dehati and ‘uneducated’, and hence unfit for the kind of decision-making that electoral politics requires – these are the people who capture inordinate public discourse space due to their privileges. In their view, the ‘uneducated’ cannot see through propaganda and can be instigated easily. These parasites, after reading tome after tome, will tell you that they get it – how power works and the sort and if others got it too, it would all be so nice. If they could, they would elect the people themselves, replacing the rural and ‘uneducated’, with their own English-big word correctly reared kind. They do not care about data, but they are masters at abstractions- fitting the world into their warped book-derived worldview. They hate the masses, wish the masses were not as they are and spend lifetimes trying to shut the masses out of their lives. When such people capture positions from where they can infect others, like academia and media, social justice is at stake. Long well-fed by the dole that the Indira Congressite governments at the centre reserved for the professor/activist nomenklatura and other managers of such Delhi-based government-subsidized ‘liberal’ fortresses, there is a feeling that the party might end. The emigration ‘joke’ is a part of that anxiety.

The advantage of ‘book-read’ ideologies is that they offer excellent excuses for holding both wine glasses and radical positions. Those with a penchant for theorizing the world before they can jump in do that by constantly cleaning their local socio-political infections in their private homes with imported soaps. Nothing is more sacred than pure ideology. Their engagement with the people – zero. Thankfully, that’s what most people think of them as – zero. Common people’s lives are at the cross-roads of caste-class-language-religion flows. To them ‘fascism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ are not smart words to be said at the right time but things with real-life consequences. To the non-religious, post-casteist, cosmopolitan left-liberal urbanite, these are ‘concepts’ which coexist perfectly well with their sixth pay commission salaries and ‘refined’ sensibilities.

Some of them even fancy themselves as the cutting edge of the fight against Modi, fascism and all that. As my friend Uday Chandra succinctly puts it, ‘the electoral fight against Modi and his politics begins and ends in the regions and localities where the likes of Mayawati, Laloo, and Mamata emerge from. Upon their unpretentious and all-too-mortal shoulders the hopes of millions of Indians rest. Don’t let your academic or activist friends or nandu-sabka-bandhus tell you otherwise. If things were left to the urban and the urbane, we’d be fed to the wolves long ago’.

There is much to be concerned about a strong, stable government that defends extra-judicial killings of young women, is unapologetic about large-scale killings under its watch, pimps out natural resources to those who help light up the government’s ‘vibrant’ mask and shares the Delhi-Mumbai Indian vision of the urbane. The fight against such powers and such governments will continue to come from the rooted, with family values and communitarian ethos. The rustic and the fantastic, not urban liberal smart talkers have always carried on the real struggles for a just world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Filed under Change, Democracy, Elite, Federalism, India, Polity, Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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খেলা স্রেফ খেলা নয়

[ Ebela, 15 Jul 2014]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woody Allen and the halo of art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A khidki into our minds / Khidki opens a window

[ Fountain Ink, April 2014 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Dec 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supremely unjust / 377

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mine is bigger / Heights of silence

[ Outlook, 9 Dec 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Caste, Elite, India, Media, Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many avatars of Asaram Bapu / The Asarams around us

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 Oct 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My vote for pluralism

[ Open Magazine, 14 Sep 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** DNA version ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ Daily News and Analysis, 30 Apr 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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A Harvard state of mind

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Nov 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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Beyond Anglo-trade and Anglo-aid

[ Daily News and Analysis, 12 Nov 2012 ]

Justine Greening, the Tory Secretary of State for International development, announced on November 9th that Britain has decided to stop all financial aid grants to the Indian Union after 2015. No new grant will be given between now and 2015 but programmes that are already underway will be allowed to be completed, latest by 2015. The largest post-partition segment of the erstwhile British domains in South Asia has seen a rate of growth in its gross domestic product (GDP) than has been outstripping ‘mothership’ for quite a few years now. At long last, the proud father can look at the 60-year old young man and say ‘Look at you. How much you have grown. You still don’t look like I looked in my youth, but that is okay. We were made of different stuff. They don’t make them like that anymore.’ As a rite of passage, the father has decided to discontinue the act of pocket money. The confident son, who would not unilaterally protest at the extra cash, has acted adult and all, and has proudly stated that ‘aid is past, trade is future’.

But poverty is the present.  And if we cannot hear the ‘giant sucking sound northwards’ that finance capital creates by investing in ‘emerging markets’, it will be the future. 2011 data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that measured in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, the Indian Union’s share of the world GDP was 5.65 %.  Around the time of the Battle of Palashi (Plassey for the Anglicized) in 1757, the subcontinent accounted for 25% of the world GDP (Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: A millennial perspective). This was slightly more than all of Western Europe’s share (Britain included) taken together. And then Britain happened. The Chinese Empire’s share of the world GDP was over 30% in the 1830s. The timing is crucial. For them too, Britain happened, in the form of the Opium Wars. Drug running and colonial empire building has always been closely linked. Those lamenting the loss to China in 1962 may find macabre solace in knowing that the House of Tata and the House of Birla were pre-eminent in the opium-drug ‘trade’ that wrecked the Chinese economy.

In Britain’s decision, there is political expediency at play. Possibly the government cannot be seen to be showering largesse on a group of people whose public faces never tire to talk about their unfathomably deep appetite for market goods and their ‘arrival’ on the global scene. With huge egos pumped up by ill-begotten wealth, the vulgar trot of the ‘global Indian’ on the ‘international stage’ (from European holidays to the Commonwealth Games) is not appreciated by those Britishers whose social safety net is shrinking. The pompous ambassadors of South Asia have actively connived to supplant the idea of poverty that has been associated with the subcontinent for a long time. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, with poverty comes the poor, and with that, wily-nily comes the idea that South Delhi types and the bhukha-nanga types might actually be the same type, varnishing aside. Secondly, suggestions of wide-spread hunger also point a causal arrow to stuffed bellies. The ‘global Indian’ wants to party hard and does not want to spoil the party. In Britain, quite a few have stopped partying and they have come to look at the revelers as the erst-while hungry. Some of these even turn ‘anti-imperialist’ crusaders at international for a, asking for an equal per capita cap for carbon emissions for all countries. In their posturing, no one asks whether they plan to follow this notion of distributive justice inside the country too – with a Bandra highrise resident having the same cap for carbon emissions as the Dharavi resident. PR can work wonders. Lutyens Delhi can be spruced up as an anti-imperialist fortress.

The extent of the ‘India loot’ and the ‘China loot’ has been erased from public memory in Britain. Sleepy little towns got cobblestones, streetlights, extensive plumbing. Teenage small town boys without job prospects back home became sahibs and came back with loots. Other continents were won. The loot under-wrote war efforts and reconstruction efforts. Vaults spilled over many times. Traditional loot became systematically incorporated in the modes of life and infrastructural amenities that is rather innocuously now called a ‘higher standard of living’. This forgetting is also aided by the silence of the looted. But it was not too long ago when Dadabhoi Naoroji was crying hoarse over ‘Drain of Wealth’. Have such ideas become unfashionable in a subcontinent where such drain now occurs within, flowing down the highways into the cities. However unfashionable that may be, the descendants of those who were short-changed by the British rule in the subcontinent far outnumber those who benefited from it. If the former was ruling India, it would be asking for reparations. Even if the most modest estimates were true, such reparations would make Britain what it has been for much of its existence – a food-deficient island in the North Sea.

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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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Filed under Army / police, Change, Class, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Elite, Federalism, India, Jal Jangal Zameen, Media, Polity, Power, Rights, The perfumed ones, Urbanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Filed under Democracy, Elite, India, Media, Our underbellies, Power, Rights

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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Filed under Democracy, Elite, India, Our underbellies, Polity, Power, The perfumed ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning Manto / Who’s afraid of Saadat Hasan Manto?

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) May 11-17, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 13 ; Viewpoint Online ]

The left-wing student organization I belonged to in my college days in Kolkata, used to have a poster exhibition every year, ever since the 1992 demolition of the Babri structure.  One of them had those memorable words calligraphed red-black in a typical Bengalee left-wing style – “The child noticed the coagulated blood on the road, pulled at his mother’s sleeve and said, ‘Look, ma, jelly’.” That was not the whole of the very short ‘story’ and to read the rest, I discovered Manto.

There is a lot of hushed and not-so-hushed lamentation in this year of Sadat Hasan Manto’s birth centenary. Why did he leave Bombay? India would have been so much of a ‘natural’ home, they say. Somewhere between pronunciations such as these that is so characteristic of the self-congratulatory strain of elite public-secularism and a second-hand appreciation of Manto’s raw exposition of the chasm between our private and public lives, lies the attitude by which we look at Manto. The Anglicized literati and their patron, the Indian Union, wants to own Sadat Hasan Manto. They are masters at making cages for living writers – some gilded, some iron-made. Some cages become sarkari mausoleums after the writer’s death. Zoo tigers do not bite, generally. Clearly, the enthusiasm some folks on this on this side of owning Manto comes from a hope that sooner or later, a suitably golden cage could be made for him in the Union of India, for us to clap at. I am not so sure.

Today, in Delhi and other places, Manto is dramatized, commemorated, written and read, largely in English. Urdu’s currency as one of the pervasive languages of the common public sphere (and not ‘qaumi’ affairs) of the Upper Gangetic plain has seen progressive ruin. Read primarily in English, would he want to be read much less than Chetan Bhagat? Would Manto have loved this loss of readership, would he have wanted to be primarily remembered for getting a Filmfare award for lifetime achievement in writing stories for Hindi movies? I am not so sure. He might have written about the more gosht the Union would serve up, not only mazhabi gosht, but from a thousand faultlines. He might have written about the garam gosht cooked up in Delhi in 1984 and Ahmedabad in 2002, if he lived to be 90. Would he not be accused of writing only against Hindu violence? I am not so sure. He certainly would have written about a lot of gosht served up in East Bengal in 1971. There would not have been the 2005 postage stamp then. Dying young has its benefits.

He might have looked at the Saltoro range and the slow-killing heights of Siachen. He might have peered into that deathly whiteness, peered deep into it and among the frostbitten parts of the limbs would have located the new coordinates of Toba Tek Singh. Not content with ‘obscenity’, there might have been calls for him to be charged with sedition. That would have been true, irrespective of his leaving Bombay or not. He would have continued to write about sensuality that permeates life in the Subcontinent. Invariably, they would have intersected with more than one faith, belief and god(s), for they too pervade the public and public life in the Union of India. Like Maqbul Fida Hussain, that sterling admirer of the goddess Durga who liberated her from the patently mid 19th century blouse-clad look, reimagining the holy mother in her naked matriarchal glory, Manto’s run-ins with ‘public sensibilities’ might just have been enough to eject him from Bombay. Almost surely, as it happened with Hussain, a robust on-the-ground counter to hate-mongerers would have been found wanting. Hardly being ‘Pak’, in the long run, perhaps he would have been easily pushed out of Pakistan also, where he “had only seen five or six times before as a British subject”.

The inner crevices of the human psyche, where the shadow cast by public stances falls short of darkening it completely, acculturated beliefs, socially learnt prejudices as well as greed, eros and love come together, in that twilight zone, Sadat Hasan Manto looked for faint shades of light, looked compassionately, critically, and saw the human. In these perilous crevices, where few dare travel, lest it start exposing their own selves in variegated greyness, Manto ventured often.  It is this vantage that makes him an equal-opportunity lover and an equal-opportunity destroyer. He writes in his ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’, “Out here, many Mullah types after urinating pick up a stone and with one hand inside their untied shalwar, use the stone to absorb the after-drops of urine as they resume their walk. This they do in full public view. All I want is that the moment such a person appears, I should be able to pull out that atom bomb you will send me and lob it at the Mullah so that he turns into smoke along with the stone he was holding”. The Hindu fanatics are not amused at this, for they know, barring the specifics, he would have been as acerbic towards them. He stands tall, rooted in social realities, beyond posturing self-flagellation of progressives. Elite India’s sordid attempt at appropriating Manto’s sanjhi virasat , with careless drops of French wine falling on ornate carpets in restricted entry programmes where Manto is performed and fashionably consumed as a marker of ‘liberalism’ and ‘refinement’, might also attract the lobbing of a thing or two.

Descended from the Kashmiri brahmin caste of Mantoo, the despair of Sadat Hasan the Bombayite post 1947, parallels, in many ways the state of the greater community of the pandits, where circumstances slowly made them aliens in their natural home. This decentering by forces beyond their control is the story of Manto, and also the story of many in the contemporary subcontinent. Cynicism and prejudice make better bedfellows than many would like to admit. Manto possibly stares at us with irreverence at the examples of our reverence, at our Gujarats and Rinkle Kumaris, our Asia Bibis and Ishrat Jahans. As we grow taller in our own eyes by fashionably ‘appreciating’ Manto, curled up in our beds, curtains closed, windows closed, our sad pretensions only become clearer. But there is no Sadat Hasan to chronicle our shamelessness.

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Filed under Elite, Foundational myths, India, Memory, Nation, Obituary, Our underbellies, Pakistan, Partition, The perfumed ones, The written word

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

In defence of the West – reflections on the renaming debate of West Bengal

[ Himal Southasian, 26 Aug 2011 ]

“The past is never dead, it is not even past.”  ~ William Faulkner

Nations and national identities are transient entities. The entities might be imagined but what is very real is the feeling of belonging – no amount of ontological information, about how it came to be like it is, can easily take away that feeling. Meanings of life, meanings of community, meanings of love, pride, shame and desire are built from such feelings. Add to it a transient continuity through a set of  directly experienced or indirectly ‘felt’ scenarios, held in common. That is what makes memories of the past – a communitarian memory of sorts. To deny that memory, however irrelevant that may be to some sectors of the present populace, is, to deny a community certain ways of expressing its identity and continually coming to terms with the past. To look at the present as some kind of a thing in itself, with the past being a book that that has been read and shelved, only belies a very arrogant and strange understanding of the nature of human pasts, and indeed the nature of human presents.

As far as names of such entities go, the naming and more crucially, renaming, represents some kind of a project. For the last few weeks, the province of West Bengal in the Union of India, underwent a ‘renaming’ process. To people who were not indifferent to the renaming exercise, the end result of the process has evoked various hues of emotion – intense disappointment, anti-climax and for folks like me, relief. At this point, it is useful to have a brief recap of this entity, West Bengal.

This is not be confused with the shortlived western segment of Bengal arising out of the Partition of Bengal of 1905.  The 1905 partition saw eastern parts of the Bengali speaking areas sliced off from it to form the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. The rest, called simply Bengal, though technically Western Bengal and much of present day Bihar and Orissa, never really came to be known as such. In any case, the partition was reversed with the Bengals reunited in 1911. By 1947, the demand for a separate homeland, for ensuring the rights of Indian Muslims, had taken shape through the formation of Pakistan. While the pro-Pakistan Muslim League held a majority in the Bengal Legislative assembly and hence supported a wholesale inclusion of Bengal into Pakistan, an intense demand for the partition of Bengal came from the non-Muslim political forces. June 20, 1947 saw the legislators of these non-Muslim-majority areas assemble  and vote overwhelmingly for the partition of Bengal. This emerging entity,  intended to be formed by the assemblage of most non-Muslim-majority districts of Bengal, is what came to be West Bengal. The contours of the cleavage between West Bengal and East Bengal, and hence, by implication, the contours of West Bengal, were decided by Cyrille Radcliffe’s ‘award’. The said ‘award’ resulted in one of the greatest mass migrations in recent human past. In the tumultuous times of 1947 and shortly thereafter, nearly 3 million ‘East’ Bengalis came to West Bengal. According to the 1951 census of India, 27% of the population of Kolkata were partition-related migrant refugees from East Bengal. Especially spurting after the communal violence in East Bengal ( by then, rechristened and officialized by the state of Pakistan as ‘East Pakistan’) in 1950 and 1964, migration to West Bengal continued through the 50s and the 60s. It is estimated that by 1970, about 5 million refugees had arrived from East Bengal. In subsequent years, the westward migration due to real or perceived insecurity and/or opportunities has been slower, but far from absent. A substantial portion of the population of West Bengal have migrated from their ancestral abode in East Bengal in the last one or two generations.

Rumblings of discontent about the name ‘West Bengal’ started in government circles a few years ago. The reason was primarily one of discomfiture with the position of ‘W’ at the fag end of the alphabet series in English. The Union of India, being a federal system, often has meetings on important policy matters where representatives of the provinces ( called ‘states’) deliberate and present their viewpoints. Like an obedient brown-skilled English-educated schoolboy, the Union of India choses to follow the alphabetical order of English to call the representatives of the provinces, one by one. The problem should be clear by now. West Bengal with its ‘W’ is called last. It does not get much hearing, after all the provinces have spoken.After all, the Union of India has 28 provinces. After the recent change in government in West Bengal, the process of remedying West Bengal’s name gathered steam. And many people chimed in with suggestions.There were civil debates carried out in the television but in a more detailed way in the newspapers.

Any name, it may seem on the outset, is as good as any other. But the nature of alternatives that were being thrown up was an interesting socio-political indicator of sorts. A few names, of the Bangla, Bawngo or Bengal kind, made the rounds. Names of this kind found their votaries in people who argued – there is no East Bengal, why should we then call our province West Bengal? There is a certain problem with this unfortunate ‘there is no East Bengal’ view point. The roughly eastern segment of the land inhabited primarily by Bengali speaking people will always be East Bengal. East Bengal is as much a geographical entity as it was a political entity. The political entity has been conceived variously as East Bengal (1947-1955), East Pakistan (1955-1971) and Bangladesh ( 1971- present). The changing political construction of that geographical space does not change the psychogeographical space that East Bengal holds in the mind of large sections of the people of West Bengal, especially the refugees and their immediate descendants. People who were refugees from East Bengal did not locate their abode differently in the same psychogeographical space as East Bengal’s official political name changed with time. There also exists the East Bengal that does not simply reside in the memory of migrants. This is the living entity of East Bengal, in its political form of Bangladesh. It is not surprising that radical political groups, extremely staunch in their opposition to the Pakistani state, still chose to refer to themselves with their East Bengal epithet – various factions of the Purbo Banglar Shorbohara Party (Proletarian Party of East Bengal) and the Purbo Banglar Communist Party ( East Bengal Communist Party).

Names that simply refer to Bangla or Bengal show a thrust to create a wholly-contained identity, one that is contained within West Bengal’s territorial limits.The name Bangla or Bawngo is not new. However, it is hardly conceivable that a person’s conception of Bangla or Bengal suddenly underwent a radical transformation right after 14th August 1947 in one’s imagination of the place they imagined to be Bangla. The unfortunate illusion that the post-partition generations suffer from has the Bengal of one’s imagination stop at the international border. It is especially acute in West Bengal, which in fact is the smaller of the 2 politico-geographical segments of Bengal. Add to this the primarily Hindu name roll-call of the who’s who of Bengal’s past as taught in West Bengal. What one ends up with is a weird view of Bengal. The very-real presence of East Bengal in Satyendranath Bose’s professorship at Dhaka University, Bankim Chandra Chattyopadhyay’s deputy-collectorship at Jessore, Rabindranath Thakur’s literary productions while being stationed at Shelaidaha in Kushtia, Masterda Shurjo Sen and Pritilata Waddedar’s armed insurrection against the colonial occupation in Chattagram and myriad such events, ideas, conceptions, ownerships, get projected, very-really, imperceptibly but exclusively, onto the physical imaginary of Bengal’s western sliver. It is my suspicion that this psychological phenomenon where trans-frontier locales get uprooted from their real location but do not quite  get correspondingly embedded on this side of the frontier leaving places, faces, spaces, events in a strange purgatory of cognitive inaccessibility, is a major sequelae of partition. This possibly has given rise to  misshapen, constricted visions of one’s cultural  past, severely restricting initiatives of cultural engagement in the present time. Trends that seek to rename West Bengal as simply Bangla or Bengal may only add to this smugness of being complete.

Some have pointed out that the other great casualty of the partition of India, namely Punjab, do not go by East or West Punjab but is called Punjab on both sides of the international border. Without going into the details of its specific renaming, a few facts are to be borne in mind. Entities called West Punjab ( in Pakistan) and East Punjab state ( in the Union of India) arose right after partition. The East Punjab name carried itself into the later PEPSU ( Patiala and East Punjab State’s Union) fomation. Whatever the names cleaved entities politically go by, Punjab to the east of the border is still East Punjab. In certain unfortunate respects, the Punjabs are less amenable to cross-border imaginaries. Firstly, the ‘cleansing’ of populations in 2 sides of the international border in Punjab are almost surgically complete. The Muslim/ non-Muslim divide in terms of population distribution is nearly complete in the Punjabs. West Punjab has less than 3% non-Muslims and other Punjab’s numbers are correspondingly dismal, when one keep’s in mind the pre-partition demographic mix in these areas. The Bengals, inspite of migrations ( mostly from East to West), retain large number of the ‘other’ religious community within their slivers. A living access to the constructed ‘other’ puts certain limits to the process of ‘othering’. Furthermore, with increasing proportions of the two Punjabi population getting literate, their cultural productions are not mutually comprehensible in print, as West uses Shahmukhi ( Arabic) and the East uses Gurmukhi. This seriously inhibits the bonds of exchange and engagement of the kind that the Bengals continued to have post-partition, albeit not to an extent a culturally continuous geographical space should have within its different parts. Borders of the land do make their presence felt as borders in the mind.The logic of the nation-state devices the agenda of cultural continuities and discontinuities.

There is another aspect to these calls for ‘Bengal’.This one jives very well with that snazziness that shining India is all about – ‘Brand Bengal’ as it is called in the chambers of commerce and in the upmarket cafes of Kolkata. Some of this is the upwardly mobile upper middle class with its ‘consumer product’ centric view of all things. Then there is the element of supposed ‘coolness’ of ‘Bengal’ vis-à-vis the vernacular.  Whats more, it even reeks of the nostalgia of  stolen Burma teak, lazy colonial evenings and a booming Calcutta port to drain away surplus. The over bearing presence of the Calcutta-centric ( not Kolkata-centric) discourse on the question of renaming West Bengal did serve to skew the public. To some inhabitants of Calcutta, whose ‘Bengal’ or ‘West Bengal’ do not stretch beyond the confines of the metropolis (except a flight to Darjeeling). They are very perturbed about the discomfiture that foreigners (read inhabitants of Western Europe and USA) would endure pronounce this new name. If they had half the empathy for their fellow beings just beyond their city compared to what they have for folks who live half a world away, may be they would have better appreciated the importance of ‘West’ in ‘West Bengal’. Their lived reality remains utterly divorced from the sensitivities of the matuas and other low-caste communities who migrated from East Bengal and have trans-border organic connections in terms of family ties and pilgrimages. Slicing off references to ‘West’ would have been a project of cleavage – especially ironic in the face of officially sanctioned joint-exercises ( the drill-sounding expression is used intentionally)  between India and Bangladesh using Rabindranath Thakur’s 150th birth anniversary as the reason.This, at the same time when, poor Bengalis in either Bengal, are continuously harassed and belittled by immigration functionaries and East Bengalis are gunned down at the Indian Republican frontier by Government of India’s Border Security Force at a disturbingly regular interval.That the killing of East Bengalis does not evoke any serious reaction in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, might suggest that the time has indeed come to drop the ‘West’ in West Bengal, as its mandarins show not a shred of sympathy to its brothers and sisters to the east. But there may be hope still.

Of late, there has been a veritable explosion of sorts, in writing memory. In these times, we are really seeing the final passing away of that generation from West Bengal who not only had ancestral roots in East Bengal but had actually lived their, often right into their adulthood , as was the case for many later refugees. What they have also seen is the gradual loss of the signs of their distinctiveness in their future generations – distinctiveness that defined self-identities and attitudes. Few people of Barisal origin born in  West Bengal have anything akin to the stereotypical Barishailya raag ( the innate short-temper of Barisal people). In West Bengal, hardly any post-partition generation of Dhaka-Bikrampur origin would self-identify oneself with that dash of brash pride that comes with the epithet of ‘Dhakaiya kutty’. The slow loss of the cultural peculiarities of these sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaighters, of East Bengal, thrust upon West Bengal, has resulted in the writing of memoirs – memoirs of a way of life, memoirs of the loss of a way of life. These memoirs differ from the kinds which were produced earlier, post-partition, which often had  the backdrop of recent loss, that one had not come to terms with. The present crop of writing is rich with the story of loss, that has been digested and reflected upon, in terms of the double loss in identity that they see right in front of their eyes, in their progeny. That makes this genre of literary exploration especially poignant as it is also the last gasp of a robust, secure and self-confident East Bengal in West Bengal. Aldous Huxley said, every man’s memory is his private literature. Now, after long last, some of that is becoming public.

Gangchil publications of West Bengal has become the outlet for a stream of life and migration stories from East Bengal. Published in Bengali, the continued presence of East Bengal in the metropolis that is Kolkata is exemplified by the following lines ( translated by the present author from the Bengali original) from a 4- volume memoir from Adhir Biswas. This particular volume is called ‘Amra to ekhon Indiaey’ ( We are now in ‘India’) –

“ I left desh ( homeland) in 1967. My son argues, what do you mean you left your homeland? Isnt this your country , this India? I want to say, desh means the land of one’s birth, my village Magura, district Jessore, river Nabogonga ….. My son says, that is a story from 42 years ago. For 42 years , you have been here. This city Kolkata, river Gonga, the temple at Kalighat. I shut up at my son’s rebuke.
In front of my eyes, the branches of the banyan touch the water of Nabogonga.The water submerges the vegetation on its banks. The clear dawn peeks in through the slit in the bamboo fence. I hear the doel bird – cheeik, cheeik. Seeing my shutting up, my son thinks that he has hurt me, tried to say something to console me. By then, I see the  swaying boats tied up at the  jetty by the temple. I see the shadow of the pakur tree in the water. The small bamboo bridge. In the middle of the Naboganga, an eddy whirls up. I feel it, my homeland hasnt left me –  it is living on embracing this thin, worn out body of mine.
I dont reply back.I keep silent.’

At another place, Biswas goes on – ‘ A new country, a new city. Double-decker buses, trams, the Kalighat temple. The liver and leg pieces at butcher Mohanda’s shop. And then at some point, I think about my childhood homestead. Sitting with a fishing rod by the bank of Nabogonga. I remember and think a lot about sitting with Bhombol, the dog and cleaning its ear-wax. Before my mother was cremated in the grounds at Satdoa, her pillow and madoor ( mattress) was thrown in the forest. I feel that they are still right there.I can clearly see the state of the madoor, the shape of the pillow.But I dont have a passport.’

‘But I dont have a passport’ – West Bengal stands to lose when it cannot appreciate the importance of that space of mental topography called East Bengal, which also is a real geographical entity. The lamentations for his long-dead mother with her spectral presence in a home he does not and cannot live but is the only place he can ever call home makes the case for the continued presence of the East Bengal in the West Bengal imagination. We do need it for sanity, to avoid a process of loss of parts of oneself. The present project of dropping the ‘West’  would help erase the memory of the grandmother altogether for the next generation, let alone lamenting the inability to return. For the next generation, there is no return may be, to the east. They are all marching to Delhi, to become ‘Indians’, a people without grandparents, but a people with an ‘ancient history’, I am told. In Delhi descend all the cosmopolitans without grandparents and great-grandparents – the first true Indians who are nothing but Indians, and powerful ones at that. Being ‘too’ Bengali or worse still, Lepcha, makes one that bit less suitable for this ‘Indianness’. This Indianness is a sophisticated shoe to fill, and I have smelly feet. Some of that smell comes as an inheritance from people who came from places where they do not even fly the Indian tri-colour.

One suggested name that also was in contention was Banga-pradesh, the pradesh( province) part seeking to specify that it is not a ‘desh’ or nation by itself and to underscore its unquestionably within-India-ness. Others suggested banga-bharati, a not-so-ingenious rip-off from Rabindranath Thakur’s Visva Bharati. It might as well have been called Delhi-Bengal or Dilli-Bongo, to make the attachment to the heart of Mother India ever so tight. Among the list of alternatives were Bawngodesh and Bawngobhoomi. Both had inadequacies that mired names like Bengal or Bangla – a pretension to a quarter-baked wholeness that flew in the face of the reality of indelible trans-border connections. Another alternative ‘Gour-Bawngo’ harkened back to some mythic continuity to an older name for a certain part of Bengal. It would have been inadequate, regressive and plain fictional, in the present context.

The present government, after a rare consensus based agreement, with all opposition political groups including the Gorkha Janmukti Morhca in tow, decided to officially rename West Bengal as Paschim Banga ( pronounced Poshchim Bwango). This name is simply a translation of the name West Bengal in Bangla. To me, this name brings more respite than elation. Name changing exercises are either cosmetic or cheap tricks to serve reactionary political agendas. In this case, the dropping of the reference to ‘West’ could have achieved something silently damaging.That this was thwarted is a big respite. Not that I would mind if ‘West Bengal’ was not perturbed.  As Ashis Nandy often states, all cosmopolitan geographies have multiple names. Calcutta, Kolkata and Kalkatta may be geographically similar, but they reflect differently poised parts of the city and indeed different cities within the city. Such is the name for West Bengal. Poshchim Bwango is the name by which a large number of its inhabitants are used to calling it anyway.The popular constituency of Poshchim Bawngo is clearly larger than that of West Bengal, and in that sense, the ‘official’ political name now is more aligned to what most people call it in real-life, Poshchim Bawngo or Poshchim Bangla, rather than West Bengal. Not that I would mind if ‘West Bengal’ was not perturbed. I come exactly from the social milieu who do daily treks between ‘West Bengal’ and ‘Poshchim Bawngo’, depending on the situation. ‘West Bengal’ is a name that is inaccessible to a large portion of the population.

The present moment also holds within itself the half-chance of another future. In the age of increasing reach of the internet, the web has enabled intercourse of ideas between the two Bengals at levels that were unthinkable and is unprecedented since the 1947 partition. A website like Bangalnama, set up by young people from West Bengal, is active in the preservation of this collective memory of the ‘lost’ East.  But it will be erroneous to think that it is simply nostalgia. Websites like this are buoyed by active participation from people from both Bengals and cannot be discounted as digital mourning saga of the Hindu upper caste refugee generation-next.  This memory is now serving as glue where young people from both Bengals are interacting with each other, commenting in each other’s blogs and websites, which are proliferating everyday. Transportation between the two Bengals is now easier than it has been in decades. The dropping of the ‘West’ epithet, at this juncture, would have been nothing short of a failure to imagine a recovery of cultural consonance in this part of Southasia, may be even reversing some of the wounds that can only come from the severance of the deepest bonds.

I return to a question that had been posed many times in the run-up to this renaming debate. Where is East Bengal? Among other places, it  is also in what is implied by ‘West’ in ‘West Bengal’- that there is that other half. Till global warming induced rising sea levels actually finish of this West/East debate for good, ‘East’ Bengal also lives in the matrimonial advertisements of the scions of East Bengal, 3 generations removed from partition, which lists  never-visited-again ancestral abodes – Barisal, Faridpur, Mymansingh, Khulna, Noakhali, Srihatta, Rajshahi, Tangail, Bogura, Sherpur, Narayanganj, Brahmhonbaria. All this is in the ‘East’. It is that east, to whose west my land lies. West Bengal. Poshchim Bawngo. At least, for now.

“For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.” ~ Elie Wiesel

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Filed under Bengal, Elite, Identity, Kolkata, Language, Nation, Open futures, Partition

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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Filed under Democracy, Elite, India, Nation, Polity

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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Hating Mayawati’s statues – a story of false concerns and true fears – an inquiry into the elite mind

( Himal SouthAsian , Aug 2009)

Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and unquestionably the most popular living Dalit leader of India is at the center of a controversy. She is building immense statues to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, Manyavar Kanshi Ram and to herself and in the process generating much resentment among the English-speaking public as well as her political adversaries.

Figures ranging from Rs. 1000-2000 crore have said to have been allocated towards these constructions and have resulted in a veritable outrage among certain sections of the society. Who is outraged and who is not, why the outrage and what does that tell us about the outraged?

Preliminarily, one must hear how the outrage is being verbalized and take a close look into those allegations. The outrage is expressed along primarily has three lines – firstly, that public funds could be better utilized for development work, second, the sheer impropriety of erecting statues to oneself during one’s lifetime and third, that this does nothing for the Dalits whose cause Mayawati professes to espouse.

1. Better utlization of public funds?

There is something disingenuous when it is said that the money could be spent on improving health-care facilities, sanitation, water and what not. What is unsaid is that the money comes from the budget of the various ministries which have nothing to do with health or education or sanitation, the department of culture being a major one. These are pre-set budgetary provisions.

But there is something more to be said. The charge of squandering public money is looked upon as a non-casteist charge and by bringing it up, prejudices and animosities which may otherwise have casteist origins can be sanctified and presented in public discourse. What predictably escapes from scrutiny are the plethora of such expenses done over the years and even now in a country as poor as India – the upkeep of Rashtrapati Bhavan ( a 340 room residence – the world’s largest residence for a Head of State) and other Governor Houses, the banquets in the governmental charmed circles, the lavish welcome to foreign heads of state, the “traditions” of the armed forces like musical bands and polo clubs – the list is long and expressing it loudly is tantamount to bringing down the prestige of the nation – indeed the same nation which has the world’s largest number of hungry humans and an infant mortality rate of utter shame.

Clubbed together, they possibly form the political and economic equivalent of building 5000 such statues a year. One wonders whether the same shrill voices would have been as shrill if Mayawati had ordered the construction of the statues of deceased prime-ministers and presidents of India. Also, the sudden obsession of the chatterati which invariably are high caste circles, with the absence of proper sanitation facilities or the high maternal mortality rate in Uttar Pradesh is amusing. This new-found concern possibly has a useful parallel in the sudden spurt of detailed universal primary education plans coming from high caste think tanks during the protests against the recent increase of caste-based reservations in higher education.

2. Mayawati the megalomaniac – Where’s the propriety?

Megalomania is possibly more common than we think or admit – just that most of us do not have the resources or public acceptability to go about it. In the past, building statues and other structures to oneself, has often been practiced by the rulers in India. The kings of India have done this – Britishers have gone on to name entire cities and islands after living monarchs and other white men. As it turns out, Shravan Prajapati, the sculptor of the statues also has sculpted a commissioned statue of Margaret Thatcher, very alive and kicking.

While, to some of us, a change in epoch has taken place, one must remember the peculiar obsession of what befits the “modern times” or the twentieth ( now twenty first) century is not shared across the populace of India. This is especially true for the Dalits and other oppressed and marginalized communities and it is time one admits that the grappling with modernity which so permeates our popular discourse is, at the end of the day, primarily a higher caste phenomenon – which interestingly also makes it a minority phenomenon, the higher castes being a minority of the Indian population.

This means that there is the possibility of a majority vision of public propriety which may be very different from what higher castes are comfortable with. This is something that higher castes by and large do not allow for the possibility of – hegemonic groups pre-suppose that their vision of the world is an all encompassing vision of the world with them at the centre. Anything else, which dislodges them from the centre and throws open different public standards to be as valid as long as they are backed by other peoples, is dangerous – for then ethos, practices, moralities and standards suddenly start seeming less providential and timeless, more open to multiple interventions and hence more democratic – an institution towards which hegemonic minorities tend to have a distrust.

Having said this, one also has to note the deep hypocrisy in the propriety argument. Both Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Panditain Indira Gandhi were made the Bharat Ratna when they were prime ministers. I am not judging these acts but can only say that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Of course, technically they did not nominate themselves Bharat Ratnas – but were bestowed the honour on behalf of the “people of India” by the Office of the President. But that is a game two can play at. Mayawati has publicly said that her own statues were not built out of her own accord but was a publicly stated wish of Kanshi Ram. Moreover, most of her statues have been inaugurated by the minister of urban planning Nasimuddin Siddiqui with budgetary provisions not coming from ministries whose portfolios she holds.

As much as the elite would like to claim that we are Indians first before we are Dalits or Kshatriyas, some facts stand out starkly. The first Dalit Bharat Ratna was bestowed on Babasaheb Ambedkar as late as 1990, only under V.P.Singh’s Rashtriya Morcha government which rode to power on twin prongs of anti-Congressism and caste-identity politics. What is clear is that if the backward castes have to wait for the recognition of their heroes as heroes of India, they would be waiting a long time. Since 1990, no other backward caste icon has been deemed a ‘ratna’ enough for Bharat. Such a myth of unity backed by a scheme of inclusiveness which is more like an inverted pyramid is clearly unstable. Sooner or later, someone had to walk out and make their own pyramid – Mayawati in her political astuteness is doing just that.

The sheer lack of Dalit icons in the urban Indian public pantheon is not an accident – nor does the space lack icons. Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyay is one such icon. He struggled for the legalization of widow remarriage in India and lobbied the British rulers for this. He is truly a pioneer.

But thereafter the story gets complicated. The question is, pioneer for whom? As it turns out, pioneer essentially for forward caste Hindus among whom widow remarriage was virtually absent and was an ominous taboo. This was not the case with many backward castes and indigenous peoples of India among whom widow remarriage was nothing new. Then what does the valorization tell us in addition to Ishwar Chandra’s greatness? It is also tells about the near invisibility and irrelevance of the lives of much of India’s peoples in setting the content of public discourse of India, dominated by the higher castes.

In some ways, this is akin to Columbus’s “discovery” of America – what is unsaid is that it really was the arrival of Spaniards to a land where many people had lived and thrived. One can think that world is what one determines it to be – unfortunately for some, deepening of democracy has the subversive potential of rudely interrupting such daydreams. Such interruptions are never pleasant especially when they threaten to be a opening shots of a long series of interruptions that might unravel the world of the forward castes as they know it where a Kshatriya engineer sues a Brahmin doctor in the court of law of a Kayastha judge. The arrival of people whose grandmothers sung them different lullabies, lullabies born out of the night soil, may break the party. And there is the rub.

Mayawati is possibly no more demagogic as a leader of the Dalits as most other “leaders of India” have been.It is the alien-ness of her political culture which appeard to be crude to the forward castes. For those Indians who have been fed on a steady diet of some form of the ideological spectrum of Mill-Hume-Smith-Hegel-Marx and have lamented at the absence of evolution of indigenous political thought with the exception of certain icons of the elite , unfortunately, have a narrow view of what constitutes political thought. In a human existence, where much of politics is among the non-reader of books, the evolution of political thought also has multiple trajectories- some inaccessible to the book reader, however odd that might sound.Every time the forward caste revenue collector of a forward caste zamindar came, when the backward caste menfolk of a village ran away to hide behind tall grass to escape the immediate oppressors – theories of the nature of power developed. Schools of political thoughts have developed as dalits and tribals have huddled in fright at being displaced at the bulldozers of a mining company protected by state forces. Theories of human dignity and humiliation developed when bhangis scoured the faeces of forward caste toilets by their right hand – just like forward castes have never really known how it is to touch faeces with their right hand, in the same way, there is a near total non-access to the reasons why in a NDTV-GfK Mode survey, 62% of Dalits around Lucknow support the installations of the statues of Mayawati.The Ambedkar Park project in Lucknow has a water body called the Bhim Ganga ( named after Bhimrao Ambedkar). Dalit men and women have often collected water from the Bhim Ganga considering it holy.

That tells us something important – that in this supposed aged of all-encompassing modernity, myths and indeed gods are coming to life just as they always have.This world of animation almost completes eludes the chattering classes to whom India’s diverse peoples are almost an embarrassment in a supposedly global village where everyone is supposed to understand that Mocha is a kind of coffee.

3. The statues do nothing for the uplift of Dalits

Mayawati has tried to project herself as a Messiah of the Dalits – this she is not, arguably. And not so long ago, comparisons were being made in India with the other messianic figure of these times, US President Barack Obama. While it has been argued publicly by the chatterati that Mayawati is no Obama for she is too confrontational and lacks a unifying vision (and privately, her ‘unpresentability’ at international forums), something else needs to mentioned.

Obama’s political idiom is one of a supposedly already post-racist America, that is, one of white America’s sin atonement vision, for cheap. Jesse Jackson,who was also mainstream but slightly edgy and not as colorblind as Obama could never have calmed the nerves of the liberal establishment like the way Mr.Cool has.

Mayawati, on the other hand, sells no such fiction. She does not talk of a post-casteist society – in fact the real and present caste-ridden society is her political capital. But she had been stressing compact before contradiction, possibly too soon, and it is in that, she does disservice to her Dalit base as activists like Prakash Ambedkar would argue. This does not take away the very real sense of dignity some of the Dalits have been armed with. Dalits from South India have visited the Ambedkar Park and the various statues and could conceivably become an alternative pilgrimage for some Dalits.

Finally, we still need to dissect the discomfiture of the elites with Mayawati’s statues building at a very raw, getting under the skin level. Mayawati with her ilk, who play by different rules may not have imbibed the refined art of covert aggrandizement. It is too much in the open – the big golden ear-rings she wears, the huge birthday cake she cuts with toadies looking on – is too easy to condemn. But at one level, it is understood that this flamboyance does not follow the idioms the mandarins of elite Indian society are used to – she doesnt go playing golf or drinking Johnny Walker Blue Label with public money – she makes her and her mentor’s statues. The acceptable methods and the range of permissible display of helping oneself with public money has been normalized and well worked out for other groups and sectors which have been in power for much longer periods of time – in some cases, centuries. The new interloper either hasnt learnt that yet or has a different game to play- in both cases, she poses a danger to the models of silent theft, and more broadly to the upper caste consensus of how political life is organized.

No one should under-estimate the power of co-option – Laldenga and Shibu Soren are great examples of how iconic leaders can be reduced to ghosts of their earlier selves. But for now, every cringe about her from the Indian elites is being shrewdly crafted by her into a new medal of pro-Dalit credentials, which of late had been tainted by her increasing overtures to ‘Manuvadis’.

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