Category Archives: Federalism

Why the Tamil struggle for Jallikattu is historic

[ Firstpost, 19 Jan 2017]

jallikattu-poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ভারতের নতুন টাকার নোট ও হিন্দী-দিল্লী আধিপত্যবাদ

ভারতীয় রিজার্ভ ব্যাংক নতুন ৫০০ ও ২০০০ টাকার নোট চালু পরপরেই এই নতুন নোটের নানা বৈশিষ্টকে বেআইনি বলে অভিযোগ করে জনস্বার্থ মামলা দায়ের হয়েছে মাদ্রাজ হাইকোর্টে। বিচারপতি সে মামলা গ্রহণ করেছেন এবং প্রাথমিক শুনানিতে সরকারপক্ষের এই বক্তব্য যে দেবনাগরীতে সংখ্যা আসলে সংখ্যা নয়, নকশা মাত্র, এ হেন সাফাইতে  সন্তুষ্ট হননি। সরকারপক্ষ আরো সময় চেয়েছে। আগের ৫০০-১০০০ টাকার নোট বাতিলের ফলে যে রাষ্ট্রব্যাপী ব্যাপক আর্থিক অস্থিতি তৈরী হয়েছে, এই নতুন নোট আস্তে আস্তে তা সামলাবে। অথচ এই নতুন নোটের ডিজাইনের মধ্যে নিহিত রয়েছে এমন কয়েকটি জিনিস, তা এই ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন সংঘরাষ্ট্রের ভাষিক  জাতিসমূহের মধ্যে যে মৌলিক বোঝাপড়া, তাকে পদদলিত করে। এই নতুন নোটে অগ্রাধিকার পেয়েছে ৩টি জিনিস – হিন্দি, দিল্লি ও মোদী।

নতুন নোটগুলিতে সংখ্যা বড় করে ছাপা হয়েছে হিন্দির সর্বাধিক প্রচলিত ও প্রচারিত লিপি দেবনাগরিতে। আগের নোট সংখ্যা দেবনাগরীতে ছিল না। নতুন দিল্লীর কেন্দ্রীয় সরকার কি মনে করে যে হিন্দিভাষীরই একমাত্র মাতৃভাষায় নোটের সংখ্যা পড়ার অধিকার আছে, আর অহিন্দীভাষীদের নেই? টাকার নোটে কোন লিপিতে সংখ্যা থাকবে, তা নির্ধারণ করে সংবিধান ও রাষ্ট্রপতির নির্দেশাবলী। সংবিধানের ৩৪৩ নং ধারায় পরিষ্কার ভাবে বলা আছে যে ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন সংঘরাষ্ট্রের যে কোন সরকারী (অফিসিয়াল ) কাজে ব্যবহার করতে হবে আন্তর্জাতিক সংখ্যালিপি। যার মানে হলো “ইংরেজি”তে আরবি-হিন্দু সংখ্যা। অর্থাৎ 1,2,3 ইত্যাদি। এতদিন তাই  হয়ে আসছে। আন্তর্জাতিক লিপি ছাড়াও নোটের ব্যাপারে দেবনাগরী লিপিতে সংখ্যা ছাপা যাবে, এই মর্মে কোন রাষ্ট্রপতির নির্দেশিকা বা সাংবিধানিক বিধান নেই। ১৯৬০-এর রাষ্ট্রপতির নির্দেশিকায় বলা আছে যে দেবনাগরী লিপির সংখ্যা শুধু সেই কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারী প্রকাশনার ক্ষেত্রে ব্যবহার করা যাবে, যে ক্ষেত্রে জনতার যে অংশের জন্য এই প্রকাশনা, তার জন্য এটি জরুরি। প্রথমতঃ, টাকার নোট কোন কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারী “প্রকাশনা” নয়। ফলে এই নির্দেশিকা এ ক্ষেত্রে প্রযোজ্য নয়। আর দ্বিতীয়তঃ, টাকার নোটে ছাপা তথ্য কি শুধু হিন্দিভাষীদের জন্য? বাকিরা কি বানের জলে ভেসে এসছে? এই সকল ধারণার একটা মিথ্যা উত্তর মজুত থাকে।  সেটা হলো হিন্দী হলো ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন সংঘরাষ্ট্রের রাষ্ট্রভাষা। এই দাবিটি সম্পূর্ণ মিথ্যা হওয়া সত্ত্বেও সরকারি ও বেসরকারি কায়েমী স্বার্থান্বেষী চক্র গত ৭০ বছর ধরে এই মিথ্যা প্রচার করে চলেছেন।  ভারতের সংবিধানে রাষ্ট্রভাষা ধারণাটিরই কোন স্থান নেই। ভারতের কোন রাষ্ট্রভাষা নেই। গুজরাট হাইকোর্ট তার বিখ্যাত রায়তে স্পষ্টভাবে জানিয়েছে যে অহিন্দী রাজ্যে, হিন্দী বিদেশী ভাষার সমতুল্য।

ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন নামক সংঘরাষ্ট্রে অহিন্দীভাষী জাতিসমূহ যে চুক্তির দ্বারা হিন্দীভাষী জাতির সাথে আবদ্ধ, তার নাম দিল্লীতে ক্ষমতাধারী পার্টির হিন্দীকরণের ম্যানিফেস্টো নয়। তার নাম সংবিধান। টাকার নোটে এই সংবিধানকে বুড়ো আঙ্গুল দেখানো প্রকারান্তরে ইন্ডিয়ান উনিয়নের ঐক্যের উপর আঘাত হানা। রাষ্ট্রক্ষমতা দখল করে যে রাজনৈতিক আদর্শ মানুষে মানুষে ভাষার প্রশ্নে বৈষম্য ঘটায় এবং সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ নাগরিককে ভাষার প্রশ্নে দ্বিতীয় শ্রেণীর নাগরিকে পরিণত করে, তা কোন বহুভাষী রাষ্ট্রের জন্য কল্যাণময় নয়। এ ব্যাপারে হাতের কাছে ১৯৭১-পূর্ব্ববর্তী পাকিস্তান এক জ্বলন্ত উদাহরণ।

যদি শাসকেরা চাইতেন যে ইংরেজি ছাড়াও মানুষের অন্যান্য ভাষায় সংখ্যাগুলি পঠিত হওয়া জরুরি, তার দুটি সহজ উপায় ছিল। এক, টাকার নোট যেহেতু প্রচার বা স্তুতির স্থান নয়, বরং একটি নিত্য ব্যবহারিক বস্তু, তাই টাকার বিনিময় কার্য্যের সাথে অপ্রাসঙ্গিক অন্যান্য ছবি ও নকশা তুলে নিয়ে অনেকগুলি ভাষার লিপিতে একই সাইজে সংখ্যা দেওয়া যেতো। দুই, ইউরো মডেল নেওয়া যেতো।  সে ক্ষেত্রে, ভাষিক জনগোষ্ঠীর ব্যবহৃত নগদের সমানুপাতিক হারে নানা সিরিজের নোট ছাপা যায়, যেখানে ইংরেজি সংখ্যার সাথে কিছু শতাংশ নোটে সংখ্যা থাকবে বাংলায়, কিছু শতাংশে দেবনাগরীতে, কিছু শতাংশ তামিলে, ইত্যাদি। দুর্ভাগ্যের কথা এই যে যখন এই উপমহাদেশ ফিরিঙ্গী শাসনাধীন ছিল, তখন কিন্তু এই এলাকায় চালু টাকার নোটে ৯টি লিপিতে সংখ্যা (ইংরেজি সমেত) একই সাইজে দেওয়া থাকতো। ১৯১০ খ্রীষ্টাব্দের ১০ টাকার নোট দ্রষ্টব্য। একই সাথে একই সাইজে থাকতো নানা ভাষায় টাকার অঙ্কটি অক্ষরে লেখা – যথা বাংলায় দশ টাকা। বহু ভাষাকে সমমর্যাদা দেবার ব্যাপারটির ইতি ঘটে ১৯৪৭-এ ইন্ডিয়া রাষ্ট্র গঠিত হবার সাথে।  তবে থেকে হিন্দি তথা দেবনাগরী পরিণত হয় তথ্য দেবার জন্য বড় আকারে। অন্যান্য ভাষা পর্যবসিত হয় পিছনদিকের এক ছোট প্যানেলে গাদাগাদি করে ক্ষুদ্র আকারে, বৈচিত্রের পরাকাষ্ঠা হিসেবে। ১৯৪৭এর পর থেকেই ক্রমাগত টাকার নোটে হিন্দীর মোট এলাকার তুলনায় ইংরেজি ব্যতীত অহিন্দী ভাষাসমূহের মোট ছাপা এলাকা কমেছে বিরাটভাবে। ঔপনিবেশিক শাসনের তুলনায় টাকার নোটের মাধ্যমে বিভিন্ন ভাষিক জাতীয়তাগুলির মধ্যে ক্ষমতার ভারসাম্য যে ভাবে ক্ষমতা হস্তান্তর পরবর্তী ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন রাষ্ট্রে লঙ্ঘিত হয়েছে, তা শুধু লজ্জার বিষয় নয়, চিন্তারও বিষয়। অহিন্দী ভাষাগুলির এই প্রান্তিকায়ন আকস্মিক নয়, প্রকট ভাবে পরিকল্পিত কেন্দ্রীকরণ-মূলক রাষ্ট্রনীতিরই অঙ্গ। ১০% তামিল আর ৭৫% চৈনিক জনগোষ্ঠীর সিঙ্গাপুর তাদের টাকার নোট তামিল, চীনা ও ইংরেজিতে একই সাইজের অক্ষরে নোটের অঙ্ক ছাপে। আসলে সমতা হোক বা বৈষম্য, ইচ্ছা ও নীতিটা আসল। নোট তারই বহিঃপ্রকাশ।

নতুন নোটে রয়েছে দেবনাগরী “র” অক্ষর সম্বলিত নতুন টাকার আইকন। এই আইকন বাছাইকালে কোন জনমত যাচাই হয়নি। আমার ভাষা বাংলা তথা অসমীয়াতে টাকা শব্দ যে অক্ষর দিয়ে শুরু, তা হলো “ট”, হিন্দীর রুপিয়ার “র” নয় । যদি আজ “র” এর জায়গায় সকল নোটে “ট” সম্বলিত আইকন ব্যবহার হতো, তাহলে হিন্দিভাষীরা কি মনে করতেন? তারা ছেড়ে দিতেন? আসলে হিন্দী আধিপত্যবাদের এই রাষ্ট্রে এই “ট” আইকন কল্পনা করাও শক্ত। পরিকল্পিত ভাবে অহিন্দীদেড় প্রান্তিক করে দেবার যে নানা প্রকল্প চালু হয়েছে, তা এখন টাকার নোটেও ঢুকে গেলো আরো জোরালো ভাবে।

কেউ বলতে পারেন, তাহলে ইংরেজিই বা এতো পবিত্র কেন? হিন্দী হলেই যত অসুবিধে? হিন্দী তো অন্ততঃ বিদেশী নয়। এ প্রসঙ্গে ফের মনে করাতে চাই, যে হ্যাঁ ইংরেজি বিদেশী ভাষা, এবং অহিন্দী মানুষের কাছে হিন্দীও বিদেশী ভাষাই। পূর্বোল্লোখিত গুজরাট হাই কোর্টের রায় সেটা পরিষ্কার করে দেয়। আমরা যেন দেশ ও রাষ্ট্র, এই ভিন্ন দুটি ধারণাকে এক না করে ফেলি। অবশ্যই, সকল ভাষার সমান অধিকারই আদর্শ উপায়।  তার ব্যতিরেকে কেন ইংরেজি, সে নিয়ে প্রবাদপ্রতিম গণনেতা তামিল নাড়ুর মুখ্যমন্ত্রী আন্নাদুরাই-এর মন্তব্য স্মর্তব্য। তিনি বলেছিলেন, ইন্ডিয়ান উনিয়নের মতো একটি বহুভাষিক সংঘরাষ্ট্রে প্রতিটি ভাষিক জাতীয়তাকে সুবিধা ও অসুবিধা সমান ভাবে ভাগ করে নিতে হবে। তবেই ঐক্য সাধিত হবে। ইংরেজি হলো এই ভাষিক জাতীয়তাগুলি থেকে সমদূরত্বে। এটাই ইংরেজির সুবিধে।  আরেকটি সত্য হলো যে ভারত নামক রাষ্ট্র কল্পিত হয়েছিল ইংরেজিতে – নানা জায়গার উচ্চবর্গের মানুষের মূলতঃ ইংরেজিতে ভাব বিনিময়ের মাধ্যমে। আজও তা সত্য। এটা অবশ্যই ভারত কল্পনায় উচ্চবর্গের বিশেষ স্বার্থ ও প্রাধান্যকেই চোখে আঙ্গুল দিয়ে দেখায়, কিন্তু তা আজকেও সত্য এবং বাস্তব।  ইংরেজি না থাকলে নানা ভাষী শাসক গোষ্ঠীর কোন মেলবন্ধন নেই।

এই নোটে রয়েছে আরো নানা সমস্যা। সংবিধানের অষ্টম তফসিলে গত কয়েক বছরে অন্তর্ভুক্ত বেশ কিছু ভাষা, যেগুলির নিজস্ব লিপি আছে, যেমন মনিপুরের মেইটেইলোন, সাঁওতালি (অলচিকি যার লিপি), সেগুলি নোটে অন্তর্ভুক্ত করা হয়নি। ২০ হাজারেরও কম মানুষের ভাষা সংস্কৃত রয়েছে নোটে কিন্তু ৭০ লক্ষাধিক মানুষের মাতৃভাষা সাঁওতালি নেই, এ কেমন পরিহাস?

অথচ নতুন করে যখন নোট ছাপা হলো, সেই সুযোগ তো ছিল। ফের, প্রশ্নটা সদিচ্ছার ও সমতার, যে সমতার আদর্শকে গলা টিপে মারে ক্ষমতা। ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন সংঘরাষ্ট্রের ভাষিক বৈচিত্রকে নতুন দিল্লী একটি নিরাপত্তা ও ঐক্যের বিরুদ্ধে চ্যালেঞ্জ হিসেবে দেখে। এই ভাষ্যে, হিন্দি ছাড়া সবকিছুই গোলমালের, অনৈক্যের প্রতীক, আর হিন্দী হলো ঐক্যের প্রতীক। এই প্রায় সাম্রাজ্যবাদী ও আধিপত্যকামী রাজনৈতিক দৃষ্টিভঙ্গি বোঝা যায় যখন সরকারি ভাষার প্রচার ও প্রসার তথা অন্যান্য ভাষার স্বীকৃতি দেবার বিষয়টি দেখাশুনো করে কেন্দ্রীয় গৃহমন্ত্রকের অধীন একটি দপ্তর। নতুন দিল্লি নতুন নিয়ম চালু করেছে যে নিজস্ব লিপিহীন নতুন ভাষাগুলিকে সরকারি পঞ্জীকরণ ও স্বীকৃতি প্রাপ্তির জন্য সেই ভাষা লেখার ক্ষেত্রে দেবনাগরী লিপি আবশ্যিক ভাবে মেনে নিতে হবে।  এখানে সেই ভাষার মানুষ তথা বিদ্দ্বদজনদেড় মতামত গুরুত্বহীন। এই ব্যবস্থার এক বলি হলো বোড়ো ভাষা, যেটির আবাদভূমি কোন হিন্দিভাষী এলাকার সংলগ্ন নয়। বোড়ো  লেখার ক্ষেত্রে দেবনাগরী বাধ্যতামূলক করা হয়েছে নতুন দিল্লীর আদেশে।  এর আগে মোহনদাস গান্ধীর ছবি দিয়ে টাকার নোটের সার্বিক গ্রহণযোগ্যতার রাজনীতিকরণ করা শুরু হয়েছিল। টাকায় এইবার বিজেপি সরকারের “স্বচ্ছ ভারত” প্রকল্পের বিজ্ঞাপন হিন্দিতে ছেপে টাকার নোটকে রাজনৈতিক উদ্দেশ্যে ব্যবহার করার প্রক্রিয়াকে অন্য স্তরে নিয়ে গেলো। এর ফলে এবার থেকে টাকার নোট হয়ে উঠবে নিজ প্রবর্তিত সরকারি প্রকল্প বিজ্ঞাপনের এক নতুন ক্যানভাস। একটু একটু করে গণতন্ত্রের মৌলিক নিরপেক্ষতার কাঠামোটি ধ্বংস প্রাপ্ত হচ্ছে।

পুরানো নোটগুলিতে স্থান-ভিত্তিক রাজনৈতিক সিম্বল জায়গা পায়নি ৫০ টাকার নোট সংসদ ভবন ছাড়া। এই সংসদ ভবন সকল নাগরিকের প্রতীক।  অথচ আমরা দেখছি যে নতুন নকশার ৫০০ টাকার নোটে বিরাজ করছে লাল কেল্লার ছবি। এই লাল কেল্লার স্মৃতি ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন সংঘরাষ্ট্রের সকল জাতির কাছে সুখকর নয়। লাল কেল্লা ছিল দিল্লী-কেন্দ্রিক মোঘল সাম্রাজ্যের সদর দফতর। ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন সংঘরাষ্ট্র মোঘল সাম্রাজ্যের উত্তরাধীকারী কোন রাষ্ট্র নয়।  এটি ১৯৪৭-এ সৃষ্ট। দিল্লী-কেন্দ্রিক যে সাম্রাজ্য বাঙালি, অহমিয়া, ওড়িয়া ইত্যাদি নানা স্বাধীন এলাকা দখল করেছিল, লাল কেল্লা সেই স্বাধীনতা হরণের প্রতীক। মূলতঃ হিন্দী-উর্দু ভাষী লোক-লস্কর এই দখলকৃত এলাকায় বসিয়ে তারা এই দেশগুলিকে শাসন করতো। সেই কাটা ঘায়ে লাল কেল্লার নুনের ছিটে দিয়ে আজকের নতুন দিল্লীর সরকার কি প্রমাণ করতে চায়?

৫০০-১০০০ টাকার নোট বাতিলের ঘোষণাটি যখন নরেন্দ্র মোদী দিলেন হিন্দি ও ইংরেজি, ইংরেজির সময়ে পর্দায় ফুটে উঠলো হিন্দি অনুবাদ। কলকাতা দূরদর্শন কেন্দ্রকে বাংলা অনুবাদ দেওয়া হয়নি, চেন্নাইকে দেওয়া হয়নি তামিল। তাই বাকি অর্থাৎ সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠের ভাগ্যে বরাদ্দ হয়েছে অন্যের থেকে শোনা কথা, গুজব ও বেসরকারি সংবাদ মাধ্যম। রাষ্ট্র সবার। এবং সবাইকে তাদের ভাষায় জানানো রাষ্ট্রের দায়িত্ব। এই মৌলিক নীতির লঙ্ঘন জলভাতে পরিণত হয়েছে। এদিকে অহিন্দিভাষী অঞ্চলে ভোট চাইতে যাবার সময়ে কিন্তু বিজেপি সেই ভাষাতে পোস্টার-ফ্লেক্স দিতে ভোলে না। ক্ষমতার যত কেন্দ্রীকরণ হবে, ততো বেশি বেশি করে আরো বেশি মানুষ প্রান্তিক হবেন।নাগরিকের দায়িত্ব নয় নিজেকে বদলে রাষ্ট্রের উপযোগী হয়ে ওঠা।  কল্যাণকামী রাষ্ট্রের দায়িত্ব তার পরিষেবার ক্ষেত্রে ও অন্য সকল ক্ষেত্রে নাগরিকসমূহের ভিন্নতার বাস্তবতা মাথায় রেখে সেই ভিন্নতাকে ধারণ করার উপযোগী হয়ে ওঠা।  যেন এরই রূপক হিসেবে দেখা গেল যে নতুন নোট চলতি এটিএম মেশিনগুলিকে না আঁটার ঘটনা। হাজারে হাজারে এটিএম মেশিন নতুন নোট অনুযায়ী বদলাতে হলো। বদলে চলতি এটিএম মেশিন অনুযায়ী নতুন নোট বানালে হতো না?

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The 2014 India election review / A question of power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Decentralization 2014 / When the Centre lords over federal aspirations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bihar’s just demands / Haq se maango

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Why all roads should avoid leading to Delhi

[ Daily News and Analysis, 22 Oct 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explanatory notes:

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

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

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

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

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Opposition as sin : symptoms of a decaying federalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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