Category Archives: History

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

Next time, electing a sarkar from Great Nicobar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Army / police, Democracy, Foundational myths, History, Home, Identity, India, Nation, Polity, Power, Rights

Netaji and the politics of legacy and memory

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Bengal, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Foundational myths, History, Memory

January on Jessore Road / The besieged Hindus of Bangladesh

[ The Hindu, 16 Jan 2014 ; The Friday Times (Lahore), 17 Jan 2014 ]

“Hey there mister can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown

Can you give me a reason sir as to why they’ve never grown?

They’ve just blown around from town to town

Till they’re back out on these fields

Where they fall from my hand

Back into the dirt of this hard land”

– Bruce Springsteen, This Hard Land

Few moments in the past century evoked as much hope in its stakeholders than the emergence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh as a secular state in the eastern part of the subcontinent. Drenched in the blood of martyrs and fired by lofty idealism that has still not completely died, this nation-state has not lived up to its ideals. Often declared by some to be the greatest achievement of the Bengali people, is at a dangerous crossroad, once again. The ruling Awami League has an unenviable record of corruption and graft tainting its last 5 years in government. To be fair, the previous elected government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami combine had a track record far worse in this regard. But the country is young and the BNP-Jamaat was last in power 7 years ago – when a significant section of the present population was had not reached adulthood. In addition to that, the opposition, especially the Jamaat, has been partially successful in using its massive economic clout and international propaganda apparatus to portray itself as a victim of state-sponsored witch-hunting. The ‘witch-hunting’ boils down to two things that can all but finish the Jamaat off as a viable political force. The first is the deregistration of Jamaat as an electoral force, as it privileged divine ideas over democracy in the party constitution – something that the Supreme Court deemed as illegal. The second is the War Crimes trial of those who committed crimes against humanity during 1971. Almost all of the present Jamaat leadership was heavily involved in murder, rape, arson and forced conversions. In a subcontinent where politics thrives on the erasure of public memory, this episode has refused to disappear. In fact, a dilly-dallying Awami League government was almost forced by the youth movement in Shahbag to pursue the war crimes trial seriously. Facing the prospect of political annihilation, the Jamaat responded by a three-pronged offensive. One, marshaling young Madrassa students and use them for blockading Dhaka. Two, lending BNP its activists to act as boots-on-the-ground. Three, carrying out targeted attacks on the homes, businesses and places of worship of Hindus, the nation’s largest religious minority. But the collateral damage is often wider.

Farid Mia, a fruit seller, had the extreme misfortune of being near the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel in Dhaka when the street-fighters of the opposition BNP–Jamaat combine hurled petrol bombs indiscriminately. They were aiming to create a scenario of fear in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of January 5, which the principal opposition combine was boycotting. By January 8th, the elections were over. So was Farid’s fight for life at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. The devastated face of the young child Mohammod Liton, Farid Mia’s youngest son, will go down as a call to conscience, however transient. Farid was unlucky. He could not have known that he would be a victim.

But there are predictable victims. In 2001, after the BNP led alliance won the elections, the usual pattern of murder, rape and arson targeting Hindus happened on a very wide scale. Hindus have traditionally voted for the Awami League. The guarantee for ‘Jaan’ and ‘Maal’ is important for the survival of any people. In the Awami League regime, although Maal in the form of property and homestead has been regularly taken away by Awami League powerfuls, the attack of life and systematic rape of minority women was not part of the party’s policy. The same cannot be said of the BNP-Jamaat under whom cadres, systematically aided by the police forces, have regularly threatened both ‘Jaan and Maal’. Thus, it is not hard to see why the Hindus chose the devil over the deep sea. The Hindus who had voted in 2001 had learned their lesson when they were targeted in massive post-poll violence, most infamously in Bhola. This time around, the Hindus seemed to be out of favour from both sides. While they were targeted by the BNP-Jamaat for coming out to vote at all, in other areas they were targeted by Awami League rebels for coming out to vote for the official Awami League candidate who happened to be of the Hindu faith. There have been disturbing signs over the last few years that at the very local level, the difference between the ‘secular’ Awami League and the communal-fundamentalist BNP-Jamaat seems to disappear, though publicly the former does not tire in parroting the secular ideals of 1971 – the much used and abused ‘Muktijudhher chetona’ (Ideals of the Liberation War).

The violence unleashed against the Hindus this time around, before and after the 5th January polls, have been worst in Jessore, Dinajpur and Satkhira, though many other places like Thakurgaon, Rangpur, Bogra, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Rajshahi and Chittagong have been affected. If people remember Thakurgaon and Dinajpur from a different time, it is probably because these were strongholds of the communist-led Tebhaga movement of the late 1940s. Part of the reason few riots happened in these areas when the subcontinent was in the throes of communal riots was the cross-community solidarity and political consolidation that had been achieved. That was then and we have come a long way since then. Malopara in Abhaynagar, Jessore, inhabited by Bengali Dalit castes, has been attacked repeatedly. Large scale attacks on villages, businesses and places on worship, able-bodied men being on night vigils, women huddling together in one place – all these things brought back memories of 1971 for many of its inhabitants. In Hazrail Rishipara of Jessore, women were raped at gunpoint for the crime that their families had voted in the January 5th election. Dinajpur has been badly hit with cases of beatings, home and shop burnings, and putting fire to haystacks and crops. Both Jessore and Dinajpur being areas bordering West Bengal, crossing the border for preserving life is a sad trek that many have undergone. Such slow ‘squeezing out’ is not new, neither is it intermittent. It is a continuously process that is an effect of a political discourses the willy-nilly aims to delegitimize the very existence of the minorities on their ancestral land by always asking the question –‘Why are you still here?’. ‘Why am I still here’ is a question the minorities have asked themselves and as the statistics show, a staggering number could not find a good answer and hence they left. The trickle has been slow and silent. The ‘Partition’ continues.

The ‘Partition’ was swift and vicious in the Punjabs and Sindh where religious minorities have ceased to exist for all practical purposes. This is not so in the Bengals, where many still live in the ancestral land claimed by nations whose legitimacies are much more recent than people’s ancestral claims over their homestead. Nearly 30% of the Bengal’s western half’s population is Mohammeddan (the figure was 19.46% in 1951, after the 1947 partition). Even in the eastern half, little less than 10% of the population is Hindu (it was 22% in 1951). In East Bengal, secular politics does exist beyond the fashionable drawing rooms of liberaldom. It was one of the four much touted foundational principles of the 1971 Liberation war. The autocratic years of BAKSAL, the long years of army rule when the barracks used Islam to create a veneer of political legitimacy beyond the Awami League and pro-liberation forces, the overtures by mainstream parties to fundamentalist groupings – all of this has given religion-based politics a front-row seat in the nation. Neither have religio-political organizations been immune to the violent turn of this brand of politics internationally in the last decade or so.

How did things come to be this way? The issue of minority targeting, one must admit has deeper roots than simple ‘communal politics’ and ‘mixing politics with religion’. Pro-Pakistan forces, which looked to faith-unity as basis of statehood, did not disappear after the Liberation War. They were broadly and transiently (as it increasingly seems) delegitimized due to the their role in the atrocities of 71. But what about the ideological moorings of the project that religion marks a nation? What about the splinters of that project stuck deep in the political and social structures? That trend did not die not did it dry up. One has to remember that even the Awami League in its inception is a faction of such a trend that reoriented later along the lines of Bengali Nationalism. In the imagination of all the ruling factions since 1947 during East Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh periods, there has been a tacit understanding of the normative citizen – a Muslim Bengali male or a Bengali Muslim male. Hindus of East Bengal are a living reminder of a Bengaliness that is not co-terminal with narratives that conflate Bengaliness (or Bangladeshiness) with being a Bengali Muslim. Their progressive marginality in numbers makes this conflation project easier. Such projects are not necessarily active political projects but often live in the underside of mindscapes that can be ‘secular’ in very many declarations. Thus they can be marginalized without being actively targeted in ‘innocuous’ everyday dealings. Communally targeted violence feeds off from a broader spectrum of support, from active to lukewarm to unconscious.

In any modern nation-state, the majority can decide to be whatever it wants and the minority has to follow suit. So Hindus were expected to become Pakistanis overnight in 1947. While Bengali Muslims politicians have the autonomous agency to un-Pakistanize themselves at will, east Bengali Hindus could only publicly do so at explicit cue from their Bengali Muslim brethren. At any rate, they are never ‘good enough’ citizens in whatever dispensation they find themselves. At one point, they weren’t good enough Pakistanis. Now they are not good enough Bangladeshis. What is the commonality between being a good enough Bangladeshi and good-enough Pakistanis, since being Bengali is not enough. Isn’t religious majoritarianism part of that mix? If yes, what did 1971 achieve for the security of ‘maal’ for Hindus, given that more Hindu land has been usurped by the Awami League than by any other party. But still the Sarkar Bahadur is responsible for jaan and maal. As I said before, the Awami League takes maal for protection of jaan. BNP assures neither. This is part of the draw for Awami League for the Hindus of East Bengal. Just like other minorities, extra-territorial loyalty is the easiest slur that is bandied about. And this is also what makes minorities lesser citizens in a polity – they cannot critique their state in all the ways a majority community person can. They are forced into living double lives and then condemned for living it. Fortunately or unfortunately for Hindus of East Bengal, West Bengal exists where their situation is nothing but information to be used tactically by Hindu-majoritarian forces to oil their own political ambitions. Thankfully, they have been more successful outside West Bengal than within it, but who can say for how long?

But still one cannot but hope that the People’s Republic of Bangladesh would live up to its original ideals. Minorities have fled the nation-state for want of security in large numbers, year after year. Numbers matter. It also matters that nothing of the scale of Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002 has happened there since 1971. The name of a ‘Hindu’ hero like Shurjo Sen can be chanted spiritedly by tens of thousands of mostly Muslim youths in the streets of Dhaka. There is no such parallel in the nation-states that are the other fragments of 1947. Even in the recent protests at Shahbag, lakhs raised slogans in his name. “Shurjo sen-er banglaye, jamaat-shibirer thhai nai (No place for Jamaat-Shibir in Shurjo Sen’s Bengal).” There is significant presence of minorities in the bureaucracy and local administration. Even in the recent spate of violence, the state has transferred police officials for failing to provide security. Gonojagoron Moncho, the youth movement that spearheaded the Shahbag protests for war crime trials, has led a road-march to violence stricken Abhaynagar to stand in solidarity with the affected. This is not a fly-by-night visit by VIPs or a handful of politicos. This reality exists too. It is this reality that partly prevents a mass exodus of Hindus beyond the levels seen at present. There is too much to lose to leave. Still. For far too many.

সুধাংশু যাবে না

–শামসুর রাহমান

লুণ্ঠিত মন্দির, আর অগ্নিদগ্ধ বাস্তুভিটা থেকে

একটি বিবাগী স্বর সুধাংশুকে ছুঁলো

‘আখেরে কি তুলি চলে যাবে?’ বেলা শেষে

সুধাংশু ভস্মের মাঝে খুঁজে

বেড়ায় দলিল, ভাঙা চুড়ি, সিঁদুরের স্তব্ধ কৌটা,

স্মৃতির বিক্ষিপ্ত পুঁতিমালা।

স্বর বলে, ‘লুটেরা তোমাকে জব্দ ক’রে

ফেলে আশে পাশে

তোমার জীবনে নিত্যদিন লেপ্টে থাকে

পশুর চেহারা সহ ঘাতকের ছায়া,

আতঙ্কের বাদুড় পাখার নিচে কাটাচ্ছ প্রহর,

তবু তুমি যেও না সুধাংশু।’

আকাশের নীলিমা এখনো

হয়নি ফেরারি, শুদ্ধাচারী গাছপালা

আজও সবুজের

পতাকা ওড়ায়,

ভরা নদীকোমর বাঁকায় তন্বী বেদিনীর মতো।

এ পবিত্র মাটি ছেড়ে কখনো কোথাও

পরাজিত সৈনিকের মতো

সুধাংশু যাবে না।

Risen from the embers of an ancestral place–plundered temple–

An unearthly voice vibrates in Sudhanshu

Are you, finally, leaving?’ At the end of the day

Sudhanshu gropes amidst cinders

For the deeds of his homestead, splintered bangles, the mute colours of a vermillion box.

The dog-eared scatters of manuscripts in memory.

The phantom says, ‘The plunderer has beaten you

Here and there

Your daylight clings to

An animal outline ambushed by a murderer’s mien,

You spend your hours crouching under the bat-wings of terror,

Despite all, do not leave, oh Sudhanshu.’

The blue of this sky is yet to

Diminish, the sacred trees

Are yet flying green

Banners, the copious river

Meanders her waist like a slim snakecharmer lass.

He won’t abandon this sacred earth for elsewhere,

Unlike a retreating soldier in defeat,

Sudhanshu would forever not leave

– Shamsur Rahman

(Gargi Bhattacharya translated the poem from the Bengali original)

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Filed under Bengal, Dhaka, Displacement, Foundational myths, History, Identity, India, Language, Memory, Nation, Pakistan, Partition, Power, Religion, Rights, Terror

Death of a general / The unconquered General Giap

[ Daily News and Analysis, 12 Oct 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 24 Oct 2013 ]

‘Amar nam, tomar naam,

Vietnam, Vietnam’

(Your name, my name, Vietnam, Vietnam)

–       a popular slogan in West Bengal expressing solidarity with the Vietnemse people during the US-led military operations against Vietnam in the 60s and the 70s.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant chief of the Vietnamese forces who gave the French, till-then the hardest kick in their back from a colonized people, died on 4th October. The development of civilizational and philosophical finesse in the form of Michelin stars, ‘fine’ dining, schools of politics and philosophy, experimental art and delicate wines have long been subsidized by the blood and tears of non-White people. So General Giap and his Vietnamese guerrillas surely left a bad, non-fruity after taste in the French palate. The French were thoroughly defeated at Dien Bien Phu. They surrendered to the Vietnamese. We had won.

For the subcontinent, whose ‘liberation’ from colonial rule did not involve surrender of the colonizers naturally did not involve liberation from the institutions that suppressed rebellions, beat up and tortured political workers, certain national liberation struggles of South-East Asia may seem from a different world. Indeed, it was a different world, where the native-staffed army and police that swore undying allegiance to some European power, did not automatically become the army of police of ‘independent’ nation-states. In the subcontinent, armed group of men in uniform loyal to the British crown, turned desi patriots overnight, with rank, pay and pension protected. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that the Indian Union’s Indian Army has conducted extensive aerial bombing of its own citizens in Mizoram and armed-uniformed wings of the state are the organizations accused of the largest number of rapes, again, of its own citizens. Its twin born out of the same transfer of power, the Pakistan Army has aerial bombed its own citizens in Balochistan for years. For a subcontinent, which has been taught to mix up transfer of power (and institutions) with national liberation, Vietnam would have showed them what the real thing looks like.

The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu shook the world. For those uninfected by the ‘White-awe’ syndrome, like Malcolm X, the meaning of this victory was clear who used this for his own political preaching. ‘White man can’t fight a guerilla warfare. Guerilla action takes heart, takes nerve, and he doesn’t have that. He’s brave when he’s got tanks. He’s brave when he’s got planes. He’s brave when he’s got bombs. He’s brave when he’s got a whole lot of company along with him, but you take that little man from Africa and Asia, turn him loose in the woods with a blade. That’s all he needs. All he needs is a blade. And when the sun goes down and it’s dark, it’s even-steven.’

There was a time when the 1905 Japanese naval victory over the Russians broadened the chest of many a brown people. There was a time when a significant number of middle-class brown people too considered themselves Asians. The idea of Asia and Asian-ness is long-gone from the subcontinent. The great-grand children of such brown Asians have their mindscapes dominated by video games and films and shows, with white winners, white saviours, white sexiness, white ruggedness, white determination, white failings, white sacrifices, white sadness and a million other minute shades of white-human personhood. To this generation, the Asian is a term for folks with ‘slit eyes’ – such is the pernicious grip of whiteness on bankrupt minds. Part of the reason that the subcontinent is saddled with false gods and extreme alienation is that we never had our own General Giap. Which is why, when this towering personality breathed his last, we did not know that we had lost our very own. The Vietnamese got a national liberation army. We got folks who pride themselves on being patted on the back for killing colored people, at home and in faraway land, for the British monarch.

My own city, Kolkata, had a special connection with General Giap and Vietnam. Even before partition, the students of Kolkata observed Vietnam Day in January 1947 in solidarity with the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle. The brown British police killed 2 protesting students. The same police would be designated loyal enforcers of law in about 8 months time. General Giap visited the city more than once and then, as a school student, I had the good fortune of seeing him with my own eyes. Thousands had assembled to catch a glimpse of him that day. I feel it is not unrelated that removing slums is still the hardest in that metropolis. Many browns have a peculiar interest in the twists and turns of the World Wars. That the chivalrous white man dropped more bombs in Vietnam to crush them than they dropped in each other in Europe during the Second World war is one of those details that do not break into brown consciousness due to the ideological predilections we have to due other kinds of story-telling that we have become specifically atuned to, as an enslaved people. We know about white successes and white failings, white truths and white fictions, but that’s about it. In our enslaved heads, we can love or critique Rambo and other ‘world’-saving White creatures, real and imagined, but many coloured people were saved for the likes of General Giaps, big and small. Let us expand our heads to accommodate our heroes.

 

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Filed under Bengal, Colony, History, Kolkata, Memory, Nation, Obituary, Sahib

Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nakbas near home – Their Palestines, Our Palestines

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 May 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 26 June 2013 ]

Fleeing from one’s homeland after being pushed out from there was a phenomenon that bound people across the subcontinent in 1947. It was also a time of unbinding as millions were frantically trying to prevents knots from untying – knots that had taken generations to build, knots out of which selfhoods emerged and thrived. That anxious and tragic trudge, leaving behind the land of ancestors, also happened to the west of the subcontinent, in Palestine. For Palestinians, 15 May is not ordinary day either. It remembered as Nakba Day or the ‘day of catastrophe’. More than half a million Palestinians fled their lands in the wake of the 1948 war – never to be able to return. They hold on to keys, real and symbolic, asserting their right to return to their lands, adding flesh to ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’. The leaving behind the land of ancestors is something subcontinentals know too well.

Palestine has become a codeword for injustice to a people who had to flee their homes unwillingly. There very few large university campuses in the West where some form of Palestine solidarity activism does not exist. The present author has actually suffered some persecutions due to his involvement with such initiatives at one point. This also spills over to general activism against militarism and occupation – activist forces, however marginal, have a supportive stance on Palestine. Such support has almost become a sine qua non for being considered serious and passionate about human rights, in general.

Some years ago, I was chatting with a friend who is very passionate about Palestinian rights, their denied statehood and most importantly, their right to return to their ancestral homes in Palestine from their diasporic network, including many in refugee colonies.  He is a Bengali baidya born and brought up in the C.R.Park locality of New Delhi. The discussion turned to ancestral origins and he revealed that they were from Dhaka. I asked him, so what about your right to return? He looked perplexed. What do you mean – he asked? I said, I am guessing your East Bengali family, like most others, did not flee Dhaka voluntarily, and like Palestinians, their ancestral abode, even if razed or occupied, is as sacred to them, and most importantly, they did not have consent in the dispensation that made them refugees. And let the Rs.20000/sq.ft. property values of CR Park not make us forget the earlier name of this ‘posh’ locality – East Pakistan Displaced Persons(EPDR) Colony. Most ‘EPDP’ colonies are not ‘posh’ – especially those inhabited by people from backward castes. Such colonies, authorized and unauthorized, have been the site of state repression including large scale massacre, as in Marichjhhapi in 1979. Yes, there are differences from Palestine, but what prevents anyone from seeing the many similarities?

Palestine is not the site of the world’s largest or longest displacement. But what determines its pre-eminent position in the ‘global’ mindscape? Imperialism, that hollowed out word, also determines the pecking order of resistances, of solidarity causes, inside our heads. If the Bengali Baidya cared only about Bengal and  nothing about Palestine, that looking away from the priority list of the minority world into the majority world, would be termed ‘insular’ and ‘inward’ looking. That there is no such slur for those who don’t care about the displaced in the subcontinent is but a testimony to the skewed nature of our sensitibilities.

People who question such fundamental things as the nation-states in the subcontinent do not call for the right to return of Muslims who fled Ambala and Kolkata, or Hindus who fled and continue to flee East Bengal. What do these blind-spots reveal? What is so natural about the displacement from Ambala to Multan that it merits no call for justice and ‘right to return’? Surely, constitutional  ‘nationality’ cannot be a reason to suspend humanity and consider the myriad ‘right to return’s in our subcontinent as absurd.

There may be something else at play. It is harder to confront one’s immediate surround. We know them – the university rebel who is a docile son at home, the fire-eating caste-hating savarna who predictably marries someone else from a similar caste, and many others. Distant cause-mongering helps us to get away from these clearly disturbing mismatches between rhetoric and action, but at the same time preserves the semblance of an ethical self, even a pedestal.

One may ask, why not this and that?  But if ‘activism’ is to be taken seriously, tangible action is to be taken seriously, then there is a certain problem in having this cafeteria choice of causes.  Not all causes stand a crucial test – whether one is directly affected by the consequences of one’s actions in the furtherance of a cause. It matters.

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Filed under Bengal, History, Home, Identity, Memory, Nation, Pakistan, Partition, Scars

Mercenaries of today / When nationalism thrills, it kills / Subcontinental nationalisms –the forgotten debris of operations / Chronicle of a death foretold

[ The Express Tribune (Karachi) 13 May 2013 ; Millenium Post, 11 May 2013 ; The Northeast Today , June 2013 ; Echo of India, 14 May 2013 ; The Shillong Times, 11 May 2013 ; Daily Kashmir Images, 15 May 2013]

Formal learning about the past has a certain bias – discontinuities and differences are underlined more than continuities. This kind of a framing has a problem. It makes the human journey and experience look like some kind of a journey towards progress and betterment. So strong is this dogma that things happening later often take on positive hues just by the dint of having happened later, somewhat similar to the wisdom and respect that is accorded to people for being born earlier.

School textbooks are interesting things and the vision of the world they impart upon you can years of unlearning – in most instances, complete delearning is not possible at all. It is from such school texbooks we get our ideas of history – at least that is where I got mine.  In that framing of the past via history, kings and their stories of building and losing kingdoms have centre-stage. The history that I read in school had a good dose of battles, wars, empire-building and such things. Avenging one’s sisters slighting, avenging killing of a father, avenging one’s own usurpation from the  throne and similar personal grievances of the royals were often presented as prominent reasons for war between kings. Of course these could not have been the only reasons, but these were presented as ‘sparks’ or ‘factors’ in the mix. The thought that often occurred to me in my childhood when I sat in the class was about the people who constituted the armies that fought these bloody battles. I can understand ties of caste, clan, religion and such – but for kingdoms and their armies that encompassed more than one such category (and most did), what was in it for most of the fighting men? Why would they march and fight because some big guy had been miffed by the actions of some other big guy. They held no personal grudge either way. It is not as if their king loved them any more beyond the service that they provided. In short, there was no love lost. The part-time soldiers knew that they were mercenaries.  That made them professionals. The ‘give’ and the ‘take’ were well defined – the professionals knew what mattered most was their own life. That is precisely why certain things were quite common. Mutinies were common. Desertion was commoner. Defeat of a king often did not result from some  great reversal in actual battle, by say being outkilled by numbers – but simply because most of the army ( that is to say, most of the mercenaries ) making a quick cost-benefit ratio calculation between sticking with their employer and fleeing. The subcontinent has produced countless such mercenaries. We now like to think of many of them as ‘veers’ and ‘ghazis’. The ’cause’ of fighting was, more often than not, as irrelevant to the armed man as the ‘prestige’ of a five-star hotel is to an underpaid bathroom-cleaner.

With the rise with nation-states and ideologies of nationalism, we now have an unprecedented phenomenon that has been sweeping the world, particularly for the last couple of centuries. I am referring to permanent standing armies and agencies for dealing with ‘external threats’ of nation states. There are hordes upon hordes of young people signed up in the army and other agencies, doing exactly what mercenaries of various hues have done in the past, with a crucial difference. Many of them vaguely think they have a cause (‘the nation’, its ‘security’ and ‘prestige’) which is better than the ’cause’ of his opposing party and that they do what they do not only for money and other material benefits. In short, they do not think of themselves as mercenaries. So much so that now the term ‘mercenary’ has become a nasty word. Now it is generally associated, quite tellingly, with ‘weak’ states or ‘non-state’ actors – in short, entities that do not have a strong ‘nation-state’ ideology.

All of what I have been talking about is about the employees – patriots or mercenaries. However, what about the employers? I am sure that a nice bathroom looks nice to the bathroom cleaner, the hotel manager and the owner.  But who among these benefits more from a bathroom cleaner saying ‘I love my job’, that is it not merely a matter of cleaning a bathroom but the ‘prestige’ of the hotel?

All such loves hinge on an assumption on the part of the employee – that there is something greater that the employer and the employee are both a part of, where the vertical employer/employee dichotomy vanishes and they stand side by side, as equals. This something is the nation and is held together by nationalism – the king of ‘glues’. Sarabjit Singh and Surjeet Singh were neck deep in the glue. The former is dead. ‘Tactical kindness’ from the state of Pakistan has saved the latter. The state of India denies their claims of working for it – certifying them as free-actors. The state of Pakistan ascribes free agency to its nationals who get caught or killed across the LOC and deny any connection. The mythical glue produced by the anthem, jhanda and the danda seems to loose potency during these times. Who endangered Sarabjit Singh’s life the most? Do we have anything to fear from those who endangered Sarabjit’s life the most (and I mean the Sarabjits in jails and under cover on both sides of the Radcliffe line)? Sanaullah has been killed too. People who did not know him name when he was living will now make him a martyr. Others will try to show why this was not a retaliation, or how Sanaullah’s death was less brutal than Sarabjit’s. In this nitpicking about the level of brutality and the arrow of causality, what gets brutalized is the dignity of human beings, who have rights that predate nations and nationalisms. A few lines from the Punjabi poet Avtar Singh ‘Paash’ (killed by Khalistani militants) may have clues.

‘Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai
key be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey,
akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe,
tey man badkaar ghadiyan de samne
dandaut’t jhukiya rahe, tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai’ ( If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security, if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene, and the mind submits before the greedy times, then the security of the country is a danger to us.)

Surely, anyone is free to take pride in the hotel, but they should know who is expendable, irrespective of their depth of pride.

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Filed under Army / police, Foundational myths, History, India, Nation, Obituary, Our underbellies, Pakistan, Power, Rights

Bad moon rising / A dangerous connivance /

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Beyond Anglo-trade and Anglo-aid

[ Daily News and Analysis, 12 Nov 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

[ HardNews, Nov 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ram, Ramu, Ramna – the dangerous slide of Bangladesh / Buddha weeps in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Oct 2012 ; Dilip Simeon’s blog ; South Asia Citizen’s Web, 16 Oct 2012 ; The Friday Times (Lahore) October 19-25, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 36]

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.

Lift

One fistful of rubble

Now

And pour it on our shameless heads.

(written by Gopal Gandhi on 6 December 1992 – the day of Babri demolition)

On 29 September, in the Ramu area of the Cox’s Bazar district of the Republic of Bangladesh, an estimated 25000 strong crowd of people belonging to the majority religion destroyed 22 Buddhist temples and monasteries and 2 Hindu temples. The participants in this orgy of violence included, among others, many functionaries of 3 major political groups – the party in goverment Awami League, the main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. The purported ‘cause’ was the offence caused by a Facebook post – an absurd theme in an area with very poor internet reach. Also, the serious preparedness as exhibited by the modus operandi also suggests otherwise. It was clearly not simply a Rohingya response to the Buddhist-on-Muslim oppression in Burma. Ramu can be reached by the N1 highway after taking a right from Feni. Feni is not too far away from Noakhali, where in 1946, in my opinion, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi got closest to some of the ideals he talked about.

When the British administered areas of the subcontinent were partitioned amidst massive violence, a popular conception was blown to smithereens. That was the twisted idea that minorities in partitioned area would be akin to collaterals that would ensure peace and safety of life and property. This would be as follows – Hindus in East Bengal would be safe because attacks on them would risk retribution on Muslims in West Bengal and other areas were Muslims were minorities. In Punjab, a near-complete ‘population exchange’ was conducted with millions of lives being paid as a price of that politico-demographic barter. With clinical efficiency, ethnic cleansing happened in Sindh, Rajputana and the Punjab. No sizeable minority remained in the post-partition areas. Those who were left were at the mercy of the majority, sections of whom have periodically shown immense mercilessness ever since.

The story of the eastern partition was somewhat different. Here, the second partition of Bengal was incomplete and haphazard. Even, mass uprooting and forced migrations of people, sizeable minorities remained in West and East Bengal. However, there was a certain asymmetry in these migrations. Many more migrated from East Bengal to West Bengal than in the opposite direction, indicating, among other things, the difference in security and threat-perception of minorities in the two adjacent Bengals. In fact, this is the long partition, for this migration of persecuted minorities from the East to the West continues up until this day. East Bengal ( in its East Pakistan and present Bangladesh avatars) has recorded a continuous decade on decade decrease in the percentage of its Hindu and Buddhist minority population. This ought to be a matter of shame to any state. The deeper tragedy lies in that the Liberation war of 1971 was also believed by many to be a triumph of secularist forces against the forces of religion-based politics. This is a matter of particular shame to the present avatar of the East Bengal state, Bangladesh because it was founded by defeating currents that denied human rights to minorities. In the run up to 71, sectarian hounds of the majority religion brutalized the populace indiscriminately – Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Such a trial by fire, like the one that Germany had during the 1940s ought to act as a bulwark against the socio-political legitimacy of majoritarian oppression of this grade.  Unfortunately, this has not happened.

From the long saga of second-class treatment of Hindu and Buddhist refugees from East Bengal by the government of the Indian Union vis-à-vis its treatment of refugees from West Punjab to the present day denial of citizenship to persecuted Bengali refugees fleeing the Republic of Bangladesh, this story of a long-unfolding and relatively unsung humanitarian crisis has not engaged the attention of the Subcontintent as it should have.

Valiant people like the famous Shahriar Kabir and the lesser known National Awami Party functionary Shamim Osman Bhulu, both belonging to the majority community of East Bengal have toiled hard, often risking their own lives, to protect the minorities and uphold the values of 71. It is love for one’s land and basic humanity that makes people do these things. A plural ethos takes time to build, and is even harder to rebuild. Humanity in some can be very hard to kill. But they are powerless in front of a crowd of 25000, a constitution that discriminates and a state that is apathetic to the plight of the minorities, at best.

The Nehru-Liaquat pact in the wake of the 1950 massacre of minorities in East Bengal, especially in Dhaka and Barisal, was supposed to develop a framework that would safety and security to minorities in Pakistan and the Indian Union. The Government of India deserted the cause of the minorities of East Pakistan soon after. It was only much later in 1970, when tens of millions of refugees, mostly of minority religions, arrived in West Bengal and Tripura to save themselves from selective extermination in East Pakistan, that the Government of India planned a response that suited its geo-political interests. I mention this because few of the wrongs that were done to the minorities of East Bengal during the Pakistan period were reversed. The famous Ramna Kali temple that dominated the skyline of Dhaka at the time was bull-dozed to the ground by the Pakistan army. Lamentations notwithstanding, successive governments of the Bangladesh republic, secular or not, elected or dictatorial, have not rebuilt it. However, the worst point of minority persecution comes through the destruction of their economic means and homestead. As of 1997, through various version of the Enemy property act, 1.64 million acres (6640 square kilometers) of land owned by Hindus have been forcibly taken over since 1948, with a large portion of the usurpation happening after 1971. The amount of land translates into 5.3% of the total land area of the Republic of Bangladesh that is equivalent to 53% of the total proprietary land of the Hindus, affecting 4 out of every 10 Hindu households. Most of the land was snatched between 1972 and 1980. This was the result of pain-staking research by Professor Abul Barkat of University of Dhaka. He also showed that the largest proportions of the snatched away lands were with those affiliated to the ‘secular’ party Awami League.

The subcontinent, divided the nation-state, each of them of confessional character, explicitly or implicitly, is a tinderbox that is never too far from explosion. What happens in one nation-state exacts a heavy price in another. The destruction of the Babri mosque structure in Ayodhya and the anti-Muslim rioting in Mumbai led to anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh with many temples destroyed. This was the old theory of mutually assured violence prevention in the post-partition nation-states turned on its head. This was not the first time either. That is why, when one sees the perpetrators of anti-Muslim rioting in the Indian Union shedding copious tears about the state of minorities in the Republic of Bangladesh, it is important to call out their dangerous game of cynical and selective concern for minority rights. The solutions to peace do not reside in any one nation-state of the Indian subcontinent, but by making sure that all the butchers of Gujarat 2002 and Mumbai 1992 are prosecuted to the last man and woman, if need be by extra-ordinary judicial commissions, one gains the moral right to condemn the brutalization of minorities in the Republic of Bangladesh. If one believes that his or her faith is one of love, they might do well to dwell on what Cornel West said, that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’

Certain followers of Ram want the Ramna rebuilt and Ramu violence condemned, while maintaining silence on the rubble at Ayodhya. This silence needs to be broken by others. The voices of the Shahriar Kabirs of the world are strengthened by those of the Teesta Setalvads and Ansar Burneys of the world. The subcontinental walls are designed to shut-out voices of despair and voices of hope, voices that sound much akin to ours. Asian Dub Foundation, that trans-subcontinental band had given an important message to all of us, way back in 2003 – Keep Bangin’ on the Walls.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Munjho desh Sindhudesh – remembering Bashir Qureshi (1959-2012)

[ Kashmir Times, 17 April 2012; IPA 13 April 2012; Frontier(web)]

There are many in post-partition India who did not  accept partition. However, there are various strains within this non-acceptance. One strain has to do with the idea that religious sectarianism cannot be a basis of uniting or dividing peoples and culture into nation-states. To them, those are in West Punjab, Sindh, Azad Kashmir and Pakhtunkhwa continue to be of our own, in a broad but warm sense of the term. While there are others to whom the denial of partition comes a hatred of the idea that anyone can even think of dismembering some 19th century apparition called ‘Bharatmata’, irrespective of whether people have any emotive belonging to the concept. To this latter group of Bharatmata worshippers and Indian-state nationalists, the borders are sacred, but wrongly drawn. They should have been drawn to include within the Indian state’s domain what they consider rightfully their’s but circumstantially lost. They claim the land, but not the people. Which is why when a tragic earthquake strikes Azad Kashmir, they do not think our people died. When bomb blasts happen in Lahore, they dont think our blood was spilled. This blind-spot has had a most ironic effect. The people from West Punjab and Sindh who are most well known to those in post-partition India, are the one’s some Indians like to hate. More Indians know of Zaid Hamid than Asma Jahangir, they know Hafeez Sayeed but few have heard of Ansar Burney, that sterling specimen of a humane desi. Due to this strange blind spot, we have lost our ability to appreciate and engage with personalities, who in some other world, and in some other time, would not have been so unknown and ‘foreign’. The untimely death of Bashir Qureshi gives us an opportunity to ponder upon our collective myopia as we develop an increasingly restrictive notion of ‘our own’, a trait that is so uncharacteristic of this plural Subcontinent.

Sindh has a strange position in our memory. It is the well-spring of some of the most time-tested syncretic traditions of the Subcontinent – if not of the whole world.Sindh was not a major flash-point of partition violence at first. When Mohajirs from United Provinces, Bihar, Gujarat and elsewhere would change the character of Sindh forever. This started soon thereafter, when for fear of life, the Sindhi Hindus started leaving in droves, carrying with them  parts of Sindhi culture and identity. In Sindh, the ferocious eviction drive was mostly led by newly arrived non-Sindhis. Without a land to call one’s one, without the organic connection with the Sindhu river and its land, its customs and crucially Sindhi Muslims, Sindhi Hindus have been slowly rendered identity-less in India, slowly but surely. The Sindhi cultural centres or Sindh’s mention in Janaganamana give a false impression of vitality. Bollywood is a more accurate barometer of reality – the conspicuous drop in the appearance of a caricature Sindhi character.

Sindhi Hindus may have heard the slogan ‘Tunjo desh, munjo desh, Sindhudesh, Sindhudesh’ but have never heard it in a mass political rally. This is partly why few in India and few Sindhis in India ever heard of Bashir Qureshi, aged 52, who died last on April 7th. The Sindhu weeps as it passes Ratodero, Larkana, Budhapur and Goth Chelaram at the demise of a worthy child. Calling for the autonomy of Sindh and an end to Punjabi hegemony, he started as a student activist of the Jeay Sindh Students Federation. He was also a fighter  against Zia ul Haq’s religio-autocratic regime. Unlike other leaders who had cushy pads in the West,  Bashir Qureshi did not leave Sindh. Repeatedly incarcerated and inhumanly tortured along with other activists, Bashir Qureshi emerged as the pre-eminent Sindhi nationalist figure, after the death of Saeen G.M.Syed. He would come to spend nearly 7 years in jail. Those were testing times for Sindhi nationalists with the movement hopelessly divided into many factions. Bashir Qureshi’s organizational skills and his constant on-the-ground fight helped transform his faction, the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) into the influential Sindhi nationalist organization it is, easily eclipsing lesser Bhuttos like Mumtaz Ali Khan Bhutto.

Very recently, the JSQM under Bashir Qureshi’s leadership had made a clean break with the 1940 Pakistan resolution of the Muslim League and had called for Sindh’s autonomy. JSQM under his leadership had been among the very few political parties which publicly protested the regular events of forced conversions of girls from the beleagured Sindhi Hindu community in Sindh. Parties which eloquently trumpet their concern for minority rights like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) have been conspicuous by their absence at such protests. Most recently Bashir Qureshi had taken up the case of Rinkle Kumari, a hapless Sindhi Hindu girl, forcibly converted and forcibly married, only to be dealt with inhumanly by the courts when she simply petitioned to be freed so that she could return to her parents. Bashir Qureshi was among the few who believed, lived and embodied that plural, syncretic Sindh, where Islam and Indic religions shared saints, pirs and other divines. In the present day circumstances in Pakistan, where even the killing of the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer goes publicly unprotested due to sheer fear, Bashir Qureshi and JSQM’s vigorous public protest for the cause of a non-elite Sindhi Hindu girl cannot be a starker contrast.

In Pakistan, he was, predictably often painted as an ‘Indian’ agent. He was not an ‘Indian’ agent – for India has not given justice to its own Rinkle Kumaris, victims of Delhi riots of 1984 and Gujarat riots of 2002. He was an agent of humanity – standing for the rights of those, who fear to cry when it pain, lest they be singled out as ‘anti-national’. His love for Sindhudesh went beyond that geo-strategy laden toxic male hobby called nationalism. Bashir Qureshi represented the best of Sindh in the same tradition of Allah Baksh Soomro and Saeen G.M. Syed.

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How not to love thy minority in Pashchimbanga

[ The Daily Star (Dhaka) , 13 Feb 2012]

February is the month of Ekushe – in both Bengals, East and West. A curious declaration may make it seem that the government in the West has lost sight of the political currents that led to that watershed moment of 1952. The Pashchimbanga governmenet has declared that the cabinet had decided that Urdu will now be treated as a second-language in those parts of Pashchimbanga where the number of Urdu speakers exceeded 10 percent of the population in the 2001 census. Readers from the East might be astonished and may ask where in the West does the population or Urdu speakers exceed 10%. In fact, it does, in Kolkata itself and certain areas of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly industrial belt where there are large colonies of recent and not-so-recent immigrants of Bihari and Hindustani origin from the upper Gangetic areas.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this declaration. After all, preservation and the means to use one’s mother tongue in all walks of life is an inalienable right of every human being. Of all people, Bengalees should be most sympathetic to this, something they tend to forget when they talk of Chakmas and Riyangs among others in Parbotto Chattagram (Bangladesh) and Tripura (India). Urdu, like any other language, is most dear to its native speakers. However, the matter is not so simple. This becomes clear when one closely looks at page 42 of the English version ‘Vision document’ of the ruling party  of Pashchimbanga, the Trinamul Congress (http://aitmc.org/vision_document_english_2011.pdf) that was published in 2011, prior to the state assembly elections that brought it to power. It outlines its Action Agenda that it promises to implement within the first 200 days of coming to power. Most interesting is the sub-heading “Creation of new universities, colleges and schools to meet people’s aspirations.” Among the 10 points under that particular topic, 6 are as follows – ‘Muslim Universities & Colleges’, ‘More Madrasas, and Urdu Schools’, ‘Implement the recommendations of the Sacchar Committee and the Ranganathan Commission, where 10% Urdu speaking Muslims are there’, ‘Set aside a portion of the State’s Budget for plans intended for the educational and economic uplift of Muslims’, ‘Give, without any hindrance, official recognition to Urdu educational Institutions, thereby facilitating them with all the constitutional benefits, which they lacked of hitherto’ and finally ‘Special Budgetary provision should be made for imparting technical education in Madrasas.’ That 6 out of 10 action items on the important front of creation of new educational institutions for the masses have kept the largest religious minority of Pashchimbanga in mind is certainly commendable. These points are revealing in so far as they give us a picture of how the party think-thank views the aspirations of the Muslims of Pashchimbanga and more importantly, their conception of Muslim polity in the state. The picture that emerges is extremely problematic, to say the least.

First of all, what is apparent that the government conflates Muslims and Urdu. Urdu is simply a language of communication like any other, not a ‘Muslim language’ ( whatever that strange entity might be). However the government thinks that by favouring Urdu, it is somehow helping Muslims. Note how Madrasas and Urdu schools come to mentioned together. The Koran was not revealed in Urdu, so its relevance vis-a-vis Madrasas only show a shoddy attempt at clubbing together what the government conceives as ‘all things Muslim’ and making a curious goodie bag out of it. At this point, it is important to remember that most Muslims of Pashchimbanga have no connection to Urdu whatsoever. To create this association willy-nilly is a high-stakes game for this game has a flip-side. The people of the majority faith are also being fed this rubbish that implies some intrinsic connection between Muslims in Pashchimbanga and Urdu. For right-wing bigots in the majority community of Pashchimbanga, this only helps consolidate their long-standing charge of Muslims of Bengal being less Bengalee than their Hindu counterparts. Among the gadinashin pirjadas of Pashchimbanga who may at times suffer from Urdu-envy and consequently view Bangla as ‘less Islamic’ might do well to meditate about the long tradition of Bangla-speaking pir-aulia-ghaus-qutubs. Urdu belongs to a poor Bengalee Muslim in Murshidabad no more than the treasury of Murshid Quli Khan belonged to a landless Muslim farm-hand from Murshidabad. Bangla has no less class or gravitas in expressing matters of faith. By separating Urdu issues and Muslim issues, Ms.Bandhopadhyay’s governnment shall do well not to fan the ‘Muslim-ness’ of Urdu. She must censure S. Nurul Haq, her minority affairs secretary and ask him to  clarify what he means, when he says “There are many borderline areas in the 2001 Census. In those places, the Urdu-speaking population must have exceeded 10 per cent in the past decade. Such areas will be gradually included.” Why would Urdu-speakers proportionally increase more than others? Does he not consolidate the existing prejudice regarding the greater population growth rate of Muslims? Irrespective whether that is factually correct or not, this public statement yet again considers Muslims and Urdu-speakers as one and the same, and even more ignorantly, the Muslim community as a monolith about which it can make random predictions about future population growth rates.

During British colonial times, Muslims interests in Bengal had been represented by a handful of non-Bengalee so-called sharifzada families stationed in Kolkata and Dhaka. Being largely alienated from their surrounding milieu, these intermediaries found solace and consonance in Urdu and things Islamicate in the North-Indian sense. Rafiuddin Ahmed, in his seminal work ‘The Bengali Muslims 1871-1906’, has clearly shown the pernicious role played by these self-styled intermediaries of Bengal’s Muslims to the British Raj, by recommending the compulsory study of  Urdu, Arabic and Persian for Bengalee Muslims boys, but no Bangla. Times have changed, not as much as they should have.

Ms.Bandopadhyay’s government may be earnest about the uplift of the lot of Muslims of Pashchimbanga. But it cannot do so by policies which separate Muslims from the mainstream. This is especially dangerous for one can never guess at what point some reactionary political current in the majority community may take an explicitly communal overtone. This has not happened, but this is certainly not impossible, and is to be avoided at all costs. Creating a separate employment exchange for religious minorities as she announced is certainly not a step towards social cohesion. Faith is important to any community. However, making Aliah Madrasa into a university ( and ridiculously naming it Aliah Madrasa University) or building a much-needed new Hajj House for Umrah pilgrims are not the utmost priority for the Pashchimbangio Muslims. While such pronouncements and activities are instantly newsworthy and sources of cheap political capital, it is also myopic. It may curry short-term favour with certain self-serving Muslim leaders, but in the long term, does nothing to address the issues that face most Muslims of Pashchimbanga, that is, food insecurity, lack of adequate and accessible health facilities, job opportunities and education that is relevant in contemporary society and economy. Unsurprisingly, these issues are the same when it comes to people of Pashchimbanga in general, irrespective of creed.

One thing most Bengalees irrespective of creed admire and hold dear  is our poet Nazrul Islam. Ms.Bandopadhyay wants to set up a brand new Nazrul research centre. That is all very good. But when she goes on and on about it, especially when in a predominantly Muslim gathering, like the recent one  organized in the Netaji Indoor stadium by the West Bengal Minorities Development Corporation, she is playing a dangerous game, and not a very subtle one at that. While it may be sincere, to softly underline the Muslim identity of Nazrul Islam reminds me of that unfortunate off-hand line in a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay piece where he talks about a football match between Bengalees and Muslims. We know that these soft pronouncements of separateness and exclusiivity, declared or foisted upon, in time do become Frankenstein monsters. Our subcontinent knows that only too well. When Ms.Bandopadhyay wants to deal with Muslims of Poshchimbongo, she may want to remember that the following line by Mashuk Chowdhuri hold true for her Western desh too, as much as it does for the East.

“Edeshe aashe na fagoon, ashe Ekushe February.”

( slightly different version published at TwoCircles.net

http://twocircles.net/2012feb16/how_not_love_thy_minority_pashchimbanga.html )

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