Category Archives: Identity

Why the Tamil struggle for Jallikattu is historic

[ Firstpost, 19 Jan 2017]

jallikattu-poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ভারতের নতুন টাকার নোট ও হিন্দী-দিল্লী আধিপত্যবাদ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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পশ্চিম বাংলার সরকারী নাম থেকে পশ্চিম বাদ দেওয়া প্রসঙ্গে

এটা ক্রোধের মাটি, সহ্যের শেষ সীমায় পৌঁছে গিয়ে হাঁসফাঁস করা মাটি। এ মাটি থুথু দেয়,উদ্গিরন করে – প্রাণ উদ্গিরন করে । আমাদের সেই মাটির উপযুক্ত হয়ে ওঠা দরকার । এই সৃজনশীল অংশটিকে সার দিতে হবেই। এই ক্রোধকে বাঁচিয়ে রাখতে হবে । আমাদের বেঁচে থাকতে হবে । যেন মেনে নেওয়া, হাল ছেড়ে দেওয়া এক ঘুমে আমরা ঢলে না পড়ি । প্রকৃতি থেকে, ইতিহাসের থেকে এটি আমাদের দিকে ছুঁড়ে দেওয়া একটি চ্যালেঞ্জ ।
– তাঁর স্বদেশ ফরাসী উপনিবেশ মারটিনিক প্রসঙ্গে বলছেন এইমে সেজার, মহিরুহসম দারশনিক ও রাজনীতিবিদ, নেগ্রিচুড আন্দলনের অন্যতম পিতা, ফ্রান্স ফ্যাননের গুরু ।

২ আগস্ট পশ্চিমবঙ্গ রাজ্য ক্যাবিনেটে সিদ্ধান্ত নেওয়া হয়েছে যে রাজ্যের সরকারী নাম ওয়েস্ট বেঙ্গল থেকে ওয়েস্ট বা পশ্চিম ছেঁটে ফেলা হবে । পরিবর্তে নাম হবে বাংলা অথবা বঙ্গ । সরকারী “ইংরেজি নাম ” হবে বেঙ্গল। উত্তর প্রদেশের নাম নর্থ না বা নর্দার্ন প্রভিন্স নয় । অন্য কোন রাজ্যের এমন এমন আলাদা ইংরেজি নাম নেই – আমাদের কেন বিশেষভাবে ইংরেজি দরকার, তা সরকার খোলসা করেননি । এই বদলের তাৎক্ষনিক কারন হল এক দীর্ঘকালীন সমস্যা । নতুন দিল্লীর সংঘ সরকার (যার “কেন্দ্রীয়” সরকার নামটি ভ্রান্তভাবে প্রচলিত) যখন কোন কারনে রাজ্যগুলির মিটিং ডাকে, তখন বক্তব্য রাখতে রাজ্যগুলিকে আহবান করা হয় ইংরেজি বর্ণমালায় রাজ্যগুলির নামের আদ্যক্ষরের ক্রমসংখ্যা অনুসারে । ফলে ডাবলু দিয়ে নাম শুরু হওয়া ওয়েস্ট বেঙ্গলকে ডাকা হয় একদম শেষে এবং অনেক ক্ষেত্রেই তাঁর বক্তব্য শোনার ধৈর্য বা বক্তব্য রাখতে দেওয়ার জন্য সময়, দুইই থাকে অপ্রতুল । এই উপমহাদেশের নানা ভাষার কোন বর্ণমালাতেই ওয়েস্ট শব্দের “ও” ধ্বনিটি একদম শেষে আসে না । কেন একটি ফিরিঙ্গির অউপনিবেশিক শাসন থেকে মুক্ত হওয়া এলাকায় ইংরেজি বর্ণমালার ক্রমতালিকা ব্যবহ্রিত হয়, সেটি আরেকটি গভীর প্রশ্ন, যে প্রসঙ্গে আজ আমি যাচ্ছি না । সম্প্রতি নতুন দিল্লীতে আন্তঃ-রাজ্য পরিষদের অধিবেশনে শেষে বলতে ওঠা পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মুখ্যমন্ত্রী মমতা বান্দপাধ্যায়কে এক পর্যায় সময়ের অভাবের জন্য থামিয়ে দেওয়া হয় । একজন গনতান্ত্রিকভাবে নির্বাচিত সরকারপ্রধানকে যে নতুন দিল্লীর হাটে এই ভাবে অপমান করা যায় সময়ের উছিলা দেখিয়ে, সেটা নিয়মতান্ত্রিকতার বাইরেও ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন রাষ্ট্রে রাজ্য সরকারগুলির স্ট্যাটাসকেই বয়ান করে । আরেকটি গণতান্ত্রিকভাবে নির্বাচিত সরকারের প্রধান নরেন্দ্র মোদীকে এই ভাবে থামিয়ে দেবার কথা নতুন দিল্লীর কেউ কল্পনা করতে পারেন?

তবুও এটা দুর্ভাগ্যজনক যে রাজ্যের নাম বদলের মত এক্তা গুরুত্বপূর্ণ বিষয়ের পিছহনে তাৎক্ষনিক কারন হিসেবে আছে এমন একটি কৃত্রিম আমলাতান্ত্রিক সমস্যা । এই একি সমস্যার কারণেই মোটামুটি ৫ বছর আগে তৃণমূল সরকারই আলাপ-আলছনার মাধ্যমে ঠিক করে যে রাজ্যের সরকারী নাম ওয়েস্ট বেঙ্গল থেকে বদলে হবে পশ্চিমবঙ্গ – ফলে ইংরেজিতেও আদ্যক্ষর “পি” হবার ফলে আর সবশেষে থাকতে হবে না। কিন্তু কোন এক অজানা কারণে নতুন দিল্লী এই নাম বদলটিকে মান্যতা দেয়নি । এই ভেবে দেখার বিষয় যে একটি রাজ্যের নির্বাচিত প্রতিনধি ও জনগণ তাদের রাজ্যের নামও ঠিক করতে পারেনা, নতুন দিল্লীর সরকারের অনুমতি ও সীলমোহর ছাড়া । এই অগনতান্ত্রিক কেন্দ্রিকতার নানা মাশুল বার বার দিয়েছে পশ্চিমবঙ্গ। দিয়ে চলবে । সে যাই হোক, ওয়েস্ট বা পশ্চিমকে বাদ দেবার সিদ্ধান্ত ফাইনাল । বিধানসভার একটি বিশেষ অধিবেশনে এটি পাশ করানো হবে ।

পশ্চিমবঙ্গের সংসদীয় বিষয়ক মন্ত্রী পার্থ চট্টোপাধ্যায় বলেছেন যে নাম-বদল আমাদের “”সংস্কৃতি ও ঐতিহ্যের” স্বার্থে। মজার কথা হলো, সাহিত্যিক নবনীতা দেবসেন বলেছেন যে পশ্চিমবঙ্গ নামটি আমাদের ইতিহাস ও ঐতিহ্য এবং তাকে কি ভাবে মুছে ফেলা যায়? ১৯৪৭ থেকে পশ্চিমবঙ্গে নামটিও “আমরা” হয়ে উঠেছি। অতীতনিষ্ঠ ভাবে। পশ্চিমবঙ্গ নামটির ভিত্তি অন্ততঃ বাস্তব ইতিহাসে, অন্ততঃ স্রেফ “বঙ্গ”র তুলনায়। যে ঐতিহাসিক জনপদএলাকা থেকে বঙ্গ নামটির উদ্ভব, সেটি বর্তমানে পুরোপুরিই পশ্চিমবঙ্গের বাইরে, মূলতঃ গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশের ফরিদপুর-মাগুরা-শরিয়তপুর-ঢাকা এলাকায়।

১৯৪৭-এর আগে বাংলার পশ্চিম অংশ কখনোই নিরবিচ্ছিন্ন ভাবে একটি রাজনৈতিকভাবে একক ছিল না। সেটা হয়েছে ১৯৪৭-এর পরে, যখন হিন্দু প্রধান পশ্চিম অংশ আর মুসলমান প্রধান পূর্ব্ব অংশে বাংলা ভাগ হলো। ১৯০৫-এর বাংলা ভাগের ফলে উদ্ভূত বেঙ্গল-এ আজকের বিহার, ঝাড়খন্ড ও উড়িষ্যা প্রদেশে ছিল। সেই “বেঙ্গল” হলো একটি ফিরিঙ্গী কল্পনা, সেটি পশ্চিমবঙ্গ ছিল না। ১৯৫৫-তে পূর্ব্ব বাংলা পাকিস্তানের “ওয়ান ইউনিট” প্রকল্পের ফলে হয় পূর্ব্ব পাকিস্তান এবং ১৯৭১-এ জাতীয় মুক্তিযুদ্ধের ফলে সে এলাকা রাষ্ট্রিক ভাবে সংগঠিত হয় আজকের গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশ রাষ্ট্র হিসেবে। যারা বলেন, যে পূর্ব্ব নেই, তো পশ্চিম কেন, সেই প্রসঙ্গে মনে যে ১৯৪৭-এর বাংলাদেশ ভাগ এবং তার রাজনৈতিক-অর্থনৈতিক-সামাজিক প্রভাব দুই বাংলায় ভিন্ন। ১৯৫১ সালের আদমশুমারিতে জানা যায় যে খোদ কলকাতাতেই জনসংখ্যার প্রায় এক চতুর্থাংশ পূর্বববঙ্গ থেকে দেশভাগের পরে আগত। সেই অনুপাত পশ্চিমবঙ্গ জুড়ে আজ অবধি শুধুই বেড়েছে। তারা কেন এখানে, তার কারণ ১৯৪৭। “পশ্চিম” বঙ্গ সেই ঘটনার ফলাফল। রাজনৈতিক ভাবে ফিরিঙ্গী শাসনাধীন উপমহাদেশের আইনসভায় সবচেয়ে বেশি প্রতিনিধি পাঠাতো যুক্ত বাংলা। দেশভাগের ফলে দিল্লীর রাজনীতিতে বাংলা ও বাঙালির প্রান্তিকতার কারণও বাংলাদেশ-ভাগ। আমরা প্রান্তিক কারণ আমরা পুরো বাংলা নই, কারণ আমরা বিভাজিত বাংলার পশ্চিম ভাগ, পশ্চিমবঙ্গ। নাম বদলালে এই বাস্তবতা বদলাবে না। অর্থনৈতিক ভাবেও পূর্বববঙ্গের সাথে যোগসূত্র বিচ্ছিন্ন হওয়াটা নানা কারণের মাঝে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের অর্থনৈতিক অধোগমনের একটা বিরাট কারণ। ১৯৪৭ আমাদের বডি পলিটিকে, রাজনৈতিক চেতনায় ও অবচেতনে  বিশাল ভাবে বাস করে, আমরা স্বীকার করি আর না করি। অপর দিকে, পূর্ব্ব বাংলার রাজনৈতিক-অর্থনৈতিক-সামাজিক বাস্তবতার মুখ অক্ষ ১৯৪৭ নয়, ১৯৭১। ১৯৭১ প্রমাণ করে যে মুসলিম লীগের দ্বিজাতিতত্ত্ব ভুল, কংগ্রেসী একজাতিতত্ত্বও ভুল, বরং এই উপমহাদেশের বাস্তবতা হলো বহুজাতিতত্ত্ব। জাতি-রাষ্ট্র হিসেবে পূর্ব্ব বাংলার প্রতিষ্ঠার মাধ্যমে, সেখানকার রাষ্ট্রকে বাংলার দেশ বাংলাদেশ নামকরণের মাধ্যমে সেই জাতীয় চেতনা তথা অভীপ্সাই প্রকাশ পায়। তাই ১৯৫৫-এ নাম বদলের পরেও পূর্ব্ব বাংলার সর্ব্বস্তরের রাজনৈতিক নেতারা মাঠে-ঘাটে-ময়দানে “পূর্ব্ব বাংলা” শব্দটি ব্যবহার করেছেন, কারণ সেটি বাস্তব। ১৯৭১-এর পরেও কিছু কেটে এর ব্যবহার দেখা গেছে, যেমন পূর্ব্ব বাংলার সর্বহারা পার্টি অথবা চিন্তাবিদ আহমদ ছফার লেখায়। পূর্ব্বই তো নেই, তাহলে পশ্চিম কেন প্রসঙ্গে অর্থনীতিবীদ দীপঙ্কর দে বলেছেন,”আচ্ছা কোনটা ঠিক – ‘সূর্য্য পূর্ব দিকে ওঠে’ নাকি -‘যেদিকে সূর্য্য ওঠে ওটা পূর্ব দিক”? আবহমান বাংলার পূর্ব্ব অংশ যে পূর্ব্ব বাংলাই আর পশ্চিম অংশ যে পশ্চিম বাংলা, সেই সত্য খন্ডাবে কে?

প্রসঙ্গতঃ, “বাংলাদেশ” শব্দের মাধ্যমে দুই বাংলা বা বাংলার যে কোন এলাকাকে বোঝানো খুবই স্বাভাবিক ছিল এই সেদিন পর্যন্ত – রাজনৈতিক ময়দানে, সাহিত্যে, সর্বত্র। সত্যজিৎ রায় যখন পথের পাঁচালীতে হরিহরের মুখে বাংলাদেশ শব্দ বসান, গুপীবাঘা যে “বাংলাদেশ ” থেকে এসেছিলো, তখন তিনি পূর্ব্ব বাংলা বোঝাননি। বাংলার দেশ হলো বাংলা দেশ। দেশ ও রাষ্ট্রের তফাৎ বোঝা প্রয়োজন। দেশ হলো কোন গোষ্ঠীর আবাদভূমি বা হোমল্যান্ড। রাষ্ট্র হলো একটি রাজনৈতিক অবকাঠামো ও ব্যবস্থা। রবীন্দ্রনাথের “আজি বাংলাদেশের হৃদয় হতে”র বাংলাদেশ আজ রাজনৈতিকভাবে একাধিক রাষ্ট্রিক নিয়ন্ত্রণে পরে, যথা ভারতীয় সংঘরাষ্ট্র এবং গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশ। “গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশ” ও “বাংলাদেশ” এক নয়। এই সেদিন অবধি মূলতঃ পশ্চিমবঙ্গীয় বিষয় নিয়ে পশ্চিমবঙ্গ থেকে প্রকাশিত হতো “বাংলাদেশ” পত্রিকা। পশ্চিমবঙ্গে বাংলাদেশ নামটির হ্রস্যমান জনপ্রিয়তা দুঃখজনক কারণ এক্ষেত্রে আমরা এই একটি নামের মালিকানার প্রশ্নে রাষ্ট্রিক দাবিকে বেশি গুরুত্ব দিয়েছি দেশজ দাবী থেকে। এবং যার ফলে পশ্চিমবঙ্গে “বাংলাদেশ” হয়ে গেছে “অপর” সূচক একটি শব্দ। এর চেয়ে মর্মান্তিক আর কি হতে পারে।

অথচ বাংলাভাষী মানুষের আবহমান কালের  বিষ্ট্রীটিতে গত কয়েক শতকে  বিশাল হেরফের হয়নি, আজও হয়নি। বাংলা হলো ২৫ কোটি বাংলাভাষী মানুষের ঐতিহাসিক আবাদভূমি – বিশ্বের প্রতি ২৫টি মানুষের মধ্যে ১ জন
বাংলাভাষী। সর্বাধিক জনঘনত্বের একলপ্তে বিশ্বের সর্ববৃহৎ এলাকা। এ এক অনন্য ভূমি। হিমালয় ও বঙ্গোপসাগরের মধ্যে জীবন্ত নদীর, আজ ব-দ্বীপ নির্মাণের চলমান প্রক্রিয়ার এই ভূমি জীবন ও অস্তিত্ব টিকিয়ে রাখার সংগ্রাম চালিয়ে যায় প্রতিদিন, প্রতিরাত। এখানে প্রকৃতি বিধানে চলে প্রকৃতির বিধান বিরুদ্ধতা – এ রাগ, জাদু, স্বপ্ন ও সংগ্রামের ভূমি। যেমন এইমে সেজার বলেছিলেন, “বিস্ময়কর জন্ম থেকে প্রসূত এক অদ্ভুত ভূমি, এর দাম যে কোন বিগ ব্যাং-এর থেকে বেশি”। ১৯৪৭ যে ভাগ করেছিল, যার ফলাফল আজও বর্তমান পশ্চিমবঙ্গে, সেই ভাগের অদূরদৃষ্টি, রাগ, বেইমানি, প্রায় মহাজাগতিক ক্রোধের মনুষ্য কারক দ্বারা বহিঃপ্রকাশ – “পশ্চিম” তারই চিরস্মারক। তাই কারো কাছে পশ্চিম হল মুছে দিয়ে ভুলে যাবার জিনিস, কারো কাছে তা আজকে বিভাজনবিভাজনের রাজনীতি করার সাধন, কারো কাছে পথ আলাদা হবার ঐতিহাসিক মাইলফলক, আবার কারো কাছে ঘুমিয়ে থাকা ভবিষ্যৎ স্বপ্নের ইঙ্গিত। এই পশ্চিম-চেতনাকে বাতিল করে দেওয়া, তা ১৯৪৭ পরবর্তী সরকারি ভারতীয় ইতিহাস ও আদিকল্প দ্বারা নির্মিত ও আচ্ছন্ন আজকের প্রজন্মের কাছে ফলে যতই আলগা ও অপ্রাসঙ্গিক হয়ে উঠে থাকুক, তা আসলে একটি জাতির আত্মপরিচিতি ও জাতিস্বত্বা চেতনাকে আঘাত করা, অতীত থেকে বিচ্ছিন্ন এক বর্তমানকে নির্মাণ করা। পশ্চিম-বিহীন পশ্চিমবঙ্গ স্বয়ংসম্পূর্ণ একটি মেকি আত্মপরিচিতি নির্মাণ করতে চায় যা পুরোপুরি আজকের রাজনৈতিক সীমানার মধ্যে আবদ্ধ – যেন-এ বিধাতা পশ্চিমবঙ্গ এলাকায় এক নতুন স্বত্ত্বা পয়দা করেছিলেন, যার  অতীত নেই কিন্তু বর্তমান ও ভবিষ্যৎ আছে। কিন্তু এই গোঁজামিল ধরা পড়ে যায় যখন মূলতঃ হিন্দু-উচ্চবর্ণ প্রধান মনীষিকান্ড সমৃদ্ধ “বাংলার” ইতিহাসে এসে পড়ে সত্যেন্দ্রনাথ বসুর ও রমেশ চন্দ্র মজুমদারের ঢাকায় অধ্যাপনা,বঙ্কিমচন্দ্র চট্টোপাধ্যায়ের যশোরে ডিপুটি-কালেক্টরগিরি, রবীন্দ্রনাথের কুষ্টিয়ায় অবস্থানকালের সৃজনশীলতা, সূর্য্য সেনের চট্টগ্রামে সশস্ত্র বিদ্রোহ। পূর্ব্ব-বাংলা চেতনা বিহীন “বাংলা”-তে এগুলিকে ধরা যাবে নাকি এগুলি এবার থেকে বাদ? ভারতীয় সংঘরাষ্ট্রের শাসনাধীন স্বয়ংসম্পূর্ণ বানাওয়াট এক “বাংলা” আত্মপরিচিতি কল্পনায় কেউ ডুব দিতেই পারেন, কিন্তু সে পুকুরের পাড়গুলিতো সব এই “বঙ্গ/বাংলা”য় নয়।  তখন তল পাবেন, অঙ্ক মেলাতে পারবেন পূর্ব্ব-পশ্চিম ছাড়া?

পশ্চিমবঙ্গের পশ্চিম দরকার নিজেদের চিরন্তন আত্মপরিচিতির মৌলিক ও প্রাথমিক ধারণাগুলোকে, নিজের অঙ্গ-প্রত্যঙ্গগুলিকে আগলে রাখতে, নিজের ঠাকুমার সঙ্গে নিজের সংযোগ না হারাতে।হয়তো পূর্ব্বে ফেরত যাওয়ার কোন পথ নেই। আছে শুধু দিল্লীগামী লং-মার্চ, বিশেষণহীন “স্রেফ ইন্ডিয়ান” হয়ে ওঠার মহা-প্রকল্পে যোগ দিতে। এই ইন্ডিয়ান এমন এক গোষ্ঠীপরিচিতি যার “প্রাচীন ইতিহাস ” আছে কিন্তু ঠাকুমা-দিদিমা চেতনা নেই। এই ইন্ডিয়াননত্ত্ব এমন এক আকারের জুতা, যার সাইজ সকলের জন্য এক, এবং এতে ফিট হতে হলে নিজের আকার বদলাতে হয়। অথচ আমাদের আকার-প্রকার তো এই ভূমি দ্বারা গঠিত – এমনকি উত্তরাধিকারে পাওয়া এমন সব আকার-প্রকার সম্বলিত যাতে এমন ভূমির ছাপ-স্মৃতি-গন্ধ যেখানে ইন্ডিয়ান তেরঙা ওড়ে না। আজকের দিনে, এই পশ্চিম নামক হুঁশিয়ারি দরকার পশ্চিমবঙ্গে এটা মনে করাতে যে সাম্প্রদায়িক চেতনা সম্পন্ন রাজনৈতিক বয়ানের কি বিষময় ফলাফল হতে পারে। পশ্চিম আমাদের মনে করায় আমরা কোন অতীত থেকে এই বর্তমানে কেমন করে পৌঁছলাম এবং আমরা ভবিষ্যতে কোথায় যাবো।

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For the self-serving elite, mother tongue poses hindrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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গোলাম আলির গজল সন্ধ্যার নেপথ্য রাজনীতি

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ভাষা অধিকার নিয়ে চেন্নাই ঘোষণা

ভারত সরকারের  হিন্দি আধিপত্যবাদের বিরুধ্যে সকল ভাষার সম অধিকারের দাবিতে নানা ভাষার প্রতিনিধি মিলিত হয়েছিলেন তামিল নাডুর চেন্নাইতে। সেখানে আলাপ আলোচনার মাধ্যমে তৈরী হয় ভাষা অধিকার নিয়ে চেন্নাই ঘোষণা। ভাষা অধিকার নিয়ে চেন্নাই ঘোষণার বাংলা তর্জমা করেছেন আমাদের Promote Linguistic Equality – West Bengal গোষ্ঠীর সদস্য রৌনক। সাথীদের অনুরোধ করব, চেন্নাই ঘোষণাটিকে  দিকে দিকে ছড়িয়ে দিন।  এটিকে পড়ুন, এটিকে কেন্দ্র করে আলোচনা-সমালোচনা চলুক।

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ভাষার অধিকার বিষয়ে চেন্নাই ঘোষণা

ভাষার অধিকার বিষয়ক অধিবেশন

১৯-২০ সেপ্টেম্বর, ২০১৫ (১-২য় ভাদ্র, ১৪২২)

চেন্নাই

২০-ই সেপ্টেম্বার, ২০১৫, চেন্নাই-এ সমবেত হয়ে, যে-যে সংগঠন ও যে-যে ব্যক্তি-জন বর্তমান ‘ভাষার অধিকার বিষয়ে চেন্নাই ঘোষণা’ বা চেন্নাই ঘোষণার সাক্ষরকারী,

৯-ই জুন, ১৯৯৬, স্পেন-এর বার্সেলোনা থেকে প্রকাশিত ‘ভাষার অধিকার বিষয়ে সর্বজনীন অধিকারের ঘোষণা’-কে বিবেচনা করে, যেটা ছিল নানাবিধ আন্তর্জাতিক ও আঞ্চলিক ঘোষণা, আইন-সমূহ, অঙ্গীকারপত্র এবং অধিবেশনের পরিণতি, যার মধ্যে পড়ে ১৯৪৮-এর ‘মানবাধিকার বিষয়ে সর্বজনীন ঘোষণা’, ১৯৬৬-এর ‘নাগরিক ও রাজনৈতিক অধিকারের আন্তর্জাতিক অঙ্গীকারপত্র’, ১৯৯২-এর ইউনাইটেড নেশান্স অর্গানাইজ়েশান এর সাধারণ সম্মেলন-এর ৪৭/১৩৫ প্রতিজ্ঞাপত্র, ১৯৮৯-এর ইন্টার্ন্যাশানাল লেবার অর্গানাইজ়েশান-এর বৈঠক এবং অন্যান্য, কোনো বিশেষ ভাষার বিকাশ-কে রুদ্ধ করা বা জোর করে আরোপ করা বা অন্যান্য ভাষার তুলনায় এক বিশেষ ভাষা-কে প্রচার করা এবং ভাষার অধিকার নিয়ে ভারত গণরাজ্যের অন্তর্ভুক্ত একাধিক ভাষা-গোষ্ঠীর সংকল্প এবং দাবী-সমূহ বিবেচনা করে, ভারতের কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের বর্তমান ভাষা-ভিত্তিক নীতি-গুলো মাথায় রেখে যা ভারত গণরাজ্যের বিবিধ সম্প্রদায়ের মুখের-ভাষার বিকাশ এবং কখনও-কখনও অস্তিত্ব-রক্ষার পরিপন্থী, ভারতের সংবিধান দ্বারা প্রদত্ত বর্তমানে প্রচলিত নির্দেশিকা-সমূহ কে বিবেচনা করে, যেখান থেকে উৎপত্তি ঘটেছে ভারত গণরাজ্যের মধ্যে ব্যবহৃত সমস্ত ভাষার সঙ্গে সম্পর্ক-যুক্ত সব আইন, নিয়ম-কানুন ও মূলনীতি, যা মোটেও ভাষাগত সমতা এবং অধিকারের ওপর নির্ভরশীল নয়, যা মোটেও বিভিন্ন ভাষাগত সম্প্রদায়ের দাবী-কে মর্যাদা দেয় না, ভারত গণরাজ্যের কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের হিন্দী চাপিয়ে দেওয়ার কৌশল কে বিবেচনা করে, যা সর্ব-ভারতীয় স্তরে বিভিন্ন রাজনৈতিক দল এবং সংগঠন ছাড়াও বৃহৎ বাণিজ্যিক গণমাধ্যম ও রাজ্য সরকার-দের দ্বারা সমর্থিত ও প্রচারিত, এবং সর্বোপরি সময়ে-সময়ে নানাবিধ ভাষাগত সম্প্রদায়ের এই বাধ্যতামূলক আরোপ-এর বিরুদ্ধে ঐতিহাসিক ভাবে তাৎপর্যপূর্ণ গণ-অসন্তোষ ও গণবিক্ষোভ কে মনে রেখে, উন্নয়নের তকমা দিয়ে ইংরাজী-কে অতিরিক্ত গুরুত্ব দেওয়ার অভ্যাস এবং জনজীবন ও ব্যক্তিগত যাপন থেকে ভারত গণরাজ্যের মধ্যে প্রচলিত সমস্ত ভাষা-কে ছেঁটে ফেলে প্রাত্যহিক জীবনে ইংরাজীর সর্বগ্রাসী দাপট যে আমাদের ভাষাগত-সংস্কৃতিগত-অর্থোপার্জন এর সম্ভাবনার পরিসর-কে সংকীর্ণ করে – এই ব্যাপার-টা বিবেচনা করে,

এই নিম্নোল্লিখিত তিন-টে দাবী মনে রেখেঃ

১। ভারতের সংবিধান এর পরিশিষ্টের আট নম্বর তথ্য সারণি-তে তালিকা-ভুক্ত

ভাষা-সমূহ কে প্রতিনিধিত্ব করা ব্যাপক জনমানব তাদের নিজ-নিজ ভাষা-কে ভারত গণরাজ্যের কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের সরকারি ভাষা রূপে চালু করার দাবী,

২। সেই-সব অন্যান্য অনেক ভাষা-সমূহ কে প্রতিনিধিত্ব করা ব্যাপক জনমানব-এর এই উপরি-উক্ত পরিশিষ্টে নিজ-নিজ ভাষা-কে যুক্ত করার দাবী,

৩। বিবিধ ভূমিসন্তান-দের এবং অন্যান্য জনগোষ্ঠী সহ শতাধিক ভাষাগত সম্প্রদায়ের প্রত্যেক অপ্রতুল জনসংখ্যা এবং তাদের সদস্য-দের নিজ-নিজ ভাষা-কে সংরক্ষিত করা এবং বিকশিত করার দাবী,

ভারত গণরাজ্যের মধ্যে ব্যবহৃত সমস্ত ভাষা ভারত গণরাজ্যের নাগরিক-দের বৈচিত্র্যের দিকে চিহ্নত করে যার জন্য এই ভাষা গুলো ঐতিহাসিক, সামাজিক, সাংস্কৃতিক ও আঞ্চলিক কারণে প্রত্যেক বিশেষ-বিশেষ ভাষা সম্প্রদায়ের অঙ্গ – এই ব্যাপার-টা বিবেচনা করে,

এইটা মনে রেখে যে, ভারত গণরাজ্যের সমস্ত ভাষা ইতিবাচক পরম্পরাগত জ্ঞানের উৎকৃষ্ট সঞ্চয়-স্থান যেগুলো শত-শত বছর ধরে বিকশিত হয়েছে নিজ-নিজ আঞ্চলিক পরিস্থিতি ও চর্চার ওপর দাঁড়িয়ে যাকে হারানোর মর্ম হল প্রত্যেক ভাষাগত সম্প্রদায়ের পূর্ব প্রজন্মের থেকে পাওয়া নিজস্ব ইতিবাচক উত্তরাধিকার, জ্ঞানভান্ডার এবং পর্মপরাগত বিশেষজ্ঞতা কে বিস্মৃতির অতলে হারানো,

আমরা এহেন ঘোষণা করছি যে

ভারত গণরাজ্যের মধ্যে সমস্ত ভাষা-কে সমান দৃষ্টি-তে বিবেচনা করতে হবে এবং প্রত্যেক ভাষাগত সম্প্রদায়ের নিজ-নিজ ভাষা-কে যে-কোনো সম্ভাব্য উপায়ে সংরক্ষিত করা, বিকশিত করা এবং জোরদার করে তোলার অধিকার আছে যেমন-টা কোনো গণতান্ত্রিক পরিমন্ডলে থাকা উচিত।

ভারত গণরাজ্যের প্রত্যেক নাগরিক-এর মৌলিক এবং অ-বিচ্ছেদ্য অধিকার হচ্ছে সরকারের আমলা, বিচার-ব্যবস্থায় কর্মরত সরকারী কর্মচারী এবং জন-প্রতিনিধি দের সাথে তাঁর নিজের মাতৃ-ভাষায় সংযোগ স্থাপন করতে পারা এবং সরকারের প্রতিনিধি-রাও যেন সেই উক্ত নাগরিক-এর সাথে তাঁর মাতৃ-ভাষার মাধ্যমেই আদান-প্রদান ও সংযোগ-স্থাপন করেন। ভারত গণরাজ্যের প্রত্যেক নাগরিক-এর তাঁর নিজের মাতৃ-ভাষায় প্রথাগত শিক্ষা-গ্রহণ এর অধিকার আছে। ভারত গণরাজ্যের প্রত্যেক নাগরিক-এর তাঁর নিজের মাতৃভাষায় বাণিজ্যিক ও জন-পরিষেবা পাওয়ার অধিকার আছে।

ভারত গণরাজ্যের মধ্যে অবস্থিত সমস্ত ভাষাগত সম্প্রদায়ের একাধিক সুপারিশ ও দাবী-সমূহের ওপর ভিত্তি করে আমরা একটা ‘নতুন ভাষা কমিশন’ গড়ে তোলার আবেদন জানাচ্ছি যার কাজ হবে ভারতের সংবিধান এর ১৭ সংখ্যক অংশ এবৎ অন্যান্য প্রাসঙ্গিক নির্দেশিকা-সমূহ কে পুনরায় বিচার এবং সংশোধন করে একটা নতুন ভাষা-নীতির প্রণয়ন ও প্রয়োগ।

আমরা দাবী জানাচ্ছি যে ভারত রাষ্ট্রের কেন্দ্রীয় সরকার নিম্নোল্লিখিত দাবী-সমূহ কে তৎক্ষণাৎ স্বীকৃতি দিক এবং মান্যতা প্রদান করুক :

১। ভারতের সংবিধান এর পরিশিষ্টের আট নম্বর তথ্য সারণি-তে তালিকা-ভুক্ত

ভাষা-সমূহ কে প্রতিনিধিত্ব করা ব্যাপক জনমানব তাদের নিজ-নিজ ভাষা-কে ভারত গণরাজ্যের কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের সরকারি ভাষা রূপে চালু করার দাবী,

২। সেই-সব অন্যান্য অনেক ভাষা-সমূহ কে প্রতিনিধিত্ব করা ব্যাপক জনমানব-এর এই উপরি-উক্ত পরিশিষ্টে নিজ-নিজ ভাষা-কে যুক্ত করার দাবী,

৩। বিবিধ ভূমিসন্তান-দের এবং অন্যান্য জনগোষ্ঠী সহ শতাধিক ভাষাগত সম্প্রদায়ের প্রত্যেক অপ্রতুল জনসংখ্যা এবং তাদের সদস্য-দের নিজ-নিজ ভাষা যাতে বিলুপ্ত বা

বৃহৎ ধারার মধ্যে বিলীন না হয়ে যায়, তার জন্য একটা বিশেষ সরকারী দপ্তরের মাধ্যমে জরুরী সহায়তা করা।

আমরা এই দাবী জানাচ্ছি যে প্রত্যেক স্তরের সরকার যেন এইটা নিশ্চিত করে যে মাতৃ-ভাষায় প্রচলিত শিক্ষা গ্রহণ এর অধিকার যেন কোনো ভাবেই লঙ্ঘিত না হয়।

আমরা দাবী জানাচ্ছি যে সমস্ত রাজ্য-সরকার যেন ইতিপূর্বে বহাল প্রশাসনিক ভাষা বিষয়ে আইন-সমূহ ও নীতি-সমূহ কে শত শতাংশ প্রয়োগ করে। যে-যে রাজ্যে এই ধরণের নীতি নেই, তারা যেন গুরুত্ব দিয়ে এই নীতি তৈরী করেন।

আমরা এই উপরি-উক্ত দাবী-সমূহ ঘোষণা করার মাধ্যমে মানবাধিকার সংগঠন, প্রথাগত শিক্ষা-ভিত্তিক ও সাংস্কৃতিক গোষ্ঠী সহ অন্যান্য নাগরিক সম্প্রদায়ের সংগঠন, সমস্ত রাজনৈতিক দল, সংগঠন, গণ-মাধ্যম, এদের কাছে আবেদন রাখছি যেন তারা সংসদে ‘ভাষাগত সমতা এবং অধিকার বিষয়ক প্রস্তাবনা’ আনার জন্য নিজ-নিজ ক্ষেত্রে প্রচেষ্টা চালান এবং সেই প্রস্তাবনা গৃহীত হওয়ার পর আমরা যেন আমাদের অভীষ্ট লক্ষে পৌঁছতে পারি।

এই খসড়ার নির্মাতা-রা হলেন :

আনান্দ্ গ., কার্ণাটাক (কান্নাড়)

উমাকান্থান প., কার্ণাটাক (কান্নাড়)

কোমাক্কামবেড়ু হিমাকিরাণ আঙ্গুলা, তামিল নাড়ু (তামিল,তেলুগু)

গর্গ চ্যাটার্জী, পশ্চিমবঙ্গ (বাঙলা)

গাণেশ চেতান, কার্ণাটাক (কান্নাড়)

যোগা সিং ভার্ক, পাঞ্জাব (পাঞ্জাবী)

থামিজ়নেরিয়াঁ, তামিল নাড়ু (তামিল)

দীপাক পাওয়ার, মহারাষ্ট্র (মারাঠী)

প. পাভিথ্রান, কেড়লা (মালায়ালাম)

প্রিয়াঙ্ক্ ক.স., কার্ণাটাক (কান্নাড়)

ভাসান্ত্ শেট্টি, কার্ণাটাক (কান্নাড়)

মাণি ভ. মাণিভান্নান, তামিল নাড়ু (তামিল)

রাভিশাঙ্কার আয়াক্কান্নু, তামিল নাড়ু (তামিল)

স. সেন্থিলনাথান (আঝ়ি সেন্থিলনাথান), তামিল নাড়ু (তামিল),

সাকেত শ্রীভূষাণ শাহু, ওড়িষা (কোশালি)

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ভারত ও ঢাকার মাঝখানে – অনিকেত প্রান্তর

গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশের শেখ হাসিনা সাথে ভারতীয় সংঘ-রাষ্ট্রের নরেন্দ্র মোদীর চুক্তির ফলে নিরসন হলো ছিটমহল অধ্যায়, যদিও এর মধ্যেই অন্য রাষ্ট্র  বেছে নেওয়ায়ে সংখ্যালঘু ঘর ইতিমধ্যেই ঘর জ্বলেছে এক রাষ্ট্রে । অদ্ভূত জিনিস এই ধর্ম, রাষ্ট্র ও নাগরিকত্বের টানাপড়েন-গুলি।  আর এসব  এলোমেলো করে দেওয়া সেই অদ্ভূত শব্দটি – ‘জন্মভূমি’। বাংলাদেশের অন্তর্গত ‘ভারতীয়’ ছিটমহলে ‘ভারতীয়’ নাগরিক শিশু পাশের গ্রামে (অর্থাৎ বাংলাদেশে) গিয়ে শিখেছে যে তার প্রধানমন্ত্রী হলো শেখ হাসিনা। সর্বার্থেই ছিট-মহল গুলি প্রান্তিক, এমনকি রাষ্ট্রও তাদের থেকে আনুগত্য দাবি করে না। ভারতের নাগরিক নিজেকে ভারতীয় মনে করে কিনা, তেরঙ্গা দেখে সটান হয় কিনা, গান্ধী দেখে শ্রদ্ধা দেখানোর ভাব করে কিনা, ক্রিকেটে পাকিস্থান-ঘেন্না করে কিনা, ছিটমহলবাসীদের ক্ষেত্রে ভারতের তাও এসে যেত না। আজকালকার রাষ্ট্র-ভিত্তিক বিশ্ব-চরাচর-কল্পনার দিনে  দিনে এর চেয়ে হতোছেদা আর কি করে করা যেতে পারে। যাই হোক, আশা করা যায় যে এখান থেকে দুই দেশের বাচ্চারা ঠিক ঠিক পতাকা দেখে ঠিক ঠিক সটান হতে শিখবে।

ভারতের প্রধানমন্ত্রী, যিনি ঘুণাক্ষরেও সোসিয়াল মিডিয়া-তে হিন্দি ছাড়া কোন দেশী ভাষায় তার প্রজাদের বার্তা পাঠান না, এ হেন পাক্কা ভারতীয় জাতীয়তাবাদী পূর্ব্ববাংলা সফরকালে সস্তা চমক দিয়ে সেখানকার বাঙ্গালীর মন জয় করার জন্য টুইট করলেন বাংলায়। একজন পশ্চিম-বঙ্গবাসী হিসেবে এটা  কতটা অপমানজনক যে ভারতের প্রধানমন্ত্রী বাঙ্গালী হিসেবে আমাদের সেটুকু স্বীকৃতিও দেয় না, যতটা কিনা পূর্ব্ব-বঙ্গবাসীদের দেয়। আকাশ খুব অন্ধকার।  আমরা একটু নিজেদের ভাঙ্গা সিঁড়দারাটার দিকে চেয়ে দেখি, একটু লজ্জা পাই, একটু ক্ষুব্ধ হই, একটু আত্মসম্মান সঞ্চয় করি । স্বীকৃতি দিক না দিক, দিল্লি বাংলা ও অন্যান্য রাজ্যের থেকে করের টাকা নিয়ে খয়রাতি করে আসবে বিদেশে একটি বিশেষ ভাষা-কে ‘ভারতের  মুখ’হিসেবে ফোকাস দেওয়ার জন্য। এবার-ও নরেন্দ্রভাই-এর ঢাকা সফরকালে ঢাকা বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের একটি বিভাগের শ্রীবৃদ্ধি ঘটেছে নতুন দিল্লির সরকার বাহাদুরের কল্যানে। বাঙালি, তামিল, অহমিয়া, তেলুগু, কন্নড়-ভাষী মানুষেরা এটা জেনে প্রীত হবেন যে তাদের ভাষা-সংস্কৃতির প্রতিনিধিত্ব করার দায়িত্ব-টা হিন্দী আপনাদের না জানিয়েই নিয়ে নিয়েছেন আর সাথে নিয়েছে আপনাদের করের টাকা।  বলাই-বাহূল্য, নতুন দিল্লীর খয়রাতি পাওয়া ঢাকা বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের বিভাগটির নাম হিন্দী। আর এই সব খয়রাতি করে অনেকে ভেবেছেন ওরা হেব্বি খুশি।  ওরা কিন্তু অনেকেই বেশ রেগে আছেন।

কলকাতার হো চি মিন সরনীর নাম অনেকেই শুনে থাকবেন।  কেউ কেউ হয়তো জানবেন যে এই রাস্তার আগের নাম ছিল হ্যারিংটন স্ট্রীট। কে এই হ্যারিংটন? ইনি ফিরিঙ্গি কোম্পানির আমলে নিজামত বা সদর আদালত-এর প্রধান বিচারক ছিলেন।  ১৮২৩ সালের  ২৮ জুন তিনি লিখিত মন্তব্য করেন যে সতীদাহ প্রথা যদি তখুনি নিষিদ্ধ করে দেওয়া হয়, তাহলেও এই নিষিদ্ধকরণের বিরুধ্যে তেমন কোন রাজনৈতিক আন্দোলন তিনি আশা করেন না। অর্থাৎ জনগণ সে অর্থে সতিদাহর পক্ষে ছিল না। সতী-দাহ প্রথা নিষিদ্ধ হয় এর ছয় বছর পরে, ১৮২৯ -এ। নানা বিরুদ্ধতা উপেক্ষা সত্তেও সতিদাহ নিষিদ্ধকরণের যে প্রকাশ্য নায়কদের কথা আমাদের চিরকাল জেনে এসেছি, কিন্তু নেপথ্য নায়ক যে জনগণ, তাদেরকে স্বীকার করে নেন হ্যারিংটন। ফলে নায়কদের উচ্চতা একটু কমে, তাদের সংগ্রাম একটু ফ্যাকাশে হয়। তবুও সেটাই বাস্তব।  হ্যারিংটন-এর নামের জায়গায় হো চি মিন  দিয়ে সেটা ভোলা যায় না।  তবে হো চি মিন নামকরণের ছিল আরেকটি উদ্দেশ্য, এবং সেটি কিন্তু গর্ব করার মতো। এই রাস্তাতেই মার্কিন কনসুলেট। ভিয়েতনাম-এ মহিলা-শিশু-বৃদ্ধ নির্বিশেষে মানুষকে হত্যা করার যে নৃশংস খেলায় মেতেছিল মার্কিন যুক্তরাষ্ট্র, এটা ছিল তার-ই বিরুধ্যে কলকাতার নিজের মত করে প্রতিবাদ। একটু লজ্জা দেওয়া, একটু বিড়ম্বনায় ফেলা। কলকাতার মার্কিন দূতাবাসকে আজ-ও হো চি মিন-এর নাম স্মরণ করতে হয়, না চাইলেও। নৃশংসতার প্রতিবাদ হিসেবে লজ্জা দেওয়ার মতো নাম পরিবর্তনের দাবি কিন্তু বেশ ছোয়াঁচে।  নিষ্পাপ শিশু ফেলানি-কে ভারতের কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের বি-এস-এফ বাহিনী গুলি করে হত্যা করে দুই বাংলার সীমান্তে। গরীবের মেয়ে ফেলানির দেহ লটকে সীমান্তের কাঁটাতারে লটকে থাকে বেশ কিছু সময়। আর বিঁধে থাকে ‘অনুভূতিগুলো’। এই কাঁটা-তার-এ ঝুলে থাকা শিশুর ছবিটি ভারতের ‘স্বাধীন’ ও ‘মুক্ত’ সংবাদ-মাধ্যম খুব বেশি প্রচার না করলেও, সারা বিশ্ব জেনে গেছিল ফেলানিকে এবং তাকে খুন করা উর্ধি-ধারী বাহিনীকে, যাদের মাইনে  আমি আপনি দিই। বাঙ্গালীর দ্বিতীয় বৃহত্তম শহর ঢাকায় উঠেছিল প্রতিবাদের ঝড়, দাবি উঠেছিল সেখানকার ভারতীয় দুতাবাসের সামনের রাস্তার নাম বদলে  ফেলানির নামে করে দেবার জন্য। তারপর যা হবার, তাই হয়েছে।  গরিব মানুষের মেয়ের মৃত্যু নিয়ে প্রতিবাদ বেশিদিন টিকে থাকে না – ঘটনা হয়ে যায় সংখ্যা । ফেলানি ঝুলে ছিল যে কাঁটা-তারে, দুই বাংলার মধ্যে সে কাঁটা-তার বানিয়েছে দিল্লী। এতে ওপার থেকে অনুপ্রবেশ কমেছে কিনা, তার কোন খবর নেই , তবে এই কাঁটা-তার লাগানোর বরাত পেয়ে যে ঠিকাদার-রা কাজ করেছেন, তারা যাদের ঠিকাদার হবার নিয়োগ দিয়েছেন, তাদের যে পকেট ভালই ভরেছে, সেটা বলাই বাহুল্য। সেটাও আমার আপনার টাকা। তবে এটা যেহেতু ‘জাতীয় সুরক্ষা’র প্রশ্ন, বেশি হিসেব চাইবেন না। বেশি হিসেব চাইলে আপনাকে সিধা করার মত নানা কালা কানুন ভারতে মজুত আছে – অশোক-স্তম্ভের সিংহ-গুলি শুধু দাঁড়িয়ে থাকে না, কামড়ে রক্ত-ও বার করে।

ভারতের কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের প্রধানমন্ত্রী নরেন্দ্র মোদী সম্প্রতি পূর্ব্ব বাংলা ঘুরে এসে বললেন যে ছিট-মহল বিনিময়ের ঘটনা হলো বার্লিনের প্রাচীরের পতনের মতই ‘ঐতিহাসিক’। এই ‘ঐতিহাসিক’ ধারণাটা আমি কখুনই ঠিক বুঝে উঠতে পারিনি। কোনটা ঐতিহাসিক, কোনটা নয়, কেই বা সেসব ঠিক করে দেয়।  তবে এটুকু জানি, যে দুই গরীব বাস্তুহারা টইটুম্বুর  বাংলার মধ্যে যে ‘অনিকেত প্রান্তর’, তার মাঝে কাঁটা-তার বসিয়ে আর যাই হোক, বার্লিনের প্রাচীর পতন হয় না। সীমান্ত-বাসী মানুষের ভাষা যারা বোঝে না, তাদের গায়ে উর্দি পরিয়ে, হাতে বন্দুক ধরিয়ে ধর্ষণ করানোকে, মন-মর্জি মতো মারামারি ও জিনিস-পত্র হাতানোকে, হতদরিদ্র মানুষ খুন করানোকে ‘সুরক্ষা’র নাম দেওয়া পাপ। এই পাপ কিন্তু আমাদের পয়সায় মাইনে পাওয়া-রা কিন্তু করে এপার বাংলার মানুষজনের সঙ্গেও।  এমন পাপ মা দূর্গা কখুনো মাফ করবেন কিনা জানিনা।

যখন এই দিল্লী-ঢাকা শীর্ষ দেওয়া-নেওয়া হচ্ছিল, পাশে থাকা থেকে সাথে থাকার সুললিত বাণী দেওয়া হচ্ছিল, ঠিক তখুনই হাসিনা সরকারের প্রবাস কল্যাণমন্ত্রী মোশারফ হোসেন ফরিদপুরে তার বহুদিনকার চেনা একটি প্রথিত্জসা সংখ্যালঘু পরিবারের বসতবাড়ি জোর করে হাতিয়ে নেবার সব রকম ব্যবস্থা সম্পন্ন করেছেন। একদিন হয়তো সেই নিপীড়িত পরিবারের একজন ‘এপারে’ চলে আসবে। পশ্চিম-বঙ্গের বাঙ্গালীদের সংস্কৃতিক নিজস্বতাকে যারা স্বীকৃতি দেয় না, তাদের কোলেই খুঁজতে হবে নতুন আশ্রয় ও পরিচয়। তারপর তার এই নতুন প্রভু তার নিজের রাজনীতির খেলার অংশ হিসেবে দেখাবেন ‘নাগরিকত্বের’ লোভ। তাই দেখে পূর্ব্ব বাংলার কেউ কেউ বলবেন যে এমন ঘোষণা হলো অনধিকার-চর্চা। ঘর-পালানো মানুষটা কি আজ-ও ‘ওপারের’?  পূর্ব্ব বাংলার ভিটে ছেড়ে পালিয়ে আসা বাঙ্গালী হিন্দু ঠিক কোন মুহুর্তে ‘ইন্ডিয়ান’ হয়ে যায় এবং দেশ নিয়ে কিছু বলার অধিকার হারায়? পালানোর দিন ? বর্ডার পেরোলে ? ‘ইন্ডিয়ান’ নাগরিকত্ব পেলে? দুই পুরুষ পরে? নাকি এসবের অনেক আগে, ‘ভুল’ ধর্মে জন্মমুহুর্তে? আমি জানি না।

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বোর্ড, শিক্ষা, আদর্শ – দিল্লী আমাদের ভবিষ্যত লুটছে

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The illegal Bangladeshi – a view from West Bengal

[ Express Tribune (Karachi), 16 May 2014 ; Observer Bangladesh, 17 May 2014 ; Millenium Post, 15 May 2014; Kashmir Observer, 17 May 2014]

The massive victory of Narendrabhai Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recently concluded parliamentary elections of the Indian Union has brought much cheer to Islamo-nationalist political forces in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The cynical calculation behind the jubilation is that the new government will squeeze illegal Bangladeshi migrants who are in the Indian Union. The Awami League government will look like a lame duck in front of an aggressive New Delhi. This would strengthen the Bangladeshi opposition’s case of Awami League being an Indian (read Hindu) stooge. This will politically benefit the opposition. However, it is not to be forgotten that during the last Islamo-nationalist Bangaldesh Nationalist Party government at Dhaka, which partially coincided with the tenure of the BJP-led government at New Delhi, many ‘deals’ happened. There were ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ then too. What are the plans of the new New Delhi government will unfold soon.

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh shares with the Indian Union a border whose drawing, policing and barb-wiring takes into account the concerns of everyone except those who live at the border. This is probably true for nation-state borders in general. The Border Security Force (BSF) of the Indian Union has a distinctly bad reputation for being trigger-happy when it comes to shooting down what it claims as people illegally crossing the border. This makes the BSF a much-hated name in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, a sentiment that is used to the hilt by Islamo-nationalist political forces in their campaigns. The BSF also routinely harasses, rapes, maims and assaults people in the villages of the West Bengal side of the border. This complicates the easy narrative of BSF’s anti-Bangladesh bias. Like all stat-raised band of armed people, these are self-serving forces. The border is a plum posting for the amount of money paid to border security personnel on either side – an ‘illegal’ taxing of ‘illegal’ activities. BSF, with its assaults on both East Bengalis and West Bengalis, seems to be an equal opportunity brutalizer. This is the force entrusted by the Indian Union to keep ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ to enter the territories of the Indian Union.

During elections in the subcontinent, neighbouring nation-states and their inhabitants come alive as proxies for domestic issues and fissures. ‘India’ is one of the fundamental axes around which politics in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal expresses itself. The Indian Union has ‘closet Pakistanis’ and ‘illegal Bangladeshis’.

Narendra Modi, speaking at a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rally at Srirampur in West Bengal on 27th April, made public his resolve to deport Bangladeshis from India. It is an old BJP charge that most political forces in West Bengal have tried to get Muslim votes by nurturing illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, by getting them government documents to regularize their illegal status. The unsubstantiated underside of this charge is that the West Bengali Muslims look favourably at this development and do not mind this increase in the number of their co-religionists. At the alarmist end of this claim is that West Bengal is staring at an inevitable demographic reversal where Bengali Hindus will soon lose their majority, thus losing their only safe haven (though victims of the 1971 Marichjhapi massacre would say otherwise). That modern yearning for a united Hindu vote (just like monolithic Hinduism) remains unfulfilled. The BJP’s thought that in West Bengal’s multi-cornered fight, a renewed push at the consolidation of some Hindu votes might reap some dividends has turned out to be true as it increased its vote percentage all across West Bengal and has emerged as the second largest party in the Kolkata metropolis – an unprecedented development.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief beneficiary of Muslim Bengali votes, had reacted sharply to Modi’s statement. She characterized it as a ploy to divide Bengalis along religious lines. Banerjee is aware that between a third and a fourth of West Bengal’s electorate are Muslims and were crucial to her dream post-May 16th scenario of calling shots at Delhi. With the BJP’s absolute majority at the centre, such dreams came to a nought. Nonetheless, she had reminded the people that the ‘butcher of Gujarat’ does not have a clean record of ensuring peaceful co-existence between religious communities. Modi’s ‘Bangladeshi’ is a codeword that Banerjee can decode.

Though pre-partition Bengal was very often called Bangladesh, and a dwindling number of West Bengalis continue to say Bangladesh when they mean West Bengal, the term ‘Bangladeshi’ is a relatively recent term. The term owes its present currency to Bangladesh’s dictator Zia-ur-Rahman who used this term effectively in his soft-Islamization programme to counter the politico-cultural capital of Bengali identity, deemed to be a political tool of the Awami League and otherwise polluted by Hindu Bengali influences.

The ‘Bangladeshi’ that Modi wants deport back to East Bengal is a Muslim migrant from East Bengal. He did not cross over or bribe the Border Security Force in order to wage a demographic war against West Bengal’s Hindu majority. He did that because he is pitifully poor in a low-wage country and would have gone to Dubai or Malaysia if he could. East Bengali Hindus have additional reasons to cross over, given the rampant systemic discrimination they face in their homeland, in addition to the general atmosphere of insecurity for religious minorities in that country.

When some professional secularists claim that few, if any, illegal Bangladeshi migrants are present in the Indian Union, they are consciously lying and this does immense damage to their otherwise good causes. It is undeniable that a very large people from East Bengal (whose present political form broadly is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) have been migrating to the Indian Union, since 1947. While this traffic has seen ups and downs, there are specific high-points. The early migrations are etched in public memory due to their immediate ties to the partition. The widespread rioting in East Bengal in 1950 led to a large second wave. There have been many waves after that. The anti-Hindu riots of 1964 and the 1965 Indo-Pak war saw a huge number of people move out. The events of 1971 took this to another scale altogether, where a genocide, directed towards East Bengalis in general and East Bengali Hindus in particular, produced 10 million refugees of which nearly 1.5 million (mostly East Bengali Hindus and East Pakistani Bihari Muslims) never went back. 1971 marks the peculiar end of the ‘legitimate’ refugee. This partly stems from the false idea that religious minorities are ‘safe’ in ‘secular’ Bangladesh. By 1974, those who had fled during the Bangladesh Liberation war events of 1971, the percentage of Hindus in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh stood at 12.1 %. The 2011 figure was 8.5 %, a staggering 33% decrease in proportional terms. The downward trend continued through every decade since 1971. The Babri demolition of 1992, the 2001 and 2014 anti-Hindu violence were big-spurt in this continuous trickle. Even on 27th April, the day Narendrabhai Modi gave several Hindu temples and homes were ransacked in the Comilla district of Bangladesh.

It can be safely assumed that most of those who fled their homeland ended up in the Indian Union. The long partition continues. 1971 does not represent a change. That partition and refugee narratives tend to centre around 1947 and are mostly from the higher castes, the low-caste heavy later traffic does garner the same prominence in ‘public imagination’ of West Bengal, still dominated by the higher-castes. Namasudras and other lower caste communities of East Bengal have formed the bulk of the post-1971 migration, many settling in 24 Parganas district. The Muslim migration follows similar routes. The shifting demographic reality of 24 Parganas and the consequent insecurity that it evokes among people who recently fled East Bengal to find security in a different demographic reality across the border has resulted in a series of riots in that area. Fringe groups like Hindu Samhati have fished in these troubled waters with some success. Public muscle flexing of certain Muslim groups in that area has not helped matters. Copybook trigger issues like music in religious procession passing through specific routes, encroaching on religious site and trans-community eloping/kidnapping are all present. While political parties are doing their arithmetic carefully, conflagrations in the subcontinent have the power of burning calculation sheets to ashes, with the spoils going to the most cynical players.

In this high-stakes game among the powerful, the unresolved issues of the powerless fester on. Fleeing persecution, insecurity and death, the post-1971 lower caste refugees from East Bengal remain ‘illegal’. For all practical purposes, the Indian Union denies citizenship to those who crossed over from East Bengal after 25th March 1971, the day when major atrocities by the Pakistan army started in Dhaka. The 2003 Citizenship (Amendment) Act took away the possibility of birthright citizenship from the children of many of those who fled persecution in East Bengal. This has created millions of state-less young people who are children of refugees (infiltrators in government-speak) who have lived all their life in the Indian Union. Due to the amendment, many Dalit migrants were been identified as ‘infiltrators’ and deportation proceedings were started. The Matuas, one of the largest low caste groups of primarily East Bengali origin namasudras settled in West Bengal, have been protesting this act, passed incidentally by a BJP-led government. While all political parties want the ‘legal’ Matua vote, they are silent on the citizenship question. The root problem is that they want to duck the issue of distinguishing between the varying motives of those who crossed over. To the Hindutva brigade, this question is a ‘secular’ way of effectively distinguishing between Muslim and Hindu illegal migrants. No one wants to be seen as the one who wants blanket amnesty to Bangladeshi Muslim migrants. Neither does one want to appear insensitive to the plight of human rights refugees. Silent solidarity will be enough for votes. Modi has astutely recognized an opportunity and has set the cat among pigeons by calling for for evaluation of illegal migrants, case by case. He has also gone on to state that all Hindus have a right to seek refuge in the Indian Union. He is silent on why his party’s government passed legislation that took away the possibility of citizenship from the children of lakhs of low caste Hindus of East Bengal.

Ultimately, the persecuted Hindus of East Bengal (refugees and resident) are mere pawns. When Delhi-based Subramaniam Swamy (who has not been included in the cabinet till now by Narendra Modi) outrageously claimed a third of the territory of the Bangladesh to settle illegal Bangladeshis, he does not care about the ramifications of such statements on the situation of Hindu Bengalis presently living in Dhaka and Chittagong, where they are branded Indian fifth-columnists by dint of faith. The 1992 actions of Ramlala’s lovers took its toll on many Hindus in Dhaka and elsewhere. The Hindustani Hindutva brigade couldn’t care less about this type of ‘collateral damage’.

East Bengali Hindu migrants are unfortunate. The prime beneficiaries of partition crafted the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950. Many did not move due to the false sense of assurance (including the assurance of the door being permanently open) that came with this largely ceremonial gesture. By this, the Indian Union effectively washed off its hands from the ‘minority problem’ in Pakistan. It did not want the refugees whose refugee status resulted directly from the political agreement and power-hungry moves that created the Indian Union in the way it did. ‘Shutting the door’ has been the Indian Union policy post-1971 (similar to what Pakistan did to stranded Pakistanis in Dhaka), something it cannot implement – one of the natural consequences of claiming full monitoring abilities over an absurd frontier. For decades, the Indian Union has systematically discriminated Eastern frontier refugees (mostly Bengalis) on questions of compensation, entitlement, relief, citizenship, etc. The Indian Union owes reparation to these people, for the Indian Union’s creation and its geographical contours are intimately tied to their migration and impoverishment.

The ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ and associated codeword play is a problem created by a partition that failed as a solution. If division has failed, some measure of integration is necessary. This can take various forms including the possibility of dual or tiered citizenship for all Bangladeshi migrants. Of course, the government at Dhaka has to be a party to it, since migration to the Indian Union has been crucial in the alienation of a huge amount of Hindu-owned property in Bangladesh. Whatever certain private fantasies may be, that a Muslim-free Indian Union or a Hindu-free Bangladesh cannot be a solution is evident on a daily basis in almost minority-free Pakistan. A comprehensive asylum system needs to be instituted, which does not discriminate on the basis of religion. Hindus are not the only human rights victims in Bangladesh. The Ahmadiya Muslims, the Jumma people of the Chittagong Hill tracts and many more are. When any India-based entity like the BJP makes public pronouncements about its sympathy towards victims of human rights victims anywhere, it might do well to make amends for the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Ahmedabad, Deganga and a lot more. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

 

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Filed under Bengal, Caste, Delhi Durbar, Dhaka, Displacement, Identity, Nation, Partition, Religion

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

বঙ্গদর্শন

[ Ebela, 4 Nov 2014]
খণ্ডিত বঙ্গের দুই অংশ – ছোট ভাই পশ্চিমবঙ্গ ও বড় ভাই পূর্ব্ববঙ্গ।  এই দুই বঙ্গ মিলেই আবহমানকালের বাংলাদেশ – যদিও ১৯৭১-এর পর তা মূলতঃ পূর্ব্ববঙ্গের জাতিরাষ্ট্রের
‘অফিসিয়াল’ নামে পরিণত হয়েছে। নিজেকে বাংলাদেশ নামে ডাকার অধিকার পশ্চিমবঙ্গের বড় অংশই ছেড়ে দিয়েছে। সেটা দুঃখজনক। নিজের নাম স্বেচ্ছায় কেন কেউ নিজে থেকেই ভুলে যাবে, তা আমার বোধগম্য নয়। তো সে যাই হোক, এতটাই আত্মবিস্মৃত আমরা যে বাংলাদেশ নামটির পুরো অধিকারটাই আমরা তুলে দিয়েছি পূর্ব্ববঙ্গের হাতে। খন্ড-বঙ্গের ছোট খন্ড আমরা।  এই খন্ড ভাব আর ছোট ভাব দুটি প্রায় হারাতে বসেছে আজ দিল্লীর তালে নাচতে গিয়ে। তাই তো আজ পশ্চিমবঙ্গের অধঃপতিত জাতি নাক সিঁটকে বলতে শিখেছে ‘ওরা তো বাংলাদেশি’। আর তোরা হলি ‘ইন্ডিয়ান’। বাঙ্গালী তাহলে বোধহয় বঙ্গোপসাগরের গভীরে বসে মাঝে মাঝে মুণ্ডু তুলে কলকাতার ডাঙ্গা দেখছে – কেকেআর, শাহরুখের নাচ, আটলেটিকো, দিওয়ালি, হোলি, গুরগাঁও তথা আরো হরেক বেঙ্গলী ব্যাপার-স্যাপার। এরই মাঝে বোমা ফাটল বর্ধমানে। আরেক রকমের বেঙ্গলী সকলের টিভিতে এসে উপস্থিত। বাংলাদেশী ! এবার আর গরু-পাচারকারী বা কাঁটাতার পেরোনো বেআইনি হিসেবে নয়। পরিচয় এবার জেহাদি। খবরে তেমনই প্রকাশ।
অথচ চিরকাল ব্যাপারটা এমন ছিল না। পশ্চিমবঙ্গ বুঝত ও জানত যে ‘ওপারে’ যে দেশটি, তার সাথে তার বিশেষ সম্পর্ক। সে সম্পর্কের স্বীকৃতি কোনো আইন বা সংবিধান দেয় না। তাতে কি বা এসে যায়? এসে যায়নি বলেই তো ১৯৭১-এ পূর্ববঙ্গের মুক্তিযুদ্ধের সময় পশ্চিমবঙ্গে  যে বিশেষ সংহতির উন্মাদনা দেখা গেছিল, তাতে অনেক ঐক্য ও অখন্ডতার পূজারীরা ভয়ানক জুজু দেখেছিল। যখন স্লোগান উঠেছিল – এপার বাংলা, অপার বাংলা, জয় বাংলা, জয় বাংলা – তখন অশোকস্তম্ভের ৪ সিংহের ভুরু কুঁচকে গেছিল। পূর্ব্ববঙ্গের এক নকশালপন্থী (হ্যা, ওদিকেও ছিল ও আছে) দল -এর স্লোগানে ছিল অন্যতর কল্পনার বীজ – দুই বাংলার চেকপোস্ট উড়িয়ে দাও, গুঁড়িয়ে দাও। সে  বীজ থেকে যে কোনো চারাগাছ বেরোয়নি আজ অবধি, তা বলাই বাহুল্য। যে কোন দাবি বা স্লোগান একটি বিশেষ সময়ের দলিল। আজ এই স্লোগান উঠলে অবশ্যই শুনতে পাব – চেকপোস্ট উড়িয়ে মরি আর কি। এমনিতেই বিএসএফ দিয়ে ওদের পিলপিল করে আশা রোখা যাচ্ছে না, উড়িয়ে দিলে তো পশ্চিমবঙ্গ-টাই দখল করে নেবে।  ন্যায্য চিন্তা, বিশেষতঃ যখন ১৯৭১-এর পরেও পূর্ব্ববঙ্গের হিন্দু সম্প্রদায়ের উপর
নির্যাতন, সম্পত্তিদখল, দাঙ্গা ইত্যাদি চলেছে প্রায় নিরন্তর – সরকারী/বেসরকারী পৃষ্ঠপোষকতায়। আর হিন্দুদের পূর্ববঙ্গ থেকে পালিয়ে আসাও চলেছে নিরন্তর।  চলছে আজ-ও। তবে তারা নিম্নবর্গের, তারা ব্রাহ্ম্মন-কায়স্থ-বৈদ্য নয়, তাই তাদের আখ্যান পশ্চিমবঙ্গে উপেক্ষিত। তার উপর আছে এক ধরনের মেকি ধর্মনিরপেক্ষতার। ১৯৭১-এর সংহতি থেকে আজকের পূর্ব্ববঙ্গের বাস্তব চিত্র সম্পর্কে সম্পূর্ণ জ্ঞানহীনতা, ইটা ঘটল কি করে? কি করে পশ্চিমবঙ্গ তার ওপর অংশ কে দেখার বিশেষ দৃষ্টিভঙ্গি হারিয়ে ফেলল?  কেন আজ তাকে দিল্লীর থেকে চোখ, ক্রাচ আর দূরবীন ধার করে পুর্ব্ববঙ্গকে দেখতে হয়। কখন আমরা অন্ধ, অশিক্ষিত ও পঙ্গু হয়ে গেলাম? কখন আমরা ‘বৈরী বাংলাদেশী’ নামক চরিত্রের নির্মাণের দিল্লী রেজিমেন্টে নাম লেখালাম?
আজকে বর্ধমানের কল্যাণে আমরা জেনেছি জামাত-এ-ইসলামীর নাম। এর আগের গল্প কেন আমরা এত কম জানি? আসলে আমরা তো ক্রমে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের জেলাগুলিরও নাম ভুলতে শিখেছি, ওপারের খবর কি জানব। বরং দিল্লি-বম্বে-গুরগাঁও-নয়ডার মানচিত্র মুখস্থ করি গিয়ে। সচিন মোদের  ব্রহ্মা, শাহরুখ মোদের বিষ্ণু আর দিল্লীশ্বর হলেন সাক্ষাত মহেশ্বর। মন্দিরে আর জায়গা কই ? কার সন্তান কত অন্যাশে বঙ্গ-ত্যাগ করে দিল্লী-বোম্বাই পৌছেছে, এই যাদের সাফল্যের মাপকাঠি, তারাই ক্ষুব্ধ হয় বাংলাদেশী অনুপ্রবেশ প্রসঙ্গে। অনুপ্রবেশ অবশ্যই সামাজিক-রাজনৈতিক-অর্থনৈতিক অস্থিরতার কারণ হিসেবে দেখা দিতে পারে, কিন্তু বলবে কারা – যারা পশ্চিমবঙ্গ ত্যাগ করে উন্মুখ, তারা ? বাংলাদেশী অনুপ্রবেশকারীদের ব্যাপক অংশ জেহাদ করতে কাঁটাতার পেরোন না, আসেন জীবিকার জন্য। দুবাই বা মালয়শিয়া পাথেয় যোগার করতে পারলে এদিকে আসতেন-ও না। ঠিক যেমন আমলাশোল থেকে ঢাকা যাবার সহজ ব্যবস্থা থাকলে অনাহারে মরার থেকে অনেকেই গার্মেন্ট কারখানায় কাজ করতে বেশি পছন্দ করতেন।
ক্ষুদ্রতর পশ্চিমবঙ্গবাসী হিসেবে বৃহত্তর পূর্ব্ববঙ্গকে বোঝার দায় আমাদের আছে। আজকের পুর্ব্ববঙ্গকে। কবেকার ফেলে আসা ভিটেকে খোঁজা না , সেই ভিটেতে যে ব্যাপক বদল ঘটেছে – সেটাকে বোঝা। আমাদের জানতেই হবে যে শিশু ফালানি খাতুনের গুলিবিদ্ধ মৃতদেহ কেন কাঁটাতারে ঝুলছিল, জানতেই হবে কোন সীমান্তরক্ষী তাকে খুন করলো – তবে জানতে পারব এই পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মধ্যে সীমান্তরক্ষীদের দৈনিক অত্যাচারের কথা।ওদিকের সীমান্ত রক্কাহ করে বাঙ্গালী। স্থানীয় মানুষের মুখের ভাষা বোঝে।  এদিকের কথা আর বললাম না। মার্কিন দূতাবাসের সামনের রাস্তার নাম হোচিমিনের নামাঙ্কিত করে যে দুঃসাহস ও ঘৃণা জানিয়েছিল কলকাতা, সেই দায়তেই জানতে হবে কেন ঢাকার ভারতীয় দূতাবাসের সামনের রাস্তা ফেলানির নামাঙ্কিত করার দাবি ওঠে।  জানতে হবে ওদিকের সুন্দরবনের রামপালে ভারতের এনটিপিসি-র পরিবেশ ধ্বংসকারী বিদ্যুত প্রকল্পে পশ্চিমবঙ্গবাসী দায়হীন কিনা। জানতে হবে সব সাইক্লোন শেষ মুহুর্তে আমাদের কাটিয়ে যখন ওদিকে ঘুরে যায়,তারপর কি হয়? তার জন্য পরের ছুটিতে হিমাচল-কন্তাকুমারি-রাজস্থান-আন্দামান না করে একটু যান-না ওদিকে।
এক শ্রেনীর পশ্চিমবঙ্গীয় ওদিক ঘুরে এসে এক রোমান্টিক স্বর্গের চিত্র আঁকেন। ঢাকায় দুর্গাপুজো দেখে বলেন, সব ঠিক-ই আছে। ফি বছর যে বেশ কিছু দুর্গাপ্রতিমা আক্রান্ত হয় ওদিকে, সেটা বলতে কুন্ঠা কেন? ওদিকের সংবিধানের আগেই রয়েছে একেশ্বরবাদী ইসলামী বাণী।  এদিকে মা দূর্গা সহায় বা জয় শ্রী রাম নেই। এদিকে সংখ্যালঘুদের সম্পত্তিলুঠ হচ্ছে, দেশত্যাগে
বাধ্য করা হচ্ছে, একথা নিন্দুকেও বলতে পারবেন না। এ প্রসঙ্গে ওদিকের লজ্জিত হওয়া উচিত। অতীতের হিন্দু জমিদারের অত্যাচারের শাক দিয়ে আজকের বাস্তবতার মাছ ঢাকা যায়না। আবার ওদিকেই শাহবাগে ৭১-এর চেতনাধারী মূলতঃ মোসলমান বিশাল যুবসমাবেশে ডাক ওঠে ‘সূর্য্য সেনের বাংলায়, জামাত-শিবিরের ঠাই নাই’। সূর্য্য সেনের জন্মদিন উপলক্ষ্যে  ওদিকের খবরের কাগজে একটি ব্যাঙ্কের পাতাজোড়া বিজ্ঞাপন দেখেছি – এদিক কল্পনা করতে পারে?
শরতচন্দ্র বাঙ্গালী ও মোসলমানের মধ্যে ফুটবল খেলিয়ে অনেক গাল খেয়েছেন। আজ কলকাতা নামধারী ফুটবল-দলের সাথে ঢাকা মহমেডান ক্লাবের খেলা হলে উনি বুঝতেন, মোসলমানের টিমটাই বাঙ্গালীর টিম। কলকাতার দলটি বাঙালিও নয়,মোসলমান-ও নয়, এক্কেরে আন্তর্জাতিক – স্রেফ টাকাটা দিল্লি-বম্বের। অন্যের মাতাকে মাতৃজ্ঞানে পুজো করতে বাধ্য হবার মত পরাধীন ওরা নয়, সেটা ‘মাইন্ড’ না করার মত শিরদাঁড়াহীন-ও ওরা নয়। ওরা বাংলার ভবিষ্যৎ বলতে জাতির, ভাষার ভবিষ্যৎ বোঝে – আমরা বুঝি রাজারহাটে কল-সেন্টার।  আমাদের মধ্যে ‘কানেকশান’ সত্যিই আজ কম।  কারণ ওরা বাঙ্গালী, আমরা বং।

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

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Mar 2014 ]

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Indianness / strange thoughts on an republican eve

[ Daily News and Analysis, 21 Jan 2014 ; New Age (Dhaka), 26 Jan 2014 ]

26th January is the Republic Day of the Union of India. In spite of the high drama performed by the Aam Aadmi Party in the sanctum sanctorum of power, this week will end with another edition of an annual ritual commemorating the day when representatives of about 12% of the population of the subcontinent decided to frame the constitution in the name of 100%. Thus the Republic of India was born. In this auspicious week, one may ask with some trepidation, what is India? What kind of a question is that, one may ask. One can show the territorial limits of the Union of India in some map, point to it and say, there it is. That kind of an answer oddly makes Cyril Radcliffe the father of the nation.  So let us shift gears to a different question. What makes India and ‘Indianness’? Well, technically, the transfer of power by the British to certain sections of the subcontinental elites, the partition and the constitution framed in the name of the people makes India. But such legal definitions would sadden lovers of a transcendental ‘Indianness’ that is apparently millennia old and permeates through Ganga, Yamuna, Bollywood and Mohenjodaro (remember the weird bearded man?). A variant of this ‘Indianness’ is also to be found in our special ‘Indian genes’ and aloo tikki (aloo came to the subcontinent about 500 years ago from the continent of ‘Indians’ living half-way across the world). More recently, the fervor with which one cheers for a group of male players contracted by a private entity and sponsored by a New-York headquartered company has become a marker of ‘Indianness’ or lack thereof.

The real state of affairs of a human being cannot be ascertained by the perfume one dabs on oneself. It is to be found in the original smell of the armpits, that the perfume is designed to shoo away. The continuous tutelage in ‘Indianness’ that was explicit in mass media earlier (remember Sai Paranjpe’s Ek Chiriya style cartoons with a cute and sly message continuously aired during turbulent times when some chiriyas wanted to fly away?) has now become a monolithic cultural norm, with decades of preferential promotion of a language and a forced monolithic identity finally paying off. With enough rokra, a good, strong dandaa and pervasive indoctrination, orderly and docile queues can be created. Anek anek chiriyas have a stake in this game now.

When a Tamilian goes to New Delhi vis-à-vis Beijing, I am assuming that Beijing feels more alien. That is something undeniable. I am not including the rootless cosmopolitan class of the browns who feel at home at any place that has a chain-coffee outlet. I am talking of the earth, not of the shifting crust. However I am not sure that this even this grade of alienation holds true for the Naga – whose sas-bahoo diet is not imported from Hindustan but from Korea. Korea, thus, is not equally far from all trajectories of ‘Indianness’ – real or imagined. Even for the Tamilian’s supposed closeness in New Delhi, that is too is a project in progress. The non-alienation is less than it was 60 years ago. This is because of a common, constructed mould that has been used to make ‘citizens of a nation-state’ out of human beings. That commonality needs to be continuously manufactured even while proclaiming its transcendental pre-existence as a matter-of-fact. The shape of this mould represents what is the ‘core’ of this ‘Indianness’. Hence, more and more will come to speak a predictable ‘core’ language – the non-core will have to know it to be counted equally. That precisely is the indignity of forced top-down one-ness. One size never fits all. Some come pre-fitted, others have to try hard to fit in, excising parts of their identity.

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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

Why Pakistan’s resistance to Bollywood is justified

[ The Express Tribune, 24 Dec 2013 ]

The case in Pakistan regarding the continued certification and commercial screening of films produced in the Indian Union territory has been settled. Mubashir Lucman, Film Producers Association and Cinema Owners Association have come to an agreement that would allow for the equal sharing of screening time between films made locally and those imported from the Union of India. This is a useful opportunity to discuss some issues regarding the commercial import and certification of Bollywood Hindi films in Pakistan.

Let us first understand what are these ‘Indian’ films. We are largely talking of films made in the Hindi language produced via a very cash rich industry setting in Mumbai. For the rootless young people in certain metros of the Indian Union, that is much of what constitutes ‘Indian’ films. But for those who are talking in terms of greater mutual understanding via these films, one needs to realize that much of the Indian Union does not speak Hindi. Additionally, they do produce their own films. The content of such non-Hindi films represent a much greater terrain of the subcontinent than Bollywood Hindi flicks can ever aspire to. To be fair, Bollywood Hindi films never did aspire to that. Thank the gods for that, as with the money power behind Bollywood Hindi films, they might even try to define Tamil-ness or Bengali-ness through a metro-centric Hindi medium. Are they influencing people in Pakistan with an alien commercially produced idiom? If yes, people in Pakistan better take notice.

And those who portray films as some sort of a medium to develop Indo-Pak bonhomie might also do well to look beyond Bollywood. Virulently anti-Pakistan films with a lot of ‘action’ are also a Bollywood Hindi film sub-genre. Yes, that does good business. Go find an Assamese, Bengali, Tamil, Manipuri or a Oriya film in the last fifteen years that has an anti-Pakistan theme. There are none. Are these not ‘Indian’ films? What is it about Bollywood Hindi film idiom that lends itself to making films like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha and LOC Kargil, which unabashedly dehumanize people from Pakistan? The economic muscle of Bollywood ensures that such films receive a wide audience. It is not the specific film that matters. Pakistan can choose to not allow this film or that. But it is the same set of cartels that produce most of the films – the ones that are anti-Pakistan and the ones that are unrelated. This industry understands only money and would not stop from producing the next commercially lucrative anti-Pakistan blockbuster? There is a market for such prejudice in India just like there is a market for anti-Hindu prejudice in Pakistan. Do people from Lahore and Karachi really need to add to the profits of an industry that sees no qualms in showing Pakistanis in bad light?

Most Bollywood Hindi films are set in the cities of Mumbai or New Delhi, and increasingly in cities of the Western World where people from North India live and aspire to flourish. This can be Sydney, London, New York or Chicago (Dhoom 3, an action film released a few days ago and which has already grossed crores of Rupees, is set largely in Chicago). Delhi and Mumbai choses to tell its story and wants people to pay for it. But Karachi is not Delhi and I am sure it has its own stories to tell, stories that are different from the stories of young partying explorers of Mumbai and Goa, stories that are not about aspirational or ‘everyday’ life of Delhi people. Inspite of the Zia years, one can be sure that 15 crore people have stories to tell. If the decision was left to the burgers, they might even start a juloos in support of Hollywood and Bollywood. The culturally illiterate has no investment in their own cultural milieu. That is precisely why their ‘tastes’ shouldn’t be setting agendas. Nor can they be depended on for a revitalization of films culturally rooted in Pakistan (and not cheap Bollywood remakes).

Bollywood Hindi films represent the metro-centric and homogenized ‘idea of India’ in the mind of the new Indians – 20-40 years old, in the top 5% income category, aspirational migrants with Hindi and English being their near exclusive vocabulary. They are concentrated in a few cities but they have the economic might to determine cultural policy. These multiplex consumers with their moneybags have done a great assault to the idea of mass-films, which is why now film profits are not an indication of film popularity. Pakistani film industry is up against an economic behemoth with an agenda of own-cultural expansion. Its production, distribution and broadcasting machines are well oiled. Stupendous amounts of black money from deep pockets bankroll the ‘creative’ explosion that is Bollywood.

The twin attack of a homogenizing national ideology and economic muscle has grave implications on visible public culture. The 19th Kolkata International Film Festival witnessed the extra-ordinary scene of Bollywood Hindi filmstars being feted in a manner as though they represented some pinnacle of human achievement. It was a sad moment – underlining how limited and predictable the cultural horizon of West Bengal’s film industry had become. The lack of self-confidence showed. Film industries that do not have as much black money circulating, have lesser number of casting couches, have lesser number of ageing ‘artists’ and producers targeting young actresses, have lesser number of big crooks financing films and which do not make films in Hindi or India-English, have been relegated to second and third class status. Pakistan has the legal mechanisms to stop the damage that Bollywood has done to films industries elsewhere. It better act soon.

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Filed under Culture, Delhi Durbar, Identity, Kolkata, Language, Pakistan

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

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Dec 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, Identity, India, Polity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying the price for a gory ideology of hostage theory / Vague vengeance driving terror / Vague vengeance and Pakistan church blast

[ Daily News and Analysis, 1 Oct 2013; Millenium Post, 7 Oct 2013; Shillong Times, 7 Oct 2013; Echo of India, 9 Oct 2013 ]

“Ekbar matir dike takao,

 Ekbar manusher dike”

 (Once, take a look at the ground beneath your feet. Then, look at human beings)

 –  Birendra Chattopadhyay, Bengali poet (1920-1985)

 

In the most murderous attack on what is left of the ever-terrorized Christian population in Pakistan, Islamic terrorists have killed at least 85 worshippers at the All Saints Church in Peshawar on September 22nd. Inspired suicide bombers were the weapon of choice to target the Christian congregation. The death count is still rising, as more people succumb to their injuries in the hospitals. Outright murder represents the sharpest edge of what Christian and other ‘constitutionally’ non-Muslim people endure in Pakistan. Their daily life in a nation-state that officially considers them unequal in various ways to official Muslims is not pretty. Usurpation of property, blasphemy charges, attacks and destruction of places of worship, rape and subsequent forced conversion (or the reverse order) of womenfolk form the visible tip of a much broader systemic antagonism.

Thankfully, the minorities are not completely friendless in Pakistan. At huge personal risk, people like IA Rahman, Asma Jehangir, Abid Hasan Minto and many others have been standing in solidarity with religious minorities of Pakistan, protesting on the streets, for decades together. The threat to their lives is real, as was shown by the brutal murder of Salman Taseer, governor of West Punjab, and someone who had expressed solidarity with a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, phonily charged with blasphemy against Islam and given a death sentence. The recent anti-Christian massacre has brought the predictable protestors to the streets – human rights activists, left activists and the Christian community itself. But in addition to this, a somewhat broader segment also has protested. These groups have demanded that there be no dialogue or negotiations with Islamic terrorists behind this attack.

While shunning dialogue, the society in Pakistan may do well to initiate a broader dialogue. Directed not at the clearly-defined demons like the Taliban, this dialogue may point to a broader disease that emanates uncomfortably from the holy-cows of that nation-state. Only the society-at-large can initiate such a dialogue that explores the contours and content of inherited socio-political ideology, things that take a providential status as foundation-myths of any nation-state. Should one take a closer look at holy cows and foundation myths to diagnose the disease?

Jundallah, the Islamic terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the Peshawar massacre, laid out in no uncertain terms how it justifies the attack. ‘‘All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country.’’ So, non-Muslims in Pakistan are, in their understanding, more America’s than Pakistan’s and if America cared enough for its ‘own’ in Pakistan, it had better stop doing things to Muslims in Pakistan. This equation of America = Christian = some hapless Suleiman Masih in Peshawar has widespread appeal, not only for its simplicity, but also for its antiquity. For those who have a somewhat longer memory, the subcontinent has known this for some time – most famously as the pernicious ‘hostage’ theory.

The ‘hostage’ theory has been around for some time. This was enunciated most explicitly by Mohammad-Ali Jinnahbhai, the quaid of the All India Muslim League, as a macabre formula for peace. By this notion, the safety of religious ‘minorities’ in the then still-to-be-born Pakistan and India would be ensured by the fact that the majority community A wont attack minority community B, because in other places, community A is a minority where B is the majority, and hence vulnerable to ‘retributive’ counterattack. Hence, it would ensured (or so it was thought) that violence would not happen locally, as communities that imagine themselves non-locally, would see that this could go tit for tat for ‘themselves’ elsewhere. A minority then is a hostage of the majority. If there are two hostage takers, peace will be ensured. Rather then hostage-driven peace, the subcontinent has witnessed many instances of what can be called retaliatory hostage torture. The massacre of Hindus in Noakhali on Kojagori Lakshmi puja day, the massacre of Muslims at Garhmukteshwar, the reciprocal train-massacres crossing the Radcliffe border of the Punjab, the massacres in Dhaka and Barisal – the list goes on. The list shows that hostage torture enjoyed a broad currency. The Muslim League was simply brazen enough to state it as such. Other groups also used it to their advantage to the hilt.

A tacit acknowledgement of the ‘hostage’ status of minorities was the basis of the Nehru-Liaquat pact – to protect the minorities in West Bengal and East Bengal. The hostage theory lives on when the Babri mosque demolition causes hundreds of temples to be destroyed in the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. This is why a Hindu there is more India’s than theirs – sort of an unreasonable remnant that ideally shouldn’t have been there. The hostage theory is an ideology of the book and not of the soil. The question of a human’s belonging, in that heartless scheme of things, is not with the soil beneath his ground, but with someone faraway bound by similar ideology. This binds people from disparate soils similarly, and divides people from the same soil. The modern dominance of universalist, extra-local ideologies of community definition, as opposed to the local and the ecological, has taken a very heavy toll on humanity. Peshawar shows that the ideology of the hostage theory is alive and well in the subcontinent. Jundallah is its bloody edge. The softer margins include a very many among us.

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Filed under Bengal, Dhaka, Foundational myths, Identity, India, Kolkata, Our underbellies, Pakistan, Partition, Religion, Scars, Terror, Under the skin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My vote for pluralism

[ Open Magazine, 14 Sep 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.

Lift

One fistful of rubble

Now

And pour it on our shameless heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under A million Gods, Americas, Bahishkrit Samaj, Community, Democracy, Displacement, Faith, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Religion

The rise and rise of portable religion

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Jul 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad moon rising / A dangerous connivance /

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Floating in the Durbar / Floats in the Delhi Durbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dilli khushion ka angan

Dilli sadio se raoshan

Dilli kala ka sagar…

Dilli sab ka dil hai yaaro,

Desh ki dharkan Dilli’

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

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

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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Unholy winds from Jangipur / Disturbing signals from Jangipur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ Himal Southasian, 26 Aug 2011 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

( Himal SouthAsian , Aug 2009)

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

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

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

1. Better utlization of public funds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The statues do nothing for the uplift of Dalits

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Bahishkrit Samaj, Caste, Elite, Hindustan, Identity, Our underbellies, Polity, Power, Under the skin

Long way from home – silent shuffles towards not sticking out

[ Agenda  – special issue on Migration and Displacement, July 2008 ; The Friday Times (Lahore), May 10-16, 2013 – Vol. XXV, No. 13 ]

A narrative set around the displacement during the partition of Bengal in 1947, exploring traumas not so explicit, adaptations not so consensual. And imprints of things thought to be lost.

***

I have crossed the border between the two Bengals multiple times. In February 2013, I took back my maternal uncle Bacchu mama to his ancestral home in East Bengal (now part of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh).He had fled after his matriculation, a little before the 1965 war. When we reached his 2-story modest tin-shed erstwhile home in the Janaki Singho Road of the Kawnia neighbourhood of Barishal town, I saw this mama of mine, trying to touch and feel dusty walls and stairs. He is by far the jolliest person I have seen. This was for the first time I have ever seen his eyes tear up. The story that follows is of his paternal aunt, or pishi.

Having had taken active interest and in some cases active participation in anti-displacement agitations of various sorts and hues, what does ring hollow to my privileged existence is the real trauma of the experience. I know the statistics, the caste break up of the internally displaced, the pain of being transformed from sharecroppers to urban shack dweller – raw stories of loss and displacement. The “on-the-face” ness of the accounts, unfortunately, has a numbing effect. With a populace numbed to the explicit, its sensitivity to things hidden is nearly non-existent. In spite of my association with causes of displacement, in my heart of heart, I empathize but don’t relate. Nobody I have grown up with seemed to have any psychological scar or trauma about it – at least none that they carried around, although I grew up around victims of one of the biggest mass displacements of all times – I am talking about the partition of Bengal in 1947.

When I grew up in Calcutta in the 80s, visits to my maternal grandparents’ place were a weekly feature. They were Bangals to my father’s extended family – we lived in a 30 something strong joint family, firmly rooted in West Bengal, very Ghoti. Bangals  are East Bengalis, a people with a culture less-sophisticated, in the minds of the Ghotis. In later years, especially post-1947, the term also came to mean refugees and hence evoked certain discomfiture about the presence of Bangals in West Bengali minds, if not outright animosity. With time, ties- political, amorous and otherwise were built between certain sections of the two communities. I am a child of mixed heritage – with a Ghoti father and a Bangal mother. Much of what I have said, except the last statement are generalizations, but they are useful in terms of broadly demarcating the space within which the narrative is set.

The people of my mother’s extended family had their displacement stories – not really of trauma, but a sense of material loss- the money they couldn’t bring, their land that had been expropriated ever since, the struggle of some families they knew, etc. Calcutta subsumed much of their selves now that they were here and most of them had been here in Calcutta for most of their lives. The character of importance here is my maternal grandmother, my Dida. She was married off to my maternal grandfather, my dadu, who I hear was visibly unwilling about the marriage at that time, if not the match itself – both were teenagers. When she came to Calcutta in tow with her husband, she was still quite young. My mother was born in Calcutta.

They lived in a rented place near Deshopriya Park. There was a certain air of dampness about the place – it connected to the metalled road by a longish and narrow path, not revolting but full of a strange smell of dampness. The path, gritty and dimly lit, was nearly metaphorical of my dida’s connection to her new world – connecting to the mainstream required a certain effort. Inside that house, it was strange and intriguing to me. The lingo was different – they spoke Bangal ( a Bengali dialect) with a Barishal twang ( Barishal was one of the more pupulous districts of East Bengal) called Barishailya. Dida referred to chokh ( eye) as tsokkhu and amader ( our) as amago. I used to pick these up and relate it to my Ghoti joint family, regaling them. Now I don’t think it is hard to imagine that many Bangals didn’t like the fact that other people found simple pronouncements in their dialect amusing and even comical.( Some comedians have used this aspect in Bengali comedy. I am reminded of black clowns with artificial and heightened mannerisms who regaled White audiences).

Dida cooked well and was known for it. What did she want to be known for? My mother related to me how her father was a great lover of letters and sciences. This was somewhat true – sometimes I abhorred going to him because he would not only tell me to do a math problem but also ask me why did I do it that way. He tried to get all his children formally educated – a Bangal signature of the time with imprints still continuing. Markedly different was his attitude towards Dida – I remember numerous instances of “o tumi bozba na” ( You wouldn’t understand that.) On her 50th marriage anniversary, her children got together for a celebration. The couple garlanded each other. She looked happy with her self and her world. “ Togo sara amar ar ki aase” (What else do I have but you people) was her pronouncement. Something happened a few years later that made me question the exhaustive nature of her statement..

Things happened in quick succession after this. The brothers and sisters split. The turn of events resulted in Dida staying with us . Our joint family had ceased to exist too. By now, I was a medical student. Dida was getting worse due to diabetes. So, I spent time with her. I remember her trying to speak ( and miserably failing) our non-Bangal Bengali dialect, to my paternal grandmother. She did try to mingle in, for circumstances demanded that she do. At the time, I   thought that she was extraordinarily fortunate. With my new-found sensitivity towards “identities”, I thought, she must have been very happy to speak Bangal until now. She did her groceries at a bazaar full of grocers who were themselves refugees from East Bengal. In fact one bazaar near my home in Chetla is actualled called the Bastuhara bajar ( the homestead loser’s bazar).Her husband’s extended family was essentially her social circle and they all chattered away in Bangal. They ate their fish their way and did their own thing. In spite of being displaced from East Bengal, she had retained her identity, her “self”. Or so I thought.

She suffered a cerebral stroke sometime later. A stroke is tragic and fascinating. It cripples and unmasks. The social beings we are, who care about what words to speak to whom, what state of dress or undress to be where and when, etc- this complex monument of pretense can come crashing down in a stroke. She had been for a day in what would medically be termed “delirium” , characterized by, among other things, speech that may be incoherent to the rest of us. She couldn’t move much and spoke what to us what was nearly gibberish- names we didn’t know, places we hadn’t heard of. To ascertain the stage of cerebral damage, one asks questions like Who are you? Where are we? What is the date? Etc. I was alone with her when I asked this first. Who are you? “Ami Shonkor Guptor bareer meye”.( I am a girl from Shonkor Gupto’s family).I repeated, and she gave the same answer. She couldn’t tell me her name. Shonkor Gupto wasn’t her father but an ancestor who had built their house in Goila village of Barisal, East Bengal. She recovered from the stroke and remembered nothing of the incident. When I asked her later, she replied “Jyotsna Sen” or  “Tore mare ziga” (Ask your mother).”Who are you” and “What’s your name” had become one and the same, again. She died sometime later. Another stroke felled her.

Displacement brings trauma with it. And the trauma can be cryptic. It can be hidden. It can be pushed down, sunk deep with the wish that it doesn’t surface. But displacement from home is a strange phenomenon – resurfacing in odd ways. And often an involuntary journey away from home is a journey away from one’s self too. The journey of displacement is hardly linear. It is more like a long arc. In most cases, the arc doesn’t turn back to where it started from. The journey looks unhindered by identities left back. But we can sometimes peer deeper. Nobody called my Dida  by the name Jyotsna Sen – she merely signed papers by the name. She had a name by which people called her before her marriage – “Monu”. This name had become hazy after her marriage and journey to her husband’s house and then essentially lost after she migrated to Calcutta. She had been doubly removed from the people, the household, the organic milieu that knew “Monu”. She had 3 children, 4 grandchildren, a husband, a new city. Where was she? And when all this was shorn off, what remained was a teenage girl from East Bengal village – a place she hadn’t been in 60 years, may be the only place where she will be much of herself. Monu of Shankar Gupto’s house.

At this point, I wonder, whether she silently bled all through. Would she have bled similarly if she had choices about her own life or at a bare minimum, if she had  an active participation in the  decisions that changed her life’s trajectory? The speculative nature of the inferences I draw from her “unmasking” story is not a hindrance to imagine what could have been. A little looking around might show such stories of long-drawn suppressions all around – suppressions we consider facts of life and take for granted. Who knows what she would have wanted at age 15 or at 22. Where was her voice, her own thing in the whole Calcutta saga that followed? The picture perfect 50th anniversary clearly didn’t capture all that she was. Her husband believed she had her due – what more does one need, he thought for her. My mother thought, with a well-intentioned husband that her father was, Dida must be happy. The identity-politics fired lefty in me had thought she hadn’t been displaced enough, given her Bangal milieu!  We were all wrong! A part of her lived repressed all along. In the microcosms we inhabit, there are stories of displacement, failed rehabilitation and denial of life choices. It is my suspicion that on learning about the Narmada valley displaced, a part of my Dida’s self would have differed vehemently with the Supreme Court judges Kirpal and Anand*1 – stances which often elude the nuanced mind of the intellectual.

*1 Justice Kirpal and Anand in their majority decision disposed off Narmada Bachao Andolan’s public interest litigation and allowed the resumption of construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and increasing of its height upto EL 90m, resulting in further displacements of many more families, in addition to the thousands already affected.

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Filed under Bengal, Home, Identity, Kolkata, Language, Memory, Partition, Scars

More than ruins in an unfamiliar city – locating the Bengalee urban middle class psyche in change and persistence

( Himal SouthAsian, Jan 2008)

The milieu of the urban Bengalee middle class in Kolkata and mofussil towns is undergoing tremendous changes. There is an overt change in how urban settlement units look and what constitutes the neighbourhood. But there is an ongoing change within homes as well. This change inside encompasses both physical changes and changes in life practices. Such changes have an unequal distribution which means that certain practices, certain ways of living, being, arranging and utilizing the domiciliary space have proved to be more refractory to changes than others which have been given up with less persuasion or greater cajoling – persuaded from within and persuaded by changes around. To look into the differential pattern of refractivity to changes provides an interesting window to a question – what constitutes the signature of the Bengali urban middle class identity? Beyond quantitative economic indices of income and consumption, one can conceive of a space whereby a constellation of signature elements of urban domiciliary space layout and utilization, the urban Bengalee middle class can be satisfactorily mapped to.

Defining the middle class in pure economic terms, discounting the particular engagement of its psychological self with its milieu and aspects of this engagement that help define the middle-class stereotype, can be dangerously off limits. There is a greater danger of such definitions :changes in economic parameters, for the better, are considered to be surrogates of ex post-facto consent to changes in ways of living, consuming, engaging. Many of the drastic changes in the exterior urban landscape and associated changes to concepts of neighbourhoods and the sense of belonging therein, concepts of ecology and nature, concepts of inter-human relations within and beyond relations of consumption have been without consent. A specific type of a ever more consuming urban vision delegitimises such lack of consent. Being the products and perpetrators of the self-exorcism that regularly figures in the journey from the village to the city in the tropics, the urban middle class often finds itself in a peculiar double bind when forces of “progress” or “development” of the day start trumping the sense of perch, identity and imagined antiquity of urban middle class ways of life, especially when such forces drastically threaten to turn on its head this negotiated identity the middle class has come to know as a part and parcel of its way of living. In this assault, amidst changes within domiciliary urban spaces, what the urban middle class negotiates to hold on to give a peek into some of the innermost chambers of their selves. And a closer look at the past and present living spaces and practices of the Bengalee urban middle class might offer a few of the signatures of their “middle class-ness”.

To look at such urban domiciliary spaces of the Bengalee middle class with the above aim has to be done with caution. It is not about documenting how these spaces look today or they looked yesterday. It is about what aspects of yesterday remain today, in spite of greater spending capacity per family and the overarching logic of ‘saving time’. It is this gap between affordability and reality which is of interest – the specific patterns of “falling short” can be illuminating.

The middle class, dhoti-panjabi clad bhadralok or gentleman has appropriated a large part of the written history of colonial Bengal. This urban, middle class, liberally educated bhadralok had also become the cultural symbol of Calcutta, marginalizing other social or ethnic groups by the sheer normalising power of this image. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic change in the rate at which things change, at least in the material realm around this urban populace. There has also been a perceptible, however feeble, tendency to find a historical comfort and maintain a continuity to its past which in some ways resists change, or at the least, tries to modulate its rate.

The privacy of the bedroom does not quite stand in as high regard to the middle class Bengali as it does to a westerner. After everyone has woken up in the morning, amongst the first order of business is to ‘sweep’ the bed clean, neatly arrange the pillows and the mosquito net in one corner of the bed and cover it with a bedcover, usually a heavier cloth than the bed-sheet. Tucked tightly around the mattress, the bedcover encapsulates and protects the privacy of the nights spent on it and prepares the bed as a place to sit for the close friends and visiting relatives. In contrast to the bedroom, the drawing room is meant to entertain formal guests who fall outside the large circumference of ‘like a family member’. The changing middle class has not ignored the demand for a clearer distinction between the drawing room and the bedroom, yet they have not given up the bedroom as a place for heartfelt conversations or plain simple adda. The bed, as a place to sit and talk has survived the changing lifestyles of the Bengalis and so has the thin hard-stick broom to ‘sweep’ the bed in the morning.

Large sections of the middle class Bengali have shifted to modular living in multi unit apartment buildings, transforming both the sociological and spatial boundaries of a para (neighbourhood) as well as redefining the individual space within a household. Examples of incongruous ways of living could be interpreted either as efforts to adapt to an unfamiliar yet sought after way of life, or a resistance to un-participatory change.

The bedrooms in the older houses almost necessarily came with taks – built in recessed shelves in the wall. A collection of Tagore’s songs and poems (Gitobitan and Sanchayita) on these shelves, held in public view, were a unifying factor for the middle class Bengali across the political spectrum. Other names that have a high probability of occupying the coveted spaces are Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Subhash Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda. A Materia Medica, the popular encyclopaedia of homeopathy, was not an uncommon find. The literary display on the shelves, as it were, was an intellectual companion of the middle class Bengali. The tendency to have a series of “Complete Works of…” was perhaps a wish for comprehensive erudition.

Some boundaries have been made porous while others rigid, and taaks have fallen victim to these changing permeability. Boundary walls enclosing gated communities have grown higher and thicker while the thickness of the walls of the buildings has been reduced to half, eliminating the possibility of built-in taaks. The ability to hum the tune of a Rabindrasangeet, recite a stanza from a poem to match a situation, quiz others about the author of a recited poem or invoke Marx on occasions, during serious opinionated discussions, have continued to be the mark of an erudite Bengali which is intrinsically tied to the intellectual companionship of the books. The evicted books have found room in stand alone wooden cases with sliding glass doors. It has remained an important companion of the family, finding a niche in the bedroom as a first preference failing which it has found itself relocated to the drawing room.

Eliminating the class insensitive mosquitoes has not been a priority of the rapid changes that have been sweeping across Bengal and the mosquito net remains the primary defence of the middle class Bengali. Methods of stringing up the nets, across various households, are as diverse as the stagnant water bodies, including the drains that are the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. Sari paars (sari liner that prevents the edges from fraying), pyjama strings, jute or plastic strings and sometimes a combination of all kinds knotted at ends could be found hanging from door latches or hinges and from miniature hooks precariously embedded in the walls. The mosquito net is erected by adjusting the tension in the four, mostly unequal, strings that are tied to the pre-fabricated loops at the corners of the net itself.

The art of setting up the mosquito net before going to bed has remained largely untouched by the transitioning lifestyles of the middle class Bengali. When the lights are switched off and no one is watching, and there is a momentary let-up in the pressure to modularise, the self, finds comfort of familiarity under the sagging roof of an asymmetrically strung up mosquito net.

The bathroom of a Bengali urban middle class family is arguably the most unacknowledged part of the home. But there are markers which set it apart from the upper class homes.

The soap used for the body gets thinner and thinner by use till it becomes a thin flake or a small pebble. At this point, the soap is added to a pre-existing soap of a peculiar variety. This is formed solely of such earlier thin flakes and pebbles. The soap has a variegated appearance reflecting the brands that household has used. The use of this soap is solely to wash the unclean hand after defecation. It is a very specific type of a hand washing soap. The absence of a soap to solely wash hands is a feature. The issue of cleanliness creates its own signature where the presence of a bathing soap for exclusive hand washing use is generally as exception.

Several specificities come out of the issue of cleanliness and cleaning. The bathroom is nearly universally associated with stench of varying degrees. This phenomenon leads to a middle class person’s first observances about luxury hotel bathrooms or bathrooms of the upper classes – “The bathroom does not have a (bad) smell!” Comodes and pans which regularly have one of the following dysfunction – flush not working due to broken piston or chain has broken, leading to various ingenious ways of flushing – mostly by manually enabling the dysfunctional flush to work. The thickness of the air can partially be attributed to dysfunctional flushes , lack of air ventilation and the semi-permanent presence of a zone of slippery material called pechhol. The semi-permanence can be attributed to the presence of the jhnata, a type of short broomstick. This jhnata is different from the room sweeping jhnata whose cleaning units are more like soft sheafs than stuff sticks. What is typical of the jhnata is the unequal lengths of the dnatis (sticks). The jhnata has a long -shelf life and is mostly not used.Whether that is the cause of the pechhol not being cleaned or the presence of pechhol being the natural state of a bathroom making the jhnata a secondary accessory is an open question. The bathroom jhnata is generally used many times before they are discarded – the particularly tough sticks of the broom pack into themselves a lot of service. Interestingly, the idea of cleanliness originates from hygiene but microbial and germ theories of infection of European vintage don’t hold much currency in middle class consciousness and hence the jhnata does remain the mainstay of cleanliness, driving out macroscopic threats. The incursion of microorganism killers even in commode or latrine pan cleaning has been very slow in urban middle class Bengalee households. Robert Koch lives but the jhnata rocks. Like the jhnata, there is a certain lethargy to replace a broken mug in the bathroom. The commonest point of breakage is the handle. In fact, attempts at mending the mug along the fault lines are not uncommon.

Certain feature are evident in the fittings too – certain patterns which have been a part of life as it was practiced but stay on in changed circumstances. The presence of a tap, poised at nearly half-length of the shower is a fairly constant feature. But it is not a random length. Though now mostly used to fill up buckets and occasional foot cleaning, the length, either in emergency, ineptitude or plain familiarity serves as a surrogate for the shower – the “koltola” or tap station being recreated. The builders and architects have continued keeping this feature, may be even oblivious to the reason of its specific height, as it is unlikely to be mentioned in the texts and plans they studied at universities. The height allows someone to sit under it and bath – few people do it, except the force bathing of children (who can stand full height) under it by parents. This standard height has somewhat unwittingly lingered on in the perception of the designers of small flat units. Also, something that is retained is the storing of water in buckets even in modern residential units with non-stop water supply. This primordial storage even in the face of abundance – logical or not – needs an arrangement by which water is not wasted. Hence, often a thin cloth is tied at the mouth of the tap to make it a controlled focussed flow, into the bucket. The tap generally leaves its mark on the floor directly beneath, especially if its made of tiles with stone chips. It is more rocky than smooth and marks the place where the gushing tap has been hitting the floor for a few years. The hand shower also called the telephone shower is also kept largely unused – a late 80s addition to housing projects, its ornamental role is sometimes very obvious. The most obvious difference between strict upper classes and the middle classes in how they think the bathroom floor should be – the upper classes prefer it to be dry, all the time. The only time the middle class bathroom floor is dry is when they leave the home en masse for more than a couple of days.

If one moves from the health of the bathroom to the cleanliness of it users, a few other signatures become evident. The fogginess of the bathroom mirror calls into action sophisticated internal correction strategies so that a semblance of the real face and hair can be constructed from what is seen in the mirror. Gamchhas (thin red cotton cloths) or towels, whatever is used to dry the body after bath, are generally not allocated exclusively for each family member, but each randomly chooses to use whichever is dry or semi-dry. The presence of coconut oils is as characteristic as the general absence of washing machines because they purportedly they don’t “wash well”. This has another aspect. There is an hesitancy in the move to mechanisation for that is also gives a sense of loss of control (in a very different sense than the numerous “controls” in the washing machine display or buttons). During certain times of the month, there are toothpaste packs which are crumpled – crumpled from the end to the mouth to squeeze out that last brush full left in it.

Unlike the bedroom or the bathroom, and indeed, the practices and daily rituals associated with them, the contemporary urban middle-class kitchen has less in common with its preceding models. A lot of this has to do with the physical layout of the kitchen of urban living unit, notably flats. Compressed living spaces have necessitated smaller kitchens, which with the advent of interior planning have nonetheless become more efficient in the actual utility of allotted space, given that the space is small to start with. Also, kitchens in contemporary homes have only the identity of a functional space or unit, unlike a social space that it once used to be.

Not too far back, kitchens in their classifications and their appendages and accessories, were a cultural signifier of the female social narrative. Perhaps the one practice that, with sudden changes in urban lifestyles and therefore in socio-religious practices, has been completely erased from the discourse of cooking spaces is the dual existence of amish and niramish kitchens. ‘Amish’ being the Bengali word for cuisine that includes animal flesh and the vegetables used typically to season it (primarily, onions and garlic), and ‘niramish’ encapsulating that which the Bengali, traditionally scornful of vegetarian diets, would dismiss as cattle food. That the niramish kitchen was a necessity in even small houses is representative of the function and position of women in contemporary Bengali society. First was the unavoidable fact that the number of widows of considerable, and the firm adherence to a distant behavioural code for them put them into special prominence. The niramish kitchen was ‘their’ kitchen, these women who, with the death of their husbands, had lost the right to a high protein diet – which included certain pulses along with every form of animal flesh – because a high protein diet would encourage those physical impulses which as widows, they had lost socially-approved access to. But the “loss” of the separate kitchens have been negotiated as separated utensils and even separate stoves and most ingeniously, separate portions of the stovetop. The negotiations do point to impulses of cultural survival, in a milieu that throws up living conditions that do not really have the Bengali urban middle class cultural context in mind.

The urban kitchen achieved visibility when Calcutta first saw a noticeable upsurge of middle-class family settlements, as opposed to messes or hostels where men, young and old, would live in dormitories or rooms, drawing nourishment from either the establishment’s common kitchen or one of the many affordable eateries of questionable hygiene. Initially, the kitchens in the city were not much different from the kitchens in the suburbs or villages, one prominent difference being the source of water. For those areas that provided them, a kitchen would extend up to the koltola, which was a tap or a hand-pump just outside the kitchen. This was where the utensils were washed and often, where fish or the occasional meat was cleaned. Few kitchens had running water inside them. The so called ‘Indian’ convention of washing utensils under running water comes after the actual availability of said running water in newly installed kitchen taps and sinks.

What transformed the modern kitchen and made it nearly unrecognisable from its predecessors is the advent of gadgets, both as cooking aides and as preservative devices. Even the humble knife, indispensable in today’s kitchen, was unheard of at the turn of the last century, when bNotis were the sole device to cut, chop or dice. It is the refrigerator in particular that replaced the once-ubiquitous meatsafe (which, contrary to it’s name, was never used to keep uncooked meat) as well as the somewhat obscure concept of jolshora, which involved keeping food safe from insects by floating a bowl or dish of it in a larger flat bowl of water. Following convention, however, few Bengali homes install their refrigerator in their kitchen. Like the meatsafe, which usually held leftovers, sweets, butter tins kept in jolshoras and various snacks and savouries, the usurping refrigerator is usually situated a few feet away from the door of the kitchen, at one corner of what is usually the dining space. Bengali kitchens do not provide the scope for functional machinery to exist within it’s premises, unless it the exhaust fan, that successor of the tiny ventilators which dispelled the smells of cooking and the smoke more effectively. The walls behind the oven are proof to this – they are as greasy and dark with smoke and residue of fried oil today as they were a few decades back.

The more than lingering presence of the bNoti, even in the presence of fashionable vegetable cutters and graters begs more explanation than efficiency. The hamandista, which is a medium size mortar and pestle to grind dry spices and the sheel-nora, a flat version to make pastes out of non-dry spices as well as onion, garlic and the like, are in some ways, more real statements for cultural choices than sporting a Che-Guevara T shirt in a western metropolis. These devices exist in spite of top of the line mixer-grinder contraptions and in the hired labour that is employed to do this, the rational goes similar to what is given for not replacing the domestic helper for washing clothes by the washing machine.

Reasons for cultural choices may run deeper.” Many oppressed cultures, in trying to keep alive an alternative vision of a normal civilization and resisting some of the modern forms of man-made suffering, have sought to defy the modern concept of productive work and the totally instrumental concept of knowledge which goes with it.”1 While on the face of it, to look upon the Bengali middle class way of life of their imagined antiquity as an oppressed culture would be somewhat erroneous, but one could say, with some trepidation, that some elements which define the selfhood and identity of the class, do feel threatened and indeed oppressed – just that other parts of their selves may be complicit as cogs, wheels and even engines of this supposed oppression. Mixers-grinders and sheel-nora play out this internal dialectic tussle of sorts in living spaces – it is much more than a tussle between automation and authenticity, but crucially includes elements of those. By the sheer “irrationality” of the persistence sheel-nora, the domestic help who washes clothes, one gets a hint of its subversive underbelly.

The listing of these instances serves a purpose – the purpose with which we started from. These patterns, some or all of them, together at least partially help define the psychocosmology of the middle class. And to stick to them, in the face and in spite of alternatives thrown in from without, is in a large part an attempt to keep a sense of self-hood that comes with certain values and life practices. The element of dissent here is not to be missed for it is this urban middle class of Bengal which are considered the most vociferous cheerleaders for the patterns of change that are perturbing life practices and domiciliary spaces, especially in the last 15 years.

The Bengali urban middle class self exposes a particular tentativeness and apprehension of vulnerability if one looks at the pattern – the things that are retained. The middle classes are split between a hitch ride to a lifestyle that is swank and unknown and a lifestyle that has a certain comfort level due to familiarity as well as a sense of perch and imagined antiquity. So, when external non-consensual changes come in, there is a negotiation to preserve the existing identity of the self. There is another aspect too. The pattern also gives away another aspect. They are not fully convinced about the permanence and sustainability of this change brought about by new money and aspirations – hence these tries to keep a lifestyle less expensive. This zeroes in on one of the deepest middle class values – an economically low risk lifestyle where status quo has much more currency than a higher risk game of rising. This shunning of change for a rise comes with a dread of falling. One of the elements which go into rationalising this shunning comes out in middle class contempt of the rich and aN a priori assumption of dishonesty on the part of anyone who has made a considerable amount of money or has a flashy lifestyle. The disjoint between affordability and lifestyle of Bengali urban middle classes is extremely revealing. With increase in riches and getting confronted with lifestyles middle classes associate with luxury, the middle classes are faced with a nagging feeling about the value-neutrality of its own recent prosperity. They do want to see in its domiciliary space as less as possible, signs that mark a radical departure from their lifestyle that was honest in their own imagination. And this complicity and dissent exists at the same time. In between the two, the complicity has a non-consensual element to it too, arising out of what it thinks is absence of choices – the choice being not of choosing to be a MBA or an information technologist but the choice to chose how far down any road it wants to go. No one is obligated to make the journey. In the same vein, no one is obligated to complete the “full” journey either, having once embarked on it. It is the absence of choice to drop off the bandwagon that creates internal turmoil of the most extraordinary kind. When one cannot chose extents of complicity to non-consensual change all over, dissent works out in maintaining an illusion of no-change. Having little or no control over the external urban geography, the theatre of such dissent shifts to the indoor.

What we have just described might well apply to other South Asian middle classes but we studied only the Bengalee urban middle class. May be in some of these tenacious “typical” middle class behaviours, people externalise their lack of consent to aspects of change that have come to affect their urban spaces, especially after it became passé to be ashamed of being rich, at least in urban public discourses in Bengal. Who is to say?

1 Ashis Nandy , Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias : Essays in the politics of awareness, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.42

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Filed under Bengal, Change, Identity, Kolkata, Urbanity

Along Chitpur Road

(  Himal SouthAsian Mar 2008)

Sometimes historical facts tend to obscure current realities by transforming themselves into popular myths. The bangaliana of Calcutta is one such example – the city’s pervasive projected identity is defined by the lifestyle and cultural moorings of a specific class of the middle-class Bengali. Yet of course, in the manner of all economically strategic centres, Calcutta has never been exclusive to any one ethnicity or culture. But for several centuries since its supposed British founding in 1690 (a date that is now widely debated), Calcutta has certainly been a ‘Bengali’ city. Indeed, it is only during the latter part of the 20th century that minority communities in the city have ceased to be mere statistical figures and begun to assert themselves culturally. This transformation has become particularly noticeable on the city’s streets, in the faces of the daily labourers and street vendors who are largely from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the Rajasthani accent that has secured a place for itself among the middle- and upper-middle-classes of the business community. The diversity of Calcutta, always present in reality but long absent from the vision and imagery the city invokes,within its constituents and beyond,  has undergone a transformation.

In the collective mind of the city, the parallel non-Bengali cultures always had a certain niche. But centres of parallel cultures that held cultural prominence during the time of the British Raj have slowly been moved to the fringe of popular consciousness in Calcutta. In this way, over the past few decades their impact on the city’s mainstream culture has been significantly diminished.however, this new consciousness seems to somehow have lost sight of the older centres of non-Bengali parallel cultures that held great prominence at the time of the Raj, such that the most prominent such centre, Chitpur Road, has become a fringe slice of exotica with very little influence on Calcutta’s cultural composition. Instead, the newly conjured multiculturalism is more of an extension of the projected idea of a modern, urban, pan-Indian ‘culture’. Fortunately, buried amidst this new gloss there remains a sublet tapestry in certain parts of Calcutta: its own organic fibre of a-modern multi-ethnicity – muted, non-jazzy, real.

What was named Lower Chitpur Road after the British birth or rebirth of Calcutta historically predates the city. It is a part of the old stretch between Kalighat and the capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, Murshidabad. In postcolonial Calcutta, its great thoroughfare status has been taken away by the newer, more spacious Central Avenue (which has, since the nineteen thirties, been officially called Chittaranjan Avenue, but the colonial name persists in public memory), and with the decline of the baiji or nautch-girl culture, Chitpur Road has also lost it’s place on city’s internal entertainment map. Nonetheless, Chitpur remains crowded throughout the day, mostly with trams, buses, cars and carts jostling for space, and with people who see it as a connector between more ‘modern’ sections of the city, but also with those who still define their lives around the aura of quaintness Chitpur Road has developed with evolving times — traders selling hookahs of silver, glass and jute, street-vendors advertising food that finds no mention in the city’s mainstream restaurants, and perfumes or attars that the average Calcuttan of any faith traditionally associates with Lucknow.

 

Lower Chitpur Road can be divided into two parts, the Muslim Bihari-Lakhnavi section and the Hindu Marwari-Bihari section. The confluence of these two is, perhaps aptly, at Mahatma Gandhi Road. The area, which has its inhabitants live by its amodern cultural specificities, in its trade, faith, food and perfume, would be a strange conundrum to the liberal modern-secular.

Especially so in Calcutta, which construes such concepts as “secular” and “communal harmony” as the primacy of a civil identity of the individual over a religious or ethnic one; indeed it is a matter of pride amongst certain sections of the city’s inhabitants that communal politics has found little place in it over the decades. Chitpur Road, however, stands in sharp contrast to this interpretation of secularism, portraying instead a system where purportedly incompatible religiocentric lifestyles occupy living spaces in close proximity to each other, and  manage, it would appear, rather better than planned attempts at cohabitation. Here, it actually is the living faiths in living spaces that constitute a force that allow for the ‘edges’ of purportedly dissimilar communities to live side by side. In the Calcutta riots of 1946, Chitpur Road was certainly the scene of some violent acts; but at the same time, it was also the theatre of a much greater number of instances of public resistance to troublemakers deemed as ‘outsiders’.


Living faiths in living spaces are the arena for action of long range forces in time, that make purported edges brush with each other and not bristle, without losing the edges.This could be due to the pragmatism of the trader and the common marginality of both of these communities (non-Bengali Hindu and Muslim) with regards to ‘Bengali’ Calcutta. But, the section of Mahatma Gandhi Road that runs through Lower Chitpur Road is as much a confluence of two cultures as a sharp visual divider between them. And thus the Marwari merchant of Sri Ganesh Stores, selling mattresses bearing motifs of the Kaa’ba becomes as unique to Chitpur Road as does the suburban daily-train-riding Hindu clients of the Ambari Tobacco and Hookah Shop (see pics). In their combined ambience, these individuals do not actively seek unity. The long-range forces that arise out of faith as practiced by the common masses, after all, are not cynical social-engineering projects. Instead, they are primarily methods of peaceful existence. These are not proactive interventions that seek unity, but rather mere interactions that arise almost invariably due to individuals who live side by side – this is what ensures the possibility of coexistence. Living faiths hold in its corpus and  in its praxis by little people an idea of non-modern tolerance, ensuring mutually non-annihilatory co-existences. And not based on urban industrial dystopias of assimilation by denial of cultural choices of the ‘Hum sab ek haain’ (We are all the same) kind, faith keeps it real.

 

Lower Chitpur Road thus presents a close encounter of another kind: the geography here breeds engagement, possibly not as neighbours but not as aliens either. Living faiths are the cement that minimises friction here – acknowledging the natural difference in the kind of faith, but through a tacit acknowledgement of what can be thought of as the ‘spread-out location of the divine’. From faith and engagement with the divine is able to grow an appreciation of someone else’s path to the divine, subsequently leading to a reverential non-engagement. This is in sharp contrast to the modern usage of religion by various types of politician: from the cynical instrumentation of faith by religio-nationalists to the hubris-laden denunciation of faith by progressives.

 

Refresh the memory


The advertisements on Chitpur — not the large billboards owned or rented by well known advertising agencies, but the hand-painted tin boards and shop sign-boards — are yet another reminder of it’s uniqueness. Billboards are written in English and Urdu, gradually changing to Hindi and sparingly, Bangla, as we moved from the visibly Muslim area to the Hindu one, obviously marking the demographic change along the way. Hand-painted bills advertise special prices on couriers small Uttar Pradesh towns as Faizabad and Moradabad – names that rarely, if ever, merit mention in the average Calcuttan’s travel itinerary. Signboards over street shops promise delicacies, the likes of which are rarely encountered in other Calcutta eateries, even in traditional Mughlai restaurants.

 

And, of course, there are the wares: chamors (made of the tail-hairs of chamri gai or yaks and used in Muslim, Hindu and Sikh religious ceremonies), attars, tobacco-cutters, every kind of Indian musical instrumnets, strange desserts. These are all relics of older, barely electrical days of a more antiquated style of living and of business; one of trading through the day before the nine-to-five schedule gained widespread popularity. To the Calcuttan inhabiting the space we shall broadly call the modern, mainstream life, these almost uniformly empty shops and genteel, indulgent shopkeepers might well be a live show in an anthropological museum.

 

In Chitpur’s Muslim section, there are references to a mythic Mughal connection. The Muslim lower-middle-class of this area, of course, never had much in common, even historically or culturally, with the great rulers of Hindustan and their ways of living and eating. But when a hole-in-the-hall eatery displays an advertisement board reading “Ahd-e-Mughaliya ka yaad taza kaarein” (Refresh the memory of Mughal times), the lingering appeal of claiming connection with what was arguably the greatest period of Muslim cultural richness is clear.

 

After crossing Mahatma Gandhi Road, the change of the outward character of shops from the Muslim section to the Hindu one is a drastic one, not only in shop names but in wares, too. Moradabadi stores give way to Bikaner Bhujiawalas. Suddenly there are no more lungi shops or itr khanas (perfumeries). Khaini sellers replace hookah shops. Street vendors selling paan, durba grass, mango leaf and other signifiers of Hindu rituals are suddenly conspicuous, as are swastikas as the omnipresent emblem of faith, whether of one kind or another. There is even a nuanced change in the character of street foods – vendors of dates, kulfis and sheek kebabs give way to phuchka and masala muri.

 

The bustling streets thin slightly during early evening prayers of the Muslims. Those that had just concluded their prayers go in groups into the Aminia, one of the oldest Muslim eateries in Calcutta. Others are hurrying from the Mahatma Gandhi end to the Lalbazaar end, using Chitpur merely as a conduit. Meanwhile, the cordial, smiling shopkeepers sit in their shops, and watch the city with an air of ambivalence. For our part, we too sit and watch this complex flow. In the smells of unidentifiable spices and roasting meat, in the fleeting reflections on the polished silvers and brasses of hookahs and massive pots and pans, we too catch a glimpse of life governed by a different ethos of trade – one in which interactions are personal, time is less of a commodity, and aspirations to change are not nearly so virulent.

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Filed under Bengal, Faith, Identity, Kolkata, Urbanity

The multiverse of loyalty

[ Himal SouthAsian, May 2007 ; Dhaka Tribune, 7 Feb 2014 ; Shillong Times, 23 Jan 2014 ; Echo of India, 28 Jan 2014 ]

The multiverse of loyalty: ethnicity, state and the Bangladesh-India cricket match.

 

 

For the West Bengali bhadralok, East Bengal continues to represent vastly different things to different people: a Muslim-majority country, an audacious dream of ethnic pride and secularism, a land vaguely culturally similar but distant in imagination, their forefather’s homeland, the place where cyclones aimed at West Bengal finally end up, a hub of ISI activity, the place of origin of the wondrous Ilish fish, the list, of course, goes on. While every West Bengali’s attitude towards East Bengal/Bangladesh is formed from one or more such memories and connotations, many of these have a limited acceptability in standard discourse, particularly in public expression. That does not make them any less potent, however, and forces their manifestation only under very particular instances.

 

One of those instances was 17 March, the day Bangladesh scored its historic win over India in the World Cup cricket match in the West Indies. I watched the Bangladesh-India game in an undergraduate house at Harvard University. With India being the odds-on favourite, the Bangladeshi team was widely expected to take a beating. Since live telecasts of cricket matches are not available on cable TV, the Harvard Cricket Club folks, comprised primarily of Indians (including this writer), had bought a special subscription. Watching along with me were two East Bengali friends. If truth be told, I only watched the Bangladeshi innings because I could not wake up in time for the Indian innings after a late night’s work. Regardless, while I was happy that West Bengal’s own Sourav Ganguly, the Indian team’s former captain, was in the process of scoring the highest number of runs for the Indian side, I was not very happy with the Indian total. But slowly, perhaps as I became more and more caught up in the action on the field that reaction changed.

 

With the Bangladesh Tigers prowling all over, I felt the first of many alarm bells going off in my head. I was surrounded by non-Bengali supporters of India, who were cursing the Indian team for its poor performance. But as the direction of the game became increasingly obvious, I did not really see the coming defeat as my own. In fact, I was busy asking  somewhat quietly and ashamedly questions about the Bangladeshi team: Oi batsman tar nam ki? (What is that batsman’s name?) By the time the match was nearing its end, I had become an unabashed Bangladeshi cheerleader. This led to a few strange stares, but I did not care. Nonetheless, it did all feel a bit odd. My cheers, after all, were not really for good cricket. There was nothing remarkable about a single run taken by Bangladesh, except perhaps that it was bringing the underdog a little closer to a win against the titan. And I was happy, long-forbidden loyalties were having a free ride, and the Bengali (not the West-Bengali Hindu) in me loved that we had won.

 

After the game ended, the general ambience in the room was distinctly dark. But I found that my own mood was not part of the gloom. My East Bengali friends treated me to a pint of beer, and we had a hearty, congratulatory talk. As I walked home that evening, I felt a nagging confusion- not about the anger of the Indians, nor about their reaction to my cheers for Bangladesh. Rather, of my own change of heart. A side of me had opened that only had so much space and time for loyalties. It is an easy call, perhaps, when Ganguly is on the team – he is an Indian Bengali. But even here I was found wanting. And more generally? In the games to come, would I continue to root for the Bangladeshi team? And what did this opening mean for India-Pakistan matches to come?

 

Primordial organic identity

The way that my reaction had publicly changed during the course of the game would have been inconceivable had I been watching the match anywhere within India or Bangladesh. The split self that I harbour and which, I believe, many others do as well , does not have a legitimate space for expression in any but the most liberal of establishments in the Subcontinent. But such dual identities remain within us, deep down in our hearts, where politically correct stances and obeisance to national symbols cannot cast a shadow.

 

Ethnicity is a category, as is identification with a nation state. However, these two differ in one important aspect. A nation state demands explicit loyalty, and de-legitimises everything else; those who balk at this explicit parade of fidelity are at best and parasites at worst, loyal to another nation state. The kind of fealty that ethnicity proposes, I like to believe, is at once more organic and primordial than that demanded by the nation state. In most cases, the loyalties to ethnicity and to nation state do not come into specific conflict with one another. But the varying degrees of distance between the two can be mapped as a continuum. On the one hand is the Naga, for instance, who has no nation state but is held within an all-consuming one, which goes to repressive lengths to extract explicit loyalty. At the same time there is the Hindi belt, an area that can explicitly declare its unflinching loyalty, as the points of declaration in its case do not interfere with claims of ethnicity. The Hindi belt is to the localities the natural claimant of the spot where the Indian pulse is to be felt, something that the rest of India only grudgingly acknowledges.

 

West Bengal is an interesting case in this regard, falling somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Together with the explicit declaration of loyalty to the Indian nation state, we find here a vague understanding and acknowledgement of ethnic kinship with Bangladeshis. But of course, almost all Hindu (and Muslim) West Bengalis would balk at a declaration of loyalty to the state of Bangladesh. And so the split self remains masked. Even among West Bengalis there would be a continuum of the exact extent to which this kinship is felt, irrespective of loyalty to the state of India. It is an interesting and open question: How does the barrier between Muslim and Hindu West Bengalis differ from that between West Bengali Hindus and East Bengali Muslims? For that matter, can any such difference be attributed to allegiance to India? Would the dynamics of West Bengali loyalty to India change if Bangladesh were not a state that bore the primacy of Islam in its Constitution? Further, did Hindu West Bengalis feel clear affinity with the Bangladesh that was still officially ‘secular’ before the 1988 constitutional amendment that made it ‘Islamic’?

 

The day after Bangladesh’s 17 March win, I was reading Sangbad Pratidin, a Bangla daily published in Calcutta. It reported that, following India’s loss, local cricket fans were not as grief-stricken as was the rest of the country. This same story was echoed in the national media. I could not help wondering whether I would have felt as positive as I did if my local Calcutta boy, Sourav Ganguly, had not scored well  indeed, had he not been the highest run-getter among all of the two team’s batsmen. How would I have taken to East Bengali bowlers cutting short Sourav’s innings?

 

Days later, the Bangladeshi team defeated South Africa, the world’s top-ranked squad, doing much to demonstrate that their win against India was not a fluke. West Bengal’s largest-circulating Bangla daily, Anandabazar Patrika, carried huge headlines trumpeting, “Bengalis stun the world’s best”. Bangladesh had the sudden chance of a glory run, and I found that I wanted to cheer it all the way , my conscience perhaps cleared by India’s elimination.

 

United in grief

An inward-looking state experiences great problems with transnational loyalties and animosities associated with those loyalties. Nowhere were the disadvantages of this seen more clearly than in this year’s Cricket World Cup. It is widely acknowledged that Southasia, specifically India and Pakistan, are the lifeblood of commercial cricket (See Himal November 2006, Cricket cooperation). Southasian interests are the major stakeholders in wooing sponsors, popularising the game, worshipping the players, studying the telecasts, watching the ads, performing related ceremonies, baying for the blood of fallen stars, critiquing the teams, purchasing the tickets, buying the players. The majority of this exuberance has not spilled over into other global cricket audiences, except possibly the West Indies in an earlier era.

 

In the 2007 Cricket World Cup, all of this was fantastically played up. India lost unceremoniously to an unrated but spirited Bangladesh. Pakistan lost to Ireland, one of the weakest teams in the series. The drama reached its bizarre crescendo after the Pakistani loss, when the South African coach of the Pakistani team, Bob Woolmer, was found murdered in his hotel room. Rumour had it that Woolmer had learned that the match had been fixed, and that he might have had specific names. The reaction in India and Pakistan was one of shellshock. Normally larger-than-life cricketers came back home as social outlaws under cover of darkness, to avoid the wrath of fans. Allegations flew wildly, as did dispensations on what had gone wrong. India’s coach Greg Chappell resigned days later, checking himself into a hospital, reportedly fearing for his life. Only one player received a hero’s welcome upon his return to India, and that was Sourav Ganguly. Some Bengalis might have taken satisfaction in the thought that they had not been the ones who had lost. In the West Bengal imagination, India had.

 

With an estimated 70 percent of global cricket viewership residing in India and Pakistan, the economic fallout of the losses of these two teams was enormous. International and national corporations had invested tens of millions of dollars in television commercials touting the country’s cricket stars, while broadcasters were charging up to three times more for advertising during Indian games. Following the losses, many advertisers pulled out, with some of the largest attempting to default on contracts. The poor showing from these two teams also hit the host West Indies hard. An overwhelming number of travel and accommodation bookings had been made from India and Pakistan, and their near-simultaneous losses brought in a wave of cancellations and demands for refunds.

 

In the midst of all this, one heard oft-repeated laments of how invincible a combined India-Pakistan team would have been. In sleek television studios, ex-cricket stars frankly criticised their respective cricketing establishments, and even took the liberty of the moment to give advice to the other side. It was one of those rare moments when segments of the Indian and Pakistani populace were united in grief  and even sympathetic to the grief of the other.

 

These losses, however, did not have much direct emotional impact on me. I (along with many others, evidently) was still looking out for Bangladesh, and was finding doing so surprisingly easy. Given the relatively low expectation from Bangladesh, a loss did not bring sadness, but wins were unmistakably joyful. Segments of the Indian and Pakistani audiences may have broadly turned off emotionally from the game, but that only went to show how the ethnic continuums that spread across Southasian borders make it so tricky for the inward-looking nation states of Southasia to promote tendencies of crossborder solidarity.

 

Cricket in Southasia is not a game; it is serious business, and a regular metaphor for public imagination and expression. Cricket has been used as an acid test for loyalty to one’s country. In general, it does not leave much space to reach across and support the neighbours.

 

But primitive loyalties know no political frontiers, however strong the efforts of Southasian states to seek out exclusive loyalties. Rather, this more guttural type of devotion inevitably finds its own space in private imagination; crossborder organic connections, after all, predate the Southasian political landscape – not to mention cricket itself. But what can be used as a tool to solidify loyalty to a nation state can also act as an avenue of private, almost unconscious, subversion. Because the relationship between a country and its citizens has been moulded into one of either loyalty or defiance, this process inevitably comes with guilt.

 

Can we not imagine beyond this? If political identities in Southasia are largely imagined, then forceful transnational identities are potent triggers for an organic re-imagining of the region. Guilt makes the private dissident crave legitimacy, for intimate alternative identities do not like suppression. The dissident can only hope that organic continuities will eventually make states negotiate with transnational loyalties, with the audacious hope that such negotiations will be obligatory to the long-term survival of nation states in Southasia.

 

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Bangladeshi-Pakistani bhai-bhai?

Of course, the Southasian story in 2007 World Cup cricket did not end with the defeats of Pakistan and India. Perhaps just as significant as the losses of those titans were the surprising wins by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But while the series organisers must have prayed that the turn of events from these two teams would successfully retain the interest of the great mass of Indo-Pakistani audiences, they were to be disappointed.

 

There were widespread stories of Indians and other Southasians, once the smarting had subsided, changing their loyalties to cheer for either Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. This regional camaraderie and the denial thereof was unbeknownst to me, until I chanced upon it on the Internet. On a widely used social-networking website, a group of Pakistanis had formed a virtual community to cheer on what they called the ‘East Pakistanis’. This attempt at comradeship, of course, would not sit well with any Bangladeshi. The site called East Pakistan for World Champions included the line, After kicking India’s ass, they take on the world.

 

The forum quickly became a space for nationalist abuse and counter-abuse, all under the guise of sporting solidarity. After anger arose due to Bangladesh being referred to as ‘East Pakistan’, a Pakistani member retorted, ‘Ah, personal insults. I would expect nothing less from you, my less evolved, but still Pakistani brother.’ The thread of this type of baiting continued, with increasingly personal put-downs from both sides.

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