Category Archives: Memory

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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আমি তো এসেছি সার্বভৌম বারোভূঁইয়ার থেকে

“তুমি কে, আমি কে, বাঙালি, বাঙালি!” ( মুক্তিযুদ্ধ পূর্ব্ববর্তী সময়ে গড়ে ওঠা প্রবাদপ্রতিম স্লোগান)

কয় বছর আগে ঢাকার কবি-প্রাবন্ধিক ফারুক ওয়াসিফ কটা কথা বলেছিলো, যা আজকে সৈয়দ সামসুল হককে নিয়ে লিখতে গিয়ে প্রথমেই মনে পড়ছে। ফারুক লিখছে, “এদেশি যারা ইংরেজি লেখা পড়েন, তারা কি বাংলা পড়েন না? অনেকেই পড়েন। উচ্চশ্রেণীর এবাদুর রহমানও বাংলাতেই লিখে থাকেন উচ্চশ্রেণীর জীবন নিয়েই; কিন্তু তাৎপর্যে তা দেশোন্মচনই করে তো! সুতরাং এর মধ্যে শ্রেণীঢং থাকলেও নিছক শ্রেণীর ডাঁট না পুরোটা। এটা হলো কালচার। এই কালচারালাজিম মনে করে, যা কিছু ন্যাটিভ তা নিম্নমানের। ন্যাটিভদের ভাষা ভঙ্গি উপমা ভাব ও কল্পনা এদের টানে না। না টানুক, কিন্তু তাদের নিজেদের মধ্যে টানটা কীসের? লাইফস্টাইলের প্যাটার্ন ছাড়া সেখানেও তো তেমন ঐক্য দেখি না। সুতরাং একে বাংলা বনাম ইংরেজির বিবাদ না ভেবে দেশি ও বিদেশি লাইফস্টাইলের মন কষাকষি ছাড়া আর কিছু ভাবতে পারছি না। এই ‘দেশ’ প্রবাসী লেখকের মনের মধ্যে চিরকাল অটুট থাকতে পারে, আবার ভৌগোলিকভাবে দেশে বাস করা লেখকের মনের মধ্যেও থাকতে পারে প্রবাসের প্রতি বিরহবেদনা। দেশেও কেউ বিদেশি, বিদেশেও কেউ দেশি থেকে যেতে পারেন যদি, তাহলে পার্থক্যটা অভিপ্রায়ের, সংস্কৃতির, চেতনার, কল্পনার, দায়বোধের এবং দিনের শেষে রাজনীতির।”

ফারুকের শেষের কথাটা সবচেয়ে গুরুত্বপূর্ণ, যে পার্থ্যকতা দিনের শেষে রাজনীতির। আজকে পশ্চিম বাংলার প্রেক্ষিতে দাঁড়িয়ে, যখন হিন্দি-হিন্দু-হিন্দুস্তানের আগ্রাসনে লুঠ হয়ে যাচ্ছে ইতিহাস, আত্মপরিচিতি, স্বপ্ন, চেতনা আর এই ব-দ্বীপের হাজার বছরের অর্জনে পবিত্র যা কিছু আছে, এই জোর করে ভুলিয়ে দেওয়া সময়তেই আমাদের দরকার সৈয়দ সামসুল হককে, যার শব্দকে, তার শব্দ যে স্বচেতনা থেকে স্ফূরিত হয়, দরকার সেই স্বচেতনা, কারণ স্বচেতনা দরকার এই বিশ্বে নিজেদের খুঁজে পাওয়ার জন্য, দরকার ভুলিয়ে দেবার মাঝে নিজেদের খুঁজে পাবার জন্য, দরকার বানোয়াট কল্পনার মাঝে বাস্তবের নিরিখে নিজেদের গতকালের চেতনায় নিজেদের আজ-কাল-পরশু ঠিক করা, আজ-কাল-পরশুর রাজনীতি ঠিক করা। বাস্তবের মাটিতে দাঁড়িয়ে নিজেদের খুঁজে পাওয়া জরুরি। বিশ্ব নিখিলে আমাদের আকাশের তলায় একটা স্থান আছে, নিজেদের মাটির উপরে। দূরের খুঁটিকে সেলাম না করে নিজের মাটিতে খুঁটি পুঁতে তার নিরিখে উত্তর-দক্ষিণ নির্ণয় করা, বিশ্বকে চেনা এবং ফলতঃ নিজেদের চেনা।

এই বিশ্ব মানে উপর থেকে দেখা পৃথিবী নয়, বরং নিজেদের স্থানাঙ্ক থেকে যা দেখা যায়, যা বোঝা যায়, এই দেখা ও বোঝার আলোকে নিজেদের বুঝে নেওয়া। কেন্দ্রে রয়েছে আমাদের মাটি। সে প্রসঙ্গে ফারুক আবার বলেছে, “সালমান রুশদীর পুঁজিপাট্টা সবই উপমহাদেশীয়। পামুক কি মোরাকামি এত বিক্রি হয়; কারণ তাদের দেশজতা। অরূন্ধতি রায় কেরালার জীবন নিয়েই নাম কাড়েন। কেননা, বিশ্ব উপন্যাসের মহাফেজখানায় সেটুকুই তো অনাস্বাদিত! দেশবোধকে তাই বোধহয় অস্বীকার করা যায় না। জিয়া হায়দার রহমানের উপন্যাস পড়ছি, তাঁকে দেশহীন মনে হচ্ছে না, যদিও পটভূমি অন্য মহাদেশ। আপনি যদি কোনো সংস্কৃতি ও জীবনকে না বোঝেন, তাহলে আপনি কোথাকার কেউই হতে পারবেন না। লোকাল না হলে গ্লোবালের মজা বুঝবেন না। ব্যক্তির চেতনায় দেশের কল্পনা, দেহ–ভূগোলের স্পর্শ, ইতিহাসের বনলতার চোখে তাকানো ছাড়া বড় কাজ হয় বলে বিশ্বাস করি না। উদাহরণ নাই।”

আমি কবি নই, কবিতার খুব পাঠকও নই, কিন্তু এই বাংলায় বাংলা ও বাঙালির রাজনীতি ও নিজেকে বুঝে নেওয়ার যে আলোক বর্তিকাগুলি, তার মধ্যে আমি অবশ্যই ধারণ করি সৈয়দ শামসুল হককে।

“আমি জন্মেছি বাংলায়
আমি বাংলায় কথা বলি।
আমি বাংলার আলপথ দিয়ে, হাজার বছর চলি।
চলি পলিমাটি কোমলে আমার চলার চিহ্ন ফেলে।
তেরশত নদী শুধায় আমাকে, কোথা থেকে তুমি এলে ?
আমি তো এসেছি চর্যাপদের অক্ষরগুলো থেকে
আমি তো এসেছি সওদাগরের ডিঙার বহর থেকে।
আমি তো এসেছি কৈবর্তের বিদ্রোহী গ্রাম থেকে
আমি তো এসেছি পালযুগ নামে চিত্রকলার থেকে।
এসেছি বাঙালি পাহাড়পুরের বৌদ্ধবিহার থেকে
এসেছি বাঙালি জোড়বাংলার মন্দির বেদি থেকে।
এসেছি বাঙালি বরেন্দ্রভূমে সোনা মসজিদ থেকে
এসেছি বাঙালি আউল-বাউল মাটির দেউল থেকে।
আমি তো এসেছি সার্বভৌম বারোভূঁইয়ার থেকে”

সৈয়দ শামসুল হকের শব্দগুলি আমাদের সুযোগ করে দেয় ভাবতে – আমরা মানে কারা, কেন আমার রাষ্ট্র আমার করের টাকায় অন্যের ভাষা প্রচার করে কিনতু আমারটা করেনা। আমাদের ভেবে দেখতে হবে যে আমাদের নিজের নিপীড়িত মাতা থাকতে বিমাতাকে পূজা করতেশেখায় যে রাষ্ট্র, সে রাষ্ট্র কার আর সে রাষ্ট্র কার নয়। আমরা পশ্চিম বাংলার বাঙ্গালী – বাংলার দেশের (বাংলাদেশ রাষ্ট্রের নয়) ভাঙ্গা পশ্চিম ভাগ। এই ভাষা আমাদেরও প্রাণের ভাষা, বেঁচে থাকার অবলম্বন, ভালবাসার মাধ্যম, পূর্বসুরীর স্মৃতি, উত্তরসুরীর উত্তরাধিকার, ব্রতের ভাষা- ধর্মের ভাষা-রাজনীতির ভাষা- ঘাম ঝড়ানো কর্মের ভাষা – প্রেমের ভাষা- ফোপানোর ভাষা – খোঁটার ভাষা – অপরাধের ভাষা- দাঙ্গার ভাষা- যৌনতার ভাষা -না বলা কথার ভাষা – ভুলে যাওয়া দিনের ভাষা – আগামীকালের ভাষা- শপথের ভাষা -মুক্তির ভাষা। আমরা বাঙ্গালী।

এই পশ্চিম বাংলার আমরা, আমরা তো বানের জলে ভেসে আসিনি। আমাদের একটা অতীত আছে। সৈয়দ শামসুল হক দেন সে অতিচেতনা, দীর্ঘ, বহুত্ববাদী সে অতিচেতনা, বাঙালি সে অতীত চেতনা। এবং আজ যখন আমরা এই বাংলার স্বাধিকার তথা সম্মানের এক কঠিন লড়াই-এর দিকে অগ্রসর হচ্ছি, তখন পাথেয় থাকুন সৈয়দ শামসুল হক। কারণ উনি আমার জাতির। উনি ওনার কবিতায় আমার কথা বলেছেন। আমি ওনার লাইনে আমার কথা শুনেছি। কান পেতে শুনেছি, সে লাইনের মধ্যে রাজনৈতিক নির্দেশ। মননজগতে আমাদের সার্বভৌমত্বের প্রতীক কবি সৈয়দ শামসুল হক চলে গেলেন। উনি অক্ষয় স্বর্গ লাভ করুন। আমাদের জন্য রেখে গেলেন অনেক নির্মাণের গুরুদায়িত্ব। অনেক পথ চলা বাকি। অনেক প্রাচীর ভাঙা বাকি। অনেক প্রাচীর গড়া বাকি। আমরা চেষ্টা করবো কবি।

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Netaji and the politics of legacy and memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

January on Jessore Road / The besieged Hindus of Bangladesh

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

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

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

They’ve just blown around from town to town

Till they’re back out on these fields

Where they fall from my hand

Back into the dirt of this hard land”

– Bruce Springsteen, This Hard Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

সুধাংশু যাবে না

–শামসুর রাহমান

লুণ্ঠিত মন্দির, আর অগ্নিদগ্ধ বাস্তুভিটা থেকে

একটি বিবাগী স্বর সুধাংশুকে ছুঁলো

‘আখেরে কি তুলি চলে যাবে?’ বেলা শেষে

সুধাংশু ভস্মের মাঝে খুঁজে

বেড়ায় দলিল, ভাঙা চুড়ি, সিঁদুরের স্তব্ধ কৌটা,

স্মৃতির বিক্ষিপ্ত পুঁতিমালা।

স্বর বলে, ‘লুটেরা তোমাকে জব্দ ক’রে

ফেলে আশে পাশে

তোমার জীবনে নিত্যদিন লেপ্টে থাকে

পশুর চেহারা সহ ঘাতকের ছায়া,

আতঙ্কের বাদুড় পাখার নিচে কাটাচ্ছ প্রহর,

তবু তুমি যেও না সুধাংশু।’

আকাশের নীলিমা এখনো

হয়নি ফেরারি, শুদ্ধাচারী গাছপালা

আজও সবুজের

পতাকা ওড়ায়,

ভরা নদীকোমর বাঁকায় তন্বী বেদিনীর মতো।

এ পবিত্র মাটি ছেড়ে কখনো কোথাও

পরাজিত সৈনিকের মতো

সুধাংশু যাবে না।

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

An unearthly voice vibrates in Sudhanshu

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

Sudhanshu gropes amidst cinders

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

The dog-eared scatters of manuscripts in memory.

The phantom says, ‘The plunderer has beaten you

Here and there

Your daylight clings to

An animal outline ambushed by a murderer’s mien,

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

Despite all, do not leave, oh Sudhanshu.’

The blue of this sky is yet to

Diminish, the sacred trees

Are yet flying green

Banners, the copious river

Meanders her waist like a slim snakecharmer lass.

He won’t abandon this sacred earth for elsewhere,

Unlike a retreating soldier in defeat,

Sudhanshu would forever not leave

– Shamsur Rahman

(Gargi Bhattacharya translated the poem from the Bengali original)

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

Mine is bigger / Heights of silence

[ Outlook, 9 Dec 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Death of a general / The unconquered General Giap

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

‘Amar nam, tomar naam,

Vietnam, Vietnam’

(Your name, my name, Vietnam, Vietnam)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Beyond Anglo-trade and Anglo-aid

[ Daily News and Analysis, 12 Nov 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Elite, History, India, Jal Jangal Zameen, Memory, Non-barbarians, Power, Scars, The perfumed ones, Under the skin

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

It was the night of July 10th

[ Daily News and Analysis (Mumbai) 17 Jul 2012 ]

 

How many are angry at the Guwahati road-strip?

How many men would say that if this happened to their sister, they would kill the wolves with their own hands?

How many would want that fate for the Guwahati lions?

Since it is Assam, how many were Muslims?

Did you wonder?

You did not?

Did you see the video?

Were the clothes torn?

Could one see anything?

Were you outraged?

How many of the outraged did not find the video that good?

How many of them wished that the video were not pixellated?

How many of them will feel on camera that they feel ashamed as an ‘Indian’?

By how much will the number of searches for “guwahati molestation video” go up?

Have you searched for it today?

Did you find it?

Could you share it?

Please?

Who else downloaded it?

Someone I know?

Me?

How could you even think?

What about the fathers of the women whose opinion were sought on camera in different metros on this matter?

Even dads are tech-savvy nowadays, no?

Does anyone know the girl’s name?

Does she have a Facebook account?

Any photos there?

What do the papers say?

Any details?

What happened?

I mean, in detail, what happened?

What did they do?

Who did what first?

Next who did what next?

Cant the press-wallahs make out from the unpixellated version?

Cant they write a transcript?

Where? How? How next?

How else are we supposed to make image sequences in our minds?

Did the local MP give a statement?

What about the DGP?

Why did the police not arrive in time?

By the way, which organization has the greatest number of rape and molestation allegations against it?

The Police?

The Army?

It cant be the Air Force, can it?

May be the Border Security Force?

Or the Assam Rifles?

Are 50 policemen safer than 50 men on the street?

Are 50 army men safer than 50 policemen on duty?

Is the Border Security Force safest of them all?

But Guwahati is far away from the border, isn’t it?

But all places in the ‘North East’ are near the border, aren’t they?

Did they do a background check on her?

On whom?

The northeast girl, who else?

Does it matter who she was?

Isnt it enough that she was assaulted in ‘full public view’?

Isnt it shameful that no one else came to her rescue?

Wouldn’t you, if you were there?

Didn’t everyone say on camera that they would run to her rescue?

What if she were a terrorist?

Islamic? Secessionist? Marxist?

Marxist-secessionist?

What is that?

Like Manipur PLA?

Would the MP still give a statement?

What if the creatures jostling for a piece of her were men in uniforms?

Would the photographer have given the footage to the press?

Where would then be the phone calls from all over?

Would we still have 2 hour show on NDTV?

Remember Manorama?

Did incredible India come to her rescue?

Does outraged India’s outrage melt at the sight of the patriotic Khaki?

Does it want to know why one family was mourning through the whole day of July 10th like it has been mourning for the last 8 years?

Thangjam Manorama, Devi.

Picked up by the Assam Rifles late in the night of July 10th.

2004. Raped. Killed.

It has been 8 years.

 

How will the hangman hang himself?

How will the shooting squad shoot themselves?

Nothing hides selective rage better than a tri-colour blinder.

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Filed under Army / police, Media, Memory, Our underbellies, Scars, Terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lest we forget the dead of 1943 : known deaths, hidden genocide

[ Sakaal Times ( Pune) – 2nd Nov 2010 , Daily Times (Lahore) – 2nd Nov 2010, Daily Star (Dhaka) – 6th Nov 2010, The Bangladesh Today (Dhaka) – 8th Nov 2010 ]

In late October ended 70 years ago, the Battle of Britain. Britain roughed through a barrage of Nazi assault. I read about it and thought about the glory of Britain at that hour, of Churchill’s leadership.I was in awe – shabash Britain.I am sure many people from privileged circles in India of the time were also relieved.I can trace this strain  back in a life and it is interesting to me – how that has changed and how I have changed. I grew up in Kolkata in West Bengal and I do not know where it came from, but an explicit respect, admiration and even aspiration to many things British was there. The same thought, said in English, sounded better, respectable than in my mother tongue, Bangla.Then at a slightly later stage, I learned about the Second World War, how Britain and the Allies were fighting a life and death battle for not for its survival, but for saving the world from Nazi and Fascist dictatorships. The British were occupiers, colonizers no doubt, but they were benign, I learned. The Britishers who plundered Bengal post 1757 , or for that matter the Britishers who killed Khudiram or mutilated the thumbs of weavers of Murshidabad, were not the paternalistic civil servants of the 1930s and 40s. They understood and empathized, thought we were almost humans or would get there soon. And compared to the Nazis who killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, gays and others, the British regime was so much for compassionate.We were taught that- I learned that. All the major Indian political forces, the Congress , the Muslim League and the Communist Party, collaborated with the British, collected war funds. India’s political freedom could wait- these were , after all, times of global danger. Atleast there was no planned genocide in India during the world like what the German regime of the time. Or was there?

Doubts started creeping in. This viewpoint that there was a benign colonial occupation during the last phases of the British regime in India, is something which many today maintain.They also point to red-brick railway stations, old government buildings and universities and the ridiculous white wig of court judges – transportation, education, justice. The works. We had been saved, verily. The gods forbid what would have happened if the Nazis or the Japanese came. To me there is nothing more fundamental as a marker of humanity than dignity and commitment towards the preservation of human life.The Nazis had a pathetic record on this count. The British were worse, and except 1770, never more so than in that high noon of solidarity with Britain, during the Second World War.

We have been fed a steady diet about the crimes of mass murders by grain requisitioning and other methods by the regimes of Stalin and Mao.There may be some dispute about the numbers but those supreme acts of inhuman criminality have been bested by the British regime in my Bengal. In the induced famine of 1770 ( 1176 of the Bangla calendar, hence Chhiyattorer monnontor – the famine of 76), British  oppression policies, including but not limited to taxes and grain monopolies, killed 1/3 rd of my people – 10 million of them. In April 1770, as the famine reached its height, land tax assessment for the next year was increased by 10% after a 5 fold increase since the British usurpation of power. Around 1770, the world population was approximately 800 million.The British managed to kill off more than 1% of the world’s population.The Nazis in their grand visions of cleansing managed to match this- they killed civilians to the tune of 1-2% of the world population, in the whole Second World War period.But the British killed too. And they killed us, here in Bengal. We raised money to help Churchill do that.

3 million humans were killed in and around Bengal, by Britisher and grain-hoarders. Explicit decision was taken at the highest level of the British government to kill Indians by shipping stupendous quantities of grain stocks for the armies in Europe and to feed humans in Britain.This has been exquisitely documented recently by Madhusree Mukherjee in her book, Churchill’s secret war.The provisional government of Free India, led by Subhas Chandra Bose made an offer of sending 100000 tonnes of rice as assistance.This was during the Burma campaign.Our non-Nazi benign lords refused it. The armies were fighting the war after all. Our war, indeed.Our army.The brown officers of the Indian Army earned their medals from the British for the collaboration.And the show went on. During the whole period of war, the number of civilian deaths due to war and repression in the Britain was approximately 67000. In Bengal alone in 1943-44, it was 3 million. It is with the survivors sadness than we have been so dehumanized to go so far as to compare death numbers to demand justice, accountability and yes, reparation.

It is in perfect order to want reparation from Britain.It is not an unheard thing.West Germany gave reparations to Israel due to its genocide of Jews.The gypsies have not go reparation – they do not have a country and they are persecuted everywhere.But what about our countries- India and Bangladesh? Do our governments have any vision of compassion and a spine? To build a world, where killers of people will not go scot-free but will be shamed and humiliated is what the humanity of the brutalizer’s stock and the sons and daughters of the accidental survivors among the brutalized must demand.Be it war or genocide- people who kill, must atone for their sins, in terms set by the brutalized.We shall not forget genocides. At least this the dead demand from us, the survivors.

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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