Category Archives: Open futures

গোবিন্দ হালদারের নিষিদ্ধ ফিসফিস

সে যতই দেখনদারী হোক, সম্প্রতি মুখ্যমন্ত্রী মমতা ব্যানার্জীর ওপার বাংলায় যাত্রার ফলে কিছু সম্ভাবনার সৃষ্টি হয়েছে – যার মধ্যে গুরুত্বপূর্ণ হলো তৃতীয় পক্ষের মধ্যস্থতা ছাড়াই একটি জাতির দুই বিভক্ত অংশের একে অপরের দিকে নতুন করে তাকানো। এই বিভক্তির কারণের মধ্যে, তার ঠিক-ভুলের মধ্যে না গিয়েও একটা কথা বলা যায়। দেশভাগ ও তার পরেও ঘটতে থাকা খুন-ধর্ষণ-ধর্মান্তরকরণ-লুঠ-ঘরপোড়ানো-সম্পত্তিদখল ইত্যাদি ভয়ানকের অপরাধের শাস্তি হয়নি, এপারেও – ওপারেও। এই আদি পেপার বোঝা সুদে-আসলে এতই ভারী যে মানুষ সেই বোঝাকে ফেলে দিয়ে ভুলেই গেছে পাপের কথা। প্রায়শ্চিত্ত তো দূরস্থান।

১৯৪৭-এর বাংলা-ভাগের সাথে ব্রিটিশদের দ্বারা উপমহাদেশের শক্তিশালী গোষ্ঠীগুলির হাতে যে ক্ষমতা হস্তান্তর হয়েছিল, আজকের ইন্ডিয়ান ইউনিয়ন, পাকিস্তান, গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশ এক অর্থে তার-ই ফসল। এই ভাগের সাথে সাথেই ‘আমরা’ কারা ,’বন্ধু’ কারা ’, ‘শত্রু’ কারা- এগুলির নানা মিথ রচনার বীজ পোঁতা হয়, যার থেকে বেরোনো মহীরুহ আজকের দিনে আমাদের মনকে, আমাদের কল্পনাকে একদম আষ্টেপৃষ্ঠে জড়িয়ে ফেলেছে। নতুন রাষ্ট্রের পেটের গভীর থেকে জন্মানো এই কল্পকাহিনীগুলি যে আজ পবিত্র সত্যের স্থান নিয়েছে, তা শুধু গল্পের ভাবের জোরে নয়। সরকারী প্রচার এবং সরকারী বাহিনী, ঘুষ ও শাসানি, আঁচড় ও আদর, পুরস্কার ও থার্ড ডিগ্রী, জন্মবার্ষিকী উদযাপন ও মিথ্যা মামলায় হাজতবাসের এক অসামান্য সংমিশ্রনেই আজকের পবিত্রতা, সংহতি, ‘বিকাশ’, রাষ্ট্রপ্রেমের জন্ম (দেশপ্রেমের নয়)। সাবালক এই সব বিষবৃক্ষের রসালো ফলের আমার দৈনিক কাস্টমার। দেশভাগ পরবর্তী সময়ে, আমাদের স্বকীয় আত্মপরিচিতকে পিটিয়ে পিটিয়ে রাষ্ট্রীয় ছাঁচে ঢোকানো হয়েছে দিল্লী, ইসলামাবাদ ও ঢাকার মাতব্বরদের স্বার্থে। মানুষের আত্মাকে কেটে সাইজ করা হয়েছে রাষ্ট্রীয় স্বার্থ ও রাষ্ট্রীয় সুরক্ষার জুজু দেখিয়ে। এই পাপ বঙ্গোপসাগরের থেকেও গভীর।

আমাদের কল্পনা ও স্মৃতির অগভীরতার কারণে আমরা মনে করি যে এক রাষ্ট্রের প্রতি আনুগত্য বোধয় দৈব নির্ধারিত কোন ‘প্রাকৃতিক’ নিয়ম যা না মানলে আমরা দুনম্বরী বিশ্বাসঘাতক মানুষ। যাদের আনুগত্য, টান ও ভালবাসা রাষ্ট্র-সীমান্ত পেরোলে ঝুপ করে উবে যায় না, তারা বুঝিবা মানসিক বিকারগ্রস্ত এবং রাষ্ট্রের চোখে নেমকহারাম। রোজ এই ধারণাগুলিকে বিনা বাক্যে মেনে দিয়ে আমরা আমাদের এই মর্ত্যলোকে স্বল্প সময়ের জীবনকে করে তুলি ঘৃণাময়, ভীতিময়, কুঁকড়ে থাকা। ১৯৭১-এ কিছু সময়ের জন্য পূর্ব বাংলার মুক্তিসংগ্রামের সময়ে এপার বাংলায় এরকম অনেক তথাকথিত বিকার চোরাগলি ছেড়ে রাজপথে মুখ দেখানোর সাহস ও সুযোগ পেয়েছিল। এ সত্যি যে ১৯৭১-এ ইন্ডিয়ান উনীয়নের নানা এলাকায় পূর্ব বাংলার স্বাধীনতা সংগ্রামের জন্য সমর্থন ও সাহায্য ছিল। কিন্তু পশ্চিম বাংলায় এই সাহায্যের আড়ালে যে আবেগের প্রকাশ ঘটেছিল, তা আজকের ডেটল-ধোয়া ভারত-বাংলাদেশ আন্তর্রাষ্ট্রিক সম্পর্কের পবিত্র গণ্ডির বাইরের এক প্রায়-নিষিদ্ধ জিনিস। পশ্চিমবঙ্গের সাথে পূর্ববঙ্গের যে একাত্তুরে ‘ঘনিষ্টতা’, তার সাথে কর্ণাটকের সাথে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের ঘনিষ্টতা বা কর্ণাটকের সাথে পূর্ববঙ্গের ঘনিষ্টতার কোন মিল নেই। এই মিল-অমিলের অঙ্ক মেলাতেই তো ঘনঘন বেজে ওঠে জাতীয় সঙ্গীত, যাতে এরম চিন্তা গুলিয়ে যায় মিলিটারি ব্যান্ডের আওয়াজে। দিল্লি-ও একাত্তরে ভালই জানত এসব ‘নিষিদ্ধ’ প্রেমের কথা – কিন্তু এই প্রেম তখন তার রাষ্ট্রীয় স্বার্থের পক্ষে কাজ করেছিল বলে বাড়তে দিয়েছিল কিছুদিন অন্যদিকে তাকুয়ে, তারপর রাশ টেনে সমঝে দিয়েছিল সময়মত। এই আচরণেরও অন্য উদাহরণ আছে। যেমন তামিল নাদুর বিধানসভায় শ্রীলংকার ইলম তামিলদের সমর্থনে যেসব প্রস্তাব পাশ হয়, তা নিয়ে দিল্লীর নিস্তব্ধতা – যেন দেখেও দেখছে না। যেমন কাবুল ও পেশোওয়ারের মধ্যে যে ঠান্ডা-গরম পাখতুন বন্ধন ও তা নিয়ে আজকে ইসলামাবাদের চাপা ভীতি।

১৯৭১ অবশ্যই অতীত। সেই ‘নিষিদ্ধ’ প্রেম আমরা কবে বন্ধক দিয়েছি বেঙ্গালোর-দিল্লী-নয়ডা-গুরগাঁও স্বপ্নে বিভোর হয়ে। তাই তো আজ, আমরা, এই বাংলায়, দিল্লির থেকে ধার করা চশমায় পূব দিকে তাকাই আর দেখি – গরুপাচারকারীর মুখ, অবৈধ অনুপ্রবেশকারীর মিছিল, হিন্দু বাঙালির শেষ আশ্রয়স্থল হোমল্যান্ডটিকেও জনসংখ্যার বিন্যাসে কেড়ে নেওয়ার দীর্ঘমেয়াদী ষড়যন্ত্র। এই সবই কিছু ঠিক, কিছু ভুল, কিন্তু সেসব ঠিক-ভুলের পরেও মধ্যে লুটোয় দিগন্তজোড়া বাংলাদেশের মাঠ, যে মাঠ শুধু গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশের মাঠ নয়, বরং নিখিল বাংলাদেশের মাঠ। সে উত্তরাধিকার আজ প্রায় তামাদি।

বিগতকালের এই যে সম্পর্ক, যার শেষ প্রতিভুদের একজন এই গোবিন্দ হালদার। একরাষ্ট্রের আনুগত্যে বাঁধা আমরা, তাই এ প্রেমের কথা কেউ প্রকাশ্যে স্বীকার পায় না। এ সম্পর্ক – তা ঠিক পরকীয়া নয়, বরং এমন এক প্রেম যার শুরুর পরে প্রেমিক হয়েছে বিভাজিত। আর প্রেমিকার প্রেম থেকে গেছে একইরকম। কিন্ত অন্যের চোখে সে দুই প্রেমিকের প্রেমিকা, এবং কলঙ্কিনী। এমনই এক প্রেমিকা ছিলেন গোবিন্দ হালদার। গত ১৭ জানুয়ারী, ৮৪ বছর বয়সে মারা গেলেন অতি সাধারণ এক হাসপাতালে। অবিভক্ত যশোর জেলার বনগাঁ এলাকায় জন্ম।বনগাঁ ‘পড়ে’ ‘ইন্ডিয়ায়’।আকাশবাণীর জন্য গান লিখেছেন। একাত্তরে গুরুত্বপূর্ণ ভূমিকা নিয়েছিল আকাশবাণী কলকাতা। পরে যুদ্ধকালীন স্বাধীন বাংলাদেশ সরকার প্রতিষ্ঠিত হলে তার স্বাধীন বাংলা বেতার কেন্দ্রের জন্য প্রচুর গান লেখেন যা মুক্তিযুদ্ধের সময়ে মুক্তিযোদ্ধাদের ও পূর্ব বাংলার জনগণের মুখের গান, প্রাণের গান হয়ে ওঠে। মোরা একটি ফুল বাঁচাবো বলে যুদ্ধ করি, পূর্ব দিগন্তে সূর্য্য উঠেছে রক্ত লাল, পদ্মা মেঘনা যমুনা তোমার আমার ঠিকানা – এগুলি তার প্রবাদপ্রতিম রচনা। শ্রোতার ভোটে তৈরী বিবিসি রেডিওর সর্বকালের সেরা ১০টি বাংলা গানের তালিকায় তার দুটি গান উপস্থিত। এই লোকটি মারা গেল, কোন বঙ্গশ্রী, পদ্মশ্রী ছাড়াই। আসলে সে ঠিক গান লিখেছিল ‘ভুল’ রাষ্ট্রের জন্য। তাই এপারে তার কল্কে নেই। আমাদের মধ্যেই ছিলেন এতদিন। জানতে চেষ্টাও করিনি, কারণ রাষ্ট্রর ক্ষমতা যত বেড়েছে, তা আমাদের মানুষ হিসেবে ছোট করে দিয়েছে। স্বাধীন বাংলা বেতার কেন্দ্র-ও একাত্তরে গোবিন্দ হালদারের নাম ফলাও করত না – সে ‘ভুল’ রাষ্ট্রের যে। পরে ঋণ শোধের চেষ্টা হয়েছে। গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশের প্রধানমন্ত্রী শেখ হাসিনা তার চিকিত্সার খরচ পাঠিয়েছেন, সরকার পুরস্কৃত করেছেন, রাষ্ট্রপতি আব্দুল হামিদ কলকাতায় মৃত্যুপথযাত্রী গোবিন্দ হালদারকে দেখে গেছেন। আমার কাছে একটা ছবি আছে – বৃদ্ধ গোবিন্দ হালদার বাংলাদেশের পতাকা নিজের বুকের কাছে ধরে আছেন। পার্টিশন এলাকার যারা নন, একদেশ-একজাতি-একরাষ্ট্র রাষ্ট্রের গর্বে বলিয়ান যারা, হয়ত ভাগ্যশালী তারা,কিন্তু তাদের কি করে বোঝাব এসব ? হয়ত তারা বুঝবে পরজনমে, রাধা হয়ে। তখুন হয়তো তারা অনুভব করবে গোবিন্দ হালদারদের দেশের ঠিকানা।

কেউ কেউ কিন্তু তলে তলে বোঝে। ঢাকার অভিজিত রায় – খ্যাতিমান মুক্তমনা ব্লগার। ২৬ তারিখে , একুশে বইমেলা থেকে ফেরত আসার সময়ে তাকে রামদা দিয়ে হত্যা করা হলো। তার স্ত্রী রাফিদা আহমেদ বন্যা। দায় নিয়েছে ইসলামী সংগঠন আনসার বাংলা-৭। প্রতিবাদে এ বাংলার কিছু মানুষ ২৭এই কিন্তু জমায়েত করলেন যাদবপুরে। নিষিদ্ধ প্রেম পরিণত হয় নিষিদ্ধ কান্নায়, কাঁটাতার ভেদী শপথে, চোরাগোপ্তা। সব রং তেরঙ্গায় নেই।

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ Himal Southasian, 26 Aug 2011 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A matter of roads – elite panaceas and encroached commons : Emerging urban dystopias in the Subcontinent / Hope in jaywalkers

[ Himal SouthAsian Jan 2011; The Daily Star (Dhaka) Dec 4 2010; The Daily Mirror ( Colombo) Jan 4 2011; Down to Earth, 15 Oct 2013]

“ I have been to Houston and other American cities. Europe too. Traffic is fast. People wait for the traffic signal to walk. They are so disciplined.There are few people walking anyways. When will Kolkata become like that? Possibly never. Not with people like this. Not with so many people.They are not fit for a modern city.”

There is a certain angst at play when some look at Western cities and then look at cities of the subcontinent like Kolkata or Dhaka, only to sigh deeply (I exclude ‘planned’ dystopias like New Delhi from this discussion as they represent the defanging of the people at a very different level. I write about cities where there is still hope and obstinacy). Slow traffic, roads  of inadequate width, people on the streets, non-observance of traffic rules are cited as major reasons. Add to that rickshaws and bicycles – and  Paris like traffic looks like a perfectly unattainable dream. At this point, the nature of the voiced solutions should be predictable – widening of roads in the city but not tearing down middle-class homes, getting people off the streets by tightening and enforcing traffic rules and possibly, keeping rickshaws and bicycles off the busier areas. If some are already mentally nodding in agreement by now, there is something deeply troubling about the nature of imagination of our city we have, including the idea of urban citizenship, who is included in that imagination, who is not, who is the city for.

Among the upwardly mobile in the cities of the Subcontinent as elsewhere in the Southern World, there is an evolving homogenizing vision of what the future of global urbanity should look like – who is included, who is not. This vision has been long in the making , expressed privately in frustration at drawing rooms – now this progressively exclusive vision has the confidence of being forthright about itself, under the garb of urban  development  in the new century.

As a counter-force to this restrictive idea of urban citizenship,  one might ask, who  does the city really belong to?  And whether one likes it, cringes at it, celebrates it or wants them gone – some facts are worth mentioning. At least 40% of the population megalopolises of India like Kolkata and at least 50% of Dhaka live in slums (bostee). Slums are not only the underbelly of a city, they are a living critique of the dominant socio-political order of the sun-lit city. Hence the question of roads and traffic and the typical set of wants and frustrations that the elites express about the city is really another extended stage where the contestation of the question of ownership of the city is acted out. In such a contest, there really is a more plural view of the city from one side as opposed to a restrictive view – no slum ever dares or imagines that it will gobble up the quarters of the perfumed. The city that the slum and the lower middle-class imagines necessarily includes those who want to see the slums gone from the city and the jaywalkers gone from the street. The dominant urban vision has no time or imagination for such plurality in vision. The city that the perfumed classes of the Subcontinent want almost never looks like the city they live in. Many are ashamed of it. I grew up and lived in Chetla – a locality in Kolkata that is not really throbbing , in short, not ‘posh’. Some of the unfortunate ‘posh’ people who lived there used to say they lived ‘near New Alipore’ – New Alipore being a ‘posh’ area where much fewer people wearing lungi and brushing their teeth in the morning on the street could be found.This has interesting implications about how adjusted one is to reality in its full import. I wonder what some of these maladjusted would have thought about their great-grand father from the village, garu (water carrying vessel)  in hand, crossing a meadow in the morning to defaecate in the field but that is another question.

Given this, in contemporary times, the thrusts towards “cleaning-up” the cities and its streets have something holy at its core – distributive injustice. The city’s commons belong to everyone and so do its streets. The streets being common property to be used for transport, it deems fit that the proportion of a metalled road to footpath or side-walk in a given street should be commensurate with the nature of use. The proportion of people using the footpath to the proportion of people on cars on the streets are a good indicator of how common transport-intended land is to be divided in general , with adjustment space for specific situations. But has anyone every heard of footpath widening as opposed to road-widening ? What is especially ironic is how the shrinking , unmaintained footpath has become lower priority in the urban development discourse – this development is really a staking out of territory for some, the nature of thrust showing who is in charge. Footpaths are fast becoming in the mind of the upwardly mobile what government hospitals have already become to them – places they do not go to and hence they do not care about. Given its restrictive view of the urban future, the group wants to mark out a city for its own, within the city.This progressive loss of free walking space and the sophisticated and exclusionary plans of “urban development” represents this thrust to mark out a city for people-like-them, with ‘cleaner’ habits, ‘orderly’ manners and ‘refined’ sensibilities. There is an barely implicit collective will, laced with power and interest, and when those things combine, there surely is a way. The arc of that way, bends sharply towards to the interests of the new mandarins of the city- in whose vision, an increasing proportion of the city dwellers are quasi-traspassers.

In a situation where much of the city is considered trespassers to be avoided and given the stupendous majority of the city being formed by such ‘quasi-trespassers’, one sees the perfumed classes conjuring up a feeling of being besieged and finding ‘order’ and ‘security’ in that spectacular physical expression of this maladjustment to the living ecology of a city – the gated communities. An entire generation is growing up with limited or no consciousness of the bostee, jhupri, khalpar and rail-line jhupris and udbastu ( refugee) colonies. This lack of consciousness is not because they do not exist in the city, but the elites have now managed to carve off a sterilized existence where much of the city dare not show itself. Gated communities are also gates in the mind. All this would not have mattered if these elites were not disproportionately influential in conceiving the future of the whole city and not only their gated communities. Although these people have their gated communities, to much gritting of  teeth, there are not many gated roads – at least, not yet.

By top-down orders, increasing number of streets in Kolkata have seen bicycles being banned from plying on certain streets and consequent harassment of the bicyclists. Something is to be said of this ‘sanitization’ of streets of non-motorized transport. Given that the perfumed ones inhabit the same earth ( if not the same world) as those who smell from armpits, the central question of a sustainable ecological future is not really irrelevant to the future of our cities. Cornel West says that justice is what love looks like in public. In the context of urban resource allocation, distributive justice has to come from love of the city and all its people. This includes the rights of the pedestrian, the thhelawala ( cart-plyer), the bicylist and also the motorized. In case of the motorized, the question of passenger density is conceivably at the heart of the ecological question. With criminalizing non-motor transport and encouraging the rapid expansion of low passenger density private four-wheeler transport – the policy-makers show which world they belong to. They sadly, still belong to the same earth as before.

This brings us to jay-walking.The men and women behind the wheels hate these people- uncouth, running across streets, everywhere. They just keep on coming, running, getting into buses and now, horrendously, into underground railways too. And so there are calls for tightening traffic rules with more punitive fines and calls for more vigilant and numerous traffic police.In the absence of gated streets, at least one can ensure a semblance of that by keeping “jaywalkers” out of the streets. These filthy impediments of the city are partly what go into making the idea of a ‘long-drive’ so inherently appealing for some of the scions of the elite.And of course they also love the greenery in Amazon rain-forests as shown in the National Geographic channel. Some of them have also worn wrist-bands to “Save the Tiger”.

The traffic police make half-hearted attempts to control jay-walking. They recruit from schools with poorer children who spend days volunteering at busy traffic intersections of the city. A gaudy T-shirt from the Traffic Department, a badge of false-self importance saying “Traffic volunteer”, some stale snacks in a packet to take home – we have all seen them. The “Save the Tiger”s have better things to do – studying harder for engineering entrance, now that more seats are ‘reserved’. But the effort is bound to fail – the the hapless homeguard doubling up as traffic police, the child in the gaudy T shirt, their fathers, mothers, uncles, brothers, sisters are right there, right then, somewhere, on some other intersection, jay-walking across the street, holding up progress of fast traffic and smooth urbanity, crossing on to the other side, living to fight another day. No wonder the volunteers and their minders do not push hard, beyond a point. There is the rub- it is not a question of who is jaywalking the streets. Rather it is a mixture of contending ideas of who the city belongs to, of predictable eyesores counter-posed with the want of Paris and Singapores in Kolkata and Dhaka – the stuff of fantasies of resident non-Indians, as Ashis Nandy might put it.

But the jay-walkers keep on walking.The urban-industrial vision of the elites is a totalizing one-it brooks no dissent. It is distinctly irked by every interstice that is unfilled – it deems that as a nuisance at best and a law and order problem at worst. In our cities of ever decreasing interstices, of all crevices having been accounted for by census and survey, watched ever sternly by law, every such act of daily risk-taking, in that act of brisk jay walking restores a measure of dignity to vaunted idea of the city’s commons. In this act, they are joined by ‘other Wests’, like those espoused by the Reclaim the Streets (RTS) collective’s non-violent direct action street reclaiming and those that inspire the massive motor-traffic jamming bicycle-rides of Critical Mass.

I have a feeling that it is in those jay-walkers and in their haphazard trajectories, in their at-times-hesitant-at-times-wanton disregard of the impatiently honking Hyundai Santro, in their collective stoppage of a small fleet of Boleros, Marutis and Indicas to cross the street just in time even though the state has given a green-light, lie the multiple trajectories to plural, open and just futures for our beloved cities.

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Filed under Change, Class, Democracy, Elite, Open futures, Our underbellies, Urbanity