Category Archives: Power

গোলাম আলির গজল সন্ধ্যার নেপথ্য রাজনীতি

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ভাষা, আত্মসম্মান ও অধিকার – পা চাটতে লাগে শুধু জিভ

পুরো দুনিয়া জুড়ে ব্যবসার একটা প্রাথমিক নিয়ম আছে।  ইংরেজিতে এই নিয়ম-কে বলে ‘কাস্টমার ইজ কিং’ অথবা ‘কাস্টমার ইজ  অলওয়েজ রাইট’। এর ভাবার্থ হলো, কোন পরিষেবা দানের ক্ষেত্রে, গ্রাহকের সুবিধে-অসুবিধে, সেইটাই আসল। যে পরিষেবা দিচ্ছে, যেহেতু যে গ্রাহকের থেকে টাকা নিচ্ছে, তাই তার দায়িত্ব হলো গ্রাহক-কে তার সুবিধে মত পরিসেবা দেওয়া। গ্রাহকের কাজ নয় পরিষেবা-দাতার সুবিধে মত ছাঁচে নিজেকে তৈরী করা। দুঃখের বিষয় হলো, নিখিল বাংলাদেশের সর্ববৃহৎ শহর আমাদের এই কলকাতায় এই নিয়মটি বাঙালিদের ক্ষেত্রে খাটে না। একটু ভেঙ্গে বলি।  

সম্প্রতি আমি প্লেনে চেপে চেন্নাই গেছিলাম।  দমদম বিমানবন্দরে পৌছনোর পর ঘোষণায় জানলাম যে গেটটি থেকে প্লেন ছাড়ার কথা ছিল, সেটি পাল্টে গেছে।  আমাকে যেতে হবে আরেকটি গেটে।  অগত্যা তাই গেলাম। আমি ছিলাম প্লেনে ওঠার লাইনের একদম শেষের দিকে।  আমরা সকলে প্রায় প্লেনে উঠে পরেছি তখন দেখলাম একজনকে বেশ ধমক দিতে দিতে একজন এয়ার ইন্ডিয়া কর্মী আমাদের লাইনের দিকে দেখাচ্ছেন।  উনি বেশ অপদস্থ ও লজ্জিত বোধ করে গুটি গুটি আমাদের লাইনের দিকে এগিয়ে এলেন। আমি ওনাকে ব্যাপারটা জিজ্ঞেস করলাম।  উনি আমাকে জানালেন যে উনি বাংলা জানেন কিন্তু ইংরেজি-হিন্দী জানেন না। না জানতেই পারেন। অধিকাংশ বাঙালি-ই ইংরেজি-হিন্দি জানেন না।  বিশ্বজুড়ে অধিকাংশ মানুষই নিজেদের মাতৃভাষা ছাড়া অন্য ভাষা জানেন না। না জানাটা অপরাধ নয়। অধিকাংশ রুশ, অধিকাংশ জাপানি, অধিকাংশ চীনা মানুষ-ই নিজেদের মাতৃভাষাই শুধু জানেন। যেহেতু এই বাংলার সর্ববৃহৎ শহরের সর্ববৃহৎ বিমানবন্দরে এই বাঙ্গালীটি শুধু বাংলা জেনেই ঢুকে পড়েছেন প্লেনে চাপতে, তাই স্রেফ হিন্দি ও ইংরেজি-তে করা ঘোষণাগুলি উনি ঠিক ধরতে পারেননি। ফলে পুরনো গেটেই এদিক সেদিক করছিলেন। তারপর সেখানে চেন্নাই-এর প্লেন ছাড়ার কোন চিহ্ন না দেখে শেষে একে তাকে জিজ্ঞেস করে এই নতুন গেটে এসছেন।  যেহেতু দেরি করে এসছেন, তাই যে এয়ার ইন্ডিয়াকে উনি গুনে গুনে প্লেনে চড়তে অনেক টাকাই দিয়েছেন, তারা তাকে দেরি করার জন্য ধমক দিচ্ছিলেন।  উনি লজ্জা করে আর বলে উঠতে পারেননি যে উনি হিন্দি-ইংরেজি জানেন না।  আসলে লজ্জা পাওয়ার কথা এয়ার ইন্ডিয়ার।  যে কোম্পানি কারুর থেকে কড়ায়গন্ডায় টাকা বুঝে নিয়ে গ্রাহকের নিজের ভাষায় তাকে পরিষেবা দিতে অস্বীকার করে। আর লজ্জা পাওয়ার কথা আমাদের – যারা বাংলায় বসে বাঙালির সাথে এয়ার ইন্ডিয়ার এই হিন্দি-ইংরেজি খবরদারি নীতিকে  স্বাভাবিক মনে করি এবং স্রেফ বাংলা জানা বাঙালির হিন্দি-ইংরেজি না জেনেই তার নিজেদের দেশ বাংলার মাটিতে গড়া বিমানবন্দরে এসে প্লেনে চড়ার ‘ধৃষ্টতা’কে অস্বাভাবিক মনে করি।

আমরা ভারতীয় ইউনিয়ন নাম এক অদ্ভূত রাষ্ট্রের অধীন। এখানে সরকারী এয়ারলাইন কোম্পানি, যা কিনা অনেকের মতই বাঙালির দেওয়া টাকার ভর্তুকি-তে চলে, এলাকার মানুষকে এলাকার ভাষায় পরিষেবা দিতে চায় না। বলে নিয়ম নেই।  আসলে এই নিয়ম ভারত সরকারের।  এ নিয়ম সচেতন।  এ নিয়ম এই রাষ্ট্রে হিন্দি-ইংরেজি ভাষী ছাড়া আর সকলকে দ্বিতীয় শ্রেনীর নাগরিক করে রাখার এক সুপরিকল্পিত ষড়যন্ত্র।  এই নিয়মতন্ত্র চলছে আমার আপনার টাকায়। এই নিয়মকে অনেক উড়ুক্কু বাঙালি সঠিক মনে করেন। আমাদের মতো নির্লজ্জ ও ক্ষমতার পা-চাটা জাত আর হয় না। বাঙালি এলিট-রা এককালে ইংরেজ-দের পা চাটত, এখন তারা পা চাটে দিল্লীর।  এই পা চাটার মাধ্যমেই স্রেফ নামে একটি বাঙালি শ্রেণী সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ প্রাণে-বচনে-যাপনে বাঙালিদের দাবিয়ে রেখেছে। এই শ্রেনীর উত্খাত এমন এক মঙ্গলময় প্রকল্প যাতে বঙ্গলক্ষ্মীর আশীর্বাদ থাকবে বলে আমি নিশ্চিত।

ওই প্লেন যাত্রায় বাঙালির বিড়ম্বনা এখানেই শেষ না।  প্লেন যাচ্ছে বাংলা থেকে তামিল নাডু।  প্লেনের অধিকাংশ যাত্রীর মাতৃভাষা হয় বাংলা কিম্বা তামিল।  কি করে সিট-বেল্ট বাঁধতে হয় থেকে শুরু করে বিপদ হলে কি কি করতে হবে, এমন গুরুত্বপূর্ণ তথ্যগুলি এই সরকারী প্লেনে বাংলা বা তামিল, কোন ভাষাতেই বিমান-সেবিকারা ঘোষণা করলেন না। এমনকি লিখিত অবস্থাতেও সেটি সে তথ্য কথাও ছিল না। যে সরকার তার নীতির অংশ হিসেবে বাঙালি ও তামিলদের সুরক্ষা নির্দেশাবলী শোনায় হিন্দি-তে, সে সরকার আর যাই হোক বাঙালি বা তামিলের প্রাণ ও সুরক্ষা নিয়ে চিন্তিত নয়। তাহলে এ কেন্দ্রীয় সরকার আসলে কার? যাদের ভাষায় তারা সুরক্ষা নির্দেশ দিল, তার। আমার বলতে লজ্জা করছে যে মধ্য-প্রাচ্য থেকে অনেক বিমানে চড়ে আমি কলকাতা এসছি, যেখানে প্লেনের নানা অংশে নানা নির্দেশ (যেমন দরজায় লেখা ‘টানুন’ বা ফ্লাস করতে কোথায় টিপতে হবে) বাংলা-তামিল-হিন্দি-আরবী-ইংরেজি এমন অনেক ভাষায় লেখা থাকে। কেন? তাদের কাছে বিমান একটি পরিষেবা, যেখানে তারা গ্রাহকের সুবিধা করতে চায়। আমার দেশ যে রাষ্ট্রের অধীন, তারা দুরদর্শন থেকে ব্যাঙ্কের পাশবই  থেকে সরকারী বিমানের সুরক্ষা নির্দেশ, সবখানেই হিন্দি প্রচারের মাধ্যমে তেরঙ্গা জাতীয়তাবাদ প্রচারে ব্যস্ত। ঐক্যের মধ্যে বৈচিত্রের স্লোগানের নাম যে জুয়াচুরি অ-হিন্দিভাষীদের সাথে চলেছে দেশভাগের পর থেকে, তার হিসেব কি আমরা নেব না? আমরা নিজেদের কাছে আর কত ছোট হবো? এ কোন একতা যা বজায় রাখতে আত্মসম্মান বন্ধক রাখতে হয়? একতা চাই – এমন একটা, তার পূর্বশর্ত হবে পারস্পরিক সম্মান।

প্লেনে যে ওঠে, সে শুধু বাংলা জানুক বা ইংরেজি পণ্ডিত হোক, নিখিল বাংলাদেশের নিরিখে সে একজন এলিট। সেখানেই যদি ভাষার ক্ষেত্রে এমন করে প্রতিবন্ধকতা সৃষ্টি হয়, একবার ভেবে দেখুন রোজকার সেই অভিজ্ঞতাগুলির কথা – যেখানে বাংলার সীমান্তের বিএসএফ, কলকাতার মেট্রোতে রেল পুলিশ, বর্ধমানে সরকারী বেঙ্কের ম্যানেজার এবং আরো অনেকে যারা নাকি আমাদের ‘পরিসেবা’ দ্যান বাংলা না জেনেই। উত্তরপ্রদেশে হিন্দি না জেনে এই কাজগুলি করতে চাইলে স্থানীয় মানুষ তাদের কি অবস্থা করত, সেটা নাই বললাম। অনেকেই এসব শুনে বলবেন – হিন্দী তো রাষ্ট্রভাষা বা জাতীয়ভাষা। তাদের জানিয়ে রাখি, হিন্দি রাষ্ট্রভাষা নয়, জাতীয় ভাষাও নয়। এগুলি রাষ্ট্র হিতার্থে চালু গুজব। গুজরাট হাইকোর্ট রায়তে জানিয়েছেন যে গুজরাটের ক্ষেত্রে হিন্দী ‘ফরেন’ বা বিদেশী ভাষা। আর রয়েছি আমরা। এমন এক জাতি, যারা কোথাও ঢুকতে গেলে দরজা খুলতে বলিনা, দরজার ফাঁক দিয়ে নিজেকে বেঁকিয়ে গলানোর চেষ্টা করি। এই বাঙালিই বাংলার মাটিতে টেক্সীকে হাত দেখিয়ে হিন্দিতে জিজ্ঞেস করে ‘যায়েগা?’। চম্পারন বা ভোজপুর জেলা কলকাতায় গতর খাটতে আশা আমার সেই টেক্সী-চালক ভাই-এর ভাষা যে হিন্দি নয়, ভোজপুরি, আমরা তাও জানিনা। এও জানিনা যে সে বাংলা বোঝে। দিল্লি-তে তো কত বাঙালি শ্রমিক কাজে যান – কোন হিন্দিভাষী সেখানে তাদেরকে বাংলায় হাঁক দ্যান?

সম্প্রতি মহারাষ্ট্র সরকার নিয়ম করেছেন যে নতুন অটো-রিক্শ পারমিট পেতে হলে মারাঠি বলতে জানতে হবে। কোন প্রতিবাদ হয়নি এ ঘোষণার কারণ এটি স্বাভাবিক। সেখানে অধিকাংশ অটো-চালকের মাতৃভাষা মারাঠি নয়। তারা বাইরে থেকে আসা।  কিন্তু তারা জানে না এক্ষেত্রে যাকে পরিসেবা দেওয়া হচ্ছে, সেটাই অগ্রধিকার পায়। সেই বহিরাগতরাও মারাঠি শিখে নিয়েছে এবং সৎভাবে রোজগার করে খাচ্ছে। এটা এই বাংলায় সম্ভব না। কারণ এর জন্য লাগে আত্মসম্মান ও শিরদাঁড়া।  পা চাটতে লাগে শুধু জিভ।

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বাম্বু ও বিষ্ণু

যে জাতি মাতৃভাষার অধিকার ও সম্মান রক্ষা করতে মানভূমে, ঢাকায়, বরাক উপতক্যায় বারবার রাস্তায় নেমেছে, মার খেয়েছে, মৃত্যুবরণ করেছে, এমনকি দেশ স্বাধীন করেছে, সে জাতির মুখের ভাষার প্রশ্ন যে রাজনৈতিক প্রশ্ন হয়ে ওঠে, সে আর আশ্চর্য কি। তবে পশ্চিমবঙ্গে সাম্প্রতিক কালের যে বিতর্ক দানা বেঁধেছে মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর মুখের ভাষা নিয়ে, তা ঠিক ভাষার অধিকার নিয়ে নয়, সর্বসমক্ষে শালীনতা বজায় রাখার দায়িত্বজ্ঞান নিয়ে। সে কথায় একটু পরে আসব। প্রথমেই বলি আমার নিজের কুল-গরিমা নিয়ে। আমার পিতৃকুল হুগলী জেলার পাটুলিগ্রামের অনেক বহুকালের (মানে বহু শতকের) বাসিন্দা এবং এই ‘দেশ’-এর সঙ্গে এই প্রজন্মেও আমাদের সম্পর্ক বেশ গভীর। আমরা রাঢী ব্রাহ্মণ এবং কৌলিন্যপ্রাপ্ত (অর্থাৎ কুলীন)। আমার পূর্বপুরুষেরা বিবাহ-সুত্রে ফুলিয়া মেল প্রাপ্ত হন। অর্থাৎ হিন্দু-প্রধান পশ্চিমবঙ্গের সামাজিক বিন্যাসে আমরা একদম যাকে বলে টপ-ক্লাস। আমাদের কুলের একজন রায় বাহাদুর ছিলেন, যা কারণে অকারণে (যেমন এখুন) আমরা টুক করে জানিয়ে দিই (ইংরেজিতে যাকে বলে নেমড্রপিং)। এর থেকে একটা জিনিস পরিষ্কার। তা হলো যাকে কিনা কিছু পন্ডিত এক বিশেষ ধরণের ‘সাবল্টার্ন’ বলেন, এবং আমাদের ‘নিজেদের’ মধ্যে চর্চায় বলি ‘ছোটলোক’ (প্রকাশ্যে বলি অন্ত্যজ, ব্রাত্যজন ইত্যাদি ), আমরা আর যাই হই, তা নই। আমার এই কুলেরই আমার প্রিয় এক জ্ঞাতি জ্যাঠামশাই আমাদের পৈতের পরের বছর দুর্গাপূজার সময় এক সংস্কৃত মন্ত্র শেখান। এটি আচমন মন্ত্র। কোনো অস্ট্রিক ব্যাপার স্যাপার নাই। মন্ত্রটি এরকম – ‘ওঁ বিষ্ণু তদ্‌বিষ্ণোঃ পরমং পদং সদা পশ্যন্তি সূরয়ঃ। দিবীব চক্ষুরাততম্‌।। ওঁ বিষ্ণু ওঁ বিষ্ণু ওঁ বিষ্ণু।’ কুলীন টু কুলীন জ্ঞান ট্রান্সফার হিসেবে আমার রসিক জ্যাঠা ফাজিল ভাইপো-কে এর মানে বলেন। ‘ওঁ বিষ্ণু’ অর্থাৎ একটি বাঁশ , তদ্‌বিষ্ণোঃ অর্থাৎ সেই বাঁশ, পরমং পদং সদা পশ্যন্তি অর্থাৎ পরের পশ্চাতে সদা প্রবেশ করাইবে, ইত্যাদি ইত্যাদি। বলাই বাহূল্য, আসল মানেটা তাই ছিল না। সেই অর্জিনাল-এ বিষ্ণুর বঙ্গায়ন হয়ে বাঁশ হয় নাই। আমাদের পাটুলিগ্রাম তথা জিরাট-বলাগড় এলাকায় বাঁশঝার বেশ ঘন। তাই হয়তো বিষ্ণু যখন হিন্দুস্তান থেকে বাঁশঝার নিবিড় এই বাংলাদেশে আসেন আমাদের হাত ঘুরে, একটু অদলবদল হয়ে যায় আর কি। ইয়ার্কি মারছি বলে রাখলাম – বিশেষতঃ বোষ্টমদের প্রতি এই ক্ষমাপ্রার্থনা। আমরা শাক্তরা একটু ইয়ে হই। এবার ফিরি রাজনীতি, ভাষা ও শালীনতা প্রসঙ্গে।

পাটুলিগ্রামে যা বাঁশ, লন্ডনে তাই ব্যাম্বু, আর এই দুইয়ের মাঝামাঝি জল্পাইগুড়িতে মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর কাছে তাই হয় ‘বাম্বু’। এতে বেশ একটা ‘বিতর্ক’ হয়েছে। এক দল বলছেন, রামঃ, বঙ্গেশ্বরীর মুখের এই ভাষার ছিরি? একদম ‘ঝি-ক্লাস’। কোটি টাকার আঁকিয়ে ও গল্প-কবিতার বই লিখিয়ের আড়ালে এই তাহলে স্বরূপ? আরেকদল বলছেন, আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশের লক্ষলক্ষ মানুষের মুখের ভাষা এরকমই। যিনি জননেত্রী তার ভাষাও যে হবে গণমানুষের মতো, নন্দনে বসে মার্কেজ পড়নেওয়ালাদের মত নয়, তা বলাই বাহূল্য। দুই পক্ষকেই বলি, ভাবের ঘরে চুরি করে কি লাভ? বাম্বু দেওয়ার কথা শুনে আকাশ থেকে পড়া, প্রবল ভাবে শ্রেণী-ঘৃনা উগরে দেওয়া মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর শব্দচয়নকে সমালচনার উছিলায়, এগুলি ভন্ডামি ও ন্যক্কারজনক। একই সাথে, যারা এমন ভাব করছেন যে কিছুই হয়নি, ভাষা তো ভাষাই, শব্দ তো শব্দই, মানুষে তো এমন করেই কথা বলে গোছের অজুহাত দেখিয়ে বাম্বুর খুঁটি দিয়ে নেত্রীর সাথে জনগনের হৃদয়ের সম্পর্কের গভীরতা মাপছেন, তাদেরকে বলি যে বাংলার গণমানুষকে অপমান করবেন না।

এটা ঠিক যে সব শব্দই সমানভাবে একটি ভাষার সম্পদ – বেশি সম্পদ বা কম সম্পদ নয় । ভাষা জীবন পায় তার ব্যবহারে। সেই ব্যবহারের একটা প্রেক্ষিত আছে। ঠিক যেমন আমরা মাষ্টারমশাই-এর সামনে সিগারেট খাইনা ( যারা উচ্চতর লিবার্টি চেতনার ভারে কুঁজো হয়ে গেছে, তাদের কথা বাদ দিলাম ), ঠিক তেমনই মা-বাপের সামনে কিছু ধরণের শব্দ প্রয়োগ করিনা যা কিনা ইয়ার-বন্ধুদের সাথে চলে। ব্যক্তিগত জীবন ও যাপনকে উলঙ্গ ভাবে মেলে ধরা যাদের জীবনাদর্শ, তারা এই স্থান-কাল-পত্র বুঝে শব্দ প্রয়োগের মধ্যে দ্বিচারিতা দেখতে পারেন। তাদেরকে অনুরোধ, যে ধরনের গণমানুষের কথা বলে বাম্বুর সামনে পর্দা টানা হচ্ছে, সেই রকম ভাষা তারা পথে যেতে-আসতে রোজ ব্যবহার করে দেখুন। গণমানুষ বলবেন ‘মুখ সামলে’। এই গণমানুষ ‘গালমন্দ’ বোঝেন, আবার বোঝেন কারুর মুখের কথা সুন্দর। তাই জনগনের ঘাড়ে বন্দুক রেখে বুলেট বা বাম্বু, কিছুই ছোঁড়া অনুচিত। জলের লাইনে ‘ঝি’-দের ঝগড়ার ভাষা টুকুই যারা শুনেছেন কিন্তু শীত-গ্রীষ্ম-বর্ষা রোজ সক্কাল সক্কাল উঠে কিছুক্ষণের কর্পোরেশনের জলের সাপ্লাই-এর জন্য একাধিক বালতি নিয়ে অপেক্ষা করা যাদের জীবন-যাপনের অংশ নয়, তাদেরকে বলি – এরা গান গায়, ভালবাসে,ঘুম পাড়ানিয়া গান শোনায় শিশুদের। আপনারা যাদের লোকসঙ্গীত বিশ্ববাজারে বেচে খান ও ফান্ড আনান, এরা সেই ‘লোক’। গালি দেওয়া বা বাম্বু দেওয়া, একটিও সহজাত নয়। হয় তা পরিস্থিতির সামনে একটি প্রত্যুত্তর, চরম হতাশার প্রকাশ কিংবা জিঘাংসার উদগিরণ। আমি অবশ্যি কলকাত্তাই সেই ভদ্দরলোক শ্রেণীকে এসব গালি-চরিত থেকে বাদ দিলাম, যাদের কাছে f-ওয়ালা ৪ বর্ণের ইংরেজি গালি হলো কুল (অর্থাত নব্য কৌলিন্যের চিহ্ন) কিন্তু বাংলা গালি হলো চীপ ও ভালগার। তারা অন্য গ্রহের বাসিন্দা। তাদের দূর থেকে প্রণাম।

বাম্বু দেওয়া বা বাম্বুর দ্বারা তাড়া খাওয়া, এ যদি রাজনীতির ভাষা হয়, তাহলে আমি বলব এ ভাষা অশালীন হোক না হোক, চরম হিংস্র তো বটেই। রাজনীতি যখন এলাকা দখল বা এলাকা ধরে রাখার খেলায় পরিনত হয়, সেই প্রতিহিংসার রাজনীতিতে বাম্বু এক প্রতিশোধমূলক একক। প্রধানমন্ত্রী তার মন্ত্রিসভার আরেক মন্ত্রী সাধ্বী নিরঞ্জন জ্যোতির কুকথার বলেছেন যে নিরঞ্জন গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ। গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ উঠতে বসতে সাম্প্রদায়িক বিষ ছড়ান না, বাংলার তৃণমূল স্তরের মানুষ বাম্বুর চিন্তায় আচ্ছন্ন থাকেন না। তারা চাকরি চান, নিরাপত্তা চান, বাম্বু দিতে চান না, নিতে তো নয়-ই। বাঁশকে কেন্দ্র করে রাজনৈতিক সংগ্রাম কল্পনা আমাদের বাংলাদেশে বেশ পুরনো। বাঁশেরকেল্লার মধ্যে যতটা ছিল ‘সাবল্টার্ন’ ততটা ছিল হিংস্র সাম্প্রদায়িক মৌলবাদ। প্রধানমন্ত্রী তার মন্ত্রিসভার আরেক মন্ত্রী সাধ্বী নিরঞ্জন জ্যোতির কুকথার সাফাইতে বলেছেন যে নিরঞ্জন গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ। গ্রামাঞ্চলের মানুষ উঠতে বসতে সাম্প্রদায়িকতার বিষ ছড়ান না, বাংলার তৃণমূল স্তরের মানুষ বাম্বুর চিন্তায় আচ্ছন্ন থাকেন না। তারা চাকরি চান, নিরাপত্তা চান, বাম্বু দিতে চান না, নিতে তো নয়-ই। রাজনৈতিক দল একটি তাঁবুর মত, তা দাঁড় করিয়ে রাখতে বাঁশ লাগে। বাঁশ যেন বাংলার রাজনীতিতে স্থায়ী কাঠামোর কাজ করে, সচল না হয়। নইলে তাঁবু-ও ভেঙ্গে পড়বে। তাঁবুর ব্যাপারীরা বাঁশ সচল করার আগে আশা করি একটু ভাববেন। কারণ ফেইসবুকে সেদিন দেখি এক জায়গায় লেখা , ‘সময় থাকতে পিওর হন,নইলে বাম্বু দেবে জনগণ’।

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Filed under বাংলা, Bahishkrit Samaj, Bengal, Caste, Elite, Kolkata, Language, Polity, Power

The 2014 India election review / A question of power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quitting Modi’s India / Fleeing from Narendra Modi and other urban liberal maladies

[ Daily News & Analysis, 12 May 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 15 May 2014]

Soon after May 16th, the nature of the Union government due to be formed at New Delhi should be clear. While a coalition of parties led by Narendrabhai Modi is the most talked about scenario, the possibility of a non-Gandhi, non-saffron helmswoman buoyed up by political forces outside the Delhi establishment cannot be ruled out. Some well-heeled liberal types, half-jokingly (you never know), have declared a desire to leave the country, if Modi eventually happens, while looks increasingly likely. U.R.Ananthamurthy and Kamaal Khan are the most famous among this species.

This joking about fleeing a place whose emerging reality you do not like is another clichéd Anglo-American import. This unoriginal venting style was copied from those who disliked the George W. Bush regime in USA. Many of them wanted to move to Canada if Bush won again (he did). Other Bush-haters jokingly wanted the Eastern and Western coasts of USA (where Bush had less support) to secede. The ‘liberated’ brown person’s international imagination has predictable import locations. Beyond the joke, the difference is that most residents of the subcontinent do not have the means to move anywhere. The emigration ‘joke’ only highlights the disconnect of this class from the masses.

The problem is that the Modi-hate of urbane left-liberal types does not stop at Narendrabhai. Their hate list is long and includes hundreds of millions who didn’t vote for the BJP. These objects of urban liberal disgust includes those who are most comfortable in dhoti, lungi or saree, women wearing sindoor, namaji Muslims, ritual fasting Hindus, people who scratch themselves publicly, people who have not heard of white thinkers of the last two centuries and don’t need their ‘eyes opened’ by intellectual mumbo-jumbo, people who think family and community are important, people who can clearly reply to the question ‘where are you from, which community do you belong to’, people who create and recreate culture rather than using fancy technology to ‘document’ it, people with faith in gods, goddesses and other divine beings, people who are able to express their innermost feelings with ease without book-learned western conceptual crutches, people whose self-identity would not be in peril if white colonizers never appeared in the subcontinent, young people who don’t say ‘ohmygod’ in sitcom accents, people who love and dream in their mother-tongue and who sing their children generationally handed-down lullabies. And so on. Ashis Nandy has taught us to take people’s categories seriously. That talisman also helps distinguish between people and their parasites.

Thus those who don’t attend any political rallies (too many people, too much sweat), do not know the name of their local councilor, anglicized ‘aspirational’ migrants who do not care to change their domicile when they move to another city (and neither visit their parental home to vote), those who love to paint most brown people as dehati and ‘uneducated’, and hence unfit for the kind of decision-making that electoral politics requires – these are the people who capture inordinate public discourse space due to their privileges. In their view, the ‘uneducated’ cannot see through propaganda and can be instigated easily. These parasites, after reading tome after tome, will tell you that they get it – how power works and the sort and if others got it too, it would all be so nice. If they could, they would elect the people themselves, replacing the rural and ‘uneducated’, with their own English-big word correctly reared kind. They do not care about data, but they are masters at abstractions- fitting the world into their warped book-derived worldview. They hate the masses, wish the masses were not as they are and spend lifetimes trying to shut the masses out of their lives. When such people capture positions from where they can infect others, like academia and media, social justice is at stake. Long well-fed by the dole that the Indira Congressite governments at the centre reserved for the professor/activist nomenklatura and other managers of such Delhi-based government-subsidized ‘liberal’ fortresses, there is a feeling that the party might end. The emigration ‘joke’ is a part of that anxiety.

The advantage of ‘book-read’ ideologies is that they offer excellent excuses for holding both wine glasses and radical positions. Those with a penchant for theorizing the world before they can jump in do that by constantly cleaning their local socio-political infections in their private homes with imported soaps. Nothing is more sacred than pure ideology. Their engagement with the people – zero. Thankfully, that’s what most people think of them as – zero. Common people’s lives are at the cross-roads of caste-class-language-religion flows. To them ‘fascism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ are not smart words to be said at the right time but things with real-life consequences. To the non-religious, post-casteist, cosmopolitan left-liberal urbanite, these are ‘concepts’ which coexist perfectly well with their sixth pay commission salaries and ‘refined’ sensibilities.

Some of them even fancy themselves as the cutting edge of the fight against Modi, fascism and all that. As my friend Uday Chandra succinctly puts it, ‘the electoral fight against Modi and his politics begins and ends in the regions and localities where the likes of Mayawati, Laloo, and Mamata emerge from. Upon their unpretentious and all-too-mortal shoulders the hopes of millions of Indians rest. Don’t let your academic or activist friends or nandu-sabka-bandhus tell you otherwise. If things were left to the urban and the urbane, we’d be fed to the wolves long ago’.

There is much to be concerned about a strong, stable government that defends extra-judicial killings of young women, is unapologetic about large-scale killings under its watch, pimps out natural resources to those who help light up the government’s ‘vibrant’ mask and shares the Delhi-Mumbai Indian vision of the urbane. The fight against such powers and such governments will continue to come from the rooted, with family values and communitarian ethos. The rustic and the fantastic, not urban liberal smart talkers have always carried on the real struggles for a just world.

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Filed under Acedemia, Elite, India, Polity, Power, Urbanity

Next time, electing a sarkar from Great Nicobar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AAP is too much of a wild card for the deep state

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Apr 2014 ; New Age (Dhaka), 26 Apr 2014 ]

Not everyone starts at the top. Some do. This is very true for politics. Similarly, not everyone starts out cynically. Some do. This again holds true for the kind of politics that has benefits in terms of holding power – financial, controlling other people’s lives or both. Not everyone needs to control the whole world to feel like a dictator. In the subcontinent, dictators and wanna-be dictators come in all sizes, big and small, from the local area tough to the president-style prime minister in waiting. They support each other by being involved in a complex pyramid of power. What binds them together, across apparently different ideologies, is the notion that certain individuals are more important than people. It takes an immense amount of narcissism to think that most people are worthless or fools. The ‘people’ can be tactically utilized, but they should never be empowered in the sense that they could question power hierarchies that maintain this relationship of the powerful individuals lording over the people, sometimes even in the form of the most benevolent despot. The people variously are a ‘bag of potatoes, ‘disunited, non-martial Hindus’, ‘ignorant and superstitious masses’ and a host of things that are irritating to the small or big wanna-be dictator a.k.a. the people’s most ‘earnest’ well-wisher or to the ‘enlightened’ narcissist.

The government is not like a bicycle, a neutral piece of machinery that can be driven by anyone towards any end. There is the deep-state to contend with. Unelected bureaucrats, big business, planners, policy wonks, academics, military and security men, mediawallahs, contractors and pimps in collusion with narcissitic inviduals with some network among the people form the deep-state. The deep-state is a reflection of the collective interest of such individuals. It is also by requirement and design a system of preserving the continued disempowerment of the people. While they swear by the constitution, they decide when to suspend the applicability of its humane sections. This makes them the real sovereign, the decider of exceptions. In the jails, a great deal of care is taken to see to it that inmates don’t have anything like a wire or long pieces of cloth or other things by which they could commit suicide. At the same time, deaths by ‘encounters’, torture in jail or in police custody are also ordered and implemented. It is the deep-state’s interest that binds these two apparently contradictory things. This sovereign decides the time and place or illegality.

But can the people not organize themselves, into parties, take over government and change all of that? Theoretically yes but one of the many ways that path is made nearly impossible is by power centralization. If a gram-panchayat or any other level of administration could decide on their own issues and no one from above could veto that, then we could be seeing real democratic gains. Centralization loves to accord greater ‘wisdom’ and ‘power’ to those who are ‘above’, keeping those below in strict control like a kid who is allowed to suck on lollypops of certain approved flavours and even that can be snatched away at will.

But the people are hardly a ‘bag of potatoes’ or passive victims. Otherwise such a large police and military establishment would not be required. And they have used every means necessary, including the electoral means, to throw up challenges to power. When a genuine broad-based democratic challenge appears and gains critical-mass, the deep-state brings forth its greatest weapon – that of co-option of individuals who come to represent people’s resistance. It is a measure of the depth of the deep-state. Having personally had some opportunities to sit-in as an unnoticed (who knows) guest in ante-chambers of the deep state, one thing is clear. The goings-on in there and the whole scene have a seductive charm to it. Even those who grew up viewing such things cynically also slowly crumble. The trappings of power make them want to suspend their commitment to the people and believe in the special value of the unbridled power, that there is real accomplishment lurking, that there really, really is no alternative, but this. This isn’t simple cooption, but seduction at a visceral level, for wanting to let go of long held albatrosses of people’s interests around one’s neck, and feel curiously light and accomplished and important. They want to fit-in. The deep-state is more than welcoming.

But not everyone can be co-opted. Many sons and daughters of this hard land have not simply been brave but good souls in a way that matters, of overcoming seduction that is even soothing and designed to not give guilt to those who give in. Stuff of greatness is born out of those who cannot be co-opted. They don’t need monuments for their acts sustain human liberty when monuments crumble.

The magnitude of difference between the characteristics of an at-least nominally democratic constitutional state and the deep state, is a measure of transparency and democratic functioning. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is yet another expression of people’s unending hope for dignity and rights. Whether the AAP is up to that challenge is another matter. It too has some characters who are stuck waste-deep in the existing power establishment. Whether they will chose to rise or sink into seduction, only time will tell. But one thing is clear. The deep-state is not sure about AAP. It has not found a way to fully co-opt it. It is still too much of a wildcard.

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Filed under Change, Democracy, Elite, Federalism, India, Polity, Power

সংহতির রাজনীতি – গাজা থেকে আইসিস

[ Ebela, 4 Sep, 2014]

গণহত্যার ফলে যখন মানুষ মারা যায়ে, তখন ‘সন্তান মোর মার’ গোছের ভাবনার একটা দাম আছে। কিন্তু কত মানুষ মরলো, সেই সংখ্যার বিচার-ও একদম ফেলনা নয়।  তাই তো চোরাগোপ্তা হাজারো হত্যার মাঝেও জ্বলজ্বল করে কলকাতা ৪৬, নোয়াখালি ৪৬, পাঞ্জাব ৪৭, বরিশাল ৫০, দিল্লী ৮৪, গুজরাট ২০০২। গণহত্যা বা জেনোসাইড কথাটিও ঠিক যত্রতত্র ব্যবহারের জিনিস নয়।  পৃথিবীর বুকে থাকার অধিকার আছে সকলের। একটি বিশেষ জনগোষ্ঠী নিকেষ হবার উপক্রম হলে শুধু কটা মানুষ হারিয়ে যায় না।  হারিয়ে যায়ে পৃথিবীকে ও জীবনকে দেখার একটি প্রণালী। হারিয়ে যায়ে মানুষ হবার নানা বিকল্প পথের একটা।  ফলে আমরা সকলে একটি মোক্ষম চেতনার একটা অংশ হারায়।  সেটা হলো – নানা ভাবে মানুষ হওয়া যায়ে।  এই যুগে যখন জামা-কাপড়-খাওয়া-দাওয়া-শিল্প-সংস্কৃতি-কথন-বলন সবই যখন বিশ্বজুড়ে একরকম হয়ে আসছে, এই চেতনাটি খুব দামি।  মানব জীবনের বৈচিত্র ওই ‘বৈচিত্রের মধ্যে ঐক্য’-র মত ছেলেভোলানো সরকারী স্লোগান না।  এটা মানব জাতির ভবিষ্যতের সম্ভাবনাকে বিস্তৃত করে।
এজিদী-রা সংখ্যায় খুব বেশি নয়।  ব্রিগেডে বড় মিছিলের দিন নেতা-নেত্রীরা কত লোক এসছে, তার যে করেন , তার মতই সংখ্যা হবে তাদের। ইরাকে তাদের মূল নিবাস।  এরা ক্রিষ্ঠান বা মসলমান নন – এদের ধর্ম অতি প্রাচীন। সম্প্রতি ইরাক ও সিরিয়া-তে ইসলামিক স্টেট নামক জল্লাদতন্ত্রের প্রতিষ্ঠা হয়েছে।  রক্তের হোলি খেলা এই    সন্ত্রাসী আন্দোলনের নাপসন্দ যে তাদের অধীকৃত এলাকায়ে বিধর্মী-রা বেঁচে-বর্তে থাকবেন।  তাই শুরু হয়েছে ঢালাও জবাই। এজিদী-দের, ক্রিস্টান-দের, এবং ইসলামিক স্টেট-এর সংজ্ঞায় যারা মোসলমান হয়েও ‘সহি’ মোসলমান নন, তাদের। তাদের হত্যা-লীলায়ে মৃতের সংখ্যা বেশ কয়েক হাজার।  এবং এজিদী-দের কে তারা যেমন করে  নিকেশ করছে, তা গনহত্যারই সামিল। কিন্তু এই গণহত্যার প্রতিবাদে অকাদেমি অফ ফাইন আর্টস-এর সামনে কোনো মোমবাতি, কোনো সহমর্মিতা, কোনো ধিক্কার, কোনো দরদ ফুটে ওঠে নি। লাল-তেরঙ্গা নানা দলের গাজায়ে ইস্রাইলি আগ্রাসনের বিরোধিতা করা  হুড়োহুড়ি দেখে মনে চিন্তা জন্মায়ে।  অন্য সকল ব্যাপারে এমন নিস্তব্ধতা কেন? কোনো কোনো মৃত শিশুর ছবি কি বেশি কান্নার উদ্রেক করে? যদি তাই হয়, তবে কি সেই বেশি দুঃক্ষ ও বেশি সহমর্মিতার মাপকাঠি ?
হার্ভার্ড বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে যখন আমি ছাত্র ছিলাম, তখন পালেস্তাইন সংহতি আন্দোলনে জড়িত থাকার কারণে আমাকে নানা ভাবে হেনস্থা করা হয়।  সে হেনস্থার কারণে  আমার সংহতি আন্দোলনে যুক্ত থাকার জন্য একটুও আমার একটুও খেদ নেই।  অনেকে এর চেয়ে অনেক, অনেক বেশি দাম চুকিয়েছেন।  কিন্তু পালেস্তাইন সংহতির নাম তার  বিশাল বপুতে কি কি লুকিয়ে থাকে, তার খোজ নেওয়া প্রয়োজন। যদি কোনো সংহতি আন্দোলন ব্যক্তিগত জাতি, ভাষা, ধর্ম  উদ্বুদ্ধ হয় কিন্তু তা প্রকাশ্যে মানবতাবাদের নাম চালানো হয়, তখন সেই ফাঁকিটা বোঝা দরকার।  ফেইসবুক বা  টুইটার-এর কল্যাণে আমার নিরীহ অনেক পালেস্তিনীয় শিশুর বীভত্স মৃতদেহের ছবি দেখেছি।  দেখেছি ইসরাইলী হানায়ে ছিন্ন-ভিন্ন সাধারণ মানুষের ছবি, অনেক ক্ষেত্রে একই পরিবারের একাধিক সদস্যের। কিন্তু কোথায় নাইজেরিয়া-র বোকো হারাম বা ইরাক-সিরিয়ার ইসলামিক স্টেট-এর ততোধিক নৃশংসতার ছবি? এই একচোখামী-র একটা মানে আছে।  এতে কিছু  ধরনের মৃত মানুষের প্রতি সহমর্মিতা আদায় হয়, কিছু হানাদারের প্রতি ঘৃণা উদ্রেক করানো হয় এবং কিছু ধরনের হানাদারের ব্যাপারে নিশ্চুপ থাকা হয়। এই চুপ থাকা অনেক কিছু বয়ান করে।
মানবাধিকার নিয়ে সোচ্চার হবার সময় এই বাছাবাছি, এই চিত্কার ও নিশ্চুপ থাকার আলো-আধারি খেলার তলার খেলাটা কী? তাহলে বলতেই হয়, এই মৃতের প্রতি সমমর্মিতার ব্যাপারটি ভুয়ো।  যা সত্য, তা হলো হানাদারকে আমি কতটা ঘৃণা করি সেটা প্রকাশ করতে আক্রান্ত ও মৃত-কে ব্যবহার করে।  সেই সংহতির রাজনীতি ন্যক্কারজনক।  হানাদারের  ধর্মীয়/জাতিগত/শ্রেণীগত পরিচয় দিয়ে যদি গণহত্যার জন্য কাঁদবো কি কাঁদবো না, পথে নামবো কি নামবো না, সেসব ঠিক হয়, তাহলে সমস্যা বড় ভয়ানক।  আক্রান্তের ধর্মপরিচয় , আততায়ীর ধর্মপরিচয় – এগুলি দেখে সহমর্মিতার ভঙ্গি, তা যতই সততার সঙ্গে করা হোক, অন্য ভেজালে তা ভুরভুর করে।  ছত্তিস্গরে যখন হিন্দু গ্রামবাসীরা মূলতঃ হিন্দু মিলিটারী দ্বারা আক্রান্ত হয়, তখন হিন্দুত্বের ঠিকাদার-দার মুখে যায়ে না কোনো প্রতিবাদ।  পাকিস্থান,আফ্ঘানিস্থান, সিরিয়া, ইরাক – এসকল জায়েগায়ে গত এক বছরে প্রায় এক লক্ষ্  মোসলমান মারা গেছেন মোসলমানের হাতে সন্ত্রাসী কায়্দায়ে।  তখন হয় না মিছিল।  হত্যালীলা যখন চালায় মূলতঃ ইহুদী ইসরাইল রাষ্ট্র-শক্তি, তখন মাথা চাড়া দেয় মানবাধিকার, সংহতি, ইত্যাদি। এই দুনম্বরিকে পষ্টাপষ্টি দুনম্বরী বলা প্রয়োজন।
গাজায়ে ঘটে যাওয়া হত্যালীলায়ে আমরা ব্যথিত।  আমরা সকলে জানি গাজার গল্প।  আমরা মন থেকেই এই আগ্রাসনকে ঘেন্না করি।  কিন্তু আমাদের এই ঘেন্না করার লিষ্টি-তে কার অগ্রাধিকার , সেটা কিন্তু ঠিক হয় অন্য কোথাও।  আমরা জাগি ঘুম থেকে, কিন্তু ঘড়ির অ্যালার্ম দেওয়া হয় অন্য কোথাও।  কিসের থেকে কি ‘বেশি’ গুরুত্বপূর্ণ, তা ঠিক করে দেয় যে বিশ্বকল্প, তা কি স্রেফ মানবতাবাদের ভিত্তিতে তৈরী? কোন মৃত্যু হয় হেডলাইন আর কোন মৃত্যু হয় সাইডলাইন? তাই ন্যুয়র্ক, লন্ডন, কলকাতা, প্যারিস – সকলে যখন জানায়ে ধিক্কার ও সমবেদনা, তলিয়ে ভাবা দরকার – কেন শুধু  এদেরকে ধিক্কার? কেন আরো বিস্তৃত নয় সমবেদনা ? পালেস্তাইন-এর মুক্তি চাই, মার্কিন সমর্থনে ইস্রাইলি আগ্রাসন মানছি না, ইত্যাদি বলা সহজ।  কঠিন হলো মানুষ হিসেবে গাজার পাশে দাড়ানোর অধিকার অর্জন করা।  ২০১৪-তেই যেসব বৃহত্তর গণহত্যার জন্য বাংলায়ে একটি মিছিল-ও হয় নি, সেই গণহত্যার শিকার যে মানুষ, তারা সেই অধিকার অর্জনের পরীক্ষা নেবে। আমরা তৈরী তো ?

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David versus Goliath in Benares

[ Express Tribune, 7 Apr 2014 ; Kashmir Times, 8 Apr 2014 ; Daily Peoples Times, 8 Apr 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 21 Apr 2014; Millenium Post, 22 Apr 2014]

As the Congress(I) looks sure to reap what it sowed, the possibilities for the Bharatiya Janata Party looked exceedingly certain in almost a walk-over game. It was just a few months ago when there was an air of everything having been settled. A corruption-ridden second term government of the Indira Congress was looking increasingly out of touch with people’s issues and aspirations. And a ‘saviour’ has descended from Gujarat –a ‘saviour’ whose public image was curated by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s slick PR machine to appear in stark contrast with the Nehru-Gandhi scion. It was but a matter of time. It still is a matter of time. Much is still quite settled. But the air has cleared a bit and faces of the demi-gods don’t appear as divine anymore. The man from Gujarat still stands tall and is way ahead in the battle. However, political currents in the last few months have ensured that at the end, the winner of the battle can claim political power, legislative power, administrative power, even the power to subvert habeas corpus and other things sacred to human dignity but it cannot claim ethical and moral power with full-throated confidence. The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party has ensured that.

Touted initially as a ‘electronic media creation’ that would vanish as soon as the cameras turned elsewhere, the Aam Aadmi Party has continued to punch way above it popular weight even after much of corporate media turned hostile overnight over the party’s decision to deny the Walmarts and Tescos of the world to set up shop in Delhi. This party, which cannot claim numerical parity with either of the 2 behemoths of the political scene of the Indian Union, has been able to go strength to strength with these two in the game of political agenda-setting. This is partly due to the base it has been able to create for itself in crucial urban sectors of Hindi-Hindustan (and not in many urban centres of the Indian Union). Anything in Hindi-Hindustan is able to claim top slot in the ‘national’ agenda – such is the nature of politics in this republic. But that is not all. The Aam Aadmi Party has been able to edge past its rivals in the universe of political morals and ethics by disclosing the hitherto undisclosable donor lists to party funds, naming the hitherto unnamable individuals and families who hold the political system in an unholy grip, forcing others to respond, retaliate, ignore and thus expose themselves. The subcontinent has a special place for this sort of thing, even if ethical giants were really acting all the way. Even if silenced by fear or state violence, people in the subcontinent have shown that they have respect for those who speak truth to power. Which is precisely why other agendas for respect garnering have to be generated – ‘strong’ leadership, teaching ‘them’ a lesson and content-less slogans of the ‘India first’ type. Such respect-generation is coupled with hope-production by false promises for job-creation and material prosperity that will be ushered in by the same corporates who help fund advertisements of the ‘strongman’ in widely circulated dailies, TV channels, cell phones and websites.

Arvind Kejriwal, ex-Chief Minister of Delhi and the public face of the Aam Aadmi Party, will be challenging Narendrabhai Modi, the chief-minister of Gujarat and prime-ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in Benares in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This holy city, which is also the site of the controversial mosque that Aurangzeb Alamgir built after destroying the erstwhile Vishwanath temple, is all set for a David verses Goliath battle. And Goliath will win. When Arvind Kejriwal entered Benares for his inaugural political rally, he was pelted with rotten eggs and black ink was thrown on him. The kickback that is given by the saviour’s favourite banias in exchange of mining rights, ports, agricultural lands, tax breaks, mega-subsidies and natural resources finds it way into the petrol of the campaign helicopter, the liquor consumed by the black-ink and egg throwers, the danda that holds the jhanda. Kejriwal is astute enough to know that focus on Benares will garner publicity helping people know about the political agenda of a credible opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party, especially when the Indira Congress is in retreat. An atheist turned believer, he can publicly pull off a call upon non-sectarian divine powers to intervene on the side of the ‘aam aadmi’. Call them publicity stunts, call them what you will but the egg and ink smeared Kejriwal has ensured that in spite of a ‘chhappan inch’ chest, immaculately clean dresses and ‘Har Har’ chants, the winner this time cannot rise above the fray. The owner of the 56-inch chest will invariably see his height diminished when the duel with Kejriwal progresses, when he reacts to the Aam Aadmi challenge. The ironman may stand tall but his rusty core will not be hidden either. That is serious political currency for the Aam Aadmi Party, which really is preparing for the election after this one.

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The Aam Aadmi phenomenon

[ Millenium Post, 9 Mar 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 11 Mar 2014 ; Daily Peoples Time, 12 Mar 2014 ]

While the big winner of the forthcoming general elections of the Indian Union may be the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will have achieved something grander – a shift in the political discourse around people’s everyday issues. With Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal taking the fight against the ‘Gujarat model’ straight to the Aam Gujaratis, the party has raised the stakes in what is now clearly a very dangerous game. The AAP may or may not be successful in stemming the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in urban areas of the North and the West of the Indian Union. But in taking the fight against Modi to the Hindu-Chhote-Sardar’s hometurf, he has managed to do what the party of babalogs and dole-funded Delhi-based ‘secular’ talk shops have never been able to do. Perhaps it is conviction, perhaps it is spontaneity, perhaps it is calculation and most probably it is all of the above and much more. But the AAP has made the BJP nervous and it is showing. The way it also has clashed with the AAP in Delhi and attacked them elsewhere shows that they care deeply. The established political class fears one thing more than the present AAP organization – its potential contagion effect. Politics of the poor and the deprived thrives on hope. AAP peddles that as if on steroids. Hence a politics centred on the issues of the excluded majority always has an ‘escape velocity’ potential under those who are both clever and honest. And there are many of them in the subcontinent. This is the thrust that AAP potentially represents for many and those whose reliance on Reliance is crucial for their business do not under-estimate the AAP’s potential threat.

President’s rule over any territory in the Indian Union is always an useful opportunity to study the deep consensus that exists underneath the apparently partisan bickering that is staged for public consumption and political career advancement. During such rules, the police and the administration work according to the ‘common minimum programme’ that is common to the major factions of the subcontinental ruling class. Thanks to sanitized civics books that are designed to instill state-friendly common-sense among common-folk, some people living in urban middle class bubbles might mistakenly think that this ‘common minimum programme’ is the constitution itself. The power of the deep state is seen not in how effectively it rules by its constitution, but how selective can it be in upholding the ‘rule of law’. That which can make exceptions is the true sovereign in this land – it is not the people, it is not the state, it is the deep state. Which is why a Delhi Police, apparently not under any partisan control states that 13 AAP activists and 10 BJP supporters were injured in clashes in Delhi, and decides to detain AAP supporters. In detaining the AAP supporters, the Delhi Police was upholding the rule of law. In not detaining the people who injured the 13 AAP activists, it was upholding the rule of a deeper law, that one which is not the constitution, but the one that decides when the constitution is to be invoked at convenience. The lady of justice in this latter more powerful rule of law is not blind. She sees everything but has blindspots that conveniently guard those who are committed to the preservation of the deep state. The alacrity with which the Election commission takes notice of AAP’s violations is less astonishing than the speed with which corporate media houses are rushing to report these notices as headlines and ‘breaking news’. Equally astonishing is Arvind Kejriwal’s unconditional apology on AAP Delhi’s militant protest and his stern cell to stop all such protests. No such call from those who injured the 13 AAP activists and have been periodically attacking AAP offices elsewhere. These are exceptional times.

The AAP by its evolution has not been effectively contained by the deep-state. It surely wants to make it one of these others – whose periodic musical chair games makes sure it does not matter who loses, but the Delhi-Mumbai based elite illuminati and their retinue of policy wonks, security apparatchiks, immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, bureaucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, childhood friends, civil society wallahs, media-wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and pimps always wins. There is a tiny bit of possibility that the AAP may not be easily incorportable in this way of life. Since this way of life and loot is not negotiable, the AAP is an headache, small now, but potentially a recurrent migraine. Big corporates, including foreign corporates, and Delhi-Mumbai elute interests would ideally want to coopt AAP into their model of business-as-usual. The AAP is not totally immune to this threat from the grand-daddies of vested interests of the subcontinent. Even the powerful want to sleep in peace.

It is in parts of its line-up that one sees a possibility that such co-option, even if it is being tried at this moment, will not be a cakewalk. While many suspiciously looks at AAP as a motley crowd of over-ambitious jholawalas, the reality that the party is pitching a big tent in which there are a spectrum of forces and interests jostling for space and do represent a curious collection. These include victims of police brutalities to RTI activists to single-generation knowledge-industry millionaires to veterans of people’s struggles to aam aadmi, who are actually very khaas in being veterans of quotidian aam existence but distinguish themselves by their outspokenness and conviction in the AAP experiment. The AAP Lok Sabha candidate list includes Medha Patkar, the grand dame of non-party people’s movements, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, honest to the core and deeply committed to issues of the poor and the marginalized. And incorruptible. Dayamani Barla, the indefatigable fighter from Jharkhand who led the movement for preservation of the adivasi forest rights against the mining giant Arcelor-Mittal, had joined AAP and might contest too. SP Udayakumar of the Koodankulam anti-nuclear movement has joined. In all their ‘anti’-ness, they collectively represent a humane approach to politics that has been altogether missing for a long time in the electoral arena. The people’s right to knowledge and governmental transparency has bloomed many RTI activists, many of whom have joined AAP. Among them, Raja Muzaffar Bhat is their candidate from Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. In the subcontinent, forgotten atrocities form the underbelly of this apparently calm land. This is the land of 1984, Delhi and Bhopal. HS Phoolka, the tireless warrior for 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims’ justice is an AAP candidate. So is Rachna Dhingra, a person who gave up a luxurious life in the USA to start working among the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and fights for their rights to this date, living in Bhopal. Today the parliament has more supporters of Dow Chemicals/Union Carbide in its power corridors than those who want justice for the Bhopal gas victims. AAP represents a threat to this state of affairs. The list of illustrious people in the AAP candidate list goes on – Mukul Tripathi, Jiyalal, Lingraj, Baba Hardev Singh, Sarah Joseph. Typically the state has co-opted such people by felicitations, with politicians standing beside them to be seen as patrons of such people. Just as they patronize goons. Different charades for different stages. It has attracted a fairly impressive set of tycoons and technocrats to its fold, especially those who fit the bill of being ‘self-made’ single generation millionaires. This class is averse to dynasticism and might have a certain kind of idealism that makes them resonate with AAP’s staunch anti-dynastic stance. If one suspends cynicism at some risk, one cannot also discount that some of them may be looking for redemption, at some point of their careers. Everyone wants redemption, at some level. Some of these types used to flock to the BJP before that ‘party with a difference’ simply introduced different dynasties, big and small. They also perceive themselves as non-receivers of the special favours from the political establishment, which makes them stand for clean and ‘fair’ business practises as opposed to crony capitalism and outright loot of state resources. There are civil society activists, academics, grassroots workers and quite a few aam aadmis and aurats. There is however a serious concern that its candidate list does not reflect the caste demographics of the land. While numerical representativeness is not enough, it is a start. A move away from that to faces more often than not from urban and higher caste backgrounds is a point of concern. Many from the left have pilloried the AAP for not coming clean on structural issues. If any group is most seriously concerned about AAP, it is the left of all hues, as the AAP seems to have struck an emotive cord with the people around pet issues that the left-wingers thought was their home ground. The AAP is clearly pushing the envelope on common people’s issues and that is broadly reflected in its choice of candidates. The AAP has learned from the past that small, localized movements, however spirited and however much they enjoy people’s support, ultimately suffer from a problem of failing to be scaled up to a size that matters, in an electoral and hence legislative sense. Part of the AAP leadership clearly wants to wed the politics of people’s movements to a pragmatic large-scale alternative that cannot be wished away. They have partially succeeded. The AAP is also limited by its perception of being a North-India party, with the name itself being distinctly Hindustani. A comprehensive commitment to making the Union into a truly federal one, which also is in line with the party’s focus on decentralization, should go a long way in clearing some air on that front.

At one level, AAP is like Gandhi’s Swaraj or Jinnah’s Pakistan. In the imagination of the people, it is whatever one thinks it to be, the harbinger of good rule. But what is good for one sector of the population may not be so for other sectors. It cannot be all things to all people at the same time. The long-range future of AAP, if it at all has one, will depend on which of these collective fantasies it will ally itself most closely to. Given its big tent character, there will be tussles and splits for sure. And that is not necessarily bad.

Like any populist political formation, the AAP has a demagoguish potential. The only real insurance against that is democratic control of a political formation. Similarly a state that runs rogue can only be restrained by democratic control. Some of AAP’s Lok Sabha candidates have been at the receiving end of the some of the most brutal acts by rogue state. The politics of changing the nature of politics is a means to changing the nature of the state – initially to convert a rogue state into a state having some rogue sections. This is no easy job as rogueness is not simply a character fault. It comes with wielding unaccountable and undemocratic power at any level. Unaccountable power that is beyond democratic control is the mother of all corruptions. One does not need to abuse this power. It is abusive to the people by its very existence. Many faces of the present AAP Lok Sabha line up understand that only too well. But they are not alone in understanding that. Those in power, including those who were victims of extraordinary abuse during the Panditain’s emergency regime are also aware of this. Awareness of abuse is not enough. Conviction is equally important. There is a difference between pimps and anti-trafficking activists. Both are ‘aware’ of the abuse. One thrives because of abuse, the other wants to end it. One can transform into the other – as the trajectories of many of those from the JP movement shows. Any political formation that wants claims to be difference in this age has to ponder deeply what is it beyond ‘personal honesty’ that will sustain politics, what is it beyond leadership that will sustain such politics. After all, the Patna University Student Union leader who later went to jail for the fodder scam was the same man who the Indira Congress locked up during the emergency. The AAP’s fielding of a few good men and women can be a start but not a long-range solution. If times can change people, what is it that will ensure that gains from one time idealism are not wasted. The AAP has pointed to greater and greater democratic control of political institutions at all levels, with an eye towards decentralization. If it is serious about this democratic decentralization, which in the political scene translates into a call for true federalism in the Indian Union and greater non-alienable powers to the bottom of the pyramid, then it may be onto something. Even if the AAP experiment fails, if it is successful in making democratic decentralization a key issue, just like it has done successfully with corruption, it would have made a greatly positive contribution to this Union.

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Filed under Change, Democracy, Polity, Power

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

Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time you hear intellectual mumbo jumbo/ On the accountability of ‘intellectuals’ / Knowledge in these times / Lacking in intelligibility and accountability

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Aug 2013 ; Morung Express, 23 Aug 2013 ; Daily Excelsior (Jammu), 25 Aug 2013 ; Echo of India, 1 Sep 2013 ; Millenium Post, 24 Aug 2013 ]

A kind of human being derives strange pleasure in appreciating music that few others like. In fact, if too many people start listening to it, they get dejected. Their special thing has become too commonplace like a road-side tea stall. Such is often the case with those academicians and their acolytes who love big words and impenetrable sentences. They protect their rarified lens to the world with smugness. They are quick to defend their demi-gods of helped them build these lenses. Why would legitimate knowledge seekers be so invested in thinkers than thoughts themselves and whether such idolatry is healthy for frank and critical knowledge production is another question.

In the first year of my PhD at Harvard, I sat in a 2-semester long statistics class. Professor Jim Sidanius, a former Black Panther, taught us concepts – breaking them down for us. But he also wanted to make sure that we were digesting the broken bits. He knew that hiding behind jargon is the best way to evade clarity. And he would have none of it. So, when he asked us questions, and we started replying in jargon, he would promptly cut us short and ask with a smile – ‘How will you explain that to my grand-ma?” This was a crucial question. In many cases, it called our bluff and made us more honest to ourselves. This was more than knowledge acquisition. Jim was trying to drive in a characteristic that academicians and thinkers owe to society – clarity.

Clarity is something that ought not to be limited to knowledge acquisition, but also knowledge production and communication of ideas. But are not some ideas inherently so complex that an insistence of broad intelligibility would somehow make those ideas flatter than they actually are. And to this, a response came from Steven Pinker, another professor from our department at Harvard. To simplify is not to be simplistic, he said.

Fine, but why should we care about such issues at all? Ideas shape people, their ideas about themselves, other and the world at large. So, if certain kinds of ideas gain currency, it is important that these do not become received wisdom but are critically evaluated by the people. For that, it is necessary that knowledge and ideas are available to the people at-large, with clarity, in forms and sites they can best engage in. Academicians occupy the most privileged centre of knowledge production in our times – the university. Hence they have to be held particularly accountable in this regard.

However, when we look into the academic circles that universities have been breeding, they seem to breed a pathetic tendency to jargonize and speak in tongues that are largely (and I daresay, intentionally) unintelligible to people. The intention is not necessarily conscious for most practitioners of this dubious art – it is something they pick up to be counted. This gulf between ‘high-brow’ knowledge and its public intelligibility is most acute in those practitioners to invoke that shameful phrase ‘in our field’. Typically, this implies that one would take liberties about facts or be oblivious of contrary facts, not expose the underbelly of assumptions to scalpels, would discount fundamental criticisms as being ill-motivated or worse, expressions of ‘power’. Such a petulant water-tightness is typically seen in ‘fields’ full of ‘-isms’ or those where sentences are peppered with things like, ‘in a –ian sense/paradigm/view’. And so forth. The latter is a classic method of saying – I will say this to you without explanation. Either you will not along as you wont admit to knowing what the ‘-ian view’ is, or if you say so, I will give such an exasperated look and say, well all this has been known for so long, and you are not at an intellectual level where I deem fit to engage with you. And such elements still have the gall to say that society owes their keep to them. It takes an immense amount of hubris to think that ideas articulated in forms unintelligible by much of perfectly intelligent people have added that much to that understanding that it can demand funding in spite of being unintelligible.

In the subcontinent, a rich tradition of handed-down knowledge in the form of songs and sayings attributed to thinkers like Kabir and Lalon Shah and myriad other unnamed ones, makes one thing very clear. The subcontinent has had intellectuals who have engaged with the public in terms that were clear and have been thought leaders who have shaped people’s conceptions. In such interactions, knowledge and ideas are located within society, and not in some cabal outside it, claiming to ‘understand’ society. Song and pravachans which people still know and remember have helped people deal and make sense of the human condition for millennia.

Only in a self-important and delusional view of human existence do recently produced knowledge and ideas come to be considered so groundbreaking and crucial for understanding the human condition. This view, in which the recent is so privileged, expresses the same kind of attitude that concepts like jahalaat embody. The difference is that the last 100 or 400 years are considered unprecedented.

Some would have you believe that the last 50 years have been crucial. But then we know there is nothing special except the kind of self-importance that confuses recency with progress. In such a ‘progressive’ world-view, earlier times are deemed bland. For example, the 50 years between say 1200 AD and 1250 AD would be considered much less ‘eventful’ which the period between 1950 and 2000 apparently has been world-changing is terms of idea productions. But the world was there then and it is there now. The same is true for the humankind and the human condition.

To think of ourselves of having been born in some special time can be nice. But it gets problematic when, to make careers out of ideas generated in the last 50 years, people start over-selling these times. That the selling involves more hocus pocus does not help. And hence, public scrutiny becomes important to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the end of the day, we know that two humans make more sense of the world than one, and three more than two, other things being the same. So, claims of certain geographical locales being particular sites of production of relevant and crucial knowledge, especially when such locales are also centers of colonial capital accumulation, have to be viewed with suspicion. Ideas from these locales also are in lock-step with the idea that the last 400 years or so have so uniquely informative in understanding the human condition. Decolonization of the mind is not an easy thing. It is especially hard to accomplish when such concepts live so comfortably within us, become like our skin and self-identity. We are not only slaves in what we follow, we can also be slaves in what we deem important, how we organize our mental worlds around exotic concepts, especially when we exhibit a distinct lack of understanding of the knowledge and ideas around us, in the specific geographies where we are embedded, in flesh, descent and culture. How did we come to be the way we are is a question we ought to be asking ourselves.

I again return to the role of the intellectual, the academic, the thinker. Like most people who live off the public exchequer, earning one’s keep has to have people’s assent. Speaking over the head of the people, in the name of the people, remaining unintelligible and all the time claiming to unearth some deep understanding of the people, of their lives, desires, politics, structures and what not, is good for conversations inside such cabals. The outside world has not been scathing in asking for accountability. Like the Sanskrit mantras of today, these are performed technically in public view but are insider-talk at the end of the day. Such insider-talk, whatever its purported merits and brilliance, come with a severe lack of checks and balances, like any other priestly order. This is a dangerous thing for knowledge production as load fulls of quality bull shit can pass off as insight if its sounds and feels right to the ‘initiated’. The world, especially poorer societies, can ill afford the luxury of continually feeding white elephants whose public engagement ends within the ramparts of the university or other such spaces. It is about time that the real world asked for explanations about what is being done with their money.

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Filed under Acedemia, Democracy, Education, Knowledge, Language, Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A naked sendoff / Remember Rituparno / Owning Rituparno Ghosh’s death

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), June 14-20, 2013 – Vol. XXV, No. 18 ; New Age (Dhaka), 10 June 2013 ; The NorthEast Today, July 2013 ]

The recently deceased acclaimed Bengali film-director Rituparno Ghosh (31 August 1963 – 30 May 2013) went to the same school as me, the very populous South Point High School of Kolkata. He was a couple of decades senior to me. It was at one time the largest school in Asia. My secondary standard graduation class was nearly 800 strong. One thing our school used to do very well (before it turned ‘Indian’ from ‘Bengali’ in the post  economic ‘liberalization’ era of the 90s) is that it did not inculcate ‘values’. The value of this lack of school-instilled ‘values’ has stood many alumni of the school in good stead throughout their lives. For one thing, it made unlearning easy, if one wanted to. Due to lack of values, reverence was shallow and hence irreverence was easy, if one wanted to. Rituparno Ghosh represents one of the best products of our school – more by omission than by commission. She made films primarily in my own mother-language and also lived in South Kolkata, where I am from. When media outlets all over India give front-page space to the death of a film-director whose primary film medium was not Hindi, it is important we pay more attention. There are only a few in the subcontinent who will command such widespread mourning in these times when the Bollywood = Hindia = India equation has gained serious currency. Rituparno Ghosh was one such. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. Or to put it more correctly, in an increasingly monocultural nation-state, it is getting ever harder to make them like that. Her death also made it to the front page of newspapers in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. People in Pakistan may only be acquainted with him, if at all, through his Hindustani productions. I would invite people from Lahore, Karachi, Lyallpur and elsewhere to do what you know best how to, so that the Youtube ban in Pakistan does not stand between Rituparno and you.

She started his life as an ad-man and was tremendously successful at that. Then he ventured into film direction and, as they say, she never looked back. If one’s diet of films is limited Bollywood, it would be hard to know that Rituparno is widely regarded as one of the best film directors of the subcontinent in the post Satyajit Ray generation.  Chitrangada, Kashmakash , Mumbai Cutting (segment “Urge”) , Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story), Abohomaan , Shob Charitro Kalponik , Khela (as Rituparno Ghosh) , The Last Lear , Dosor (The Companion , Antarmahal: Views of the Inner Chamber, Raincoat , Choker Bali: A Passion Play , Shubho Mahurat (An auspicious time), Titli (The First Monsoon Day ), Utshob ( The Festival ). Bariwali ( The Lady of the House),  Oshukh ( Malaise ),  Dahan ,Unishe April (as Rituparno Ghosh) , Hirer Angti ( The Diamond Ring) – the long list of films are a testament to the immense fecundity of the director. But it was just not about the number of films. Over the years, his films had one 12 National awards in India and also awards in film festivals of Berlin, Locarno and Chicago among many others. He also write the story and the screenplay of many of his films.

Death often creates a strange silence in a room that was laughing a moment ago. In this case, many Bengalis had been laughing to the blatantly hostile mimicry of Rituparno hosted by one Mir Afsar Ali, a comedian and anchor of sorts. In that ‘comedy’ show, there were hapless young men trying to keep a safe distance from a comedian mimicking Rituparno.  The portrayal of the queer as a predator on the hapless went by the name of mimicry. Laughter is the best medicine for diseases we wish to keep undiagnosed. Just that, now no one is laughing. This silence also matches the broad silence at what went by the name of ‘comedy’.  Honesty about the nature of our creatures would be a good tribute to Rituparno. And that involves none of the two silences.

As we talk about posthumous tributes, I remember one of Rituparno’s earlier films, Dahon. It was a story about the trials and tribulations of a woman who was molested on Kolkata’s streets. The real-life Bollywood style twist-in-the-tale came when the Chief Minister of West Bengal ‘directed’ the cheap posthumous drama of ‘owning’ the death of Rituparno. Death breeds selective memory. This Chief Minister had, only a few months ago, termed a rape on Park Street of Kolkata as a ‘staged incident’. Another MP from her party said that it was not a case of rape, but a ‘deal’ that had gone wrong. In Rituparno’s final journey, these are the people who scripted the show. When the government wanted to project sensitivity, few saw shamelessness.  No amount of fresh scented flowers can take the stench away from wreaths so rotten.

The sexual minorities in the subcontinent know better than many others how  police lathi feels inside their alimentary canal. The daily brutalization of sexual minorities is a frequent pastime for lions in khaki. Some of these lions were lined up beside Rituparno’s corpse in Kolkata. Rituparno’s on-your-face  ‘non-standard’ sexual identity, that made many squeamish, looked harmless, even absent, in death so much so that the police offered a ‘gun salute’. We were impressed.  The lathi has a spongy cuddly heart, you see.

Only the guilty is scared of nakedness. And to hide that, they gnaw at anything, even the shroud of a corpse. The guilty covers themselves in the shroud of the dead. This makes them a very peculiar kind of kafanchor – the kind that doesn’t even wait till the burial to steal the shroud in secrecy. Rather than the darkness of the night, such kafanchors like grand send-offs and flashing cameras. It offers the twin advantage of stealing the shroud from the corpse and showing it off to many others by wearing it right there. And looking very somber.  And almost comical. And yes, to laugh at that somberness would also be a tribute to Rituparno.

Such public spectacles add to the cesspool of vested interests that politics in West Bengal has become over the last 3 decades or so. Some would argue it was always so. But earlier there would be some distance. In moments of death, the leaders would become like the public and join them in remembering some worthy. Now that has become another cause to show who really runs the show. When a government cannot improve lives and deny rights of the people, spectacles over death become their forte.

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Gender, Obituary, Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heavenly duties of stones in our punyabhumi / Just the nature of my game / The life of stones

[ Daily News and Analysis, 16 Apr 2013;  Kashmir Reader, 20 Apr 2013 ]

Police forces in many areas of the Indian Union engage people in their area of activities by organizing football tournaments. By some heavenly design, these incidents almost always make it to the media, in a subcontinent where police atrocities find it hard to get reported. A smiling lion of a man handing a cup to some sweat-soaked youths. In other nations where police atrocities happen less frequently, police organize fewer football tournaments.

The recent months have seen passionate championing of the right of women not to be raped. The Justice Verma commission set up in the aftermath of the Delhi rape and murder incident invited responses from the public. It received many inputs from many quarters on their own. Not a single Director General of Police responded to the notices of the commission. They were probably busy giving away prizes at football tournaments. Image building exercises become important when exercises  to protect the rights of common people fail. But I am dirty-minded enough to suspect that there is more to this ‘failing’. I will simply ask the question – which domestic organization, in the business of providing monthly salaries and occasional bravery medals,  happens to employ the largest number of alleged rapists and serial abusers? Hint – such lions also fight against social vices by extracting money from sex-workers of all genders after raping them. Given that the ‘rule of law’ comes down hard when certain lines are crossed, I will not answer the question. Are you thinking what I am thinking?

This punyabhumi is choc-a-bloc full of men and women whose sensitivities are often bruised by the non-desi concept of a  sexual woman – in skin, in paint, on screen, in public. Stones have often been the weapon of choice against this anti-national evil. Where do these stones go after national duty like attacking artists is done? Since every inch of the land is punyabhumi, no wonder the stones also carry that near-heavenly quality. The national fervour that is deeply embedded in each and every such piece of stone does not decay like its slightly less masculine cousin of radioactivity. The stones simply march forward to Chhattisgarh to continue their holy duty.

Some of the stones made their way into the vagina and the rectum of one Soni Sori, held by Chhattisgarh police for 8 cases. In spite of the stones that were inserted deep in her vagina and rectum, the police could not prove the charges in 4 out of 8 cases. The other 4 are going on. The patriotic stones might have continued to torment an adibashi woman like Soni Sori unless her medical examination was shifted out of Chhattisgarh to less godly Kolkata. Soni Sori has also alleged that she has been repeatedly raped. But some of the prime witnesses, the patriotic stones, have been removed by the Kolkata doctors. Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose of Kolkata, in his later years, started finding ‘the living response’ in many inorganic matters, including rocks. Nothing short of the expertise of that departed soul can help make sense of the testimony of the stones. Till such time, Soni Sori’s rape will remain ‘alleged’.

The charges against Soni Sori that were proven false in court included very specific things like opening fire and using explosives to blast the vehicles of Essar steel, attacking the police at Kirandul and blowing up a police station. If the state were a person that imagined such crimes from thin air, concerns about mental health would arise. If the state deliberately made up these cases, then it is sociopathic.The state, after failing to prove charges against Soni Sori ( incidentally, a  school-teacher), has started an enquiry to ascertain whether she should be sent to the mental asylum in Agra.

Lets concentrate on the football tournament instead. SP saheb has already arrived for the prize distribution ceremony. I think we should all stand up, clap and smile  because our culture teaches us that we should be respectful to elders, especially those who win gallantry medals. Brown women need  not fear – too many lions of Bharatmata are protecting them in every street.

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Filed under Army / police, Class, Kolkata, Our underbellies, Power, Rights, Terror, Under the skin

Spokespersons of darker people – a response to Vijay Prashad’s Bengal’s Slide into Fascism

[ Frontier, 13 Apr 2013; The Northeast Today, May 2013]

There is a certain way in which certain spokes-people sell ‘movements’ happening in the third world to primarily white audiences in the first world. They act as non-partisan but ideological warriors. Curiously those representing this strand from India include many from the CPI(M), the foremost among them being Vijay Prashad. A recent article by Vijay Prashad in the widely read Counterpunch is a case in point where he paints an alarming scenario about the recent happenings in West Bengal – especially with reference to the death in police custody of Sudipto Gupta, a student activist of the SFI.

Much of what is being said about the incident is true, but, to the white readers in the first world, where English language ability becomes an important point of legitimacy of viewpoint, will hardly know that this is not unprecedented and that almost all of these crimes have been previously committed by the erstwhile CPI(M) government led by the party, They will also not know that such authors also support the same CPI(M).

The article in question can be found here ( http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/10/bengals-slide-into-fascism/)

1.Such propaganda materials do not state that the student organization of the CPI(M), when it was in power in West Bengal, systematically decimated other organizations, mostly through organized violence or threat thereof. These readers will also not know that during the CPI(M) regime, student union elections with non-SFI candidates happened in only a minority of college of Bengal -as in most colleges, SFI did not let others even submit nomination papers for candidature.

2.While they will wax eloquent on the danger of ‘neo-liberal reforms’ in education, they will not state that the ‘neo-liberal reforms’ like privatization and auctioning of college-seats to highest bidders were started by the erstwhile govt. to which the ‘main’ one owes allegiance to – and never confronted the government on the streets like it is doing now.

3.It will also not say that fees were raised many times during the  CPI(M) government – and that SFI did not take to the streets in protest.

4.The piece does not go into the details of “tendency to yoke education to careers and to measure learning with fealty to rules developed in the North Atlantic” – since a laying out of this would show that the past and present government were not qualitatively different in this respect.

5. That police lines have advanced hundreds of times with unpleasant and bloody motives on opposition student groups during the erstwhile regime, bloodying them and there was no ‘slide into fascism’ article written then by the author.

6.The arresting of hundreds of students and throwing them into buses to transport to jail, a vivid picture that would rouse a Westerner, is also something that the erstwhile government perfected and routinely practiced on opposition student activists.

7.Unless one probes deeper, the reader will not know that Sudipto Gupta was the latest in a string of students killed by police violence – a student protesting forcible takeover of land from peasants for a car factory was killed by police beating in Singur. There was no slide into ‘fascism’ when that happened. None of the 4 ‘left’ student organizations mentioned protested that killing. Shamefully, the present Chief Minister termed Sudipto’s death an accident. More shamefully, there are no words on record on the Singur death from the erstwhile Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya.

8.One should not forget that there has never been a public apology on any case of custodial death of opposition activists by the police during the CPI(M) rule. Trinamul is simply continuing that shameful tradition. Between 2001 and 2010, there have been 98 government documented cases of death in police custody due to torture during the CPM rule. This data is from the National Human Rights Commission, compiled by the Asian Centre of Human Rights led by Mr.Suhas Chakma. This is a fraction of the dead and a fraction of the CPM rule.

9.Sudipto Gupta is the 93rd ‘left front’ cadre killed in recent years, but the sordid ‘score’ is not 93-0. The lack of the other number is intellectual dishonesty. Scores of opposition members have been killed during the CPM regime. Even the erstwhile CPI(M) government did not only target the right-wing opposition but also communist activists from other parties and groups.

10.In the article, Vijay Prashad refers to a ‘temple’ dedicated to the present Chief Minister and presents a picture as proof. The Bangla words sadly dont say ‘temple’ – they simply say Alipur Trinamul Youth Congress office. By that same definition, Bengal is full of ‘temples’ to Lenin, Stalin and many others. No doubt the present Chief Minister is the singular face and command of the governing party, and she also has authoritarian tendencies, but to call that a ‘temple’ is pulling a fast one.

11.The article states ‘ any state inquiry would be compromised by the culture of impunity that has begun to enfold the state’ – what he does not say is that this culture of impunity is a legacy of the last government. How many killers of opposition activists were punished during the last regime? The article does not venture there. Impunity existed and continues to exist. The novelty is not the alarming bit, the continuity is. The piece , however, knows the value of using continuity to its favor, when it remembers acts by the present CM, similar to the one meted out to her in New Delhi. Just that there is a blind -spot and an empty time of 33 years, when all of this analysis does not seem to apply.The number of opposition party offices that had been destroyed and ransacked during the erstwhile regime somehow does not figure.

12.The piece correctly alarms how offices of party-affiliated women’s organizations were attacked. The same author in a different piece in the same publication, tried very hard to absolve party activists who committed the gruesome rape, burning and murder of Tapasi Malik, a fiery young activist who was fighting against forcible acquisition of land by the party-government that the author supported. The author insinuated that her father was involved in the killing. Later CPM party activists and functionaries were arrested.There was no follow-up from the author.

Read both the original piece http://www.counterpunch.org/2007/05/23/the-political-economy-of-a-crisis/ and its counterhttp://sanhati.com/news/307/ )

13.The piece states that the media will not let this be seen in context. True. So won’t the author. That missing context is the past record. Using the evocative imagery of the Kristallnacht may be smart for communicating the ‘gravity’ to Northern world sympathizers, but that’s just about it, especially in the context that this is not the first Kristallnacht, just the latest.

Bengal’s slide into fascism did not start with the present government, and with the past record of the present opposition, may not end with it, unless honesty and repentance of past-crimes becomes an integral part of political praxis of the opposition, including the CPM. Pointing out these out will bring obvious charges of being an apologist to the present government. In the meantime, poorer nations are stuck with self-appointed spokespersons with huge blind-spots. This was not an exercise in exposing an apologist of the CPI(M). It is also to make the point that honest reporting requires full truth-telling. Partial truths discredit everyone else who is fighting for justice.

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Filed under Bengal, Democracy, Power, Terror

Chavez – a subcontinental remembrance

[ Daily News and Analysis, 7 Mar 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 11 Mar 2013]

I never met the just-deceased leader of the neo-Bolivarian movement of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in person. However, living in this subcontinent, somewhat fortuitously, I have seen him in various forms. What does his death mean to the subcontinent? Did he mean anything to us when he was alive? I have a couple of personal snapshots to offer. It can be considered a tribute.

When I say that I have never met Hugo Chavez, it is only half true. I had seen him up on the stage at a mass-rally in Kolkata in 2005. At that point, I was in Medical College, Kolkata and a member of an independent students association, which was regularly threatened and sometimes physically beaten by members of the ‘Party’s’ student wing. Rakesh, a class-mate of mine and now a humanitarian doctor at the Shramajibi Hospital in the Sundarbans, and I saw the posters in the city that the ‘Party’ was organizing a mass rally at the Lake Stadium and Chavez would speak. At that time, the coup that had briefly deposed him and his valiant and popular return had gained wide currency in our minds. We did not have too much access to the Internet and online videos never smoothly streamed anyways. But what we had seen and heard, from here and there, had made us realize that this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. A ‘red’ leader whose action, mannerism and style was in such contrast to the Dodos that walked about in Kolkata neighbourhoods back then – this was reason enough for us to go to his rally that evening.

I must confess that we were rather scared. Rakesh had been repeatedly threatened and assaulted by the ‘Party’ and I was a known face too. And here we were, among thousands of the Party faithful. We hoped nobody recognized us – realistically the chances were slim. Half-jokingly, half-nervously, I whispered to Rakesh that in this 10000 (or more) versus 2 scenario, we could be vanished without trace.

The event was nominally organized the government. But the ‘Party’s top brass was in full attendance – some on stage and some very near it. Events like these were a strange version of universalism that only Kolkata used to experience. Once, the city was also treated to an event where Che Guevara’s daughter had come visiting. Around the time of these events, the public posturing of the ‘Party’ and the tone of the columns in the ‘Party’ daily used to be such as if the dhoti-clad were very uncomfortable in their air-conditioned offices, and were itching to hit the trenches. The last installment of this periodic farce was when Maradona came to Kolkata.

And then Chavez spoke. There was an interpreter who translated his Spanish to Bangla realtime. That poor soul drew angry jeers from the ‘Party’ faithful when he said ‘Karlos Markos’ – a name Hugo Chavez had just mentioned in that form. And I perked my ears up. Over the cacophony of the mujahideen disgusted at the Holy Name being taken in a non-divine Spanish ( and not divine English, but not German, mind you), a different Hugo emerged to us. The person on stage had been engaging with Karl Marx, on his own terms, with a confidence that comes from being deeply embedded in one’s cultural ethos. Rakesh and I were won.

There were layers upon layers of irony that evening. In the Panchayat Elections held less than two years earlier, as many as 5030 Gram Panchayat seats were won ‘unopposed’ by the same party that was hosting the character who had unleashed the most democratic regime that part of the world had seen in recent times – even facing a recall election. At some point in his speech, Chavez mentioned Gandhi (I don’t remember whether it was the Father or the Mother). The crowd fell silent – evidently, Hugo had not been briefed about the time and place. Rakesh and I, dirty-minded as we were, deliberately chose to clap hard at that moment, amongst angry looks of people around us. Looking back, I feel, that bit of bravado was not worth the potential risk.

When he left the stadium, he stuck out his torso the car-window, waving spiritedly. For a moment, he waved directly at us, or so I thought. A day later, there was a picture of him in the ‘Party’ daily from one of the ‘agricultural progress’ tours they must have organized. He smilingly held a giant-sized pumpkin on top of his head – with the dhoti-wallas around him not sure how to react. That moment, from the unlikely vantage of a still-photo in a Party daily, he spoke directly to irreverents like us. Such was Hugo.

And then, 8 years later, I saw ‘Hugo’ again, in Shahbag, Dhaka. He was about 25, wore a similar beret cap, and was leading the sloganeering. I saw a few others in Shahbag, sporting the ‘Hugo’ look. Surely Hugo was more alive in the East, beyond the clutches of the dodos of the West.

On Hugo’s death, my friend Aiyan Bhutta of Lahore, improvised an old Pakistan People’s Party slogan that had originally been coined after the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. ‘Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai’. ( From every home a Hugo will emerge, how many Hugo’s will you kill?). I remembered the 25-year old Bengali at Shahbag. Indeed. Tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai. Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga.

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Filed under Americas, Bengal, Democracy, Kolkata, Obituary, Power

Floating in the Durbar / Floats in the Delhi Durbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dilli khushion ka angan

Dilli sadio se raoshan

Dilli kala ka sagar…

Dilli sab ka dil hai yaaro,

Desh ki dharkan Dilli’

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

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

Deconstructing elite ‘concern’ and ‘action’ on rape / Shinde’s ‘Common Man’ Approach Is Just Rhetoric / Rape, rapists and politicians / Hope, that foul, deceitful thing

[ Daily News and Analysis, 24 Dec 2012 ; Kashmir Times, Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 1 Jan 2013 ; Millenium Post, 28 Dec 2012 ]

When powerful people show concern and promise speedy action on injustice, there is a transient moment of home. Given how many times this charade has been played in front of the people, including this time with regards to the Delhi rape and violence incident, it may be useful to take this incident and analyze. This may be a useful exercise in calling out double-speak from the Indian nation state.

Not always does one see a failed presidential candidate come out to defend the ‘sanctity’ of the residential-palace of a successful presidential candidate. On 22nd December, Sushil Kumar Shinde, the home-minister of the Indian Union, tried his best to appear statesmanlike at the press-conference at the Press Information Bureau. Flanked by a couple of other ministers and a smattering of bureaucrats, he announced to the assembled media and through them to ‘people-at-large’ that the government had heard the rape-protestors of New Delhi. The poor should learn something – it is not enough to be displaced, raped, maimed, killed, brutalized for years. It is also important to know how to chant slogans in English and write them in chart-paper. The star-studded press conference was not so much about firefighting – after all, youths holding placards written in English are not a major electoral constituency.  It was more about appearing sensitive to a larger populace. Shinde saheb even tried the ‘common-man’ approach.

He said that he understood the outrage for he too was a father. Oh, the connect! Lesser mortals are lesser in more ways than one. Rare are the moments when people in power include themselves in ‘everyone of us’, as if we are one community. When the ‘common bond of humanity’ ploy is used in such moments – those in the charmed circle in Lutyen’s Delhi and its South Delhi spill-over nod liberally in agreement. One would almost want to believe that Shinde saheb’s daughter would buy a 10 Rupee ticket on a green Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus and travel from Daryaganj to Kapashera border after a hard day’s work, you know, like many, many others. No such luck. Shinde saheb has Z plus security. One of his daughters, Praniti madam, is a MLA. With more police force out to protect his powerful daughter than what would be deployed to protect an average neighbourhood, it is hard to imagine an anxious father of a commoner here. Unless of course she was meeting aspiring legislators of his own party. After all, in the last five years,  Maharashtra, Shinde saheb’s home state, has had the largest number of candidates with declared cases of crimes against women, including rape. Atleast 26 Indira Congress candidates to different legislatures had such cases against them (source: Association for Democratic Reforms). Shinde Saheb may say that all of these cases are politically motivated or ‘law will take its own course’, but surely, as a father, would he take chances? If not, what have the people done to deserve these candidates from his party? That the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party also has numerous such candidates does not help matters, does it? What do Smriti Iraniji and Sushma Swarajji think about the ‘jewels’ that their party has been nominating? Why is the tirade against the bad guy always directed towards an inchoate other or society at large, when there are more tangible alleged-rascals inside the party? There have been calls for ‘fast-track’ legal procedures for such cases. Ostensibly, this fast tracking should also apply to alleged crime committed against women by tricolour and saffron ‘social workers’. Shouldn’t it?

In a statement after meeting the Prime Minister of the Indian Union, Manmohan Singhji, Shinde Saheb stated that “To ensure a strong law to deal with crimes of this nature, the government will take immediate steps for the amendment of the Criminal Law for enhanced and more effective punishment in the rarest of the rare cases of sexual assault such as this”. This is something that has a resonance with a significant section of the protestors where public hanging and castration have been demanded. But there is rape and there is rape. The state has hinted that it might toy with the idea of death penalty or something more severe that the present punishment for ‘rarest of the rare cases’. Is the alleged rape of a 56-year-old woman in Gujarat by a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawan a ‘rarest of rare case’? Does the alleged repeated sexual brutalization of Soni Sori  in the custody of Chhattisgarh police qualify as a ‘rarest of rare case’? Was the alleged gang-rape of a 12 year old mentally challenged deaf and mute girl by 3 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) near their Warangal area camp a ‘ rarest of rare case’? What about the alleged gang-rape in Basirhat, West Bengal by 5 jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF)? Is the alleged rape of a Congolese child a by Indian Army jawan posted as a ‘peace-keepers’ a ‘rarest of rare case’?  Did the forensic evidence of DNA match matter in that case? Did anything matter? Did anything get fast-tracked, or was a clean-chit thrown back on the face of the victim? What about the Kunan Poshpora tragedy of February 23, 1991 – the alleged gang-rape of more than 50 Kashmiri women by jawans of the Indian Army? It has been 22 years. Does ‘morale’ come before justice or does ‘honour’ look different when viewed through tricolour blinders? Or are these not ‘rarest of rare cases’ not ‘rarest of rare’ precisely because they are not rare? I sincerely hope the Delhi youngsters who spectacularly besieged the Raisina Hills only to be lathi-charged back have all this in mind, when they chant, ‘We-want-jus-tice’.

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Filed under Army / police, Class, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Elite, Gender, Nation, Our underbellies, Power, Rights, Scars, Terror, The perfumed ones

This my people / Irom’s Manipur, Pazo Bibi’s Balochistan and Obama’s America – lessons for the Subcontinent

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), December 28 – January 03, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 46 ; Frontier(web), 27 Nov 2012; The NorthEast Today, May 2013 ]

The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

—Allan Bloom

When there is a festival, it may create an illusion as if the ‘whole world’ is happy at this moment. Or so we like to think. Solitary wails cannot be heard above the sea of laughter. For a certain segment of inhabitants of the Indian Union, the high note of last November was Barrack Obama’s victory in the US presidential elections. He asked for 4 more years. He got it. Resident and non-resident desis watched his victory speech of hope.  USA may or may not have 4 more years of hope, but that November also marked 12 years of hopelessness in a part of this subcontinent. Irom Sharmila Chanu, the Gandhi that Gandhi never was, finished 12 years of her epic fast, protesting the torture perpetrated by the armed wing of the Indian state in Manipur, especially in the cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). And she is not finished, yet. She may get 12 more years. I sincerely hope not.

A major part of the reason why the cries of Manipuri women, as exemplified by Irom Sharmila Chanu, can be ignored is the purported ‘insignificance’ of Manipur in the ‘national’ scene. This ‘national scene’ effectively came into being in the Indian Union after the Republic was proclaimed in 1950. Even before the Indian Union was a Republic, it had managed to dismiss the democratically elected government of Manipur led by the Praja Shanti party. The Congress had fought the elections of Manipur and lost. Manipur, with an elected government and at that point not an integral part of the Union, was annexed by the Union of India, which was still not a Republic. Original sins often create particularly bad ulcers.  Excision is not an option for a ‘modern nation state’. Hence ‘insignificant’ ulcers bleed on as the rest of the body is on pain-killers, reading history and civics dutifully from official textbooks.

The focus on the US presidential election also focused the minds of some desis on to the two other elections happening in the USA at the same time – those to the US Congress and the US Senate. Let us understand a few things carefully. The US Congress is analogous to the Lok Sabha of the Indian Union. But the USA is a nation constituted by a more real commitment to federalism rather than a semantic charade in the name of federalism. Hence its upper house, the US Senate is not analogous to the Rajya Sabha of the Indian Union. In the lower house in both USA and the Indian Union, the numbers of seats are meant to be proportional to the population. This represents that strand of the nation-state that gives precedence to the whole. This whole is ahistorical and is a legal instrument, though much time and money is spent in the Indian Union to create a fictional past of this legal form. The upper house in the USA represents that strand where past compacts and differing trajectories and identities are represented in the form of states. The states form the ‘United’ States of America – hence in the Senate the unit is the state, not the individual citizen. That is why in the US Senate, each state, irrespective of population, has 2 members. This respects diversity of states and acts as a protection against the domination of more populous states and ensures that smaller states are respected and are equal stake-holders of the Union. In the Indian Union, the so-called ‘Rajya Sabha’ is simply a copy of the Lok Sabha, with multiple staggered time offsets. Even in the Rajya Sabha, the seats allotted to each state are roughly proportional to its population – and hence at its core does not represent any different take on the Indian Union. In the Sabha of the Rajyas, the Rajyas are not the unit, making a mockery of the name itself. Manipur has 1 representative in a Rajya Sabha of 245 members. Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura altogether have 7 members in that Rajya Sabha. No group thinks of themselves as ‘lesser people’ for being fewer in number. A federal democratic union is not only for the children of Bharatmata. It is a way of having a joint family with many mothers, for no one’s mata is less important than my mata.

This pattern is replicated all across the subcontinent. When one looks to the west, once sees the autonomy of the Khanate of Kalat being usurped unilaterally as part of the ‘One Unit’ scheme, again by a fresh Pakistan state that itself did not possess a republican constitution. And there too, one sees a festering ulcer that bleeds intermittently. Sweeping powers given to the Frontier Corps do not help. Nor do the extra-judicial killings and torture of young Baloch activists help. Piercing an ulcer with a dirty knife risks a general blood poisoning. Every missing person, every body-less head, every tortured torso that ‘appears’ by the highway in Balochistan makes the lofty pronouncements about human rights made from Islamabad that much more hollow. And even if the Baloch decided to try to democratic path, what can they do in a system where they count for less than a tenth of the seats, in the national assembly. In November, the extra-ordinary powers of the Frontier Corps were extended in Balochistan again. Maintaining ‘law and order’ is the universal answer to all protestations – that same cover that the British used to beat brown people into pulp. If the brutal actions of the Frontier Corps as well as the impunity enjoyed by themselves sounds familiar across the border, it is because their colonial cousins in Khaki also have a similar record of glory. It is this impunity that has broader implications. Live footages of Sarfaraz Shah’s killing or Chongkham Sanjit’s murder will not lead to anyone’s pension being withheld. Behind the scenes, there might well be pats on the backs for the ‘lions’.

It is useful to understand why it is in the best interest of a democratic Union that the Rajya Sabha be constituted on a fundamentally different paradigm than the Lok Sabha, rather than replicating it. In contrast to the ‘whole’ viewpoint, the regions of the Indian Union and Pakistan have diverse pasts, some of which have hardly ever been intertwined with the ‘centre’, however defined. This also means that concerns, aspirations and visions of the future also differ based on a region’s perceived attitude towards a monolithic ‘whole’. A federal democratic union is one that does not discriminate between aspirations and is rather flexible enough to accommodate differing aspirations. Rather than using ‘unity in diversity’ as an anxious mantra of a paranoid monolith, one might want to creatively forge a unity whose first step is the honest assessment of diversity by admitting that the Indian Union or Pakistan are really multi-national nation-states.

Irom Sharmila’s struggle is failing partly because in this fight for dignity of the Manipuri people, the subcontinental constitutions drowns the voice of the victim in the crowd of the apathetic and the indifferent, inside and outside the legislative chambers of Delhi and Islamabad. Violence then becomes a way to be heard above the high decibel ritual chants of the ‘idea of India’ or ‘fortress of Islam’ or ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’. Ideologically vitiated ‘national’ school syllabi and impunity of military forces do not produce unity – it produces a polarization between unity and diverse dignities. There is no unity without the constitutive parts’ dignity. Hindi majoritarianism or Punjabi-Urdu majoritarianism may not appear so to its practitioners but from the vantage of the step-children of the majoritarian nation-state, the world looks very different.  When such questions are raised in the subcontinent, one may see tacit agreement or opposition. As far as the opposition goes, it is important to make a few mental notes. Is the person who opposes the idea for whatever reason, from Delhi/Islamabad/Lahore or broadly from North India / West Punjab? Also, has the concerned person lived most of their adult life in a province different from where his/her grandfather lived. If the answer to either if this is yes, there is a high likelihood that the pattern of response to questions raised in this piece will be of a certain kind. Inherent majorities with the noblest of democratic pretensions end up forming imperious centres in the name of a union. A democratic union of states takes into cognizance the subcontinent as it is, not the subcontinent that delhiwallas and isloo/lahorewallas would want it to be like.

A point often made by legal honchos of the subcontinent is that neither Pakistan nor the Union of India is a union of states in the same way the United States of America is. What they mean is that these nation-states did not come into being due to some agreement or treaty between states. Rather they maintain that the states/provinces are arbitrary legal entities/ instruments created by the respective constitutions for administrative ease. What such a reading aims to do is to delegitimize any expression of aspiration of the states/provinces that may not be in line with the centre. How can an arbitrary legal entity created by central fiat and also alterable by fiat have autonomous will? This legalese collapses in the face of sub-continental reality where states/provinces as they exist today are broadly along ethno-linguistic lines. These entities are along ethno-linguistic lines ( and more are in the pipeline in Seraiki province or Telegana) because ‘administrative’ units can only be arbitrary to a point, irrespective of the total arbitrariness that constitutions permit. The ethno-linguistic ground-swells are real, aspirations to homeland are real, and since the capital cities do not have enough experimental chambers to convert all inhabitants into ‘nothing but Indian’ or ‘nothing but Pakistani’, these are here to stay and do not seem to have any immediate plans of committing suicide. While the specific drawing of the lines may be arbitrary (something that applies to the whole nation-state too), that in no way makes the reality of ethno-linguistic community habitats vanish. A legal stranglehold that denies this reality also ends up denying that the subcontinent existed before the constitutions were drawn up. If the BritIsh didn’t happen to the subcontinent, and if one or more large nation-states had to happen in the subcontinent, such entities would have been due to agreements between different near-sovereign entities. That states/provinces did not have such agency to make such a compact in 1947 is a legacy of British rule. Ironically, such a scenario bequeathed from the British is the bedrock of the post-colonial nation-states of Pakistan and the Indian Union. Both like to call themselves federal, for no one else calls them so.

A creative re-conceptualization of the distribution of representation and power in the Indian Union as well as Pakistan may show that one does not necessarily need to choose between the unity and diversity. Accounting for more than a sixth of humanity and a serious breadth of non-domesticated diversity, that subcontinental experiment is worth doing, irrespective of its outcome. A people’s democratic union is not only feasible but also humane. For far too long, bedtime stories commissioned by the state have been read out in schools and in media outlets, so that our deep metropolitan slumber is not interrupted by real nightmares in rougher parts. But there are just too many truths to spoil the myth.

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Action, inaction, defection and the FDI saga / When parties come before people / Holding democracy to a whip / Why the ant-defection law must be abolished / Anti-defection law

[ Daily News and Analysis, 9 Dec 2012 ; Millenium Post, 12 Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 14 Dec 2012]

In the FDI debate that happened in the Lok Sabha, a particularly painful moment saw ‘Netaji’ Mulayam Singh Yadav take the name of Ram Manohar Lohia. He talked about Lohia and Gandhi. Even as he made tired statements to the effect that he opposed FDI in multi-brand retail in principle, it was getting ample clear to everyone that he and his party would walk out when the moment of truth would in the form of voting. Paralysis and hypocrisy are two conditions where one’s action is not in line with publicly expressed wish. At any rate, they are not among the desirable characteristics of ‘peoples representatives.’ Some old Samajwadis in his contingent might have wanted to defect and vote their conscience to avoid the ignominy of being associated with either of the two conditions.. But that would effectively end the parliamentary career of such people. So they followed their ‘Netaji’ out of the house. Avoidance of trouble is preferable to happiness. The Anti-Defection law drawn up by party bosses have ensured that no Samajwadi Party member of parliament or for that matter, any member of parliament of any party cannot vote in accordance with what he/she deems right. One has to slavishly follow the party diktat or lose the their membership of the parliament, unless at least a third of the MPs of a party find their spine.

It may not be a totally idle exercise to think how the FDI vote would have turned out if the anti-defections law was not in place, given the murmurs of discontent that exist even within the Indira Congress. The anti-defection law is supposedly a counter against horse-trading. In the period from 1985 to 2009, only 19 members of parliament have been disqualified for violating the party whip. The party leaderships don’t have faith on people winning on their ticket, partly because they know on what flimsy self-serving ground such an assemblage of champions is created in the first place. The leaderships also know that enticements of greater value may sway legislators – irrespective of the publicly stated reason of coming together as party – Gandhian socialism, Indian nationalism, Hindutva, OBC rights or whatever. At a deeper level, these are signs of crisis in the very nature of the political class – namely, the absence of inner party democracy and ideology based politics. That crisis has only deepened. Hence the need of the anti-defection law to make parliamentarians falls in line with high command dictates. This form of quasi-Stalinist centralism somehow has a long afterlife in those nations (India, Bangladesh, Kenya) where freedom of expression is also under constant threat from the government of the day. I have a feeling that it is not accidental. UK, France, Canada, Germany and USA have no such anti defection law for their legislators.

It is important to understand what a member of parliament represents. One is not simply a ‘proxy’ for the people but a representative of the changing wishes of the people of one’s constituency. That is to say, things change and so do people’s wishes, above and beyond the programme of the party on whose ticket one was elected. Party programme cannot be the sole guide if parliamentary democracy is to be a living entity. In a first past the post system, many MPs do not win by majority but by plurality. Parties command all the representative abilities of a MP by issuing whips. This is when democracy takes a beating at the hand of partycracy.

Parties are important tools of organizing opinion and force multiplication, especially across larger geographical spaces. Do people vote for a party or a candidate or both? The answer is variable. Candidates use parties and parties in turn use candidates. The Mohammedan MPs of the BJP are a fine example of this symbiotic relationship. In some cases, parties change candidates and win. In other cases, some people win, irrespective of their party affiliation at the time. Clearly parties are not the last word in a democracy. The individual representatives matter too.

In the presence of  party-whips, voting records of individual MPs are a monotonous copy of party stances, or worse still a continuous testimony to the nature of cynical machinations that the party-head has executed. The anti-defection laws were purportedly drawn up to avoid Matsyanyay – the condition where the big fish eat the small fish. In has resulted in a system where even the minimally conscientious fish is too scared to make its opinion known by voting one’s own opinion. The anti-defection law does not penalize anyone, even the leadership, when it deviates from stated party programme. With the rise and rise of parties that have dynastic or persona-based leaderships, a different Matsyanyay is at play. Only the top fish needs to be ‘managed.’ The top issues the whip and the rest of the shoal falls in line. This surely cannot be a good sign for an aspiring democracy representing such variegated shades as the subcontinent. The anti defection law only solidifies the false majorities of parties in a first past the post system.  It must go. Without it, there will be problems of a different kind. But nothing justifies making people representatives secondary to parties in an aspiring democracy.

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The Great veil / A pecking order falls / The veil of civilisation and Hurricane Sandy / The veil of civilization / After Hurricane Sandy blew the veil

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) December 14-20, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 20 ; Down to Earth, 15 Dec 2012 ; Frontier (web), 7 Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 13 Dec 2012 ; Millenium Post, 7 Dec 2012 ; The Social Science Collective, 9 Jan 2012 ]

“ Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.

Ashole ar nokole take boror moto dekhaye.

Gachher kachhe giye dnarao

Dekhbe koto chhoto.“

–       Shakti Chattopadhyay (poet from Bengal)

Translation:

Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

With the real and the unreal, they appear big.

Go stand near the tree

You will see the small-ness.

We live in a world filled with theories of human nature, or more correctly, theories of human nature that explain differences between people. Such theories have a wide ranging currency and explain differences between people in things as varied as poverty, labour efficiency, honesty, graciousness, violence (or lack thereof), scientific progress, cleanliness of streets, alcoholism, sexual prowess and what not. The power of these theories are in that they set the agenda, around which we create our perceptions of ourselves and others, our assessment of the present, our hopes for the future, our aspiration and desires. This is why it is important we take such ‘human nature’ theories seriously and critically, for they define our present and limit our future.

The cold-blooded violence of the Taliban, the ‘simplicity’ of Chhattisgarh adivasis, the mathematical ability of Tamil Brahmins, the ability of German companies to build precision instruments, the courteousness (‘How are you doing?’) of a white bus driver in Boston, the ‘sense of justice’ of the British, the ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’ of immigrant Europeans in North America, the dapper look of a New York police officer, the sense of duty, discipline and punctuality that is apparently absent among brown folks – this long list is only a small set of qualities that are attributed to the intrinsic nature of a group of people. The Pashtun are prone to gratuitous violence ‘by nature’. The other examples I cite also have this quality of being explained by the nature of the people, an ethnic-quality, so to say, that specially marks them out, for good or for bad. This way of explaining away differences between people not only obfuscate strands of commonality between them, but also work against initiatives of transformation of societies from within (Pashtun women cannot ‘save’ themselves and Pashtun men cannot have any role in such an initiative). Such ideas also make us permanent prisoners of an inferiority complex (lazy, dishonest, unclean brown men) – piecemeal personal liberation coming through some kind of an internal theorizing that one is among the very few with the ‘wrong’ skin but the ‘right’ nature. Our world has this organization, this ‘civilizational’ pecking order of sorts, which manages to encroach upon our innermost subjectivities, deeply colouring our attitudes and aspirations. It even warps our sense of aesthetics, so much so that we cannot even make ourselves dislike what we may know to be bad. For example, my modern urban aesthetic can only imagine beauty in concrete while I know that paving the ground makes rain-water run off, causing water tables to drop. The alternatives, soil, dust, clay, have lost all aesthetic appeal, irrespective of my public posturing. This crisis has multiple far-reaching implications – environmental effects are only one of them.

It is not easy to see the world bare naked, without the ideological veil of the civilizational pecking order, especially when it has been naturalized. Rare are the moments when the veil is lifted. It is the witnessing of such rare moments that helps one unlearn, cleanse oneself off handed-down ideologies and breathe easy. And here comes the story of the hurricane. For Nature in itself (not our perception of nature) has not been brainwashed.

Because it has not been brainwashed, it can be irreverent, indiscriminate. It can lash Haiti’s coastline and lower Manhattan in similar ways and in one stroke can be the great equalizer when dehumanized Haitians and refined New Yorkers, the ‘animal’ and the ‘ideal’ both are frightened and shiver. Rare are these moments when layer upon layer of ideology, constructed over centuries, can be briefly peeled back to show what is generally concealed by the apparent disparities between the garbage-scavenger of Mumbai and the iphone-totting yuppie New Yorker. The approaching Hurricane Sandy caused panic. People tried to stock up on water and food. There were fistfights to buy water. There was no queue. There was no ‘discipline’. There was no ‘West’. There is no ‘West’ without surplus – the genie that bankrolls the breathing space between mere survival and the life of consumer dignity.

A friend from New Jersey called. There was no electricity. ‘Whats the correct way to wash my clothes without the machine – you are from India, you know right? Alas, I am from elite Kolkata, but I knew by seeing. Put water, put clothes, put soap. He said ‘ and then spin by hand?’ He wanted to mimic the machine. With the power gone, the powerlessness showed. Notions of differential ‘progress’ due to difference in ‘intrinsic’ nature felt dubious, the arrows pointing to paradise momentarily did not all point in the same direction. Rare are these moments when the inclined plane of progress, where difference in ethnic location becomes difference in ‘developmental’ time, caves in near the peak. It self-corrects fast. Electricity will be restored. But in the intervening darkness, if you remember what you fleetingly saw, you will never believe again.

To be able to look at your belief-system being battered by a hurricane is not easy. It is not easy to see unclean public lavatories that you thought you had left behind in the tropics. Just one day of a Hurricane blessed holiday of the underclass janitors is enough to create a stench that one has learned to associate with some and not with some.  In the gullet of Manhattan, from where the Empire State Building cannot be seen, pecking orders briefly collapse. They collapse without Hurricanes too, on a daily basis, between the rounds that the janitor makes, in the obnoxious splatters in lavatories of Michelin starred restaurants, in the toilets left unflushed in the most exclusive of hotels. The anonymity of the restroom latch lets out a ‘West’ that is more like something we associate with our skin that we have learned to hate. To take away a single-minded aspiration, from those who are otherwise alienated from all other aspirational trajectories, can be destabilizing. The frequent restroom cleaning keeps the ideological veneer on, for us to aspire and be awed. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Surplus makes near-godliness achievable in this earth. For a significant part of the year I live in a locality of Kolkata. This is also where I grew up – a distinctly ‘down-market’ area called Chetla. People often wear lungis on streets and near the rail-bridge, there are lumps of human excreta on the roadside every morning. As I stroll down the manicured streets of Boston, a dirty thought emerges. If the surplus were to evaporate, would the sauve Bostonian come to resemble my people from Chetla? How would the sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue look, early in the morning then? Would the air still be filled with the nauseatingly the high number of ‘Thank you’s’ , ‘Sorry’s ‘and  ‘Excuse me’s’ I say and hear every day? Would this veneer of gracefulness, thankfulness, personal space, yoga retreats and wine-tastings still mesmerize? What does it take to lift the veil? The ease of unraveling might hold better clues to our commonalities and differences than ideologies of progress and development.

Barbarians say that surplus is the stake that holds the veil to the ground. The stake is deeply embedded – it has taken centuries to ram in thousands of them. They are only getting deeper. Hurricanes can only pull out a couple of them, that too very briefly. The stakes have slave labour, usurped lands and colonial extraction written all over them. Reparations can send the veil flying off.

Meanwhile in other parts of global urbania that are playing catch-up, elaborate mechanisms of creating lavatories and frequently cleaning them are being finalized. However they do not have the advantage of acquiring shipfuls of humans from Senegal. Their dreams of creating a ‘world-class’ Delhi need more than a few fingers of Katam Suresh of Gompad, Chattisgarh. One needs many Chhattisgarhs, millions of fingers to adorn the necks of lakhs of unreformed ‘Angulimalas’. To ‘naturally’ fit in to the class of connoisseurs of ‘Belgian’ chocolate, one needs to be better than King Leopold. King Leopold of Belgium. Google him. Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor. Even their names sound better between hurricanes.

“ Ashole tumi khudro chhoto,

Fuler moto bagane foto.

Birohe jodi dnariye othho

Bhuter moto dekhaye.

Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.”

Translation :

Actually you are small, tiny,

Blooming like a flower in the garden.

If you stand up in sadness

You look like a ghost.

Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Environment, Knowledge, Kolkata, Non-barbarians, Power, Scars, Under the skin

A Harvard state of mind

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Nov 2012 ]

Having been associated with the Harvard University since 2006, I have attended a very many events there. On 13 November, I witnessed an event, which led to some thoughts that I would like to share. At a panel-discussion titled  “ The Supreme Court of India and the Implementation of Human Rights”, I got to hear Altamas Kabir, The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Indian Union, Swatanter Kumar, a judge of the Supreme Court of the Indian Union and Ashwani Kumar, the freshly minted Law Minister of the government at Delhi.

I arrived at the newly built Wasserstein building. There were absolutely no entry bars – precisely what a public event in a university should be like. If such an event were held in Kolkata where I grew up, the amount of frisking that would have gone on, can be imagined – apart from the self-appointed managerial positions that young and not-so-young functionaries of the local Youth Congress would have taken up. There were no flower bouquets, no thhali girls.

The event happened in a class-room with a seating capacity of 86. Not all seats were filled. Having studied in an elite college in Kolkata, I could imagine that an event like this would easily fill the huge centenary hall of the University of Calcutta. But during my 6 years (1999 -2005) in the University of Calcutta (West Bengal’s largest university), I had no opportunity to attend an event where the union law minister and more than one sitting judge of the supreme court spoke. More importantly, there was an opportunity for questions after they were done speaking. While I am individually fortunate, I come from that unfortunate stock whose ability to interact with their own minister and high functionaries of the government comes easier when they are out of their native land. In my years at Harvard, I have been in the same room with Pranab Mukherjee, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Kaushik Basu, Kapil Sibbal, Nirupama Rao and others. In my years at the University of Calcutta, I had no such opportunity. Harvard University’s own funds are about 30.7 billion US Dollars at present. This figure is close to the total GDP of Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In 2009, the University Grants Commission of India gave about 12 crores to Burdwan University (awarded a NAAC 5-star status) as its tentative 11th plan period allocation. Such is the love for elite spaces in America in the mind of the government at Delhi that in 2008, it donated about 22 crore rupees to Harvard University. We surely have got our grant priorities right. But I digress.

I heard the minister speak. Hearing his crisp English, I remembered how many people were concerned at the possibility of Mayawati become the prime minister. The anxieties were not about policy but about public speaking and interaction skills at the global stage. As I sat hearing the minister, I realized how much like music must this accent of the minister sound to ‘global Indian’, how much his seamless comfort in suits soothes their nerves. The event had no surprises except for a brief moment when Altamas Kabir felt thirsty and reached for water that was on the table in front of him. Someone from the front-row, probably some government functionary, literally leapt to assistance without being asked, trying to get the bottle and the glass to the judge before he could get to them himself. The agile response looked oddly out of place but then most of the spectators were also from the subcontinent. They understood.

Humans from the subcontinent seem to acquire more rights and privileges and access to the eminent, when they are in some elite centre in USA. They can ask question without intermediaries. They can walk up without being stopped. However transiently, it feels like the eminent are also fellow citizen. Back in the subcontinent, this is not possible unless one belongs to a certain bubble. This is precisely why the pronouncements of the government on human rights have to be compared with the reports on the status of human rights in India, coming from the United Nations agencies and other human rights organizations. A good human rights record speaks for itself and does not need public relations acrobatics from the government. Which is why even a St.Stephenian accent is not enough to sell a positive human rights record to the AFSPA affected Manipuri youth. It is easier sold at Harvard, or so the government may think.

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Beyond Anglo-trade and Anglo-aid

[ Daily News and Analysis, 12 Nov 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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The art of brewing a telegenic storm / Hurricane Sandy

[ Millenium Post, 7 Nov 2012 ; Echo of India, 14 Nov 2012 ]

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston. This is not a town in the USA. It is a city in Jamaica, immortalized among many people by Harry Belafonte’s soulful voice in ‘Jamaica farewell’. It is very probable that by now audience in many parts of the world through TV and newspapers know of very small town of eastern USA. Some might have picked up names of neighbourhoods in New York City. In an iniquitous global media regime, the size of the basic unit of human assemblage, that is capable of capturing attention and only thereafter be injected with properties of humanity, varied widely from place to place. If it is an OECD nation, chances are you will have heard and read not only stories of neighbourhoods but also of individual people and their struggles. But I digress.

I came across this ‘wind-map’ of over the North American subcontinent. This was quite an internet rage for sometime – a strange thrill of sorts, of being in the midst of it, and hovering over in a helicopter at the same time. This participation has limits. For if the map was not insular and showed places were other people lived, one would have known that when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston, its highest winds were blowing at 130 kilometres per hour. For good or for bad, there was no minute by minute live update.

If the media cameras has panned away from New York Mayor Bloomberg’s press meet, one would have seen the death and destruction in Haiti and Cuba where not whole towns and settlements have been destroyed. However, we do not know of the names of those towns, let alone specific neighbourhoods. Their pictures, their human conditions, will not flashed across front pages half way across the world. Lesser people have lesser print space, if at all. While every human being is equally precious, the fact that most media outlets have carried no follow up of the news of the 100 fishermen who were stranded off the Carribean coast during the Hurricane, tells us that beyond the quantity of humanity, there is a notion of quality of humanity – a conception of quality that is sickening to the core.

While we had so much sympathy about loss of electricity in North America, that nearly 70% of Jamaica lost electricity is something that I had to try hard to unearth. This is especially rich and sad at the same time as the contours of such reporting are replicated dutifully even in those parts of the world where the reach of electricity does not even reach 70%., including the Indian Union. In that feverish reportage of flooded subways of New York, not only a large part of the Carribean coast gets flooded. The appeal for emergency aid from those areas also got drowned.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston, Jamaica and has killed over 70 in the Carribean till now. This is greater than the total number of casualties in the USA, till now. Carribean islands, Haiti, Dominican Republic. Hispaniola actually. Columbus had made his landfall there.

But I was not watching some US channel – why did they only show the US part of the hurricane on Indian TV? May be it’s the same reason why even storms, hurricanes and cyclones that have killed many more in India also did not get so much live coverage.

In his live-beamed press conference, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sounded so confident and reassuring and looked so smart in his coat and tie. The New Yorkers were giving such articulate interviews to the channels. What do we have? Our cyclone-affected are a bloody disgrace. Remember Cyclone Aila? They show themselves half-naked on TV, stare weirdly at the camera and cant even speak English. I hope they show New York subway water removal when Cyclone Neelam makes landfall. Much more civilized. And in any case, Haitian, Dominican and Jamaican companies don’t own stakes in Indian media outlets. At least somebody has got their priorities right. I mean, anchors sitting in Delhi looked seriously worried about the disruption of public transportation in New York.

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Why all roads should avoid leading to Delhi

[ Daily News and Analysis, 22 Oct 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explanatory notes:

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

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

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

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

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Opposition as sin : symptoms of a decaying federalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can one ‘bad’ apple spoil the bunch?

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 September 2012 ]

 

Irrespective of how this battle ends, the rules of engagement have possibly changed for some time to come. The Trinamool, Bengal’s political behemoth, has decided to quit the Union cabinet, opposing the decision of allowing FDI in multibrand retail, subsidy reduction in LPG and diesel. This may also mean an end of its relationship with the ruling Congress(I), but that is yet unknown. Beyond number games and the longevity of the present Union government and its policies, certain happenings may affect politics in the times to come.

The foremost among these is the Trinamool’s unmaking of the typical role of a regional second fiddle. In the largely bipolar contemporary electoral political scene of the Indian Union, the Congress(I) and the BJP have come to represent poles around which other groups ought to coalesce. The expected role of such alliance partners is to generally stay out of macro policy decisions of the ‘national’ and ‘international’ import. There are entrenched and well-heeled Delhi-types to take care of those things – thank you very much. In return for looking away or nodding passively, they gain the right to haggle over the size of their booty – this ranges from the apparently selfless like outlays for specific provinces to opportunities to help themselves like ‘juicy’ ministry births and crony deals. It would be a mistake to see these as necessary evils that the righteous ‘national’ parties have to put up with. Only the ideologically blinkered would see it this way. Rather they are pay-offs to ‘pesky’ but necessary, ‘regional’ forces that are needed in the era of coalitions so that the right to the largest share of the spoil can be ensured beyond doubt. The regionals that are party to government are not expected to veto broad policy. It is this rule of the game that Trinamool has broken.

Previously, the Trinamool has demanded its pound of flesh; its choice of cuts – shank or sirloin – it has haggled over such things. Those things were, however, rarely the issues over which the Trinamool has been known to threaten and did not figure in its list of reasons for quitting the cabinet. Quite the opposite, actually. It has been most vociferous and contrarian on issues that are not Bengal-specific. The mock pretensions in its ‘All India’ prefix notwithstanding, the Trinamool Congress is a party of Bengal. In recent times, this is a ‘regional’ group whose political stance on ‘broader’ issues has come to be known at large. Its acute interest in these issues can partly be traced back to the contested  political space it inhabits in Bengal, in opposition to the CPI(M). In an effort to cede no oppositional space to the Left Front even on what are its pet issues, the Trinamool has sought to posture along the line the Left would have, if the Trinamool were to play the role of a traditional regional party. Trinamool’s critical importance also partly stems from the specific power balance and numbers of the 15th Lok Sabha. So is this case of mould-breaking regionalism a particular phenomenon that happened due to an opportune combination of factors or might it have an afterlife? In this context, there are certain issues to consider.

In the magisterial-centre kind of ‘federalism’ that the Indian state has, in the absence of a strong ‘regionalist’ alliance, regional groups learn from each other – about pushing envelopes, about haggling tactics, about endearing Delhi-based fixers, about the timing of jumping ship. It is in this milieu that the Trinamool has gone where few have ever been but more importantly, it has shown that the journey is possible. Whether this attitude will be an infectious one or not will come to determine how the centre will hold in the Indian Union or really, what kind of a centre. After the Socialist camp’s fracture, the remnants of the Janata pariwar are essentially province-based formations, although they retain a nominal pan-Indian-ness. The 4 left parties being regionally limited as they are, their regional units (except their Delhi apparatchiks) have systematically internalized the posturing and anxieties that befit explicitly regional parties. Among the ‘non-national’, one mostly sees strong regionalist formations. The ecology of high policy has never factored in the opinions and strands that might emanate from the regional majority (though the majority is not constituted as such, as a bloc). For example, lobbyists for international financial and diplomatic interests have traditionally focused the nurturing of assets in the big two national parties, which together represent less than half of the people who voted. Not that the ‘left-out’ representatives would necessarily mind being nurtured themselves. This moment of brinkmanship by the Trinamool may be a flash in the pan and might ‘sag like a heavy load’, forgotten in time.  Or does it explode? If the Trinamool has given anyone else ideas, funding Delhi-based ‘think-tanks’ may not suffice in the future.

A lot rests on the next Lok Sabha elections, whenever that happens. Whether the future of a seventh of humanity lies in the strengthening of variegated aspirations or towards a more homogenized one depends disproportionately on the performance of the Congress(I).  If the combined vote of the two nationals dips below 45 per cent with the BJP vote share remaining steady or increasing, the rules of the pseudo-federalist game might have to be amended. The ‘nationals’ might do well to accept this possible future and learn to live with it from today. Its about time.

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Bigmother is watching / Have censored websites broken any law

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2012 ; Countercurrents 3 Sep 2012; Globeistan, 9 Sep 2012 ]

Bigmother has not been around for 28 years now. But she sure is watching over us. She died before the internet happened, yet her devotees celebrate her sacred memory by blocking websites. That is some legacy. When I was growing up in Bengal, there would be seminars about the contemporary relevance of Vivekananda. Seminars about the contemporary relevance of India’s holiest cows are rampant. Banalities are timeless, and hence ever relevant. When a pre-internet disease infects the web, it is a sure sign of a living ideology.

In a throwback to times when Bigmother would lock some of us up and tell the world that this is for our own good, her devotees in charge of the Government of India have tried the same. But they lack Bigmother’s courage – she used to be rather public about her harsh dealing and silencing of her wayward children. They have secretly blocked certain webpages. The irony of ironies is that the list of ‘blocked’ websites has been ‘leaked’. Who knew there were desi Julian Assanges around. May be some bloke did it for some money, or someone was trying to be funny. Or, he was simply following orders. We will never know. Does the much touted right to information extend to right to information that the state wants to hide but has been leaked? Lets not go there.

Transparency and freedom are fundamental to the health of this democratic organism. Without them, it is like a life size sex doll, which can be inflated, paraded and used at will, only to be deflated till next time. This is why we need to look very seriously at the quivering wizards of Oz at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology
who blocked internet content without explanation.

Altogether, 309 items are known to have been targeted. Many of these websites ostensibly could have fanned the flames of communal hatred. That the flame-carriers of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or hyenas of Gujarat 2002 have not been banned from the grand old party and the saffron sangh is another matter. Websites are apparently more damaging than kerosene.

No reason has been given why a certain website or webpage or twitter/facebook account has been blocked. That explanation is important because that potentially opens up such unilateral silencing to legal challenge. How so? Incitement to violence, communal or otherwise, is an offence under the Indian Penal code. If the government thought that it had a legally tenable basis of pre-emptively blocking a website for that reason, it could have said so. Its secrecy and subsequent silence is akin to the hubris of the policeman who is seen taking a bribe but looks on nonchalantly as he knows that the onlooker is powerless. It also signifies a distinct brand of shamelessness that only the powerful have.
If the Government of Indian Union thinks that these contents in the web would indeed incite violence, has it proceeded to press charges against the banned websites in Indian and foreign courts? Does it fear that whim of the powerful is at not a full-proof good legal defence?

A summary look at the blocked list is important. Twocircles.net, an Indian Muslim news portal, has been targeted. Its reports of a fatal communal flare-up in Mathura have been blocked. Incidentally, this website, which has received several accolades, did sterling service in trying to check rumours by publishing in toto the Myanmar government’s response to doctored images claiming to show massacred Muslims in the Arakan province. Did the government media, the Doordarshan do its part is rumour checking that this news portal did? Pages from prestigious news sources like Al Jazeera, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dainik Bhaskar and others have been blocked. Prestige is immaterial here, but I still list these to make a point. It is sad that one has to use this ploy and possibly tells us about the thick skin we have developed to censorship. But what really is at stake is the voice of the frail dissenter, the small fish, us. If a website is lying or is inciting violence, they can be taken to court. But to cede the state the right to indiscriminate, unilateral pre-emption without explanation is to give up our liberties.

Does the internet even matter, in the Indian Union? It increasingly does, the state knows it and you should too. For, if we think that there are ‘legitimate’ reasons for shutting out certain unsavoury words, then we all risk being shut off, piecemeal, at a time that suits the incumbent power of the day. The BJP has cried censorship and they are right. But I
also have three words for them – Maqbul Fida Hussain.

The government with the heritage of Emergency has learned from the past. Now it wants to build an atmosphere where Emergency need not even be declared. It is important that is resisted. For an unaccountable state approximates Coco Chanel who said “I don’t care what you think about me, I don’t think about you at all.” And that stinks.

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Political memoirs: Why not tell all? / A risk-free shot at paradise

[ Daily News and Analysis 13 Aug 2012 ]

 

The Indian Union has a Right to Information Act for stuff on paper – files, communiqués, data, clarifications and things like that. But these jottings of the powerful do not and cannot divulge the dealings of the powerful. And the shadow state that is the private sector does not even figure. Keys to open doors do not open trap doors.   No such hint of any trapdoor could be found in Arjun Singh’s autobiography with a title that reeks of that unmistakable desi style of faux-humility. His less than 400 page production, ‘A grain of salt in the hourglass of time’, quite predictably, did not shake up the hour-glass of time. It could have. He was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 1984 when the Bhopal gas tragedy happened. Warren Anderson might not write an autobiography. Rajiv Gandhi died before writing one. Apparently, the new president of the Indian Union has been writing a memoir too. And this has been going on for quite some time. However, it will not be out in his lifetime. That is good news – for lesser mortals can then hope for a memoir without an eye out for this life. After all he lived through the Emergency, the rise of the polyester prince and much more. Still, there is the vexing problem of legacy. People want to go with a bang and want the firework display to be permanently etched on the sky. The search for immortality, that is sad and pathetic at the same time, has led almost all big men and women to write legacies, not autobiographies. Politicians, fixers, executives, and tycoons – all refuse to believe that they will actually die, till they actually die.

This had leads memoirs and autobiographies of people of power to be filled with stories of childhood, stories of rise, often ghost-written passages of visions and ideas, private small talk. So much so, they often read like a hagiographies written in the first person. Few examples of candour are generally limited to those that are not libelous and hurt no existing deity. Given how intertwined autobiography writing and legacy making is, omission and concoction may not even appear so to the autobiographer. But autobiographies have a potential to be heretical and blasphemous, if only people of power would chose to redeem their pledge to the people, even partially. Crimes, murders, conspiracies against the people, defrauding, sleaze, and intrigues – are a part and parcel of the life of the powerful. Given so many people actors in this play, that nothing much actually comes out is an indirect testament to the terribleness of truth. Struggle against truth can tie public political adversaries in compacts that weather life and death.

To live the life of the powerful, to be witness or party to crimes, to lead double and triple lives, to see ‘great’ men and women in their purulent nudity, to be a ‘great’ man or woman of that sort, is common if not the rule in the corridors of power. I too have a second or a third life. But the crucial difference is that my double or triple life, in comparison, affects very few. Not all-lifelong charades cast their shadow on the people in the same way – the more powerful one is, the longer is the shadow. I have often wondered something. Just like the priests at Delphi, the ones deemed closest to Apollo knew the fraud, similarly the society of elite insiders also know what they deny. Given that the entourage of the powerful minimally has bodyguards, hanger-ons, pimps and others, why do we have near to nothing in the public domain. I have a feeling that partly the reason lies in the threat of swift and fatal retribution if the compact is breached. I cannot totally blame the entourage. For it is a choice between riding a luxury car and being squashed under a truck or disappeared. As the playwright said, assassination is the extreme form of censorship. The other part of the reason is that this entourage is not formed overnight, but through a long process of continuous pruning and screening. As a result, when one starts approaching the top, the product is impeccable. We have to look elsewhere for public disclosures.

All people, including those without a moral-ethical compass one can boast of, want to come clean to someone. People caught in the web of posturing in public life, in relationships, often wish that they could admit their life to someone and face no consequence. Amnesty, even from one person, can be powerful. That is why I suspect that for many, their deepest bonds are not with people with whom they have greatest consonance, but those who known their life more substantially, in front of whom the weigh of posturing is that bit lighter.

The urge to admit is dismissed during life, for being too risky. And it most probably is. Why not try it in death, by writing an autobiography that has everything that one was party to but could not admit during life? It can be opened after death. Technology might do away with untrustworthy middlemen. May be even Wikileaks. Fingerprinting the pages for is a good idea – for a posthumous tell-all will surely be disputed on grounds of authenticity. What is there to lose? Why lose a chance to gild one’s afterlife after having gilded this life? For the believer of the Hindu type, a parting shot, even one that hits the target after the archer is gone, would give the person a fighting chance to have a decent sort of re-birth. For the Abrahamic ones, they might just escape hell on judgement day. For the non-believer, there might be a surge of righteousness, an end of the road high like Timothy Leary, sans the substances. One can have one’s cake and eat it too.

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Filed under Democracy, Elite, India, Our underbellies, Polity, Power, The perfumed ones

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

Their privacies, our privacies – the case of Abhishek Manu Singhvi

[ The Echo of India, 10 Jun 2012; Globeistan]

Abhishek Manu Singhvi wants to be forgotten, but not in the way his party is forgetting him, by removing this articulate Cantabrigian from its list of people entrusted to talk to the electronic media. His name seems to have disappeared from the official Indira Congress website. The board bearing his name as the top-honcho in the party’s human rights and legal affairs department has been removed. All this is quite ironic for I suspect that his sense of belonging and yearning to be accepted in the party has never been stronger than it is now.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi became news a few weeks ago – garnering spotlight he just did not want. Few people would want that the public be able to freely access a video that allegedly shows one in a sexual encounter. Just when the dust had somewhat settled, the effective blocking and removal of the ‘offending’ content has affecting the TRP ratings of the grainy Internet video. The elite-media has closed ranks for reasons both legal and fraternal and has let the video disappear from public memory. Of course the digital divide helps, given that the primary (if not the only) form in which this voyeuristic material was available was online – thus keeping out the rabble. The otherwise vociferous Indira Congress spokesperson remains muted at present, and possibly for the intermediate future. Lesser mortals will never know when exactly will poor Abhishek Manu be rehabilitated, what forces will line up to make it happen, how do these forces make a call on a thing like this. It is sad that we will never know – it is sad because precisely these forces also make calls on public affairs too, hush up issues more embarrassing – like the nakedness of those who cannot afford basic clothing.

Lesser mortals are lesser in many other ways. Rare are the moments when people of stature appeal to ‘everyone’ opting for the humble ‘we’ to refer to all of us, addressing us, as if we are one community! In a well-articulated statement that essentially said nothing, Abhishek Manu Singhvi did however mention something interesting. In a half-philosophical tone, he called upon society to ponder upon the destabilizing consequences of extreme invasion of privacy in these times, done with technology that any small-town in India already has. He said “promoting or participating in a person’s natural and understandable discomfiture, we must respect privacy issues. Hear, hear.

When the common bond of humanity is used at such moments – those only in the charmed circle nod in liberal agreement. It is a case of the denizens of the fortress calling upon the impoverished city around it , to rise to some idea of ‘common citizenship’, when the chips are down. This statement, almost comically Niemolleresque in spirit, in a strange way underlines the apartheid society that exists in Lutyen’s and South Delhi, engaging in motions and rituals of respecting privacies, oblivious to this vast and hard land. In Bangla, there is a common proverb – “haati kadaye porle byangeo laathi mare” – “when the elephant gets stuck in mud, even the lowly frog does not miss a chance to kick  the giant.” This urge to kick comes from soured dreams, from being the spectator of gold-adorned elephant processions for decades.

There is a reverse voyeurism, one that does not even register in our refined minds as such. That great procession of the dispossessed, under trees, by the urban roadside, Jumna-paar, in the underbellies of Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, teeming with unfulfilled rehabilitation promises act out their lives in public view. This daily debasing, where one’s anger, happiness, cuddling, cooking, making love, illness, even death – cannot be an event protected from public eyes, creates and recreates an army of toads, ready to kick and pounce at the smallest indication of an elephant getting stuck. Call it giving in to prurience, call it whatever. In these rare moments, doctored or not, the esteemed become human, like the rest of us. The non-urban swathes of the Indian Union are being disemboweled daily. Almost like vomit from mangled bowels, people end up in the cities, in splatters and streams, providing endless live footage of the kind no court order can restrict. The million honeymoons on dusty concrete is not a number. It is not even news in a country where an Indian diplomat’s daughter’s 48-hour detention in a New York City police station churned the collective sentiment of those who watch the gory roadside spectacle every day, could careless about the million plus women dehumanized in Indian jails, are mute about the rape and murder of ‘anti-national’ Manorama and think domestic-workers asking for two hundred rupees more are a nuisance.

I support  Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s  right to privacy, not to be harassed, intruded and violated in full piubluc view, even if notionally or in a doctored footage. No one deserves to be dehumanized like that. The question is, as a Congressite human rights honcho ( now official or not), does he support the same right to dignity for other brown people –  the more sunburned kind.

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Filed under Class, Delhi Durbar, Elite, India, Power, Rights, The perfumed ones

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darker than coal – the centre-state politics of mineral revenue

[IPA, 20 April 2012 ; Frontier (web), 1 Jun 2012]

India was supposed to be a democratic federal union. The daily debasing of that compact goes largely unnoticed among our chattering classes and policy makers.  The states in India have long been reduced to impoverished alms-seekers – mass leaders from its great provinces prostrating daily in front of federal bureaucrats and policy-makers who represent no one. This is nothing short of disturbing, to say the least and cannot be a good sign of health in a democracy.

Let is come to the specifics. Why are states forever standing with the begging bowl in front of the centre? It is not that the city of Delhi knows any secret formula to grow money in the manicured gardens near the North and South block. This false opulence comes from the constitutional provisions by which the centre captures most of the revenues that are produced in the states. The centre has also awarded itself the right to grab the revenues from the pre-existing wealth of the states, namely their minerals and other subterranean resources. It is from this wealth gathered from distant lands that the ‘National Capital Region’ or British-built Delhi awards itself with infrastructure and services that other parts of India can only dream of or can only pay for by the traditional Indian method known as toiling hard to earn one’s own bread.

Except Maharashtra, all the other coal-producing states are stricken with poverty – near about fifty percent of the people in these states living even below the Montek-line, mockingly known as the poverty line. This includes West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. These also include some of the most impoverished zones of the Indian Union, where contractors, mining mafia, government officials and goons rule the roost as a dehumanized and starving populace looks on. What the centre gives as coal royalty to these states is a pittance. Delhi siphons that off through its channels keeping the states impoverished. The states have repeatedly asked for the coal royalties to be increased. Such requests have fallen on deaf ears – coal is lucrative and the thief knows that. Geography books in India inform students that West Bengal and Jharkhand has coal deposits. What it does not inform that is the coal does not belong to them. They are more like encroachers on the land under which there is coal deposit – the centre throws some spare change at these beggar-states as it makes off with the loot. While nationalization of prime resources is indeed a positive step, the divorcing of the fruits of the bounty from the very people in whose areas these were found goes against all elements of distributive justice.

In such a scenario, honourable Shriprakash Jaiswal, the coal minister from Delhi’s Shastri Bhavan, has given West Bengal a few pearls of wisdom. He has suggested that work be stopped at the almost-completed Bengal Aerotroplis project at Andal near Durgapur as coal was locked under those lands. This ambitious project, which is projected to make Andal a major air-cargo hub of South and South-east Asia, has been a project longtime in the making. Similar clamours from the centre a few years ago had made the West Bengal government take the drastic step of reducing the project area by 400 acres so that certain areas with purportedly rich coal deposits are left out.  From minister Jaiswal’s recent pronouncements it seems that our mai-baaps in Delhi want more as coal is a national property and hence, projects should not come up on coal-bearing land so that mining activities are affected.

It seems that having coal, or other mineral deposits, is like having a curse. Dongria Kondh people of Orissa and Gond people of Chhattisgarh know it too well as the central paramilitaries effectively suspend the fundamental rights of the citizen in these places to uphold the rights of multinational mineral magnates to plunder and run. Equally bad is the scenario of states like West Bengal. The centre will not increase royalties on coal. At the same time, it is threatening to throw a spanner into a major potential employment and revenue-generating project in the state. The coal is national, but the revenue loss is West Bengal’s. The coal is a national resource, but land in West Bengal will be quarantined for such purposes without reasonable compensation to West Bengal. If a respectful relationship between the Union centre and the mineral-bearing states are to evolve, the central government might want to make the states equal partners in decision-making as well as royalty and revenue sharing. It is rather shortsighted to expect that West Bengal and Jharkhand will forever pay for Commonwealth Games and white elephant infrastructure in Delhi while its own people starve. The expression of sharp discontent and dogged resistance by Baloch nationalists on very similar matters of natural resource exploitation by Islamabad is a subcontinental example. One expects that Delhi will learn from its neighbour – that uncompensated exploitation of a province’s resources is unjust, that a functioning union needs co-operating partners, not imperious masters and sulking servants.

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India versus the Union of India

[ Frontier (web)  17 Mar 2012 ; Frontier Vol. 44, No. 42, April 29-May 5, 2012 ; Echo of India, 10 Mar 2012]

So the states have spoken through Mamata Bandopadhyay. The chief ministers, the ones who atleast publicly posture that they believe in the constutionally mandated federal character of the Indian union, have opposed the proposed NCTC (National Counter-terrorism Centre). Manmohan Singh has fired letters to chief ministers. It appears that those letters have not pacificied nor clarified. The chief ministers are more interested in the letters of the proposed draft legistlation of the NCTC. This organism, a brainchild of P.Chidambaram, is the latest in a series of initiatives ( inclduing the infamous UAPA) that have been chipping away the the civil liberties and democratic fabric of the country, slowly but surely.Sure, it is not Stasi-like times till now but the powers that have been accorded to the NCTC would make anyone who care about basic human rights sit up. Not all the chief ministers who are in tow with Mamata opposing the NCTC, are champions of civil liberties, but their united stand in defence of federalism is to be commended.

The  constitution of the Indian Union has powers laid out in different baskets. Some matters are for the the union government to decide ( what we sometimes misleadingly call the ‘centre’). Some matters are in the jurisdiction of the states. Some are concurrent. Law and order, where any matter about combat of terrorism would typically fall, is a state subject. The dangerouslu dismissive attitude of the union government towards state’s rights and its intent and attitude towards the federal nature of the constitution is clear from the nature of the proposed powers of the NCTC – the police/enforcers under the NCTC can a person from any state, without informing or consulting the state police agencies. This, in common parlance, is as glorious as unilateral kidnapping of private citizens without much accountabillity.

The union government at Delhi has, post partition, created through its policies a discourse  of inevitable move towards a unitary super-strong centre like where states are reduced to dignified municipal corporations, forever standing with begging bowls, making depositions and cases in fronts of central government bureaucrats and ministers. Some ‘states’ in India 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. 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. This proposal enjoyed wide-spread support inside and outside the Indian National Congress, as Abul Kalam Azad’s autobiography so clearly reveals. Scuttled by visions of a strong centre wielding a big stick to shape up the multitude into a ‘modern India’, the Nehruvian tendency prevailed. Post-parition, with a open field without serious political opposition, this political tendency took the idea of a string centre to the extreme – essentially hollowing out the powers of states by serial violations of state rights, impositions of Article 356 and legislations rubberstamped by huge unquestioning Congressite majorities.The long practice of High-command ‘appointments’ of chief ministers in Congress rule states, especially after the demise of the Congress syndicate, have also contributed to the steady degradation of the power and prstige of that office. The Mahasabha-Jan Sangh-BJP tendency always relished the unitary monocultural homogenous motherland idea and have always been big champions of strong centres, draconian laws that suspend basic civil liberties and the like. Their opposition to the NCTC is supremely cynical, to say the least, given its sordid past of advocating very similar legislations like POTO which had provisions for federal policing and were as anti-federal any other.

Who would have thought that there is still life in the regional forces of India to stand up united against calculated attacks of India’s federal character? Almost all regional parties, ruling and opposition, inside UPA or NDA or non-aligned, have made it known that they take serious exception to the NCTC, precisely because it encroaches on state’s rights.

A supreme ignorance of the nature of the constitution and political evolution of the Union is apparent in the media coverage by photogenic faces who serve inanities by the mouthful. And why not? The media is an integral part of that Delhi-based elite circle who constitute the new mandarins of India – politicians, bureucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, policy wonks, civil society wallahs and alll This cancerous network of self-servers are curiously 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 brow-beaten domesticated version fit for India International Centre consumption.

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Dhaka Street – Anti-minority riots in Nandirhat: Bad moon rising

[ Frontier (web)  1 Mar 2012 ; The Common Times (Orissa) 7 Mar 2012 ; Frontier Vol. 44, No. 38, Apr 1-7, 2012 ]

Before the present Awami League (AL) regime, the tenure of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime was marked by a conspicuous increase in attacks on religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh. The rising tide of killings, forced conversion, arson, rape, abduction and threats was partially stemmed during the interim caretaker government. In the present AL times, the scenario for religious minorities have been relatively less violent. Unlike in the Indian Union, the minorities of Bangladesh do not have multiple political allegiances to chose from . AL with all its inadequacies ( the sordid backtracking on a clearly secular constitution and economic devastation of minorities by the Enemy/Vested property acts being the most egregious) has been nearly the sole beneficiary of the minority votes in Bangladesh. Numbering nearly 10 percent of the population, they are crucial for AL’s design of holding on to power.

Riding on the wave of popular discontent against the rampant corruption of the BNP, AL also benefitted from the people’s organizations that are staunchly committed to the secular ideals of the Liberation struggle – Shommilito Shanskritik Jote, Sector Commander’s Forum, Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee among others.However this apparently secular consolidation belies a slowly boiling Islamic radicalization of significant sectors of the population. Recent events at Nandirhat – Hathazari are a stark reminder. In what was a classic scenario played out so many times in the subcontinent, a religious procession with drums ( in this case, Hindus from Lokenath Sebashram) passed by a mosque. This resulted in an intolerant retaliation and a period of classic Bengali dhawa-palta dhawa. While a section of local elders were mediating to defuse the scenario, another faction went on a rampage, ably supported by the local Madrasha. During this vandalism, a number of Hindus temples namely Sri Sri Jagadeshwari Ma Temple and Jagannath Bigroho Temple at Nandirhat, Raksha Kali Temple, Jalakumari Bari Temple, and Sita Kalibari Temple at Sadar Upazila were desecrated. Attackers also set fire at the Sri Sri Jagadeshwari Ma Temple. About 50 homes and businesses belonging to Hindus were also attacked, damaged and looted.

This area houses Bangladesh’s oldest and largest madrasha, Al-Jamiatul Ahlia Darul Ulum Moinul Islam. The boro-hujur of the Madrasha is also a leader of the Islamic Oikyo Jote ( Islamic Unity Alliance), an important partner of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami. This madrasha has produced graduates who volunteered for the Afghan ‘jihad’ during Taliban rule. Given the large influence institutions under its Depbandi sway wield locally, the events at Nandirhat were the perfect excuse to demonstrate the pent up venom that was being injected for sometime. The local police remained slack onlookers for the first 24 hours, where massive attacks happened in atleast three different waves. Intervention from the highest levels resulted in the imposition of Section 144. Things have been relatively violence-free thereafter.

This area, in Chittagong division in many ways represents the Bengali Muslim frontier more specifically.Between the hinterland of East Bengal and the Buddhist-animist groups of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the areas represent the sharpest edge of Bengali Muslim expansionism. The Tripura area in the Indian Union has seen a similar take-over by Bengalis (primarily Hindus in this case). These areas of Chittagong remain very close to the pulse of the ‘deep state’ of Bangladesh. The AL hunts with these hounds but also runs with the hares when it deems politically expedient. The two-faced nature of its politics, the tokenism in its professed secularism and its wariness to challenge entrenched religious fundamentalism is largely drawn from its self-awareness that the party itself (including sections of its middle leadership) is not a bulwark of muscular secularism. Unsurprisingly, the most vocal secular voices in the AL are mostly those who joined AL after long stints with Communist Party affiliated groups like the Chhatro Union and Jubo Union. AL has shirked responsibility for the incident, instead choosing to engage in political one-upmanship by blaming the Jamat-e-Islami and its notorious students wing, the Islami Chhatro Shibir.

There is undoubtably a planned and conspiratorial element in the whole affair. The police have held Jashim, a construction worker from Hajipara, who has confessed that he was given money to break a section of the wall of a local mosque by  Mohammad Lokman, the chief functionary of the Hajipara Jam-e-Moshjid. One is reminded of Bhishma Sahani’s ‘Tamas’. The formal and informal links between militant religious organizations, ‘charities’, expatriate supporters, political groups, local police and underemployed youths have created lasting cesspools. The AL can chose to look away from the growing radicalization at its own peril. In the upcoming elections, they need a spirited turnout from the base. While frightened minorities have voted the AL, a significant section might just stay home. Fright after all cannot be long-term political capital. That fixed deposit matures after sometime. AL needs to reinvest in building up the secular fabric of Bangladesh. Leaving solidarity actions only to expressedly left-secular organizations is a cynical strategy at best. A majority can still be forged against the growing clout of fundamentalism. That politics is arduous but the future of Bangladesh and the subcontinent is connected to the outcome of that struggle.

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Dhaka Street – The ‘coup’ attempt

[ Echo of India, 29 Jan 2012 ; Frontier (web) Jan 2012 ; Frontier Vol. 44, No. 34, Mar 4 -10, 2012 ]

On January 19, the Bangladesh army declared in a press conference that a possible coup attempt had been foiled last month. Dhaka has had a shave with destabilization of the elected government. How close the shave was, we might not know soon – especially because the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) government, quite predictably, has seized this opportunity to bolster its image, which had taken a serious beating in the last one-year, as evidenced from the results of the local body elections.

Already from certain AL quarters, there are allegations being thrown about the involvement of the principal opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the coup attempt. According to the Bangladesh army press
brief, the main players in the coup attempt were “some non-resident Bangladeshis” and “some retired and serving army officers with fanatical religious views”. Specifically an Islamic fundamentalist organization with branches world over including Bangladesh, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HUT), has been implicated.

This eastern part of Bengal has seen successful and unsuccessful coups in the past. The last such unsuccessful coup was partly a standoff between the president and Chief of Army Staff and then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on the other. While both General Zia-ur-Rahman and General Ershad were beneficiaries of a coup, their immediately loyal constituency does not exist in the Army as it did some decades ago. In spite of the AL allegation, it is unlikely that he top echelons of the BNP had any systematic collective ole in the purported coup attempt last month. During the oft-coup by Moin U Ahmed, under the garb of the care-taker government, both AL and BNP leaders had been tortured. Extremely active in certain mosques of London’s East end, a Bangladeshi hub, the HUT also enjoys considerable support in Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries with large Bangladeshi immigrant populations. Hence it is not uprising that certain nodes of the alleged conspiracy point to these places of HUT presence. However, the fertile reception of the toxic, anti-democratic ideology of the HUT n the Bangladeshi army can be partially traced back to the Zia and Ershad years when under their programme of conscious Islamization of the Bangladeshi polity and state institutions, the army was one of the first institutions where this was carried out.
It has been a slow process. It is not easy to transform the Army of 71 into the Army of Islam. Neither has such a complete transformation happened. But what cannot be denied that the some of the young captains and lieutenants who were recruited in the Bangladesh army during the Zia and Ershad years of Islamization are now Colonels, Brigadiers and other higher-ups. The Junior Commanding Officers (JCO) of the units have also grown up with them.
They have grown up in a period when a not so veiled communal discourse ran rife in official circles of East Bengal. In addition to realpolitik, it is this ideological bent that might have the biggest potential to bring down the elected government. The people of Bangladesh have never voted overwhelmingly for staunch Islamic groups. Their leaders and people of influence though have quite willingly allied themselves with illegitimate governments of Zia and Ershad. Much of the BNP and Jatiyo Party top brass are essentially erstwhile civilian collaborators of illegitimate martial administrations, be it that of Zia or Ershad. Even during the dangerous flirtation with the caretaker government, many civilian leaders sent not so covert signals that they would have to have an extended honeymoon with the unelected dispensation.
That the Bangladesh Jatiyo Sangshad (parliament) is largely dysfunctional does help matters and only serves to alienate certain sections of the opposition spectrum into finding ways of securing change, as they would like to see it, via roads that run opposite to that of an elected national assembly. The BNP has done a marathon boycott of the Jatiyo Sangshad. They can claim that the AL had done the samewhenBNPwasinpower.Thereismorethanagrain of truth in that allegation. The physical absence of the BNP in the Sangshad as well as the small number of seats the BNP holds anyways may give the AL leadership a false sense of an overwhelming majority. Recent BNP street mobilizations and their win in local body election show that they clear represent much more than what their Sangshad strength might suggest. AL’s ham-handed suppression of opposition political rallies will only serve to delink certain fringe elements of the opposition from open street politics to conspiratorial politics that has its own discreet charm.
The Indian Union fits into the Bangladeshi political scene as a convenient punching bag for the opposition – the street ones to the underground fundamentalist cells. India’s trigger happy Border Security Force which routinely liquidates and tortures Bangladeshi ( as well as Indian) nationals in the border areas provides real ground for hostility. Add to this India’s brewing plans on the Tipaimukh dam and not doing a comprehensive settlement of outstanding water sharing issues, especially that of Teesta. This leaves the AL government in Dhaka in a distinctly unenviable position. Whether the Indian state wants to help rout the AL at the hustings next time is really upto it.
The next legitimate election in Bangladesh will see an unprecedented combat. The AL plans to tighten the noose around the Jamat-e-Islami and certain BNP leaders implicated in war crimes as collaborators of Pakistan during 1971. This is a high stakes game. If the AL loses, it is almost inevitable that there will be political violence against AL cadres, the constant trickle of Hindu and Buddhist emigration to West Bengal and Tripura might spurt, while the top AL leaders might decamp to safety to UK and USA, where most of their sons and daughters live anyways. The results of that election will have huge effects on the security, demographics and struggle for resources in the Subcontinent. This coup does give a small but real fillip to the AL in that struggle.

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

( Himal SouthAsian , Aug 2009)

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

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

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

1. Better utlization of public funds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The statues do nothing for the uplift of Dalits

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

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

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

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

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

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How Chhattisgarh shames “us” – memories, nightmares and dark underbellies

( Himal SouthAsian , Nov 2009 – Web Exclusive )
“As a person born and brought up in Bastar I have been studying the recent happenings in this district with deep concern and I have come to the conclusion that in the long drawn out battle of nerves between the Government and you-know-who, the obvious casualty is the poor Adivasi, who has been constantly ignored and misunderstood.The Government has completely failed in understanding the sentiments of the people of this region. Economically depressed, and perpetually exploited by the urban settlers, these tribals are easy prey to the corrupt and high-handed administrative and police machinery.As a result a permanent wedge has been driven between them and the Government. Community development schemes and tribal welfare departments of doubtful utility will not save the situation” – reads a letter by a certain S.R.Naidu to the editor of a weekly magazine . Of late, most of us have heard similar views which seek to paint the state as a corrupt force, ruling by police intervention in Chhattisgarh. Such writers dont want to understand that development schemes take time to show effect and deep down harbour a sympathy for the Maoists – right? Wrong.Do you really know who S.R.Naidu was talking about? It was Prabir Chandra BhanjDeo, local MLA and ex-ruler of the area.The letter was published on 6th May in NOW – a political and cultural weekly.That was 1966.

Let us look into the thoughts that rushed through our heads and the conclusions we made, before we were told it was 1966.Does tell us something about the automatic consumers of packaged “information” and viewpoints we have become, when certain buttons are pressed.None of this is new – not the packaging nor the consumption. Yes, it was 1966.Naxalbari was still an unknown village in Darjeeling district.There were no armed Maoists in India then.In the 1967 general elections, in Bastar, the Congress came 5th after 2 independents (including the winner), Jan Sangh and the Samyukta Socialist Party candidates.Times change. Or do they?

In 1967, 40% of the 20 million babies born in India each year were projected to eventually suffer some degree of brain damage.The International Food Policy Research Institute in its 2008 India State Hunger Index classified the state of hunger in Chhattisgarh as “alarming”.The best performance came from Punjab, classified as “serious”, a notch better.An Indira Congress minister admitted to the Time magazine in an interview in 1967 “we are producing millions of subhumans annually”.The minister’s name was Chidambaram.He died in 2000.Times change.

Some of the subhuman babies of 1967 are 38 years old now.What creatures have they developed into? Some of them inhabit Chhattisgarh.According to the much-denounced Arjun Sengupta commission report, in 2004-05, a total of 836 million (77% of the population) lived on below Rs. 20 a day.To people like us, caught between 20-20 , Sensex  and MacAloo Tikki, these numbers come as anti-national conspiracies to denigrate the emerging giant that is India.What image are we projecting to the world – we ask detractors. Shouldnt we be united in this hour of initiation at the big table ? We are preoccupied with what the world thinks of us.I wonder what do those millions of subhumans think of us – what do they think of our cafes, our news anchors, our “sufi” music , our engineering colleges, our BPO “revolution”, our Dial-a-pizza.When the sun goes down in Chhattisgarh tonight, with one of the subhuman women, after having loved a subhuman man and potentially aggravated the “population problem”, tries to close her eyes in sleep – what does she see. Does she dream that a four-lane highway come to her village? Are there cars on those roads? Is that me at the steering wheel of one of those cars? or is that you? How do we appear to these creatures in their dreams and nightmares – do we look human?

Abujhmad for Gonds of Chhattisgarh is the unknown forest.It is the universe of the Madia Gonds which holds within itself chronicles, snake-bites , culture and much more.And this is true for much of Madia-desh.91 percent of the Madia Gonds lived below poverty line in 1997-98.These are the people of whom Verrier Elwin wrote “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old.” Our cities are expanding – our gated communities need iron gates and wrought iron furniture is all rage.Our eyeing of their land and the iron-ore beneath them is not new – their eyeing us back is not new either.They have been there since the Iron Age.They are not “innocent” tribals – they have never been.No human is.Am I? Are you? But their lack of innocence is a different one. Those of us, in the sun-lit megalopolis, who learn the past from history books, with worlds as broad as TV channels, feel distinctly uneasy about all this talk of moral rights and thousand year old claims.We know our high cholesterol and lack of exercise epidemics.And there are the overworked anaemic Gonds. The possibility of a connection is bound to be distinctly unpalatable. I might even change the channel.

Godless ideologues of the Maoist variety , who possibly imagine the ghotuls as future Red-Guard commmunes , are now arming the Gonds for their own violent ideological ends – pawns in their  macabre “revolutionary” game. But what paths have we left for Gonds – we, who think that an armed Gond is unnatural but a hungry Gond is natural.What happens when all that constitutes a  people’s dignity – Gods, pasts, grandmother’s tales, stubbornness, honour, ghotul, groves, hills -are sold off ? Should they apply for a stay-order, through proper channel, in triplicate?Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian if there was one, says with a sad rage “For how long will middle class ‘bhadralok’ remain silent spectators to State’s colonization of tribal territory to subsidize urban growth in the name of ‘tribal development‘ ? ” It does not portend well for our democratic society.

During a showing of his documentary on the Narmada Bachao Andolan, film-maker Sanjay Kak said he was possibly filming an obituary of non-violent struggles in India. Is Himanshu Kumar a voice in the wilderness? Have we finally accomplished what Nathuram Godse tried to do? In 1966, Prabir Chandra BhanjDeo lead the Bastar Gonds into a non-violent struggle for famine relief and cheaper rice against the Madhya Pradesh government.The government declared he was insane and finally shot him dead at his home along with many of his supporters when the Gonds had come to greet him during dusshera.Gonds still rever his memory and were recently dispersed by force at his memorial day.That is how that story ended.I shudder at what new story ideas our collective greed is coming up with. We have no shame.

“The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”  – Milan Kundera

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