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

The Chautala that lives in me / Meanwhile across the border / Newer headlines, newer issues

[ Kashmir Times, Nov 2012 ; Millenium Post, 21 Nov 2012 ; Echo of India, 27 Nov 2012 ; Frontier (web), 21 Dec 2012 ; INSAF Bulletin 163, August 2013  ]

If you thought that ‘ghairat’ and ‘karo-kari’ are linked together only in Pakistan, you are mistaken. The zone of ‘shame’ stretches far into the other side of the border. It has been more than a month since the serial rapes in the Indian state of Haryana shot to the headlines. Now that our eyeballs have moved to newer headlines of the year in this holy land, and the urban liberal condemnation brigade has moved on to newer issues, let me spoil the momentum and bring back the issue. Is it surprising that Haryana, the state that has a sex ratio of 877 (females per 1000 men in population) is also the place where the most elaborate public charade of protecting the honour of women takes place? Is it surprising that the same state also has had more than 20 reported rapes in the last couple of months? What does one expect the administration to do when this happens? Apprehend the perpetrators? What can the ‘hapless’ policemen do when the alleged men are  ‘absconding’? It is in this backdrop that Haryana’s principal opposition leader, junior ‘Tau’ Om Prakash Chautala’s recent prescription of rape prevention, of marrying off girls early, has to be read. That prescription has twin benefits – sexual needs of men will be satisfied within the approved confines of the family and the women will also benefit from an early protective (and sexual) cover so that they do not turn errant due to ‘modern’ influences.

The ‘boys will be boys’ idea is not new. Burgeoned by ideas of  ‘manliness’ other such self-serving hocus-pocus that clouds the very real human tragedy in Haryana. The complementary idea of ‘boys will be boys’ is of the woman as a receptacle of male needs, which otherwise can go unbridled and result in rapes. In these times, ‘science’ has come to the rescue. Khap panchayats are unelected councils of village eminents, predominantly from the landed-class and almost always male. Haryanad and western UP are where Khaps continue to be relevant in the daily lives of many people. A soul-less set of male elders of a certain Khap has stated that nowadays women menstruate earlier, hinting that they are ‘ready’ earlier. Information that is soul-less and tradition couched in self-interest can become very easy bedfellows.  Indeed they are ‘ready’; ever ready really, in a judicial framework that does not recognize marital rape. The idea of special ‘vitality’ of men has a long past and extensive currency. After Anton Van Leeuwenhoek discovered the spermatozoon, it was widely thought that a fully formed little ‘man’ (a homunculus) is present inside each sperm cell. In short, the man produces the ‘human’ using the woman as a receptacle. This was called the ‘homunculus’ theory of preformation. This idea is not explicitly taught any longer – something we call ‘scientific progress’.

As I sat thinking about Om Prakash Chautala’s formula for achieving the twin objectives of reining in passions and keeping women safe, I did feel that I was more sensitive, if not superior, than him. A woman friend of mine was with me. Later I showed her what I thought was a funny image on Facebook. It was titled “ The earliest known picture of Michael Phelps”. Michael Phelps is a multi-world-record holding swimmer. The picture showed nine sperms – one of them much ahead of the other eight. The suggestion was that the sperm that was swimming much faster, far ahead of other sperms, just like Michael Phelps went on to fuse with the ovum, thus producing Michael Phelps. I thought that was pretty funny. My friend did not seem amused. She asked ‘Does it occur to you that this picture actually says that Michael Phelp’s speed, his speed in swimming, his vitality – all comes from his father?’ I realized that while I cognitively knew that the homunculus theory was bogus, the assumptions implicit in my ideology of the world had the theory written all over it. While I could posture publicly as much as I could, it is this deep ideology that matters.

Calling a whole people ‘backward’, ‘feudal’, ‘medieval’ – condemnations such as those have a certain currency in the cities. Such righteous posturing can co-exist seamlessly with living in apartments built by women labourers to whom minimum wage was not paid. Talk is cheap. The harder task of engaging with grass-roots forces that live socially embedded in the community requires a kind of political organizing that has long become passé. This is because bottom-up politics itself is in a state of crisis. Those who are engaged in struggles against patriarchy but are socially embedded and hence live with the consequences of their resistances often have opinions and solutions that are quite different from those which are bandied about liberally from ‘liberal’ bastions. Patriarchy is a grassroots force. The struggle against it cannot afford to be anything else. Patriarchy is also in my home, in my head. The struggle against it cannot solely by lodged incessantly against ‘other’ people.

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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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Unholy winds from Jangipur / Disturbing signals from Jangipur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ HardNews, Nov 2012 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Filed under Army / police, Change, Class, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Elite, Federalism, India, Jal Jangal Zameen, Media, Polity, Power, Rights, The perfumed ones, Urbanity

The United States of non-Walmart America

[ Millenium Post,  24 Oct 2012 ]

USA or ‘America’ is as much an idea as it is a swathe of land with people. It lives in different forms in minds of people all over the world, beyond the USA. A serious number of non-poor urban youth from the Subcontinent have grown up with American sitcoms. Now they partly live that reality, fired by ‘onsite’ assignments and contract-labour opportunities in IT of the last 2 decades. This first-hand experience of  by the prodigal children of the middle class also comes with second hand experiences of America in the extended families and friends, back in India. Visiting parents lodged for a few weeks in the suburban homes of their children see the America of the malls – a place where anything one think one might need ( or not) exists, the warehouse of Santa Klaus. The ease of the push-cart, the smooth and snappy non-bargaining retail experience is an important part of the legend that is relayed back. In the pantheon of these multi-brand retail palaces, Walmart is the unquestionable Indra. Almost all of what it sells is also sold by others, and is indeed, made by others, mostly Chinese others. It is the brand of brands – it sells cheap but easy buying as a fundamental right.

In the east-coast of USA, stand two famous cities – New York City ( with over 8 million people) and Boston ( Metro Boston’s population being upwards of 3 million). Together, they are home to more than 3% of Americans. Both are iconic and enduring symbols of America to the world. But there are no Walmarts. I live in the Boston area. As I do no have a car and locally travel on a bicycle or by public transport, I simply do not encounter a Walmart.

This is peculiar as America has nearly 4000 different stores all across the nation, with presence in every state and multiple stores in many major cities like Houston and Philadelphia. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. I slowly started finding a clue among the ‘No Walmart’ signs that started popping up in my neighbouring towns – Watertown and Somerville. None of these two cities had any Walmarts, but on inquiry I found that it had plans to set up shop there. Many people from the area had been organizing against Walmart. These are but everyday people who do like low prices. But many of them feel that they would pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite Walmart’s ‘low price’ bait. A moneyed entity like Walmart left no stone unturned in its public relations offensive  to make people see the ‘benefits’. The civic opposition gathered steam. Their elected representatives in the municipal council, many of who were supportive of Walmart, started feeling the heat. This year Walmart announced that they were suspending plans of setting up shop in these two areas citing profitability issues. The reasons might have been something else.

These towns too were divided on the issue, but the current was clearly on the side of the opposers. Much north of Boston is the picturesque state of Vermont. In the town of St.Albans, Vermont, residents have been debating whether to let Walmart in, for 19 years now. With the lowest number of Walmart stores among all the states, Vermont has been an especially tough nut to crack. If St.Albans falls, it will open up newer markets in northern Vermont to Walmart. That has not happened, yet.

These clearly are not stories of every town and urban community – the huge number of Walmart stores all across the USA is a testament to that. But towns that have successfully blocked Walmart are not just a handful either. From Hercules (California), St.Albans (Vermont), Hood River (Oregon), Damariscotta (Maine), Skaneateles (New York), Taos ( New Mexico) and many others. Join the dots and the contours of the United States of non-Walmart America emerges. That too is America, if we care to look.

How exactly can a town or a  municipality oppose a the entry of a perfectly legal business? Democratic deepening is an important feature that can be seen in the governance of these town by which they can veto or oppose many kinds of decisions that they deem inimical to the interest of the local community. This includes railways, roads and other ‘development’ projects. Walmart and other such retail giants  profit and outcompete many partly by having huge warehouses and stupendous variety – a question of scale. This requires the availability of a large amount of floor area. Rather than target one specific big-box store company (that is what Walmart type of stores are called because of their shape and size), which is not legally tenable, the city councils opposing the entry of such stores effectively ban such stores by setting an upper limit to the floor area of the shops they allow in their jurisdiction. This favours small and medium size, largely local stores over super-size big-box stores. In this way, people’s opinion matter in policy – what they want and what they do not want.

This right to host a Walmart is what the Union government in India has used in its framing of the Walmart debate. They ask why states which want Walmarts should not be allowed to have them? The core appeal of this logic is of democratic justice – if a fraction of the people want something for themselves, others should not be able to deny them that. The union government untiringly tomtoms its purported advances in promoting local governance, does not have the courage to give municipalities and village councils the right to embrace or veto Walmart or other projects that might affect them. Singing paeans to democracy and people’s will is one thing, taking democratic empowerment and devolution seriously is another matter. More Nandigrams and Koodankulams can be avoided if local government becomes real government and not an elected but powerless charade under bureaucrats who take orders from the top. Attitudes and aspirations differ between states and within states too. If people of Walmart’s home country have a greater say on where Walmart can or cannot be, why should brown folks settle for any less? They may chose to embrace Walmart, they may chose to block it. But it is important that they do the choosing directly.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Community, Diaspora

A failure of imagination / A moment of Bengali glory?

[ Hindustan Times, 15 Oct 2012 ]

Sometimes moments of apparent glory also underline deeper failures. But very often the big hurrah is the last hurrah. Let me come to the point. For the first time in the post-partition Indian Union, two of the highest constitutional posts, that of the president and the chief justice of the supreme court, have Bengalee occupants. Altamas Kabir, the incumbent chief justice, is a Muslim from Bengal, hailing from one of the most elite Muslim families of the Subcontinent. If your grand-father was awarded a badge of service and loyalty by the British – a  Rai Bahadur or a Khan-Bahadur, it still matters in inexplicable and indeterminate ways, in terms of who you are, where you are and where you can get to. That there is a Bengali chief justice after more than twenty years was not greeted with much enthusiasm in Paschimbanga. There are very few Bengali Muslims from Paschimbanga who rise to such levels. Many possibly did not know he was a Bengali.  Structural disparities also colour attitudes and expectations. Kabir babu was sworn in by Shri Mukherjee. However, none of the two Bengalis are in directly elected posts. Still, this unlikely moment of crowding at the apex comes at a time when Bengal’s shadow on the subcontinent is at its shortest.

However, that is nothing to lament. There are a few good reasons why West Bengal’s shadow over the rest of the Indian Union would not be a good thing, at this point. If it looks to the east, East Bengal (whose geo-political avatar is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) now matches if not surpasses the West in numerous indices of human well-being. When they were separated during the 2nd partition of Bengal or in the aftermath of 1971, very few would have bet that indices would turn out to be this way. But there they are.

Institutions of West Bengal, which for a long time were peerless in the subcontinent if not beyond, now stand as ghostly reminders of their former selves. In the secondary education front, the ‘Bengal board’ is one which does not regularly update itself, having been reduced to a teeming cesspool of political appointees of the CPI(M). This is something that the Trinamool looks eager to replicate. As pan-Indian boards of education start getting undue advantage due to central government policies, this process of ‘Indianization’ has been happening together with de-‘Bengalizing’ – a process whose full impact will not be evident till it is too late, a process that takes a direct stab at the plural reality of the Subcontinent. In the name of uniformity and simplicity, Bengali language is being denied its position as a medium of public life , education and commerce, under the undemocratic patronage of Hindi, a language that has decimated language diversity in the cow-belt itself. In higher education, the debt ridden state continues to pay less to its academicians vis-à-vis the central institutions, thus causing a Bengali brain-drain of epic proportions. Mukherjee and Kabir, have reached the pinnacle, outside Bengal – a point that should not be lost on the readers. Third-rate central universities pay their academicians more than Presidency University or Calcutta University – institutions that produced the pedagogical foundations of contemporary formal academics for much of the Subcontinent. Autonomy of educational institutions is still a pipe-dream in West Bengal with excellence always losing out to servility to the government of the day – the most recent example being that of the upright Chinmoy Guha, the ex-vice chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University.

In matters of  health, it is the paradise of low-grade unaccountable private health-care mafia. Its institutions of pride like the Calcutta Medical College Hospital being places where only the very poor and the helpless would go. There is a lot of medical traffic from West Bengal to Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, a trend unthinkable a few decades ago.

Cities and towns in West Bengal are more ‘Bengali’ than ever before, indicating a loss of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for non-Bengali migrants from Hindustan and beyond that created a semblance of a cosmopolitan culture for more than a century on the two banks of Bhagirathi-Hooghly. A union centre that discriminates has not helped matters.

On the cultural-linguistic front, excellent Bilingualism thereby which people could interpret that world of Bengali and the world made available by English, is near extinction. Anglophone elites retain nominal Bengali-ness and those whose cultural world is embedded in Bengal increasingly find themselves second class citizens in a scenario where Hindi is the language of political power and English is the language of socio-economic ascendancy. Ashok Mitra and his likes who would at ease write beautifully in both are rare, thus resulting in a collective curtailment in intellectual and interpretative space. In this context one notes the fall in the genre of translation of contemporary world classics in Bengali.

In the political sphere, but for the specific numbers in the present Lok Sabha, Bengal’s general clout has been, for decades, disproportionately small in proportion to its population in the Indian Union. The easy parallelism between ultra-centrism and the Congress system is to blame, but the long rule by the CPI(M) that pawned Bengal’s interests by not claiming the requisite pound of flesh, so that it could engage in ‘doctrinaire’ inner-party posturing has certainly assisted that. West Bengal has been one of the few regions in the Indian Union where long-dispossessed caste groups are still far from power, let alone being an effective power-brokering block as such. For all its ‘progressiveness’, post-partition West Bengal has only been able to produce Mamatas and Buddhadebs, not Mayabatis and Karunanidhis. More than anything else, this democratic deficit seriously cripples West Bengal’s potentialities. Being ruled by middle class / upper-middle class forward castes, its primary concerns are also of those groups – why Bengali IT graduates work in Bangalore and so forth. Its cultural icons are also from that small group, thus resulting in state-sponsored cretinization of the myriad cultures that constitute Bengal.

The same week when two Bengalees ‘reached the top’, a Hindi-film actor eyeing a tax break from West Bengal for a private cricket team entity he ‘owns’ and operates, produced a ‘promotional video’ as the state’s ‘brand ambassador’. Banalities about ‘mishti doi’ aside, this failure of imagination is not accidental. This is the greatest sign of decline. West Bengal has lost the confidence to look inward for inspiration and when it looks outward, it only imports kitsch.

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Filed under Acedemia, Bengal, Caste, Culture, Delhi Durbar, Kolkata, Language

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

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

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.

Lift

One fistful of rubble

Now

And pour it on our shameless heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let grass roots decide on Walmart / This land is your land – Walmart and the other America

[ The Hindu, 12 Oct 2012 ; Down to Earth, 31 Oct 2012 ; Globeistan, 16 Oct 2012; IndiaResists, 13 Oct 2012; The Shadow (Jammu) Oct 2012 ; The Morung Express (Nagaland) ]

There is the United States of America and then there is the ‘idea’ of USA that exists in the minds of significant portions of the middle classes all across the globe. How this looks in real life varies slightly according to the region of the world, reflecting specific aspirations and anxieties. In the subcontinent, the latter idea is increasingly not made in a Hollywood basement, given the ‘IT-coolie’ fired traffic to the USA. One important element of the newer idea of USA that flows back daily by television, Skype, photographs, phone conversation and emails is the ease of the consumer experience in multi-brand retail stores as big as football stadia, with the variety of wares on offer seemingly endless – from bananas to bikinis and beyond. Walmart is unquestionably the most prominent of these chain-stores, a super-brand. Viewed in another way, it is a ‘shop’ whose name is more famous that than the brand names of the things it sells.

I have been living in the United States of America for the last few years, more or less in  east coast cities. The last 6 have been in the Boston area.  A map of the area (Figure 1) shows the many separate municipal towns that constitute much of the Boston area. My location however deprives me of the quintessentially ‘American’ experience of shopping at Walmart. In the map of the area, B and C represent the two Walmarts in the vicinity. I live in Cambridge and hence I am atleast 10 miles away from each of those. Given that I use public transport and my bicycle to move around, both these locations are quite inaccessible for me. Walmarts and stores like that cannot exist in the USA in the absence of the stupendous subsidy to the highway systems that make the stores viable, not to mention the ultimately unsustainable mass-culture of individual car-ownership that makes such stores reachable. However, the map (Figure 1) may be misleading as it gives an impression that Walmart stores are relatively sparse in the United States of America. That is far from true, as evident from this 2006 map (Figure 2) of Walmart locations in the nation. This corresponds very well with a population density map of the nation, in case anyone was inquisitive about the large patches of virgin territory in the western half. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.

It is not that Walmart did not want to set up a store in my vicinity. In fact they tried and tried hard. When I was a student, as a part of my on-campus job as a server and bartender for the Harvard University Dining Services, I would be deputed to various addresses around the area to serve at parties, clean dirty dishes and similar chores. One such assignment was in the neighbouring municipal area of Watertown. When I was going into the house, I saw a sign on the lawn that said  “No Walmart – No more big boxes.” ‘Big box’ incidentally is the nickname for Walmart and other such stores, for that is what they look like. Given that I knew that there weren’t any such stores in the area, I wondered what this was about. After my working hours were over, I talked to the house-owner and he informed that he was part of the burgeoning local citizens movement ‘Sustainable Watertown’ which was opposing a proposed Walmart ‘big-box’ store near the central square of Watertown. In the United States of America, citizens of town and villages have a say in what happens to their areas, and elected officials can veto proposals – be they of setting up stores, building highways or railways. He informed me that they have been getting a lot of support, which had translated into some elected city councilors getting pressurized not to court Walmart.

Fast -forward a few years. In November 2011, the incumbent vice-president of the Watertown City Council came very close to being defeated by a candidate fighting almost solely on the agenda of stopping Walmart from gaining a foothold in Watertown. In June 2012, Walmart announced that it was shelving plans to set up shop in Watertown. At the same time, it also suspended plans to build in a store in the neighbouring town of Somerville. The Walmart spokeserson Steven Restivo said, “In the case of the Somerville and Watertown sites, we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.” There was another thing common to these two towns – both had popular citizens’ initiatives opposing the entry of Walmart in their areas. In response to this, Barbara Ruskin of Sustainable Watertown issued a statement that read “”We, the members of Sustainable Watertown, applaud the news of our campaign’s success and pledge to continue to work with town residents and members, supporting neighborhood groups, taking an early role in planning and development projects, and providing venues for discussions of sustainability. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the town for a positive vision of a healthy, just and prosperous community.”

This is not a long-winded argument against Walmart or other large multi-brand retail chain stores and their pros and cons vis-à-vis the local community. This simply is a reminder that there are gaps in the network of stores Walmart wants to establish. Those gaps are populated by real people, who, like most of us, are consumers who love low prices.  But at the same time, many of them feel that they would have to pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite the ‘low price’ bait. These gaps, in the shadow of the glorious network of Walmart, when joined together by an alternative perspective of what really matters, also forms a USA. It extends beyond Watertown and Somerville and beyond the faux anti-corporate sensibilities of affluent white hipsters. Among the cities, towns and villages all across the nation which have put a low upper limit to the maximum area that can be covered by a ‘shop’, one can count Ashland (Oregon), Oakley (California), Madison (Wisconsin), Ravalli County (Montana), Sante Fe (New Mexico), San Diego (California) and many more. Join the dots and you see the contours of a nation. This is a USA of Walmart-gaps that few hear about, but it exists nonetheless.

The central government of the Indian Union has cleared foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. This adds diversity and capital-power to the already existing scene of Indian multi-brand retail giants. In a rare and cunning gesture of state’s rights, it has added an enabling rider so that individual states can chose to not permit the entry of foreign multi-brand retail entities in their respective areas. The centre has made a lot out this enabling clause, and has waxed eloquent about its commitment to state’s rights as well as democratic principles. It has also driven home the opposite point that the refusal of certain provinces should not hold up the power of other areas to host Walmarts. This is quite reasaonable, in my opinion. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the centre is indeed sensitive to the differing aspirations and ‘development’ trajectories of different regions, why does it not have such clauses across the board, in all aspects of trade and commerce and beyond that, in much of what are called the ‘central’ and ‘concurrent’ lists. The Indian Union never tires to tout its successes in the devolution of power by the Panchayati Raj system.  In fact, taking the logic of devolution to its logical end, why does it not accord the lower units of the local government to veto decisions and policies that affect the area but the local body thinks is inimical to the interests of the area? By feverishly canvassing for the rights of the individual as a consumer, this apparently libertarian rhetoric is exposed when the centre devolves powers to local bodies without giving them veto powers over most decisions that govern life on the ground, including the right to refuse certain kinds of entities to set up shop in an area. As long as the fundamental rights of the individual citizen are not compromised, what does the centre fear? If the gram panchayats could decide the fate of what comes up in their areas, Nandigrams of the future could be avoided. They might choose to have Walmarts or not. On being liberated from ‘New’ Delhi notions of constitutionality, that is what democracy looks like. There is no second-guessing the potentialities of human plurality.

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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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Filed under Bengal, Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, India, Kolkata, Nation, Power

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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Filed under Bengal, Hindustan, Nation, Polity, Power

Freedom and access in times of market / Free knowledge versus freedom of the market / MNCs, Indian firms & IPRs

[ Millenium Post, 12 Sep 2012 ;  Echo of India, 12 Sep 2012; Frontier, 20 Sep 2012 ]

New Delhi is always in news. It is perhaps not a co-incidence that two events are happening almost back to back in the capital of the Indian Union.  One is the final hearing at the Supreme court of the Novartis Glivec patent case. This case involves Novartis’ contestation of what qualifies as a significant innovation of an existing product, to be deemed separately patentable. Novartis considers Indian statutes to be too stringent. The Indian statutes aim to prevent ‘evergreening’ – the extending patents by making small changes and claiming them to be substantially different from the original.  The other event was a police raid on a photocopy shop at the Delhi School of Economics and simultaneous legal proceedings initiated by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis. There is a common strand connecting these apparently disparate events – both involve multi-national business houses suing Indian entities for depriving them of their intellectual property rights benefits.

In the latter case, legally enshrined rights of the publishers were clearly being violated. Anyone whose education and research was dependent on obtaining photocopies of copyrighted books and chapters has been affected. A campaign has been initiated to protest this. This brings us to a deeper disease that goes beyond copyrights. Beyond generic textbooks, much of specialized and critical knowledge taught in Indian universities is either produced by the West or is commercially owned by entities in the West. This academic produce is largely unaffordable in the subcontinent. By handing out these reading lists to students without helping them obtain the material, the faculty has been passing the buck. This is no different from doctors who prescribe medicines irrespective of the paying capacity of the patient. The doctor, or the university faculty, maintains a glib adherence to the ‘highest standard’, for nothing makes them accountable to make education or healthcare accessible. With their academic seminars on sundry topics, these guard the catacombs posturing as vibrant gardens, open and free. University faculty have now for decades continued to force students to resort to bootlegging while preaching academic freedom from their 6th pay commission padded perches. This is nothing short of a scandal. Unfortunately, in a stratified society, the elitism of the faculty, even in disciplines that never cease to extol their ‘sensitive’ approach to the human condition, is not surprising. What is surprising that stuents have not seriously confronted them on this. While their outrage is directed at the 3 publishers, there is another self-serving goliath in the room.

As a point of illustration, if one peruses the bio-data of full professors at the Department of History, at Delhi University, with the bright exception of a minority of them (like Amar Farooqui, Farhat Hasan, Sunil Kumar, Rampal Rana, R.C.Thakran etc.), others have had some or much of their major books and volumes published by the very same publishing behemoths that are acting to keep photocopies out of the hands of the students at their own university. This pattern is replicated across disciplines. Does the faculty plan to make their own work freely available for download? Surely access to scholarship is at least as important as excellence in scholarship. The choice of publisher for one’s scholarly work or an edited volume can either be a personal or a social one. In the former, one owes nothing to society, though society owes the person his/her monthly paycheck. Elites have a lot of agency. The feigned helplessness that is often passed off as the reason for not publishing in more accessible places gives out the deep politics of the academic elite, irrespective of their champagne socialist public posturing. If they have little agency when writing chapters in volumes edited by others, why not upload those chapters in websites post-publication? In a society of great inequities, this is not simple laziness but really an inability to see through the exclusion practiced by oneself and putting one’s academic production in a social context. With such access barriers, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of professors are more likely to continue down the ‘academic’ path than the less fortunate ‘photocopy’ castes. But Arjuna’s ‘merit’ cannot be excuse for Ekalavya’s destruction.

This can continue because the elite, which selectively interacts with the riff-raff through well-guarded entry and exit points, has long created a separate world where books are cheap, talk is cheaper. Having retracted from public spaces like government hospitals and pavements, they have created a parallel world where they can do without those. That is why one can have universities paying for pricey books written by people in its payroll, in the name of student welfare. Academic publishers are professional businesses – they depend on making money by selling books. Understandably, photocopying hurts their bottom-line. But publishers do not write books, academics do. Can people not expect that publicly-paid academics make affordability and accessibility a criterion for their publication? In the Western academia, universities and academic bodies are making large-scale moves towards open access publication. Harvard, with its war-chest in billions of dollars is leading the way for making research more accessible. Other leading universities in many parts of the world have been having serious discussions and debates on these issues. Till now, there has not been any such concerted move from the browns. Why? Are they so rich? Where is their much-vaunted independence or is that only reserved for duels that help carve out a niche when engaging with the West? The answer partly lies in the socio-economic origins of much of what passes off as the academia. Themselves being products of privilege and inequity, apart from customary and fashionable nods to the concept, they have not accorded issues of broadening of access to scholarly produce the status of urgent priority. This deafening silence is well matched by the silence of another similar caste, the physicians – on the issue of access to life-saving drugs. Similar to the academic castes, their response ranges the full spectrum ignorance to apathy to outright complicity couched as ‘quality’. Neither the destruction of the generic drug industry or the continued expansion on the patent regime will adversely affect the earnings of the physician. Freedom of thought and expression also tacitly assumes the freedom to access thoughts and expressions. Right to health assumes the access to right to means of maintaining health while maintaining human dignity. Cutting off broad access to academic material is as good as killing the university just like cutting off access to generic drugs is another name for policy-driven genocide.

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Filed under Acedemia, Class, Elite, Knowledge

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Distrust of mass media / Fighting rumours

[ Echo of India (Port Blair) 29 Aug 2012]

 

I am the only member of my family who has visited Bangladesh, erstwhile East Pakistan, in the last 20 years. I have often thought naively about my mother’s family — why did they migrate during the partition days? After all, East Bengal, as defined by the Radcliffe line, had more than 30 percent minorities and they would not have been a pushover very easily. But still they fled, first in droves and then in an unfaltering stream, sometimes strong, sometimes weak. And still nearly 20 percent of all Bengali minorities are still in East Bengal, not as equal citizens but not constantly persecuted either. Around 1947, many had been personally threatened — the day of the Kojagari Lakshmi Puja in 1946 is forever etched in the collective memory of refugees from Noakhali and their descendants as a day of holocaust. But still, many, many more were not directly threatened. But there was the perception of threat, of unknown fears. There were rumours. People’s social acumen and street-smartness were tested to their limits when they were reduced to second-guessing rumours — rumours of killings, beatings, conversions, rapes, desecrations.

This subcontinent has seen this with unending regularity. Post-partition, rumours and resultant riots have tended to hurt the minorities the hardest. Rumours that have devastated lives, broken fragile peace. With the recent exodus of Nagas, Axomias and Manipuris from large swathes of the Indian Union, the sinister efficacy of new social media and technological innovations have come to the fore. This has led the government to ban bulk SMS. Nothing else has been done on the ground. And, this is where the mis-diagnosis lies. It is a self-absolving view of reality that leads us to think that rumours, or for that matter riots, can be fully dealt with by the non-human enablers like technology or arms. While that is a necessary short-term step, neither SMS nor social media, is responsible for the periodic flare-ups that lead to the scenario when an otherwise absurd hearsay starts gathering characteristics of truth. As the subcontinent has seen in the past, the ‘bush telegraph’ can be as deadly, if not more, than contemporary technology in instilling fear and hatred.

Effective rumours do not start in a vacuum. They need a fertile backdrop. They originate, propagate and gather steam in a certain social context. Social contexts also have a run-up to them. Also, one needs to seriously examine existing political and media culture and their practices to decipher the stunning appeal that rumour often has.

Take the media. In the Indian Union, large sections of the media often is so compromised by political and corporate patronage that it will not even follow the basic tenets of unbiased journalism like attributing claims, not putting claims and screaming headings, report an event from multiple perspectives and then verifying claims and counterclaims. In the most dangerous scenario, it can concoct stories of suppress stories. These things happen too often. This is why people, who may be in the know of a specific event but find things being reported quite differently, develop a deep suspicion of public media.

It is in this atmosphere of justified cynicism, that other kinds of ‘fact’ and ‘news’ sources start competing for the faith of the suspicious. On the face of it, this is not necessarily a bad thing, for it opens up a space for bottom-up citizenry driven media and I don’t mean the ‘citizen journalist’ charade that many media outlets have started peddling of late. But it also opens up the space for manipulators. This manipulation has a more vicious edge in an atomized world where one’s sense or identity is increasingly made less by an organic community but by the confessional and exclusionary messages of supposed persecution. Such messages work up the consumer into a private frenzy. A long cooking period is necessary. It is in this backdrop, that a rumour takes its toll, when the prepared mind decides to act, or flee.

Confessional enmities have a self-perpetuating character. Whether a rumour becomes believable or not largely has to do with the immediate temporal and socio-political context. Hence nothing fights unfounded rumours more than an open and free polity where the powerful are accountable. One can say that today easy communication across large spaces have resulted in confessional solidarities across larger swathes of people. A rumour can start anywhere, even outside a locality, or in a different continent.  Part of the deliverance would come from asking questions about claims and not be callous about checking the veracity of especially incendiary ‘news’. The key is to doubt everyone, especially the powerful and doubt everything, especially rumours. What remains after the collective exercise of doubting top-down stories is not less but more real news.

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Unequal glory: India and the ‘other’ medal tally

[ Daily News and Analysis 21 Aug 2012 ]

A few days have elapsed since the Olympics and now even the Independence Day is over. With some trepidation, one can assume it is safe enough to make a few points. The 2012 London Olympics have been the most successful one for the Indian Union in recent memory. On the field, it has won six medals. This is the highest number of medals that this nation has won at any Olympics, giving it a rank of 55, placing it between the upper two third and the bottom third. More desis attended this Olympics than ever before, packing events where the Tricolour went, embodying the spirit of the Olympics by hooting and cheering when a badminton player from China hurt herself as she led her bronze-medal match against an Indian. The bronze in boxing may momentarily help people of Manipur forget about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or so the Union wishes.

There is another way at looking at the medals — a way that brings the cheering and the hungry, the Jatt and the Kuki, the prince and the servant together. What about a per capita analysis of the medal tally? Given the collective gloat, how many medals does the nation win, per person? It is easy to do this. One simply needs to divide medals by population. There can be multiple ways of counting medals – one can count only golds, one can add up medals irrespective of colour, one can add up giving differential weights for gold, silver and bronze. Fought in the name of the nation, such an analysis brings the ‘national’ participation (or the lack thereof) in the picture. Doing a gold only analysis does not suit the Indian Union – this time it has not won one. One might imagine that a larger population would lead to a larger talent pool of sportspersons and hence a correspondingly larger number of medals. Negative deviations away from this would not represent a system that does not nurture its population in general, be it sports or otherwise. The medals then are achievements of the individuals, sometimes due to grit and talent, sometimes due to the added factor of wealth. Their grit is in spite of the nation that wants to appropriate the glory. Abhinav Singh Bindra, the Punjabi Sikh, had won an individual gold medal in the 10 metre air rifle competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In his memoir he has a chapter named ‘Mr Indian official: Thanks for nothing.’ The Union of India’s dispossessed millions might say the same of the state.

So here is the data at the close of the 2012 Olympics. 85 countries had won medals. The following numbers are calculated using a weighted formula where a gold gets 4 points, silver 2 and bronze 1. So, if a country won 1 gold, 1 silver and a bronze medal, the total points is 7 and dividing 7 by its population in millions gives the number of medals per million. Topping this modified chart using the weighted number of medals per million population was Grenada. This is not surprising given a success by chance from a very small nation like Grenada takes the cake. However, some small Caribbean nation or the other has been topping the list since 1996, pointing to something more than fluke, but a regional ecology of excellence. By this measure, People’s Republic of China gets a rank of 67. The United States of America is at 42, the Russian Federation at 31, France, Cuba, Great Britain and Australia are at 33, 15, 13 and 11 respectively. The reason I have mentioned these nations is because their population is relatively substantial. With this historical best medal haul, in 2012, India comes last, 85th out of 85. Going back to the medals per population data through the Olympics, India was 87th out of 87 at Beijing 2008, 75th out of 75 at Athens 2004, 80th out of 80 at Sydney 2000 and 78th out of 78 at Atlanta 1996. In 1992, 1988 and 1984 its tryst with destiny at the Olympics did not result in any medal.

Domestic inequity shows up in unlikely ways in international pageants where Hindustan tries to show off its turbaned best. As though it was natural, the Indian Union, for all these years, has sent an Olympic contingent where the middle and upper-middle classes are heavily over-represented. Through this whole period, India topped the world tables for the largest number of hungry people, beating Sub-Saharan Africa (yes, ‘those’, them) hands down, who in turn have beaten India at the Olympics. There you are, hauling the least number of medals in the name of the greatest number of people, consistently. The parallel with India’s billionaire list and its dismal per capita income could not be starker. And so it goes. Unfortunately, fudging poverty lines and pretending to be the world’s largest democracy does not help win medals at the Olympics.

( In a longer version, the following parts preceded the piece)

The words ‘bullion’ and ‘billion’ have always sounded quite similar to me. That is possibly why every time I hear about browns in the Forbes billionaire list, I am reminded of gold. Vice-versa, when I look at the gold-silver prices in the newspapers, images of the polyester shahzadas and their ilk come to my mind. For that kind of a person, the gold and silver rush during the Olympics makes me think of brown folks who have consistently been topping charts – be they the medal tally or the Forbes’ list.

The annual Forbes’ list has been featuring an increasing number of brown people for the last two decades. The publication of the list is accompanied by an odd sense of pride and intimacy with people whose homes and dreams are strictly off limits for 99% of us brown folks. One can understand the inevitable celebrations, newsflashes, articles and talkshows that significant sections of the media peddle to the rest of us. It is similar to film magazines for whom celebrating glitz is their ideology and the raison d’etre. Similarly, ownership patterns and ideological milieu nearly guarantee that the large sections of the media mark such rich lists as ‘national’ accomplishments. The accomplishments are largely ‘national’ in an oft-unacknowledged way. Talking about the role of anything other than capital, technology, creativity and business acumen has become passé and blasphemous. Not talking about something does not take away the role of the sweat of the multitude and the surrender of their commons in so ‘national’ a cause. But that is another matter.

However, constant banging on the walls can cause a breach in the broad consensus around the meaning of such lists. Nowhere is it more relevant than in ‘Shining India’ where increases in per capita income ($1410 in nominal terms and $3703 in comparable purchasing power terms, in 2011) is widely interpreted and propagandized as a stand-in for well-being of people at large. This grew by 15.6% in 2010-11, the $3703 representing a unimpressive global rank of 129 in a list of 183 nations. Even this figure hides reality, as income inequality in the Indian Union has risen significantly in the last decade. The average Indian is a figment – a supposed cross between the Polyester prince and the migrant labourer, a ‘face in the crowd’. For Grenada, that figure was $13,896, and with significantly less income inequality than the Indian Union. This means, the ‘average Grenadian’ with an income of $13,896 is less of a figment than the ‘common Indian’ making $3703.

This harping on Grenada has a bullion connection. This time it has to do with the Olympics.

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Filed under Bahishkrit Samaj, Class, Democracy, India, Nation, Our underbellies

Two-party system in US

[ The Echo of India 23 Aug 2012 ]

 

Many middle-class people in subcontinent are attracted by the discreet charm of  an authoritarian state – ruthless and decisive. A pluralist democracy is deemed to be slow and inefficient by them. Which is why they also regard a two-party system as the next best thing. This of course is said keeping the United States of America in mind, which is the pre-eminent poster child of a two-party system. Of course a two party system is not one which limits participation to two parties or two poles. Rather, it is a system that has been developed so that it manages to keep other voices out, or co-opt them. In fact, that a nation of 300 million has 2 parties to represent nearly 95% indicates a serious representation crisis that needs to be addressed. Far from its strength, a two party representation for such a large populations weakens the democratic foundations. This project is ably served by systemic forces including the mainstream media, who take it upon themselves to herd popular opinion along narrow bipartisan lines.

The outcome of presidential elections in the USA has its ripple effects in every part of the world. The powerhouse that it is in many respects – economic, military and academic, a slight twitch in the behemoth causes ruckus in some other part of the globe. Hence, US elections have undeniable effects on the world. So much so that some have even suggested that the world ought to have voting rights in US elections. Leaving that aside, in this presidential election year, the world is watching and so is the subcontinent. Having lives at both places, certain differences are worth discussing.

As the presidential election campaign will gain more and more momentum, there will be rallies. Now, in the USA, if a candidate manages a turnout of 10000 at one of these rallies, it will be considered outstanding, a groundswell of support and what not. In most parts of the subcontinent, a turnout of 10000 at a centrally located rally of a senior politician would be considered a failure. In fact, very few politicians would dare to even call a central rally if they think that the turnout would be around that figure. The rally turnout in the subcontinent is largely managed by political organizations who pack such rallies with adherents by enticements and threats. Some also attend by a since of belonging and loyalty to a party and its ideology. But typically, such gatherings have few ‘innocent bystanders’. The US rallies I have been to, have less of a stage-managed quality in its turnout but the stage is managed quite well. In such management of the stage, often trivial aspects of a speech like diction, voice, or things like posture become points of judging a person. This does not mean that political issues are not involved, but simply that in the USA, only a certain kind of grooming makes the cut, irrespective of political inclinations.

The politics of the subcontitent, due to its robust multi-cultural reality, with a million fault-lines, is a different game altogether. This is partly why ‘big tent’ parties have had their limits. Politicians of every level have to contend with more parameters than his or her US counterpart can ever imagine. This kind of politics requires a grade of acumen, one-upmanship, posturing and brinksmanship that more homogenuous societies cannot even start to fathom. If one imagines a video game form of politics with controls, knobs and joysticks thrown in for all the possible parameters, the typical US presidential candidate might not even be able to figure out the function of all the controls. In such a contest, Laloo Prasad would bodyslam George Bush every single time. Add to this the explicit role of armed violence in politics, and also the management of violent partisans. The subcontinental scene is filled with such proto-generalissimos and cunning politicians rolled into one. In the United States, explicit and large-scale political murders in the domestic scene, is more or less a thing of the past. The difference partly comes from a electorate whose concerns have moved somewhat beyond life and death, to starve or to eat, to be killed or not. Questions of the latter kind inject a kind of viciousness to the political competition that finds expression in murder of political opponents and a serious democratic deficit. A  person who vociferously opposes or heckles Barack Obama or Mitt Romney can be booed and firmly pounced upon by ‘security’. There might be background checks. However, if someone does that to Mamata Banerjee, Biman Bose or Uma Bharti in a rally, depending on the locality, one can get into serious trouble. So much so that hardly any sane person who is alone ever opposes or challenges such politicians in public.

Most of the top-level ‘new’ generation leaders who have emerged in the subcontinent are sons and daughters of established politicians. This has led to the political system that increasingly looks like a multi-tiered dynastic oligarchy, with enough stakeholders spread in the various layers of the system to give it a pretense of the popular.

The US presidency retains a monarchical imprint and I do not mean the ornamental kind. Legend has it that the first US president, George Washington, was even asked to become king. It was possibly an apocryphal story but you get the drift – templates out of which it the presidency is partly moulded. This includes being an over-arching commader- in chief. That is why female aspirants to the US presidency like Clinton had to be appear tougher than the toughest to allay any doubts.

Neither in the US or or in the subcontinent does one need a majority of the votes to win an election. For the US election, the Electoral College system allows even for the minority candidate to win if the numbers so stack up. And it has happened as recently as 2000 when George Bush won the presidency with Al Gore winning more votes nationwide. However, an implication of a first-past the post system as it exists in US Congress and Senate elections and in the subcontinent at all levels is more ominous for a multi-party democracy. Due to the absence of proportional representation, shallow pluralities spread tactically can return commanding majorities. Democracy and decentralization means nothing when one can achieve majorities with about 1/3 rd support, as in the Indian union. Devolution means asking the powerful to legislate the relaxation of power from their own hands. Such debates are there in the US too, on the issue of 3rd partiesand on state rights versus central rights. The states in the USA, though more homogenous, have lots of power and autonomy, In the Indian Union, the states are alm-seekers during the day, cash-cows at night.

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Filed under Americas, Democracy, India, Media, Polity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our roads, their roads / How ‘national’ is the NHAI

[ Echo of India 17 July 2012 ; Hitavada 29 July 2012 ]

In the first 18 years of one’s life, if one manages to escape without getting one’s brain deeply dyed in tricolour, merely by being present and about in Delhi, one cannot but see certain things. The vision tends to be sharper if one is among those millions in the subcontinent, who after 60 years of exhortation and vilification, much to the chagrin of Delhi, are not ‘only Indian’ but continue to be Tamil, Gond, Rarhi, Naga, Bengali, Marathi and so forth. Some even continue to be just from Delhi – just ask those who have been shoved trans-Jamuna or those live in the urban ghettos of Shahjahanabad or Jamia Nagar. Indians in Delhi are unaware that on a road map of India, the Delhi urban agglomerate, officially called the ‘National Capital region’ (‘NCR’ for uppity blokes), has a very special place. It sits at the convergence of a large number of ‘National Highways’ – the densest convergence by far. The density of National Highways is far out of proportion when one considers economic output or population. In a proportional sense, the Indian in Delhi has access to a far higher number of National Highways than their numbers or economic output would command. This throws to the wind all ideas of federalism and distributive justice. The Delhi National Highway ‘node’ is like a Pamir knot on the road-map of the Indian Union, except for the fact that this one is not natural. The rest of the union paid for it and continue to pay for it.

One might see such Pamir knots around other cities like Kolkata and Hyderabad too, but there is a difference. If one looks closely, for these cities, most of the highways that make their knot are state highways, that is, not fully funded by Union government funds. Compare this with Delhi and the difference becomes very clear. This is where the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) enters the scene. What is the NHAI? The powers to be tell us “The National Highways Authority of India was constituted by an act of Parliament, the National Highways Authority of India Act, 1988. It is responsible for the development, maintenance and management of National Highways entrusted to it and for matters connected or incidental thereto. The Authority was operationalized in February, 1995 with the appointment of full time Chairman and other Members.” It also tells us that its vision is “to meet the nation’s need for the provision and maintenance of National Highways network to global standards and to meet user’s expectations in the most time bound and cost effective manner, within the strategic policy framework set by the Government of India and thus promote economic well being and quality of life of the people.” It is headquartered in – surprise, surprise – New Delhi.

Roads are arguably the most important component of infrastructure development in these times. Hence the maintenance of the National Highway network in keeping with ‘global standards’ should indeed be a priority. In the last few days a series of apparently disconnected events concerning the NHAI and roads show the geographical priorities and the biases of such Union government establishments in its true light. Recently, the NHAI approved the widening of National Highway Number 24 into a wide 6 – line structure, which will ensure better connectivity between Delhi, Noida and Ghaziabad. The planners also have in mind the burgeoning real estate development in areas like Indirapuram which have developed alongside the NH 24. Again, quite recently, the NHAI swung into action to unclog the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway and also resolve disputes around running it. The proactive stance by the NHAI in securing the clear alignment of the Delhi-Jaipur expressway also shows what such bodies are capable of when Delhi is associated. The amount of micromanagement, eye for details, the agile action, level of maintenance that the National Highways around Delhi have will almost make one think that the Union of India indeed delivers on its word – a ‘global standard’ highway network. If only the NHAI and other Delhi-centric federal government bodies would treat other parts of the Union with the same care and diligence.

The chief minister of West Bengal ( Paschimbanga) Mamata Banerjee on her recent visit to the northern part of the state pointed out the dilapidated conditions in which the  NH 34 and NH 31 exist. The utter disrepair of these ‘national’ highways in West Bengal compared to the snazzy ‘national highways’ around Delhi give away the game. Some highways are national, but some are more national than others. And it is not only Bengal. While the NHAI has decided against raising highway tolls in the Delhi Gurgaon sector, it cites Union Ministry of Road and Transport norms to do annual hikes elsewhere. The people not in the charmed circle of Delhi-centric subsidy do not take it lying down either – as the proposed protests around the NHAI owned Vallarpadam-Kalamassery Road proposed toll hike shows.

An analysis of the amount of NHAI owned roads in the 2 provinces surrounding Delhi – Haryana and Uttar Pradesh- throws up something interesting. Ostensibly roads cover land and connect people. So states with bigger geographical areas ought to have larger stretches of such highways, when other things are comparable. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -all larger than Uttar Pradesh in area, have lesser amount of National Highways than the Delhi adjoining UP. Similarly for Haryana, it has longer stretches of National Highways than Punjab (larger than Haryana) and Kerala (only slightly smaller than Haryana).

Such things beg the question – who funds the NHAI? The people of the Indian Union do – through buying NHAI bonds and by submitting to taxation of their income, services, businesses and natural resources to the government at Delhi. By what logic is such distributive injustice maintained when Delhi does not pay for itself. The people of the union need to be vigilant and audit road schemes by Delhi centric planners inch by inch. After all, a very small portion of the Indian Union’s population has real estate interest in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida.

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Democracy, India

It was the night of July 10th

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

 

How many are angry at the Guwahati road-strip?

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

How many would want that fate for the Guwahati lions?

Since it is Assam, how many were Muslims?

Did you wonder?

You did not?

Did you see the video?

Were the clothes torn?

Could one see anything?

Were you outraged?

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

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

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

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

Have you searched for it today?

Did you find it?

Could you share it?

Please?

Who else downloaded it?

Someone I know?

Me?

How could you even think?

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

Even dads are tech-savvy nowadays, no?

Does anyone know the girl’s name?

Does she have a Facebook account?

Any photos there?

What do the papers say?

Any details?

What happened?

I mean, in detail, what happened?

What did they do?

Who did what first?

Next who did what next?

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

Cant they write a transcript?

Where? How? How next?

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

Did the local MP give a statement?

What about the DGP?

Why did the police not arrive in time?

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

The Police?

The Army?

It cant be the Air Force, can it?

May be the Border Security Force?

Or the Assam Rifles?

Are 50 policemen safer than 50 men on the street?

Are 50 army men safer than 50 policemen on duty?

Is the Border Security Force safest of them all?

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

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

Did they do a background check on her?

On whom?

The northeast girl, who else?

Does it matter who she was?

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

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

Wouldn’t you, if you were there?

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

What if she were a terrorist?

Islamic? Secessionist? Marxist?

Marxist-secessionist?

What is that?

Like Manipur PLA?

Would the MP still give a statement?

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

Would the photographer have given the footage to the press?

Where would then be the phone calls from all over?

Would we still have 2 hour show on NDTV?

Remember Manorama?

Did incredible India come to her rescue?

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

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

Thangjam Manorama, Devi.

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

2004. Raped. Killed.

It has been 8 years.

 

How will the hangman hang himself?

How will the shooting squad shoot themselves?

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

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

Green is the new farce in Kolkata

[ Echo of India : 30 June 2012 ; Globeistan ]

On June 30, Indian Union’s secretary for urban development Sudhir Krishna came to Kolkata for a holy purpose. The tram system of Kolkata that had been systematically decimated by the Left Front government was at the centre of his agenda. Krishna preached that the trams need to be ‘revived’, even expanded. Why so? Because it has dawned that trams are eco-friendly and major cities in the world are in a tram revival or acquisition spree. The browns need to play catch up. Hence the tram system in Kolkata needs to be revived, expanded and even initiated in other cities. Trams pollute much less than cars per person carried. So far so good.

We need to appreciate the deep farce that such meetings, pronouncements and decisions often constitute. The meeting in question was also graced by the august presence of Police Commissioner of Kolkata. While lesser members of the public are not allowed to hear the deliberations between public servants on public affairs, one can imagine that the Police Commissioner of Kolkata nodded in agreement when Sudhir Krishna hit the green notes about the tram’s energy efficiency and eco-friendliness, how the tram is a less-polluting transport medium of the future. After all, in such green pronouncements, everyone needs to nod their head. Everyone needs to show that are in sync with the good thoughts and ideas permeating the planet. By his nods and occasional quips, the Commissioner might have fancies himself of being a green warrior, in his small way. Such are the tales of heroism that forever go unsung. Bengal can be such an ungrateful place.

At the end of the day, secretary Krishna left for Delhi, a city where the government has ensured that cycling lanes have been demarcated in a big way. While, the unfortunate citizens of Kolkata are stuck with the police that it has, with its lip-service to ecological sustainability, it is its ruthless extortion service that has a special bearing with all this green-talk.

With the approval of the police commissioner, and his predecessor, the Kolkata police has declared more than 30 main roads off limits for bicycles. Kolkata must be one of those rare cities of the world that shamelessly sports large signs on the main roads prohibiting bicycles. Kolkata’s police forces can put up as many shabby posters as they want for the Environment Day. It can organize as many football matches it wants as cheap public relation exercises. That does not take away the reality of the police. The green sheen fades away when the police wait in the streets as stealthy hyenas to pounce upon a hapless person on a bicycle. This bicycle rider was possibly the only person on the street who was not contributing to pollution. For the past few years, a system of daily oppression is executed on Kolkata’s streets. The bicyclers, largely poor, earn a daily wage of less than 150 Rupees. Their ‘crime’ of riding bicycles is ‘fined’ by the police on a sliding scale of Rupees 80 to Rupees 100. The receipt for this ‘fine’ is a chit of paper with an illegible rubber-stamp and an equally illegible signature. The failure to pay Rupees 100, quite common in urban Montekland, leads to confiscation of the bicycle and a date to appear in front of the police. The bicycles often have parts missing when they are recovered. Such is the racket that is at play. Such is the conspiracy against those very people of Kolkata who want to use a non-polluting transport mode. It is a war against the poor and against the city. Some police honchos will sit on environment panels, will talk with conviction about the importance of curbing pollution in the company of the rich and famous in elite clubs. In this sordid theatre, they will have ample time to play their ‘respectable citizen’ role. But the daily wage earner who had to part with more than half of his earning for the sin of riding a bicycle knows these creatures too well. Real fangs are bared in these moments when the green mask falls off the face of the extortionist. The money makes its way up – how high does it get, we will never know. Our Right to Information has limits.

Contrary to Kolkata, many cities of the world have large zones demarcated to be car and bus free, so that maximal mobility can be ensured for the largest number of people without pollution. It is only the brown sahibs who refuse to walk the last 250 metres. What is so special about the brown sahibs that walking does not sit well with their constitution? The National Urban Transport policy, formulated by the Union Urban Development ministry, clearly lays out that bicycling should be preferentially encourages over motorized transport, by earmarking bicycle lanes wherever possible. Did Sudhir Krishna quiz the Police Commissioner of Kolkata about the reason why the policy had been turned on its head in the city? The police commissioner of Kolkata is the product of the force he heads. Why blame only him? He is just the latest.

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Environment, Kolkata, Rights

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parading Pinky, reporting Pinky

[ Echo of India, 26 Jun 2012; Millenium Post, 2 Jul 2012; Globeistan ]

The Bengalee athlete Pinky Pramanik, who has won numerous medals for Bengal and the Indian Union, has been at the centre of unprecedented media attention surrounding the issue of her biological gender. A woman who was living with Pink for some time has accused Pinky Pramanik, who considers herself female, of rape. The way this case of alleged rape has been taken advantage of, by wide sections of the print and television media, should be enough for serious soul-searching about the nature of media we have and the depths it has reached for a few eyeballs more, for more and more revenue. The media has finally taken unbridled infotainment to its sordid extreme by manufacturing information and conjectures to provide entertainment – that too by massaging already existing prejudices against gender and sexual variance.

First came the police, then the reporters with cameraman in tow, and then in the TV sets came doctors and psychologists. The doctors conjectured about the biology of intersex, ‘male’ and ‘female’ hormones, the merits of ‘early treatment’ of ‘such’ cases and what not. Only a few tried to delve beyond a crude form of biological determinism to talk about what gender one may consider oneself, in spite of their penis or their vagina. However to think that gender ambiguity is something unknown to our populace would be a cover up. This cover up seeks to ignore the huge number of male children dressed up in sarees and ornaments, even if for a photograph, in certain Bengalee homes – a practice becoming far less frequent now. That biologically determined sexual features and the gender of the self, both lie in a continuum and not necessarily in tandem, is a consciousness we have strived hard to cremate. Which is why in public discourse built of posing, the richness of human gender identities and forced to coalesce into two polar forms, thus forcing most of humanity into performing roles and not living their lives.

This case of alleged rape and the prurient ‘reporting’ around it stems from a certain feature of the Indian Penal Code, that only a man can rape. A woman can commit a sexual assault, but not rape. This asymmetry in law stems largely from archaic and make-believe notions of gender roles in sex and by extension sexual predation. Many countries, including France have gender-neutral rape laws where rape at its core remains sexual intercourse without consent, with certain exceptions of statutory rape. It is from this ludicrous asymmetry in the IPC stems the need to demonstrate Pinky Pramanik’s gender, for ‘rape’ as defined by the IPC can only be committed by a man and hence Pinky Pramanik can be charged with rape only on being shown to be a man. This is where the media came in and took it upon itself to supply masala and queer-hate masquerading as a rape-case reporting. Every time a hijra is violently raped by members of the police force and other extortionists, something that happens with gut-wrenching regularity, where is this debate of rape or not, article 302 or 377? There is no report, there is no conviction, and there is no case. This same media doesn’t report it. That violent sexual crime is not the monopoly of the ‘sexually deviant’, is hardly a sensational story. If anything, it can give rise to sensations that threaten to open a Pandora’s box.

From the very outset, the basic assumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ was thrown to the winds. Pinky’s whole life was brought in public scrutiny, including instances where she had reportedly shown ‘unwomanly aggressiveness’. What sterling examples of gender sensitivity we have in our media, which finds female aggression extraordinary, and by implication, male aggression as ordinary. What is this but an extension of the sick mentality found in numerous books of religion and law where disciplining the woman by aggression is placed when within a man’s right.

Pinky Pramanik’s story has not died down. Her picture is all over. So are detailed second, third and fourth hand account of many events in her life. How all this discussion in the public domain affects the legal decision-making in her case is a pertinent question – at the least this provides unnecessary and prejudicial information to the judges and magistrates who will sit on Pinky’s case. The police have constantly handled her with male constables. It appears they are better judges of gender than the 7 member medical team set up at the Barasat Hospital to determine the same. The same police has been freely circulating a video clip of Pinky naked as ‘proof’. So we have a set of law enforcers who have trampled the rights of the accused and have taken upon themselves to spread naked clips of the accused. When under trials at Abu Gharaib were filmed naked, many reacted in horror. Our police can do this and get away with it. And that, alas, in this much-famed democratic republic, is not the media story.

Couching our worst prejudices as a simple search for the resolution of a law and order technicality, we are being fed Pinky’s day in custody, Pinky’s medical report, her past life, in amazing detail, in bits and pieces – anything short of a high-resolution photo of Pinky’s genitalia. This competitive detailing of Pinky’s life day by day reminds me of another dark episode of journalism in the Subcontinent when the daily life of Dhananjay Chattopadhyay, condemned to hanging by death, was printed day after day for the voyeuristic consumption of the worst kind.

Pinky’s case, sans the sensationalism and rape allegation, is a heart-breaking one. It has been set up in public discourse as if her physiology and bodily features, however it is, is somehow criminal. This is the worst kind of profiling, making us indistinguishable from societal systems which publicly stone rape victims for adultery.

Bengali, English and Hindi media – among those I could review, fared sordidly, selling sex and gender ambiguity by sensationalizing any hint of difference on this issue. As a society, we were indulging in criminalizing sexual marginality and having a good laugh at the same time with friends – wholesome family entertainment for respectable people.

But every time this laugh was happening, every time this was being discussed in the public square, in homes- those among us who identify as anything but normative genders, were squirming. They were being made to feel unwelcome, just by dint of their being, ‘sexually deviant’ potential sexual predators in waiting. And those among us who daily derive ingredients for masturbatory fantasies by reading accounts of specific circumstantial details of rapes that papers produce expressly for that purpose, will go on to rise another morning as respectable people, to judge other people again. Do we have no shame or fear of gods?

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Eros, Media, Our underbellies, Rights, Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Foundational myths, History, Nation, Obituary, Pakistan, Partition, Religion

No closure in sight: the US Republican primaries

[IPA – March 29, 2012; Echo of India, April 1 2012]

In the United States, the presidential candidates are chosen through a far more democratic process than the one we follow in India. In India, the political parties and their bosses unilaterally announce candidates and force them on the people. The problem of a deep democratic deficit is compounded by the fact that most of the major political groups are ancestral parties. The organizational elections are either stage managed or worse still, the panels ‘announced’ by the incumbent cabal (generally a family or a group of powerfuls) go uncontested. The US system is radically different in some ways. Large numbers of people vote in what are called ‘primaries’ – which are designed to choose a party candidate for the general election against adversaries from other parties. Very few primaries go uncontested, ensure a say of the party loyalists and supporters in party affairs, candidates and directions directly.

The US is now in the middle of the primaries for the Republican nomination. This primary would throw up the person who would challenge the obvious Democratic Party candidate and incumbent president Barrack Obama for the US Presidency in late 2012. Starting with a much larger set of competitors, only four candidates now remain in the race – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, with Mitt Romney leading the pack having come first in nearly 2/3 rd of the primaries that have happened in different states. Generally, the nomination is grabbed by this time, but that has not happened this year, giving Republican Party loyalists and supporters a lot to be concerned. Why this concern with the primary process dragging on till the Republican party convention in Tampa Bay, Florida in the last week of August. The character of a primary can be very different from the general election. In the primaries, the typical voter is more often the party loyalist, or the ‘base’ or ‘core constituents’ of a party. The message and the rhetoric that is employed by candidates to win primaries are naturally tailored towards the party faithful – such messages may not work on the general populace and would generally backfire. The more a primary process drags on, going on from one to another, more internecine bad blood if spilt by the candidates within the same party, thus weakening each other and also providing useful fodder and attack points by contenders from Democratic party, come general election time. The longer this process is, the less time the winning Republican nominee will have to substantially modify his message for a wider electorate. This system of speaking from a certain ideological slant and tone during the primaries and then after having won the nomination, changing the message to pragmatism is at its core nothing but cynical manipulation. It is precisely this that a major section of the Republican primary voters have not come to terms with this time and hence the primary is still on.

Mitt Romney, the most ‘moderate’ among the Republican candidates is the front-runner. A corporate animal, Romney has outspent his opponents many times over. This means, his face is seen in TV advertisements, his glossy campaign material is seen stuffed in letter boxes all over the country, much more than other candidates. While this visibility has translated into a kind of reluctant acceptability, an important part of the Republican base, namely the Christian conservative segment has not warmed up to his candidature. This segment, nurtured by Barry Goldwater’s insurgent campaign decades ago, is now a major force that has played a very important part in the agenda setting and campaign platform positioning in this election cycle. There is a view that Romney is simply a career politician, one of those slithery one without principle who whose conservatism on display during the primaries is largely false. That Romney is also a Mormon, a very non-mainstream Christian sect, much like the Ahmadiyya sect in the Muslim world, does not really help him, in general. This segment and some other have been desperately seeking an alternative to him, the ‘anti-Romney’, so to say. First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, even Newt Gingrich, but now it seems to have coalesced around Rick Santorum whose Christian conservative credentials are impeccable. That is largely why even after being outspent by Mitt Romney by huge amounts of money, Rick Santorum has won state after state in what is called the ‘Bible belt’ in the deep south of the United States, at times by very large margins, as in Lousiana and Kansas. There are increasing calls for the other 2 candidates – Gingrich and Paul to bow out – calls that they have not heeded till now.

It can be assumed that Mitt Romney will be the eventual nominee, after a little more intra-clan warfare among the Republicans. At the same time, the Democratic candidate, Barrack Obama, supported by both large corporate donations and shallow pocket party loyalists has amassed a war chest of 172 million US Dollars, as of February. This amount is 12 times the cash on hand as Mitt Romney at the same time. Though certain large Republican funders are holding off till the nominee is clear, it is not easy to close such a gap. Unless Republican Politican Action Committees (PACs) get into serious fundraising, the half-black Goliath will trounce all white David come November. The anti-immigrant posturing by most Republican candidates, including Romney, will only hurt them, as the Hispanic-Latino (persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American ethno-cultural origin) vote becomes more crucial than ever before.

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Envisioning excellence: Academic quality and autonomy in context

[ Frontier (web) 6 May 2012; Sakaal Times (Pune) 24 April 2012; The Hitavada (Nagpur) 30 April 2012; Daily Excelsior (Jammu) 28 April 2012 ]

In a recent piece, Prabhat Patnaik ( The Telegraph, 2 April, 2012) lays out what he thinks are major  threats to the  autonomy of the domestic intellectual discourse in India. He comes up with ‘coercion to conform’ to academic fashions of the North and its hegemony in deciding the worth of ideas as a prime suspect. He also reserves special fire for the insistence on quality when assessing academics. Finally, he talks about the anxiety of the NRI academic about being increasingly irrelevant in India’s academic circles. If one were to go beyond aimed-to-disarm self-congratulatory banalities resting on wistful anecdotes that the level of intellectual discourse in India was superior to Bangladesh, one might come to see the boy who cried wolf and the real wolf itself. I cannot argue for the autonomy to cheat millions of students, by posing the demand for quality as simply a conspiracy to defang heterodox ideas. The victims of the wolf may want  a hearing. That affair can get very dirty.

For academic discourse, two things that are of utmost importance are quality and iconoclasm. Both are easier stated than implemented.We need iconoclasm in the world of knowledge to both expand and question our conceptions of the world. Ideas, especially those on which the  reputation of stalwart academicians and their ‘intellectual’ children depend, those which conform to ideologies of the state, are especially hard to challenge and discredit. It is important to foster iconoclasm so that knowledge does not become a tool in the sustenance of the powerful, but becomes  Those who claim to want to change this equation between ideas and power, more than often recreate stifling power hegemonies themselves, if they happen to capture some part of the academic sphere themselves. All through the euphoric seventies and the pre-doomsday eighties, the way Marxist   academics in India coerced budding students into their ideological predilections, through thinly veiled carrots and sticks, peppering departments all over the country with their ideological kith and kin, should serve as a grim reminder of what intellectual fascism can be unleashed in the name of fighting conformity and hegemony. The veritable boom in the number of thesis and research papers coming out of JNU, CU and JU during that period, that employed ‘Marxian analysis’ is a sad testament to this. Ideological limitations, the need to reward loyalties and conformity,  combined with an intricate system of informal mutual back-scratching helped permeate close-mindedness in academia, right upto departments in small colleges. Atop this hierarchy sat the nomenklatura – now, not so much out of favour as it touts to be, more out of fashion than it wants to be. The pariah status that an academic of the class of Ashis Nandy was accorded is a telling reminder how erstwhile champions of things heterodox can quickly transform themselves into defenders of status-quo, discouraging multiple heterodoxies. Iconoclasm, while being aimed at existing hegemons, cannot be a pretext for spreading petty mediocrity, so as to entrench vested interests, making their uprooting that much harder. West Bengal is still reeling from this phenomenon. It is not clear yet whether the ‘greenwashed’ future will be  any different. Though employed here for the purposes of illustration, encouraging nepotism, spreading mediocrity, propagating hegemonies, creating a nomenklatura based on in-group loyalties, shrillness and service to power, is by no means an exclusively ‘red’ disease.

An ecology where reasoned iconoclasm reigns supreme needs, among other things, a democratic setup and the student-professor relationship that is like that one between peers. It needs to be a  space where deference to truth and evidence comes foremost, where plagiarism is dealt with ruthlessly, where students and research scholars who oppose the academic ideas of their mentors cannot be threatened with ‘dire consequences’, where individual brilliance of a student that surpasses that of the professor causes celebration rather than anxiety, where ‘stalwart academics’ can be heckled by sound logic and shown their place if need be. Finally, it needs to be place where that great unmentionable called quality reigns supreme. The last point is especially important for research, as many of the researchers will come to populate the teaching departments of India.

One way by which hegemonies are perpetuated in academia in India, are by faculty appointments on the basis considerations other than academic quality. In a scenario so rife with  nepotism and favouritism based on academic lineage, political inclination and other vested interests, setting an objective quality bar hits right at the heart of these informal structures of patronage. Though by no means perfect, one useful index of academic quality is impact factor or H-index. Academic research, in the natural and social sciences, is mainly published in specialized journals. Impact factor  or H-index are various measures of citation and quality of journal where one published their work, indicative of how many other people deem your research important or relevant enough to refer to it in their own work published in an indexed journal. There are many indexed journals in India too. While not prostrating totally at the altar of impact factor, a deference to that deity might serve well to separate the wheat from the chaff generated by prejudiced, ideological and nepotistic calls that faculty recruitment committees often make, using the cover of subjective assessment.

The claim that NRI academics in Harvard and Stanford suffer from some kind of relevance-to-discourse-in-India envy is a just that, a claim. There is absolutely no evidence to show that  academic in India is cited more than his or her Boston-based NRI counterpart by academics based in Pune or Nasik or Satara. In fact, for all the fire-eating talk of undercutting and inverting the global academic pecking order, the reality is much more sobering. Pre-eminent warriors of ‘autonomous’ discourse make their beeline for Oxford University Press, Routledge or Ivy-league university presses, be it Harvard University Press or Columbia University Press, to get their thick books published. These books cost a fortune to libraries in India.

There have been for sometime currents within the world of science that seek of remove the commercial barrier to knowledge access. Open-access journals which can be read freely all over the world are part of this. The charge that peer-reviews may be prejudiced against those espousing uncomfortable and heterodox ideas is now being countered with innovations in the methods of review, open review and even scope for open-debate during the review process. Journals with open access and newer forms of review are being cited highly and many have established themselves repute in a very short time. It is this process of open-access and open review to level the international playing field in knowledge production that India can ride high on, rather than viewing the demand for quality as a conspiracy.

On the question of quality and the conspiratorial scorn heaped at ‘refereed journals of repute’, let me mention P.C.Mahalanobis’s Sankhya. Sankhya, was and is, a refereed journal of repute, and at the same time, is published from India by the Indian Statistical Institute. It calls itself the “Indian journal of statistics.” Its impact factor is comparable to the better  journals of general statistics. Sankhya’s latest issue (Volume: 73, Series: A, Par: 2, Year: 2011) has 7 papers from 15 authors. All but two are non-Indians. These numbers vary but the underlying point is clear. It is simply a quality Indian outlet of academic research, that is also coveted by foreign researchers as a place to be published in. It would be absurd to argue that its high quality and concomitant stature in the globe hurts its autonomy or that it discriminates against research workers in India. The Sankhya project is no narrow nationalist project that some might paint it to be – rather it is a product of a certain confidence that a research journal can be Indian and of high quality at the same time.

Of course, all that there is or should be, has a context. It exists in the backdrop of India’s stark social inequity, a global order that seeks to promote and reward certain voices and stifle others, an increasing commercialization and corporatization of the vehicles of public discourse, a culture that equates research utility with the private profits that it can generate. India needs vigorous affirmative action and democratization of academic and institutional cultures. The institutions need quality and autonomy and the imagination to wed the two.

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Filed under Acedemia, Democracy, Diaspora, Knowledge, Science

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

[ Himal Southasian, 26 Aug 2011 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Occupy National Science Day

[ Himal SouthAsian, Mar 2012, Hitavada, 4 Mar 2012 ]

Last month, February 28th was the ‘National Science Day’. Yes, there is such a day. And there been one for sometime. If you are hearing it for the first time, it is not your fault. It is reported that on this day in 1928, a 40 year old Tamil Brahmin called Chandrasekhar Venkar Raman sitting in 210 Bowbazar Street at the erstwhile building of  the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Kolkata discovered certain phenonmena regarding the scattering of light, which would come to be known as the Raman effect. The Nobel prize in Physics followed in 1930. His was the first one in science, where an Indian had done the research in India. It was also the last one. Under the prodding of the National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC), the honourable government of the Union of india has designated February 28 as ‘National Science Day’. Since 1987.

With name as lofty as ‘National Science Day’, this event largely bypasses most universities of the Indian Union. The major organizers are those who receive patronage and blessings from the central government. In states where the provincial education boards and councils are still dominant (for example, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, etc.), this ‘Day’ is largely unknown. Mostly celebrated in schools with ‘national’ Delhi-controlled syllabi, central government offices, especially educational and research institutions, the  events often bring in sarkari chief guests – from the dubious to the infamous to the occasional savant, lamps are lit, speeches are made, marigolds are worn and hung, a lot of tea and coffee is drunk, some samosas are consumed. And then they all go home. Some more things happen on this day. Awards are given for excellence is popularizing science and innovative science education. The prime-minister, the minister of science and technology, the minister of state for the same ( when there is one) light up the faces of some newspaper owners by providing full page ads exhibiting their gleaming faces and a one paragraph message to the nation. This is how we, the citizens of India, get our annual peg of the scientific spirit. In some schools there will be competitions and prizes. There will be energetic kids whose mirth will invariably be suppressed by the bureaucratic approach that many organizers will approach the event with. It will be made into one of that long set of state sponsored farces that a school year in this country is peppered with. A Raman, a Saha, a Bose, will meet an untimely death among those dreamy kids. Once more. Some  functionaries and bureaucrats will breathe lightly at the end of this day – as if their niece just got married. Some decorators, caterers and suppliers will do a little business, some will get small kickbacks. Such is the fate of us petty people.

What more can we expect from such an unimaginative, top-down exercise so divorced from people and society? The idea is – this would create among the populace an appreciation of science, among youngsters a dream to unravel the mysteries of this world, this universe, this human condition. On the question of decreasing popularity of classical music in Pakistan, Professor Arifa Sayeda Zohra of the National College of Arts, Lahore had said that the contemporary ears that are tuned to the ka-ching sound of coins are blunt to  the intricacies of khayal. A population whose idea of success is defined by 50 lakh salaries by IIM-types, whose best mathematicians-physicists-engineers end up being number crunchers for finance market speculators, has a rather poor appreciation of basic scientific research. In the absence of this appreciation, there is no social audit of science in India – hence many professors gleefully plagiarize, publish 3rd grade research work in 4th grade, mostly Indian journals which are read by few and cited by fewer. Some of them often pass of as experts, serving in sub-committees,  exuding a cynical notion of time-serving. Looking at these creatures, many youngsters are turned off from pursuing science.

In stark contrast to such Indian Union government bankrolled cynical and routine initiatives for the inculcation of scientific culture, there lies the people-centric initiatives that have been present in India. India has had a long tradition of science and rationalism initiatives that have been broad-based, have attained movement status and have been sustained in a bottom-up manner, gaining strength from participation and support from the grassroots. This has happened without state patronage and has been most successful when the idea of scientific culture has been integral to the day-to-day life issues and social realities of the people. The brightest examples are from certain epochs of the Indian nationalist movement and the anti-caste rationalist movements of Dravidian political current.

There is the scientific aspect of the idea of self-reliance often floated in Indian nationalist movement. This came to fore first during the Swadeshi movement in the first decade on the 20th century when boycott of British-made goods were aimed to be followed up by developing technologies ‘of our own’, especially in Bengal. Small scale industrial units inspired by a ‘Swadeshi’ bent were taking baby-steps. Swadeshi institutions of technical learning were also conceived – the most important one being the National Council of Education’s Bengal Technical Institute, which was to become Jadavpur University. Later, during the non-cooperation movement, when large-scale boycott of Raj-sponsored educational and research institutions was taking place, a concomitant stress was placed on building up independent institutions of science and higher learning. The saw the birth of the National Medical Institute (Jatio Aurbiggyan Bidyaloy) which would later become the Calcutta National Medical College – the Medical College, Bengal being the favourite of the Raj. Stalwart science figures like Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha and Satyendranath Bose were invariably science communicators to the masses. They were not simply denizens of the laboratory but wrote extensively in mass-circulation publications in fiction and non-fiction forms, gave extensive public talks, started popular science magazines. Jagadish Chandra Bose became an especially potent symbol of the ‘scientific’ flank of the emerging pan-Indian nationhood. In the first half of the 20th century, one can see that also in the writings of Rabindranath Thakur and Rajshekhar Basu ‘Parashuram’, literary giants who also penned lucid articles of recent scientific discoveries and their muses on such issues. These point to a greater public engagement with science and a culture of being intrigued by scientific inquiry and discoveries. These articles generally went beyond the narrower formulations of nationalism inspired ‘Indian’ science. This is important for already those of the Hindu-nationalist ilk had started to claim that many new scientific discoveries and technological innovations were already present in ancient times in India and that looking into the scriptures of the elders would yield knowledge- that one would be able to rediscover and hence recapture some long lost glory. Meghnad Saha gave rebuttals to such claims, with his famous sarcastic quip ‘Shob byade achhe’ (Everything is in the Vedas) being elevated to the level of a common idiom in Bengali.   But when it comes to a more muscular presence of scientific culture, the crown goes to the anti-casteist and anti-Brahminical movements spanning present day Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Rationalism being the core-principle, this no doubt elevated the status of scientific inquiry in those areas. . It should not be forgotten that in a so-called ‘essentially spiritual’ area like Southasia, Tamil Nadu has elected stated atheists and irreverent leaders to chief-ministership time after time. M Karunanidhi, a product of this current and a legatee of  the  E V Ramaswamy Naicker ‘Periyar’’s politico-phillosphical currency, publicly questioned the divine status of Ram on the question of building a land bridge to Sri Lanka by dismantling the mythical Ram Setu and has politically survived that statement, which is not a small achievement. This tells us more about the gallery he was playing to.  In more recent times, especially in the 70s and 80s, in West Bengal, ‘science and rationalism’ groups were formed sparked by popular science and rationalist publications like Utsho Manush (Human Origin) and others. Some of these reflect science in the use of the country , as opposed to science in the use of the nation-state.

In many ways, science policy in the Union of India reflects the nature of the Indian state – a ultra strong centre that aims to dominate the provinces by formulating common principles of policy. Before the Delhi-centric system of science policy implementation took hold after the paritition of 1947, a few things may be noted about what were the major forms of science communication. Especially important in this was the role of India’s languages and not only Hindi or English as languages in which science would be taught, conceptualized and discussed. Before partition, scientific discourse and education in India’s many vernacular languages was a living and expanding body of activity. Satyendranath Bose ( of ‘Bose-Einstein condensate’ fame)  created the Bongiyo Bigyan Parishad ( Bengal Science Council) and also started a science magazine called Kishor Gyan Bigyan ( Youth Knowledge Science) in the first half of the 20th century which continues to be published till the present day. These trends have now been sapped of their vitality by lthe general lack of support for non-Hindi languages in post-parition India. In the early days post-partition, India even served as a magnet for foreign stars of the scientific world to come to India to pursues their scientific careers. This included giants like JBS Haldane who joined the Indian Statistical Institute at Kolkata. Mediocrity, lack of autonomy, bureaucratic shackles and lack of inspiration has snapped this once-budding link between science and society in India. Bureaucratism has also kept private trusts and people of wealth from espousing causes of science and research with funding. While the house of the Tatas have a long record of such endeavours, the patronage of Rajen Mookerjee of the Indian Statistical Institute also merits mention. These grants to build up institutions are markedly different from the private businessman-educationalist model of science and technical education that has evolved in the Indian Union ever since, where people of wealth create low-grade institutions of science and technology largely as money-making machines. The contribution of private players in research and development spending in India is abysmal.

In the absence of sterling scientific research happening at home, science has become something that white men do. This not only leads to a lack of confidence in engaging with science, but in a broader sense, makes science, as a living body of knowledge, that much distant from reality, that much alien to the imagination of youth. Languages in this part of the world, especially Bangla, has had a century long heritage of widely read science fiction. In 1879, Jagadananda Roy penned Shukra Bhraman (Travels to Venus) with imaginary descriptions of aliens, notably about a decade before H.G.Well’s The War of the Worlds. He was not a one off figure – in 1882, Hemlal Dutta published the famous science fiction piece Rohoshho (The Mystery) in Bigyan Dorpon (The mirror of science), a picture-heavy science magazine of the time. This trend continued with Hemendra Kumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Premendra Mitra, Mohommod Jafor Iqbal, Shirshendu Mukherjee and still holds seriousk currency up until the present day. Fictional scientist characters like Professor Shanku, Dr.Bhootnath Nondy have initiated a whole generation of Bengali-reading teenagers to the romance of scientific discovery. This no doubt gave science a wider currency in the populace and made the figure of the scientist something more tangible, the idea of discovery slightly more conceivable. With the increasing grip of Hollywood on the content of entertaintement in public consumption and hence the long shadow of alien idioms in even in sci-fi fantasies, the limited currency that local produce had, has been damaged, possibly irreparably.

How Southasia views its scientists also point to deeper pathologies in Southasian nation-states. It is in Southasia we have Nobel laureates being reduced to pariahs due to a religious identity that the state is not comfortable with – I am talking of Abdus Salam who was born in an Ahmadi Muslim family and and such was shunned during his lifetime by the powers to be in Pakistan who consider him a heretic due to his religious identity. It is also in Southasia where the most well known faces of science are those who represent a muscular nuclear toothed state – I am reminded to APJ Abdul Kalam of India. It is in Southasia that we have absurd myths ascribed to scientists, stemming from ignorance, insecurity and blind nationalism – the enduring lore that Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose ‘first’ ‘disoovered’ that plants have life. There are necessary pre-conditions to create a culture of science – they include freedom of speech and expression, an audacity to be loyal only to truth, an environment that supports iconoclasm in the world of ideas, however towering the icon may be, however sacrilegious the idea may be. If that were so in India, many would have protested the hoodwinking of people that is done in the name of scientific achievement by showing swadeshi aerial bombers, tanks, missiles and other mass-murdering devices. Against this dystopic idea of what science is and its fruits are have stood Indian scientists like  MV Ramanna, S Ramasubramanian, T R Govindarajan, Ashok Sen and others -scientists worth their salt, the Dandi variety. In 2012, the focal theme of the ‘National Science Day’ is ‘ Clean Energy Options and Nuclear Safety’. When the government is actively trying to reduce the liability to suppliers in case of a nuclear disaster, the tom-tomming of the Nuclear Safety slogan only shows how cynically the state can convert public awareness programs into theatres of propaganda. But all propaganda can be exposed. It will take time. Critical enquiry, a spirit of questioning dogma and culture of social communication of these values – in science and beyond – let these be our arsenal. Lets us not worship science. Like pujas where chant-words have lost meaning to those who offer it, soon enough the rot sets in and it become meaningless to the priests themselves. The gods of science have left for other spaces – where there is dance, mirth, inquiry, freedom of speech and thought, freedom to make love to science, the chance to be loved back, the opportunity to share the love of science, in the family, in the neighbourhood, among colleagues. Lets stop the  invocation and start questioning. Let us  occupy ‘National Science Day’.

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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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Mamata’s shining moment : India versus the union

[ Daily New and Analysis, 23 Feb 2012 ]

In the wake of the NCTC (National Counter-terrorism Centre) controversy, the Prime Minister of the Union of India, Manmohan Singh has written to the Chief Ministers that “In forming the NCTC, it is not the government’s intent in any way to affect the basic features of the Constitutional provisions and allocation of powers between the States and the Union.” But words are as just that – words. It is the wording of the proposed legislation that matters. The proviso provided in the draft legislation flies in the face of the pious banalities about the central government’s intent and attitude towards the federal nature of the constitution and lays it out rather clearly – the police/enforcers under the NCTC can a person from any state, without informing or consulting the state police agencies. Draconian and Gestapo-like to say the least, there is another problem. As it happens, the constitution, law and order is a state subject. In the long process post-independence where the provinces have been reduced to impoverished alm-seekers, this legislation goes for the jugular. This is serious stuff from a section of the India Congress think-tanks.

The constitution, at its outset, reads, “India, that is Bharat, is a union of states.” Without the states uniting to form a federal system, there is no India. All the power and legality that the union government at New Delhi wields stems from this act. Same goes for its hubris when it dictates as Rex Imperator to the states through its non-statutory, non-elected appendages like the planning commission. The Sarkaria commission of 1983 had a large set of specific recommendations to review centre-state relationships and power sharing in the spirit of a federal union. The commission’s recommendations have essentially been frozen to death. Given the persistent encroachment of the centre on state rights on various issues, review of the concurrent list in favour of decentralization is a pipe-dream at present. What could have embodied the spirit of the Indian federal union, the Inter State Council, has been made into a toothless talking-shop, rather than the real state of policy review and consultation it should be.

The chief minister of Paschimbanga (West Bengal), Mamata Banerjee, has thrown spanner into such province vassalization designs – now twice in a row. For long described in mainstream corporate media as a speed-breaking tantrum thrower, she has been able to line up almost every chief minister except  Congress appointees to chief ministership to certain states. First through opposing the mandatory provisions about the Lokayukta in the Lokpal bill and now opposing the draft NCTC legislation, she has done what every state, including Congress-ruled states, should be doing – opposing the anti-federalist designs of the Union government. The  pundits who detest  the ‘disproportionate’ clout of ‘regional’ political forces should for once thanks these forces for standing up for the constitution, where the pre-eminent ‘national’ party has been found wanting. One can only note the cynical opposition of the BJP to the NCTC, the big ‘national’ group, given its sordid past of advocating very similar legislations like POTO which had provisions for federal policing and were as anti-federal any other. UPA ruling forces like the Trinamool Congress and National Conference,  non-UPA ruling parties like JD(U), AIADAMK, TDP, BJD, Nagaland People’s Front and  CPI(M), regional opposition parties both inside and outsie the UPA like the DMK and TDP  have also made clear that they serious exception to the NCTC as proposed.

The Delhi-controlled Indian Union as it stands today is in a big way the product of a reverse swing of the pendulum that started with the rejection of the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946. In the eve of parition and subsequent formation of the Indian Union, the ultra-centralized beast that we have at hand was unthinkable. While many Indians gloat at Pakistan’s long tryst with the ghosts of partition and separatism, partition and the resultant elimination of the major chunk of non-Congress political sphere enabled the central government of India to create a state that is a federal union only in name. This old Nehruvian disease, not surprisingly, also infects the Mahasabha-JanSangh-BJP lineage, who have their own delusions of unitary nationhood.

The portrayal of the NCTC impasse as some kind of a Mamata versus Congress flavour of the week shows the degradation of the level of public discourse, especially in the television media. A supreme ignorance of the nature of the constitution and political evolution of the Union is apparent in the coverage by photogenic faces who serve inanities by the mouthful. And why not? The media elite is an inseparable part of that Delhi-based illuminati, also comprising of policy think-tanks, security apparatchiks,immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, the higher bureaucracy and all the stench that connects them. 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. What is most dangerous is that their plan of destroying India’s federal structure is not  conspiratorial but inadvertent – a joyride by default where speedbreakers were not expected. 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 DilliHaat consumption. Be it calculated manoevering, Mamata has twice taken the initiative to bell the cat. But forces need to gather like the ‘thuggies’ of yore. This cat called India needs to be strangled, so that the Union of India lives.

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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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How not to love thy minority in Pashchimbanga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Edeshe aashe na fagoon, ashe Ekushe February.”

( slightly different version published at TwoCircles.net

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

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Chidambaram’s regret: Proding a sleeping beast

[ Sakaal Times (Pune) 31 Mar 2011 ; Echo of India (Port Blair) 1 Apr 2011 ]

For what its worth, the Wikileaks cables have been providing an unabashedly frank set of commentaries and report-backs from Unites States diplomats on the conversations and activities that the power elite of the world engage in. What must be a rather painful pinprick to the ego of über-nationalists of third-world nations, the leaks reveal that petty to hefty political
operatives feel way more comfortable about airing views about their own nation and polity in front of foreign diplomats than in front of their own people. A place at the big table comes at a price.The sine qua non for being a trusted lynch-pin in the Washington consensus based model for the new century is to be at home with the idea of being part of a global power elite with trading vital national interests and bandying information being a standard method of operation. But this can have blow-back in the nations the comprador elite inhabit, as the recent uproar in the Indian parliament shows. An alleged comment attributed to the Home Minister P Chidambaram was perceived to be particularly egregious, leading to calls for his resignation from a wide spectrum of the opposition – especially from the cow-belt.

According to the cables, in 2009, Chidambaram commented to Timothy Roemer, the United States ambassador to India, that higher growth rates in India would could be achieved “if it were the south and west only” and that “the rest of the country held it back”. By implication, ‘rest’ would mean the north and the east. What is all the more interesting is the sense of the world ‘it’ – the idea that the majority of the population of the country was holding the minority back from
launching into the big league. The extreme non-rootedness and disparaging attitude that such lines show are unfortunate, where whole peoples and their abodes come to be conceived as surplus production units by the GDPwallas. In fact, Chidambaram is on record stating that “My vision is to get 85 percent of India into cities”. With such visions doing rounds at the helm, it has the potential cause incremental social unrest and destroy certain compacts, which for good or for bad, have been an important basis of the Indian Union. Let me explain.

The alleged statement touches a rather raw nerve in the large sections of the cow-belt, especially those who champion the cause of peoples of Hindi dialects. The Hindi issue, till recently, was an political plank of the socialist formations in the cow-belt and going by the characters who were the shrillest in condemnation, one does see those forgotten political
contours re-emerging in a rare moment of solidarity among the various factions of the erstwhile cow-belt socialists – spanning from the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal to the Janata Dal ( United). The Bharatiya Janata Party with its core constituency in the cow-belt was active too. Political leadership have mostly chosen to not open the can of worms along a North-South divide and for this, credit is partly due to the politicians of the BIMARU states.There are serious divisions in opinion about the nature power sharing compacts in the Indian Union. The centre-state relationships in the union as well as the relationship between the North and the South in terms of power leveraging at the centre is at the end of the day pegged to the parliamentary representation of these zones in the Union parliament. At present, the basis of
such representation is that of he 1971 census. Article 81 and 82 and the 42nd constitutional amendment (1976) essentially froze the North-South power relations at 1971 population levels. By the 96th constitutional amendment ( 2003) extended the 1971 scenario till 2026.Until that time, territorial constituencies, in the Lok Sabha with regard to the number of seats allocated to each state, cannot be altered.The 96th constitutional amendment bill was passed with opposition support, including the cow-belt socialists who were politically more influential in 2003. It was a BJP government in centre, the Janata Dal (United) being the second largest faction of the ruling coalition and Samajwadi Party being the 5th largest party in parliament with 26 seats.

It is important to note the implications of this for the BIMARU states. Population changes between 1971 and 2001 have thrown up newer demographic realities. If parliamentary constituencies were allocated to states in proportion with 2001 census figures, all the BIMARU states stand to gain seats , even after adjusting for cleavage of some of the states in the
meantime- Uttar Pradesh (adjusting for Uttarakhand) – 6 , Rajasthan -4, Bihar (adjusting for Jharkhand)- 3 and Madhya Pradesh (adjusting for Chhattisgarh) – 2. This means that in the present parliamentary representation, the BIMARU states are underrepresented by 15 seats, not a small amount at all. This also leads to a democratic deficit when the population and
representation start having an assymetric relationship. This scenario of events will continue till 2026. By that time, the skew or the under-representation of the BIMARU states will be more acute,possibly between 25-30 seats, if the present population growth rates are any indicator.

In 2026, if parliamentary representation is brought in line to population proportions according to the 2021 census, we are looking at an adjustment of 25-30 seats in favour of he BIMARU states. The fallout of this shift would depend on the political climate vis-a-vis North-South relationship at that point. Admittedly quiescent in recent years, the nature of North-South relationship has the potential to become tenuous in the face of such a huge shift in power equations in the Indian Union centre. It is in this context that alleged comments made to the US Ambassador have the potential of waking up a sleeping beast. If such antagonisms develop, the Southern states would feel being victimized and squeezed out of resources and power leveraging for having done a better job at population control. We have already heard such grumblings on issues of central resource allocation to states. The Home Minister will do well to remember the Dravida Nadu movement in his own state. That project’s present political nonviability does not predict its future when population truths, however bitter, will hit home. While he might want 85 percent people to be rootless and bereft of sub-national identities, toiling away
in the cities to raise GDP numbers, the tapestry of human plurality of India is much more resilient than urban-industrial fantasies of nothing-but-Indians. That tapestry has numerous untied ends. Chidambaram can chose to pull them at his own peril.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Why Kolkata still matters – grave implications of its mode of urbanization on Southern Bengal

[ New Age ( Dhaka) – Feb 2010  &  Weekly Blitz ( Dhaka) – Feb 2010 ]

For the longest time, Kolkata was the nerve centre of Bengal and this was especially true of the Khulna and Jessore of united Bengal erstwhile which looked westwards to Kolkata as its major center for trade, education and other pursuits. After the partition in 1947, arguably the largest man-made environmental impact due to Kolkata on the landscape of both Bengals was the construction of the Farakka barrage. One of the main reasons of having the barrage in the first place was to minimize and rather grandiosely, reverse the heavy silting of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river which was serious threatening the eminence and even existence of Kolkata as a major port. Hence the planners of Kolkata’s future pushed for the barrage – over much opposition from environmentalists from both Bengals.No real study was done in the planning stages of the possible adverse environmental impact of the construction of the barrage and also on the life and livelihood of the people living downstream in both Bengals.The effects of that misjudgement is well-known and well-felt in Bangladesh and India.Now it stands as a gigantic tombstone to a dead dream of a certain post-colonial era, when technology and emancipation became synonymous. The mistrust that this brewed between Bangladesh and India is the only lingering heritage – for all the planning that it entailed, downward spiral of the navigability of the port at Kolkata could not be effectively checked.Once deemed a “traitor” to India, Kapil Bhattacharyya, who had the pre-eminent vision of questioning the notion of progress and the ecological cost of India’ development track, has been proved right , time after time.

But the notion of “progress” has not changed and if anything, the “development” beast is only more emphatically self-righteous about its methods.In recent years, under the current Left Front regime , there has been a conscious public relations effort to portray agriculture as an out-dated occupation which is to be phased out progressively and if need be, forcefully,  to make way for industry, which ostensibly will solve the unemployment problems of West Bengal. An urban-industrial vision of the world where there would be mega-urban centers, satellite townships,large patches of special economic zones and industrial areas and , as sort of an after thought, the agricultural hinterland of stupendous productivity that “science” would apparently usher in, to offset the loss of agricultural land now dominates the psyche of the leaders and opinion-makers of most of the erst-while colonies of the West. However, as recent events in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal have shown, that there are other visions of the future too.

This brings us to the issue of the present tendency or urbanization of Kolkata. When Bengali refugees arrived in the vicinity of Kolkata after partition, the “colonies” that were set up around the city were largely unplanned and unchecked.It was an imperative of insane times and the balanced growth of Kolkata, if it had to happen, should have happen northwards but instead happened eastwards.Huge wetlands and salty-marshes were filled – giving Kolkata a new face. But at present there is a more sinister drive towards urbanization , which is not due to any impulse generated by the humanitarian catastrophe of the partition, but due to the interest of the richer sections of society to have urban and industrial bases in the immediate vicinity of present Kolkata. The idea is, these would be posh, well connected, modern centres which eventually would become part of a Kolkata mega-city.The displaced peasants and their families from these newly acquired areas would be employed as cheap labour – mainly in non-skilled roles and domestic homes.This is what has pushed the extension of Kolkata into Rajarhat-Bishnupur-Lauhati area and the recent scandal of violence around Vedic Village amply shows what such land acquisitions necessarily entail.

But there is a greater threat and that it is of immense importance to the whole of Southern Bengal.Subrata Sinha , the former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India, possibly the best expert on the effects of Kolkata’s urbanization trend on the lower Gangetic deltaic region, has opined the following “The Calcutta wetlands form part of the deltaic region of the geo-hydrologically connected Ganga-Hugli-Meghna-Brahamputra river systems and part of the trans-national watershed comprising the Himalayan mountains. The shareholders mainly include India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Unfortunately, the wetlands have been severely affected by urban encroachment; largely crippling their functions.” He continues “The terrain analysis (including the study of aerial photo and satellite imagery mosaics) reveals that numerous rivulets of the shared Indo-Bangladesh deltaic drainage system originate in this zone. Major impediments (roads, buildings and other infrastructure), which are inevitable adjuncts of intensive
urbanization , shall act as a wall across the route of overland flow. Allowing the Singur- Rajarhat belt to develop into a major urban-industrialisation agglomeration will only strengthen the wall. The excessive run-off during the monsoon shall be diverted downslope towards Bangladesh and metropolitan Kolkata. This will aggravate water-logging and floods. “

The potential implications of this is understandable and cannot be under-stated.The land which constitutes Bengal is older than Bakhtiar Khilji’s invasion of Bengal or Aryan expansion into primarily Austric Bengal.The rivers, the aquifers, the mangroves – tie the Bengals together – and their destruction – will bring them down together like inseparable twins.Hence there is an urgent need of the environmental groups and activists to come together without the prejudices that their respective nation-state affiliations bring.Environmentalists from Kolkata, Dhaka, Nadia and Chattagram should be able to talk about the devastation that Farakka and Kaptai have brought to Bengal.Given our
shared past, only an engaging present, can lead to, in all pragmatism, a shared future – for neither flash floods nor salinization respect nation state boundaries.

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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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Long way from home – silent shuffles towards not sticking out

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coolies under attack: What to make of the racist violence on Indians in Australia?

( The Telegraph, Kolkata – June 11, 2009)

The shocking racist attacks on an young Indian student in Australia might bring flashbacks of such assaults meted out to another young man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aboard a train in South Africa, more than a hundred years ago.

Living and studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT and arguably the liberal capital of the United States of America, it is easy for me to presume that overt racism displayed to Indians in foreign lands to be a thing of the past. But what I have come to know about Ravi Raj, an IT specialist at the Harvard-MIT Data center, challenges presumptions. Allegedly, his supervisor at work called him “fucking towelhead” (mistakenly using slur to mark him as an Arab) and a “dothead” (this time getting the ethnicity right- the dot being the teep or bindi worn by some Indian women) and getting food splattered on his table at work, in addition to racially motivated poor work performance reports. This does not match the treatment meted out to Shravan Kumar Theerthala, the 25-year old Indian student who was non-fatally stabbed in what appears to be a racially motivated attack in Melbourne, Australia.

Racially motivated attacks against Indians in countries like Canada, United States of America and United Kingdom are not new. These events only show that certain strains of intolerance are alive and kicking, amidst the cosmopolitan love-in that urban centers of such nations purportedly provide. Not so long ago, Indian residents of New Jersey faced spent the year of 1987 in mortal fear as the community came under a series of racist attacks from an organized anti-Indian group calling themselves the “dotbusters”. The attacks continued till as late as 1992.The street attacks against Indians, mainly Punjabis in Canadian cities continued through the 1970s and 80s and only tapered down with the formation of “resistance” groups like the East Indian Defence Committee where youths took to policing neighbourhoods when the community felt helpless in the face of racist attacks in the backdrop of an apathetic state. In Britain, the racial slur of “Paki” sticks to Indians as well, ironically undoing the carefully constructed image, of late, of the ‘good’ brown (the Indian) as opposed to the ‘bad’ brown (the Pakistani).

Australia, which is the center of present attention, has a long history of racially inspired hate-crimes. The aboriginal inhabitants faced the brunt of it in the earliest years and then it was the turn of the Chinese. United States of America, Canada and Australia, all have at various times, tried to make race homogenized societies by law, by limiting immigration from non-Caucasian ethnicities. Such laws have now been reversed – but then discrimination by castes is illegal in India too-it is the dismantling of the embedded hierarchy that really matters.

What also ties these nations in a common thread is a long state of denial of racism as an original sin based on which these nations were founded in their modern form – to be more precise, the genocidal racist violence by which entire populations and communities of the original sons and daughters of the soil were wiped out. To admit it and atone for it as such shakes the foundational myths of nations, which can be very unsettling – every people have holy cows in the form of their founding fathers. So, the results of the non-atonements for such original and devastating racist ethos are generally the continuation of an underbelly of racism, which finds covert resonance with significant portions of the populace.

It is easy to divert the angst of hopelessness of working class youths in such societies into a sense of pride in race – xenophobia and overt racism follow close behind. There is always demagoguery in abundant supply to feed these youths – stories of pride and victimization, of the greatness of the “white-washed” past and the eyesore-ness of the fact that communities now “look different” that is more racially diverse. I had heard this refrain from such a fellow in Boston who complained why the immigrants could not act like us and eat like us and have to stick out. This talk of “assimilation” was rich coming from a person who did not see the irony of calling part of the eastern coast area of the North American continent as “New England”. Assimilation of the kind he wanted has never really happened but this exceptionalism is but a result of feeding foundational myths for centuries. No wonder, in both the USA and Australia, the reverential remembrance of Christopher Columbus and James Cook, serve to underline the exceptionalism – for if they were discovered, there is nothing to be assimilated into. Playing down the presence of large living indigenous communities and their violent uprooting are relegated to footnotes at best.

But for the white-collar Indians, “assimilation” was always a natural forte- or so we thought. We, the white collar Indians in these countries, are the “model minority”. We work in silence, follow the rules, play by the book, pay taxes in time and when we hear about racist attacks , whether they be against African-Americans in the USA or the Chinese in Australia, we also diligently change the channel. In other words, we were perfect! In fact, holding signs and joining marches in solidarity against things inhuman don’t behoove us – that is for the rabble you see.

The incidents in Australia and the marked absence of Chinese and aboriginal groups from the Indian protests in Australia show the futility of the hope that being disdainfully aloof and gently avoiding the trouble of the main street is effective insurance against such attacks. The brown sahibs conveniently forget the example of Ram Manohar Lohia, who on 28th May, 1964, “broke” the rules by trying to eat at a racially segregated restaurant in Jackson,Mississippi. This solidarity is what creates bridges- the white collar Indian community has generally shunned such bridges. We, who read English papers, are hearing this story and getting agitated, because, people like us, people whose lives we can identify with – the student in the university, the clean professional have been affected.

Perhaps, it is not out of place now, to think about the daily brazen racist exploitations on undocumented low paid Indian workers in construction sites or the slurs to be faced daily by working class Indians in these countries. The NRI affairs minister Vayalar Ravi has issued statements calling for the protection of Indians in Australia – with India’s supposed new clout of quasi-superpowerdom, this, we are to believe is effective. But time and again, a certain Gandhi and a certain Lohia has shown that, on the street, in the community, a cross-class, cross-race alliance against intolerance is the best bet.

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

( Himal SouthAsian, Jan 2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Along Chitpur Road

(  Himal SouthAsian Mar 2008)

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

 

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

 

Refresh the memory


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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The multiverse of loyalty

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Primordial organic identity

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

United in grief

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Bangladeshi-Pakistani bhai-bhai?

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

 

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

 

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

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