Tag Archives: Memory

Netaji and the politics of legacy and memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

January on Jessore Road / The besieged Hindus of Bangladesh

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

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

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

They’ve just blown around from town to town

Till they’re back out on these fields

Where they fall from my hand

Back into the dirt of this hard land”

– Bruce Springsteen, This Hard Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

সুধাংশু যাবে না

–শামসুর রাহমান

লুণ্ঠিত মন্দির, আর অগ্নিদগ্ধ বাস্তুভিটা থেকে

একটি বিবাগী স্বর সুধাংশুকে ছুঁলো

‘আখেরে কি তুলি চলে যাবে?’ বেলা শেষে

সুধাংশু ভস্মের মাঝে খুঁজে

বেড়ায় দলিল, ভাঙা চুড়ি, সিঁদুরের স্তব্ধ কৌটা,

স্মৃতির বিক্ষিপ্ত পুঁতিমালা।

স্বর বলে, ‘লুটেরা তোমাকে জব্দ ক’রে

ফেলে আশে পাশে

তোমার জীবনে নিত্যদিন লেপ্টে থাকে

পশুর চেহারা সহ ঘাতকের ছায়া,

আতঙ্কের বাদুড় পাখার নিচে কাটাচ্ছ প্রহর,

তবু তুমি যেও না সুধাংশু।’

আকাশের নীলিমা এখনো

হয়নি ফেরারি, শুদ্ধাচারী গাছপালা

আজও সবুজের

পতাকা ওড়ায়,

ভরা নদীকোমর বাঁকায় তন্বী বেদিনীর মতো।

এ পবিত্র মাটি ছেড়ে কখনো কোথাও

পরাজিত সৈনিকের মতো

সুধাংশু যাবে না।

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

An unearthly voice vibrates in Sudhanshu

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

Sudhanshu gropes amidst cinders

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

The dog-eared scatters of manuscripts in memory.

The phantom says, ‘The plunderer has beaten you

Here and there

Your daylight clings to

An animal outline ambushed by a murderer’s mien,

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

Despite all, do not leave, oh Sudhanshu.’

The blue of this sky is yet to

Diminish, the sacred trees

Are yet flying green

Banners, the copious river

Meanders her waist like a slim snakecharmer lass.

He won’t abandon this sacred earth for elsewhere,

Unlike a retreating soldier in defeat,

Sudhanshu would forever not leave

– Shamsur Rahman

(Gargi Bhattacharya translated the poem from the Bengali original)

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

Mine is bigger / Heights of silence

[ Outlook, 9 Dec 2013 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Caste, Elite, India, Media, Memory

Death of a general / The unconquered General Giap

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

‘Amar nam, tomar naam,

Vietnam, Vietnam’

(Your name, my name, Vietnam, Vietnam)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Nakbas near home – Their Palestines, Our Palestines

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 May 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 26 June 2013 ]

Fleeing from one’s homeland after being pushed out from there was a phenomenon that bound people across the subcontinent in 1947. It was also a time of unbinding as millions were frantically trying to prevents knots from untying – knots that had taken generations to build, knots out of which selfhoods emerged and thrived. That anxious and tragic trudge, leaving behind the land of ancestors, also happened to the west of the subcontinent, in Palestine. For Palestinians, 15 May is not ordinary day either. It remembered as Nakba Day or the ‘day of catastrophe’. More than half a million Palestinians fled their lands in the wake of the 1948 war – never to be able to return. They hold on to keys, real and symbolic, asserting their right to return to their lands, adding flesh to ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’. The leaving behind the land of ancestors is something subcontinentals know too well.

Palestine has become a codeword for injustice to a people who had to flee their homes unwillingly. There very few large university campuses in the West where some form of Palestine solidarity activism does not exist. The present author has actually suffered some persecutions due to his involvement with such initiatives at one point. This also spills over to general activism against militarism and occupation – activist forces, however marginal, have a supportive stance on Palestine. Such support has almost become a sine qua non for being considered serious and passionate about human rights, in general.

Some years ago, I was chatting with a friend who is very passionate about Palestinian rights, their denied statehood and most importantly, their right to return to their ancestral homes in Palestine from their diasporic network, including many in refugee colonies.  He is a Bengali baidya born and brought up in the C.R.Park locality of New Delhi. The discussion turned to ancestral origins and he revealed that they were from Dhaka. I asked him, so what about your right to return? He looked perplexed. What do you mean – he asked? I said, I am guessing your East Bengali family, like most others, did not flee Dhaka voluntarily, and like Palestinians, their ancestral abode, even if razed or occupied, is as sacred to them, and most importantly, they did not have consent in the dispensation that made them refugees. And let the Rs.20000/sq.ft. property values of CR Park not make us forget the earlier name of this ‘posh’ locality – East Pakistan Displaced Persons(EPDR) Colony. Most ‘EPDP’ colonies are not ‘posh’ – especially those inhabited by people from backward castes. Such colonies, authorized and unauthorized, have been the site of state repression including large scale massacre, as in Marichjhhapi in 1979. Yes, there are differences from Palestine, but what prevents anyone from seeing the many similarities?

Palestine is not the site of the world’s largest or longest displacement. But what determines its pre-eminent position in the ‘global’ mindscape? Imperialism, that hollowed out word, also determines the pecking order of resistances, of solidarity causes, inside our heads. If the Bengali Baidya cared only about Bengal and  nothing about Palestine, that looking away from the priority list of the minority world into the majority world, would be termed ‘insular’ and ‘inward’ looking. That there is no such slur for those who don’t care about the displaced in the subcontinent is but a testimony to the skewed nature of our sensitibilities.

People who question such fundamental things as the nation-states in the subcontinent do not call for the right to return of Muslims who fled Ambala and Kolkata, or Hindus who fled and continue to flee East Bengal. What do these blind-spots reveal? What is so natural about the displacement from Ambala to Multan that it merits no call for justice and ‘right to return’? Surely, constitutional  ‘nationality’ cannot be a reason to suspend humanity and consider the myriad ‘right to return’s in our subcontinent as absurd.

There may be something else at play. It is harder to confront one’s immediate surround. We know them – the university rebel who is a docile son at home, the fire-eating caste-hating savarna who predictably marries someone else from a similar caste, and many others. Distant cause-mongering helps us to get away from these clearly disturbing mismatches between rhetoric and action, but at the same time preserves the semblance of an ethical self, even a pedestal.

One may ask, why not this and that?  But if ‘activism’ is to be taken seriously, tangible action is to be taken seriously, then there is a certain problem in having this cafeteria choice of causes.  Not all causes stand a crucial test – whether one is directly affected by the consequences of one’s actions in the furtherance of a cause. It matters.

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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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