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বাম্বু ও বিষ্ণু

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

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

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

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

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10 interesting facts about the 2014 Indian elections

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), 23 May 2014 ; Kashmir Monitor, 26 May 2014 ]

The results of the 2014 elections of the Indian Union parliament are out. In the subcontinent, this has been one of the most watched elections ever. The neighbouring nation-states of the Indian Union, particularly Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka watched these elections closely – given that these nation-states and their names come up in various degrees and forms in the Indian Union’s domestic political scene. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic, divisive leader Narendrabhai Modi, are the two big winners of the election – one will be the party in power and the other will be the prime minister of the Indian Union. The ‘Modi wave’ is the phrase that has been used to characterize the nature of the results. Here are 10 pointers about the 2014 verdict, within and beyond the ‘wave’.

  1. This is the first time since partition, or for that matter, first time since the 1937 elections, that any party other than the Congress won an absolutely majority of the total number of seats. In the 543 seat lower house of the Indian Union parliament, the number 272 represents an absolute majority. The BJP has won 282 seats. It has won 31% of the all the votes polled, representing a staggering 12.2 % increase in vote share. Though it is the largest non-Congress party ever, in terms of seat number, in terms of vote share, it was bettered by the Janata Party in 1977, which inflicted a crushing defeat on Indira Gandhi’s Congress, post-emergency.
  2. The BJP has benefitted from much its vote being heavily concentrated in the Hindi-belt of the Indian Union. This has resulted in a high number of seats, compared to the vote share. Indeed, for a party winning a majority of seats, this is the lowest vote share since partition. In terms of vote share increases, the BJP has got about 50% more than its last time. While this is impressive, even more impressive are the results of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the ruling party of Tamil Nadu and the Telengana Rashtra Samithi, the soon-to-be ruling party of Telengana, a new state that was carved out of Andhra Pradesh and its contours similar to the Nizam of Hyderabad’s territories in 1948. Both of these parties doubled their vote shares, a 100% increase over the previous parliamentary election.
  3. This was also the costliest parliamentary election ever, anywhere. That also includes the 2012 US presidential elections, which cost about 2.6 billion US Dollars. By cost, I mean the campaign cost and not the cost of actually organizing the elections. The 2014 Indian Union parliamentary elections saw the candidates and their backers spent 5.2 billion US Dollars. This is a ‘conservative’ estimate arrived at by the respected weekly Outlook. The official spending limit per constituency (as per the Election Commission of India) is 70 lakh Indian Rupees. The joke is not lost on us. Sadly, the joke is at the people’s expense, whose resources have to cough up many times the 5.2 billion dollars to line pockets of entities that invested this astronomical amount in these elections. An important loophole that allows parties to have such huge amounts of unaccounted donations is the rule that parties do not need to divulge the name of donors who pay under 20000 Indian Rupees. Most parties, as a rule, present audit reports, where a huge majority of the fund comes from a large number of small donations from unnamed persons. The Aam Aadmi Party demanded that this rule be changed, so that electoral spending and political funding becomes transparent. BJP and Congress, both opposed it vociferously. The new government is very unlikely to change that. BJP or Congress, certain things remain the same. This is one of them.
  4. Given that the electoral exercise aims to ensure people’s representation, to what extent are the elected legislators ‘representative’ of the general population is an important question. In a year, an inhabitant of the Indian Union earns roughly 70000 Indian Rupees on average (this is the nominal per capita year income). This utterly poor nation-state will be represented by 442 crorepatis among its 543 members of parliament. The total assets of these 442 newly-minted members of parliament is to the tune of 7850 crore Indian Rupees (source: Association for Democratic Reforms). This is the figure arrived from ‘declared’ assets. Modi wave, Congress wave – all waves of recent years has had mostly crorepatis riding the waves. This is the richest parliament ever, in a literal economic sense. As a result, this might well be the poorest parliament ever, in every other sense.
  5. 34% of the members of the 16th Lok Sabha (Indian Union parliament lower house) have declared criminal cases. That is 186 have declared that they have criminal cases against them. Of this186, 112 have cases of very serious nature, like murder, attempt to murder, crimes against women, dacoity, etc. (source: Association for Democratic Reforms). If one were to interview each these 186 proud sons and daughters of Mother India, they would reply that the cases against them are politically motivated, that is, they are false cases. Curiously, most of these cases remain in suspended animation indefinitely. False or not, they do not seem to be too interested in getting their name cleared. The good news is that many members of parliament do not have murder charges against them.
  6. You can actually start walking from Kolkata in West Bengal and reach Chennai in Tamil Nadu and not pass through any constituency won by the BJP. West Bengal, Orissa, Telengana and Tamil Nadu have voted overwhelmingly for political parties that represent provincial interests. The ‘national’ parties are marginal players in these large states. You can walk from Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir and reach the eastern end of Bihar or the southern tip of Gujarat and not have to pass through a single non-BJP constituency. If you start from any Congress-won constituency, you don’t get very far unless you step into a non-Congress constituency. This election has seriously punctured the Congress claim of having a ‘nation-wide’ presence. In the Hindi-belt of the Indian Union, the Congress managed to win 7 out of 251 seats. The BJP swept this area, underscoring its reputation as a party of Hindi and Hindustan. The Kishanganj-Goa line that I had referred to in my article in The Friday Times last week has been breached in Karntaka and Assam. Otherwise, the line still is a broad demarcation of the BJP’s core sphere of influence.3 out of 4 seats won by the BJP came from the Hindi belt or Gujarat.
  7. Among major parties, the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal has the largest proportion of female candiadates among their seats won – more than 30%. Uma Soren of the Trinamool Congress is also the poorest winning candidate in this parliament. She has less than 5 lakh Indian Rupees in total assets. 12 out of 60 female members of the just elected parliament, that is 20%, are from West Bengal. This is more than double of proportion of West Bengal population in the Indian Union. Also, this parliament will have more women members of parliament than the last one.
  8. This is the first time in the Indian Union parliament’s lower house that the largest party (BJP) will not have a single Muslim member of parliament. The BJP led pre-poll alliance called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won more than half the seats where the proportion of Muslims among the voters in more than 20%. Unless one assumes that a significant proportion of Muslims in Muslim-heavy constituencies voted for the BJP-led alliance, what comes to light is a partial consolidation of non-Muslim votes. Many of these constituencies are in Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where three, four and even five cornered contests helped the BJP win handsomely.
  9. The combined vote share of the two ‘national’ parties, the BJP and the Congress, is 50.3%. The rest of the votes come from parties that did not win seats in more than 2 states, making them ‘regional’ entities for all practical purposes. The combined vote-share of the 2 big national parties have not significantly changed over 20 years or so, this indicating that the BJP’s gain this time came largely from the Congress’ collapse.
  10. Bahujan Samaj Party, the third largest party of the Indian Union in terms of number of votes, did not win a single seat.

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The 2014 India election review / A question of power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next time, electing a sarkar from Great Nicobar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David versus Goliath in Benares

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

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

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

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

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The Aam Aadmi phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The vast reality beyond Narendrabhai and Rahulbaba / The potentialities of ‘regionalism’

[ Daily News and Analysis, 25 Nov 2013 ; Millenium Post, 27 Nov 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 28 Nov 2013 ; Echo of India, 29 Nov 2013 ]

If you are one of those who think that English language television channels headquartered in and around Delhi present a reliable picture of the subcontinent, it is time to take a serious reality check. Such and other Delhi-centric views would have you believe that the coming Lok Sabha election of the Indian Union is some sort of a boxing match between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi and that the sentiments of the people are neatly divided between the Indira Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These 2 parties distinguish themselves from others by the influence Delhi-based operators have on their policy and workings. Many ‘think-tanks’ that have sprouted up in Delhi, staffed with well-heeled ‘analysts’ with opaque connections to these 2 parties. Puncture one of these ‘tanks’ and what gushes forth is predictable – a lamentation about how the Indian Union cannot be left to anything but ‘national’ parties. The combined chorus of Delhi-based policywallahs, mediawallahs, academics, defence contractors, security apparatchiks and other glittering-shady characters has one tune – there is no choice beyond the Cong and the BJP. Lobbyists and pimps of all hues have invested hard in parties that are operated from Delhi. Each of these sectors has their own reasons to sing that song – but their combined howl has a terrific effect that has the power to move people. Which is precisely why they do the familiar singing when elections are near.

Let me put this cheerleading for the ‘national’ parties in some perspective. For the longest time, a single ‘national’ party ruled the Indian Union uninterruptedly. Since 1989, governments have essentially formed by a national party with a pound-of-flesh arrangement with some others. The national party makes policy while the coalition ‘partners’ keep mum and take their cut. This arrangement is at the heart of the present United Progressive Alliance (led by the Indira Congress) and the National Democratic Alliance (led by the Bharatiya Janata Party). The National Front and United Front governments were notable exceptions where parties with diverse regional origins came together to form policy. The Indian Union is supposedly a federal union – which is an arrangement in which the constituent units  (the states) and Delhi govern together.

Over the decades since partition of 1947, Delhi has consistently and systematically encroached on the rights of the states, by its ‘directives’, arm-twisting opponents or simply by using super-majorities of the Congress years and now increasingly by the unholy alliance on certain matters between the two nationals, Cong and BJP. Whereas centralization of executive power has made the Indian Union less democratic, it has also made the removal of entrenched elites harder. No wonder most members of parliament own property in Delhi and their progeny increasingly live there. On the other hand, the regional parties have been steadfast in their defense of the principle of federalism – as the recent stances by the Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal and others on the issue of opposing the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) clearly show. It is majorly due to the decline of the national parties that today it is not easy to use the kalo ain called Article 356 to remove a democratically elected state government. Balancing the over-centralization that has occurred over the last few decades needs an agenda for true federalism that can be supplied most muscularly by parties that consider their own state as the ‘centre’. Only such formations can demand exclusive state rights over their own resources and revenue. In the absence of economic autonomy of the states, ad-hocism and pound-of-flesh favouritism will keep some states happy and some states neglected. Delhi will corner disproportionate resources and subsidies anyways.

The continued use of the term ‘regional’ has another goal. This is to paint certain groups as hindrances to the speedy march of the Indian Union. ‘Regional’ has become a bad word. But the reality is that most of us (barring some post-liberalization yuppie urbanites) are not ashamed to be Tamils, Marathis, Bengalis, Oriyas and no other identity, real or imagined, can displace that.

What is the scope of these ‘regional’ parties in the global perspective? The Trinamool Congress got more votes in 2009 Lok Sabha than the victorious Tories got in the UK parliamentary elections of 2010. The DMK got more votes than the ruling Conservative party of Canada got in their 2011 federal election. Consider this. Post-partition, no national party has won an absolute majority of votes, ever. Also consider this. Even if I add up the 2 national parties, they have won less than 50 percent votes in 3 of the last 5 Lok Sabha elections. By concentrating simply on these 2 nationals, we stand to lose sight of the diverse and substantial political currents that represent the subcontinental reality. The Indian Union is a federal union. To make it a more democratic union, Delhi needs to be kept in leash by the states. The over centralized, Delhi-controlled India must die so that the Union of India may live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pakistan elections : The provincial turn / Punjab’s winner, Pakistan’s ruler

[ Daily News and Analysis, 13 May 2013; Kashmir Reader, 2 Jul 2013 ]

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan held its elections on 11th May. The results till now have unequivocally pointed to the big winner of the election – the party of the Sharif brothers, the Pakistan Muslim League (Noon). They will possibly come very close to majority – there is a slim possibility of an outright majority too. In any case, the significant number of free-floating independents will ensure the majority for PML(N). There is no doubt that they will form the next federal government in Pakistan. Mian Nawaz of Raiwind is back in the saddle again. Having been removed in a coup and sent to exile after brokering a ‘abstinence from politics’ agreement, this is no small achievement for Mian Nawaz Sharif. The other big achievement is of broader import – this is the first time in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that an elected government has completed a full-term followed by an election that is all set to return a different party to power. While there have been major irregularities in Karachi city, in addition to the significant boycotts in parts of Balochistan, no electoral party has come out and claimed that the elections over-all were completely illegitimate. One can hope that there will be a peaceful transition of government. The continuance of any representative institution is a hit, however small, to the clout of undemocratic institutions like the armed forces.

There is certain narrative in the Indian Union about the ‘intrinsically undemocratic’ character of Pakistan’s polity. This is based on the long periods of army rule that Pakistan has endured. What is glossed over in such smug ideas is that the people of Pakistan have removed armed dictatorships through mass movements – not once, not twice, but thrice. That is even more true for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The Indian Union was formed by a transfer of power in 1947. A lengthy dictatorship was averted in the 70s not due to some internal mass movement that laid siege to the Indira Congress government. The dictatorship, also known as the Emergency, was a calculated move on the part of the Panditain. It is the holding of the 1977 elections that turned out to be an unfortunate gamble for her. If anything, one needs to learn from across the Radcliffe line the ABCs of removing dictatorships.

However embedded in these results is another phenomenon. To understand that, one needs to know that  Punjab province (West Punjab) has 148 seats in the national assembly, out of a total of 272. This simply means that it is possible for a party to dominate the province of Punjab and go on to form the federal government. This is precisely what has happened in Pakistan. The PML-N, the party that will form the next governmental, is a marginal or inconsequential factor in the 3 other major provinces – Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. During the early results, Mian Nawaz stepped out of his palace to declare that ‘The Nation has given me another chance to serve it.” He would have been accurate, if West Punjab was the nation it was talking about. The imminent party-of-power PML-N is simply a non-factor in Sindh, the second largest province. The erstwhile government party, the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) has essentially been reduced to a party of rural Sindh while the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) ambition could not expand beyond the towns of Sindh. The PPPP’s decline shows that families, even those with ‘martyrs’,  cannot indefinitely bank on the reverence for the dead. The MQM might as well change its name back to Mojahir Qaumi Movement. The absence of the muttahid nation is written all over the results and is the embedded subtext of the election, veiled by the numerical dominance of Punjab province. Significant parts of Balochistan went to the elections in a Kashmir-like situation with wide-spread election boycotts by forces fighting for an independent Balochistan. Worse still, the Pakistani state does not have a National Conference. Thus the representativeness of results from that province is questionable. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the campaign saw the killing of scores of leaders and activists of the secular- Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party by righteous soldiers of religion. Parties perceived to be soft on the Taliban, urbane (Imran Khan’s PTI) or traditional (JUI-F) have excelled. Terror works.

The results show that the political field of Pakistan is now dominated by a collection of regionally strong currents. An analogous scenario in the Indian Union would be if say, a mainly north-India based party like the BJP, could win a majority in parliament if it happened to completely dominate the region. The over-centralized government at Delhi is ill-equipped to deal with such an eventuality. Fortunately, Pakistan is well prepared – having already democratized its constitution by transferring a lot of power to the provincial governments. In spite of ‘elder brother’ attitudes, the Indian Union has a thing or two to learn from Pakistan.

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Bad moon rising / A dangerous connivance /

[ The Hindu, 6 Apr 2013 ; The Friday Times (Lahore), April 19-25, 2013 – Vol. XXV, No. 10 ; Kashmir Monitor, 25 Apr 2013 ; Himalayan Mirror (Gangtok), 12 Apr 2013 ; Himalayan Mail (Jammu), 7 Apr 2013; South Asia Citizen’s Web, 23 Apr 2013 ]

Many in West Bengal are looking to the Shahbag protests in Dhaka with a lot of hope and solidarity – as an important and necessary step that would usher in a rollback of the creeping communalism that has afflicted the People’s Republic of Bangladesh since 1975. 1971 is still fresh in the mind of many Bengalees from the West, when a massive relief and solidarity effort was under taken on that side of the border to reach out to a large mass of humanity trying to escape a situation that has been described variously – from ‘civil war’ to ‘genocide’. The then leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami in East Bengal and its students wing organized murder and rape squads, at times in collaboration with the armed forces. The specific crimes include mass-murder, rape as a weapon of war, arson and forced conversions. They escaped prosecution due to the by generals who used them to cast an Islamic veneer of legitimacy over their illegal capture of power. They were gradually rehabilitated until the present Awami League led government came to power – whose manifesto among other things, promised the trial of war criminals. Thus started the proceedings against them in the War Crimes tribunal. The Shahbag protests have demanded maximum punishment for the guilty.

In West Bengal, a few meetings and assemblies have happened around Shahbag. However, to the shock and dismay of many, the largest of these assemblies was a massive rally held in central Kolkata’s Shahid Minar on 30th March, explicitly against the Shahbag protests and in support of the war criminals convicted by the tribunal. Various Muslim groups including the All India Milli Council, All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, West Bengal Sunnat Al Jamat Committee, Association of Protection of Civil Rights, Milli Ittehad Parishad, West Bengal Madrasa Students Union, Ashikane Rasul Committee, All India Minority Association, All Bengla Muslim Think Tank, All India Muslim Majlish E Mushawarat, Aminia Jamiat E Muttakin Committee, Ulama Parishad, Magribi Bangla Anzumane Wayejin, Bangiya Imama Parishad and All Bengal Imam Muazzin Assiciation convened the meeting. People had also arrived in buses and trucks from distant districts of West Bengal like Murshidabad and Nadia, in additional to those from the adjoining districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Haora and Hooghly, among others. Students of madrassas and the newly minted Aliah Madrassa University were conspicuous at the gathering.

They rallied because ‘Islam is in danger’ in Bangladesh. Never mind that that post-1947, that part of the world through all its forms ( East Bengal, East Pakistan, People’s Republic of Bangladesh) has seen a continuous drop in the population percentage of religious minorities, in every census since 1951.This rallying cry is not new. It was heard in 1952 when the mother language movement of was in full swing, in 1954 when the United Front led by Fazlul Haq and Maulana Bhashani challenged the Muslim League, in 1969 when the Awami League made its 6 demands and in 1971 when Bengalees fought for independence and now in the context of Shahbag in 2013 – basically during every secular movement for rights and justice. One of the main accused in the war-crimes trial, Golam Aazam (also the leader of the Jamaat in East Pakistan in 1971), had used this old trick in the hat when he has stated in 1971 “the supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims”. Replace ‘Bangladesh’ with ‘Shahbag’ and ‘Pakistan’ with ‘Bangladesh’ and you have the same logic. Terming the struggle in Bangladesh to be one between Islam and Shaitan (Satan), it was announced at the meeting that they would cleanse West Bengal of those who were trying to support the present Prime-minister of Bangladesh and the war-crime trial effort. It was also threatened that those political forces that support Shahbag would ‘beaten with broom-sticks’ if they came to ask for votes from Muslims. Just like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, Sheikh Hasina will also be kept out of Kolkata – they added. They also supported the anti-Shahbag ‘movement’ in Bangladesh. The last assertion is especially worrisome as this anti-Shahbag movement has let loose its fury on the religious minorities of Bangladesh. This has resulted in a wave of violent attacks on Hindus, Buddhists and secular individuals, with wanton burning and destruction of Hindu and Buddhist homes, businesses and places of worship. Amnesty International communiqué mentioned attacks on over 40 Hindu temples as of 6th March. The number is over 100 now and still rising.

Given the recent trends of politics in West Bengal, this large gathering and its pronouncements are not shocking. The writing has been in the wall for a while. A collapse in the Muslim vote of the Left Front is an important factor in its recent demise after more than three decades of uninterrupted rule. Various Muslim divines like Twaha Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif, have explicitly pointed that out as a point of threat to the present government. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a continued slice of this vote. The present government has tried to hand out sops to build a class of Muslim ‘community leaders’ who eat of its hand by its unprecedented move to giving monthly stipends to imams and muezzins. Very recently, it has been decided that such a cash scheme might be worked out for Muslim widows too. Given that it is beyond the ability of the debt-ridden, vision-poor government to solve the problems that are common to the poor, it has cynically chosen to woo a section of the marginalized on the basis of religion using handouts. These are excellent as speech-making points masquerading as empathy and social justice. This is dangerous politics to say the least. It sets into motion currents and gives fillip to forces whose trajectories are beyond the control of the present political groups. The Left Front’s political fortune has not improved after its humiliating defeat. It has cynically chosen not too oppose this communal turn to West Bengal’s politics, for it too, believes that silently waiting for the incumbent to falter is a better roadmap to power. The damage that is doing to the political culture of the state in immense and may well be irreparable. The incumbent’s connivance and the opposition’s silence are largely due to decades of erosion in the culture of democratic political contestation through grassroots organizing. Both the incumbent and the oppostition parties deal with West Bengal’s sizeable minority population primarily via intermediaries, often doing away with any pretense of political ideology while indulging in such transactions.

For their part, organizations owing allegiance to a particular brand of political Islam ala Moududi, have used this disconnect to the hilt. An emerging bloc of divines and ex-student leaders of certain organizations have used the students that they can amass at short notice to launch specific protests, aimed in getting a leverage in terms of policy. Sadly, this blackmailing is hardly aimed at uplifting the living standards of West Bengal Muslims in this world. Rather, its string of victories started with successfully driving out the famous persecuted humanist writer Taslima Nasreen during the Left Front regime. The most recent example was the governmental pressure that was exerted on their direction to keep Salman Rushdie out of a proposed event in Kolkata, after he successfully did such events in Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. This slowly pushing of the envelope fits into a sequence of events that are increasingly stifling the freedom of expression. At the same time, its double-standards are explicit. On March 21st, a medium-sized group consisting of little-magazine publishers, human rights workers, theatre artists, womens’ organizations and peace activists had announced that they would march in solidarity with the Shahbag protests and express their support to the Bangladesh government’s war crimes trial initiative by marching to the deputy high-commission of Bangladesh. Even after prior intimation, the rally was not allowed to move by the police due to ‘orders’ and some of the marchers were detained. The same police provided security cover to pro-Jamaat-e-Islami organizations as they conducted a rally submitted a month earlier and again later when they submitted a memorandum to the same deputy high commission demanding acquittal of convicted war criminals. Last year, it issued a circular to public libraries to stock a sectarian daily even before its first issue had been published! The role of the state is explicit in these actions – it possibly thinks that it can play this game of brinksmanship with finesse. The flight of cultural capital from the self-styled cultural capital of India is but a natural corollary of such unholy alliances with the political class playing tactical spectators and tactical facilitators to apologists for one the largest mass-murders in the last century .

The recent bye-election to Jangipur, a Muslim majority constituency carried certain signals. Prompted by the elevation of Mr.Mukherjee to Presidency, this election saw the combined vote of the 2 main parties fall from 95% in 2009 to 78% in 2012. The major beneficiaries were the Welfare Party of India, a thinly veiled front organization of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Social Democratic Party of India, an even more radical group of a similar ilk. Such groups are armed with a programme of ‘tactical pluralism’, quite akin to the tactical defence of Taslima’s freedom of speech by majoritarian communal political forces in the Indian union. The rallying against Shahbag has blown the cover of faux pluralism. There was another significant beneficiary and predictable in the same election, the BJP. Communal tension has been on the rise in recent years – there has been serious disturbance by West Bengal standards in Deganga and Noliakhali. The majoritarian forces smell a subterranean polarization of the polity. Mouthing banalities about Bengal’s ‘intrinsically’ plural culture is quite useless – culture is a living entity, that is always in flux, created and recreated every moment. It is being recreated by the victimization discourse by fringe groups like Hindu Samhati. It is being recreated in certain religious congregations in parts of West Bengal of Aila where unalloyed poison produced by divines like Tarek Monawar Hossain from Bangladesh is played on loud-speakers. Thanks to technology, such vitriol produced in a milieu of free-style majoritarian muscle flexing in Bangladesh easily finds its way to a place where the demographic realities are different. Hence the popularity and consequent defence of one of the convicted war criminals, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who in his post-71 avatar had become something of a superstar in the Bengali waz-mahfil (Islamic religious discourse congregation) circuit. What are the effects of the subterranean cultural exchange of this kind? The rally is a partial clue. A defence of Sayedee and claiming him to be innocent, as was repeatedly done in that rally, is like perpetrating Holocaust-denialism.

Just a day after the anti-Shahbag rally in Kolkata, almost as a divine reminder of starker realities beyond the defense of Islam, nearly 45 lakh unemployed youth, Hindus and Muslims, sat for the appointment as primary school teachers recruitment examination for 35000 empty posts. Roughly 1 in 128 will succeed. There is no employment exchange worth its name, including the ‘minority’ employment exchange set up by the incumbents, which would absorb the unsuccessful 44 lakh. West Bengal is one of the few states that have petitioned for a relaxation of the minimum qualifications for primary school teachers in the Sarva Shiksha Abhijan scheme, as stated in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. There is a rot at the base with every community affected. It has been long in the making. The promotion of religious education is hardly the way to empowerment and livelihood generation for minorities, especially in a state where they have been grossly under-represented in the all white-collar services. There are no short cut solutions to this.

Majority and minority 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 politics prevent a potential communal unraveling of West Bengal? Bengal’s past experience with communal politics is distinctly bitter, both in the west and the east.  The west lives with half-sleeping demons. In the east, the demons never really slept, and have been in and out of power.

 

 

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

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

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

—Allan Bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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