The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mining for Justice

The decision taken by the Pranab Mukherjee-led Group of Ministers to ensure mining corporations share 26% of their net annual profits with displaced locals is highly laudable. The mining sector in India is in urgent need of cleanup. In almost every resource-rich part of the country, mining mafias have emerged that have vice-like control over the extraction of natural resources. Much like in post-Soviet Russia, India’s vast quantities of mineral wealth have resulted in the creation of a group of mining “oligarchs”, leaders who have utilised their local influence to control the flow of natural resources, often working in connivance with major corporate entities. As these mining oligarchs have become richer, many have chosen to enter politics; in states like Karnataka and Jharkhand, the mining lobby has direct influence on who sits in the chief minister’s chair.

Corruption in the mining sector is a top-to-bottom affair. People within the mining industry insist they need to pay bribes to everyone involved, from the thekedaar who watches over the mine to the local police officer. In states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, a lot of the most resource-rich areas are under the control of the Naxals, who the oligarchs strike deals with. This is an important source of revenue for the Naxalite movement. The failure to reform the industry speaks of a lack of political will. It also helps fund what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called “the gravest threat to internal security.”

However, the decision has not found universal approval within government circles. It was attacked by the head of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who said a 26% profit-sharing ratio would be a big disincentive for corporations looking to invest in the sector. Ahluwalia believes this will be an unwanted drain on companies just at the moment the mining sector is looking to expand its work in India. This is not an atypical decision from Ahluwalia, who seems to believe the role of the Planning Commission is to make life as easy as possible for major corporations, instead of focusing on the needs of the citizenry.

But if the government goes ahead with its plan – and with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee backing it, it should have the legs – there are a series of pitfalls they will have to negotiate. The most important is to establish clear and firm guidelines for the delivery of this 26% of profit to locally displaced populations. In an industry already beset with corruption, this is not going to be easy. It is well-known that government rewards and subsidy systems in India are prone to hijack, with allocations only occasionally reaching intended recipients.

The second issue the government will have to fight is there is now a real incentive for mining companies to not declare their profits. While this is less likely in companies that export natural resources, because it becomes almost impossible to under-invoice, companies involved in selling resources domestically will see a direct benefit in under-declaring their profits. The government needs to set up a monitoring agency to make sure local populations are not being deprived of the share they have been promised.

Mukherjee’s scheme is an admirable one in theory. If it is implemented with the care needed, it could have a great impact on some of the poorest parts of India, even as it silences one of the key arguments the Naxalite movement uses.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hear Ye, Hear Ye. Caesar Arriveth

(a shorter version of this piece appeared as the edit in the Sunday Guardian on 7th November)

In those distant times when a toga was standard attire for the dapper gentleman-about-town, and not solely the party accessory of choice in American undergraduate fraternities, the Caesar would occasionally leave behind the magnificent ramparts and towers of Rome and tour the dominions, where he could see firsthand what life and livelihood were really like in those scattered little dots that relied on his Great Benevolence.

The visit of the Emperor would cause huge excitement. The local chieftains and warlords (especially those not tainted by war widow housing scandals) clamoured for an audience with the Emperor. The roads, usually so shoddily built they would cave in if it rained two days in a row, would be especially reinforced; after all, the Imperial Chariot was a weighty beast, with shining spokes of gold and bulletproof windows certified by 50 Cent himself. It would not have done for the almighty Caesar’s chariot to fall through the surface, into the cesspool of muck and refuse that swirled under these poor Dominion-dwellers their entire lives.

The Imperial tours were important because this was the time when the largesse of Rome would be apportioned, and the chieftains would spend years and years fashioning for themselves begging bowls, which they would call by strange names, like SENSEX and BSE. They would shout loudly about how big their bowls had become over the last few years, and how big their bowls could be, if the Emperor, in his wisdom, decided to help them just a bit.

As it is with all men of Great Benevolence, the Emperor would play favourite, doling out his bounty with some care. How difficult it was to rule the entire world only he knew. And those quivering beards in the Senate of Rome would not allow him to do just as he pleased. Their messages would be passed on: Commodius would say: “The dark warriors of Sumeria have the thorium we need for our new nuclear-powered arrows. They must be kept happy. Give them some gold, and a new donkey cart.” Incantus would say: “but their enemies, the Assyrians, hold the key to the magical kingdom of Afpak. They are weak, but petulant. Give their king a bribe. Call it a military loan.” Then there were others, like Emmanuleus, who instead of giving advice would inexplicably leave to run for Mayor of Chicago.

Perhaps the strangest behaviour would be seen within one tiny subsection of society, the Drum Beaters. The Drum Beaters were a group who enjoyed suffixing scattered initials to their name to convey a sense of gravitas, as in, Msduttus NDTV, and Sagarikus CNNIBN, and Arnahiccupicicus TNOW, and their job was to assist the spread of information to the populace. Because debate in dominion society was always rough and ready, the vital qualification for this job was the ability to speak at the same decibel level as the trumpet of a baby elephant (the Romans had machines to measure these things); over the years, this ability to speak very loudly, and very fast, was confused with the ability to identify and solve all that ailed dominion life. Soon all the chieftains, policemen and warriors, even the best thinkers of the day, would go to their debates, and try and show everyone that they too could speak very loudly, and very fast.

Our studies show that the Emperor’s visit generated two easily identifiable reactions amongst these Drum Beaters. The more indulgent of the lot – let us call them the Liberal-Epicureans – would see the Emperor’s visit as a good chance to finally interact with someone of intellect, dignity, style and importance equal to their own. As the world watched, they would sit the Emperor and his wife down and smile knowingly, as if to say: “yes, if you can imagine, I live amongst these crude folk, who know not Sartre or Glenn Beck. It is a weary life we lead, you having to rule the entire world, me having to shout inanities incessantly.” And then, as an aside, “I came to your inauguration in Rome, you know. Did you see my NDTV van?”

The second type of Drum Beater was of the taskmaster variety, the Incautious Stoics, if you will. This people were self-acknowledged experts at the Harangue. The Emperor’s visit thus became a chance to ask why thousands of things had not been done. “Why have you given our neighbours flying chariots? And where is all the money that was promised us? And are you actually saying you won’t be solving that intractable self-determination/border dispute during your three day visit here? For shame.”

Dominion society was full of such characters. Such as the merchants, who when the Emperor visited, would quickly appliy their makeup, pull out the old leather boots & fishnet stockings and hit the streets with their finest “come here, big boy” looks. These merchants’ God, Commercius, was actually the Emperor’s poodle. If the Emperor was happy, Commercius would wag his fluffy tail, and these merchants could rest happy knowing their best Julia Roberts-in-Pretty Woman impressions were not going unnoticed.

All in all, it was a strange, mysterious time, shrouded in the mists of the past. There must be some lessons for us in the here and now, but for the life of me I can’t figure them out.

(My extensive research for this editorial involved finding a Youtube clip of that scene where Joauqin Phoenix returns to Rome in Gladiator. All complaints about the historical accuracy of the facts noted above should therefore be sent to: Ridley Scott, Director, Hollywood).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Censorship as a Political Instrument

(this piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian on 17th October)

There are certain leaders who have the ability to transform a political moment, to take a localised anger or dissatisfaction and convert it into a movement of real force. History remembers these people more than any other. Mahatma Gandhi managed it, as did his contemporary Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Hitler did it in 1934, and Churchill eight years later. Mayawati is now recognised as a more significant political force than her mentor Kanshi Ram, because she could convert Dalit dissatisfaction in Uttar Pradesh into lasting national political influence. L.K. Advani will be remembered as one who accomplished it, even as any number of pretenders, from Kalyan Singh to Varun Gandhi, will fade from memory.

In post-Independence India, Shiv Sena leader Balasaheb Thackeray has managed this most adroitly. With little institutional support or party experience, he created a political platform for his unique ideology. The Shiv Sena plank combined a number of different concerns that many Maharashtrans felt in the 1960s, but these were buttressed by a series of anti-Constitutional demands (especially for religious and regional favouritism) that suited Thackeray’s personal, virulent antagonisms. His years in politics have been wildly successful, and Maharashtra has never been the same.

And so it falls upon the ambitious young Aditya Thackeray to enter this theatre of competitive chauvinism, and the weight of familial experience sits heavy. His father Uddhav, son of the Tiger, tried briefly to cleave the party from its roots, hoping to woo the middle-class Maharasthtran with a brand of parochialism untainted by the thuggish politics favoured until then. His singular failure, and uncle Raj’s ascendancy, has sent Aditya a potent signal: their brand of right-wing politics demands emotive symbolism, rhetoric, and a unified grassroots support that teeters on the precipice of violence and “retribution”.

If the youngest Thackeray goes on to become a force in Maharashtran politics, his campaign to have Rohinton Mistry’s Booker-nominated novel Such A Long Journey removed from the syllabus of Mumbai University will be remembered as his entry point. The problem, it seems, is Mistry’s less-than-flattering portrayal of the patriarch, of the Shiv Sena, of the Marathi manoos, and of Mumbai’s dabbawallas.

Yet history – and official and unofficial censorship has a long history in India – teaches us that content is immaterial. At times like this, too many columnists and literary analysts spend their time defending the content of these books. Poring over the offending texts reveals nothing, because in India, outrage can be manufactured over anything. Instead, look at the political circumstances surrounding these controversies. This is how we can counter such vigilantism.

The excising of Mistry’s book from the University syllabus is a means to an end –portraying Thackeray as a defender of manoos culture and his grandfather’s reputation – just as the banning of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses suited the political interests of important Muslim clerics and the ruling Congress party, and the 2004 banning of James Laine’s history of Shivaji helped bolster a floundering Maratha nationalist movement.

What sets this case apart from the two examples cited above is that this is not a case of government censorship. The vice-chancellor of Mumbai University has chosen to bow to the wishes of a 20-year old with a grandfather-complex. Yet, an important work of art is being held hostage by political forces, just as years ago M.F. Husain’s work was considered by some people to be offensive to Hindus. While no government deemed Husain’s work unacceptable, his work was not protected and his personal safety was not guaranteed.

Art is censored for a number of reasons in India. There are undefined parameters of propriety that it is expected to adhere to, protecting religious sentiment, community pride, the sanctity of the female, and so on. But it is a cause for real concern that in India censorship is used most dramatically – and loosely – when political gain is involved.

Thackeray’s trick is a success of spectacle. Like his grandfather and his uncle, he has managed to find the right conduit to establish his reactionary political credentials on the national stage. He will believe that his leadership of the Bhartiya Vidhyarthi Sena, and his political career, has now begun in earnest.

These attacks on works of art, whether mandated by government or self-appointed champions of Indian culture, should be viewed as cleverly planned instruments designed to extract political mileage, and not as individual attempts at harmonising cultural sentiments. What is really playing out in India is a battle between politics and art. And politics is winning.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How Ravi Shastri got his Yoooov Back

A piece I wrote in August or September last year for a friend's blog project. It's supposed to be humorous and stuff.

The summer is over. The signs are unmistakeable, at least here in Delhi, and they all seem to have to do with our roads. The avenues, underpasses and motorways of our city are waist-high with water, on either side decorated by broken trees and fallen electricity lines.

The conversion of our Ring Roads into Olympic-style swimming pools (not part of the Commonwealth Games project, I assure you) means that on top of every flyover there is a broken down taxi with a sad-looking driver pretending to fix it as a thousand curses are spat at him from the crawling traffic behind. (On a side note, has anyone else wondered who is building these taxis that always seem to make it up the flyover but are incapable of completing the simpler task of rolling down?) Us long-term Delhiwallas know it’s a good thing the monsoons leave the roads in an utter mess; without this we would never actually know when the summer was over. Since the rain doesn’t bring with it any drop in temperature, just converts the entire city into one massive sauna-spa, visitors tend to assume the heat here just goes on and on and on without ever reaching a conclusion. A bit like The Bold and The Beautiful. Or Hell.

Of course for the sports devotee, the surest sign the summer is over is that the Indian cricket team will conclude its well-deserved break, and once again they will be back on our screens. Yes, our heroes will return from summers spent in various forms of rest and relaxation. As far as I can tell from the media, the majority of our heroes have spent this summer posing in nipple-revealing Armani shirts for Delhi Times, Bombay Times, Jullunder Times, Cochin Times, and any other Times that will have them; a few have chosen to spend the time better getting to know various peripheral Bollywood actresses who might once have appeared in a film starring Fardeen Khan but are now ‘on hiatus’; one hero even flirted with the wrong side of the law, driving around a brand-new Hummer without license plates as if the Chandigarh police might fail to notice a shining new tank on their roads. But we forgive them all that, because it’s the summer, and boys will be boys. Now that the Champions Trophy is about to begin, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Harbhajan and the rest can get back to doing what they do best, back to the endeavour that has elevated them above the rest of us, back to the activity that has brought them fame and fortune beyond their wildest dreams: they’re all gearing up for a long new season of making Pepsi commercials. Ah, sorry, don’t know how that got in there. I meant, of course, that they will get back to batting, bowling and all the rest of that jazz, and we will love them once again for doing it better than we could.

Of course the return of the cricket signals the arrival of another, darker, phenomenon, one that over the last few years has crept unobtrusively into the game we love without as much as a ‘What the Hell?’. I am talking, of course, about The Return of the Curiously Accented Commentator. The Curiously Accented Commentator first rose to prominence during India’s victorious campaign at the 20-20 World Cup in South Africa, when the pencil-moustached former all-rounder Ravi Shastri began to repeatedly refer to six-hitting hero Yuvraj Singh as ’Yoooovraj Singh’, somewhat in the manner of a badly constipated Australian. Now anyone who has grown up in India knows that its pronounced Yuvraaj, as in the Hindi word for prince, but Shastri, having spent so much time between Englishmen, South Africans and Australians in the commentary box, began to speak as if he had just graduated from a finishing school situated on an island halfway between Cape Town and Sydney. Each time Yuvi would hit another six Shastri would add more ooo’s to his name, saying: ”Yoovraj won’t take that sort of bowling from Broad’, then ‘Yoooovraj has just cleared the boundary again.’ I’m sure this kindness endeared him to his cronies in the commentary box, after all there are not many people who will intentionally mispronounce words on national television, but for those of us watching in India, it just made him sound like a bit of a twit.

Of course Shastri was not the first commentator to suffer this affliction, just the first Indian. No, the Yuri Gagarin to Shastri’s Rakesh Sharma is the incomparable pacer Waqar Younis, who once spent two weeks playing county cricket in England, and consequently acquired such a strong twang that when he talks he sounds like he’s auditioning for a Guy Ritchie movie. A number of Pakistanis have followed suit, dropping in and out of a Cockney-Aussie-Saffer hybrid as if the dulcet tones of Lahore and Karachi had no place in the commentary box. But we are lucky, because the BCCI has decided to cut off ties with Pakistan, and no longer are we forced to hear the most luminous stars of Pakistani cricket speaking like London-based kebab shop owners. They could have taken a cue from the great West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding, who in his long career as a commentator has never once deviated from his standard practice of sounding like he is mumbling the lyrics to a Bob Marley song.

Even so, if amongst the Indian commentary contingent the Accent Phenomenon was restricted to Shastri you could perhaps ignore it, tell yourself ’it’s just one man’ and move on. But Ravi’s influence in the commentary box is ample. Slowly the disease has been spreading. One man particularly affected is the Tamil Nadu spinner L. Sivaramakrishnan. Now when Mr Sivaramakrishnan first appeared on our television screens he sounded like he was about to ask you if you wanted saambar with your dosa. I’m not making fun, but the man had a Tamil accent so thick you could use it to mend the sole of your shoes. Now from this same mouth you hear, ‘Yoovi’, ‘Seewag’, ‘Sashin’ and ‘Calcoota’, and all you can think is, what happened to that nice South Indian chap I used to know?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

After the Riot: A Prolonged Denial of Justice

Mirchpur, Haryana:

Enforced Exodus

The Balmiks of Mirchpur in Haryana, a small community of Dalit farmers who live on the outskirts of this Jat-dominated village, and were victims of assault by Jats in May, are being denied milk and basic provisions in a prolonged upper-caste campaign to drive them out. This is their punishment for having raised their voice against oppression.

More than a third of the population has already been driven out of the village. The rest are subject to incremental harassment and worse. With NREGA work contingent on the whims of bureaucrats who are allied to the upper castes, there is also often no employment.

This social and economic boycott of the Balmikis is linked to a series of attacks by some members of the Jat community on the Dalit basti in April this year (see Sunday Guardian, 15 May). Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s government has been under sustained pressure to arrest those responsible. But much of the evidence against the Jats rests on the testimony of the Balmikis themselves, and it is becoming clear that the boycott is a means of pressuring vocal members of the community to reverse their testimony. Speaking anonymously, an individual affiliated with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), the organisation fighting the case for the Dalit villagers, insists that at least two vital testimonies have been reversed because of these tactics. Khap Panchayats held by the dominant castes on 9 May, 4 June, 15 June and 11 July to pressurise villagers to withdraw the cases from the District Court and Supreme Court.

Rajender Singh (name changed) one of the key complainants in the case, is now considered a “hostile” witness by the litigants. His initial testimony was the primary plank upon which the first wave of arrests was made; since then, however, the village’s khap panchayat has announced that he is no longer willing to identify the Jats, and that he now says that many of the arrested people were not present during the violence that day. Singh himself spoke to the HRLN lawyers only once and dismissed their help. The testimony of Pappu Ram (name changed) another Balmiki, has also changed drastically.

Around 150 Balmiki families lived in Mirchpur village before the violence in April, in close proximity to close to 2000 Jat families. Since May more than 50 families have left. Some of these families camped out at the Balmiki Mandir on Panchkuian Road in Delhi for a few weeks, then went on to places like Adampur, Hisar, Jind and Barwala. Locals say that all the families with relations in other villages in Haryana – all those with a choice – have left.


Social and Economic Boycott

So how has this boycott been implemented, and what have been its effects? Satyavaan, a member of the Balmiki community, explains: “Once the violence subsided, they began to make it difficult to survive. Threats would come through to us to drop the case.

“We have no land of our own, but we are a farming community. Our families have always tilled Jat land. But as soon as we complained to the police, the Jats stopped giving us work. No odd jobs, daily wage, nothing. For months after the riot, we did not have any way of earning an income. The government promised three months of NREGA wages that were not delivered. We have started getting NREGA work only now. But we are still not allowed to pick up wood from their land for use in our fires. There was nothing for us to cook with.

“The DC promised communal toilets, but that did not happen. Now the Jats do not let our women use their fields in the mornings, as they used to. These are the most basic things in life,” he says with a smile on his face. “They own the land, and they use that.”

A writ petition filed in the Supreme Court on behalf of the villagers by Jyoti Mendiratta in July states, “more than 100 victim families were working on Jat owned properties. That has been completely stopped. The victim families are not allowed to purchase food such as vegetables and milk from the shops.”

Immediately after the initial burst of violence, the Jats of the village squeezed off the supply of milk to the only dairy that was willing to provide it to the Dalits. There is one “Brahman” dairy (the rest are Jat dairies) that provides milk to the villagers. “But,” says Satyavaan, “they charge Rs 40 per kilo, and it is always watered down. We pay double the price you pay in the city.”
Almost every Balmiki family has stopped sending their children to school now. Suman, the polio-stricken girl who was locked in her house and burnt alive during the April riot, would ride her tricycle into the village to attend school everyday.

Santra, a middle aged Balmiki woman, says, “Our children are threatened by the Jat kids if they go. Just two weeks ago Rahul (s/o Prakash), a boy of around 15, was attacked by a gang of Jat boys. They sent him home with a cracked skull.” Senior Counsel Colin Gonsalves, the head of HRLN, told the Supreme Court on August 26 that a Balmiki girl died of shock after being scolded and humiliated in school.

“The girls school is in the middle of the Jat neighbourhoods,” she continues. “How can I feel safe sending my daughter there? We worry they will do something to the older girls. It is safer if they stay here with us.”


The Village Fortress

Mirchpur has a fortified air now. In June, this village briefly became the theatre of a political power tussle between Hooda and his Union Tourism Minister Kumari Salja that threatened to recalibrate the Congress’s entire Jat vs Dalit strategy in the state. It makes sense that three battalions of policemen spend their days wandering about importantly in the lanes of steaming, rain soaked mud.

The uniforms bring an uneasy truce. There are scattered squabbles, but nothing resembling what it was like. Each of the Balmiki villagers I ask agrees that the presence of the police keeps the peace.

But there remains an uneasiness that is not easy to dispel, hints that tensions simmer. At one point, a community discussion about the legal case the Balmikis are preparing to fight rapidly becomes a firearm count. Ashwini Kumar, college-educated, about 30 years old, asks quietly how many guns are available to them. A list of names is recited, and the number is ascertained: 5.

I venture the opinion that guns will only escalate the violence. Kumar says, “There are more than 2000 Jat families here. All of them have land, and most of them have guns. They must have 1000 guns. In the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989, threatened communities were given the right to have firearms. We need more guns here, otherwise we will never have peace.”
The police were heavily implicated in the violence in April, and the local SHO Vinod Kajal still sits behind bars. There have been questions raised about the activities of the police since then as well. While they have kept the peace admirably, there was a marked failure to arrest the guilty parties for months after the violence.

On August 26, Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly of the Supreme Court demanded to know why in three months only 48 people had been arrested when there were 71 more Jats for whom warrants had been issued. The petitioners claim many of those not arrested continued to live in the village unhampered. They ordered the director general of Haryana Police to arrest the remaining by Monday, 30 August, and questioned the efficiency of Chief Secretary of the state in this matter. In just a few days, the police were able to arrest almost every implicated member of the Jat community, people they claimed they had not been able to find for three months. When I arrived in the village, on September 6, only two people were still to be arrested.

However, none of the women had been arrested, another source of anger for the Balmikis because they believe the women helped instigate the violence.

Rohtash Singh, an inspector of Haryana Police, has been assigned to Mirchpur since the violence. He informs us that they are building a police chowki close to the Balmiki basti now. But why the delay in arrests? “Most of the time, we were getting conflicting reports from the Balmikis,” he says. “If they change their testimony, how can we make arrests?” He cites an example: “Kuldip, s/o Om Prakash, was one of the people accused. But then a Balmiki man came forward, saying my son was working in Kuldip’s house on the day of the violence, and that he was not involved. What could we do?”

Rohtash Singh, who is of the Lohar caste, repeats often that he is a lower-caste himself. After he leaves, Rajesh Kumar, Haryana State Secretary of the National Dalit Movement for Justice, says: “I’ve seen this pattern all over Haryana. When there is violence, they put a backward caste person, usually a midlevel officer, in charge of the area. This makes the villagers feel safe. But it also protects the Jats, because if things flare up again they can point to the Dalit.”


The Compensation Question

The political scientist Paul Brass notes in Theft of an Idol (1997) that in the aftermath of a riot claims and counter-claims over government compensation for the victims becomes a source of conflict in itself. As government largesse is distributed, unscrupulous members of victimised communities demand money without cause.

But often state-level functionaries do not correctly hand out the compensation they have been instructed to. Despite the fact that the houses of 25 families were burnt to the ground, only 18 houses are in the process of being rebuilt. The Balmikis are happy with the rebuilding effort, though too many families who lost their valuables to looters and pillagers have been denied compensation.

O.P. Sharan, the District Collector during the violence, made a number of promises to the Balmiki community: he said each family affected would be given Rs 50,000, charpoys and bedding would be provided, and 3 months of NREGA wages would be provided to the families for the work they had lost. These promises helped get the unsettled families back to Mirchpur, as per the orders of the courts.

But upon their return O.P. Sharan was transferred from Hisar and replaced by Yudhvir Singh. Ashwini Kumar says Singh has been “non-cooperative. He didn’t give us any of the bedding etc promised. He cut the compensation for each family from Rs 50,000 to Rs 15,000, and told them there would be no NREGA back-wages paid. He is very rude to us when we go for help. At least Sharan would listen to us. Why was he transferred?”

Mirchpur no longer burns as it did in April. But the continued delay and denial of justice for many of the victims is causing real problems. As the court case begins in earnest, police care for the lower-caste community should be extended so that the way of life of the Balimikis is protected. Hooda’s government insisted the Balmikis return to Mirchpur. They must be allowed to live there without fear.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Obama, Socialism and Riding Waterfalls in America

On television and in newspapers, the voices of conservative commentators veer towards hysteria. They speak of an impending existential crisis in America, of a President who is willing to disrespect the tenets of a two hundred year history. In that time an unwieldy, ungovernable mass of land has been transformed into a nation that is the envy of the entire world, so certainly, this is a history that demands respect. Consequently, you have the drumbeaters of CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and most other news media proclaiming that one of the holiest of their principles is being violated, the foundation of their great state, the policy that is more American than the bacon cheeseburger (extra cheese, extra bacon). Quite simply, they are amazed that a President has been elected who has the audacity to attempt to control the tentacles of unstinting capitalist endeavour. The message is clear: mess with anything, Mr. President, but do not mess with the free market.

As one final flip of the finger to the large swathes of the country that came to despise him, when President Bush exited stage right he left a broken down economy and a perilously damaged relationship with most of the world. Faced with economic meltdown the new incumbent, President Obama, has had to tackle the backslapping bonhomie that has long existed between corporate interests and political parties in the United States. This crisis has grown from a particular economic climate, one where traders like Bernie Madoff and Sir Allen Stanford were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased, where insurance companies were able to reinsure dud investments ad infinitum, where the heads of publicly-held corporations could write themselves bonuses of hundreds of millions of dollars while guiding their companies to hell in a gilded hand basket. Yet now that Obama has confronted these issues with the suggestion of government-appointed financial overseers, the cries of ‘Socialist!’, which never left his Presidential campaign, have begun to hover over his Presidency. Obama is certainly not a socialist. He seems unencumbered by attachment to ideology and willing to tackle individual problems free of the politics of Left or Right, White or Black, Straight or Gay. Why voters and the media seem to prefer politicians with such identifiable baggage, it is hard to say.

The car industry was a symbol of the industrial dominance once enjoyed by the United States. The muscle cars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were valorized and glorified, in movie after movie, book after book. But their steady decline over the past three decades was visible even when the economy showed no signs of distress. By the time things started to go south it was clear that car companies would be among the first to require assistance. Obama’s plan, to nationalise the car manufacturer General Motors, keeps thousands of jobs in America, as well as protecting one of the great institutions of the country. Yet it is met with ridicule and headlines of ‘GM now Government Motors’. The idea that any modern economy is allowed to run according to the classical neo-conservative theories of laissez-faire and non-intervention is in any case ludicrous. Regulation exists. Thankfully Obama looks stronger than his critics. As Brady Heiner, a curly-haired philosophy doctoral candidate at Stony Brook explained to me: “these companies need to retool to meet the challenges of the green economy. They need to start building smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, which most Americans recognize is necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign fossil fuels as well as conserve the environment. If the government needs to step in and operate at an economic loss for five years so that the conversion can take place, so be it. America needs to retain industrial jobs.”

The Real Question

The media is right that America is facing an existential crisis of sorts, but it is not along the Capitalist-Marxist spectrum that is being alluded to. The question this country is just beginning to ask itself is substantively different. What becomes of a country whose identity is premised upon being at the forefront of the world – whose people have always considered themselves the vanguards of political, economic, cultural and religious expression? What becomes of a country that might conceivably lose that coveted place in fifty years? Growing, insatiable economies like China, India and Brazil have all demonstrated a greater capability to rebound, largely because they still have economies that build things. Economies that make things people need even in times of crisis, like steel, sugar, textiles and electronics; economies that are not entirely constituted of upper-middle class yuppies brandishing PowerPoint demonstrations. The America that used to build things is simply no longer there. The Motor City of Detroit, once the pride of Middle America, is a ghost town, full of boarded up shop windows and abandoned factories. The steel capital, Pittsburgh, has been forced to reinvent itself as a university town. Both cities surrendered more than industrial supremacy through the flight of capital to Special Economic Zones in China and India. They surrendered a part of the American story, one there is no guarantee can be returned.

Undergraduate courses in political science in America have Global Strategy classes that teach a generation of students about the threats that the political and economic rise of Asia pose to worldwide stability. When I graduated from college here five years ago one International Relations theory beloved by scholars was the Hegemonic Stability Theory, which arose from the period of peace that followed the Cold War. To simplify it, the theory describes a Pax Americana (Peace through American dominance), as there was once a Pax Romana (Peace under the Roman Empire). Such a belief, that the world would benevolently look on as the American military-financial complex steamrolled cultures and homes around the globe, has been left in tatters by the rise of terrorist insurgencies. If in fifty years, America finds itself no longer the global hegemon, it will need to fashion a new identity for itself, one that does not derive from expanding its influence over the world. The more globally-aware citizens of the United States are already asking themselves these questions. The politicians and their advisers will take some catching up.

It is a gloomy picture I have painted here, but it is not the complete picture. For the most part, America remains a land of unrivalled plenty, with scales of consumption and the kinds of choice in food, clothing, entertainment and leisure that even the wealthiest Europeans are amazed by. It is humbling, especially when you consider hubristic comments in India about how if our economic progression continues we might soon be on par with the national wealth of the United States. Even if by some miracle our national wealth reaches that of America, the concentrations of power will ensure that too many people are left out of the economic boom for the numbers to be meaningful.


It might not fit the popular conception of ‘the idiot American’ that so suited the Bush years, but the governance in this country, especially on domestic issues, has been unparalleled for the last hundred years. I was reminded of this as I drove through Yosemite National Park, a lush outpost of Central California full of giant redwood trees and scalpel-cut granite rocks. The trees sparkled in the intermittent sun, their leaves polished green; dead wood was cut from the boughs; dead grass on the ground was burnt away immediately. Nature flourished here, but in a classic American way, with a team of rangers and foresters constantly monitoring everything, improving the colors, spring-cleaning the vistas. It was magnificent. It made me wonder when Indian national parks would justify such outlay. A few steps would have to be taken. First, a substantial proportion of our population would have to reach a standard of living where allocating such expenditure would not seem frivolous. Then subcultures who live off nature in our wildlife reserves, such as forest-loggers, hunters and tribal communities, would have to be provided alternate sources of income. Forest rangers with an interest in actually performing their jobs would have to be found. Along with that we would have to provide a larger education about the harms of destroying nature in our wanton Indian way.

These are all slippery slopes, some much longer than others. Each one of them has been negotiated in the United States, some with more success than others. But each has been negotiated nonetheless to the extent that is required to keep the nation warmly vital in a number of pursuits, from athletics to playwriting. This at a time when in China forests are clear-cut to build massive factories that make sewing machines and electric razors. This at a time when in India we displace thousands of farmers every time a corporation has an idea for a cheaper car. National wealth is one, usually meaningless, measure of prosperity. We have a long way ahead of us.


A Culture All Its Own

As intrinsic as politics is to the American conception of nationhood, there are many other facets of their identity, some even more unfathomable to the foreign visitor. For instance, it would be hard to imagine another nation that takes its television viewing so seriously. The sale of its biggest car companies has been the most prominent news story while I have been here. The second? Conan O’Brien taking over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Reams of newspaper space were devoted to the switch; not back in the Entertainment section, but on the front page. Journalists debated with great earnestness the merits of the comically adventurous O’Brien over Jay Leno, whose show had steadily declined into tepidity. The television is an essential part of Americana, at once uniting a disparate people through the plasma prism they watch. The switch between comedians attracted so much attention because it tells of what millions of Americans will do right before going to sleep. Political strategists will now consider what jokes Conan will make about their candidates, where once they had to consider Leno’s take. Movie producers will think of what stance the new host will take on their big-investment movie projects. Culture here is inextricably entwined with television.

Another uniquely American tradition is the propagation of insane activities, or as they like to call it, Extreme Sports. If you can find a snow-covered mountain to propel down strapped to a board, or a bridge or building high enough to parachute from, or a hundred foot long sheer rock face to climb with only your fingers and some rope, you are almost certain to find an American or two indulging in said activities, muttering “Extreme! Extreme!” to themselves as they go along. I participated in one such activity, which I would be laughed at if I called an extreme sport, but an activity that nonetheless left my body bruised and battered, an activity to which I shall add elements of danger on every retelling of this story.

My cousins, who were raised in California, drove us out to a place in the Sierra foothills they quaintly called “The Water Slides.” I do not believe it was their intention to mislead, but if I had to choose another name for the place I would perhaps go with “Whitewater Chutes of Sharp Rocks and Ass Pain”, for that is what they were. The place was basically an offshoot of a waterfall, where water trickled down quite pleasantly in certain parts and very rapidly in others. I was wandering around on the hot rocks, enjoying the sun, when my cousin decided to demonstrate how to travel down the slide. His method, which I would not have considered possible before, involved sitting on your behind and basically being thrown by the force of the water down the waterfall, smashing against rocks on either side all along the way. When he reached the pool in the bottom he got up and yelled (I think it was “Extreme!” but I could not hear) and began to encourage others in our party to do the same.

Once all the other Americans started getting in on the act, hurtling down this rocky slope with huge smiles on their faces as though they were at a particularly hilarious movie, I of course could not shame my country by declining to participate. My instructions were clear: lean in front and keep my arms by my side. But somehow by the time I was sitting in the flowing water, waiting to push myself off, those instructions disappeared completely from my mind, replaced by thoughts along the lines of, “that rock looks very sharp” and “what am I doing here?” Many times I flew down that waterfall at great speed, each time forgetting to stay in front, in fact leaning back as if I was on a reclining chair, but thankfully each time emerging from the water with only a few cuts on the arms and legs and a pair of bruised buttocks.

Then, as a little after dinner snack as it were, we climbed down to a little ledge over a lovely green pond that the waterfall fed. Standing there, with no way to get back to safety and without much warning, my cousin took a couple of steps and jumped into the water forty feet below. Forty feet does not sound like much on paper, but peering over the edge of that ledge, as the girls we were with stood below filming us, it looked like a whole lot. By this time I had already submitted my fate to whichever God would accept me, so it was not hard for me to jump. What I had failed to notice however was that each of the rest who had jumped had taken a substantial leap. I sort of sauntered off the edge of the ledge, flying down one-two-three seconds through the air perilously close to the cliff, prompting one onlooker to tell me I would have cracked my head open had I leaned back. One cousin called it “the path of least effort and most danger”, which I then assumed meant I embodied some sort of Gandhian ideals. In retrospect, this might have been her polite way of calling me both lazy and stupid.

I had spent most of the day in a sort of stupor, wondering at the surreal nature of the challenges being placed in front of me, my brain refusing to comprehend that this was something Americans called “fun”. But by the end of it all I was exhilarated beyond words, my heart envigourated and my body racing. Then on the drive back, as I was falling asleep, I might even have whispered to myself, “Extreme!”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I Want My BBM

this piece appeared as the edit in the Sunday Guardian on August 15. Happy Independence Day!

Two competing questions lie at the heart of the BlackBerry vs Indian Government debate. The first concerns individual freedoms: what level of state-sponsored intrusion (or snooping) into personal affairs is a law-abiding citizen expected to tolerate? The second concerns state power: since the government is deemed culpable in the event of a security crisis, is it not entitled to use every tool at its disposal to prevent such a scenario from arising?

The governments most concerned with “terror”, the United States, United Kingdom, India, Israel and so on, are in an unenviable position. The rapid proliferation of communication options that new technology provides is a direct offshoot of these governments most sacred cows: commerce, capitalism and competition. How can the United States government ask RIM, the makers of BlackBerry, or Apple, the makers of the iPhone, to pare down the technology they are able to provide for their users, without starting to sound a bit too much like China? The world thrives on giving entrepreneurs the freedom to innovate; can governments then ask them to innovate only as much as is suitable?

Once it became clear that the terrorists involved in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai utilised various types of new technology very effectively, the Indian security apparatus was entitled to demand some retrenchment of the options available. However, this is an issue that requires very careful handling, and a degree of common sense. RIM is right in asserting that there is no evidence that any of their phones have been used in a terrorist attack. Why single out one over the other? The iPhone offers a vast array of communication options, more certainly than the BlackBerry, but no one is asking them to hand over any codes. Is it because the BlackBerry has been much more successful than the iPhone in India? Does the Indian government genuinely believe that, in the event of a terrorist attack, jehadi operatives will only use the phone that is most popular amongst Indians? Or is it simply that security agencies in India are not comfortable having so much communication bouncing around the country without their being able to monitor it?

There are other issues at stake. Over the years, Indian security agencies have acquired the reputation for not being overly concerned about the personal freedoms of the citizens of India. What guarantees will the government provide that they will only utilise these monitors to track terrorist activity? Will they also use it to see who is complaining about government policies in the Naxal-affected regions? Will they use it to check if Indians are accessing pornography, which is still, ludicrously, a violation of the penal code? Will they use it to make sure there are no cards parties on Diwali?

Many technology experts believe that we are on the precipice of a great revolution in mobile computing. Devices like the BlackBerry and the iPhone are precursors to handheld computers that will be able to do infinitely more. The first wave of these products has already hit the market. If the government is worried about the BlackBerry, just wait till they see what the iPad can do.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Police Are To Blame

(this piece appeared as the edit in the Sunday Guardian on 18 July)

One aspect of the “honour” killings of young couples in love that is rarely acknowledged is the role the police have played in many of the most heinous incidents. The police should be protecting couples exercising their democratic rights as young, consenting adults to cohabit with whomsoever they choose. Instead, in a shocking number of cases, it is the police who assist these brothers, fathers and uncles in their hunt for the absconders.

In some cases such policemen, members of the community themselves, act out of a misguided sense of social propriety and caste pride. But in the great majority money changes hands. Indians tends to overlook police corruption, though most citizens know it is rife, on the grounds that policemen are poorly paid. But these are not instances of allowing someone to sell their wares on the side of the road, or getting away with cutting a traffic light. In cases like this, corruption is directly leading to the deaths of innocent young people.

On 10 July, a 21 year old Muslim boy and 16 year old Hindu girl from Madhaiya village, not too far from Ghaziabad, were shot dead, reportedly by members of the girl’s family. Yet the first police report said that the boy, Ishtiyak Ali, shot his girlfriend at her house and then killed himself. It was only when the boy’s father took the case all the way to the Ghaziabad SSP that an autopsy was conducted. The autopsy found that both had been murdered. But this was not a case of negligence or ineptitude of the local policeman. The evidence is clear that the police wilfully misrepresented the circumstances surrounding the death; the boy had been shot in the back of the head. Not even the most incompetent policeman could truly believe that Ali had committed suicide. An autopsy was not needed for this to be regarded as murder.

This problem has reached such proportions that the courts have taken to publicly admonishing the police. In what should have been seen as a landmark judgment, but was largely ignored by the media after initial reports, on June 16 Vacation judge Justice S.N. Dhingra of the Delhi High Court said: “It’s unfortunate that elopement cases are converted into rape cases. Your police are party in all cases of honour killings. You connive with parents and turn your face the other side. You send boys behind bars on rape charges and allow the parents to kill their daughter.

“How can you be so insensitive for a few bucks? In case of elopement, you register the case under section 376 (rape) of Indian Penal Code. You do not register the case or take action where you should have done.”

Justice Dhingra has bravely brought to light an issue that police forces all over the country are keen to brush under the carpet. The police are paid to protect every citizen of India, not just those who have enough money, or guilt, to grease their palms. It is time they began doing their job.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

India Needs a Caste-Based Census

(this piece was the edit for The Sunday Guardian on 27 June)

The caste-impelled “honour” killings that are blighting parts of North India illuminate just how badly many vital parts of the Indian system function. The greatest failure of six decades of self-rule has been the inability of Indian society to dilute caste from the matrix of social behaviour; if anything, the Indianisation of democracy may have served to strengthen it.

This failure to address the “caste problem” is inextricably linked to the decision by the Indian government in the 1950s to remove from the public sphere any debate on caste at all. Until the rise of Kanshi Ram, it was considered unseemly to discuss caste in matters of policy, politics and national movement. The preference was to use euphemisms such as ‘vote bank’ to describe communities that voted uniformly, whether willingly or unwillingly. The widespread consensus amongst the educated, middle class (and largely upper caste) urban Indian was that caste was a previous evil, a pre-Independence relic that was rapidly vanishing. Its revitalisation in the Indian context was seen as a product of the “encashability” it received through electoral politics, wherein backward status became something poor, rural groups aspired to.

A parallel contemporary belief is that caste no longer plays a public role in urban life, only a private one. For instance, caste may be discussed in a matrimonial website, but must not be discussed with your child’s teacher. That, however, ignores that divisions of labour and domicile in the city are still overwhelmingly determined by caste: how many non-Dalit sweepers are there in Delhi? And what is the proportion of upper-caste residents of the more superior neighbourhoods of the capital? These are questions that can be answered only through a caste-based census.

The caste-based census should not be portrayed, as it has in some parts of the media, as the work of arriviste, lower-caste politicians from the rural hinterland, determined to extract some unidentified political advantage. The truth is that the census already makes important distinctions on the basis of caste, separating the people of India into categories like scheduled, backward and general. More detailed information better equips the Indian government to identify the poorest communities in India and determine the nature of the assistance they need.

As sociologist Satish Deshpande wrote in 2003, “the post-Independence backlash against caste was strong and sustained. It ensured that one of the paradoxical lessons of modern governance – that the state must measure whatever it wishes to eradicate – would not be learnt…we refused to collect such data because we thought we should not collect it and we did not need it. However, the irony is that the end result is not very different from what might have been the case had there been a giant conspiracy to suppress evidence of caste inequality.”

Caste-based reservations have often been criticised for helping out the “creamy layer” of lower-caste groups of India. This criticism is at least partially valid. But the solution is not to eradicate reservations; it is to collect better information.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Viva the Vuvuzela

FIFA President Sepp Blatter does not get much right. His 12 year reign as President could be described as a merry-go-round of incompetence: massive financial mismanagement, repeated allegations of corruption, including a highly amusing cash-for-votes scam before the last FIFA election, even gender bias (he once said people would only start watching women’s football if the girls wore tighter shorts and low cut shirts). But this World Cup Blatter has got one thing 100% correct: the vuvuzela, a somewhat disagreeable, atonal South African trumpet, should not be banned.

In asserting the right of South Africans to blow whichever trumpet they please, Blatter is standing up for the independent cultures that football creates all over the world. In an age where Western European football leagues groom so many players that Brazil plays with the efficiency of Germany, it is the varied vibrancy of national supporters that give the World Cup much of its flavour. Blatter is right to take on the collective might of European and North American media, who are so perturbed by the unending vuvuzela drone that the instrument became the hottest topic of the first week of football.

The vuvuzela is not a South African instrument. It originates in Mexico, from where it travelled to Brazil and much of South America. Indeed, every country that has a football tradition has a unique way of watching the game. But many of the appeals for banning the instrument are misty-eyed evocations that privilege and misrepresent European football culture. Yes, the terraces of many European stadiums are filled with passionate singing and witty banter during matches. But those same stadiums also spawn the worst kind of parochial anger, racial intolerance and outright violence in football. Even in the sanitised, TV-friendly Premier League, homophobic, anti-Semitic and other racial abuse is rife. During a Euro 2008 qualification match, neo-Nazi Croatian fans, in a patently pre-planned move, gathered to form a huge human swastika. Right wing gangs, the Ultras, control the stadiums of Italy, and once tossed a flaming scooter onto a pitch. There are worse things than some partisan noise.

South Africa’s troubled racial divisions are hardly a thing of the past. The overwhelming majority of white people live in gated communities and “safe” neighbourhoods in the big cities. Most of the money has stayed in the hands of the Apartheid-era rich, and it is very rare, even today, to see young black and white South Africans socialising in the same places. There are still “white” and “black” nightclubs in every city in the country.

Every commentator who has criticised the instrument must acknowledge that 25 years ago blacks in South Africa did not have the freedom to make the racket they pleased. The vuvuzela is a conch of freedom, and because no European today should be allowed to tell black South Africans what to do, it will be heard.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Musahars of Gaya

Vilas Ravi Raj, a Musahar, has brought his son Dileep, a shivering six-year old with bandages across his face like a zebra crossing, to the Anugrah Narain Magadh Medical College Hospital. The boy’s grandmother has walked with them from the village of Utlibari, around thirty kilometres away, in the same district of Gaya, Bihar. The father bends over his son, feeding him milk via a syringe and through a tube that goes up the boy’s nose. All the beds in the children’s ward are filled with similarly suffering children. By their side are parents in tattered clothes and haunted eyes, eyes that are shrouded by confusion and fear each time the nurses describe what is happening to their child.

District health officials have just announced there is an epidemic of meningitis and encephalitis amongst the 30 lakh strong Musahar population of Bihar; their living habits bring them in close proximity to pigs and cows, making the children of this community especially susceptible to infectious diseases. This hospital is at the epicentre of the epidemic because Gaya district has the highest concentration of Musahars, though they are found all over the state. 27 children have died in the hospital in just a few days, but members of the medical staff say that the number of children who receive poor or no medical attention far outstrips this number. This is the third year in a row that a meningitis epidemic has been declared in the district.

The Musahars are one of the most deprived communities in India. They were given Maha-Dalit status by the Bihar Government some years ago, testament to the abject penury in which most live. They are perhaps best known as rat-eaters (Mus – mouse; ahar – eater), a title many in the community are keen to live down, though the tradition remains. Even so, in the villages I visited, the villagers refused repeatedly to hunt rats for the cameras of the freelance photographer who accompanied me (in one ridiculous interlude, he offered the children ten rupees for every rat they caught. They still refused.) And this is one of the main problems the community faces; as the dominant caste groups in the area and a compliant, sensation-seeking media continue to frame the Musahars’ existence through practices like rat-eating, their perilous standards of living can continue to be justified as those deserved by a “subhuman” community.

Try this for a paradox. Dwarako Sundari is a 68-year old Sindhi gentleman who crossed the border at Partition. In his twenties he was entrusted by Acharya Vinobha Bhave to come to Bodhgaya and build an ashram where Musahirs could be educated and fed. He has been running his school for more than thirty years with no government support, reliant on the kindness of people who travel to Buddhism’s holiest place. He received the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Social Work in 1992, but otherwise there have been few public plaudits. Almost all the educated Musahars in the area have studied in his school, including the aspiring politician Biswas Manjhi, who is hoping for a RJD Vidhan Sabha ticket. He tells me: “Dwarakoji is akin to a saint. He has done so much for us.”

It is shocking, then, to learn Dwarakoji’s views on these people: “After much thought, I have realised the Musahars are a subhuman community. Jayprakash Narayan once visited my ashram and he said this exact thing to me. Now, years later, I have to agree. I have seen students of mine throw their parents out of the house once they cannot earn anymore, saying they need to feed their children. Women complain to me because their husbands refuse to acknowledge their marital contract. Other families desert their children. Is this the way human beings live?”

When I point out to him that the practices he has listed are prevalent in other communities – could even be considered common practice in countries like the United States – he brushes my objections aside. Once again the problem that faces these people is illustrated. Dwarakoji has done as much for Musahar children as perhaps anyone in the world, and when he speaks of the children you can sense his abiding affection. Yet, after thirty years of interacting with the community there is a sharp delineation, a need to see people with such strange and objectionable habits as something quite different from himself.


About fifteen minutes drive from the town of Bodhgaya, where the Enlightened One has ensured hundreds of tonsured Japanese and European tourists sit drinking imported lapsang souchong and bubble tea, there is the village of Parariya, a dot in the hinterland of 300 homes and 1200 people. To reach this village you must walk through an ankle-deep swamp until you arrive at a cluster of tiny mud huts. Like every village in India, living arrangements are segmented sharply along the lines of caste: in the distance are the houses of the Yadavs and further along are the Paswans (both of whom are considered upper-caste Dalits and have enjoyed years of patronage under leaders like Laloo and Ram Vilas Paswan). The biggest houses belong to the Thakurs, the landowners of the area, though I am told there is a smattering of Muslim families who have their own conclave.

The Musahar huts are the simplest, reflective of their status within the village hierarchy. Each hut has two windowless rooms, a small open-air courtyard that is used as a kitchen and a roof of thatched hay. The doors and ceilings are built so low you must bend at the waist to enter the room. It is clear that a Musahar roof cannot be higher than a Yadav roof, and so on up the chain.
Kuleshar Manji and his wife Sudama Devi have been married for thirty years. They have five children, four of whom scamper in and out of the house like the mice running around on the floor. They are landowners: “humraa paanch gaj”. Though this is not common in the community, this is one of the few areas in Bihar with strong Musahar politicians, and some years ago a land redistribution scheme was implemented that gave each family in the surrounding villages a parcel of land.

But in the village land without water is like no land at all. The Musahars have the smallest freehold plots of the worst land. Manji and his wife still spend the majority of the agricultural season cultivating the plots of Yadav families. The Yadav landowners pay each Musahar man Rs 15 for a day’s work, while every Musahar woman receives just 2.5 kilos of unrefined wheat, no money. Kuleshar Manji says, “There is no irrigation, so we can’t water any of the crops on our land. But the government put in pumps and pipes for the areas where the upper-castes have their land. If we don’t work on their land we won’t have anything at all.”

This works out to around Rs 500 a month during the agricultural season. Manji and Sudama Devi are lucky because their oldest son is working as construction labour in Bhutan, from where he sends Rs 500 a month. “Now with Rs 1000 we are more comfortable. Three of my children are in school. But most families here don’t have anyone to send money. If we had to get by on just the wages I am paid to cultivate the Yadav farms we would be in trouble.” Both husband and wife agree that NREGS has been a huge boon during the difficult non-agricultural season, when the steady daily payment of Rs 80 comes as a massive windfall. The Bihar Government has one of the best records of implementing of this scheme.

But such poverty can only breed discontent. Many young men from the lowest-caste groups in each village have taken up cause with the Naxalites, disillusioned by the unchanging patterning of society. One former Naxal, a young Musahar who studied in Dwarako Sundari’s school and is now a businessman in Bodhgaya, explains: “A lot of the villages here are named after Naxal heroes. People get tired of waiting for change. I drifted in and out of camps since I was 15. We used to hold tribunals here, because the villagers were tired of going to the corrupt courts.”

The Naxalite problem affects even the least political villagers desperately, because state functionaries now have a ready-made excuse for not doing their jobs. The former Naxal continues, “while I was growing up, the schools did not have teachers, no health officials would ever come to these areas. They all said the Naxals made it too dangerous for them to work. It is the same now.”

Bodhgaya is jammed with tourists from all over the world. The Bihar Government has built a shiny, metalled road from Patna to this small town. An international airport has been built at Gaya so Buddha-tourists can pop in and out without seeing the rest of India. But with so much spending allocated to ease the journey of foreigners, what remains for the people of this area? None of the tourism money trickles down to the poorest people of this district, of which the Musahars are only one community.
As the Buddha once left the grounds of his palace in Kapilavastu and found nothing but disease and desolation, leave the city limits of Bodhgaya and you enter a poverty-stricken wasteland. It is only the very richest people of Parariya, the Thakurs, who own motorbikes, so they do not have to trudge through the swamp that separates the village from the main road. In these villages, the difference between those who own motorbikes and those who don’t is not a simple one; it tells the story of a thousand years of caste-based repression, and of a people’s quest for dignity under a democracy that has failed them.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Electioneering in the slums of Delhi

In the far corner of Sunder Nagari, in front of a derelict communal toilet, a cricket match is on. Four boys, all between eight and twelve years old, wait with their hands on their knees, as another comes off a short run up and bowls a red rubber ball with some pace. The batsman swings the plank in his hand with a flourish and hits the ball straight past the bowler, watching it travel twenty feet before it lands in the man-made gutter that runs along this makeshift maidan, a gutter filled with water so fetid it looks like unrefined oil. As the batsman runs up and down the pitch one of the boys plunges his arm halfway into the gutter and, after a while, pulls out the ball. He bounces it off the ground a couple of times and tosses it to the bowler, wiping his arm on his shirtfront. The bowler rubs his fingers on his tongue then shines the rubber ball, mimicking cricketers on television. Living in Sunder Nagari, it is perhaps pointless to be finicky about hygiene.

Technically, Sunder Nagari is not a slum. It is what is known in government parlance as a resettlement colony, one of many across New Delhi that families that lived in slums were moved to in the 1970s, as the beautification of the middle-class city began. Situated in the far north-east of the city, next to the Shahdara area, no one is quite clear how many live here now, though some believe the figure fluctuates around one lakh people. All over the country you will see similar scenes – this is where the masses of urban India live, in resettlement colonies, unauthorised colonies and slums. By some estimates, over 70% of the population of Delhi live in areas like this or are homeless: 10 million people.

“10 million people means at least 4 million voters,” says Dunu Roy of the Hazards Centre. And come election time, the smart politician knows that it is not the well-fed middle class businessman who goes out to vote, it is the poorest in society, those who rely on the electoral process as their only method of influencing the conditions in which they live and work. Politicians use a number of well-established tactics to court these areas when it is time to stand for election. One favourite method is plying these already depressed spaces with cheap alcohol. Lakhan, a cycle-rickshaw driver, explains: “A few weeks before the election, trucks sent by rival politicians will start coming into the area every night. Their workers will start distributing pouches and bottles of alcohol like its prasaad. Every politician who stands for election here does it.”

Roy believes tactics like this speak more of the mindset of politicians than the residents of slums. “Politicians believe they can manipulate these people, but I have never seen slum-dwellers vote based on things like that. They might take the alcohol – though more and more I see that many women don’t let their husbands go near those trucks – but their votes go to the leaders who promise them real help. The problem is that since V.P. Singh there has not been a leader who has caught the imagination of the poor.”

There are a number of myths that prevail in middle-class minds about slum dwellers. While researching this story this correspondent is told by well-meaning citizens that slum-dwellers are given cash for votes, are not charged for the electricity they use because of the votes they hold (in fact a report prepared by the Delhi Vidyut Board showed there was less pilferage in slums than in middle-class households), are pressured into voting in blocs by slumlords or are easily manipulated by devious politicians. The reality is very different. Residents of slums are usually aware of the political power of the vote, and almost everyone Covert spoke with insisted that no politicians tried to buy their votes. Rajmati, a strident, middle-aged garments worker, explains “They give out money only when it comes to attending their rallies. They pay Rs 100 to adults and Rs 50 to children to come and cheer for them, but when it comes to voting-time they don’t try anything. Our vote is our right. We don’t know or care about leaders at the state or national level. We need someone who can take care of us at our level, who is concerned for our needs.”

The demands of the residents of Sunder Nagari are not elaborate. Clean water, basic standards of sanitation and health facilities. Leela Devi, a 60-year old embroidery worker, explains: “We just want what was promised to us by the Government. There is one bathroom for all the women in our block, but it is in terrible shape. Human waste reaches up to our knees there. It is totally unusable, so we all have to use a pit nearby, but then men come and trouble the young women. Last Sunday, they found a dead body in there. We have taken the matter to our councillor Santosh Kumar, the MLA Vir Singh Dighaan and even our MP, Sandeep Dikshit. They all say there is nothing they can do, but there has to be something, because we can’t keep living like this.”

Daniel Swamy, a resident of the newly-world famous slum of Dharavi in Mumbai, believes that the social structure of the slum prevents politicians from obtaining votes through the threat of violence. Swamy explains, “Mumbai is not Bihar. In our slums you cannot get votes at gunpoint. And it’s not even guaranteed that the candidate who spends the most money will be the winner. Slum dwellers have become increasingly aware of the importance of their vote and can bargain accordingly.”

Dunu Roy explains that the relationship between politician and the residents of the government-created resettlement colonies has become something of a patron-client relationship, based on the ability of the politician to provide a service like electricity or clean water. Slums are different because they grow organically, without outside (government) interference, and are usually based around ties of ethnic or geographical kinship. He elaborates, “Here the pradhan (slumlord) can control votes to some extent because of community-based voting. But even then, I believe the level of control is overstated by our media. I see the affluent middle-class as a much bigger vote bank. Amongst the poor, the vote is a genuine instrument of political assertion. And its not like they are naive – they vote, but they vote with cynicism, knowing that the promises made are empty, that the person they are voting for will not or cannot help.”

Bhupendra Singh, who lives in Hanuman Nagar, a slum near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport in Mumbai, tells Covert that the number of North Indians living in this area tend to vote on the basis of community affiliations. “Voters in slums generally get promised a lot every election, and often they are also paid in cash by candidates, but unfortunately they get little in return. Politicians come here to capture the votes from slums but then fail to show their face for five years.” Singh insists that most slum-dwellers vote for the Congress, while right-wing parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena get most of their votes from housing societies.

But community-based political affiliations can often be a recipe for violence. Kamal Siddiqui, a 65 year old from the largely-Muslim slum of Malvani in Mumbai, says, “Even if it’s a worse candidate, those who have been voting for the Congress will continue to do so. We see which candidate belongs to which group and the voting takes place accordingly.” Political parties seem very attentive to which buttons they need to press to excite passions. Siddiqui continues, “All the political parties are the same. They know that in a place like this the caste-factor won’t work, so they resort to dividing people along religious lines. In the slums they sometimes try to make the Hindu-Muslim wedge an issue between people who live together throughout the year.”

Politics in the slum seems to be heading down a difficult path. The broad mass of the urban population of India lives in slums and unauthorised colonies, yet their desires and requests are constantly marginalised. The demands of the middle-class are repeatedly privileged as the demands of the Indian population as a whole. One example is the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in the city, often trumpeted by both Government and the affluent as an indicator of New Delhi’s newfound prosperity and progress. The work surrounding the Games has destroyed the livelihoods of a great number of people. Rajmati explains, “5 weeks ago they stopped all the street markets for these Games. This was our family business – we have been doing this in Delhi for 50 years. Now we are denied even this. This election we will fight against this, but what are the alternatives? When the lotus [BJP] was in power onion prices went up.”

Most slum-dwellers want: legal title to shelter; legal provision for livelihoods; and basic services, which they are happy to pay for as long as it is provided regularly and legally. What they get are politicians who provide them with cheap alcohol when the election nears and little else. A number of people in Sunder Nagari made regular trips to the councillor Santosh Kumar and the MLA Vir Dighaan’s office for help on a number of issues. Sometimes their demands are satisfied, but on most occasions they are told they cannot be helped. Dunu Roy has hope for the future, however. “Right now the media does not understanding this kind of political action – they go to slum-dwellers’ morchas but don’t take photographs because there are no political leaders. They can’t see that there is an incipient emergence of the politics of the slum. You might not see politicians come from this background, but you will see these people assert themselves politically. In spite of the schisms and betrayals, these people are beginning to find a voice.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Lynch Mobs of Haryana

Suman’s charred, government-issue tricycle sits in rubble outside the broken walls of her home. “She had polio, so she could not run out,” says Rajinder, a young resident of this Dalit basti. He points to the sliding lock on the door as we walk into what remains of her house. “When her father went in to get her, they locked them both in with that latch. Then they dumped kerosene on the walls and roof and set the place on fire.”

Suman and her 70 year old father Tarachand were casualties of the caste violence that beset the village of Mirchpur, in the Hisar district of Haryana, from 19th to 21st April. The tricycle itself was a gift from a munificent government so she could go to school like the other children from this basti of Balmiki Dalits. When I meet her mother Kamala at a protest outside the office of the District Collector of Hisar, she says, “More than anything, Suman wanted to go to school. She used that tricycle to get around everywhere. We brought her up so well. Then they came and took everything away from us.”

That blackened shell of a tricycle is an indelible symbol now. It encapsulates the rhetoric of politicians and administrators who would have you believe that a gift of a hand-operated tricycle is sufficient to enable a polio-stricken Dalit girl to climb from the depths of poverty. And now, with the rubber from the tyres burnt like flesh against its spokes and rims, the tricycle stands as a symbol of the instant, devastating violence that some upper caste communities can still inflict upon the lowest rungs of the village when the mood is upon them.

And that is all it takes: a shift in mood. Usually it is some sort of perceived affront that is the motivation, an “insult” to a member of the upper caste community by the lowest of the low, by people who – if it were not for this whole democracy experiment – would not have had the courage to respond to any sort of provocation.

Those who say that caste is dead have not witnessed its unique power of mobilisation in India, how much more effective it is as a political tool than money, sex, even religion. An insult to caste pride will make brothers of strangers, comrades who will fight and burn and pillage until they have had their revenge. In Mirchpur, young Jat toughs were brought in from neighbouring villages to exact retribution. Even today, caste permeates through rural India, patterning every interaction. The gutted Balmiki basti of Mirchpur is smouldering testament to its power.


I am walking up the steps of Chander Singh’s house, where eleven children were trapped on the first floor by the fire until Hisar Police arrived and rescued them. Without rancour, only disappointment and curiosity, my guide Rajinder asks me: “Look at what they did to us. Why is the media not writing about what they were allowed to do? Why don’t the local journalists tell our story? Is it because of government pressure?”

I cannot bring myself to speak of the current fascination with Twitter and cricket. But I promise to relate to the best of my ability an accurate record of the events over the three days of violence. Below is what I have been able to glean from eyewitness accounts, conversations with policemen and villagers in neighbouring areas, students and social workers from Kurukshetra University and beyond who travelled to the site, and some government functionaries who were willing to speak.
On 19th April, two Jat men of around 23, Rajinder and Ajit, walked through the Dalit basti of the village, reportedly drunk. Some of those attacked say Ajit is a member of Haryana Police, though this could not be confirmed. A dog began barking at them as they walked through the road that bisects the neighbourhood. They began throwing stones at the dog, which the owner, Jai Prakash, objected to. A fight ensued between some young Dalit boys and the two Jats. The outnumbered Jats returned with only bruises and cuts to their own part of the village.

That evening, two elders from the Dalit community, Karuna and Virbhan, are summoned to the village panchayat to provide an explanation. The summons has come from Ajit (“his family is very powerful in the area”, says one young boy I meet in the village). But there is no meeting – the two elders are beaten up badly and sent back to their neighbourhood.

On 20th April, the chowkidar of the Balmiki neighbourhood, Gulab Singh, is picked up and thrashed with sticks and rods. He is hospitalised. The Dalit villagers go to the local police station, Narnaud, where the Station House Officer, Vinod Kajal, assures them nothing more will happen.

That evening a mob of around 50 Jats from the village come into the Dalit neighbourhood, ready to ruin: they destroy people’s property, break objects in the small shops that line the road, enter people’s homes and break down doors. A second appeal goes out to the police.

Later that night, a meeting of the influential members of the Jat community is held in the government school in the village. A plan of revenge is hatched. Through the night, a steady stream of Jat youngsters from the neighbouring villages begins to arrive. By dawn there are more than 300. They gather in one of the Jat houses and wait.

On the morning of the 21st, at around 8 AM, Narnaud S.H.O. Vinod Kajal visits the Dalit basti. He tells them this violence must be resolved and asks them to congregate in the village choupal. The Balmiki men gather in the choupal and begin their meeting with the SHO, the naib tehsildaar and other police functionaries. At the same time a mob of Jats – both local and those brought in from neighbouring villages – enter the Dalit basti armed with rods, kerosene and torches. They target the most affluent houses (more on this later), burning them as much as possible. Houses are torched with people inside them. Tarachand is locked inside his house with his 18 year old daughter before it is set on fire.

A little after 10 AM, Hisar Police arrives and begins to put out the fires and restore order. Amongst other things, they rescue 11 children who had been left to burn from the first floor of one of the houses.

Pradeep, Suman’s brother, says: “The SHO told the Jat boys that they have one hour to do their work. He took our men were away and this was the time they had before the Hisar Police could get here. He is the bhaanja of Tare, one of the important Jats in the village. We should have gone to the police in Hisar right away. Then my father would be alive.”

A Congress MLA from Haryana, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the Hooda administration recognised the culpability of the S.H.O. very quickly. “He was suspended almost immediately. The speed with which action was taken suggests he must have played a role.”

The information about who is responsible has reached the highest echelons of government. On 30th April, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter admonishing Chief Minister of Haryana Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who has been in power while a number of grievous caste-based clashes have taken place, most notably the 2005 mob attack on Balmikis in Gohana. Mrs Gandhi wrote to Hooda: “It is a matter of shame and horror that this brutal and deplorable incident occurred at all, and it is totally unacceptable that this occurred in the presence of Naib Tehsildar and S.H.O. of the police. This cannot be allowed to pass without firm and severe action against those responsible for the crime.”


Item: As Rajinder shows me the 18 or 20 houses that bore the brunt of the mob’s fury, he tells me the name and father’s name of the owner of every house. In each house, he insists I write both names down. He wants all the names to be published, kept on record so that the government can provide compensation to everyone affected.
Harkishan Kaakra, a student of Kurukshetra University who has come on a fact-finding mission, says that the lists being prepared by the government are not adequate. “A lot of these houses are multiple family domiciles. The government is trying to minimise the compensation they will have to pay. The lists only acknowledge one family per house. They are taking a lot fewer names than they should.”


Item: There is, irrefutably, an economic component to this outpouring of ethnic hatred. The mob chose to burn the most affluent of the Dalit houses. They went into the houses and stole little pieces of wedding jewellery. In one house, the owner takes me to the back to show me a destroyed black-and-white television set: “that was mine,” he says, almost proudly. A second hand motorbike has been torched beyond recognition. The roofs of houses have been brought down so that maximum destruction is inflicted. The tiny shops that sell sweets, beedis and knickknacks – symbols of Dalit commerce – are mostly destroyed.

The message that has been passed: how could you Dalits have the effrontery to live in brick houses, with refrigerators and wedding jewellery, own shops, ride on motorbikes?


There are very few Balmiki Dalits left in Mirchpur now. Teams of Hisar Police have been stationed there on double shift since April 21st, but most of the Balmikis have moved out. They are camped outside the District Collector’s Office in Hisar and refuse to move.

The strikers want two things: for the Balmikis of the village to be relocated to another part of Haryana, or perhaps even Rajasthan; and for the central government to remove Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who they have lost faith in. Suman’s mother, Kamala, a frail, old woman, has become the figurehead of this movement. Despite media inattention, the movement is gathering momentum amongst lower caste communities across the country.

Virender Rana, a young man from the village, says “We want the central government to give us justice. The most important thing is we don’t go back to the village. The Jats there have never let us live peacefully and they won’t in the future as well. Rahul Gandhi needs to come and see the plight of the Dalits in Haryana [this conversation was held the day before Rahul Gandhi’s surprise visit to Mirchpur]. We have nothing against the Congress, but this Government has to be changed. These guys, the opposition, all the big leaders in Haryana are from the same community [Jats]. They will never do anything against their own kind, there are too many votes involved.”

Gaurav Sarvate, another Balmik youth, says, “we want to take this movement across the country. There are people like us all over.” When we speak again on 1st May he says, “we have started the Mirchpur Agnikhand Andolan. On 4 May at 6 PM we will hold a candelight march in cities across India; in Hisar, other places in Haryana, Bombay, Delhi. We will march so people acknowledge the wrongs that have been perpetrated against us.”


Item: Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda visited Mirchpur almost immediately after the violence had ended. The MLA for Narnaud, Ms Saroj Mor, a member of O.P Chautala’s INLD, also visited the small village once things had settled down.
I ask Suraj Bhan, one of the Balmiki elders, about their visits. “We asked to be relocated, but Hooda-sahab told us they cannot move us out of here. He said that we must show our strength, that we must not be scared of such people. Keep courage, he said. I suppose he is right. If they are going to watch us burn, we might as well keep our courage.”