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.

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.”