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, 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.