Captive to their own myths

Youth against fundamentalism

Youth against fundamentalism: members of the All India Students’ Association rally against rightwing Hindu groups in Kolkata. ‘Love Azadi’ (freedom to love) counters a pronouncement by the Hindu Mahasabha organization that it would force couples to get married if they were seen together in the open – considered an indecent expression of love. © AP Photo/Bikas Das

‘Call me after 9,’ a professor friend at Jadavpur University in Kolkata texted me a few days ago. ‘Right now, we’re all going off to the beef fest.’ A sort of ‘eatathon’, a beef fest involves the public eating of beef in protest at its government-supported banning in some states. Maharashtra has already brought in this legislation, which takes away from Muslims, Dalits, Christians and, indeed, beef-eating Hindus, an important item of food (thus denying them a basic democratic right), and scores a nationalist Hindu point, because Hindus believe the cow is sacred and should not be eaten.

Other rightwing-ruled states in India are considering following suit. Haryana, in the north, has already done so. And in Delhi’s neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, the campaign is in full swing: slogans demanding gau mata ko rashtra pashu banao (‘make mother cow the national animal’) line the walls of buildings along the highway. It doesn’t matter that cows know little about religion or nation; they’ve become important in the battle for these inter-related turfs.

A longstanding demand of the Hindu right, the ban on cow slaughter has in the past been kept in abeyance by the government, and for good reason. India is a secular country, constitutionally committed to the democratic rights of its minority populations. Food is an important aspect of this: a sense of home and belonging comes as much from what you eat as from where you live and what you do. For the 150 million Muslims who live in India, beef is a staple food and one of their main sources of protein. Other groups also eat beef: the Dalits, for one. The beef trade gives employment to hundreds of thousands of people. How, then, can it be banned?

Yet in the battle for claiming a space for the Hindu nation, such considerations do not seem to be important. A Hindu point has been scored and has been given the green light by a Hindu government – and that’s enough.

The beleaguered majority

The renewed Hinduization of an already very Hindu India is a project that is rapidly gaining strength. Why this should be necessary in a country whose population is 80-per-cent Hindu anyway (even though being Hindu means different things to different people) is a question to which there are no easy answers. Why should they – or perhaps I should say we, for I am by birth a Hindu, although in the way that people’s lives are messy, I am also a Sikh, and sometimes the lines between these two are quite blurred – feel marginalized? And further, why should this sense of marginalization be laid at the door of other, much smaller and less powerful groups?

There is something deeply worrying when our Prime Minister maintains a studied silence on violent acts, forcing the conclusion that he is supportive of the project to create a new Hindu nation

In India, virtually all the important top jobs, industries, institutions, educational projects and more are headed by upper-caste Hindus, mostly men. Any number of reports have shown that, despite the unmistakable gains of positive discrimination, India has a lot of catching up to do in terms of the rights and status of its minorities. Of all the minorities in the country – and there are many – the largest, Muslims, are the ones that concern Hindus the most.

About 15 per cent of India’s population today is Muslim. Yet one of the most popular and enduring myths among those Hindus who see themselves as beleaguered in their own land is that because Muslims have many children, they will soon outstrip the Hindu population. A case of simple maths would prove otherwise, but this is never deployed.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when if someone spoke of Hindu fundamentalism, we would have laughed at them, perhaps shaken our heads, and most certainly have trotted out the most enduring (and true) cliché of all: that Hinduism is not a religion, it’s a philosophy; that it is full of nuance and contradiction; that there’s no one book on which it is based, so there’s no question of fundamentalism.

Not so now. In the past two decades so much has changed – there hasn’t really been a moment when one minority or other has not come under attack. And it doesn’t stop at religious minorities or even just people: it’s also books, films, discussions, plays and more. Ever since the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came into power, for example, heads of virtually all important institutions have been replaced with Hindu loyalists.

Consider this list of randomly chosen examples: in Mangalore, women are violently attacked for drinking in a pub because drinking is presumably against Hindu tradition; in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Delhi, churches are vandalized, perhaps because Christians need to be shown ‘their place’; in Madhya Pradesh, tribal people are forcibly converted to Hinduism; in Delhi, publishers are forced to withdraw books that are said to be anti-Hindu or critical of Hindus; in Muzaffarnagar, Muslims are attacked, many are killed, women are raped.

Tejomaya Bharat, a supplementary reading textbook, is distributed across 42,000 schools in Gujarat. It claims that stem-cell research, television and cars were all inspired by ancient Hindu texts. ‘It is better to die for one’s religion,’ states page 118. ‘An alien religion is a source of sorrow.’

Indeed, women are particularly targeted: fundamentalism and patriarchy make good bedfellows. So Hindu men feel righteously justified in stopping women from marrying men of their choice, or not ‘allowing’ them to indulge in ‘un-Hindu’ behaviour such as holding hands or kissing in public.

In a country the size of India, it would be easy to pass off these incidents as random – were it not for the fact that some fringe Hindu group or other then comes forward to claim responsibility. One might also say: ‘But this is the fringe; most Hindus are not violent or intolerant.’ And no doubt there’s truth in that, too. But there is something deeply worrying when our politicians, and in particular our Prime Minister, maintain a studied silence on such acts, forcing the conclusion that they are supportive of the project to create a new Hindu nation.

The renewed Hinduization of an already very Hindu India is a project that is rapidly gaining strength

How widespread is this sense of being beleaguered? It’s difficult to say, but it tends to draw in everything to prove its point. So, if Hindus are treated badly in Pakistan, that gives cause to demand similar reciprocal treatment for minorities in India. Added to that is a further completely irrational fear: that India is ‘sandwiched’ between two Muslim nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and needs to arm itself against incursions (read: Bangladeshi refugees) and terrorism.

‘More worrying than these random attacks,’ says a lawyer friend of mine, ‘is the insidious way in which a sort of Hinduness is creeping into our daily lives. Not being able to eat what you wish, having to look over your shoulder for everything you write or publish; that is what is so worrying.’

The aggressive diaspora

A fair amount of support for this assertive Hinduness, she points out, comes from the Hindu diaspora. Made up of doctors, academics, engineers, IT experts and students, this group of generally conservative people sees itself as a sort of ‘model minority’ and wonders why, in its chosen homeland (mostly the United States) it has been so ignored. ‘For nearly three generations, since the time of India’s nominal independence in 1947,’ says a recently published book called Rearming Hinduism, ‘… Hinduism has been a religion lived in silence.’

But how does the sense of being a beleaguered minority translate into a similar sense of disempowerment in a majoritarian environment? It’s here that the internet has become a powerful tool: it’s used to mobilize support for campaigns, recruit new members, troll and harass opponents, and reach out particularly to the middle classes, who may otherwise not be too proactive.

Indian Muslims shower members of militant Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with flower petals in Bhopal, February 2014. The RSS, which would like to turn India into a completely Hindu nation, is the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

AP Photo/Rajeev Gupta

One of Hinduism’s most vocal US-based advocates, Rajiv Malhotra, uses the internet to make some amazing claims: Christianity and Islam, he says, are less than 2,000 years old – so what was there in the world before them? Clearly it was Hinduism. Indeed, Hinduism once covered a vast geographical terrain: from Kabul to Indonesia, from Kazakhstan to Kanya Kumari; but look at it today – it can claim a mere 20 per cent of its original sweep. Furthermore, Hindus have lost their rivers – and therefore water, the lifeblood – to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh. You’re a shadow of your former self.

Recovering the former self is also what Hindu groups lobbied for in 2005, trying to get textbooks used in schools in California to make their content more Hindu ‘accurate’. This resurgent Hinduism in the diaspora has close associations with the ruling BJP and, indeed, much of Narendra Modi’s election campaign was orchestrated by non-resident Indians.

What does this mean for India, though? Where will the actions of a violent fringe – who because of the current political dispensation feel a sense of impunity – and a less violent diaspora, intent on capturing cultural and intellectual space, leave us in India? The dangers are clear: the Prime Minister recently made an indirect criticism of court judgments that have defended freedom of speech, saying the judiciary must be careful not to be taken in by ‘five-star activists’, thus targeting NGOs and others who have been fighting against the Hinduization of India.

As always with India, there are no easy answers. What’s clear, though, is that the danger is real and there is no room for complacency. We might sit back and say India’s diversity is not so easily destroyed. Or we might do what India’s civil society has always done: fight to protect everything that is good about this country – its diversity, its secularism, its plurality, its freedom and, indeed, its people.

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist publisher and writer based in India. She is the director of the publishing house Zubaan.

India's elites have a ferocious sense of entitlement

My office is located in an urban village in the heart of Delhi. Originally surrounded by fields where people grew crops, these areas now house apartment blocks and shopping malls. All that’s left of the old village is the cluster of houses in which many of the erstwhile residents live, and where a few small traders have set up offices and shops. Some old practices remain though, and there’s a strong sense of community. Come evening, houses in Shahpur Jat empty as women and children spill out on to the narrow streets where a village haat – a market where you can get fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, eggs, plastic goods and virtually anything else you care to name – springs up. Or at least, that’s how it was until about a year ago. I still remember the day that marked the beginning of the end of this little daily ritual.

Privilege looms large in the southern Indian city of Chennai.

Babu Babu / Reuters

It was around 6 o’clock on a late summer day, not yet dusk. As people shopped and went from cart to cart selecting the best and sometimes the cheapest, cars and auto-rickshaws negotiated the narrow gaps between them, taking care to avoid children and animals.

Then along came a large SUV, driven by a young and obviously wealthy man. He honked loudly for people to get out of his way; no-one really bothered. He tried again, he leaned out of the car and shouted, he revved up his car. No effect: the cart standing nearby was doing brisk business, another one went past and gently grazed his car. Suddenly, before anyone could realize what was happening, this young man leapt out, caught hold of the cart laden-with-onions standing in front of his car, tipped it over, spilling its contents on to the road, lifted the heavy metal scales and hurled them at the vendor, who just managed to duck and escape being badly injured. People scurried away, the young man stalked off, climbed unhurriedly into his car and drove off. Since that day, the village market has disappeared, the people are too frightened to come on to the road, children don’t play there and cars can now drive freely down it.

This isn’t an unusual scene in India and it’s not about road rage. It’s about being rich, and the privilege, callousness and arrogance that comes with it. It’s something I’ve always wondered about: the rich have so much, what does this wealth do to their minds that they always want more, they don’t want anyone else to have anything? Indeed, why does wealth make them lose all sense of humanity and compassion?

Let me tell you another story: my neighbour in the upper-middle-class area where I live is a man who owns luxury hotels. His house is huge, but no sooner had he moved in than he appropriated about half of the pavement space to the front and side of his house, claiming it for his own. This means less parking for others, less pavement for children, less walking space for everyone. Of the 400-odd houses in this area, at least half have done this. At the same time they have also collectively seen off the only roadside tea stall in the area that served all the service providers – the guards, the drivers, the domestics, the sweepers.

Who could study the rich?

Where does this kind of behaviour come from? You’d think if people had more than they need, they would be generous about it, and would see, reflecting on themselves, that others might want to have more as well. Not so. Until recently, every time I asked myself this question, I wondered if I was just being prejudiced, or imagining things. And then I read about the experiments carried out in the US by researchers Michael Kraus, Dacher Keltner, Paul Piff and others about what wealth does to people socially and psychologically – their conclusions are telling.

Who in India would have the temerity to study the rich?

There haven’t, to my knowledge, been any such studies in our region of the world. Indeed, in India, it’s always struck me as strange that, while there are any number of books about the poor (perhaps they provide an easy subject because they’re poor and don’t have the power to refuse to be subjects of research), there are no studies about the rich or their behaviour.

The question does arise: who would study the rich, or perhaps we should ask who could study the rich? In a society that is so deeply hierarchized along both class and caste lines, which scholar or scientist would have the temerity, and the access, to do so?

For us, wealth is so completely tied in with political power, and often to crime without punishment. Take any recent scam in India and you will find proof of this.

Recently, two wealthy brothers, fighting over a piece of property, shot each other dead. The history of their many businesses showed how liquor licences had been sold to them by the state at ridiculously reduced prices. The nexus of industry and politics is exceedingly tight; and the media are tied into this too – without advertising from the corporates, they would not survive.

This somewhat lethal combination has acquired the status of a ‘natural truth’ in India’s hierarchized society and it is seldom questioned. The behaviour of the rich is taken as just that, and the oft cited refrain is: ‘that’s what they are like!’

The culture of taking

Indeed, the ferocious sense of entitlement that the rich carry with them at all times has also helped to legitimize so many inequalities in India. Take, for example, a simple urban phenomenon: parks within the city. These are the places where poor people can hang out, do nothing sometimes, and where the homeless often find a bed. But the assumption seems to be that our public parks are only meant for the rich, and so the poor are often pushed out and denied entry.

Eating the children’s sweets

In recent years, scientists in the US have been investigating the ways in which having money affects personality and behaviour. Their results have been remarkably consistent. The rich are different – and not in a good way. Their life experience makes them less empathetic, less altruistic and generally more selfish, according to Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘We have done 12 separate studies measuring empathy in every way imaginable... and it’s the same story...’1

For example, less privileged people are better at deciphering the emotions of people in photos than rich people. In video recordings of conversations, the rich are more likely to check cell phones, doodle, avoid eye contact; while less privileged people make eye contact and nod their heads more often, signalling engagement.

In another test, when poorer people were awarding points representing money, they were likely to give away more than richer people.

Keltner also studied the activity of the vagus nerve, which helps the brain to record and respond to emotional inputs. When participants are exposed to pictures of starving children, for example, their vagus nerve becomes more active. Keltner has found that those from poorer backgrounds experience more intense activation.

One of his students, Jennifer Stellar, did a similar experiment using heart rate, which slows with feelings of compassion. Unlike those of poorer students, the heart rates of the richest students did not change when they viewed pictures of children with cancer. ‘They are just not attuned to it,’ Stellar told the New York Magazine.2

In 2012 another University of California researcher, Paul Piff, published a paper entitled ‘Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behaviour’. Using quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations and field studies, Piff also found that living high on the socio-economic ladder makes people less ethical, more selfish, more insular and less compassionate.

One experiment showed that rich participants, when placed in a room with a bowl of candy designated for children, were the most likely to help themselves to the sweets. Another showed they were three times more likely to cheat than those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

In another study, Piff and his researchers spent three months observing the behaviour of drivers at the busy intersection of two major highways. They graded cars one to five, with five the most expensive. They found that drivers of grade-five cars were the most likely to cut off other drivers. Piff then devised an experiment to test drivers’ regard for pedestrians. A researcher would enter a zebra crossing as a car approached. Half of the grade-five car drivers cruised right into the crossing, regardless of pedestrians. ‘It’s like they didn’t even see them,’ said Piff.2

Can the rich redeem themselves? It will take another set of studies to show what happens if they give their riches away.

  1. Michael Kraus, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, ‘Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, August 2011.

  2. Lisa Miller, ‘The Money-Empathy Gap’, New York Magazine, July 2012

There’s also a particular way in which the rich adopt the moral high ground. In a recent incident, three poor Dalit boys inadvertently caused a small fire in a local community centre where they worked. Their local community leader pleaded with the centre manager to let them off with a warning, but he was told, in no uncertain terms: ‘No, you can’t be soft on these people, they have to be punished, else they will never learn.’ Very likely, all three lost their jobs. Very likely, they were the only earning members in their families.

The studies in the US speak of the ‘culture of taking’ that comes with privilege. So, for example, the better-off person is more likely to take sweets meant for a child than a less well-off person. If you replace sweets with money, you’ll find this is rampant in India. Funds set aside for development schemes that are supposed to help the poor, are frequently siphoned off by the rich. Land that belongs to the poor – including adivasis – is taken for setting up factories (the Nano plant, for example) without compensation ever being paid.

Why do those who have so much want more? Why do they behave so badly towards their fellow human beings, and why is their behaviour so widely accepted as ‘natural’? Perhaps the day is not far off when we, in what are known now as emerging economies, will start to look for answers to these questions.

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist and historian who founded the independent non-profit publishing house Zubaan in 2003. She is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

Remembrance of things past

Urvashi Butalia

Some time ago I spent a week in South Africa. It was an exciting time: Thabo Mbeki had just brokered the Zimbabwe accord and Jacob Zuma had just won the legal case that was to unseat Mbeki. The newspapers were full of these major political events. But what caught my attention was another story – the violent murder of a wealthy family of Indian origin. Such violence is not uncommon in post-apartheid South Africa. Homes in the wealthier parts of its main towns are like fortresses, alarmed and wired against intruders.

But what struck me was the coverage of this particular case in the media. There was no jumping to conclusions, no assigning of blame to a particular group of people. Had this been India, I thought, the media would have acted as investigator, judge and jury and condemned someone, no matter that they may have gone back on that judgment later. Instead, all reporting was informed by an underlying sense that much of the violence in South Africa today is connected to its violent, discriminatory past and that the important thing is to focus on how the country can move towards a more equal and inclusive future.

Homes in the wealthier parts of its main towns are like fortresses, alarmed and wired against intruders

This sense of the past serving to build the future runs through so much that one sees in South Africa. The question of how countries memorialize, preserve and move away from their violent pasts is one that occupies many societies around the world – discussions on truth commissions, paths to reconciliation and righting historical wrongs are legion. South Africa, too, has had its share of these – its Truth and Reconciliation Commission received both criticism and appreciation. But it’s one thing to deal with the past in a process, it’s quite another to work with memorials and museums – fixed structures – and turn them into living histories.

This was what I found in Johannesburg. On a clear, sunny day we set off to see Constitution Hill. Halfway up the ‘hill’, two box-like brick structures come into view. These are remnants of the infamous prisons that housed hundreds of people – black, brown and white – who had opposed the hated apartheid regime. ‘Remnants’ because all that remains are two covered stairwells. You can see them through the glass windows and you can listen to a recording that describes how prisoners were made to run up and down these as a form of torture and how they made up songs to help them along the way. The voices make the story frighteningly real and remind you that the history is very recent.

The future, then, grows out of the past – and the past serves as a constant reminder of what must never be repeated

South Africa has a past that is almost too unbearable to remember. Yet as a country it has adopted a unique way of memorializing the horror of apartheid, grounded in the hope of moving on to a better world. Beside the fragments of the prison there is a newer building: the Constitutional Court. Its location and its structure were deliberately chosen. With the prison stairwells in full view (one has been recreated inside the Court) you are reminded that there is no going back to that time. In addition, the Court’s walls were made with bricks from the dismantled prisons – they’re visible, unplastered and bare. Every single one of the sixteen justices who sit in the Court cannot but be aware of those bricks and the history they carry.

The future, then, grows out of the past – and the past serves as a constant reminder of what must never be repeated. A little further along, to one side of the Court, stands the women’s prison. It now houses the National Women’s Commission, with one part serving as offices and the other as a museum – the cells are as they were then, filled with photographs of the prisoners, some of their possessions and their recorded voices.

At dinner the next day I meet many of the people whose voices I’ve heard on Constitution Hill. They’re ordinary people and I look at them and wonder how they dealt with the anger and the injustice and replaced it with something I can only label as compassion. I find myself talking to a South African Indian who tells me that he was tortured and that his fingers were crushed.

‘And do you know what I thought? The only thought that crossed my mind? I used to be very proud of my beautiful handwriting. As they were doing that to me I could only think: I’ll never be able to write so beautifully again. But now all that is over and my fingers are fine.’

India and South Africa have a strong bond: India’s greatest leader, Mohandas Gandhi, cut his early political teeth under the apartheid regime in South Africa and brought that experience to the nationalist movement in India. And yet, when it comes to memorializing the past, in India we’re no good at it. We remove all signs of it and pretend it never existed. Perhaps it’s time to turn our attention to South Africa.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

Standing up to the State

Urvashi Butalia

It’s been a year that Binayak Sen, a doctor who was working with the poor and disadvantaged in remote villages in eastern India, has been in prison – the courts refuse to give him bail. It’s been more than six years since Irom Sharmila, a young woman from the northeast region of the country, was arrested and imprisoned – but held in hospital – because she went on an indefinite hunger strike to protest a law that grants impunity to the Indian Army. Binayak’s ‘crime’? His supposed links to Maoist agitators. Sharmila’s crime? Attempted suicide – illegal under Indian law. The Indian State refuses to release Binayak or give him bail. The same State won’t release Sharmila for fear that she may fulfill her threat to kill herself in protest.

In ‘real’ life Binayak Sen and Irom Sharmila number among those people who have strong beliefs and are willing to stand by them. They are people with extraordinary courage and commitment, two of many such unsung heroes. Binayak’s ‘rebellion’ was to refuse to set up a lucrative private practice. Instead he chose to work with the poor, to give medical treatment and care to everyone, friend and foe, and to ensure that health is a right, not a privilege. Sharmila’s rebellion was to demand what the Indian Constitution guarantees to every citizen: the democratic right to protest, to resist violations of human rights, to be free.

Once someone becomes a symbol, even small acts acquire tremendous importance. And this is the more difficult problem for States: you can jail people but you can’t jail ideas

Why should these two people, or others like them, pose such a threat to the country? How can an individual’s life, his or her strength, be a match for the might and power of the State? Where should citizens in a democracy draw the line at what they can or cannot do? Binayak, for example, worked in Chattisgarh, a region where there is intense political turmoil and a strong Maoist movement. The government has chosen to counter the Maoists with a force called Salwa Judum, a gang of warlords culled from renegade militants, for whom violence has now become a way of life and who are content to exercise it under State protection.

As a doctor, Binayak insists on seeing all who are sick or wounded, no matter what their political affiliation. It was this obligation that led him to treat the jailed Maoist leader, Narayan Sanyal. He did this under government surveillance and with government permission. No matter – he soon found himself in jail too, charged as a Maoist sympathizer. Now he doesn’t know when – or indeed if – he will ever emerge, see his wife and daughters, practise his profession. Justice may be a long time coming.

And yet can incarceration really silence Binayak Sen or people like him? By putting away individuals who stand up for their rights, States are convinced they are dealing with the problem of resistance. Think of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or that single protester on 4 June 1989 standing before the Chinese Army tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

But more often than not, such a strategy achieves the exact opposite of what it is intended to do. In prison, Binayak Sen is a powerful symbol of protest, a rallying point for all those who fight for human rights. Just as Irom Sharmila, fed forcibly through tubes in hospital, is a powerful reminder of the ways individuals can stand up to the might of the State. Once someone becomes a symbol, even small acts acquire tremendous importance. And this is the more difficult problem for States: you can jail people but you can’t jail ideas.

Binayak recently became the first South Asian to receive the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. The award is given by public health officials and organizations from more than 140 countries, and recognizes his work in the remote areas of Chattisgarh. His absence at the award ceremony will be a powerful indictment of the Indian State – an embarrassment it can well do without at a moment when the country is vying to be a major international actor.

As a doctor, Binayak sees all who are sick or wounded, no matter what their political affiliation

In prison Binayak Sen continues to inspire others: a group of doctors from the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi recently set up a hospital in Bilaspur in Chattisgarh. And a professor from Binayak’s alma mater, the Christian Medical College in Vellore in South India, quotes a recent graduate as saying: ‘On the one hand I have Binayak Sen’s example and on the other I have corporate healthcare waiting with open arms…’

And yet the question remains: why do States fear individuals so much that they resort to putting them away? And why do States not learn that physically removing someone from the arena of action is never a guarantee of their silence. In the end, the incarceration of the Binayak Sens and Irom Sharmilas of this world achieves the exact opposite of what it is supposed to, and at a price that no-one should have to pay.

*Urvashi Butalia* is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

The Left’s betrayal

Buddhudeb Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, is a troubled man today. For 30 years his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has enjoyed uninterrupted rule in this state. Time and again it has been returned to power through what are said to be ‘free and fair elections’. Support for the CPI(M) Party has been huge and widespread, taking in its ambit not only the masses, but also the Bengali intelligentsia.

But in recent years things have started to change. In the 1990s India began to open up to foreign capital and follow the path of globalization. Not long after – and despite its Communist Government – West Bengal, the first state to industrialize under colonial rule, began to pursue this path. The Party was opposed to globalization at the ideological level, but on the ground it was another matter. Pragmatism won the day. The Party chose a different strategy at home in the interests of ‘development’ (jobs, infrastructure) and modernity (roads, shopping malls).

People watched, with a mix of both scepticism and hope. For sceptics, this was the typical doublespeak of the organized Left. For the hopeful, there was more at stake. Maybe there was a way of getting globalization right? Maybe it wasn’t inevitable that poor people would lose their land and get sidelined in the process.

Perhaps there was a way of controlling globalization to make it democratic, inclusive and fair? To give people a stake in what was seen as economic progress? If the Communist Government in Bengal could show the way, it might be a breakthrough, a model for other Indian states to follow.

But it was not to be. That hope was destroyed in Nandigram, a small village not far from the capital of Kolkata (Calcutta) where the Indonesian industrial giant, Salim, was to build a huge chemical plant. Local people, led by groups of women, resisted the takeover of their lands, fighting back, sometimes violently. So the Government sent in its forces. The police attacked. Fourteen lives were lost and many more people, including some police, were injured.

Rather than deplore the violence, express regret or attempt to talk to residents, the West Bengal Government, led by its Chief Minister and supported by Politbureau members, remained silent while Party cadres and local goons went on a rampage – burning houses, forcing people from their homes and intimidating them into signing over their lands.

The result? Fear, anger, resentment and a widespread disillusion with the CPI(M). As the Chief Minister spoke of ‘us’ and ‘them’ à la George Bush and Parliamentarians defended the attacks on Nandigram, hundreds of thousands of people – including writers, filmmakers and activists – took to the streets of Kolkata, attempting to bring home the truth that there has to be a difference between a government and a party; that a government is responsible for all its people, no matter what their political colouring. But to no avail. Battle lines remain drawn, people remain fearful of Party goons and reluctant to return to their homes.

A critical part of this unfortunate story is the question posed by many of the protesters: when the Left starts acting like the Right, what remains for ‘progressive’ people to hold on to? An elected Left government in power for 30 years is a rare thing indeed. But are the exigencies of globalization and the need for global capital so important that they can force the Left to sacrifice what has traditionally been its very base – peasants and poor people?

What’s also grossly underestimated here – I can find no other word for it – is the sense of betrayal, the heartbreak and the disillusion of those who have believed in the Left and been its most ardent supporters. The conclusion seems clear: economic globalization does not, indeed cannot, benefit the poor.

Not only has the experience of Nandigram caused a profound cleavage among the supporters of the Left in West Bengal, it has also deeply divided feminists and the women’s movement in India. As with all collective violence, many of the battles are fought on the bodies of women.

Despite clear evidence of numerous rapes by Party cadres in Nandigram, the State Women’s Commission of West Bengal, a highly respected body, reached the dubious conclusion that there had been only one such attack. Nor did the Commission condemn the sexual violence unequivocally, as they should have.

For feminists this betrayal, by an organization they respected, supported and trusted, has made for a distance and a disillusion that is difficult to bridge. So much is irrevocably lost – but will the men and women in power in the CPI(M) in West Bengal realize and accept this? Will they care?

It’s difficult to say. Perhaps the only thing that can be said is that globalization has claimed another set of victims, this time of a different sort.

*Urvashi Butalia* is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

The myth of the right moment

Irom Sharmila, a young woman in the north-eastern state of Manipur in India, has been on an indefinite hunger strike for over six years. She’s kept alive by being force-fed intravenously – attempting to commit suicide, which is how the act of indefinite fasting is interpreted, is illegal in India. So when Sharmila made her intentions clear, the State was able not only to arrest her, but to force feed-her. Sharmila’s nonviolent protest has a one point agenda: the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been in force in Manipur for many years and which allows the Indian Army to function – largely as a counter-insurgency force – with impunity.

Riven by insurgency for more than half a decade, torn apart by a confusing array of militants who battle the State, Manipur is also an area where tribal and religious identities are strong and fiercely defended. So not only are its different people pitted against the Indian State but they are also engaged in ongoing battles against each other, defending clan loyalties and claims to territory. The number of militant groups and factions who stalk the hills and plains with their AK-47s is mindboggling and confusing.

Sharmila’s demand for the removal of the AFSPA is, however, echoed by virtually everyone, although many will also say that while they want the Army to go, they are also fearful of what may happen once that ‘control’ is removed. Given how violent and politicized the terrain has become, the chances are that those for whom violence has become a way of life may run amok.

None of this takes away from the demand, or indeed its urgency. The local people do not buy the argument that the Army’s powers can’t be curtailed because things are so bad that the Manipuris cannot be depended upon to govern their land. Nor do they agree that the time is not right for such a reduction. Their argument is that the Army’s very presence and its overweening powers ensure that there will never be a ‘right’ moment. Indeed, the conditions for the moment to be ‘right’ can only be created once the Army’s presence, and its powers, are reduced.

The small state of Manipur may be insignificant on the world map. In terms of international attention and concern, it merits barely any attention – there’s no oil there for example. But if we look at it carefully, there are valuable lessons it offers. The Manipuris are firmly convinced that waiting for the right moment to pull out is a no-no. According to them, the precondition for finding the right moment is to pull out. According to them, it doesn’t need much intelligence to understand that you can’t first create the problem, then use that very thing to say you must stay on and solve the problem. The Manipuris know that the Army pull-out, or even reduction, for example, will create new problems, and they know that those problems would not have been there in the first place if such a draconian law had not been imposed on them. But, on balance, they’d rather be with a scenario in which they have the freedom to shape their own realities. But is anyone listening?

*Urvashi Butalia* is a Delhi-based writer, feminist, publisher and frequent contributor to the *NI*.

The landscape of the future

Like many rulers before him, Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates had a dream about his city, Abu Dhabi. The dream, now in detailed architectural models in a permanent exhibit, is well on its way to becoming a reality. ‘The shape of our city will change within the next 12 years,’ we are told by our young Indian (but born in the Emirates) guide. ‘We’re aiming to finish both phases of the project by 2020.’

The ‘project’ will include branches of the Sorbonne, the Louvre and the Guggenheim – as well as a cultural centre, a maritime museum and sundry pavilions of art and culture. ‘Abu Dhabi will become the cultural capital of the world. We’re aiming to diversify our income source – oil – and bring in tourism. And to think that only 30 or so years ago,’ she tells us, ‘all of it looked like this!’ She points disparagingly to a rough, rocky fort, a stunning desert landscape, men riding on camels.

But why would tourists, I wonder, fly to the Gulf to seek out what is becoming increasingly common in their own cities: luxury shopping malls, four-star hotels, bright lights and glitzy entertainment? It’s true there’s an ocean view from the tall buildings in Abu Dhabi. But apart from a few tourists at seaside hotels I didn’t see many people on the beaches.

Time was when cities looked different: Delhi was distinct from Dubai, New York was different from London, and Kathmandu had its own special allure. But with continuous rural to urban migration (often a consequence of globalization) and with relentless urbanization, cities across the world are beginning to look the same. In Abu Dhabi I tried – without success – to purchase something ‘local’, something to remember the place by. Other than dates from local date palms, there was little to be found.

But local culture is more than just local products. It’s also about jobs, about ways of living. Most cities in the world have a subterranean life. I was in Paris a while ago with a young domestic worker who was travelling abroad for the first time. At one point she turned to me and asked: ‘They spend so much on illuminating the Eiffel Tower, why can’t they use some of that money for these poor people who are freezing on the streets?’ A good question. But there are few homeless in the central tourist districts of most modern cities. Municipal officials are adept at hiding the seamier side of life behind a façade of museums, shops and theatres.

Abu Dhabi is different. You don’t see poor people at all on the streets. I’m not even sure there are any local poor. But you do see a huge workforce of Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos, all working hard to keep the infrastructure intact. ‘I’m from Kerala,’ my taxi driver tells me. ‘ I left home 20 years ago when I was a mere boy. I’ve forgotten what fields, trees, the village well, look like. I’m too busy making money.’

Equally important – and this is something I’ve heard spoken of in my own city, Delhi, and in many others in India – urbanization brings a kind of anonymity. You may like ‘hanging out’ with your compatriots or people from your home, says my Keralan friend. But in the city a person sitting next to you in a restaurant, or a client riding in your taxi, does not know whether you are Muslim or Christian, high caste or low caste.

But why would tourists, I wonder, fly to the Gulf to seek out what is becoming increasingly common in their own cities: luxury shopping malls, four-star hotels, bright lights and glitzy entertainment?

What about the pressure on services and resources, I ask him, the huge environmental cost of keeping cities going? ‘I used to worry about that,’ he tells me, ‘but after so many years I’m used to the air conditioning. So I think when I go home I’ll just take some air conditioners with me to cool my house.’

Is the city the landscape of the future? Will the rural world entirely disappear? In Indian cities the locals often grumble about cows on the streets disrupting traffic ‘as if they owned the place’. Visitors find this amusing, even charming. And yet it wasn’t so long ago that the cows did own the place. Where there are now roads, there were fields and the cows walked around freely.

I’m reluctant to plead for a return to village life – even though many urbanites romanticize the notion, it’s completely impractical for most of us city dwellers. Besides, many rural people want to escape the countryside as soon as possible. But I worry about the direction in which our cities are heading. It’s true that they offer jobs, opportunity, anonymity and dreams – which can sometimes even translate into reality. But it’s also true that they are cruel, wasteful, superficial and harsh.

Perhaps it’s because they’re all these things, and more, that cities have for so long preoccupied great writers. Some of the world’s most compelling literature has been rooted in the complex reality of city life. I can’t help wondering, as I walk along Abu Dhabi’s wide avenues and through its shopping malls, what the definitive book about this city will be like.

*Urvashi Butalia* is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

Two signatures

After years of violence and bloodshed the people of Nepal are preparing for peace. As I was settling down to write this column one of them forwarded me a short poem. The first verse goes like this:

_two signatures... that was all that was needed for nepalis to promise to stop killing each other... for nepalis to say it’s a new day from tomorrow let’s get it right this time let’s build nepal anew a new nepal a shangrila once more two signatures..._

Reading Rupa Joshi’s work made me think of how artistic expression powerfully captures the pain and suffering, the profound dilemmas and contradictions, of societies caught in political and social turmoil. Her simple poem says more about the tragedy of Nepal than any academic account could have done. When historians attempt to capture the process of change they usually address only the macro picture – they profile leaders and analyze political formations but rarely look at ordinary people. Poets, playwrights and novelists fill the gaps that history leaves.

Rupa Joshi’s poem led me to think about the role of literature in the history of South Asia. I found many examples of writers whose most inspiring and influential work was sparked by historical change. Undivided Punjab (today there are two Punjabs, one in India and one in Pakistan) was known as the land of star-crossed lovers, a place of enchantment and high drama, tinged with tragedy. The 1947 partition of India changed all that, turning the region into a land of violence, brutality and hate. Stories of mass killing, arson and looting are legion. Thousands of women were raped but history had little to say about them until the Punjabi poet, Amrita Pritam, took up their case in verse. She addressed the deceased Punjabi poet, Waris Shah, who wrote the story of the doomed lovers Heer and Ranjha. ‘Rise up, O Waris Shah!’ she said. ‘How can you sleep in your grave? When one Heer died, you wrote a whole epic poem to her memory, now that thousands of Heers are being violated, why are you silent?’ This single poem by Amrita Pritam gave the invisible raped women of the Punjab a history that they had until then been denied.

Or take the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, perhaps Pakistan’s best-known poet. After visiting Bangladesh for the first time since its independence from Pakistan, Faiz wrote a poem that has since then been put to music by many singers. _‘So many meetings between us, and we remain strangers still / How many seasons of rain will it take to wash away these bloodstains?’_

The first people whose voices are muzzled in moments of political turbulence are intellectuals and writers. Their works are dangerous because they can capture the essence at the heart of turmoil and conflict

My very rough translations don’t do justice to these authors whose original works are both poetic and moving – heavy with meaning and emotion. Interestingly, while poetry or fiction may emerge from a particular experience, or be a writer’s response to the pain of that moment, art is not bound by history. People find inspiration in the words of poets and writers at different times and in different places; their words become like talismans invested with a range of meanings. Citizen groups, women’s rights activists, anti-poverty campaigners all use the lines penned by Faiz Ahmed Faiz or by Amrita Pritam to describe their own experience in a way that would otherwise be difficult to encompass.

Nor are such writings limited by geography. In translation they transcend borders and are embraced in other places at other times. Faiz’s writings resonate with those seeking social change in India and Bangladesh as well as in his native Pakistan.

For this reason, in moments of political turbulence, the first people whose voices are muzzled are intellectuals and writers. Their works are dangerous because they can capture the essence at the heart of turmoil and conflict. Take poetry: because it often uses few words, its meaning is concentrated. Those words have to speak for and ‘describe’ all the multiple contradictions and complexities that lie at the heart of any conflict. They have to be eloquent, expressive and evocative. Written history can rarely aspire to this. Art, literature and music have another advantage: they are subversive because they have the power to move people. In Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, a songwriter and poet called Gadr sings his way into and across a Maoist revolutionary movement. And his success in mobilizing people – men, women, children, the old – is legendary. No wonder that the kings and rulers of yore, and indeed the political leaders and rulers of today, are so fearful of the power of the word!

For after all the killing and bloodshed, if all it takes is two signatures, you are forced to ask: was it really worth it?

*Urvashi Butalia* is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

Caste and quotas

*Risha, a young woman from Kerala, is a systems analyst with a large company in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh.* Her mother was a teacher and her father a ‘headload worker’ – one of the thousands of labourers who load and unload goods on their bare backs for the wholesale and retail trade. Risha was the first in her family to graduate from college.

Sharad Babu grew up in the slums of Chennai (formerly Madras), sometimes eating only one meal a day while his mother sold _idlis_ (rice cakes) to pay for his education. Today he is at the threshold of a career working for a large catering business.

Ordinarily, Sharad Babu and Risha would not have made it this far, or indeed anywhere at all. They are _dalits_ or ‘untouchables’ – those at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy. Excluded, discriminated against and economically disadvantaged, they and hundreds of others like them are where they are today only because of India’s ‘reservation’ policy. The government sets quotas to ‘reserve’ a certain number of seats in educational institutions and jobs in government offices for dalits.

Quotas are now as old as the Indian State. Indeed, they’re written into the Indian Constitution. But they’re still hotly contested – as all affirmative action usually is. There are those who believe that this is the only way to level the playing field for those who are by an accident of birth marked as ‘lesser beings’. Then there are others who argue that quotas in India have become counter-productive and should be stopped. They work against ‘merit’, they argue. And they allow ‘mediocre’ people to get into positions for which they are not qualified.

More recently there have been other twists to this argument. The debate has become more fraught as the Government tries to bring in measures to increase reservations, to bring in quotas for castes who have been excluded, to open up spaces in educational institutions and, significantly, to put pressure on private employers to enforce quotas.

No-one really questioned how those with ‘merit’ had actually acquired it – how privilege, class and education all help to build capability

These moves have met with furious protest all over the country. In Delhi, doctors from one of the leading institutes went on a prolonged strike and were soon joined by their colleagues in other parts of the country. Their grievance? That those without ‘merit’ would enter the medical profession and those – like themselves – who only had ‘merit’ and not quotas, to recommend them, would gradually be sidelined.

No-one really questioned how those with ‘merit’ had actually acquired it – how privilege, class and education all help to build capability. And that is the crux of the problem. India is one of a few countries that have tried to legislate affirmative action. A deeply hierarchical society divided by class and caste – and now on the fast track to modernity – the Indian State has worked hard to make the country more socially egalitarian. Affirmative action has worked well in some parts of the country: for example, in the South, where quotas have been in place for some time, the results are clearly positive. Other regions of the country have been more resistant, helped by the fact that often the ways in which quotas have been implemented have been both flawed and corrupt.

That doesn’t mean that they should be axed. Evidence of rampant discrimination is everywhere. A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that in the Indian media, more than 70 per cent of the top positions were dominated by high castes. Not a single dalit occupied such a position. The English-language media were kinder to women (who accounted for roughly 32 per cent of all journalists) than to dalits of whom there were virtually none. And people with physical disabilities have no presence at all.

Caste-based quotas are only part of the story. In 1992, the Government introduced a Constitutional Amendment setting up quotas – 33 per cent – for women in village and municipal elections. Amazingly, the move passed without major resistance. As a result, today there are over a million women in elected village and municipal posts. (A similar move at the national level has met with stout resistance.)

Prejudices against the ‘other’ are deeply embedded and difficult to dislodge. Arguments about ‘merit’ may be specious, but they have a powerful appeal. After 56 years of attempting to implement affirmative action, the road to an egalitarian society is becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate in India. Providing opportunities for the disadvantaged may seem the right thing to do. But it won’t happen until those with power and privilege are convinced that affirmative action is just. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

India is said to be the ‘new kid on the block’, the country everyone is watching. But if we continue to deny privilege to those our society discriminates against on the basis of caste or class or gender, we’ll have little to show to the world.

*Urvashi Butalia* is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.


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