Daipayan Halder

Shahrukh Khan and the secular media

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

Published on subalternstudies.com on Dec 15, 2008

Call me a fan, but Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan is fun to hear. Self-promotion apart, his views on ‘work is worship’ and ‘nobody is a minority in a new India’ make for good dinner-table debate. Shahrukh is vocal about many issues, often politically incorrect and most often provocative. This time though, after a few fidayeen attacked Mumbai, Shahrukh was uncharacteristically quiet. The media, and that includes the English language ’secular’ media as well, immediately put a question mark on his quietness and headlined him.

Timesofindia.com asked why Shahrukh hadn’t spoken out.  As contrast, Amitabh Bachchan was headlined saying he now sleeps with a gun under his pillow. A few other worthies also expressed their shock and anger in print and TV and expressed solidarity with Mumbaikars in this dark hour.

Within hours, the article on Shahrukh’s silence moved up to the ‘most read articles’ slot. Comments of readers below it made interesting reads. A gentleman wrote Shahrukh is uncaring about the misery of millions, but the gem was the next one: Shahrukh is anti-social and being a Muslim supports the dastardly attacks.

To be honest, I was waiting for someone to say it out loud. Every time, India is attacked, Indian Muslims are expected to swear by India. If they choose to remain silent, they are branded
anti-Indian.

Hindustan Times had a front-page story on December 6 on how muslims have become suspects all over again after 26/11. In a government school, the story said, a Muslim boy was called a Pakistani by his teacher after the terror attacks in Mumbai. The boy protested and the teacher was pulled up. But more such incidents were recorded.

Shahrukh, meanwhile, decided to speak out and appeared on CNN-IBN with his views on the two Islams, the Islam of Allah and the Islam of the Mullah and lamented how a few fanatics have misinterpreted the religion to suit their narrow ends.

“I’ve tried to keep away from commenting on this as there are no words to express a situation like this because our feelings are mixed with anger, disbelief and sadness. Being a Muslim myself, I believe youngsters need to understand Islam and respect the religion in the right way. I think no agenda should be attached to any kind of religion. The religion our children are born with should be something they practise as a discipline and work should be developed as the new religion,” he said .

Actor Saif Ali Khan also slammed terrorists for killing “innocent people” in the name of “God” or “religion” in an interview to the Times of India. “As an Indian and a Muslim, I feel like expressing my condemnation and outright disgust toward any party killing innocent people in the name of God, Allah or whatever we choose to call him.

“I am so worried that the whole religion (Islam) will be judged and condemned. There are strong communal feelings running through every strata of our society and I find it hard to defend the fact that there seems to be a Muslim hand behind every detonator. I feel a little scared as a Muslim now,” he said.

It’s nice of Shahrukh and Saif to speak their minds and condemn terror acts and the misinterpretation of Islam, but for the media and the masses to expect they do so every time a bomb is detonated in some part of the country is almost as bad as hinting that being Muslims they have sympathies for terrorists who wreck havoc in the name of Islam.

Insisting they publicly condemn militant Islam after every attack on India alienate them in much the same way that forcing them to stay in ghettos do.

The battle against terror should be a battle for the mind as well as Ronojoy Sen argues in the Times of India. It doesn’t necessarily help if you insist that a Shahrukh speak out to pacify the Hindu right. What the media should have highlighted instead, and it didn’t, was how Muslim clerics came out condemning terror. A gathering of some 6,000 Islamic clerics in Hyderabad endorsed a fatwa against terror issued by the influential Deoband seminary. Sen argues that the role of these clerics is crucial. If they interpret Islam as being patently against terror and violence, it is bound to have an effect on believers.

And at such times the media should highlight them and not the stars.

Shahrukh makes a good copy, a even better picture on the front page perhaps, but to thrust the mike at his face for a soundbite in times like these only reinforces stereotypes. And  that’s just what we stepped out to fight against.

Why the BJP can’t digest Arvind Adiga

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

Published on subalternstudies.com on Nov 5, 2008

When the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance lost the last elections in India, I was working with the Pioneer, a right-wing newspaper (some would say a BJP mouthpiece). The mood in the newsroom was gloomy as most senior journalists of the paper were staunch BJP supporters and the editor Chandan Mitra wrote a front page piece titled WHY? for the next day’s edition trying to make sense of the defeat. I don’t remember now what Chandan wrote, but in the days that followed newspaper columnists and television commentators concluded that one of the main reasons for the defeat was the BJP’s audacious Rs400 crore India Shining campaign.

While the BJP claimed that India is shining, in reality vast swathes of the country still lived in darkness. India shone, but only for a tiny percentage of the population.

For the vast majority, unemployment was growing, conditions in public hospitals were abysmal, government schools remained neglected, public transport was in shoddy state and the majority of Indian citizens didn’t have access to basic amenities like clean drinking water.

“Given these vast glaring inequities, how can one say India is shining?” asked Dipankar Gupta, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

More, castesim and communalism continued unabated in a country that sends unmanned rockets to moon. And Muslims and Dalits were raped and killed in the name of Hindu gods.

Between 2004 and now, India hasn’t changed much.

As the BJP prepares for another election, the party and its spokesmen it seems are still unmindful of this other India, the India Whining.

On October 26, in Pioneer, Kanchan Gupta wrote that this year’s Man Booker winner Arvind Adiga’s portrayal of India would be shocking to most Indians. Why? Because Adiga’s hero mocks the many Gods that the majority of Hindus in India worship. Because he is amoral, unscrupulous at times.

Coming from darkness, he dreamt of crossing over to the other India, the India Shining… and did, even if it made him a murderer and a thief to do so.

Because Balram, that’s the name of the guy, fought poverty, casteism, illiteracy and other hurdles to become a self-made entrepreneur…. and in the process, shed his morals and his faith.

A BJP man like Kanchan can’t be expected to be happy with such a hero. He would rather that people like Balaram kept worshipping the many gods that their religion had thrust upon them and remained where they were. That, after all, is the very basis of caste in India that the BJP so obviously endorses. People like Balram, coming as they do from the lower castes, are expected to accept their lot and stick to their traditional professions of menial labour. The Hindutva brigade would have it no other way. For them, a cow’s life is more precious than a Dalit’s. Some years ago a few Dalits were lynched near Delhi by suspected Sangh Parivar men for allegedly skinning a cow. So how dare a Balaram cross over from the darkness to the mainstream. How dare he make fun of Hindu gods, laugh about kissing their arses for getting a job done. How dare he challenge his destiny. For the upper caste BJP, a Balram Halwai, born to lower caste in a remote village should accept the social order that Manu endorsed, which said that the Brahmin came from the head of Vishnu and the Shudra (the Dalit) from his feet and that is where they should remain. Respect the 36,000,000 Hindu gods, accept caste, hate the Muslim, drink cow urine. That’s what the BJP tells you, not always in Delhi’s social dos, but everywhere in middle India, the very heart of Hindu conservatism. No wonder Kanchan isn’t amused with Adiga.

Read Kanchan Gupta’s article here:

http://www.dailypioneer.com/130590/Man-Booker-winner’s-’truth’-about-India-would-shock-Indians.html

“Reservations are an absolute necessity”

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

Published in DNA, Mumbai, on April 9, 2006

When the Indian Supreme Court upheld 27 per cent reservations for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in all central educational institutions last year, it led to a wave of protests from bourgeoisie students and the corporate world. The media, in a thoroughly misguided gesture, labelled it the “Rang De Basanti” effect, an allusion to the radical film and played up the middle class ideological fears of fall in professional standards. In an interview, Dalit intellectual Kancha Ilaiah argues against the merit bogey.

Do you support reservations?

I do. The Constitution has already been amended for the purpose. The opposition to the decision only exposes the casteist and racist mindset of those who are opposing it. Today or tomorrow, the government had to introduce reservation because that is what the Constitution says.

The IITs and IIMs are successful brands and have gained international recognition. If Mandal replaces merit, wouldn’t their brand equity suffer?

We should close down the IITs and the IIMs as they pander to the upper-caste economy of the country. Those who pass out from these institutes use their technical and managerial skills to earn dollars abroad. Are they using their skill sets to the benefit of the agro-based economy of the country? Tell me, with rising incomes of our B-school graduates are farmer suicide rates coming down? So what is the use of such education if it cannot be put to any use within the country or for the uplift of the majority of the population who live in villages?

But can this not lead to reverse discrimination? There is a lot of resentment for the quota candidates for what is often perceived as an unfair advantage that they have over others?

In the book, The Shape of the River, William G Bowen and Derek Curtis Bok argue for more racial diversity in the US’ student population. Today, because of affirmative action in the US, the entry of coloured people in the education, employment and political systems are being increasingly ensured and has benefited their society. There is no reverse discrimination there. In India, on the other hand, there is no democratic space for the SC, ST and OBCs. This move was long overdue.

But even the US policymakers are not in support of reservation. Can there not be any other form of affirmative action than caste-based reservations in jobs and educational institutions?

Reservation is absolutely essential. But there should also be other forms of affirmative action. Successive governments have failed to implement the constitutional promise of introducing free and compulsory education after independence. There should be mass English language primary schools for Dalits. There should also be reservation in the private sector. We will soon take to the streets to ensure that.

Finally, would the move benefit the OBC students themselves? There are examples galore of quota students dropping out of such schools of excellence as they cannot cope up with the pressure.

This is incorrect. When you say backward caste students are not good enough, you display a casteist bias. When I was the head of the political science department of Osmania University, a Dalit student had secured the highest marks.

Backward caste students are generally discriminated against in these premier institutes. Instead of providing them a leg-up, they are made to feel unwanted. Given a favourable condition and a fair chance, they can do as well as the others.

Why Dalits dump old gods

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

First published on subalternstudies.com on April 9, 2008 

Brand Dalit. Branded Dalit. The activist with a known cause is a pretentious and privileged animal. As far removed from ground reality as Madhyamgram is from Massachusetts. And then there is the faceless untouchable, who, is, was, will be, the damned – in the many villages of India Shining. Humiliated, humbled, raped, burned. Is there a way out? Reservations, you say? Proselytisation, they counter, is the answer. Is it?

Every year, on Buddha Jayanti, Dalits (a catch-all term for the country’s socially oppressed) reject their inherited faith and embrace Buddhism. Their Jesus, Ambedkar, had shown the way in October 1956. And every year, Brand Dalits (op-ed page hacks, khadi-adorned activists, seminar regulars and worthies such like who speak for Dalits) argue how it is an exercise in futility. That conversion to another faith brings about no discernable change in the way society treats Dalits. Whether you are a Buddhist Dalit, a Dalit Christian or a Dalit Muslim, you were, are, will remain a Dalit. They argue Dalits learnt the futility of conversions long before the advent of ‘foreign’ religions like Islam and Christianity. That those who converted to Buddhism to escape social ostracism, reconverted to Hinduism to avail of the benefits of becoming dwija (twice-born) through good karma in the present birth. Further, caste wheedles its way into other religions as well.

To such assumptions, Mohammad Saleem Adil, a 47-year-old lawyer based in Delhi, firmly disagrees. A decade-and-a-half ago, Adil was Satbir Jathav, a Dalit who had been enduring years of social discrimination. Then he decided to embrace Islam.

“There was a need to connect, to not be persecuted for being born an untouchable,” he says. “This was possible, I found out, in the same lifetime, but only by discarding Hinduism. I was an outcast all my life. Then, after converting, I felt like I finally belonged.”

Thousands of miles away, in the Burdwan district of West Bengal, primary schoolteacher Jyotirmoy Mondol embraced Buddhism around the same time. The 35-year-old’s reason: in a neighbouring shanty, a Chamar family was publicly beaten up by locals for allegedly skinning a live cow.

“Economically they were much below me,” he explains, “but socially we belonged to the same strata. I could not sleep for nights after that incident. The conversion was like a rebirth; I felt at peace with myself. The stigma of being a lowly-born was no more.”

All Dalit conversions, though, are not knee-jerk reactions to caste inequities or discrimination. Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad cites the example of the backward castes of Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu, who for seven long years discussed the issue of conversion before giving up on Hinduism.

“In 1981, to free themselves from untouchability and police harassment, 150 Dalit families from this village in Tirunelvelli district embraced Islam; Meenakshipuram became Rahmat Nagar,” he recalls. “With conversion came wealth and several of them got jobs in the Gulf counties.”

There are other instances. From being an entirely marginalised community of toddy tappers and coir weavers who were not allowed into upper-caste Hindu temples and whose women were supposed to leave their breasts uncovered, the Nadars of Tamil Nadu gained immense socio-economic mobility by embracing Christianity in big numbers in the late 18th century.

This was the community that would engender achievers such as the late Tamil Nadu chief minister K Kamaraj, the Amritraj brothers of tennis and Shiv Nadar, founder of the HCL group of companies.

The Branded Dalit will thus vehemently argue that yes there are inequalities in other religions as well, but not as stark as in Hinduism, and untouchability, the worst of human indignities, is definitely not followed in other religions. The fact is most Dalit converts today are happy with the new faith they have embraced. More, re-conversions to Hinduism are done mostly by coercion. Left to themselves, Dalits would remain Christians or Muslims because of the obvious benefits-either social, educational, financial or all of them, that most often come with it. The Brand Dalit will rave and rant. Conversion is an easy option. Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life, purge it of vices like untouchability. But that, the Branded Dalit will tell you is another story. Till then, there are other false Gods.

“We need a million mutinies now”

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

Varavara Rao was not an easy find. None of my contacts in Mumbai knew of his whereabouts. I heard he had gone underground and changed his cell phone number. When I finally got through to him, it was an unhurried, 20-minute chat. Rao has been the face of the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh for almost four decades now. A poet, a professor, and one of the finest Marxist critics in Telugu literature, he has served several jail terms in his political career beginning with the tribal struggle in the state in Srikakulam following the Naxalbari movement. He spoke on “state terrorism” and the status of Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh. An abridged, toned down version of this interview appeared in the paper. Here is the full text.

The state is coming down heavily not just on Naxalites but on Naxal sympathisers as well. Is it getting more intolerant than ever before?

It is. The State has become the biggest terrorist. But in Andhra Pradesh, more than in any other state, atrocities have been the worst. If you are a Naxalite, a Naxal sympathizer, an ideologue, or simply a civil rights activist, you can be put behind bars or killed in a fake encounter any time. In 1992, for example, journalist Gulam Rasul wrote about a land scam in an Urdu daily. An additional DSP killed him in a fake encounter and branded him a Naxalite. His friend who was traveling with him in a scooter was also killed. Doctors working for the underprivileged, lawyers taking up the causes of the marginalized are being put behind bars. Civil liberties are being curbed like never before. Laxmi, a women’s rights activist, was killed in a fake encounter in 2005. Since 1969, more than 2,000 people have been killed in fake encounters. And they call it a democracy!

But didn’t the previous Andhra Pradesh government want to negotiate with the Naxalites?

The peace talks between the government and the Naxalites broke down and the ban against them was re-imposed on August 17, 2005. This has led to the cadre to look for alternative operational zones in Orissa and Chhattisgarh. The repression started in the previous Telugu Desam regime and has been continued by the Congress government in pursuance of World Bank conditions. The police launched a crackdown on Maoists on January 6, 2005, when it became clear that there was no meeting ground between the state government and the outfit. Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy was interested in going ahead with the second round of talks, slated for November 16, 2004, with the CPI (Maoist) and the CPI-ML (Janashakti), but senior police officers advised him against it. He had even acknowledged that the talks were a good sign as they would help a section of the extremists join the mainstream.

Why did the talks fail?

Mainly because the government wanted Naxalites to lay down arms while carrying on their political programmes and propagating ideology. The Naxalites rejected this. Following a series of encounters, in which 10 naxalites were killed in a week, the CPI (Maoist) and CPI-ML (Janashakti) announced on January 16, 2005 that they were pulling out of the peace process, which was initiated following a ceasefire that both sides had agreed upon six months earlier.

What about the movement itself. Is it hard to get the youth interested in Naxalism? Post 1991, it is a different India, far more materialistic.

It is only the petty bourgeoisie youth who are taking to the market economy. The marginalized youth, i.e. the Muslims, the dalits and the tribals, are not swayed by the market forces because they can see that inequality is growing. They are still discriminated against, still kept out. They are attracted to the movement. Also, there is no campus culture today. You can get a degree through distance education without ever walking into a university campus. In a campus, there is scope for healthy political debates. There is scope to stoke the flame. That culture is dying. But my hope is the youth won’t be cut off from social realities for long.

The Centre has recognised Naxalism not just as a law and order issue, but also as a developmental issue. And it plans to address it as such.

These are academic talks. Manmohan Singh says it is a developmental issue, but he is also supporting SEZs. SEZs will displace people, take away their livelihoods. So the problems will persist. Look at what is happening at Nandigram, at Singur, at all other places. Simply saying developmental issues need to be addressed is not enough. They have to act.

Finally, what is the future of the movement?

The movement will continue. The forces of liberalization and globalization have widened the gab between the haves and the have-nots. This has to be redressed. Naxalism is the only answer.

“Wrong to say Naxals have no popular support”

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

I grew up hearing about Kanu Sanyal. An icon for those who dreamt of social change through armed struggle, Sanyal, along with leader Charu Majumdar and comrades-in-arms Jangal Santhal and Krishna Bhakta Paudial, had, nearly 40 years back, spearheaded the Naxal movement in Bengal. When the movement failed, Santhal died a broken man. Majumdar was ‘killed’ in police custody. Sanyal, 78, now lives a quiet life in Naxalbari, a sleepy hamlet in North Bengal, from where the movement had originated and spread like wild fire. I have interviewed him many times. Today, there are new torchbearers of the movement he started, but the aging comrade still breathes fire.

Q) 40 years back, the war cry of Naxalites was: “China’s chairman is our chairman.” China has changed. It is said China is communist politically and capitalist economically. So what powers today’s Naxal movement in India?
I accept that the slogan was completely incorrect. Why should we think of Mao Tse Tung as our chairman? It was coined by Charu Majumdar and voiced by the comrades. But that’s a minor issue. The problems that gave rise to the Naxal movement at that time were very real. There was a need to take up the cause of the landless farmers. There was a need for an agrarian revolution. Those problems persist. And that is what powers Naxalism. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots has only widened over the years. The forces of liberalization and globalization have made India’s poor poorer.  Naxalism addresses these issues. 

Q) In the late 60s, when the movement started, many students were taken up by the Naxal ideology. Today, their dream is to earn a crore a year, the new benchmark in corporate salary in India. Waging a class war is the last thing on their mind. How can you make a revolution succeed when the youth are totally disinterested?
After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a crisis in the Communist movement internationally. China also changed track. But the death knell of the Communist movement hasn’t been sounded yet. Look around you. Farmer suicide rates are going up, so-called developmental projects are displacing thousands, MNCs are destroying traditional livelihoods.
During the late 60s, college and university students from well-to-do families took to Naxalism. They sacrificed promising careers to pursue a dream. Today, the situation is much worse as there is more inequality. I am sure the youth will not remain cut off from reality for long and would want to change the way things are.

Q) In Naxal-related incidents in recent times, the rate of civilian casualty has gone up. This was something the movement in the 60s strictly tried to avoid. Why target innocent civilians?
There are two issues here. Firstly, if there is an armed struggle, there will be casualties, there will be blood. I definitely don’t approve the killing of innocents. But then sometimes innocent villagers get accidentally blown up by landmines that were put to annihilate class enemies. Or maybe they die in crossfire. That is unfortunate. Mindless violence, though, should be strictly avoided. There have been cases where Naxals have reportedly killed innocent villagers for turning against them. This is unpardonable.

Q) In South Chattisgarh and in other states, ordinary villagers are becoming special police officers. Villages were your strongholds. Today, even villagers are turning against you.
This is a disturbing trend. Because villages, truly, are our strongholds. If villagers are turning against the Naxals, it is a major cause of concern for the movement. There is a need to mobilise villagers, to show them the path, not antagonise them. Cases have been reported of villagers being tortured when they have refused to do join the movement. In this respect, I do not approve of today’s Naxals.

Q) In late 60s, Naxals had no training camps and used hand-made pistols, but captured popular imagination. Now, you have Kalashnikovs and proper co-ordination, but no popular support. Today, even Naxalbari, from where you started the movement, votes. Democracy has made a great comeback at a place where it had lost its moorings. Explain.
I don’t agree with this. It would be wrong to say that Naxals today have no popular support. Yes, at times they commit excesses, there may be individual cases of corruption also. But how can you say there is no popular support? The movement has spread far and wide. Surely, there must be support for the movement.

Q) Finally, looking back, would you agree you had dreamt an impossible dream?
The dream of establishing a people’s democracy in its true sense still remains.

How upper caste is your newspaper?

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

First published on subalternstudies.com on Feb 17, 2008

Kishore Budha, the moderator of the weblog subalternstudies.com, is not too fond of Indian journalists (Are the Brit counterparts any better?). We were chatting late into the night and I was telling him how senior editorial staff of a soon-to-be launched news channel were manhandled and forced to resign by the channel’s promoters.

Kishore said journalists needed their butts kicked to be reminded of their place in the world. I was shocked to hear this, and told him so. “Don’t forget, I was a journalist once,” he said. “But the mainstream media has become so insensitive to issues that matter that some body needed to give them a rude jolt.”

The rude jolt in this particular case came about as the high-profile editor of the channel in question fell out with its promoters. But what Kishore said got me thinking. As a newspaperman I have often felt what I do is an exercise in futility. A clerical job at best, as far removed from people’s issues as a Mandal is from Malabar Hill. Do we really care to dig what cookie-cutter corporate types rubbish as infra-dig?

Media watching by media professionals feels like incest. Left best to the perverse and the pretentious within the tribe. But some introspection reveals that Manu, the progenitor of the Aryan root race, is worshipped in the media as well. How you ask. Take the reservations issue.

Talk to any Dalit activist/pro-quota campaigner today. A common grouse would be that the media, especially the English language media, has exposed its upper caste bias. While reporting the government’s move to reserve 27 per cent seats for the OBCs in IITs, IIMs and central universities and the ensuing protests that followed in 2006, the media eschewed its dominant professional norm—impartiality.

There were interviews of agitating doctors, of Knowledge Commission members putting in their papers in protest, of sociologists and industry experts pointing out the impending loss of merit and the dumbing down of institutions of international standards. Point taken. But where was the contrarian view? What about the OBCs who were meant to be the beneficiaries of the move? Why wasn’t there a single story looking at the issue from their standpoint?

Before we trashed Mandal II, wasn’t there a need to examine whether Mandal I has really helped?

The argument in favour of reservations may be a seriously flawed one. Is it the best form of affirmative action? Perhaps it isn’t. Does it smack of political opportunism (a move by the Congress to regain control over its traditional vote bank)? Perhaps it does.

But the attitude of the protestors and the lop-sided stand the media had taken raises questions about whose representative the media is. Of the 900 million citizens who live in less than Rs90 a day or the privileged 200 million who are upset and angered at the apparent loss of merit.

Quota kills merit. Newspapers and television channels told you that. Has there been any attempt to look at Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala where mandatory quotas ranging from 69.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent have been in place since decades without social turbulence?

Does this mean engineers, doctors, MBAs from these states are of substandard quality (as has been asked by a lone columnist)? But what disturbed me personally the most was a lead headline in a leading newspaper. “Now, my mother says you can marry an OBC!” The lone OBC copy editor at my desk was so enraged when he read it that he seriously thought of quitting the media. “Whoever gave this headline and whoever passed it need to be sacked for perpetrating caste hatred,” he fumed. It was impotent rage. Nothing changed. Mainstream media continued its rant against reservations.

But that is just one issue. Surely the media can be forgiven for goofing up once. But what about the Khairlanji massacre: That sleepy village a stone’s throws away from Mumbai where the Bhootmanges ceased to be a family and turned into a statistic? Where Bhaiyalal Bhootmange’s wife and teenaged daughter were gang-raped and murdered on the instruction of the village headman as they were the only Dalit family in the village and had dared to defy the headman’s diktats. The media had initially relegated the story to the obscurity of an inside page. But as protests grew louder, it was accorded more column centimetres. But only for a while. Bhaiyalal Bhootmange hasn’t got justice yet. It appears he won’t, ever. And the media has got over him.

Like the way it has gotten over similar stories of atrocities on Dalits and continues to do so. Not a day passes without a Dalit being shown his place in society. For the media they are single column stories. Often not even that.

Would the media have been slightly more sensitive if it had a substantive representation of backward castes? Perhaps. But where are the Dalit journalists?

On November 16, 1996, columnist BN Uniyal published his “In Search Of a Dalit Journalist”, in a Delhi-based publication. Uniyal was confronted with a ’strange’ query from a foreign correspondent who wanted to meet a Dalit journalist. The latter wanted to seek the opinion of a Dalit journalist over the reported dispute between Kansi Ram and few journalists. Uniyal wanted to help his foreign counterpart, and thus begun his hunt for a Dalit journalist. He spoke to a number of editors, media personalities, social activists, but could not find one.

“Suddenly I realised that in all the 30 years I had worked as a journalist, I had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit; no, not one. And worse still, was the thought that during all those years it had never occurred to me that there was something so seriously amiss in the profession, something which I should have noticed as a journalist. In all these years I have travelled almost every district of the country in the company of numerous journalists and met hundreds of others in different in different cities and towns and yet do not remember having met any Dalit journalist,” he wrote.

In 2008, as I conduct a similar search, I also draw a blank. Among the prominent editors, executive editors, managing editors and news editors of English language dailies, there is not a single Dalit. Is there a blanket ban on hiring them? I have no idea. How do you know who’s a Dalit and who’s not in the first place, anyways? In the melting pot of our metros, where people from all regions flock in, it is often difficult to guess someone’s caste. Not that it is a worthwhile exercise anyways.

But if a qualified Dalit candidate were to apply to a mainline English daily, disclosing his caste, would he have been hired? Difficult to say. My Dalit activist friend Jyotirmoy Mondal once told me upper caste newspaper owners and editors would never hire a Dalit at a higher post in a newspaper. I have no data to support his view. But I have no data to oppose it also. Where are the Dalit journalists? Surely, there are enough Dalit youth qualified for a job in English newspapers. So why in my seven years in the profession have I not come across a single one?

Which brings us to the question: Can a Dalit only write on Dalits? An obvious parallel to this is the rise of Black media in the US. The Black media in the ’90s feverishly crusaded for causes. Not only were ther black journalists, but also Black newspaper owners. Their philosophy: what’s good for ‘our people’ is good for the paper. No one did it better than John Sengstacke and his Chigago Defender, the nation’s largest Black daily. This helped. Being part of the media, their voice was heard not only by their own people, but the world at large. It would have helped if there were also Dalit entrepreneurs launching newspapers to highlight Dalit issues. Then again, where are the Dalit entrepreneurs?

Being a Muslim in Mumbai

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 16, 2008

First published on subalternstudies.com on Feb 1, 2008

The last thing you would expect my colleague Rehan Ansari, foreign editor of the newspaper I work for, to be is a jihadi. I know he learns kickboxing, but I suspect it is more for upping his fitness levels than kicking a kafir’s butt. He’s well-mannered, well-read and as far as I am concerned, well-intentioned. We have chatted a couple of times near the office coffee-machine on how best to thrash out odd thoughts. By odd thoughts he meant subjects that are unpalatable to our publishers. Thoughts on naxalism, communalism, casteism and several such isms that are best left unwritten in our paper. Our readers don’t want to start their days with a negative thought after all!

Brief, but our conversations have always been interesting. He chided me more than once for neglecting my writing. This Rehan, the Rehan I just described, is a different Rehan from the one I met this Monday. The new Rehan, with eyes that betrayed hurt, disgust and anger in equal measure, told me he takes the cab from his rented apartment in Bandra to Lower Parel, where our office is located. I asked why. He said after the train blasts last year, the Mumbai police conduct random checks in local trains. It gets very uncomfortable if you happen to be a Muslim. Doubts are raised about your loyalty and if you are unlucky you may hear a snide or two about Pakistan being your rightful place. Rehan said he fears he might retaliate one day and hence he has decided to take the cab instead.

We were discussing Salman Rushdie’s Mumbai visit and his interview to NDTV where he said Mumbai is just like New York, a truly cosmopolitan city. “Has he ever travelled in local trains?” Rehan said. “If he had he wouldn’t be saying such things. He would know the Mumbai that exists is different from the Mumbai he fancies.”

My wife Insiya doesn’t bother herself with such existential dilemmas. But I remember when she moved in with me to my swanky, new flat in Thane, she had frowned. She had frowned because I told her she is the only Muslim in that entire complex (it has six apartment buildings and more are coming up). The promoters of my housing complex don’t sell flats to Muslims because “they mean trouble”. It is okay in a way to them if Insiya stays because having married a Hindu she is now in the Hindu fold. But she could not have bought the flat in her name. There are other Muslims in Thane, India’s largest district that is witnessing a real estate boom due its proximity to Mumbai, but they stay in ghettos. And from what I have seen and heard, it would be difficult for Insiya or any other Muslim to buy a flat in any of the big housing complexes that are coming up. She shrugs it off, saying: such things happen.

Such things, in fact, happen with unfailing regularity to Muslims in Mumbai, irrespective of their social standing. City tabloid Mumbai Mirror reported that Bollywood actors Shabana Azmi and Emraan Hashmi couldn’t buy apartments of their choice in the city because promoters wouldn’t sell to Muslims. Other papers have also carried stories on Muslims being forced to stay in ghettos in Mumbai. But my friend Adnan insisted that we journalists have a tendency of sensationalising things. “It’s not that bad, come on,” Adnan had told me. “There are jerks everywhere. You can’t dump a city because of them, can you?”

Adnan at that time was high on Mumbai. He had switched jobs, landed in Mumbai and rented a spacious two-bedroom apartment in Bandra. “Told you, journos invent stories. I got my flat in a jiffy.” “But Adnan, Bandra is unlike the rest of Mumbai. It is one of the very few truly cosmopolitan places. It’s got a sizable Muslim and Christian population, the corporator himself is a Muslim and the real estate prices are prohibitive. What about those Muslims who can’t afford Bandra? It’s either the ghetto or nowhere for them,” I had argued. “Deep, you guys cook up stories to sensationalise. Admit it, my friend,” he had chided me. My protests had fallen on deaf ears.

Adnan’s Mumbai honeymoon had lasted for a few months. During which time, he had got himself a promotion, a car and a girlfriend. Life was a breeze before he encountered a friendly, neighbourhood pandu (slang for a beat constable). It was Adnan’s fault to begin with. He had oversped on the eastern express highway and got caught by the constable. The man asked for his licence, when Adnan handed it to him, he sneered: Bhag kyun rahe the. Gaadi mein bomb hai kya? (Why were you running away? Have you hidden a bomb in your car?) “What do you mean?” Adnan had screamed. “Mian, aap log bahut tez bhaag rahe ho aaj kaal. Thoda sambhal jao” (Mian, you people are on the fast track these days. Better mend your ways.)

Adnan didn’t know what to say. To have a beat constable raise aspersions about his community in broad daylight in a city like Mumbai, his Mumbai, was unthinkable to him. “It felt surreal Deep. In the badlands of Bihar, yes; in Modi’s Gujarat most definitely; but to be told in middle of Mumbai that people of my faith will always be suspect was a rude jolt to me,” he told me later that day. Adnan had taken the day off, he was too dazed to concentrate on work, I had met him in the evening to buy him a drink and talk him out of his depression. It didn’t work. “You were so right Deep. So right,” he said.

I told him it’s a stray incident and he should put it behind him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that what happened to him is far less shocking than what was reported in Mumbai Mirror on July 17, 2006.

Correspondent Aditi Sharma had met a certain Hamid Pir Mohammed Ghojaria, who was yet to recover from his shock even a week after he was assaulted. Ghojaria (39) was attacked on a running train between Marine Lines and Churchgate railway stations for no fault of his. On that day, the Jogeshwari resident had gone to Marine Lines to submit his son’s college admission forms at Ismail Yusuf Trust. After completing the formalities, he decided to visit his brother-in-law who owns a watch shop near Churchgate. Around 5.15 pm, he went to Marine Lines railway station to catch a Churchgate-bound local. “As soon as I entered the train, I saw some commuters beating up a Pathani-clad man. Even before I could realise what was happening, two of the commuters saw me and started hitting me as well. They just kept saying ‘get out of this country, go back to Pakistan, you do not belong here, you are the ones responsible for the blasts in the city’,” says a shocked Ghojaria.

The watch repair mechanic was all the more stunned when he was asked to take the name of Lord Ram and Lord Krishna. “When they started hitting me, I screamed ‘Allah’. That’s when they told me to call out to Ram and Krishna instead. They said they wouldn’t let go of me if I did not chant the names,” alleges Ghojaria, adding that the mob even pulled his beard. The abuse stopped only when the train reached Churchgate terminal. “Nobody came forward to help me. I felt utterly helpless throughout. When the train came to a halt at Churchgate, all the commuters, including the attackers, simply walked away,” adds Ghojaria. After alighting from the train, he reported the matter to the police at the station, who first sent him to GT Hospital for a checkup and later registered a case under Sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 325 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) and 34 (common intent) of the Indian Penal Code against unknown persons in Ghojaria’s case. “Investigations are on, we should be able to locate the men soon,” Deepak Bagwe, senior inspector, railway police, Churchgate told Mumbai Mirror. Nothing happened.

I couldn’t narrate this incident to Adnan. I didn’t have the heart. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my friend Atif’s grandparents have been living in Mumbai for six decades now. They have never wanted to live anywhere else. But in the last three decades, they have gradually withdrawn into a shell. There is a Shiv Sena sakha in front of their house. Every day when they pass it, they shudder. They shudder as they remember how their next door neighbour was cut to pieces in the 1993 Mumbai riots and his wife and teenaged daughter gang-raped. They shudder because they see those men sometimes on the streets, walking tall and walking free.

I didn’t remind Adnan that between December 1992 and January 1993, the city set a record for itself in the matter of communal madness. In the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, more than a thousand people were killed. Unlike previous riots, violence spread to relatively new urbanised areas. Violence affected not only slums but also apartment blocks and chawls. What was common to all the areas was the systematic targeting of Muslims, who comprised 17 per cent of the city’s population.

The relief work that followed the riots helped members of the Muslim community resume their everyday lives. However, although successive governments promised to do away with communal forces and civic organisations worked towards communal amity, stray communal incidents still occur in Mumbai. “Mumbai changed after 1993″ is a common refrain of long-time residents.

I didn’t need to. The encounter with the Pandu broke Adnan. He had a long-standing offer from an Ahmedabad-based company. He had refused to consider it earlier. “That city gives me the jitters man. After what Narendra Modi did, you can’t stay in the city,” he had said. He has decided to take it now.

On the nature of fear, Jodie Foster’s character says in The Brave One: “It’s not like anyone has gassed the subway. And yet now we have this ongoing fear that pretty much sits on top of you every minute. So it’s the fear in some ways that’s the bad thing. It feeds on people. It turns people against people.” If you are a Muslim in Mumbai, chances are you might feel the same way.

Modi, my maid, and a few home truths

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 16, 2008

First published on subalternstudies.com and asianwindow.wordpress.com on Jan 28, 2008

My maid is a Modi fan. She is a Maharashtrian, a Dalit (she told me so, I had no way of knowing) and an avid Muslim hater (I knew this morning). She had gone to hear Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi (the same man who had been variously called the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’ and a ‘mass murderer’ for his alleged support to post-Godhra Hindu rioters) rave about his third consecutive Gujarat victory and rant against Muslim anti-socials who need to be shown their place at Shivaji Park the Sunday before last Sunday. She came back convinced. “Them, Mollahs need a thrash or two from time to time,” she told me while mopping the floor, “and Modi will ensure that”.

“What have you got against Muslims?” I ask, hiding my shock behind a smile. “They are all wrong,” is all she offers. A few hours later at the morning edit meet, I broach the topic. “These people are the worst fanatics,” said Shark Tooth. “Why do you dig so infra-dig? No fun in reporting the under-class,” said the Kicker King. “Did you check the alliteration in The Telegraph’s lead headline?” “Times had a great lay-out today,” offered the Quark Queen. Modi and the maid got buried in mainstream mayhem.

But the mind wandered. Why would a Dalit woman fancy a Hindutva alpha-male? Why would a Dalit hate a Muslim? Subalterns both, in the Indian context, victims of a Brahminical social order; why would they be on opposite sides? In his Husband of a fanatic, Amitava Kumar wrote on the origin of such hate. In a sleepy village in rural Bihar, Kumar and his neighbour were playing in the garden when they spotted a lizard on the wall. The friend picked up a stone and took aim. “Why kill a harmless lizard?” Kumar asked. “It’s a Muslim. My dadi told me they morph into lizards for their crime.” Years later, while writing his seminal book on the Hindu-Muslim divide, Kumar recalled the incident. How hate is passed on from one generation to the other, to unsuspecting and impressionable minds. And, fault-lines widen.

I don’t know whether Kumar’s young friend was a Dalit. But an interesting aspect of the caste and communal faultline is that there is no unity among the deprived. Dalits hate Muslims and higher dalits hate lower dalits (there is a hierarchy among the dalits also, with manual scavengers being among the lowest of the low). I can’t fathom the reason for this. Shouldn’t Dalits be sympathetic towards Muslims in India, considering many Dalits embraced Islam and indeed other faiths to escape the curse of caste? Many Muslims in India are in fact lower-caste Hindus who had converted. It is ironic then that when Babri Masjid was demolished, the kar sevaks who listened to the brahminical top order of the right-wing BJP and brought down the controversial masjid, were lower-caste Hindus. In a sense, the BJP had succeeded in uniting brother against brother.

Dalit icon BR Ambedkar had written about Dalit-Muslim unity, while that is a far cry, Dalits continue to hate Muslims and vote for upper caste Hindu right-wing parties. The once mercurial Namdeo Dhasal, who had founded the Dalit Panthers movement in Maharashtra in 1972 to unite Dalit youth against social and economic oppression, has now joined the right-wing, Muslim-bashing Shiv Sena. Many Dalit intellectuals see this as an act of supreme betrayal.

Dalit Panthers after all had come up as one of the most promising organisation for dalit rights and their path was that of alliance with the other oppressed sections of society. They broadened the definition of dalits to include workers, minorities, adivasis and women. This indicated the line of alliance to be followed. This last concerted effort fell to pieces with different leaders of dalit movement getting co-opted by one or the other political power or personality.

In What More Than This Can Be, Dhasal wrote:

I am a common man of this contemporary history
I have put down the head guard out of self-humility
I wish to embrace deeply my innermost being
That will end up the essence,
Do not shed the innocent skin of this grammar
After all this heinous world belongs to human beings
Power is not in words but in the desire
This fever-stricken, exaggerated pretension
Will bother the deep relations
Clear away the self-chosen inhuman path
Seasons come and go
Who are you waiting for?

But that was then. Dhasal today belongs to the same party that targets Muslims in Mumbai since their very formation.

It serves the Hindu right-wing well that that they can co-opt Dalits (from the under-class to which my maid belongs) to intellectuals (Dhasal). And as long, Dalits join hands with upper castes to fight Muslims,. the brahminical social order and the caste hierarchy it endorses will be alive and kicking. Now who will explain this to my maid!

Caste away in Bengal

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 15, 2008

Most of those familiar with Kolkata —-and the bhadralok ethos it celebrates —- will tell you that in this city, atrocities based on caste bias are but stray incidents. Any display of caste discrimination is generally scoffed at and three decades of Left rule have, among other things, done away with the twin evils of class and caste. People’s Democracy, the CPI(M) mouthpiece, informs with unfailing regularity of the communists’ success in providing succor in Bengal to the socially marginalised.

Don’t fall for that. On the surface, yes, it is different in Bengal. There is no Ranvir Sena to maim, kill, rape and burn the Dalit populace. Dark-skinned cows are not rejected because they may belong to lower castes, or white-skinned ones venerated as Aryan symbols. Caste politics hasn’t reared its ugly head to the extent it has in some other states, notably in the BIMARU ones.

The atrocities and inequalities in the rule of the Left Front are different. Urban Bengal has always had a tradition of ‘unorthodoxy’. So caste discrimination does not always assume epidemic proportions. But that has not put a stop to the caste crimes here. It’s another matter that they mostly go unreported. Truth be told, the government of the proletariat has been guilty not only of criminal negligence to the Dalit cause, but of atrocities against them as well.

Flashback to the late Seventies: an about-to-retire head of the Sanskrit department of a reputed university in Kolkata reacted strongly against an application for a lecturer’s post in his department. Reason: the applicant was a namashudra (a scheduled caste). Surely a shudra can’t be allowed to teach Sanskrit in a university, the professor fumed. Reservation for SC/STs and OBCs was still a distant dream. The candidate a first-class degree holder had applied purely on the basis of merit. The professor, a Left ideologue, garnered tacit political support to scrap the application. No reason was cited for the refusal.

All that the applicant got to know was that ‘a more deserving candidate’ has been selected.

The Morichjhapi carnage in 1979, for instance, is a classic example of the Left Front’s caste bias. The incident that forms the backdrop of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide saw the forcible eviction of around 10,000 settlers (mostly lower-caste Hindu refugees from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) from Morichjhapi, an island on the south of Kumarimari in Suderbans. Around 6,000 huts were set on fire, plainclothes policemen opened fire in which many hapless refugees were killed. The Left Front government was then in power.

But what was it that prompted the Left to displace a people who had started new lives in an uninhabited island? The official explanation was that Morichjhapi was a reserved forest area. Reports state that Janata Dal MPs, who visited the region in 1979, said that there never was any reserved forest in that region. What then was the real cause of the carnage?

According to journalist Niranjan Haldar, who extensively reported and researched the carnage, the refusal of the Udbastu Unnayansil Samity, an association of refugees, to merge with the CPI(M) led to their eviction. Moreover (and this is the version of the inhabitants of Kumarimari), the inhabitants of Morichjhapi were all namashudras. Would things have been different if they belonged to the upper castes?

In November 2004, students in a primary school in Birbhanpur village in West Bengal’s Bankura district refused to accept mid-day meals. Reason: the cook was a baghdi woman, an untouchable. With op-ed hacks from Kolkata newsrooms crying ‘Disgrace’, politburo member Biman Bose issued a statement” The matter has to be resolved through detailed discussions.” When a similar incident took place in Purulia district’s Dumuradi village around the same time, a quick solution was offered by the village education committee: hire another cook, an upper caste this time.

More recently, the Howrah Municipality Corporation evicted several hundred Dalit families, mostly from the Balmiki community, from Belilius Park, Howrah. These families are mostly engaged as safai karmacharis (sanitation workers) with the corporation. Citing environmental degradation, and without providing any alternative, the government razed their houses and it was reported that the police even took away their belongings.

After the mid-day meal incident last year, Anandabazar Patrika ran a series on the plight of Dalits in Bengal villages (panchayats in most of these are under direct Left control). The findings are alarming. In village after village, the survey finds that Dalit families are marginalized; Dalit children are made to occupy separate seats in schools and are denied access to libraries and other facilities.

So while comrades Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury prodly declares in Delhi, “Where ever the Red flag flies, we will destroy untouchability”, the dalits live a life of shame and suffering in West Bengal’s villages.