Daipayan Halder

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.