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December 15, 2012

Facebook Fears: Is Government of India Out on Virtual Patrol?

[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS Voice 01-15 December.

Also Published in the Kashmir Monitor]

The opportunity, officers at Palghar police station must have thought, was godsend. It could have very well been as it did come out of a rather public sickness, not just literally I would add, and the subsequent death of ‘their’ leader Bal Thackeray.

Their leader he was. Thackeray was the one they owed their primary allegiance to, despite all the oaths they had taken in the name of the Indian constitution. He was the living source of law for them and they carried out his diktats even if they stood in straight opposition to values like secularism which stood as the only defense of the idea of Indian constitution. He was the one they revered irrespective of the fact that he had the dubious distinction of being the only politician of the country who was disenfranchised by the High Court for hate speech. He was the one whose orders they carried out during the notorious Bombay riots that erupted after the demolition of the Babri mosque as against their constitutional obligation of protecting the hapless citizens being hounded by the murderous mercenaries holding his brief. 

He was not the only leader, though, whom they revered. They had always held Janab Mohtaram Dawood Ibrahim, the significant and equal other of Thackeray in equally high esteem. The officers, in this sense, were the chosen children of destiny. Who else, after all, could be fortunate and flexible enough to hold two different briefs simultaneously, that too of self-appointed sworn enemies on top of that? Who else, on the face of mother earth, got paid by the government they did never serve? Who else, on the face of mother earth, can get paid by the Mafioso and yet bump of the members of one for getting a few more coins from the rival one and yet be in business?

Yet, they were not a happy lot. They were ridiculed by the masses for their inefficiencies. They were reviled by the same for their corruption. They were feared by the commoners for their high handedness coupled with their miraculous capacities of extracting a confession of being a rabbit from a lion in their custody. These commoners, incidentally, were never helped by the scores of self-designated protectors loitering and masquerading around as duplicate Gandhi’s in the same state. They had to eke out their own ways of survival for these self-appointed champions had a thousand other causes, much more important to them, to take care of. The fact that these causes ranged from such magnanimous ones as attacking a reality show for hosting participants from Pakistan, a country they hated enough to be able to suspend all the struggles against much more mundane causes that troubled people in their state is beside the point. The last of these ‘great’ causes was lobbying for the public hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist caught alive in the infamous and murderous assault launched by the Pakistan based Islamic fanatics. The fact that this cause was found by none other than Anna Hazare a misogynist casteist who claims to be an ardent follower of Gandhi and his philosophy is, again, beside the point.

Coming back to the point, the commoners had no love lost for the officers, not for the ones in Palghar police station, not for ones in scores of others in police stations scattered across not only the state but the whole country. Mere mention of the police disgusted them. The officers knew this and needed an urgent and immediate makeover of their image. They must had been terribly happy with the death of Balasaheb, as they used to refer to the once convicted politician who had created sort of a record of losing elections and getting rejected by the people ever after that conviction. No no, please do not get me wrong. Their happiness lay not in the death itself, for I am sure that would have caused great and even personal pain for many of them. It lay in the opportunity it gave them to make one more attempt at that image makeover they never had. Aah Balasaheb, they must have thought, how would we ever be able to repay all that you have done for us. You have helped us in your life and now even in your death.

The opportunity, befittingly for the era of information technology revolution, has come in the form of a Facebook post, an innocuous one in fact, from a young girl. She was disgusted with the palpable tension the sickness of Thackeray had created and the fears of violence that came as a corollary of it. She was angry with the fact that all this was happening over a sickness, and a death, that was a product of the natural wear and tear of old age. She was upset that all this was happening in a country that styled itself as a sovereign, socialist and secular republic. She was not alone in her pain. Her feelings were shared by millions of other Indians who have hated Thackeray for his divisive politics almost as equally as they hated Dawood Ibrahim(s).

Far from being disrespectful to Thackeray, she in fact was much more guarded than these netizens who were openly expressing their anguish over Thackeray dying a natural death in his house instead of breathing in a jail where, they thought, he really belonged to. She had started her comment with a caveat ‘with due respect’ and then asked the question she was so fully entitled to ask. The question was equally innocuous; that why should a city, or a state, shut down on the natural death of a politician?

The Palghar police would have none of it. All they needed was a complaint that duly came from a Shivsena activist who, for reasons known best to him only, entrusted himself to keep a tab on Facebook comments to express his grief for his leader. The police responded to the complaint with much more swiftness than they had ever shown even to a full-fledged terrorist attack. They descended, in no time, on the house of not only the girl who had posted the comment but also the lone one that had the misfortune of liking it and herded them to the police station. They held them under custody for more than 14 hours and, believe it if you can, even managed to have a judge that would give the girls judicial remand for two weeks for ‘hurting religious sentiments’ and ‘hate speech’ among other charges. Two weeks judicial remand for a Facebook comment! The future of justice in India is in rather safe hands it seems.

The arrest coming on the heels of arrest of a cartoonist Aseem Trivedi(with a rather poor sense of cartoons I must admit) under the charges of sedition, of course, incensed the whole nation resulting in the withdrawal of not only the charges but also suspension of the police officers responsible. It does not answer any question though. The questions whose answers provide the hinge on which hangs the fate and future of Indian nation. These would be the answers that would decide if we are going to survive as a democracy or not.

The first of them would be that of vendetta, call it vigilante if you want, filing of criminal charges against Indian citizens. How do such complaints which would not survive even the preliminary scrutiny end up as First Information Reports capable enough to force the victims to make rounds of the courts for years? The second question would be that where do those judges come from who give these victims judicial and police remands and whose brief they hold? Evidently, the action on the police officers capable of shaming Scotland Yard in such cases while running for their lives when faced with any real threat is welcome but not enough. Equally important is to identify and punish such judges who encourage these policemen, corrupt and inefficient in equal measures, for ensuring the survival of our democracy.

Much more important than all this, though, is the question why such charges are never filed against the real culprits , like now gone thankfully for the countless Indian citizens believing in the idea of India, and Raj Thackerays? We need the answers, and we need them now. Till we get the answers, we can sympathise, and even empathise if we are the always-ready-to-be-hurt-by-free-speech types, with the police officers for another botched attempt at improving their image.

December 06, 2012

Of Gadkari’s Girth: And every other thing from the stinking underbelly of RSS

[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS Voice, November 01- 15, 2012]

Nitin Gadkari's girth was grotesque. So grotesque, that the only way
he could get rid of that was by undergoing a bariatric surgery at Saifee Hospital. His decision, I am sure, must have infuriated many of his colleagues in the Bhartiya Janta Party; the party to whose presidency he was catapulted to by the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh.

It must have incensed Narendra Modi in particular. No, not in the least as the continuation of Modi’s disgust for Gadakri’s continued patronage of Sanjay Joshi. For those with short memories, Joshi was once a close and equal colleague of Narendra Modi and whom Modi allegedly got to act in, or get his face morphed in, in a sleazy and unclear sex tape widely perceived to be produced by the Modi’s trusted lieutenants.  Some believe, in fact, that whatever the source of Modi’s indignation for ‘opposite’ is; his revulsion for ‘equal’ emanates from the fact that Joshi was equal to him, once.

He must be terribly upset with Gadkari’s decision. No, not for the decision of getting rid of his girth, Not in the least. What must have got Modi, the development-by-demolishing-a- community mascot of his party, is the hospital Gadkari chose for going under the knife. The President of a Hindutva outfit getting operated upon in Saifee Hospital, what betrayal goes worse than that?  Saifee Hospital, Mr. Modi must have thought, his face contorted with the pain of uttering the word from the language native to his enemies, the enemies he has so painstaking invented.

No, this article is not about Modi though I can sense the undercurrent of happiness flooding his camp. Anyone can, in fact. This one is about Gadkari, that imposing figure, literally, from Maharashtra who turned out to be the biggest gatecrasher of Indian politics.  He must be a worried man, a very worried one in fact. And then, it is not about his girth this time. He must be thinking, in fact, if there possibly was a surgery to get rid of perceptibly true allegations of financial irregularities as well.

He runs, or has run if one should believe him, a company called the Purti Power and Sugar Ltd. that had his drivers as its directors with the poor driver being, of course, not so blissfully unaware of the fortune he owned. Not content, perhaps, with his egalitarianism of making the drivers the directors, sharing space with them in the Board of directors were peons and a liftman, a solitary liftman. Understandable, for any high-rise has many apartments but often a single liftman, thus explaining the presence of a single liftman among drivers and peons.  

Quite an honest practice, a classless one on top of that. In Gadkari’s scheme of things the lenders and the borrowers are one and the same. The  directors, even more interestingly, could be one and same as Gadkari himself and their addresses  are one and the same with Gadkari’s. Gadakri’s scheme of things must be different from others. He, after all, is the president of the Party with a difference.

It is just that, anyone is easily dispensable for his party and its non-political minder called RSS. That was the lesson learnt by Bangaru Laxman, perhaps the only former president of a national party who got convicted in a corruption case, at his own cost. Or perhaps, only he was. As were others like Uma Bharati and Kalyan Singh. All from the communities which has been condemned to the fringes of Hindutva by their Brahminical priesthood for more than two millennia.

And here was Gadkari, right next to Mohan Bhagwat telling his audience through his Dussehara speech that corruption is really ‘bad’ and then deciding, perhaps, that it is not RSS but only BJP who should talk about Gadkari’s involvement in the alleged scams. How could he? Gadkari is not merely a product of the RSS but also a benefactor of the same. Did not he get his public works department ministry (PWD) construct new buildings in the Reshmibagh premises of the RSS? What if the project, allegedly, involved a nexus of corrupt contractors? Did he not open the PWD up, over and above all this, to an altogether new meaning of public works benefiting the RSS? 

But no, he is not indispensable for doing these small bits in the great cause of Hindutva. He is indispensable because he does not come from the same social groups Kalyan Singhs and Uma Bharatis came from. He is a Brahmin, a Chitpavan Brahmin on top of that. Who in his senses can even think of RSS showing the door to a chitpavan, its very lifeline? What if the regional satraps of the party were all aghast at losing their most important weapon against the Congress led United Progressive Alliances’ indulgence in a thousand cases of corruption?

What if they were seeing, with dismay, the president himself puncturing the balloon of their struggle against corruption? What if their president has inflicted a self goal on his own team? What if it has come hot on the heels of the embarrassment of having one of their biggest assets, the one who had led BJP’s charge into the Deep South and won that final frontier for it, Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa  (BSY) being shown the door for being neckdeep in corruption?

But then, the doors marked for unceremonious exits in the RSS camp are all reserved for, again, the OBCs and the Dalits, cannon fodder for the Hindutva zealots. A chitpavan cannot be expected to take the same, and polluted, route to oblivion. Had Acharya Giriraj Kishore not made that clear for once and all by declaring the lives of cows to be much more important than that of Dalits? The lives, and prestige, of Brahmins being much more important than that is a simple corollary of the fact, is not it?

Then this Brahmin is not an ordinary one. He is one rather good at liaison and counted Sharad Pawar, chief political enemy of RSS backed Shiv Sena BJP alliance in Maharashtra at one hand and alleged to be one of the most corrupt politicians by the likes of second-Gandhi-third-JP-and-fourth-what-not Anna Hazare on the other, as his friend. He has the guts of openly admitting that they help each other in that famous sentence –wo char kam hamara karte hain ham char kam unka karte hain. There was nothing surprising in it for Gadkari has always been known for not only thinking the impossible but also achieving to do it and often having the egg on his face in the process.

Remember his almost miraculous feat of inducting Babu Singh Kushwaha who was thrown out of Bahujan Samaj Party by its supremo Bahan Mayawati in BJP. He had achieved the feat in the face of his party’s (supposed to be) campaign against massive corruption in the implementation of National Rural Health Mission in Uttar Pradesh, a work that came under Kushwaha’s ministry. No wonders then, that but for L. K. Advani, himself a RSS reject, and Sushma Swaraj, all whose actions are more against Narendra Modi ascendance, not a single leader of repute in the party stood up in defense of Gadkari.

Gadkari, though, seems to play defiant. He knows that he was never a choice of the party. He was rather inflicted on it by the RSS. He was let loose on it to control the infights for the post of the PM designate in a party in opposition for almost a decade and show them all who is the boss. And being the RSS’ choice, he is beyond all rules of the game as it has always been in the RSS’ scheme of things. 

November 27, 2012

ओबामा की जीत दरअसल रिपब्लिकन रुढ़िवाद की हार हैं.

जिस मुल्क का सैन्य बजट बाकी की पूरी दुनिया के सैन्य बजट के लगभग आधे के बराबर हो, जिसकी सेना कम से कम 46 देशों में फैले 900 से ज्यादा सैन्य केन्द्रों में सक्रिय रूप से उपस्थित हो और जिसका घोषित लक्ष्य सारी दुनिया का ‘फुल स्पेक्ट्रम डोमिनेन्स’ हो, उसके राष्ट्रपति के चुनाव में बाकी सारी दुनिया की दिलचस्पी स्वाभाविक ही है. यह भी की उसका एक बड़ा हिस्सा आक्रामक तेवर वाले रिपब्लिकन मिट रोमनी के ऊपर डेमोक्रेट बराक हुसैन ओबामा के दुबारा राष्ट्रपति चुने जाने पर राहत की सांस ले. पर फिर, सवाल यह है की ओबामा की इस जीत के निहितार्थ क्या हैं?
यही वह सवाल है जिसका जवाब वह परतें खोलता है जो अमेरिकी राष्ट्रपति चुनाव को अद्भुत अंतर्विरोधों का सामंजस्य बनाता है. पहला यह कि अमेरिकी चुनाव अपने मूल चरित्र में एक नहीं बल्कि दो बिलकुल अलग अलग चुनाव है और दो बिलकुल अलग जगहों पर लड़ा जाता है. इनमे से पहला मोर्चा है अमेरिका की विदेश नीति और उस पर अमेरिकी चुनावों का प्रभाव. इसका दूसरा मोर्चा उनकी अपनी सीमाओं के अन्दर खुलता है और चुनाव के बाद आने वाले नीतिगत परिवर्तनों का आम अमेरिकी नागरिकों पर प्रभाव इस मोर्चे का सबसे जरूरी सवाल होता है. दूसरा अंतर्विरोध यह भी है कि इन दोनों मोर्चों की अंतर्सबंधीय परस्परता का एक बहुत छोटा सा हिस्सा छोड़ दें तो इनका आपस में कोई रिश्ता नहीं होता.

पहले मोर्चे को ध्यान से देखें तो अमेरिकी राष्ट्रपति चुनावों में में किसी भी पार्टी या व्यक्ति की जीत अमेरिका की विदेश नीति और उससे गहरे रूप से जुडी सैन्य नीति पर कोई ख़ास प्रभाव नहीं डालती. हकीकत यह है कि अमेरिकी विदेश नीति और उससे जुड़ी घरेलू नीतियाँ दशकों पहले से वहाँ के राजनैतिक नेतृत्व के हाथ से निकल कर सैन्य-औद्योगिक संकुल ( मिलिटरी इंडस्ट्रियल काम्प्लेक्स) के नाम से जाने जाने वाले उस हित समूह के पास चली गयी हैं जिसके कुप्रभावों के बारे में अमेरिका के पूर्व राष्ट्रपति ड्वाइट डी आइजनहावर ने 1961 में अपना पद छोड़ते हुए ही आगाह कर दिया था. आइजनहावर की चिंता और चेतावनी दोनों साफ़ थी कि अगर इसके प्रभाव को रोका या कम से कम संतुलित नही किया गया तो अमेरिकी नीतियाँ सिर्फ और सिर्फ इसी संकुल के प्रभाव में बनेंगी और चलेंगी.

तब से अब तक के पांच दशकों में यह चेतावनी लगभग सभी अर्थों में इस हद तक सही साबित हुई है कि रिपब्लिकन और डेमोक्रेटिक पार्टी के बाद सेना को अमेरिकी राजनीति का तीसरा खम्भा माना जाने  लगा है. राजनीति में सेना की स्थिति का अंदाजा इस बात से भी लगाया जा सकता है कि परिवर्तन की, असैन्यीकरण न सही कम से कम अपने जवानों को घर वापस लाने की राजनीति करने वाले ओबामा को भी अमेरिकी हितों की रक्षा के लिए ‘बहुत मजबूत’ सेना रखने की जरूरत पर बल देना पड़ता है. 

मतलब साफ़ है कि निकट भविष्य में विदेशी जमीनों पर मौजूद अमेरिकी सैनिकों के बैरकों में लौट जाने के ख्वाब देखने वाले वास्तविकता से उतनी ही दूर हैं जितना अरब बसंत के बाद तमाम अरब देशों में लोकतंत्र आ जाने की ख्वाहिश वाले लोग थे. हाँ, ओबामा की जीत इस मायने में महत्वपूर्ण जरूर है कि अब ईरान और उत्तर कोरिया जैसे देशों में संयुक्त राष्ट्र संघ को धता बताते हुए अमेरिकी दखल का खतरा जरूर कम हो गया है और इस मामले में भी की पाकिस्तान जैसे देशों में जहाँ अमेरिका गैर-राज्य शत्रुओं से छाया युद्द में उलझा हुआ है वहां स्थिति और गंभीर नहीं होगी. आखिरकार ड्रोन हमले लोकतंत्र के हित में हों या न हों, ओबामा के पूर्ववर्ती रिपब्लिकन राष्ट्रपति जार्ज बुश जूनियर की कारपेट बोम्बिंग से कम हिंसक तो हैं ही.

यह अमेरिकी चुनाव का दूसरा, घरेलू मोर्चा है जिस पर एक तरफ लगातार गहराती आर्थिक मंदी के कुप्रभावों से जूझ रहे वंचित अमेरिकियों और दूसरी तरफ अस्मितागत पहचानों जैसे अश्वेत, हिस्पैनिक, समलिंगी, अकेली या बिनब्याही माओं का तबका है जिसके लिए ओबामा की जीत बड़ी राहत बन कर आयी है.  इनमे से पहला तबका वह है जिसके लिए रिपब्लिकन पार्टी और उसके लिबर्टेरीअन (इच्छास्वातंत्र्यवादी) खेमे का प्रतिनिधित्व करने वाले मिट रोमनी की जीत उनके ताबूतों में आखिरी कील साबित हो सकती थी. आर्थिक मंदी के फलस्वरूप बड़े स्तर पर अपने कर्जे के घर खो चुके इस तबके के लिए लगातार मंहगी और पंहुच के बाहर होती जा रही बुनियादी सेवाओं को बचाना सबसे बड़ी लड़ाई थी. और वे साफ़ देख पा रहे थे की सभी, ख़ास तौर पर गरीब, अमेरिकियों को सस्ती और सुनिश्चित स्वास्थ्य सेवाएँ उपलब्ध कराने के उद्देश्य वाली ओबामा की महत्वाकांक्षी ‘रोगी सुरक्षा एवं वहनयोग्य देखभाल (पेशेंट प्रोटेक्शन एंड अफोर्डेबल केयर एक्ट) और चिकत्सकीय देखभाल एवं शिक्षा सामंजस्य एक्ट (हेल्थ केयर एंड एजुकेशन रिकोंसिलियेशन एक्ट) अमेरिकियों की सामाजिक सुरक्षा के स्वास्थ्य पहलू को सुनिश्चित करने में बड़ी भूमिका निभा सकती है.

इन कानूनों का सबसे महत्वपूर्ण पहलू यह था की इनके लागू होने के बाद बीमा कम्पनियां बीमारियों की दृष्टि से उच्च-जोखिम माने जाने वाले समूहों को न तो बीमा देने से इनकार कर सकती थीं न ही वे इनसे अतिरिक्त प्रीमियम उगाह सकती थीं. इसीलिये इन कानूनों के पास होने का सीधा प्रभाव इन कंपनियों के फायदे पर पड़ना था और फिर लाजमी था की वह इस सार्वभौमिक स्वास्थ्य योजना का तीखा विरोध करें और इसे पारित होने से रोकने के लिए अपनी पूरी ताकत झोंक दें. मुक्त बाजार एवं कम से कम सरकारी हस्तक्षेप की समर्थक होने की वजह से ऐतिहासिक रूप से अमीरों की हितपोषक समझे जानी वाली रिपब्लिकन पार्टी का इन कानूनों का विरोध करना भी लाजमी ही था, मगर यह किसी ने नहीं सोचा होगा कि इस विरोध में रोमनी 47 प्रतिशत अमेरिकियों को राज्य-पराश्रित और परजीवी घोषित करते हुए अपनी जीत की स्थिति में इन कानूनों को वापस लेने की घोषणा कर देंगे. वह भी तब जब अमेरिका के सर्वोच्च न्यायालय ने इन कानूनों के संविधान-असम्मत होने के उनके तर्क को खारिज करते हुए ओबामा को इन्हें लागू करने की इजाजत दी थी.

इस तबके के ओबामा पर यकीन में जो थोड़ा संशय रह भी गया होगा वह अमेरिकन इतिहास की सबसे बड़े और विनाशकारी प्राकृतिक आपदाओं में से एक हरीकेन सैंडी ने आकर दूर कर दी. इस तूफ़ान की लायी तबाही से जूझ रहे अमेरिकी गरीबों की स्मृतियों में न्यू ओरलियंस में आये हरीकेन कैटरीना से निपटने में रिपब्लिकन जार्ज बुश की लगभग आपराधिक अक्षमता भी ताजा थी और यह समझ भी की ऐसी आपदाओं से निपटने के लिए एक सक्षम और सक्रिय केन्द्रीय सरकार की जरूरत होती है न की ऐसी सरकार की जो अपना हस्तक्षेप कम से कम करने और सब कुछ बाजार पर छोड़ देने में यकीन करती हो.

पर रिपब्लिकन मिट रोमनी की जीत के कुप्रभाव आर्थिक समस्यायों की मार से जूझ रहे इस तबके से बहुत ज्यादा वंचित अस्मिताओं पर पड़ने वाले थे. यूं तो रिपब्लिकन पार्टी हमेशा से दक्षिणपंथी ईसाईयत वाले रुझान की थी मगर बीते डेढ़ दशकों में उसका यह रुझान लगातार और खतरनाक होता गया है. व्यक्तिगात स्वातंत्र्य से जुड़े हुए सभी अधिकारों जैसे महिलाओं को गर्भपात के चुनाव का अधिकार, स्त्री पुरुष बराबरी का अधिकार, समलिंगी विवाह का अधिकार पर इस दौर में न केवल रिपब्लिकन पार्टी के हमले बढ़ें हैं बल्कि अपने प्रभुत्व वाले राज्यों में उसने इन अधिकारों को रोकने के सक्रिय प्रयास भी बढ़ाये हैं. इसके ठीक उलट बराक ओबामा न केवल इस वर्ग के साथ खड़े रहे हैं बल्कि उन्होंने सेना जैसी पितृसत्तावादी जगह में भी समलैंगिकों के प्रति भेदभावपूर्ण ‘न पूछो, न बताओ’ नीति को ख़त्म कर उन्हें सेना में गरिमामयी प्रवेश देने जैसे बड़े कदम भी उठाये हैं. ठीक यही नीति उनकी समलिंगी विवाह और गर्भपात के अधिकार को लेकर भी रही है.

ऐसे में आर्थिक मंदी की मार झेल रहे होने और उससे निपटने में असफल रहे ओबामा की नीतियों से असंतुष्ट होने के बावजूद इस वर्ग के पास इस चुनाव में अन्य कोई विकल्प था ही नहीं. ओबामा का विकल्प बन सकने वाले रोमनी इन सारे मुद्दों पर न केवल उनके खिलाफ खड़े थे बल्कि इन अधिकारों को छीन लेने पर भी आमादा थे. इन सब विषयों पर रोमनी की राय से पहले ही असहज आम अमेरिकियों को आप्रवासियों, और ख़ास तौर पर अवैध आप्रवासियों को लेकर उनका कटुतापूर्ण विद्वेष और भी असहज कर रहा था. यह विद्वेष, और अवैध आप्रवासियों को जबरन वापस भेज देने की रोमनी की घोषणा आखिरकार उस मूल भावना के ही विरोध में खड़ी थी जो अमेरिका को अप्रतिम संभावनाओं  और सफलताओं का देश बनाती है और विश्व राजनीति से लेकर उद्योगजगत तक में अमरीकी सफलता की कहानी आप्रवासियों ने ही लिखी है.

इसीलिये ओबामा की यह जीत वस्तुतः उनकी जीत नहीं बल्कि एक तरफ रोमनी और रिपब्लिकन दक्षिणपंथ की हार है तो दूसरी तरफ अब भी अमेरिका की मूल भावना में यकीन करने वाले आम अमेरिकी की जीत. पिछला चुनाव ओबामा ने ‘बदलाव’ के वादे पर कमाए समर्थन के दम पर जीता था, इस बार बदलाव के जमीनी समर्थन ने उन्हें जिताया है.

बेशक इससे अमेरिका की विदेश नीति और अन्य देशों के आतंरिक मामलों में उसके अनुचित हस्तक्षेपों में कोई बड़ा बदलाव नहीं आएगा पर अमेरिकी गरीब लोगों के जीवन में छोटा ही सही एक सकारात्मक बदलाव जरूर कर सकेगी. इस चुनाव का यही पाठ किया जा सकता है.  

November 19, 2012

Indian Army: Little Glory, Loads of Gore

[Published in Kashmir Times in two parts, on 16 and 17 November 2012, From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS Voice, 16-30 October, 2012]

In the popular discourse mere mention of Indian Army evokes two extreme and mutually incompatible responses. The believers see it as the last standing holy cow of the chaos called Indian nation, one that is incorruptible in the face of corruption that has become the new normative and remains fiercely apolitical when everything else is politically inclined, and dirty by extension. Ask the wretched fellows stranded on the wrong side of post-colonial history, and Indian army comes as a brutal occupying force that derives sadistic pleasures, and of course patriotism, from maiming, raping and killing the very people it is supposed to protect.

Intriguingly, the conspicuous contradictions run along the axes of geo-political realities and not along the premodern structures like caste, creed and religion that produce a million fissures underneath the modern and democratic body politic of the nation. If, contrary to this, they really do, then Indian army deserves a lot of praise for concealing them with exceptional aplomb. It maneuvers its ruthlessness in a continuum that is directly proportional to its operational distance from the national boundaries and, thus, earns a genial and almost affable image exactly where it matters.

Isn’t a sight where one find minorities, particularly Muslims, otherwise almost always persecuted by the law-enforcing agencies rooting for army in the middle of any riots as much a condemnation of a state claiming to be a secular, socialist and democratic republic as it is an honour for the Army? Haven’t we found this to be the case more often than not, be it Uttar Pradesh, Andhra or Gujarat? In fact, many a studies have corroborated the allegations against the local civil and armed police and found them siding with the rioters belonging to the majority community and ensuring heavy losses of life and property over the hapless minorities.

Army, as opposed to them, has almost always found to be impartial law-enforcer. Indian army has merely bolstered its image with its dogged opposition to the government’s attempts of dragging it to contain the ‘Maoist’ insurgency that has spread over many parts of erstwhile peaceful parts of central India. Its treatment of the problem as a civilian conflict which should be dealt by the civilian administration has not only helped its case of not getting dragged into a war with its own people but also has stopped the insurgency from fanning out into a full-blown civil war. This army, unlike many others in the subcontinent, seems to know the rules of engagement with citizens as against the enemy.

Not really, for the rosy pictures gives way to a thorny reality once one starts getting close to the international borders. The same army which enjoys the confidence of the minorities even in a state as communally volatile as Gujarat loses all of that in Manipur. Think of it, Manipuri Hindus belonging to the majority religion of India are as fearful, and scornful, of the Indian army as are the Christians of Nagaland and Muslims of Kashmir. Interestingly, in these ‘disturbed’ areas, the army that takes pride in its secular credentials starts speaking a language rooted in theology and vouches for black laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1956(AFSPA) as being pious and indispensable for its operations.. Ask them how they contain riots in rather mainstream parts without such protection, and they repeat that AFSPA is pious.

Dig a little deeper and a thousand skeletons come tumbling out of the closets of the Indian army. The skeletons are of those who are otherwise buried inside yellowing files that declare them to be ‘missing’, sometimes for decades and deny, in the process, closure to their kith in kin. The skeletons must have belonged to someone like us, alive, before finding their bullet-ridden bodies getting summarily buried in over 2,700 unmarked graves scattered across three districts of Kashmir. Think of the existence of 2,700 unmarked graves whose existence even Indian government could not wish away and was shamed into ordering a probe into. Sometimes the dead scream louder than the living, don’t they?

The stories of such bravery of Indian army are not limited to otherwise serene and scenic province of Jammu and Kashmir alone. It has received many such medals in the North-East of the country, ironically, just as scenic as Kashmir and therefore dubbed as the ‘lost paradise’ in the ‘incredible India’ campaign launched by the tourism department of Indian government. Paradise it certainly is, at least for those who were sent to their graves by the Indian army. In these parts of the country, epitaphs do not remain as epitaphs; they turn into the medals decorating the officers of Indian army. Look intently at them and one can read the stories of bravery of army officers inscribed in bright red letters on these epitaphs.

Top brass of both the Army and the civilian administration is well aware of the situation. They keep on responding to the enormity of the problem as well. The responses center around warning the ‘erring officials’ and ‘repeated’ adoption of policies named like ‘zero tolerance regarding human rights violations’. They also keep directing their field commanders to ‘exercise maximum restraint’, appeal them to ‘use minimum force’, that too ‘in good faith’. Then the field commanders respond by nabbing a young, unarmed surrendered militant to compensate for their failure to apprehend real ones, drag him inside a medical shop, and come out with the dead body of his. That a heavily pregnant unarmed civilian Rubina was also killed in the ensuing melee is beside the point for Indian army does believe in the idea of ‘collateral damage’ even if it does not acknowledge that. They could have justified even this had Tehelka, a reputed newsmagazine, not brought out definitive photographic evidence of him being unarmed.

Then the field commanders in Kashmir follow it up by shooting to kill teenagers pelting stones at their armoured convoys knowing fully well that the stones contain no significant risk either to the vehicle or the soldiers inside. They do it with such aplomb that even the Prime Minister of the country has to wake up from his slumber and take note. It does not really matter that it takes him more than two months and fifty killings for doing so, does it? He then acknowledges that militant activities in the state had been ‘curtailed’ and now it was the ‘public order dimension’ that has become ‘a cause of serious concern’. Standing true to his affable image, he called upon the officers for revisiting the ‘standard operating procedures and crowd control measures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal, yet effective and focused measure.’

The same Indian army which has doggedly refused to be dragged in ‘civilian strife’ raging in the jungles of central India does not think twice before shooting at teenage protesters! Do the responses seem to come out of the same forces? Not really, for its not only the Army but Indian polity itself which is so fiercely divided over the ways to deal with the ‘insurgency’ or the ‘public order’ problem or whatever it is in the border areas. Nothing defines this rupture more than juxtaposing the calls of Omar Abdulla, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and those of Cabinet Committee on Security. Mr. Abdullah’s appeal to the security forces for exercising ‘maximum restraint’ was followed by Cabinet Committee ordering the same forces for ‘maximum crackdown on the miscreants’.

How does, then, the army maintains its affable and pro-people image in the largely peaceful northern and southern provinces of the country. Simple, it does that by employing the same methods which it does to maintain its ‘clean’ and ‘incorruptible’ image despite having a long and shady history being knee deep in corruption. It keeps itself aloof from the local nexus of corrupt officials and influential politicians and steers clear of controversies. The ‘image’ of the army gets a much bigger boost, though, from the fact that it does never meddle into muddy waters of ‘politics’.

Politics being ‘the dirty thing’ for the middle classes; an apolitical army got to be loved by the middle classes, is not it? It is politics, after all, that stands as the single biggest hindrance to their efforts of usurping all sources of power including the public opinion and dissent. The army, however, does not return the favour. It views and treats the ordinary folks with a little disgust; a disgust betrayed by the way the army men look down upon ‘civilians’.

This is the contradiction that defines the behavior of army men right from the level of ordinary soldier to top general. They perceive themselves as the Brahmins of Indian society, pure, incorruptible and virtuous unlike the ordinary civilians. Dig a little deeper, however, and this façade collapses like a house of cards. The inside stories from this holy cow institution are not only haunted by a thousand scams, they have had shady characters like Adnan Khashoggi and Chandraswami as their lead protagonists.

The bogey of the scams within army that started with Jeep scam soon after the independence and ended up making Jawaharlal Nehru cry during the debate in the parliament did never end. Forget the ones like Tatra trucks and Bofors, the arms lobby that operates within the army, in fact, did not think twice even before minting money out of the coffins of soldiers who laid their life for the country in the Kargil war. So much to support the claims of army being the infallible institution defining the country!

This is why the army needs to confront with itself to resolve all these contradictions. The honour of the Indian army lies in the fact that unlike its counterparts in many other countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, it has never ever challenged the constitution that imbues sovereignty in the people and makes them supreme. It had won laurels for the patience it showed in tough operations like Operation Blue Star. It has earned respect for its dogged refusal to get dragged into civilian conflicts like the one raging in Bastar and other parts of central India.

The same army, however, recently has been in news for all the wrong reasons. Its soldiers have repeatedly violated the fundamental rights of the citizens they are duty bound to protect in areas dubbed as ‘disturbed’ under a draconian and bad in law act Armed Forces Special Powers Act. There had been skirmishes between the soldiers and the officers. Its formal general has gone to the Supreme Court against the government that had appointed him, a first in the hitherto unblemished history of Indian Army’s complete submission to the civilian administration that is the most crucial guarantee for a functioning democracy. To top it all, it has, reportedly, moved two of its units towards Delhi without prior permission of the government. It is no one’s case that the practice was an attempt of coup or something like that, yet, the fact it happened with the general being embroiled in a legal battle with the government makes it alarming.

The point is simple, it is high time for the army to reengage not only with its own soldiers but also the general population which it disdainfully refers to as ‘civilians’. It must sensitise its soldiers against violating the human rights of ordinary citizens of India irrespective of wherever they live. It must immediately stop to treat states like Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur and Assam as enemy territories and their people as enemy combatants. It must instill within them the same sense of confidence it evoked within the minorities of Gujarat facing the worst ever pogrom against them, orchestrated and led by the state authorities.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a tall order for an army that tries to goes out of the way to protect its officers guilty of violating human rights of their fellow citizens. Remember the former general V.K Singh who confessed that he could not do anything against the person, including senior army officers, who offered him a bribe for making arms deal, and the job looks like an impossible one. The stakes are rather high, though, to let the job of reforming army from within unfinished.

The laws of the land and rights of its citizen are one and the same. We must realize that if an army officer can get away with impunity after violating the rights of a fellow citizen in Kashmir, however deeply entrenched in mainstream India we are, we would not remain safe for long. Every such violation of the rights of a citizen of India, therefore, threatens the democracy. We have not gone the Pakistan, or Bangladesh way till now partly because our army did not go that way either and we need to keep the record unblemished. Sensitising the army men regarding the human rights of citizens and demolishing the arms lobby can be a beginning.

November 14, 2012

सुतली बमों से उड़ा दिए गए तमाम घरौंदों के नाम

बचपन का त्यौहार थी दीवाली. दिए अच्छे लगते थे पर जान तो पटाखों में ही बसती थी और उनमे  भी सबसे ज्यादा हरे 'एटम बम' (शहरी हो जाने के पहले के उन दिनों में उच्चारण बम्ब होता था ) और कसबे के आतिशबाज से लाये उन सुतली बमों में जिनकी आवाज पर आज तक कोई और आवाज भारी नहीं पडी. उन बमों के इस्तेमाल भी तमाम होते थे. आख़िरी, पर सबसे प्रिय, काम होता था बीतती रात के साथ कम होते जा रहे सुतली बमों से बहनों के बड़ी मेहनत से बनाए घरौंदों को उड़ा देना. अब फिर कस्बाई सामाजिकता में जिसमे अपनी बहनें ही नहीं बल्कि मोहल्ले की सारी लड़कियां बहनें होती थीं, घरौंदे कम नहीं पड़ते थे बस बम ख़त्म हो जाते थे.  फिर सुबह होती थी और बहनों का रोना. एकाध बार माँ से पिट जाना भी हो जाता था पर वो बस एकाध बार ही होता था बाकी तो उन्हें चुप होने की सलाहें ही होती थीं, घरौंदा ही तो था की डाँट के साथ.

बहनों के घरौंदे उड़ा कर खुश होने वाले उन समयों में पितृसत्ता के बारे में कहाँ पता था. इसका भी कि इन तमाम त्यौहारों का कितना करीब का रिश्ता है उस व्यवस्था को बनाए और बचाए रखने में. पितृसत्ता की हमारी कक्षाएं तो पैदा होने के साथ ही शुरू हो जाती थीं शायद, तबसे जब हमें बोलना भी नहीं आता था पर अपनी ही बहन का घरौंदा उड़ा देने वाली हिंसात्मक पितृसत्ता से सीधी मुठभेड़, या आत्मसाक्षात्कार का बायस दीवाली ही बनती थी. हाँ, यह तब खटकता नहीं था.

खटकता तो शायद और भी बहुत कुछ नहीं था. जैसे यह कि और तमाम त्योहारों के मुकाबले दीवाली बहुत आभिजात्य, बहुत दिखावे वाला, और उत्सवधर्मिता को खारिज करने की हद तक निजी त्यौहार है. न तो इसमें वह गंगाजमनी सामाजिकता है जिसमे पूरा का पूरा क़स्बा होली में एक दूसरे के साथ खुशी बाँटते रंग लगाते बह जाता है न वह गर्मजोशी जो ईद में लगभग अजनबियों को भी गले लगाते हुए महसूस होती थी. इन सबके उलट दीवाली इस सामाजिकता को बांटने वाला, लोगों को उनके सबसे छोटे घेरे में ले जाने वाला त्यौहार ही है, बस तब समझ नहीं आता था अब समझ आता है. वाली अब भी याद है कि कस्बों की वर्गीय आधार पर मिली जुली बसावटों में दीपावली रईसी की दिखावट के साथ साथ गरीबों को मुंह चिढ़ाने का सबसे बढ़िया वक़्त होता था. बात पर थोड़ी भे असहमति हो तो गई रात तक मंहगे पटाखे फोड़ते बच्चों को सूनी आँखों से देखते गरीब बच्चों को याद करिए और सोचिये की क्या यह दिवाली का सबसे आमफहम दृश्य नहीं है?

हाँ, दिवाली के ठीक अगले दिन आने वाले ‘परुआ’ की बात और होती थी. वह दिन जो ‘हिन्दू पंचांग का शायद सबसे अशुभ दिन माना जाता है. इतना अशुभ कि माँ तक बताती थी की इस दिन कलम पकड़ना तक पाप होता है. (इसीलिये तब के बाल-विद्रोही समर बाबू और किसी दिन अपने मन से पढ़ें लिखें या न पढ़ें लिखें, इस दिन वह पढ़ते भी थे और लिखते भी.) ऐसा दिन जिसमे कस्बे की सारी दुकानों पर ताले लटके होते थे और बाजार में शमशानी सन्नाटा पसरा होता था. अब चूंकि कस्बों में दैनिक दिनचर्या से अलग कुछ करने को कोई ख़ास काम होते हैं न घूमने जाने को पार्क/माल, सो बंद दुकानों वाली सारी भीड़ कस्बे की दो टूरिंग टाकीजों में जमा हो जाती थी. कमाल यह की उस दिन यह भीड़ फिल्म के परे जाकर फिल्म देखती थी, फिल्म कोई भी हो, चारों शो हाउसफुल जाने ही जाने हैं. मुझे अब भी लगता है की मेट्रो, महानगरीय हिन्दुस्तान में दीवाली ‘बम्पर कलेक्शन’ का दिन हो, मुफस्सिल हिंदुस्तान में यह तमगा ‘अशुभ’ परुआ ही ले जाता होगा. वैसे परुआ अशुभ क्यों होता था ये आज तक पता नहीं चला.

खैर, जिन्दगी के सफ़र में वो बचपन वाली दीवाली तो न जाने कब खो गयी. और अच्छा ही हुआ कि खो गयी, न खोती तो आज भी न समझ आया होता की सम्मान हत्यायों की मंजिल तक पंहुचने वाले सफ़र की शुरुआत बहनों के घरौंदे उड़ाने से ही होती थी. उस खोयी दीवाली की याद मगर अक्सर आ जाती है. तब जब उल्लू पर बैठ के आने वाली लक्ष्मी की कपोल कल्पनाओं की बधाई कोई दोस्त दे जाए, तब जब अब बड़ी हो गयी बहन अपने बच्चे को पटाखे दिलाये और वही पूजा करती मिले जो माँ करती थी. तब जब फेसबुक वाइरल बधाईयों की बाढ़ से बह सा जाए.

और तब जब आप दिवाली के दिन भी ऑफिस में काम करते हुए देख/सुन पा रहे हों क्योंकि आप जिस मुल्क में हैं वहां दिवाली पर कोई छुट्टी नहीं होती. वह भी तब जब उस मुल्क में ‘40000 से ज्यादा हिन्दू रहते हों. काश अपने वतन के धर्मध्वजाधारी देख पाते यह, और समझ पाते की न तो बहुसंख्यक होने का सुख सिर्फ उनका है न अल्पसंख्यक होने की त्रासदी उनके चुने हुए दुश्मनों की.
तब तक एक आत्म स्वीकार-- नास्तिक हो चुके होने के बाद की यह पहली दीवाली है जिस पर घर, दोस्त, वतन सब बहुत याद आये. त्यौहार की वजह से नहीं, बस सिर्फ इसलिए कि इस बार दीवाली को दूर से, लगभग निस्पृहता से देखने को मजबूर था. उस शहर के अकेलेपन से जिसमे पटाखे फोड़ने को भी पुलिस की परमीशन लेनी पड़ती है (और वह मिलती नहीं.) कल्पना करिए ऐसे शहर की, अपने मुल्क के बरक्स जहाँ भगवा और हरे दोनों तरफ के बमबाज बम विस्फोट के लिए भी किसी की इजाजत नहीं लेते.

November 06, 2012

Punish private profiteers responsible for stealing children's food

This is an AHRC statement.

In yet another shocking revelation private companies have been found to be stealing food earmarked for welfare schemes aimed at arresting malnutrition, the biggest 'national shame' according to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and 'humiliation like none other' according to President Pranab Mukherjee. The only thing that is more shocking than the revelation is the enormity of the loot from the one of the flagship project of the incumbent United Progressive Alliance government. The companies have been stealing more than 1000 Crore INR, or USD 185 Million in the state of Maharashtra alone. The report estimates total stolen amount to be close to 8000 Crore INR and finds that all this is done in direct contravention of various orders of the Supreme Court in the Civil Writ Petition 196/ 2001 (PUCL vs. UOI).

The findings are from the report of Biraj Patnaik, Principal Adviser, Commissioners to the Supreme Court and were submitted to the court with reference to SLP (Civil) No. 10654 of 2012 in the matter of Vyankateshwar Mahila Auyodhigik Sahakari Sanstha v. Purnima Upadhyay and Others listed along with Civil Writ Petition 196 of 2001 (PUCL v. UOI). The report explores into the iron grip maintained by the private profiteers in collusion with the vested interests deeply entrenched in both political and administrative hierarchy and traces the modus operandi they use to siphon off rations earmarked for the millions of starving Indians.

The report shows how private companies had usurped the supply chains of the Integrated Child Development Scheme by floating fake 'mahila mandals' (women collectives) which are in fact nothing more than fronts of their private for profit operations. The usurpation clearly contravenes the clear-cut and binding order of the Supreme Court delivered on 13th December 2006 that directed Chief Secretaries of all states and union territories 'to submit affidavits giving details of the steps that have been taken' with regard to an earlier order of the Court directing that 'contractors shall not be used for supply in Anganwadis and preferably ICDS funds shall be spent by making use of village communities, self-help groups and Mahila Mandals for buying of grains and preparation of meals.
But it does not stop at merely contravening the Court's order. It also shows that the Indian executive has not merely become absolutely inefficient and incompetent to discharge their mandate but has also capitulated to the vested interests to the extent of enforcing the Supreme Court's order. The report, further, shows that this is not merely public money but also children's lives that these profiteers are playing with. The report very clearly indicates at the collusion of the suppliers and the solitary lab they use for quality check as every single random sample of the take home ration (THR) taken to the government lab failed miserably on the nutrition standard. This was also the finding, the report notes, of an independent quality check of THR by investigation bureau of English newspaper Daily News and Analysis through a private lab yielded similar results. Needless is to say that this endangers the lives of the children consuming these rations.

Most unfortunately, the findings might be limited to the implementation of the ICDS but this is the state of affairs prevailing in the implementation of almost all other schemes. In fact, the very recommendation of the Commissioners to the Court is a telling comment on the executive and its nexus with the corrupt corporate and political players. The commissioners want an independent inquiry, under the supervision of the apex court, to be conducted for investigating the possible nexus "between politicians, bureaucrats and private contractors in the provisioning of rations to ICDS, leading to large scale corruption and leakages".

The AHRC strongly endorses the recommendation and demands for not only an impartial and time bound investigation into the issue but also stern punishment for those responsible for multiple crimes of stealing public money and putting the lives of Indian children at risk. India will have no moral right to claim itself as even a democracy; leave alone the largest democracy of the world, if it fails to stop this culture of impunity and establishes rule of law in the true sense of the word.

October 18, 2012

Selling Coke, and Catastrophe: Activism of the concerned celebrities'

 [From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS Voice, 01-15 October, 2012]

He used to sell Coke and charge a hefty sum for that. Now he is selling concerns and is charging an equally hefty sum for that as well. When he used to sell Coke, he did not bother much with what it was doing to the lives of people of Plachimada. Now, when he is peddling the stories of pain, he seems to be least bothered with finer nuances that shape and sustain these miseries.  

Welcome Amir Khan. India has found a new crusader in him. This one is going to be no ordinary one on that. This one is not merely concerned; he is feeling the pain of the people. He is feeling it so much that his eyes well up more often than the person recounting the tales of injustices done to her. He has awakened the middle classes, the engine on which lay all the hopes of India becoming a super power, to the miseries that plague the lives of countless poor.

He has done more, in fact. He has awakened the middle classes to the existence of another India, of which they were so blissfully unaware of till now. In addition, he has done this all with style. A style that not only suits the superhero, but also accentuates his mass appeal, alas, no new movies of him are going to hit the screens to reap the benefits.

What better place than a studio, then, could he find to execute this great service to humanity, okay, Indians? The studios, after all, come up as the metaphor for the middle classes. Being a miniscule minority of the vast masses that constitute Indian democracy, they would had been an inconsequential lot but for these studios. They are the ones who do not vote.

They are the ones who do not participate in the democratic process. They are the ones who declare politics to be 'dirty' and then wash their hands off it instead of attempting to clean it. Washing their hands off things, though, comes naturally to them. Have not they washed their hands off almost everything that matters for the broader population?

Yet, they matter and often matter more than rest of Indians put together. Their voice, the voice of less than 10 per cent of Indian citizens, becomes the 'voice of the nation'. Self-appointed conscience keepers, Arnab Goswami comes readily to mind, become the conscience keepers of the nation. The site of their protests, if you have not already forgotten Anna Hazare and his team that ganged up to scuffle the voices of sanity and social justice, become the 'Tahreer Chowk' of India.

Their leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, that is if even after getting dumped by 'one-flight-two reimbursements fame Kiran Bedi' he still is the leader, become the harbingers of Arab Spring in India. It is just the strength of this media that makes people forget that this Kejriwal has been a vocal opponent of reservations for the Other Backward Communities and thus cannot claim to represent a huge section of impoverished and underprivileged India forget being harbinger of any change, good or bad, in the body politic of the nation.

These are the studios that turn justice for Jessica into everyone's cause, justifiably so, and bring the high and mighty to justice. These are the same studios, then, which assassinate the character of slain Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan, perhaps because she did not 'belong' to the caste and class background the studios cater to. Yet, despite all these problems of having a definite ideology of their own, an ideology that emanates from their vested interests and entrenched in system ownerships, these studios, perhaps, are the only positive change neoliberalism has brought to India. They, after all, give some strength to 'common people'; even if these 'common people' are not that common after all.

The superhero, therefore, chose the studio to spell out his magic formulae, Satyamev Jayate, Truth Shall win, and started bringing different realities in front of everyone. It is just that he was careful enough not to bring these realities in their raw form as they are administered over the hapless victims. He sliced and manicured it for TV viewing. And the timing was appropriate too, it would not eat into the so called productive hours of the working India, after all who can waste time on social issues when the stock markets are waiting?

Middle classes were so thankful to him, what else they could be? He gave them their window into what was happening in the 'other' India. Were they hardly aware of even its existence till the other day? I remember watching an episode of Satyamev Jayate with a friend, horror written all over her face. She looked genuinely troubled with all she got to know that night. Amir Khan had successfully opened her eyes. These places are so far removed from reality, she told me while struggling to come out of the shock.

This is exactly what celebrity activism, that too on television, does in reality. It makes tragedies of other people and entertainment of the viewer. Okay, I concede that calling it 'entertainment' might be a little harsh, so let us settle at distractions at least. It makes one aware of how 'lucky' he is to be where he is and not in those hellholes being delivered on his 42 inch LCD screen. Sliced, manicured and sanitized pieces of reality made consumable with the delicacies spread out on the dining table. It makes their detachment with that India complete making them thank their gods, yup, most of them do believe in gods, for being so merciful to them.

And then, it makes them look concerned and that is where lies the real importance of being Amir Khan. If not for Amir Khan, how would they know that female infanticide does not only exist, but also is evil? If not for him, how would they ever know that barbaric atrocities in the name of caste are committed against Dalits, fellow citizens of our country, everyday? The fact that he would forget to mention Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar even while talking of caste over two episodes jells with the mindsets and psyche of this class as well.

Why would they want to remember, much less salute, the fellow who led the ferocious charge of the downtrodden, the Dalits, on their Brahminical heaven? Most of them despise him just as much as we revere him for breaking the gates open for the dispossessed and a mention of him would certainly have punctured the pretensions of being concerned. That is why Gandhi was there, many others were there but Babasaheb, no, he is still not fit for the 'tastes' of the middle classes that make most of the viewership of such shows.

Coming back to the show, I am sure that without Amir Khan telling them on TV screens that there is widespread malpractice and corruption, they would have been naïve enough to believe that it was a 'good' world out there. Visualise this, a well to do family blissfully devouring its weekend meal and witnessing the shock, awe and despair writ on the faces of the audience. Then comes in the camera, the mystical weapon Amir's crew deploys with such élan.

Every time it finds a moment to play with, it moves closer, gets slower and delivers us the shock, the awe or the admiration of the audience out there. To emphasize the ‘realness’ of the reality, even the superhero shows his raw emotions and sheds a few tears. That is where the performance reaches its peak. The realities, even the sanitized ones, are bad enough to make even a superhero cry and if they can make him cry, what on the earth would stop us from identifying with the cause.

His precious tears make the erstwhile forgotten issue quickly scale up the ladder. It soon becomes a serious one demanding utmost importance. They give it that as well, by outpouring their disgust with the system on social media, facebook leading the pack. Having done 'their bit' brings them back to normalcy, make them happily finish their dinner. They pop in the weekend pill of social awakening doled out to them by Amir Khan, and go about nimbly for the rest of the week. During the week, they gush about how ‘good’ the previous episode was (never mind the fact that it exposed everyday gruesome realities).

This is not Amir Khan's fault, one may assert. It certainly is not. It is symptomatic of the mess we have turned India into. Just think about it that it needs a celebrity to make people aware of the problems that they deal with everyday. Think of the policy makers addressing these problems only when a celebrity takes them up. All this in a country that claims to be a democracy. Does not the constitution give people a right to get heard to? Does it not bestow in them a power to make the government respond to their woes? It did not envisage the role of celebrities to be middlemen between the people and their elected elders.

That is the problem with celebrity activism. The celebrities institutionalize the hierarchies that give the governments the luxury of attending to a few problems while turning away from all other. The elebrities have another luxury. Unlike lesser mortals like us, they can pick and choose their struggles. A villager in Narmada valley does not have this choice. Neither does an adivasi of Bastar. Nor do those opposing the nuclear plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu.

The celebrities can abandon their chosen struggles as well.  As Medha Patkar seemingly did while more than 50 protesters were standing in chin-deep water for 17 days. Did anyone see/listen to her speaking about the issue? And if not, did anyone ask her reasons behind this silence? Or they can move on to newer, 'sexier' causes.Now, that's the comfort celebrities have. And this is what unites Amir Khan, Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. Did anyone, by the way, see Arundhati Roy saying anything about the Jal Satyagraha? Perhaps not. 

October 17, 2012

What does World Food Day mean to the malnourished?

This is an AHRC Statement.

Having to repeat oneself year after year and keeping hope alive against all odds, what can be more melancholic than this? Only the fact that one does it counting the bodies of those who perished because of our failure in keeping the promises made to them. Observing World Food Day (WFD) annually provides us with one such occasion of gloom.
The statistics says it all. Though the number of the hungry of this world has breached the one billion mark long ago, more than a 100 million were added to the list last year according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It is not tough to identify those responsible for so many more people falling prey to absolute poverty imperilling their food security. The increase has come in the face of governments across the world, pegged on by the neoliberal economic regimes, cutting down heavily on investments in agriculture and official developmental assistance as noted by Dr. José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the FAO.
The consequences of these cut downs had been catastrophic to say the least. Just to give an example, year 2011 witnessed 14004 farmers committing suicide in India alone as per the data of the country’s National Crime Records Bureau. The situation there has been so grim that that Mr. Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, the President of India, has to acknowledge in his acceptance speech that there is "no humiliation more abusive than hunger." Not only this, he was right about the reasons causing hunger in his country which touts itself as the ‘largest democracy of the world’ and hopes to become a superpower by 2020. President Mukharjee knows that "trickle-down theories," as espoused by the current economic regime dominating the world, "do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor."
The data from Global Hunger Index (GHI) put out by the International Food and Policy Research Institute shows that the South Asia, with a regional GHI score at 22.5, emerged as the biggest defaulter. Situation is not any better in most parts of the world barring Southeast Asia. Even there, the situation is not even with instance of hunger soaring up in the Philippines to an extent that there are more undernourished people in the Philippines now than there were in 1990-1992. Indeed, one also has to assume that the consolidated data available from that region is close to truth. That apart, data from countries like North Korea is simply not available.
Further, at least 30 countries across the world have witnessed food riots. Despite Haiti being the worst sufferer of these food riots, the problem is not limited to any particular area. The situation, unfortunately, is more likely to worsen than improve in Asian states where governments are rolling back on agricultural subsidies and heavily cutting down state expenditure on social welfare schemes under the current neoliberal regime.
In that, the global theme for the WFD, proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and globally accepted, 'Agricultural cooperatives - key to feeding the world' is an acute uphill task to be realised. In fact the present day government polices across the world, upon which the FAO has failed to prevail upon, renders the theme almost meaningless.
The impact of this is visible already. For example the GHI data shows that with its score going up to 20.3 from last year's 19.9, hunger in Nepal has gone up from what it was in 2011. Similar are concerns in Pakistan with unmistakable evidence of growing food scarcity and the consequent rise in prices have gravely affected access to food and nutrition not just for the poor but also for the middle-income segment of the population.
The WFD, seen in this context, provides an opportunity to look at the pitiable conditions more than millions of undernourished people who are condemned to live in and make resolute attempts to demolish the structures that produce and sustain food insecurity for the impoverished masses. It provides an opportunity to step up concerted efforts to force governments into taking stock of the situations on the ground and make them work to save people out of the vicious cycle of extreme poverty and hunger.
The essence of food insecurity is riveted to the concept of justice. Poverty, malnutrition, starvation and deaths from starvation are rife in countries where the justice processes have been reduced to what resembles a market place. Poverty that is resulted from the absence of livelihood options also reflects the absence of a consultative process in policy and decision-making in the countries.
The fight against hunger would remain a cause worth pursuing even if there is a single human being goes to bed hungry and we are dealing with a world where there are more than a billion people condemned to such fate. As it is, it could soon be a lost cause, if nothing more is done to prevent the downward spiral of the GHI.
For information and comments: Mr. Avinash Pandey, Programme Coordinator Right to Food Progamme Telephone: + 852 - 26986 339, Email: avinash.pandey@ahrc.asia
Picture courtesy: A malnourished Dalit girl in Aiyer Tolla of Varansi District, Uttar Pradesh state, India. Bijo Francis, South Asia Desk, AHRC

September 12, 2012

Drowned By A Dam; Disowned By A Democracy

[An AHRC article, republished by the Counter Currents]

With dejection written large on her face, Leela Bai stood submerged neck deep in water, as she had been for the last 11 days. So were about 50 other people from the east Nimaar region of Madhya Pradesh in India, and 200 others who stood submerged for shorter stints in solidarity with Leela Bai and her comrades. Ask her why she chose this unique and dangerous form of protest and the anger simmering within her explodes out. She was protesting against the submergence of her lands to build a hydroelectric power project and being given nothing in return, despite promises of a rehabilitation package assuring land for land and monetary compensation. She would not move out until her demands for the same are met, she added nonchalantly. I would drown, is what she said. Ram Bharti, standing next to her, agreed. No one from the government had come to talk to them as they continued to suffer in water for six more days.

The sword of submergence has been looming large for the protesters since last May, when the Supreme Court of India decreed in favour of filling the reservoir. The government has decided to start the process now, making it real.

Standing submerged in neck-deep water must have been a tough choice to make for these villagers, but they did not have many choices in any case. The government has seldom responded to their more-than-decade long protest against the injustices done to them in the course of the development of the Omkareshwar Project (520 megawatt). The dam has been completed already and will submerge thousands of acres of prime agricultural land in its catchment area once it starts operating to capacity.

That would mean the loss of all livelihood and employment opportunities for the people of the area as the government has thoroughly failed in its promise of making the dam operational only after the complete rehabilitation of those displaced by the dam. Forget giving the oustees (official term denoting those displaced by the dam) land for land, it has not even properly identified many persons whom the project would affect. Needless to say, the indigenous people (not having any land title documents) and the landless labours (mostly Dalits) are the worst sufferers of this 'identification failure'.

They have another reason to doubt the seriousness of the state in delivering on its promise of rehabilitating and resettling them, and that is the fate of those displaced by the Indira Sagar Project in the same area. The oustees of that project waged a gallant struggle for their rights, but it was all in vain. With many villages and a whole mofussiltown submerged in the catchment area of that dam, the government is nowhere close to successfully identifying and rehabilitating them.

It is not merely the government that has failed these people. They have been shortchanged even by the judiciary, which otherwise has a glorious track record of stepping into cases where the executive falters. The judiciary started on a very positive note. Way back in 2000, the Supreme Court of India ordered that after the initial 90 meters, the raising of the dam should only proceed after full compliance with the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R), as mandated in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award.

The same Supreme Court, however, went back on its own view and allowed further construction of the dam, even while acknowledging that thousands of families have not been rehabilitated or resettled by the Madhya Pradesh government. The acknowledgement was not surprising as a public hearing conducted in the area by The Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (IPT), a reputed civil society group, has brought these facts into the public discourse a full two years before the judgment. Similar were the findings of the Group of Ministers appointed by the Prime Minister to look into the issue.

What was surprising was the fact that the court ignored all this evidence and not only allowed the further increase of the height of the dam, but also referred the question of resettlement and rehabilitation of those affected to the Prime Minister of India. Denied with livelihood and employment opportunities, living conditions of the Indira Sagar oustees have worsened ever since. Protesting villagers know that if they let the government submerge the area without rehabilitating and resettling them, their fate would not be much different, and this explains their desperation.

This is also why their method of protest did not emanate from the cultural heritage of employing personal suffering as a weapon of political protest, which has a long history in India. Gautam, the Buddha, understood the strength intrinsic to such suffering, which not only cleanses one's heart but also clears the conscience of the enemy and forces him to correct his follies. More than a millennium later, Gandhi was to turn the idea of inflicting pain unto oneself into a fierce tool of political action, more powerful than violent opposition to colonial rule. The case of these protesting villagers, however, is markedly different from the idea.

They were not dealing with an enemy but their own state, which claims to have the status of parens patriae, or the parent of the citizens. The decades of struggle have told them in no uncertain terms that unlike enemies Gandhi encountered, this one is most unlikely to show any remorse and correct its follies. They knew that it had decided to sacrifice them on the altar of 'development' and they have already ceased to exist for it for all practical purposes. They knew that the executive treats them as dispensable dehumanised beings for the benefit of the neoliberal idea of growth, and they have been fighting against this politics of development. Having lost all faith in the executive, they had all their hopes pinned on judicial intervention to get redress, but the final order of the Supreme Course has crushed all such dreams.

All this, while the same government had no qualms about 'ordering' district collectors to identify and acquire 26000 hectares of lands before the forthcoming investors' meet so that it does not fall short on providing land to them. The protesters had realised both the priorities and the game plan of the government. It was same government, after all, which had 'failed' to find any land to rehabilitate them. They knew, almost instinctively, that it was paving for evicting them by drowning and then telling the courts that it did not find any oustees. They knew that the government that was obligated by the constitution to rehabilitate those displaced from such projects completely was, instead, making all efforts to snatch their rights. They grasped the hard truth that they were faced with a government that was not protecting the rule of law, but was working against it.

Their protest, thus, emanated from this definite desperation of knowing that the only way to live on was saving their lands and livelihood, even at the cost of death. This is what they had been doing for the last 11 days. Their legs were giving way, their skin was peeling off, and they were getting sick. Yet they stood tall while no one from either the provincial or central government has bothered to do even as much as come to meet them and take stock of the ground reality. No minister, never mind the Chief Minister, had visited the area while water level was continuously going up. It had reached their chins now. The hardships did not affect their resolve, though. This one was a do or die battle for them and they were holding their ground firmly.
Girijabai, an elderly protester, asserted that she would not leave. "Now we are in water. The water has come to our necks. We will not move out even if we die... We are not bothered about that anymore." The effect of being under water for 11 days in a row have started showing on her, and the rest of us. The situation looked grim but for the resoluteness of the protesters and the wider social support to their cause. They had yet not resigned to their fate.

The groundswell of support for them, and the outrage against the apathy and inaction of Madhya Pradesh government, finally yielded results with the government agreeing to accept all their demands on seventeenth day of the protest. The story, however, is far from over for they are not the only people protesting at the cost of their lives. A similar Jal Satyagraha is being held in Harda in the same province where a similar protest is going on for the last 13 days with more than 50 villagers sitting there in neck-deep water. Their demands are the same as those who have emerged victorious in Omkareshwar protest, that is bringing down the water level in the Indira Sagar Dam be brought down to 260 metres and rehabilitation of those who would be displaced from 19 villages threatened with inundation.

The government has not listened to them. It did not even take notice of them. They are the abandoned ones now. They are forced to live under water for 13 days in a row and no one knows how many more. The question is whether a democracy, the one that claims to be the 'largest' as well, can usurp the land and livelihood of its own citizens with such impunity? Can it afford, then, to ignore them till they threaten to kill themselves? And even if it does, can we let that happen?