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March 24, 2012

Eradicating hunger requires concrete action, not hollow promises!

[Published in Article 2, a journal on human rights published by Asian Legal Resource Center]

One would hardly expect the prime minister of a country that fashions itself as the biggest democracy of the world and hopes to be a ‘superpower’ by 2020 to acknowledge that his country is home to hunger. Yet that is precisely what the Indian prime minister did recently. Harder to believe is that the prime minister did not stop at that but went on to call it a national shame.

He was not off the mark. With more than 42 per cent of Indian children being underweight, a national shame it is. One would be tempted, though, to ask what his government and those of his predecessors have been doing to fight and eradicate this national shame.

The devil lies in the details hidden in the answer to this question. The details expose the paradox of high rates of chronic hunger in a country where millions of tons of foodgrain rot in the godowns of Food Corporation of India (FCI) every single year. For example, while replying to a question in parliament, Sharad Pawar, the incumbent minister for Food and Agriculture, informed the lower house that over 11,700 tons of food grains worth 68.6 million Indian rupees (or approximately USD1.5 million) were found damaged in government warehouses. This wastage of food could be seen as--and dealt with as--a criminal offence in any country, leave alone India with so many hungry stomachs to feed!

Added to this is the fact that at any given point in time the FCI stocks almost double the amount of buffer norms, an amount that hovers around 30 million tons of foodgrain. Evidently, the government is not hard-pressed with any shortage of food. Quite on the contrary, it has more than enough to release not merely to save children from malnutrition but also to save the foodgrain from rotting.

This is not to suggest that the prime minister or his government has woken up to the disturbing fact of malnutrition with a start. The writing has been on the wall all this while. There was enough data to shake it out of its slumber, more so because the data was coming from a multitude of sources including its own agencies, independent economists, research institutions and international watchdogs among others.

For example, India has been ranked in the ‘alarming’ category on the Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Notably, every single country in Asia barring Bangladesh has been performing better, and that includes war torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq! In fact even Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Rwanda and Zimbabwe were found to be feeding their people better than India. The findings merely corroborated the research of Utsa Patnaik, one of the most renowned contemporary Indian economists, who has decisively shown that an average Indian family in 2005 was consuming a staggering 110kg less grain as compared to that in 1991.

Patnaik has not stopped at that. Her meticulous studies have pointed out that when it comes to food security, India is failing its citizenry on every single count. Never mind the alarming gap between required protein intake and actual consumption, a silent majority was not getting enough for mere physical survival in terms of calorie intake. Backed with solid data, she has gone on to demonstrate that per capita food consumption in contemporary India is worse than that in the colonial times!

The situation on the ground is horrifying to say the least. If one goes by the criteria for famine put forward by the World Health Organisation (WHO), then the world’s largest democracy can be labelled as famine stricken. One of the WHO criteria to determine famine defines a community with more than 40 per cent of its population having a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 as famine stricken. By that yardstick, Indian children as a whole and many other communities, mostly the Dalit and tribal, are in the grip of a near-perennial condition of famine!

About the same time that Paitnak was using the data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO)—an agency reporting directly to the Government of India—to reach her conclusions, P. Sainath, one of the best journalists in India, was demonstrating how frightening the situation in the Indian countryside has become.

The deepening agricultural crisis in rural India has culminated into two separate but entwined scenarios that would be enough to shame any country, let alone, again, the world’s largest democracy. India on one hand has been witnessing the largest documented wave of suicides by small and marginal farmers unable to repay debts, and on the other, a huge exodus from the countryside, in the absence of emergency or exigency.

The crisis has not escalated to this point overnight. It has been long coming. Governments too have been well aware of it. However, they have responded in a fashion that can at best be termed ‘knee-jerk’. Most of them have done nothing and others, precious little. The set pattern of response has included launching welfare schemes ostensibly aimed at bringing people out of the self-reinforcing vicious circle of poverty and hunger, on the premise that such schemes will break the tie between poverty resulting in stunted growth and that stunting in turn resulting in more poverty.

Some of these schemes are almost as old as the republic itself. In order to help the poor and needy through the Public Distribution System (PDS), governments opened fair price shops selling subsidised rations, kerosene oil (and even clothes, in the distant past) in as many villages as it could. Most of these shops remain closed to the needy. Their rations and kerosene get siphoned off to the open market and contractors make a lot of money. Of course there are officials entrusted with the job of fighting such blatant corruption, but then, most of them act in collusion with the contractors and take their own cuts. Such a system is beneficial for everyone. It is just that “everyone” here does not include the poor and dispossessed.

Before rubbishing this argument as consisting of baseless allegations, bear in mind that these are the findings of the Justice Wadhwa committee which was appointed by the Supreme Court of India to study PDS reform.

The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), formulated in 1975 with a mandate of fighting malnutrition among children under six years of age, tells a similar story. Malnutrition among children, as acknowledged by the prime minister himself, runs at 42 per cent. Need one say more about the efficiency and success of the scheme? Not really, barring one fact that begs our attention. A closer look at the budgetary allocation for the scheme brings out that every child is entitled to a grim 4 rupees of budgetary allocation per day, or less than a twelfth of a single US dollar. At the current market rates, the amount would seem to be a cruel joke for any sane person, even forgetting the distressing fact that a significant chunk of even this meagre sum is eaten up by widely prevalent corruption.

The menace of corruption is of course nothing new. Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister of India poignantly noted way back in late 1980s that 86 paisa out of every rupee earmarked for such schemes was lost to corruption. The figures must be far worse now. But if we account for the four rupees per child using his estimate, we find that the actual money reaching a child through the ICDS entitlement is a mere 56 paisa. One might think of this callousness as a one-off accounting mistake were it not for the fact that the same government is trying to lower the poverty line to an abysmal 32 rupees (USD 0.60) for urban dwellers and 20 rupees (USD 0.40) for rural dwellers per capita per day.

Similarly, policies aimed at inclusion are subverted to exclude the needy and the bureaucracy seems to master the art of administering misery instead of delivering benefits. The exclusionary character of the policy has been lamented time and again, even by those in the system. The Justice Wadhwa Committee identified it as the core problem plaguing the system and asserted that the very basis of adjudging the poverty level at an expenditure of less than 15 rupees a day was ‘too low’. It also submitted to the Supreme Court that nearly half of the poor do not have Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards and are thus disentitled.

Even this disentitlement is not one off. One would find it hard to believe, but the Planning Commission of India had the audacity to put a central cap on the number of BPL families in the provinces and then defend it while acknowledging that it does disentitle those genuinely needy. For the uninitiated, the ‘central cap’ is an arbitrary figure that state governments follow for the purpose of identifying families below poverty lines. Further, it leaves the states to deal by themselves with any population in excess of the cap. It does not give any assistance for that population. Having a significant population in perpetual poverty is no big deal to the central government. It can just be wished away by the magic wand of statistics, it seems.

In a written submission to the Supreme Court the Planning Commission argues that it “is aware that many States complain that people who are indisputably poor are left out of the BPL list because of the cap imposed by the Central Government. It is not denied that this is indeed the case in many states.” What then does it do? It blames it all on state governments, arguing that the problem has been caused by its identification by the states! Any rational person would find the argument not merely baffling but also absurd, as did the Supreme Court. In an order dated 29 March 2011, the court expressed its dismay over the issue and asserted that it failed “to comprehend the rationale and justification of putting a cap by the Planning Commission”.

The fact of the matter is that the state governments, taken together, have identified 111 million Indian families to be BPL, as against the central government’s estimation that puts the BPL count at half of that, or just around 60 million. Interestingly, even the central government seems to know that its own estimate is not merely unreliable but also seriously low. What else would explain the National Food Security Bill proposed by the same government, putting the BPL cap at 46 per cent in rural areas and 28 per cent in urban ones?

Evidently, everyone—including the government, the judiciary and the civil society—is well aware of the problem. The Supreme Court has also been trying its level best to address it, even if it means taking on the role of the executive, because the executive has refused to discharge its duties as mandated by the constitution. Yet, it does not mean much for those fighting hunger on the ground. The Supreme Court is neither that easily accessible to them, nor can it afford to adjudicate on individual cases in a country with a population of more than a billion.

The system, of course, has a grievance redress mechanism at the lower levels, offering remedies to anyone whose rights or freedoms get violated. Unfortunately, this system is no less inefficient and corrupt than its counterparts in the administrative and legislative branches. In fact, even the Supreme Court of India has taken notice of the corruption and inefficiency rampant in the judicial ranks. The situation is far worse at the lower rungs of the judiciary, which often is the first point of contact for a person seeking remedy and the rest of the system.

This is where we can start digging deeper into the real factors that lead to such terrible state of chronic hunger affecting the citizenry of a country claiming to be moving up the ladder. To begin with, chronic hunger does not affect the citizenry as a whole but affects only those who have been condemned to live on the margins of Indian society. Even a cursory glance at any data on hunger brings this fact out. The Hunger and Malnutrition (HUNGaMA) report, whose findings the prime minister based his national shame comment on, underscores that the children from Muslim and Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe households are among the largest numbers of victims, and they suffer more than others.

The finding partly explains the administrative inertia; despite all the urgency that the government shows when talking about the problem. To put things in perspective, this is not the first time that the prime minister has shown such concern over malnutrition affecting Indian children. Taking cognisance of the enormity of the issue and its implications for the nation, the government had set up the Prime Minister's National Council on Nutrition way back in 2008, but then the council did not even meet but once in 2010! Not a single decision taken in that meeting, like the restructuring and strengthening of the ICDS, was ever implemented, despite recommendations from various governmental committees as well as civil society groups.

The government can well afford to ignore hunger. For it does not exist in isolation but is deeply embedded in the social system that Dr BR Ambedkar famously referred to as a system of ‘graded inequalities’. Hunger affects those who occupy the lowest rungs on the ladder, people who are seldom represented in the mainstream discourse. They are the people the government can choose to forget, for their sheer numbers ensure that it would never be in short of labour even if it let a large section of them silently die.

Barring a small but highly committed section of the civil society, these people get a short shrift from larger society, even when it cannot actually do without them. They build the factories and houses, guard gated communities, and run errands as house-helpers while getting systemically dispossessed from their lands and livelihood, as happened in the Narmada Dam project and is happening all over India in the Special Economic Zones.

This is where Indian democracy reduces itself into a terribly deficient and in fact delinquent form of government. In a social system that penalises people for accidents of birth in a particular group instead of giving equal opportunities to all individuals irrespective of their caste, creed or community, primary responsibility for helping those on the margins lies with the state. This is why the state is treated as parens patriae (parent of the citizens) and has the right to intervene in cases of interest to the citizens such as in matters of health, physical comfort and welfare, whenever such interests are threatened. But the Indian state would have none of this. Instead it seems prepared to let its citizenry live with the paradox of a democracy in the political arena rendered futile by extreme levels of socioeconomic inequality, as forewarned by Dr Ambedkar.

The only way to deal with the issue perhaps is to ensure that one fights hunger, social exclusion, dispossession and other such ills through a system of justice. A system of justice, in turn, can only be based on rule of law, ensuring effective, efficient and immediate remedies to people whose rights or freedoms have been violated through the malfunctioning of the system.

What the government and the prime minister need to do is radically restructure the whole system with an emphasis on building an honest delivery mechanism with corresponding mechanisms for addressing grievances. The government would do well to start at the grassroots, say by making the system transparent and giving communities a stake in running the mechanism. For example, the experiences of social audits in the case of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act (MNREGA) have been tremendously encouraging. Not only have the social audits seen massive participation by the community members but they have also helped fighting corruption. Almost all studies on the MNREGA have found that it has been most successful where the process of social audits backed by community-based organisation has become institutionalised.

Devising a mechanism like social audits can actually be a real good beginning that would go a long way in ensuring food security and alleviating hunger. Need one say that in the face of such community action deriving from a right, diverting the foodgrain meant for the community would become far more difficult than it is now? Making the lower judiciary more accessible and affordable may be the next step in the direction for ensuring that those subverting the system are dealt with. Till the government gets its act together on these two counts, all talk will remain empty, words devoid of any meaning.

March 22, 2012

जातीय भेदभाव नस्लवाद ही है!

[दैनिक जागरण, राष्ट्रीय संस्करण में 31-03-2012 को प्रकाशित.]
[दैनिक छत्तीसगढ़ में 24/03/2012 को प्रकाशित]
[रविवार में जातीय भेदभाव भी तो नस्लवाद है शीर्षक से प्रकाशित]

जातिवादी भेदभाव के खिलाफ संघर्ष में अभी हाल में मिली एक महत्वपूर्ण विजय में ब्रिटेन जातीय पूर्वाग्रहों को नस्ली भेदभाव का हिस्सा मानने वाला पहला देश बन गया है. ब्रिटेन की संसद के उपरी सदन हॉउस ऑफ़ लॉर्ड्स द्वारा सरकार को जाति को नस्ल के एक पहलू के रूप में स्वीकार करने की अनुमति देने वाले समानता विधेयक को मार्च 2010 में ही पारित कर देने के बाद इस विधेयक के कानून बनने में अब सिर्फ एक सीढ़ी बची है कि यह संसद के निचले सदन हॉउस ऑफ़ कॉमंस द्वारा पारित कर दिया जाय.

भारत सरकार और ब्रिटेन में बसे दक्षिणपंथी हिन्दू समूहों द्वारा इंग्लैण्ड सरकार को इस बिल को कानून ना बनाने के लिए डाले गए दबाव की रोशनी में विभेदकारी जातीय सरंचना के खिलाफ दलित समूहों द्वारा नागरिक समाज संगठनों के साथ लगातार लड़कर हासिल की गयी यह विजय बहुत महत्वपूर्ण है. इसलिए भी क्योंकि यह विजय संयुक्त राष्ट्र संघ के नस्ली, नस्लीय भेदभाव, के खिलाफ डरबन सम्मलेन, जहाँ दलित समूहों और अंतर्राष्ट्रीय समतावादी समूहों के गौरवशाली संघर्ष के बावजूद भारत सरकार जातिगत भेदभाव को एजेंडे से बाहर रखने में सफल रही थी, के ठीक एक दशक बाद मिली है.

तब जाति को भारत का 'आतंरिक मामला' बताते हुए भारत सरकार ने जोर दिया था कि वह इस कुरीति को समाप्त करने के लिए सभी संभव प्रयास कर रही है. यह और बात है कि जाति को अपना 'आतंरिक मसला' बताते हुए भारत सरकार नस्लभेद के खिलाफ महान संघर्ष की अपनी खुद की गौरवमयी परम्परा को ना सिर्फ भूल रही थी वरन उसका अपमान भी कर रही थी.

वैसे भी अगर जाति भारत का आंतरिक मसला है तो नस्लीय रंगभेद दक्षिण अफ्रीका की उस दौर की श्वेत सरकार का आंतरिक मुद्दा क्यों नहीं था? नस्लभेद के खिलाफ वैश्विक जनमत तैयार कर दक्षिण अफ्रीका की सरकार को अलग-थलग करने में केन्द्रीय भूमिका निभाने वाली तत्कालीन भारत सरकार क्या एक संप्रभु देश के आतंरिक मसलों में हस्तक्षेप करने का अपराध कर रही थी? 2001 में इस तर्क का जवाब देने में असफल रही भारतीय सरकार ने जातिगत भेदभाव का अस्तित्व स्वीकार करते हुए भी जाति मुद्दे को अंतर-नस्लीय और अंतर्सांस्कृतिक बताते हुए खारिज करने की कोशिश की थी.

जाति के सवाल को सम्मलेन के एजेंडे से बाहर रखने की सरकारी जिद का बचाव करते हुए तत्कालीन महान्यायवादी सोली सोराबजी ने एक हास्यास्पद तर्क भी गढ़ा था कि इसके पीछे भारत की कुल जमा मंशा यह है कि सम्मलेन मुख्य मुद्दे नस्लवाद से भटक ना जाये. भारत में जातिगत भेदभाव की मौजूदगी स्वीकारते हुए भी उन्होंने जाति और नस्ल के पूरी तरह से अलग होने पर जोर दिया.

सवाल जाति और नस्ल के पूरी तरह से अलग होने का नहीं है. आखिरकार दुनिया में सामाजिक श्रेणीबद्ध विभेदन की कोई भी दो संरचनाएं पूरी तरह से समान नहीं हो सकती हैं. इन सरंचनाओं के पैदा होने से लेकर समाज में स्थापित होने तक की प्रक्रिया में उस समाज विशेष में मौजूद राजनैतिक, सांस्कृतिक एवं आर्थिक कारक अपनी भूमिका निभाते हुए ख़ास किस्म की शक्ती विभाजन वाली संरचनाएं पैदा करते हैं. इसीलिये, अलग अलग समाजों में पैदा हुई संरचनाएं अपनी आंतरिक बुनावट में एक दूसरे से बिलकुल अलग हो सकती हैं. मगर मसला यहाँ इनके बीच अंतरों का नहीं वरन सामाजिक श्रेणीबद्धता को पैदा करने और बनाये रखने में उनकी सफलता का है.

इस सन्दर्भ में अपने ही समुदाय के ताकतवर सदस्यों द्वारा अन्यों को अमानवीय स्थितियों में रखने वाली जाति-व्यवस्था निस्संदेह सामजिक श्रेणीबद्धता की सफलतम और निर्ममतम संरचनाओं में से एक है. शोषित और वंचित तबकों को मानवीय गरिमा से वंचित कर जानवरों की तरह केवल श्रम के संसाधनों में तब्दील कर देने वाली ऐसी किसी व्यवस्था का अस्तित्व दुनिया में शायद ही कहीं और हो.

जाति को नस्लीय भेदभाव के अन्दर वर्गीकृत ना करने के समर्थन में भारत सरकार का दूसरा तर्क है कि संरक्षणात्मक कानूनों एवं सकारात्मक भेदभावपूर्ण नीतियों द्वारा जातिप्रथा के उन्मूलन की दिशा में महत्वपूर्ण प्रगति कर रही है. सरकारी आंकड़ों की रोशनी में ही देखें तो यह तर्क भरभरा के ढह जाता है.

उदाहरण के लिए, गृह मंत्रालय के अंतर्गत आने वाले नेशनल क्राइम रिकोर्ड्स ब्यूरो के मुताबिक बीते साल से 2 प्रतिशत की वृद्धि के साथ अनुसूचित जातियों के खिलाफ हुए अपराधों की कुल संख्या 33615 तक पंहुच गयी है. यह आंकड़े सत्य से कितने कम हैं, यह जानने के लिए इसमें यह भी जोड़ लें कि अनुसूचित जाति और अनुसूचित जनजाति (अत्याचार निवारण) क़ानून के प्रावधान सामान्य घटनाओं को तो छोड़ें ही खैरलांजी जैसी लोमहर्षक घटनाओं को अंजाम देने वाले अपराधियों पर भी लागू नहीं किये जाते.

भारतीय सरकार का तीसरा तर्क, जिसका समर्थन कुछ महत्पूर्ण समाजशास्त्री भी करते हैं, वह यह है कि क्योंकि नस्ल भारतीय संदर्भों में एक अर्थपूर्ण जैविक श्रेणी नहीं है और भारत में समुदायों का नस्लीय आधार पर प्रोफाइल बनाने की तमाम कोशिशें नाकामयाब साबित हुई हैं, इसीलिये जाति नस्ल का एक एक पहलू नहीं हो सकती.

यह तर्क दावा करता है कि अगर जाति की उत्पत्ति मूलवंश की अवधारणा में है भी तो आज के सन्दर्भों में यह नस्ल से पूरी तरह से अलग हो चुकी है. पर असली मुद्दा यह है कि अगर दलितों के खिलाफ होने वाला भेदभाव अंतरनस्लीय भी हो तो भी इसके परिणाम नस्लवाद की तुलना में दलितों के लिए कम बर्बर नहीं होते. उससे भी ज्यादा बुनियादी स्तर पर, 'वैज्ञानिक' प्रमाण की अनुपस्थिति से नस्ल की अनुपस्थिति तो साबित हो सकती है पर 'नस्लवाद की नहीं.

नस्लवाद अपने मूल में एक विचारधारात्मक सरंचना है जो जन्म, मूलवंश या उत्पत्ति के आधार पर कुछ लोगों का अन्यों की तुलना में उच्च होने और उन्ही आधारों पर 'अन्यों' के नीचा होने का दावा करने से बनती है. भारत में नस्ल के वैज्ञानिक आधार के प्रमाण हों या ना हों, श्रेणीगत विभाजन पर आधारित भेदभाव की इस संरचना के लगातार मजबूत होने के प्रमाण रोज सुबह के अखबारों में भरे मिलते हैं. ऊपर से, इस 'कुरीति' को ख़त्म करने की पुरजोर कोशिशों के दावे के बावजूद जमीनी स्तर पर इस मुद्दे पर सरकारी अकर्मण्यता इसके अगंभीर रवैये का ही सबूत देती है.

जातिगत भेदभाव को नस्लवाद के एक पहलू के रूप में स्वीकार किये जाने के प्रति भारत सरकार का जबरदस्त विरोध किसी लापरवाही या जमीनी सच्चाइयों को ना समझ पाने की असफलता से नहीं उपजता. इसके ठीक उलट, यह सरकार और अभिजनों की मानसिकता और मानस का ही सबूत है. इस मुद्दे पर सरकारी नजरिया उसी पूर्व आधुनिक, बर्बर और प्रतिगामी जातिसंरचना से निकलता है जो तमाम लोकतान्त्रिक छद्म के भीतर मौजूद सत्ता को नियंत्रित करती है.

संतोषजनक बात सिर्फ यह है कि, इस छलावे को ज़िंदा रखने की तमाम कोशिशों के बावजूद न्यायपालिका सहित सरकारी तंत्र के सभी अवययों की गतिविधियों से यह मुखौटा जब-तब सरक जाता है. मध्यवर्ग के हितों की सबसे बड़ी रक्षक के रूप में उभरी न्यायपालिका को त्रुटिहीन मानने वाले शायद ही इस बात पर विश्वास करें पर न्यायपालिका के निर्णयों पर एक सरसरी निगाह भी इसके अभिजात्यवर्गीय चरित्र और मानसिकता दोनों को उजागर कर देती हैं.

बात चाहे मथुरा बलात्कार मामले (तुकाराम विरुद्ध महाराष्ट्र सरकार, एआईआर 1979 सुप्रीम कोर्ट 185) में सर्वोच्च न्यायालय द्वारा दिये गये मिसोजायनिस्ट यानी स्त्री द्वेषी) और जातिवादी पूर्वाग्रहपूर्ण फैसला की हो, जहाँ उसने बॉम्बे उच्च न्यायालय का दो पुलिसकर्मियों को मथुरा नाम की नाबालिग के बलात्कार का दोषी ठहराते हुए सजा देने का फैसला यह तर्क देकर उलट दिया था कि पीडिता 'एक अनपढ़ और अनाथ आदिवासी लड़की' है और इसी कारण चरित्रहीन होगी. या फिर खैरलांजी मामले में महाराष्ट्र उच्च न्यायालय द्वारा दिए गए हालिया फैसले का जहाँ दलित उत्पीड़न की धाराएँ लगाने से इनकार करते हुए सामूहिक हत्या और बलात्कार के उस मामले को बदले के इरादे से किया गया अपराध बताने तक की, न्यायपालिका का मूल चरित्र बार-बार उजागर होता रहा है.

कुछ मामलों में तो न्यायपालिका ने सारी सीमायें पार करते हुए जातिगत उत्पीड़न के दोषियों के मददगार की जगह खुद को ही खड़ा कर दिया है. उदाहरण के लिए भंवरी देवी बलात्कार मामले में न्यायाधीश का अभियुक्तों को रिहा करने के लिए यह तर्क देना कि चूँकि हिन्दू धर्मग्रन्थ उच्चजातीय लोगों को एक 'नीची जाति' की महिला को छूने का अधिकार नहीं देते, अभियुक्त पीड़िता का बलात्कार कर ही नहीं सकते थे, इस परम्परा का शायद गलीजतम उदाहरण होगा. साफ है कि जातिप्रथा के उन्मूलन के सवाल पर पर सरकारी तंत्र की अकर्मण्यता का निदान न्यायपालिका की सक्रियता में भी नहीं है. बावजूद इस तथ्य के कि इस मुद्दे पर संवैधानिक समझदारी बिलकुल साफ है.

वस्तुतः नस्लीय भेदभाव के सभी रूपों के उन्मूलन पर अंतर्राष्ट्रीय कन्वेंशन 1969 ने पहले ही अपनी सामान्य सिफारिश संख्या 29 के तहत 'मूलवंश' शब्द के अर्थ को विस्तृत करते हुए उसमे 'जाति के आधार पर भेदभाव' को जोड़ दिया गया था. 170 अन्य देशों के साथ उस कन्वेंशन की हस्ताक्षरी होने की वजह से यह मूलवंश का यह अर्थ भारत सरकार पर भी लागू होता है. इसीलिये, पहले तो जाति के सवाल को 'वैज्ञानिक' और 'सांस्कृतिक' पहलुओं में बाँटना और फिर वैज्ञानिक पहलू पर जोर देकर जाति को नस्ल से अलग साबित करने का प्रयास ना केवल गलत है वरन भारतीय संविधान की अगर शब्द नहीं तो कम से कम आत्मा के उल्लंघन का कपटपूर्ण प्रयास भी है.

बात साफ़ है कि नस्ल के शुद्ध जीववैज्ञानिक (और ब्राह्मणवादी सन्दर्भों) में ना भी सही तो तो कम से कम नस्लवाद के सन्दर्भ में जाति नस्लीय भेदभाव का एक पहलू तो है ही. और भारत के करीब 20 करोड़ नागरिकों का जीवन नस्ल और जाति के अंतर्विरोधों पर बौद्धिक विमर्श का नहीं, वरन सरकार द्वारा जातीय अत्याचार के सभी रूपों पर निर्णायक हमले पर निर्भर करता है. इसीलिये जाति को अपना आतंरिक मुद्दा बताना भारत राज्य के धर्मनिरपेक्षता दावे के नकार के साथ-साथ हिन्दू धर्म से सम्बंधित किसी भी चीज को आंतरिक कहने और मानने के हास्यास्पद दावे जैसा है. या भारत सरकार अब सचमुच ही धर्मनिरपेक्षता से ऊब कर हिन्दू राष्ट्र बनाने के संघी रास्ते पर निकल पड़ी है?

यही कारण है कि हम सब को ब्रिटेन में जाति के महाराक्षस के खिलाफ हासिल की गयी इस जीत के साथ खड़ा होकर, भारत सरकार द्वारा इसके 'आतंरिक मुद्दे' में दखल ना देने के नाम पर ब्रिटेन पर इस कानून के खिलाफ बनाये जा रहे दबाव के खिलाफ लड़ना चाहिए. वैसे भी, जाति आधारित अत्याचार जाने कब से भारत राज्य भौगोलिक सीमाओं से बाहर निकल चुके हैं. ब्रिटेन और कनाडा से लगातार आ रही सम्मान हत्यायों को एक बार अनदेखा भी कर दें तो हाल में ही ऑस्ट्रिया के विएना में एक रविदासी (दलित) सिखगुरु की हत्या भारतीय उपमहाद्वीप के बाहर जातिवाद के अस्तित्व पर संदेह की कोई गुंजाइश नहीं छोड़ती.

भारत सरकार को समझना चाहिए कि कोई भी सभ्य समाज और सरकार जाति के नाम पर किये जा रहे अपहरणों, जबरन विवाहों,गैरकानूनी कैदों और हत्याओं पर निकम्मी बैठ नहीं सकती. यह भारत सरकार है, जो जाति के महाराक्षस को मारना तो दूर उसे नियंत्रित करने तक में नाकाम साबित हुई है. इसे एक आजाद और संप्रभु देश ब्रिटेन से उसके नागरिकों के अधिकारों और जीवन के प्रति अवहेलना और उपेक्षा की मांग करने का कोई हक नहीं है. वैसे भी, ब्रिटेन अपने नागरिकों को प्रभावित करने वाले एक मुद्दे पर क़ानून बना रहा है और 'धर्मनिरपेक्ष' भारत 'गणराज्य' को एक संप्रभु राज्य के 'आन्तरिक' मुद्दे में हस्तक्षेप करने का कोई अधिकार नहीं है.

यही जोतिबा, बाबासाहेब, और भगत सिंह के जातिविहीन भारत के सपने में हमारा योगदान भी होगा और उनकी स्मृति को हमारी श्रद्धांजलि भी.

March 20, 2012

Message of the Mandate: The ‘national’ becomes the new ‘notional’ in U.P.!

[From my Column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS Voice, March16-31]

Elections are the strangest moments in the life of a democracy. They are so strange that the question of true nature of the democracy, largest or the smallest, dynastic or oligarchic, deficient or delinquent become redundant. They affect them all similarly. Come election time and one would find hardly a difference. The democracy-deliverer United States of America would look exactly like that of democratically challenged Pakistan, and making out democracy inventor United Kingdom from democracy importer India would be a task tougher than those terrifying mathematical equations that almost killed our childhood.

The changes elections bring to the behavior of the leaders are cataclysmic to say the least. They make Mahatmas out of the murderers. They change rioters into Ram-Bhakts, sycophants into saints and yes, communities into vote-banks. Yet, the biggest strength of the elections is bestowing a sense of humility on the leaders and opinion-makers alike, both of whom don’t seem to know otherwise that it existed in the first place.

I am neither of the two, and had successfully sensed the public mood till recently. I would laugh at the predictions made by those know-all jerks gleaming in the studios. I would make friendly bets and would look forward to the days of counting and declaration of results, for those drinks my friends would be paying for. I had hardly lost any of them till date.
Just to give an example, I was richer by a couple of bottles by the end of the last assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh for the simple fact that no one apart from me and that fiery journalist Vidya Subramaniam from The Hindu was giving the Bahujan Samaj Party and its leader Mayawati a clear mandate. Even this time, she was the one closest to gauge the public mood and hint that it was going to be the Samajwadi Party all the way. Maybe, that has something to do with The Hindu style of functioning and their belief in basing news on facts and not sermons, which ironically is so ‘Un-Hindu’ a practice!

Here comes the moment of revelation! I got it all wrong this time. That too by a huge distance, 1500 kilometers to be precise!

Well, there is no point in challenging the exactness of the distance for it was ‘measured’ by none other than the victor himself, and who in his senses would want to challenge an outright victor. Way before the start of even the first phase of voting, Akhilesh Yadav, the Chief Minister designate of Uttar Pradesh, had asserted that he was 1500 kilometers and 51 constituencies ahead of the other Yuvraj, Rahul Gandhi.

He was right. Samajwadi Kranti Rath of Akhilesh had traversed that much even before Rahul hitting the campaign trail. But then, UP elections were not about Congress or its crown-prince, was it? He was, of course, the darling of the media which remained in awe of him but who takes electronic media seriously anyway? Public memory is short, but not short enough to have already forgotten all the Barkha Datts and Vir Sanghvis, is it?

Actually I am already wondering about the failure of these self-designated custodians of national conscience in giving a spin to Congress’s performance in Uttar Pradesh. Think of it, getting to 28 seats from 22 held in an assembly of 403 is inconsequential in terms of sheer numbers but then who had stopped the spin-doctors like Arnab Goswami to analyze it in Percentage-Point terms? He could have been screaming that the “truth of the matter” is that Congress has gained an increase of 27 per cent, a befitting proof for the success of Rahul Gandhi in winning the hearts and the minds of UP electorate”! he could have added, for a good measure, that at this rate Congress would return to power in UP by 2060!

Maybe they restrained themselves for the game has always eluded the self-proclaimed game changer. There is a limit to one’s capacity of making heroes out of nobodies. They had done it before. In order to cleanse themselves of the Radia tapes, they invented a fake Gandhi aka Anna Hazare and fallen flat on their faces.

They had also mastered the art of making villains out of heroes through ‘media trails’. Giving a hoot to the judicial process, they would dub a person ‘anti-national’ just because the police claim that. Throwing all the ideals of justice and fair trial into the dustbin, they would run ‘dramatized’ accounts of events like parliament attack and pronounce the accused as convicted even if the Court were to exonerate the person later. Good that a sense of wisdom prevailed on them this time round and they desisted from doing something similar.

Or was it was the fear of that gentleman Markandey Katju, chairman of Press Council of India, who had taken the onerous task of bringing some ethics back? Or, was it the habit of the game changer of changing the not the game in hand, but the game itself as in moving from soccer to cricket in one leap of faith! Whatever it was for, it is welcome.

Cut to that Sadhwi in saffron whose renunciation (and rejoining) of political parties seems to be far more real than her claims of having renounced the worldly charms. Mere idea of her would make all the Kabirs and Nanaks turn into their graves with repulsion. They lived and died for eradicating caste among other things and ensured that at least in the case of saffron wearing sadhus and here is one sadhwi, airdropped into UP’s political scene because of her caste!

Her party that used to fashion itself as the army of Lord Rama himself has realised that in the badlands of UP religion gets trumped by caste and so it would have to dump Rama. Now, dumping anything for power was neither new nor hard for them as they had specialized in the art of picking the issue of the Ram temple and dropping it at will. They replaced their bets from Rama and put it on a Rajput, albeit a Lodh one owing to the numbers of their kin. End result, they came a cropper, losing even that seat of Ayodhya that has catapulted them to the national scene.

But then, who said that UP elections were about BJP either? The electorate had decided to have a clean break from their past. They had decided to consign all the accusations of being illiterate savages of feudal badlands to the dustbins of history. They had decided to give evidence for nothing less than the theory of nationalism propounded by Benedict Anderson, the theory that says that nations are nothing more than imagined communities.

And once the imagination is found to be based on shaky foundations, it gets dumped by the people. We are that part of the nation, UP electorate must have thought which the rest of the nation and its leadership can do without. It remembered, with horror, the statement made by Home Minister P. Chidambaram that India would have registered higher growth had North and East not impaired its quest for the same. They knew that not one of the accused of the 2G scam that cost the exchequer INR 176000 Crore and shivered at the audacity of the claim. They put the motor mouth in his place.

This is how the polarization that took place in UP rendered the ‘national’ irrelevant. If it’s all about getting looted, we would better get looted by our own people seemed to be the thundering reply emanating out of the eerily silent electronic voting machines. Congress has forfeited its deposits in 240 constituencies while BJP was not trailing far behind at 230! The idea of the national was just a notional one.

And this is where I had gone terribly wrong. I was giving BSP at least 170 seats even at the eve of the counting. Somewhere deep within my inner self, I knew that people have not forgotten the dangerous lawless days during the Samajwadi Party’s regime five years ago. I could see the unflinching support of the Dalits she enjoyed. I could see the indignation of her folks at seeing the Elephants getting covered while all the lotuses adorning the temples and cycles plying on the road.

Yet, something was changing deep within, something I, and many others, had no clue of. It was a polarization of a very different kind. It was one against the assertion of the Dalits, their renewed and revitalized claim on dignity that has made the erstwhile rulers uneasy, very uneasy. Behind the façade of ‘Sarvajan’ politics of the BSP laid the control in the hands of the Dalits and it was enough to send shivers down the spines of the higher up.

For the uninitiated, the BSP’s control in the hands of Dalits was absolute not merely at the level of Maywati herself, it went down to the level of every single constituency where the MLA was answerable to the Sector in charge, invariably a Dalit giving rise to a flood of repulsion. All one needed was to tap this into a negative vote, which the Samajwadis so successfully managed.

This is not to say that Mayawati or BSP were not at fault. They had not merely faltered but failed their own people. For their folks, the parks with statues were good, but hospitals and schools would have been far better. They could have afforded to ignore the national Rural Health Mission scam had something material reached down the line and initiated a process of converting the idea of dignity into a material claim. They could have ignored all the killings at the behest of ‘non-Bahujan’ MLAs of the party, had it not meant Dalits themselves being the victims in most of the cases.

Mayawati had forgotten the most important lesson of the last assembly elections that it was as much her victory as was the defeat of Mulayam Singh Yadav led Samajwadi party. The ‘goondaraj’ of the regime had hinted than anything, just about anything would be better than that. She could have chosen not to return the favour. She woke up to all this, but way too late. By that time, the process of polarization was already reaching its crescendo. At one hand, the electorate had decided to punish the pretenders that came in the garbs of Congress and BJP and on the other, geared up for a fight for dominating the turf. And they did that by channeling all anti-BSP votes into the SP coffers.

The end result was part satisfying, part harrowing. The results have shown that the days of upper-caste lordships are over. Now, it’s a struggle between the erstwhile deprived ones. The sad part is that this struggle is not a healthy competition but a dirty fight to finish turning victims into perpetrators and vice versa. Those who should have been natural allies are out on prowl for each other.

Remember, the victory is not really such a landslide as it seems to be. The difference is just of 3 percentage points implying that the Dalits are standing firmly with BSP, and OBCs with SP. The point, now, is to build a bridge between them instead of barricading them into warring camps. That would be the spontaneous and natural alliance among the masses, and whoever starts that will be the master of history.

March 07, 2012

A descent into hope: Encounters with Nature’s own Country!

[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in UTS VOICE 1-15 March, 2012]

Descent. It is not just a word. It is a sluice gate that opens up a barrage of feelings hitherto confined in the heart with the brain firmly in control. It sends shivers down my spine, make me uneasy.I did never like the phenomenon associated with it. My aversion to the word was so near complete that even while trekking in serene, and surmountable, Shivalik ranges, after a climb instead of starting the descent I would tell my friends to go back.

The aversion might have come from all those stories of hope that made ‘rise’ such a sweet word. I was growing up in an environment where everything seemed to be on the rise, at cataclysmic pace at times. The country was rising, the economy was rising,the hopes were rising and so was everything else. Internalization, they call it. We had internalized the very idea of ‘rise’ incarcerating ourselves, in the process, into a prison of our own making. This was not an ordinary prison; it was one we had willingly chosen. It was one with just one window opening into all that was green.

Our backs were turned firmly on the despair that was descending on the countryside,something which would later be called rural distress of an unprecedented kind. Farmers, for the first time in the Indian history, were committing suicides en mass, lands were being taken away and people had started fleeing the countryside. We were rising, we were dreaming of becoming a super power by 2020 even when the silent majority of the country was descending into an era of distress and footloose migration.

We did not see any of that. We were on something like an auto-edit mode. Anything associated with descent, with fall, was consigned to the recycle bin that existed, invisibly, in our brains. Those were the times to rewrite everything that had a ‘fall’ in it. More creative of the lot was not getting satisfied merely with reworking idioms, it was actually into rephrasing the phrases that had defined us for centuries. The times were best captured in the tag line given to his movie Taal by none other than the ‘showman’ of the times, Subhash Ghai. He was telling us, cheekily, not to ‘fall, but to rise in love. Thank heavens (wherever they are), that they did not rename all the real ‘falls’ or we would have been visiting Kempty Rise, Dhuandhar Rise and so on!

The ones in the driving seat were particularly unhappy with descent and not only for the fact that it rhymed with that other word they feared the most- dissent. They were mortally scared of anything that could threaten their centuries-old; in fact millennia-old grip over power. They had not let anyone of a different descent than their own come anywhere close to power. They had built a foolproof system of administering miseries and keeping people of a different and lowly, according to them, descent while also segregating them by granting them differential access to those in power. So some suffered more, some less and the ones suffering less were kept in perennial enmity with those suffering more.

Then came democracy, the wretched thing that the ones in the driving seat hated the most. They were never the only ones who were enterprising enough to keep all others in subjugation, but they were the only ones with the right descent! Their lineage was their claim to power. Democracy changed it all. It gave the enterprising ones in the hitherto depressed castes and classes that formed the silent majority of India, their first shot on reclaiming all that had been snatched away from them.

Soon, a new class of leadership emerged,and this one stunned the former rulers with their rustic charm. Like Lalu Yadav they came riding not on chariots but buffaloes and endeared themselves to the masses. They spoke a language that was shunned by the elite. They took pride in their surnames that were considered to be lowly till the other day and displayed it on everything that belonged to them, right from their cars to official bungalows. They had started infusing a sense of pride in their people, who were not even human enough for the previous regimes.

They realized the power of their numbers and put it to some real good use. In a democratic system that operated on the principle of first past the post, the strategy was destined to good dividends and so it happened. They had drawn their first blood and it was to be merely followed by more successes. Ah, the master collaborators had lost the plot for good. Undoubtedly, they remained at the helm of social and economic life of the nation but their hold on political power was gone. But then, losing control over political power leads to loss of economic monopolies doesn’t it?

Now, the hierarchy imbued in castes and surnames has met its nemesis and lineages stood staring into inevitable defeat. The phenomenon of descent has started its descent into doom. The rulers, previous ones I mean, were bound to hate the word more than any other.

But then, people and communities do grow up. Okay, I concede that there are fanatics of all hues and cry, saffron ones being the most dominant one in our country, who have refused to do so but then I was talking of people, the human beings, wasn’t I? After all, expecting traits that are essentially human from people who take pride in calling themselves an army of monkeys, aka Bajarang Dal is our fault, not theirs! They have chosen to descent into precivilization barbarianism so let it be.

Descent, I have realised, was not that negative a word. The only descent I still had a problem with remained that of an aircraft I was flying in. Believe me, every announcement of us approaching the airport and starting our ‘descent’ gave me goosebumps. My ears would hurt much before the plane begins to lose height and there are real changes in the air pressure inside. The physical uneasiness would then slowly convert into psychological wanderings like what to expect of the place. And most of all, the lights glittering out of the city life would inevitably make me think of millions of those who are yet to know what electricity really is. In short, the same city which looked so fascinating, so inclusive from changes when seen from a landing aircraft.

Further, aerial views almost always killed the ‘character’ of the city beneath. All those beautiful streets that defined it, the crowded lanes which set the pace of its life get whitewashed by the high mast floodlights. You could no longer make a Banaras out of New Delhi and Phnom Penh and Hong Kong looked exactly the same. The descents, for me, butchered the persona of the city. They were all so different, yet so similar.

Not this time though. I had listened to the pilot’s announcement of our impending descent with all the disquiet it evokes for me, and the disquiet had, almost instinctively,made me peep out of the window and into the city I was going to be in for the next week. I was stunned, in fact, that is still an understatement of what I really felt about. Where had all those high-rises gone? The failure to locate a single ugly thing otherwise called as residential tower was something as exhilarating as confusing? Were we landing in the right city? Had our plane, somehow, been diverted to some other place?

The fears were almost immediately allayed by the second announcement of the pilot. We actually were going to land in Kochi, a town that looked like an ocean of green from that height. I had never had a descent more beautiful than that. It was a moment of revelation, a moment when truth gets somehow illuminated with all its magnificence. It was, in the words of Virginia Woolf, a moment of being.

I was not bothered if Kerala was God’s own country or not anymore. It was Nature’s very own beyond doubt. I knew, intuitively, that I need to brace up for all those encounters with beauty that were in the offing. In any case, the drive to Thrissur was going to throw many of them at me. The city(or villages?)Just out of the Kochi international Airport has a distinctive old world charm. The FM radio in the cab was put to some channel belting out melodious Hindi songs of the 1970s, and before I could even wonder about a Malyali listening to Hindi songs Purushottam bhai, the driver, has shot his first question at me, ‘Aap kahan se aaya Sir? My encounters with the hospitality Kearala is famous for had begun.

This is not to suggest, though, that I had much time to think about hospitality. The road was narrow, and serpentine despite being in the plains. It was spotlessly clean too, defying North Indian logic system of mine. Clearly, Red in Kerala has always flied high and was not supposed to be seen as stains on the road, as it is in Pan-loving-roads-dirtying North Indian order of the things.

Then, it opened up to the National Highway. This one, too, was nothing like the ones we have here. The drive was unbelievably smooth and there were no ‘horny’ men honking behind. They waited, patiently (they really did) at the Toll Plaza as well. Two hours in Kerala and I was already into my third shock.

I was in Thrissur now, a temple town which seemed to be irrevocably obsessed with gold, cleanliness and Mundu (the wrap on clothe for men). Everyone seemed to wear them, and they, in turn, seemed to emerge as a challenge to class differentials otherwise so unabashedly manifested by the style of clothing. Thrissur, in fact Kerala, did not seem to bother much with class. I concede that there must be some remnants not accessible to my untrained eyes but then it must be doing far better than rest of India even in that case.

I could not help but ask Navin, a firebrand human rights activist about the same. Now,talking to Navin is an experience unto itself. He does not speak much of Hindi, Urdu or English and Malayalam is as alien to me as it can get. But then, conversations are not that dependent on language as we often make them to be. He spoke at length, I listened in a state of almost enthralled silence and at the end of it all I knew that the phenomenon had got something to do with Narayan Guru’s movement against caste based hierarchies and his idea of replacing God with an image of the self, in a mirror. Well, I had read about Narayan Guru and his movement earlier,
Sri Narayan Guru, Indian Social Reformer but understood it only that day.

Replacing God with the image of one’s own was something like instilling the idea of divinity among those who were condemned to live in a perennial dehumanized state of being. This was like reclaiming humans out of those destined to slavery based on their descent. On top of all that, it was achieved by subverting the very idea of divinity. I was in God’s own country,just that the Gods here were more human than the Gods themselves. Here, the brokers between the supposed divinity and their human devotees had been done away with. If only we could repeat the experience in the North!

Navin wanted me to roam around the streets, especially in the area called city-centre. City center is a circular drive concentric with the temple and houses everything from swanky automobile showrooms to eateries. I signaled an auto-rickshaw and asked him for taking me there. So he did, and the meter said 13 rupees! 13 rupees in all! This was going to remain the same over my 6 days spent in the temple town. I got fleeced just once, that too when the guy charged me 40 rupees, and having become an auto-rickshaw veteran I knew that was overcharging by a margin! Think of it, just six days in Kerala and I was shocked at getting fleeced and not the other way round!

Decent too rhymes with descent, remember?

However, I could sense that there was something more than was meeting my eyes. And then, it dawned upon me. Most of the eateries, including my all-time favorite Indian Coffee House, were selling both pork and beef together with all other vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies. And one did not really need to be a rocket scientist to see that their patrons consisted of all religious groups. Selling beef in a country where Giriraj Kishors of Vishwa Hindu Parishad keep declaring life of a cow being more important than that of a Dalit was a revelation in itself, it sharing space with pork was a lesson in pluralism. I was in God’s own country, but this God was not the regular one.

If only, we could import this virtue of respecting everyone’s preferences including the culinary ones without deploying religion as a menacing weapon of making others conform to our worldviews! Whoever this ‘our’ is! I had cancelled my plans of visiting the temple. One does not need Gods to streamline affairs of a community of human beings, does one? And yes, I was bewildered that no one seemed to be particularly interested in my surname, aka caste! No one looked at me with curious eyes and a pause when I introduced myself with merely my first name. No one seemed to stop or repeat that in a last-ditch effort of extracting out my surname (and my caste with it). I am sure that there may be remnants of caste as well, but then they certainly would not be of that order as in the North.

Thrissur seemed to have quite a large number of North Indian migrant labours easily distinguishable from the locals both for their complexion and the pants instead of the Mundus. They looked happy, not in the least for there are no menaces like Raj Shrikant Thackerays here threatening them to go back or facing the consequences. You see, descent is not much of an issue even in political life of Kerala! God’s own country it is or not, Narayana Guru’s it is. I was thinking, on my flight back, of when would we have our own Keralas?