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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?

September 11, 2012

Ban corruption, not banish the cartoonist.

[This is an AHRC Article]

The arrest of Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist and a member of India against Corruption, is not only ridiculous but also a telling comment on the paranoia that has set in the government circles and deserves all the outrage it has caused. In fact, the only thing more ludicrous than the arrest itself is the reason cited by the Mumbai Police for the arrest. Mr Trivedi has been booked for nothing less than sedition and showing disrespect to national emblem on a private complaint filed by an advocate who, incidentally, also happens to be a member of a political party in the line of fire for many of its leaders being charged with corruption charges.

On being asked about the reason behind the arrest, Mumbai Police attributed it to 'procedural formality' on a complaint filed under section 124 A charging Mr. Trivedi with 'showing disrespect to the National Emblem' and putting up 'ugly and objectionable content' on his website. The facts of the case, however, tell a very different story. The cartoons in question include one where he replaced four lions of India's national emblem with wolves and a caption 'bhrshtmev jayate'(Corruption wins) instead of official 'satyamev jayate'(truth wins). The message oozing out of the cartoon was loud and clear, that corruption is devouring the nation. Does Mumbai Police think it is not?

Similar was another cartoon of his where he depicted the Parliament building as a toilet. Hard hitting it was, but with more than one third of India's parliamentarians charged with grave offenses including murder and rape, this is what an average Indian thinks of it. It is such parliamentarians and the system that refuses to cleanse itself of them, and not Aseem, that insults the parliament. He was just telling a truth, however bitter, but still a truth. All other cartoons of his tell the tales of miseries inflicted on the body politic of Indian nation by the very same people who are constitutionally obligated to protect it. If someone needed to be charged with sedition, it should had been those in such authority for making a mockery of India, its people and citizenry included.

The concerns regarding his arrest, though, do not stop at the preposterousness of it. It is the same police, after all, which takes no action against the likes of Raj Shrikant Thackeray, the leader of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, who spits venom against the North Indians working in the metropolis almost on a daily basis. Not only that, neither the police nor the government seem to be bothered with his calls to violence against the migrant labour in the city that get duly carried out by his party. Forget that, Mumbai Police did never show any intent to bring him to books for inciting his legislators for comitting a physical assault on Abu Azmi, a legislator, inside the assembly house for the 'crime' of taking oath in Hindi, an official language of Indian state. Insulting the assembly by engaging in acts of violence, perhaps, is not as serious a threat to the nation as Aseem's cartoons.

Similar, almost legendary in fact, has been Mumbai Police's inaction on the words and deeds of Bal Thackeray, leader of Shiv Sena who have gone to the extent of calling upon Hindus to form 'suicide armies' to wipe out 'Muslims'. Mumbai Police did not find even such an open call for violence against Indian citizens seditious enough to act upon. Evidently, it has its own idea of crime, one that is markedly different from that outlined in the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. It picks and chooses the 'crimes' irrespective of fact of any criminality being attached to them or not.

Neither is the case of Aseem a standalone case of such miscarriage of both the procedure and justice. People with vested interests across India have taken recourse to such rancorous filing of charges for stifling the voices of dissent. They do it, on top of that, in courts spread all over the country and make the respondent's life hell. The case of famous actress Khushboo readily comes to mind against whom 22 criminal cases had been registered for advising women to take adequate protection if they indulged in pre marital sex. The very fact that these many cases can be filed in different courts for such an innocuous, and necessary, opinion exposes the threat to freedom of expression and speech in India. Similar had been the plight of many others subjected to deal with such frivolous cases for having the courage to say what they believe in.

Interestingly, these self-appointed custodians of morality, patriotism, culture, or whatever else do never get offended about the comments that really are hateful. For example, I do not remember anyone rushing to file cases against Acharya Giriraj Kishore of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for saying that lives of cows are far more important than that of Dalits, a comment that is not only offensive but also criminal for being discriminatory against a section of Indian society. Likewise, no one felt offended enough with Ashok Singhal of the same organization for calling upon Hindus to 'repeat Gujarat experiment all over India' and thus giving an open call for violence against Muslims.

Unmistakably, what offends these 'custodians' is any opinion that is capable of challenging the status quo that they derive their power and position from. They get affronted with any opinion that challenges the hierarchies that place them where they are. They get slighted with any belief that aims at breaking the backbone of graded inequalities that define the nation called India and act upon them. Yet, they too have a right to their opinion if it is not an outright call to violence or involves any other element of criminality including hate speech. That is the catch of a democracy, that we just cannot silence any opinion just like that.

How does the same democracy, then, silence the dissenters? The answer to this question exposes the enormity of the problem and the grave consequences it would have for the democracy if it is left unattended to. It were, earlier, a bunch of right wing thugs, that used to try stifling voices that were different from what they wanted to listen to. Now, the state is taking up their job. It listens to fundamentalist Muslims and bans Lajja, a novel by Taslima Nasreen and stops Salman Rushdie from attending famous annual event named The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). It listens to the Hindu fundamentalists and bans Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India for promoting 'social enmity'. It listens to the Hindu right again and takes The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan off the syllabus of Delhi university. The list of such banned books in the 'largest democracy of the world' is endless.

The point is that the government has learnt the art of using the excuse of 'hurt sentiments' to goad its critics into silence. Stung by the extent of the popular anger directed against its acts of omissions and commissions, it has gotten paranoid about any dissent that comes its way and has started cracking down on them. These are definitely not good signs for the future democracy in the country is a fact that one need not even. Right to freedom of expression is a right guaranteed by the constitution and is a non-negotiable one. The point is how to safeguard it in the face of increasing vigilantism of the state and the consequent assault on the freedom.

The only way ahead is by challenging the legality of such arrests and bringing the perpetrators, police officers in this case, to books. These arrests are illegal on the very face of it and are, therefore, indefensible as Justice (retired) Markandey Katju asserted while speaking in defense of Mr. Trivedi. The police officers, he added, should not get away on the defense that they were carrying orders of their superiors, as carrying out illegal orders cannot be used as a defense and therefore gives no legal protection to the perpetrators, is a well established fact in jurisprudence. 

Punishing such officers is required for another very important reason, for both making the system accountable and holding officers responsible for their act. This would also desist them from following such illegal orders for selfish interests. 

September 09, 2012

Merchant of Mayhem

Prison Is Where Raj Thackeray Belongs To

[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS VOICE, 01-15 September]
His name is Raj Thackeray, Raj Shrikant Thackeray. Note how he spells the ‘Thackeray’ part and the hypocrisy that defines this goon masquerading as a political leader comes tumbling out of the closet. Thackeray, not Thakre is how he spells it; as does his notorious uncle Bal Thackeray who has the dubious distinction of having been disenfranchised by the Election Commission of India for his vitriolic rants against the Muslims.

So much so for these self-designated champions of the cause of Maharashtra State, Marathi language and Marathi Manoos. This is the vulgarity intrinsic to them, choosing an anglicized spelling for their own names and trying to shove Marathi down the throats of poor immigrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They cannot ‘correct’ the colonial relic attached to their very identities and want to rename every single street with a Marathi name, repaint every single signboard in Marathi. They do it, of course, with the ‘Thackeray’ in their names, exposing the reality of their intent to the world.

They have made their money out of targeting the most vulnerable and marginalized people, citizens of India if they remember; they could get hold of in their area while keeping away from all places where the favour could be returned to them by angry masses. And they have invited none less than Michael Jackson for concerts and hosted him in their feared abode called Matoshri. Rumours have it that the then very young Raj Thackeray was in such awe of the singer that he massaged Jackson’s legs tired of dancing but then rumours are rumours and I will leave them there.

And now, more than a decade after organizing Jackson’s concert, the nephew Thackeray is issuing threats to our own legend Asha Bhosle for hosting a music program that would have participants from Pakistan along with Indian competitors. Just think of such a goon masquerading as a politician threatening Asha Tai, as she is fondly referred to by almost everyone in India, and the anger simmering within becomes almost impossible to resist. One feels like suspending all his belief in non-violence and democratic engagements even with the enemy and beat the pulp out of the goon and his cronies, but no, that is what he wants, and his uncle has wanted all his life.

Let us first look at the uncle who had catapulted himself to the political scene of Maharashtra by violently attacking a community, and please do not be shocked about it, that it was not Muslim. The lack of historical sense among us as a nation is what makes us forget the follies and crimes of goons like these and making heroes out of them. We are, sadly, a forgetful community which does neither document its own history nor brings perpetrators of hate crimes to justice. Right from his first ventures in politics, the senior ‘Thackeray’ has targeted South Indians, and not Muslims, as a whole. It did not matter to him if the ‘South Indian’ being targeted was a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or anything else.

Being a ‘lungi wearing’ Southie was enough for inviting the virulent wrath of the Shiv Sena often culminating in violent physical attacks. Physical violence intrinsic to those attacks was dirty enough, dirtier was the emotional violence emanating out of Sena’s chosen diatribes like ‘lungi hatao pungi bajao’ and ‘yendu gundu’. He was out to humiliate a people, again the citizens of the ‘largest democracy of the world’ if one wants to remember, who had the right to live anywhere in country guaranteed by the constitution drafted by someone from the very state, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar. The state that gave us Babsaheb, undoubtedly the greatest Indian ever born, also produced such scumbag Thackerays; irony of our times cannot get worse than this, can it?

Well, back on the issue at hand, senior Thackeray did not stop at that. Having his hands soaked with the blood of hapless ‘southies’, he turned his attentions to others. Gujaratis came in the line of fire first followed by Marwaris. Amusingly, nephew Thackeray’s wrath against the North Indians is not his own but is stolen from the senior Thackeray who had targeted first the ‘Biharis’ and then people from North India as a whole. Interestingly again, this targeting did never include those in the higher echelons of society with even the editor of Hindi version of Saamana, Shiv Sena’s organ, being a North Indian! The attacks were reserved for the poor and hapless, like taxi drivers and hawkers. Another irony intrinsic to these attacks is that they are an outright insult to the legacy of Shivaji who fought on the side of the marginalised all his life and believed in Muslims like Ibrahim Gardi as his lieutenants.

The rise of Shiv Sena has a history behind it. Those were the times when hopes and aspirations of the people of newly independent India had started falling apart. The state was failing them if it had not already failed them that is. Unemployment was on the rise almost across India leaving scores of youth disaffected and disgusted with the system that could not fend for them. With mills shutting down, situation was particularly bad in Bombay (I know it is known as something else now, Thackerays cannot shove that word down my throat). In short, it was a dream come true situation for someone like senior Thackeray. It is not only his name that betrays him being the true servant of bygone colonial raj, even his political philosophy was shaped by colonial policy of divide and rule.

All he needed was finding an enemy and inventing one if there was none. He did exactly that by inventing the South Indians as one. He kept on doing that ever since. His ‘chosen’ enemies would never remain the same; he would change them as per the political exigencies of changing times. As it is, upliftment of Marathi Manoos was never a political agenda he believed in, all he strived for was personal power. That, in fact, was the reason that did the Thackerays apart. The senior one did not only want power but he wanted it to confirm to line of succession he chose, that is to his son and not the nephew. The nephew, however, was a maverick one and he would not agree to that and part ways.

Let’s get back to, though, the question of why did the youth choose to be pawns of Shiv Sena and its murky politics. The answer would, perhaps, be very simple. Humiliated by their circumstances, they had nothing much to believe in their own worth. Then came the Shiv Sena offering them a chance to become law unto themselves. The phenomenon, however, is not limited either to Maharashtra or Shiv Sena; the world had seen enough examples of frustrated youth readily becoming the cannon fodder for politics of hatred even without any tangible achievements but for a guaranteed living in some ghetto. The very fact that they can drag those having resources by their collars gives such disgruntled youth a sense of power. This, then, acts as an intoxication that glues them to the master dividers.

In fact, it is more a failure of the system than the success of such goons. A system that perpetuates inequality cannot do anything but producing such rag tag armies and thus giving Shiv Senas their field days. But then, riding on popular disaffection to power is easier than maintaining it as Shiv Sena and the senior Thackeray was to learn. Alleviating the structural sources of poverty, inequality and injustice was not something Shiv Sena brand of politics was capable of and so it started decaying. The youth, on their part, could also see how the Thackerays were using them to amass property for themselves while leaving nothing to them. They could also see how these champions of Marathi Manoos had no tears for the victims of Khairlanji, who were as original Maharashtrians as they are, They could see that a family getting murdered with its women getting gangraped was much less an insult to ‘Marathi Manoos’ for these scumbags than a signboard in Hindi or English. 

Such realizations mean gloom to merchants of mayhem and so it happened with him. His empire started to crack from within. Quite apt was the fact that he had chosen ‘Marmik’, Hindi/Marathi word for something that evokes pity for his weekly. He was to look like one now. Marmik Thackeray.

Back to the nephew who is worse than the uncle on every single count. This one has made a name for himself much in the same way, by attacking the North Indians for being just that, North Indian and poor. He was not arrested. He has abused Chhat Pooja as a gimmick. (Being a hardliner atheist, I do not have anything much for any religious festivals but then mocking one will amount to incite communal tensions and would thus be a crime, no?). He was not arrested for even that. He has threatened to evict the North Indians from the Metropolis, in what capacity no one knows for he certainly does not have any constitutional authority to do that. He did not pay any price for even that.

Then he commanded his legislators to attack Abu Azmi, a legislator from Samajwadi Party, on the floor of Maharashtra Assembly. Abu’s crime was that he decided to take oath in Hindi, the national language as per our constitution. Nephew Thackeray and his goons went unpunished even for that. No case of sedition was made against them perhaps because such cases are reserved for people like Binayak Sen who work for the dispossessed and marginalized unflinchingly and thus threaten the existence of the system that produces such merchants of mayhem.

Why does that happen? Why do such criminals live with impunity? Why they are not sent to jail, where they belong to? They are not because they serve an important purpose for those in power, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in this case. Raj Thackeray’s real utility lies in two things. First, he serves as the ‘votkatwa’, or the one who divides opposition votes and thus help them ride to power. Second, his antics take the spotlight off from real issues that affect the people. This is why that the nephew Thackeray manages to buy five acres of now defunct Kohinoor Mill land in prime area for peanuts. That is why he is given a free run.

It is just that, we can continue ignoring all this at the cost of the very existence of our nation as a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic. The threat to it comes in the shape of Thackerays. There are too many youth to get swayed by the vicious politics the Thackerays indulge in and the price of letting that happen would be way too high. The threat to Asha Tai might perhaps be our last wakeup call.