Category Archives: Society

When falcons turned pigeons

    In your whole life will not get repaid
    Loan on sister’s marriage incurred,
    Every drop of blood
    Sprinkled in the fields
    Will not provide colour
    Enough to paint the face
    Of a serene smiling person.
    To add to it further
    All the nights of life put together
    Will not count down the stars of the sky;
    Then, friends, let us, indeed,
    In pursuit of the flying eagles proceed.

- an excerpt from Uddian Baaja Magar,a poem by Paash,  translated by Tejwant Singh Gill

(The original word in Punjabi translated above as as eagles is “baaj”. I prefer the translation as “falcon”, for various reasons, though technically eagles is correct.)

Paash would have turned 60 later this year. When the Naxalite spring thunder roared 42 years ago, he was just 18. He went on, along with others like Lal Singh Dil, Sant Ram Udassi, Harbhajan Halvarvi, Darshan Khatkar and Amarjit Chandan to found what came to be known as the era of “jhujaru” (literally “fighting” or struggle) poetry in Punjabi. This was in sharp  contrast to the romantic oeuvre of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. In Punjab, divided on language throughout the 20th century, similar poetry was evident earlier in the Urdu revolutionary poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi.  Paash was briefly imprisoned during the Naxalite surge, and he moved to the United States in the 1980s where his family lived and still does.

It is remarkable that Paash’s poetry caught on only after his death in 1988, when he fell victim to  Khalistani terrorism. The Left-inclined activists came in for sharp attack; indeed Jarnail Singh Bhinderawale had termed the communists in the state to be even more dangerous than the Central government, headed then by what he called the “daughter of the brahamans” (“Bamana di dhee”), Mrs. Indira Gandhi. This is not the place to go in for a discussion on the politics of the1980s. However, it does form the backdrop to Paash’s untimely and brutal death as well as the resurgence for his poetry. In contrast, Lal Singh Dil (who converted to Islam and migrated to Uttar Pradesh, unlike the Jatt Sikh Paash), came into brief prominence just before his death only a couple of years ago in the backdrop of Dalit assertion in Indian politics.
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Dr. Ambedkar: “Our very own Buddha”

Janhavi Acharekar reviews the autobiography by Dalit writer, Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke: The Autobiography of a Community, “a feminist critique … and sordid memoir of a cursed community.” The book was first published in Marathi in 1986 and is recently translated into English.
The Prisons We Broke is a graphic revelation of the inner world of the Mahar community in Maharashtra. “We were just like animals, but without tails,” she says, describing in lurid detail a world of lice-infested rags for saris, feasts comprising maggot-ridden innards of diseased carcasses, the tearing hunger of starving new mothers, babies cleaned with saliva instead of soap, and intestine-damaging cactus pods consumed to quell hunger.

Born to an entrepreneurial father, the author’s “privileged background” barely keeps her above the abject poverty suffered by her people. Her English-speaking aajas or grandfathers were butlers to European sahibs, far removed from their poverty-stricken and superstition-ridden Maharwada that lay on the fringes of society. However, for the author, it is a world of buffalo fairs and sacrifice, of people possessed by spirits and boys offered to the mother goddess as potrajas. She recounts vividly the people of Maharwada, their houses and customs, their joys and sorrows. Women, especially, occupy pride of place in the narrative.

Baby Kamble’s autobiography is unique because in critiquing Brahminical domination, it also speaks out for the women of her community, presenting an unflinching portrait of its women, subjugated by both caste and patriarchy (later, the same women become the driving force towards education). The younger women suffer the worst fate. Usually married off at the age of eight or nine, they are often physically chained or have their noses chopped off for incurring the displeasure of their husbands or in-laws. And it is in these circumstances that she embraces the teachings of Dr. Ambedkar, their saviour and messiah, their “very own Buddha”.

The Prisons We Broke is significant because it traces the evolution of the Mahar community from pre-Ambedkar days to its rapid transformation through education and mass conversion. It presents the seeds of a revolution through images of impromptu speeches and bold entries into temples, of poems in praise of the man who rescued them from the mire of Hinduism, their “Baliraja, Ravan, Buddha and Bhim”. However, she also contributes to the deification of Ambedkar (“…he is our God. Nay, he is even better; he is the god of gods…He is certainly superior to God.”) and is sharply critical of the current generation of educated Dalits that rejects its roots and drives Babasaheb out of its life.

Related Post: Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panthers

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Nazi Literature in South America and India

Roberto Bolano in his recently translated novel Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings.Not all writers were,however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short- the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length. Marked by sharply etched portraits of the writers and of their equally imaginary writings, the novel reads like a racy potboiler, except that there is no evident plot in the novel. Only the last story (which readers of Bolano’s novel Distant Star will be familiar with because it is a summary of the same novel) is somewhat longer and has Bolano himself speaking in the first person and somewhat gives the clues to the underlying impulses behind the novel.

In this he recounts the story of Ramirez Hoffman, a Chilean air plane pilot who seemingly heralded a ‘new era’ in Chilean arts after the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Hoffman’s poetry is written in the sky using smokes from his air plane thus announcing the new blend of technology and arts as Chile was ‘recovering its manhood’ under a military dispensation.Some of Hoffman’s poems, all one liners written on the skies, read as follows:

“YOUTH…YOUTH”
“GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE IN DEATH”
“LEARN FROM FIRE”
“Death is friendship”
“Death is Chile”
“Death is responsibility”
“Death is growth”
“Death is communion”
“Death is cleansing” and so on till “Death is resurrection” and the generals themselves realize that something is amiss. It is, however, something far more macabre that leads to his downfall.

Bolano’s prose is marked by the alacrity of flash fiction (which to me is one of the most important developments in literature in the internet age), but nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The absence of an explicit plot in the story does not mean that there is no plot- as a post- modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.

The point that he makes is that Nazi- like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics, and neither is politics outside the realm of poetry and literature.

Reading the novel, I could not but relate very much to India where, interestingly, it is rather normal to have politicians, in the tradition of rulers of the past like Bahadur Shah Zafar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, to double up as poets and writers. It is therefore not unusual that two major contemporary politicians- Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister and a present Chief Minister of Gujarat respectively, belonging to what is easily the closest we have to a fascist political movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have some claim to being poets.

To look for Nazi literature in India, one does not need biographies of imaginary writers. In India, they live among us, in our times. The question of literature and politics being separate also does not arise. They are so intricately tied up that both are the same. The nightmare and the muse.

Related Posts on Roberto Bolano

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NREGA- The Road Ahead

A group of researchers working with Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh writing in the latest issue of EPW (alternate link) focus on how the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) marks a shift from any earlier rural development schemes and how it needs to progress. They assess the learning from the last two years of its implementation and forcefully reiterate why it must be implemented, and not scrapped.

Some of the key things that they highlight are:

  • it is a development programme and not a dole programme chipping in with crucial public investments for creation of durable public assets. Its emphasis on water conservation, drought and flood proofing is critical for rural transformation in the most backward areas of the country
  • it makes a complete break with past practices of hiring contractors, the worst oppressors of the rural worker
  • There is a meticulous process for social audit
  • An unprecedented emphasis on transparency and social audits

The key challenges in implementing the scheme in some of the districts that the researchers have surveyed are:

  • Lack of professionals and under- staffing in fulfilling the scheme. At many places staff has not been appointed at all or NREGS responsibilities have been added to existing staff like BDOs and JEs. They quote the recent CAG report that finds that 52% of the 513 gram panchayats it surveyed had not appointed EGAs (Employment Guarantee Assistant)
  • Bureaucratic delays
  • Lack of peoples’ planning and grassroots social activism
  • Inappropriate payment rates since the NREGA uses the old Schedule of rates meant for work through contractors and makes it difficult for gram panchayats to cost work
  • No real social audits taking place at the grassroots level

There are quite a few proposals that the paper makes for speeding up delivery as promised by the NREGA. These include staffing the scheme appropriately (the paper provides a detailed calculation for costing), creating personnel capacity by introducing 1 year diploma courses for implementing the NREGA and above all recommend the use of information technology to bypass bureaucratic delays and provide transparency.

They conclude:

Over the last 20 years, governments so committed to an agenda of reforms for the corporates, appear to have absolutely nothing to offer to their main constituency, the rural poor. On the contrary, with the pressure on the state to shrink, expansion in scale of programmes is increasingly attempted using under-paid, poorly qualified “worker-volunteers”.5 Corners must be cut when it comes to the rural poor. Anything for them, it appears, can be of the lowest quality. Of course, we must also recognise that even during the Nehru-era, rural development was never seen as a professional activity. The legacy of Gandhian anti-state anarchism, where people know best and can manage their affairs on their own, without any external help, only reinforced this tendency.The left, fighting for the very right of the public sector to survive, appears to have become so defensive as to completely overlook the need for reforms, long overdue in a sector marked by massive corruption and complete non-accountability towards the “public”.

The NREGA ranks among the most powerful initiatives ever undertaken for transformation of rural livelihoods in India. The unprecedented commitment of financial resources is matched only by its imaginative architecture that promises a radically fresh programme of rural development. However, for NREGA to realise its potential, it must focus on raising the productivity of agriculture in India’s most backward regions. This can then lead further to the creation of allied livelihoods on the foundation of water security. This is also the only way we can envision a decline in the size of the work guarantee over time, as public investment under NREGA leads to higher rural incomes, that in turn spurs private investment and greater incomes and employment

Read the full paper at EPW or here. 

Link to Govt of India’s site on NREGA

Related Post: A Chinese Road for Rural India

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Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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The Deafening Silence of Dalits in Punjab

One of the striking aspects of Punjab politics is the near absence of caste as a major factor during elections. It is not that the factor is wholly absent, but in contrast to even its neighboring states like Haryana and Rajasthan, it is much less in evidence, to say nothing about states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra or Tamil Nadu, where caste is most visibly present, politically and otherwise.It would seem that this apparent non- chalance about caste in the state is because of the influence of a ‘casteless’ Sikh religion. Sikhism was certainly a most strident attack on casteism in the medieval period. The Guru Granth Sahib, for example, contains the writings by many saints including Guru Ravidas, a chamar. Guru Nanak also initiated the practice of langar- collective feasts where people from various dined together and thus helped blunt caste antagonism.The last guru, Gobind Singh initiated baptism and gave the new adherents the common suffix of Singh/ Kaur, further dealing a blow to identification by caste name. Guru Nanak, like most Sufi/ Bhakti saints, makes no reference to the Gita, that many consider upholds the caste system. So different is the treatment of caste from mainstream Hinduism that Dr. BR Ambedkar seriously contemplated conversion to Sikhism much before he decided in favour of Buddhism. It is not certain why he changed his decision, but one of the conjectures is that the (upper caste) Sikh theologians were appalled at the thought of millions of converted Dalit Sikhs taking over their religious institutions and thus changing the power equations.Like any other conjecture, this may or may not be true. But the main idea certainly deserves a discussion. After Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s consolidation of the twelve warring misls in early 19th century, it is a fact that the jats more or less controlled both the political and in the last half century also the religious institutions (via the SGPC).

But the roots of the caste consolidation within Sikhism go further back- to the time of the gurus. This needs to be understood well so that one does not make the same mistake as three Sikh organisations recently did, when they termed the vision of the Sikh gurus as the creation of a casteless society:

Three organizations also want to make use services the sants and dera heads to ensure assimilation of Dalits in rural areas in the mainstream. At many places, Dalits are denied entry into gurdwaras and also denied access to Guru Granth Sahib for religious ceremonies, including marriage and antim ardas. This problem has been creating rift among rural Sikh masses and need to be stopped as the Sikh Gurus were for a caste less and classless society. (news report ) (Link via Surinder S. Jodhka’s article in Seminar January 2008: Of Babas and Deras)

The claim of Sikhism as a ‘caste less’ religion needs to be critically examined. Historian JS Grewal has pointed out, for example, that “Guru Nanak does not conceive of equality in social and economic terms.” (quoted in Scheduled Castes in the Sikh Community by Harish K. Puri). Guru Nanak’s rejection of caste was thus mainly in religious terms.

The Sikh gurus’ attack on caste ism, though admirable by medieval standards, did not go far enough, and was a far cry from modern sensitivities towards caste.

For example, till the SGPC was formed, the Sikh religious institutions were by and large controlled by the Khatri castes (the mahants). Much before that, the Sikh gurus, including Nanak had ensured that the guru- ship remained within the hands of the Khatris. No doubt it was a great achievement for the first four gurus to pass on the gaddi outside their family- something that is difficult to even conceive today with politicians and film actors passing on the baton to the next generation within their family. The trend changed significantly after the fifth guru who switched to the practice of retaining the guru- ship within the family.

However, even the first four gurus including the greatest of them all- Nanak, ensured that the guru ship remained within their own caste. All marriages in the guru families were within the Khatri sub- castes. A major, if not the determining aspect of the caste system- endogamy, therefore was retained in Sikh practice.

Even contemporary Sikhs have not taken any major reforms for eliminating the caste system. There have been probably more marriages between Hindus and Sikhs within the same caste than within Sikhs across the castes- this is likely to be true about the Khatris and the Dalit Sikhs/ Hindus, two castes that overlap between the two major religious communities in the state.

Caste distinctions are relatively stronger in rural Punjab. With the economic rise of some sections of Dalits, there has been a spate of separate Dalit gurudwaras in the state. In urban areas probably the distinction is less antagonistic, though not absent. In some places like Jalandhar, for example, the leather trade and production of leather related sports goods for a long time ensured that it was possible for at least some sections of Dalits to wade themselves out of extreme poverty and concentrate on economic development.

However, it is a different story in the rural areas where majority of the landless and agricultural workers are Dalits. The only Dalit leader in the state Communist Party of India in the past many decades was the one heading the agricultural workers front. Indeed, most Communist leaders in the state have and continue to come from among the Jats and Khatris with perhaps the sole exception of Mangat Ram Pasla who was shunted out of the CPI(M) few years ago (he is not a dalit, but a nai, a backward caste). Most of the key Akalis are Jat Sikhs. Relatively the Congress party has offerred slightly more space to backward caste and dalit Sikhs- like Giani Zail Singh (a tarkhan, a relatively backward caste) and Buta Singh, a Dalit Sikh. A majority of the SGPC members are Jats.

Given the continuing presence of caste antagonism, it is indeed quite spectacular that caste remains not only relatively subdued during election time, but is also not very powerfully expressed in other areas. For example, though there was a strong literary movement in Punjabi between the 1950s- 70s, there has been an absence of an identifiable Dalit literary stream in Punjabi. There have been, indeed, poets from a Dalit background- Lal Singh Dil and Sant Ram Udasi come immediately to mind, but both identified themselves with the jujharu or the naxalite influenced movement rather than as dalits (though they are contemporary with the Dalit Panthers movement in Marathi literature.)

The Bahujan Samaj Party, whose founder Kanshi Ram, incidentally was a Dalit Sikh, has made little headway in the state. One tactical mistake that the BSP made was to ally with the Jat dominated Akali party, the party of their immediate oppressor, during the late 1990s. Its electoral debacle and the subsequent disillusionment among its cadres has ensured that it remains a marginal political force in the state, though of late it has gained ground in terms of percentage of votes polled.

Many dalits from various parties including the communist and the Congress parties who joined the BSP have returned to their original ones or have at least left the BSP- disillusioned with its culture and factionalism though, happily, some have come back with renewed assertion as dalits.

The Dalit question has recently come into limelight in context of the controversy around the burgeoning deras and baba cults in the state. As Surinder Jodhka cautions in the article quoted above, though these deras are certainly manifestation of a pluralistic culture in the state and attract many dalits, it is too optimistic to see them as places of dalit assertion. One of the footnotes in his article highlighting the contradiction between the interest of the deras and the dalits is quite illuminating:

The following statement of my taxi driver who took me to visit some deras in the Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts of Punjab is instructive. ‘I am a Scheduled Caste fellow. I do not own any land. Most of our people own no land. Everyone should have some land. If not more, at least two acres for each family. It would give people a sense of security and dignity. Look at these deras. They own so much land; some even more than a thousand acres. There should be some law to limit the amount of land that a baba keeps and the rest should be distributed among people like us.’My driver Buta Singh did not mean any disrespect to the babas. He not only paid obeisance to all the deras we visited, but was upset that I did not show sufficient reverence for the babas we visited. He firmly believed in their supernatural powers and ability to do good.
Whether because of super natural reasons or otherwise, there is certainly no identifiable dalit assertion in the state, politically or otherwise. Most of the attention to their identity has been highlighted by academicians and journalists. There seems to be neither a political, literary or any other manifestation of their assertion in the state despite having the highest proportion of scheduled castes in the country (almost 30% of the state’s total population.)There is a deafening silence on part of dalits in Punjab. One wonders why, and for how long.

*****

Notes:-
(1) It needs to be remembered that Brahmins in the state are not the dominant caste, a role usurped by the jats in rural areas and the khatris in urban areas. In this, the state does not adhere to the pattern in many other regions in the country.

(2) Sikhs in Punjab constitute aout 63% of the population. About 30% of the population is classified as Dalits (mainly scheduled castes, there are no scheduled tribes in Punjab.) About 80% of the Dalits live in rural areas. The share of Sikhs in rural areas is 73%, implying that Punjab villages are predominantly Sikh and Dalit. (All statistics from Harish Puri’s article linked in “Related Articles”.) The Dalits also have one of the lowest percentage of land holdings,a measly 2.34% (Quoted in Ronki Ram, article linked in “Related Articles”.)

Related Posts:
Dalits and the Left: A Troubled Relationship
Wadali Brothers: Sufism and Dalit Emancipation
Imagining Punjab in the Age of Globalization
Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism
Significance of being Kanshi Ram: An Obituary

Related articles (.pdf files):

Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community by Harish K Puri
Punjab Census- Scheduled Caste Data by Surinder S. Jodhka
Of Deras and Babas b Surinder S. Jodhka


Myth of Casteless Sikh Society by Ronki Ram

Caste and Religion in Punjab by Meeta and Rajiv Lochan
Dera Sacha Sauda by Lionel Baxas
Split Dalit Votes- Punjab Elections 2004 by (unsigned in EPW)

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Journalism- Then and Now

The 12th anniversary issue of Outlook (link via Abi) carries a discussion on the changes in journalism in the last twelve years, though I’d say that the changes started in the late 1980s.

Some of the most incisive insights are by P. Sainath. Here are a few excerpts from the discussion. All the comments below are by Sainath.

The biggest trend is the growing disconnect between the mass media and the mass reality. A very tiny Indian press, for a hundred years, served a very large social purpose, and tried to speak for the masses. Today, paradoxically, a gigantic Indian press serves a very narrow social purpose, which continues to narrow everyday

If 80 per cent of your revenues comes from advertising, and 20 per cent from sales—what that means is you’re going to give advertisers four times the importance you give readers. Their preferences and priorities take precedence

You see it in the simplest and most direct way: the organisation of beats.

Many beats have become extinct. Take the labour correspondent: when labour issues are covered at all, they come under the header of Industrial Relations, and they’re covered by the business correspondent. That means they’re covered by the guy whose job is to walk in the tracks of corporate leaders, and who, when he deigns to look at labour, does it through the eyes of corporate leaders. Now find me the agriculture columnist—in most newspapers, the idea doesn’t exist any more. If you lack correspondents on those two beats, you’re saying 70 per cent of the people in this country don’t matter, I don’t want to talk to them, they don’t make news.

That is, until the elections, when they screw the media’s happiness

Everyone keeps dividing journalism into serious and non-serious journalism—it’s a bogus division. What is called non-serious journalism is in fact a very serious business proposition, or at least it’s perceived as that by the media owners. They divide journalism into what’s serious…and what makes revenue.

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