October Edition

Dialogue: A Bloody-Green Conservation Effort

The reds and greens of the Kaziranga violence, with Pranab Doley

Founding Editor, Anna Abraham

Farm Acts - The Ever So Private Affair?

The state of Indian Agriculture and the recent Farm Acts

Writer, Kapish Agrawal

Health - A Commodity Not Up For Political Grabs 

The politics of mental health and intersectionality

Managing Editor, muskaan palod

Recall Value: F.N. Souza - Father of Indian Renaissance Art

The glorious revolutionary who illustrated modern India.

Writer, Shreya Gupta

Does the Sentence Ever End?

Has the rehabilitation framework made life post-imprisonment better for inmates?

Managing Editor, Hazel Gandhi

The (Sur)name Game

Will banning surnames lead to liberation from the shackles of caste?

Writer, Sasha Shinde

The Politics of Contact Languages in the Realm of Text Messages

How does a virtual space threated a migrants’ social identity? 

Writer, Niyati Karia

Film: Una Mujer Fantastica - A Look At The Trans Experience

A fiery response to the questions raised about transgender identities

Writer, SP

Book: But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim

 Reaffirming Faith in Multiculturalism against Majoritarianism

Writer, Hunardeep Kaur

 

Dialogue

A Bloody-Green Conservation Effort

The reds and greens of the Kaziranga violence, with Pranab Doley

Written by Anna Abraham

Artwork by Suryansh Deo Srivastava

Kaziranga.

 

Leaves crackle and winds whistle at the royal couple, Prince William and Princess Kate Middleton, and the fleet of security that follows them, as they navigate the animal-scented forest terrain in their open jeep. The couple, donning the Assamese honour scarf ‘Bihuwan’, is escorted to the Bagori Range of the World Heritage Site, where they meet with the pride of Kaziranga - the one-horned rhinoceros. Hours later, only a few kilometres away, another spectacle unfolds – a female rhino is shot down by poachers.

 

These are the headlines that ran in 2016 when the royal couple visited the highly militarised Kaziranga National Park. During his visit, Prince William enquired about the challenges officials faced in the anti-poaching efforts, and here’s the stinger – he also enquired about the park’s requirements of sophisticated weaponry.

 

The state says it has been largely successful in the Kaziranga battle against poaching. The park housed a meagre 100 rhinoceroses in the 1900s and it has risen to a whopping 2000 today. But at what cost has this success come about? What has the mainstream ignored? Who bore the brunt of this ‘conservation effort’? Who was saved, and who was brutalised? Who was revived, and who was killed?

 

Located on the edge of the Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity hotspot, Kaziranga is home to some of the world’s most bewitchingly spectacular species. From the Indian one-horned rhino to the Barasingha deer, its wildlife is enchanting. But Kaziranga is home to another ignored species – the forest dwellers, the indigenous communities, the true wardens of the forest. The sophisticatedly armed forest department has systematically violated, evicted and murdered these communities on the pretence of conservation and anti-poaching – what many call ‘Green Militarisation’.

 

To shed light on this, Pranab Doley, founder of Jeepal Kishak Shramik Sangh and a Kaziranga-based farmers rights activist, speaks of the realities of the indigenous people. Doley has been actively involved in the resistance against the Green Militarisation of Kaziranga. His work has been met with multiple arrests and numerous cases filed against him. He speaks about the violence and abuse of power by the Kaziranga Forest Department, its very colonial foundations, the many foreign stakeholders in the park, and the sheer callousness of the Indian government.

 

 You say that Kaziranga has been a victim of ‘Green Militarisation’? What does this mean? What has occurred to distress the indigenous so?

 

Kaziranga is a border-like scenario – a line of control, and the Kaziranga Forest Department patrols at the border. In a border-like scenario, you can’t be soft on criminals; you may even kill them to protect yourself. This  "border-like" situation is envisaged and implemented by the forest department. For years now, local villagers and youths have been victims of the anti-poaching activities of the Forest Department. Many victims were merely boys – 18 or younger. The department claims they were killed in encounters (since they were mistaken for poachers). Many bodies had signs of torture, so the ‘encounter’ narrative didn’t make sense. The first major strike in the forest struggle was when a 7-year-old boy, Akash Orang, was shot at by a forest guard. To me, Green Militarisation is when you have to find legitimacy in protecting certain species of animals while disregarding the role of indigenous people in preserving forests. It is a very lopsided and reductive idea that believes only force can protect the forest and wildlife.

 

Since the area in question is the North-East, far from Delhi – the stereotypical step-motherly care for it persists.

What about evictions of the indigenous people and the proposals to expand the park? How have the people responded to the new proposal to expand the park by 3000 hectares?

 

What began as a park of a hundred square kilometres is today 4 times that size. Unequivocally, the expansion in Kaziranga has been very arbitrary, undemocratic, and might I add, hideous. Laws of the land are trivialised as they expand the park. Every expansion of Kaziranga has inflicted brutal evictions on the people. In the Bandar Dubi eviction of 2016, they killed two people and forcefully evicted the indigenous from their revenue villages (village land promised to the people by the government). In the newest attempt to expand, they are trying to bring in 3 new additions of a total 3000 hectares to the park. Illegal evictions have already been carried out here. Not a single person has received any compensation yet. The government refuses to take cognisance of the fact that those evicted are entitled to fair rehabilitation and compensations. Violations have occurred at every front, at every step, in every format. Since the area in question is the North-East, far from Delhi – the stereotypical step-motherly care for it persists. The law prescribes that a minimum of 10 lakhs must be paid to a family that is evicted. Not a single penny has come through. Along with the three additions, they want to build a new forest range, one of which, the Bokakhat range, is where I am located.

So, will you have to be evicted then?

 

I mean, it is what it is. That’s what it will come to eventually. I come from a Scheduled Tribe community called Mising. If they declare it as a forest range, and if history is a reliable witness, they will gradually clear the entire community. The area of 190 sq km houses a population of over a lakh. Civil liberties in the area have already been trivialised. Free movement, practising livelihoods, cattle rearing, fishing – everything is restricted. And this when it is still a proposed range, not a completely notified one. The audacity astonishes me. They will never bother with a full-fledged legal notification. They have already built their own offices and anti-poaching camps within the area. They have also violated women, children and the elderly in the area. Attempts of sexual assault have been made.

In an area where evictions are the norm, and are carried out in the name of conservation, how can the government push for more tourism?

Who is to be blamed for ‘green militarisation’?

There are a lot of global politics at play here. A lot of investment is coming in for the green economy. The new buzz is climate change and the question remains how must it be dealt with? The global agenda is to ‘green’ more spaces by turning 30% of the earth’s land into forests. The Indian government wants to turn 33% of its territory into forests. By default these forested areas are in the margins, be it the North-east, South India or the Himalayas. There is this problematic belief that forests and humans cannot co-exist and hence, the innumerable evictions in Kaziranga. Even the colonial structure that the Forest Department is, upholds a feudal system. They have notions of their own powers and territory. And this global agenda of greening more spaces legitimizes their demands for power and more area. In the politics of the elite, the indigenous are made scapegoats. If we must ‘green’ more spaces, who is the victim? Who has to be uprooted? Who has to be thrown out? It is these indigenous lives at stake. Even this agenda is vested in the interest of capital. The interest of the forest department, or the NGOs – that claim to protect nature – are driven by money, not the people  which should be the case in a democratic country. In the name of charity, they collect donations from across the world. They have 6 and 7 digit salaries. What do the local people get? They get thrown out of their homes. In an area where evictions are the norm, and are carried out in the name of conservation, how can the government push for more tourism? It’s obvious, the aim is more capital and more revenue. A classic model of liberalisation has followed Kaziranga. They treat the park as a tourist centre, a profit-making centre.  Tourists pay big money, enjoy night safaris and five-star facilities, while the indigenous are forcefully evicted.

 

Kaziranga has received attention and funding from various organisations across the world. Would that influence the park? What has the World Wildlife Fund’s role been in Kaziranga?

 

Law and order has been diluted and disregarded to meet mandates determined by global targets and big NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Never mind that organisations such as WWF have charges, accusations and allegations against them. As someone who lives in Kaziranga, I have not seen them do anything of value to the people who are the real wardens of Kaziranga – the primary caretakers of the forest. In fact, they have been very opaque in their operations. They claim to train the Forest Department on legal awareness – the process of legally securing Kaziranga. This transcribes to the fact that they are trying to help them be more punitive towards the locals, essentially training them to better use the Wildlife Protection Act – an act, which in itself, is a very anti-indigenous law. This act is against the very ethos of the Forest Rights Act – a law that is supposed to grant rights and substantiate the historical injustice meted out to people living in forested territories. WWF, on paper, may claim a lot of things, but our own lived experience in Kaziranga is testament to the fact that nothing has been done to safeguard the rights of the people of Kaziranga. We have seen them train the forest department on the use of surveillance measures. They also provide them with physical training. Rangers, from extremely militarised national parks, like Kruger in South Africa, are brought in to train the Kaziranga Forest Department. Kruger uses American, British and Australian marines and war veterans as forest guards.

 

Is there a reason that this kind of ‘conservation’ is only used in the north-east?

 

Kaziranga has been used as a laboratory. They are trying to bring in the same sort of immunity in Corbet and many other parks in India. It’s constantly seen as the model that needs to be replicated throughout the country. The amendment that this government was trying to bring to the forest act (granting the same immunity to the forest guards in all the areas of the country) shows that this is soon going to be a reality in most forested areas.

It shows the very fascist nature of this government and it is completely reflective in our authoritarian forest department – completely resembling the government that runs the country.

What has the response been from the community? Has there been any resistance in Kaziranga?

 

There is a resistance, a long-standing one. But the state looks for areas of weakness to destabilise it. The government is yet to heed any attention to it. It shows the very fascist nature of this government and it is completely reflective in our authoritarian forest department – completely resembling the government that runs the country. It’s synonymous with each other. It aids each other’s visions of having an extremely forceful occupation on people’s lives, territories, freedoms and liberties.

 

Has the situation worsened with the NDA government’s rise to power?

 

With this government, there has been a rapid increase in arming and ammunition. There is also an increase in recruitment of guards of various sophistications – paramilitary or military. Draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) resemble the exact situation of armed forest guards in the peripheries of Kaziranga National Park. They can use firearms with maximum impunity.

 

How has Jeepal Kishak Shramik Sangh’s work helped Kaziranga?

 

The issue came into the limelight when Akash Orang, the 7-year-old boy, was shot and the village distress peaked. Internationally, some friends came and wrote about the issue. Gradually people took cognizance of it and started writing about the local’s side of the story. Until then it was only the “hero vs villain” narrative that was popular. The villagers are considered to be deadly poachers, waiting eagerly to kill the rhino. The national media has been busy with the rhino. No one was talking about the human sacrifice side of the issue – even today it’s not taken into consideration. Back then, it was completely blurred. We started filing human rights complaints and cases. A ground level resistance arose. People from the BBC came and made a documentary about it, and organisations like Survival International also helped us.

This is a forest, that is a city – this approach has to go. We need coexistence.

What can be done to help the situation?

 

The only solution to this is local community participation. The boundaries of Kaziranga are populated by our people and we know what happens there. These people are the guardians, the wardens. We identify any elements that have come to do harm or to engage in illegal activities. The Forest Department and the Indian government need to recognise the effort of the people and ensure that they live a dignified life. The locals depend on the forest, and feed and protect the animals and forest life – they get no acclaim. All the credit goes to the NGOs and Forest Department. The government has completely denied local people access to the forest – their food basket, and not offered them an alternative. There should be a proper compensatory mechanism for the loss of property because of wildlife depredation or floods. Since the world is so fixated on the idea of making 30% of its land into forests, they should also take care of the fact that there are humans there, living the most symbiotic lives possible. They deserve to have a basic standard of living. There is a need for the formulation of a basic income scheme for forest dwellers directly affected by the existence of protected areas. If the government can bring in the tourism industry and substantially subsidise them – giving them land for resorts, building five-star facilities – I’m sure the government has enough for the forest dwellers who don’t ask for much and live a fairly simple life. If these measures are not undertaken, the actual wardens (locals) will be repeatedly antagonised and the conflict will increase. If they continue this arbitrary practice of expanding forest areas, it’s will be unsustainable in the long run. We cannot view things in black and white. It’s very complex. This is a forest, that is a city – this approach has to go. We need coexistence. Cities without green spaces do no one any good. Humans from indigenous communities have protected forests for millions of years and forcefully dismantling that relation will only destroy the art. If the indigenous stop taking care of their biodiversity, no one else can. The conversation needs to be about the fundamental rights and dignity of the forest people.

or scroll to continue reading

 

Farm Acts - The Ever So Private Affair?

The state of Indian Agriculture and the recent Farm Acts.

Written by Kapish Agrawal

Artwork by Suryansh Deo Srivastava

It was a fine day in a small town of Andhra Pradesh. Mallappa walked out of his house, saying ‘Nēnu kirāṇā tīsukuṇṭānu (I am going to buy groceries).’ The family members nodded and continued with their tasks. He passed some fields and reached the village market in no time. After making purchases here and there – flowers, incense sticks, coconut, etc – Mallapa went to the locality’s only photo studio. It was time for him to collect a picture that was submitted for lamination a few days back. After some waiting, he had everything that was on the list. 

Instead of walking back home, Mallappa headed outside the village. Just like him, most farmers of the area owned agricultural lands there. Eventually, he stopped near a grave on one of the small land extensions to a farm. It was his father’s. After standing in silence for a few moments, he began placing everything near the headstone. Carefully keeping the last item – the photograph – he walked across his farm to the small resting shade. 

Worried about his father’s whereabouts, Mallappa’s son left in search of him. He crossed all probable routes and consulted a few acquaintances on the way. His father was nowhere to be found. Their farm was the only place left to search. Without any delay, he decided to check. It was not long before that the young boy reached his grandfather’s grave, but found his father’s photograph on it. And Mallappa? He was resting where he always did, with debts and droughts. He made sure to leave all that may be needed. 

As a reader, you may not be alone in mistaking this story for one from post-independent India, or perhaps even Munshi Premchand’s impressionable work. However, this was recorded in the year 2019. It is an emerging reality. What is often associated with the past in our minds forms the lived experience of many in the present. These distortions can be corrected with some retrospection. Agriculture is one suitable gateway to the past and the future for the majority among us.

Despite being practised by almost 600 million citizens, farming has experienced an abysmally low wage rise after the Green Revolution. However, a look at our history proves that it is not just about economics. As a post-colonial state, India continues to depend on social, political, and economic institutions formed to systematically exploit farmers. Measures implemented after independence were only knee-jerk reactions to the past injustices. 

To this day, any reform impacts institutions in all the areas and prompts reactions. Similar opinions from different domains often unite to overshadow the different reasons behind them. Overlapping actors and functioning only add to this confusion. The case is no different with the Recent Farm Bills. Therefore, in order to not lose sight of the Farmers’ benefits, it is essential to disintegrate these seemingly homogenous ayes and nays.

What are the Farm Acts?

The recent Farm Acts, first passed as ordinances by the NDA government, target the agricultural market. Many view them as a second phase of the White Revolution (or compensation for not liberalizing the sector in 1991). Unlike before, the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act permit the direct sale of produce anywhere in the country; to anyone with a valid PAN card. They also allow for future and contractual agreements with private enterprises for agricultural production. The last of all changes is the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. Through it, the government has reduced its power to include certain crops into the list of essential commodities under normal circumstances. All these changes intend to increase the role played by market forces and private actors in the agro-sector.

Measures implemented after independence were only knee-jerk reactions to the past injustices. 

How did Agriculture marketing work before the recent Farm Acts? And what do they change?

India’s approach to agriculture has been largely based out of the fears faced by newly independent countries. Concerns such as food security, equitable land distribution and social imbalance, fair price, and farmer welfare still dictate our policymaking. The state intervenes at all stages by subsidizing inputs and compensating – if not purchasing – outputs. Constitutionally, agriculture is a subject of the State Governments in India. Due to this, State legislative provisions present a variety of cases within the country itself. However, some features are common in most of them. 

Until the passing of the recent Farm Acts, farmers followed a strict sale and purchase path. They could only sell their products in the local public markets (mandis) established under the Agricultural Produce Market Committee Acts. This was to ensure trade at Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) under administrative supervision. Traders could purchase by bidding in auctions conducted by middlemen (arhatiyas) in these markets. Over the years, some reforms in this system brought a shift towards fairer trading. To reduce the monopoly enjoyed by public mandis, the Central Government proposed the Model APMC Act, 2003 that allowed the establishment of private mandis with oversight. However, most states have not acted on this proposal after nearly 17 years. In addition to this, some State Governments also provide for marketing through farmer produce organizations (FPOs) such as cooperatives and other collectives. 

The Essential Commodities Act is another law that dictates the stocking and purchasing of agricultural produce. Through this, the government exercises ceilings on a list of commodities deemed instrumental to maintain social security. Their authority to unilaterally alter this list added a strong sense of uncertainty in the market. Hence, private companies often avoided dealing with commodities that could be designated as ‘essential’. All this while, the state continues to procure a large amount of agricultural produce for the various public distribution schemes.

This system developed various issues that are common to developmental bureaucracies. Collusion between the arhatiyas and government officers gave rise to widespread corruption. As a result, farmers often sold produce at prices lower than the MSP or the cost of production. In economic terms, the market was plagued by monopolization and the lack of price discovery opportunities among farmers. Many of them still receive as low as 20% of their good’s market price. Although it seems otherwise, the solution to these problems is anything but linear. 

The Burning Stakes

Knowing the expanse of these reforms is crucial before diving into the sea of opinions. Contrary to popular perception, they do not just concern food grains. Farm produce in India also includes many fruits and vegetables; most of which are not even supported by MSPs in the mandis

On the political front, many State Governments have opposed the Acts. Punjab and Haryana have been actively protesting against the massive loss in revenue that they will suffer. The 6% mandi tax paid by the farmers contributed a significant amount to the State exchequers. The reduced sale through the mandis is likely to cost Punjab almost Rs. 2000 cr. 

The role of electoral politics is no less. While maintaining their coalition, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) resigned from its union cabinet position. This looks like their attempt to maintain legitimacy in Punjab, while the NDA is taking hits to its image. Various other parties have also been opposing the Acts for being biased towards corporate interest. The TMC, Congress, DMK, and BSP are actively leading a campaign to protect the small farmers. It is rather ironic to have seen these very parties propose similar reforms in their electoral manifestos at various instances. Keeping politics aside, ex-minister P. Chidambaram suggests the mandatory inclusion of MSP guarantees in private contracts.   

Arhatiyas and the farming elite have also opposed the bill for similar reasons. Low trade in the mandis will deeply impact their earning from the 2.5% tax they collected. This may also reduce the influence and relevance of the elites occupying the APMC committee positions. In an already imbalanced socio-economic context of the rural areas, the previous process was a great chance for the capital holding individuals to multiply their privilege— yet another colonial spillover, if one may!

India’s approach to agriculture has been largely based out of the fears faced by newly independent countries.

Farmer responses are the most heterogeneous among all stakeholders. They significantly vary along with factors like capital holding, landholding, and social status. Many have welcomed this freedom, while others fear the market forces. The Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) and the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) have expressed reservations by calling the Acts highly capitalist. On the other hand, Maharashtra based Shetkari Sanghatana is in support of the reform. Lastly, the RSS affiliated Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) also supports the reform with a few minor changes. In any case, there is no denying that a vast portion of these responses are tainted by political affiliation and interests.    

All this while, the Union Government has only responded by confirming that the MSP system will continue as is. However, more patient explanations were rightly expected from an administration looking at such huge reforms. If nothing, these would assuage the circumstances of a large number of farmers still unaware of the impacts. Not to mention, the way this bill was passed and the NDA’s ordinance politics. That is an entirely separate constitutional debate. 

 

How would an open market with mandis look?

These Acts cannot be analysed in a policy vacuum. Naturally, a single reform by the government will not rescue the entire sector. Changes on multiple fronts were required to lay a groundwork for the success of these Acts. They would not only have created a conducive environment but would also have ensured a smoother transition. 

The average landholding in India is lower than 2 hectares. As a result, private enterprises will not be able to procure their huge quantities from one farmer. Further, the companies would also fragment their capital investments while dealing with a large number of producers. Here, the need for aggregators such as Farm Produce Organizations or purchase agents is sure to arise. If not in the mandis, most arhatiyas will earn by acting as agents for corporations. They will also help the latter survive the complexities of a rural agriculture market. For the farmers, optimizing growth on small lands to sustain a competitive market will turn out to be extremely hard. In summation, this barely alters the structure that these reforms were meant to replace. 

Factors of agricultural production are very unequally distributed in India. Farmers are often deprived of their only stable credit source – land. Ownership of land is based on a title that recognizes a purchase or sale but does not testify one’s right over the property. The responsibility of the owner to prove property rights reduced their credibility before banks and financial institutions. 

While some lose capital due to poor land registry, a large mass of farmers in India are landless. An obvious response to this would be asking them to lease farmland. However, a stringent tenancy regime denies them this opportunity. Various states in the country continue to ban land leasing for farming even today. In their attempt to prevent tenant exploitation, these states have promoted more exploitative informal lease agreements. Poor control over land, in one way or the other, will place many contracts in jeopardy. In such a situation, the role of informal creditors like the arhatiyas is also expected to increase, if not remain the same. Financial dependence on sponsors will reduce the bargaining ability of our farmers and is a step towards realizing their worst fears. Sadly, a lot of these grassroot level realities are still missing in the mainstream discourses around the Act.

Rural India is widely plagued by the lack of legal awareness and basic education. Contracts generated in such contexts could be extremely risky and malicious, at times. The rise of a large number of disputes and cases is a given. At the moment, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act delegates dispute resolution only to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Office. The interest of time, as a currency for farmers, certainly deserves a more robust and capable institution to undertake this task. 

In these reforms, the government is optimistic about a significant increase in agriculture prices with open markets and better price discovery. However, a complex web of actors makes price setting an extremely volatile process. Agriculture policy in India is handled by more than 13 ministries and 15 commissions that impact it in their own unique ways. No one government or policy encompasses even a majority of these organizations, let alone all. Placing private contracts under some sort of arrangement similar to MSPs will help rule out these uncertainties and give ample time for correction.

It would be biased to deny that there are a few positives to this. Certainly, the loss of monopoly will lead to a relatively fairer mandi functioning. A prudent action for the Central Government would be to push for better implementation of the Model APMC Act and the establishment of private mandis

It seems that these Acts are congruent with the White Revolution in the minds of the policymakers. However, it is important for them to realise the primary difference between the sectors. Landless farmers, low pay for produce, and rampant discrimination are realities of agriculture in rural India. Many more reforms like those mentioned were needed before introducing private actors to this dynamic. Experts have also hinged the success of these Acts to similar factors. Although immediate action can still salvage a part of the loss, the exact course of the market is only for time to tell. 

Farmer responses are the most heterogeneous among all stakeholders. They significantly vary along with factors like capital holding, landholding, and social status. Many have welcomed this freedom, while others fear the market forces.

Certainly, the loss of monopoly will lead to a relatively fairer mandi functioning.

or scroll to continue reading

 

Health - A Commodity Not Up For Political Grabs

The politics of mental health and intersectionality

Written by muskaan palod

Artwork by Kranti Gagdekar Chhara

I write this with a lot of angst and with very little hope. I am a student of psychology, a strong advocate for mental health, and a consumer of mental health services. I am also very critical of this very system and fraternity.

 

I happened to attend a webinar and one of the biggest take-aways I had was when the speaker, Paul Divekar, said “We are a schizophrenic society.” We want to believe so badly that we have evolved, that we are not homophobic, transphobic, casteist or classist. We want to believe we are our narrative of goodness. We are constantly claiming we have freedom from all forces that previously held us back.

 

On the one hand we have supposedly moved past feudalism and hierarchy. We are supposedly at a time where we don't need ‘feminism’. But on the other hand, we are still in the shackles with institutionalised systems like Devadasi. Our democracy is violated every day. We have atrocious crimes being committed against women and children. We have queer and trans folks left with no safe spaces. We saw mass exodus when migrant workers left town looking for ‘home’, and very recently, a nineteen year old girl stripped of all dignity and human rights. We had our State institutions constantly erasing the site of violence, the evidence of violence and then justifying the violence. Last year when I saw JNU students being violated like they were terrorists and now when I see the sight of police burning Manisha Valmiki’s body, my own body hurts, in very similar ways. There is a rage that speaks of resentment and hurt in equal parts. There is an anxiety of being stuck in a place where moralities are on extreme ends and all I am left with is a feeling of being caged in an unsanitized dirty space.

 

As a twenty year old, when I go for my therapy sessions, I talk about all of this. My therapy is political; my personal is political. Listen to testimonies from mental health professionals, you will note many clients talk about: the partition and its consequences, 1984 riots, trauma and shock induced from CAA-NRC passing, being bullied for their non-heteronormative identities, mistreatment at the hands of family members with persisting patriarchal forces, marital abuse and rape, humiliation or shame associated their caste and class identities – all in all, socio-political factors.

Mental healthcare is supposed to extend ‘care’, so how did we reach a stage where we realise this ‘care’ is not inclusive enough, not representative enough? If our care is exclusive in its discourse, and healthcare providers continue obsessing with remaining apolitical, it automatically transcends as uncaring. Since it is mental health awareness month, I see the #mentalhealthforall doing the rounds. The pandemic has shifted our consciousness (for some of us at least) to realise the importance of addressing mental health issues. For the longest time, I have known mental health practitioners take a ‘neutral’ ground. Being neutral today simply implies you can afford to invalidate somebody’s lived experiences.

We don’t live in bubbles, we live in hyper-realities of highly politically insecure spaces. Those who are marginalized and violated cannot heal with self-compassion alone, their needs are systemic.

I have studied psychology for the last four years and I have not studied any bit of literature that speaks of violence that Dalit/Bahujan women face on a daily basis. Why is it that there is no representation in academics? There is no treatment that can be cultivated out of denying that discrimination exists. There has to be validation and there has to be a special space to address it. There are multiple layers of alienation and abuse, and it needs to be validated before we move ahead in ‘providing’ mental health care. Most times there may not be a sickness to cure, but a need to eradicate self-blame. This self-blame may be a part of internalised hate stemming from systemic and institutionalized propagandas. We don’t live in bubbles, we live in hyper-realities of highly politically insecure spaces. Those who are marginalized and violated cannot heal with self-compassion alone, their needs are systemic.

 

Whether it is the farmers’ protest, the anti-CAA protests or the ones happening across the country right now demanding justice for the Hathras victim, there is a deep sense of betrayal. Dissenters face abuse on the daily. Human expression suffers. Every expression that is silenced, injures society. Intergenerational trauma is the type of distress that is carried on and inherited across generations. There are obvious statistics to note post-traumatic stress. This is often characterised by historic and collective trauma faced by marginalised groups. Because our country has enormous history in this collective and shared trauma, it gets lost in narrative and is almost never addressed.

 

I understand how this may be difficult to even look at, considering most people who get access to mental healthcare, its knowledge or consumption, come from a certain sense of entitlement or privilege; which is why we need a more trauma-informed lens to take note of casteism in our daily discourses and acknowledge the hurt it inflicts. We don't have enough mental health practitioners, so for the longest time we have been burning candles on both ends advocating for its importance and integration in the general health care system. However we don’t just need more mental health practitioners, we need more caste and gender affirmative professionals.  Primarily our academic courses only enable us to cater to a certain section of society. Our academics perpetuate violence by constantly recirculating the literature that invisibilises lived experiences and also doesn’t cater to one and all. We need to rethink our dichotomies of abnormal and normal. We are not trained to extend our services in a more community-based sense. We are not trained to remove language-barriers. We don’t have enough research to formulate new treatment plans. We don’t have a medical fraternity that can support mental health professionals who take on cases pro-bono.

 

 

where does the small hurt go

the hurt of a snide remark in a smooth(?)

conversation

the hurt of a gesture that felt disrespectful

the hurt of something so little

you have to explain

why it hurt

instead of mentioning

it hurt

Where does the small hurt go

when it becomes unmentionable

where does the small hurt go

when it settles into your bones

little

            by little

where does the small hurt go

when it isn't so small anymore

-Adishi Gupta

 

There have been multiple psych-screenings for army personnel and various other job professions. What if we changed the direction of treatment (from only attending to marginalised communities, assuming that we do gather the funds to do so) and rather screen our politicians, screening their violent streaks? We do know for sure that most of them are highly patriarchal, casteist and hold bizarre ideas about purity and power. Instead of trying to make mental health users (or ones who need it) comfortable in unfit environments, it is time we decolonise healthcare. The hurt is increasing as we speak and care is made all the more inaccessible.

It is radical to stay sane in such an unkind world. Not everyone has access to spaces where they can tap to their radicality.

The major difference between a social justice lens and a Savarna/ableist lens on trauma is that popular narratives suggest recovery alone is how you can claim safety – that one will be safe when they have access to therapy, erasing the fact society is so often the source of trauma. Colonial semantics teach us to reconfigure safety in unsafe spaces. But our bodies are cognisant and it recognises hurt and pain. Maybe if we spinned the coin and asked what kind of community spaces and societies are we a part of? Where is the sanity for State institutions – such that it allows them to hate on not one or two people, but communities and identities at large? It is radical to stay sane in such an unkind world. Not everyone has access to spaces where they can tap to their radicality. How would one deal with stress, anxiety or depression without the slightest of privileges at their disposal – without Netflix for instance? To begin with, so many of our citizens don’t have Aadhar cards, ration cards or even reliable jobs. Some citizens are not even considered citizens enough to have their deaths and suicides documented (case in point -  the exodus of migrant workers). They have mental health issues but how do you provide for them without addressing societal issues at a policy-level. So instead of pushing on everyone to just ‘tap’ out of their traumatic experiences, to move on, to adjust, how about if we take a step back and make our systems more liveable? Since a few of us do already have access to equity, why don’t we reverse the gaze and fix our violent and abusive worldviews?

 

There is over 60 years of data to note the sufferings of various marginalised groups. What is it that remains unheard? What happens when one is screaming but everyone turns deaf? Handling healthcare gives you a certain sense of power and that has been inefficiently used. There is a need to break out of our current sense of aesthetic and normalcy to break out barriers – geographical, occupational, bodily ability, gender, sexuality, caste, class – and then being able to provide services beyond said barriers.

 

In 2017, India enacted the National Mental Healthcare Act “to provide for mental healthcare and services for persons with mental illness and to protect, promote and fulfil the rights of such persons during delivery of mental healthcare and services.” This should have meant accessibility of services to one and all, having psychiatric services and medicines availed for free by the State. This has largely remained unactualized. Anti-discrimination, human rights and socio-political contexts are important. To add on, we need to believe and incorporate the narratives of those marginalised.

 

Livelihood support systems have to be incorporated and investment needs to go into developing this fraternity. Mobilising non-formal workforce, like in the case of ASHA workers, is one way to go. We confront and negotiate with facilities at large, by delivering foster care and community models to shift from survival activities to acts of thriving. Ecosystems have to first, prevent disablers of psychosocial growth and then assist in providing companionship and safe holding spaces to help anyone and everyone survive through the crisis. An individual’s well-being cannot exist in a vacuum. It is tied to the systemic and structural bodies that we interact with, be it at the level of government, policy, law, police, education, or economy. If politics becomes a question of well-being, it is a healthcare crisis, no debate. Therefore, the fact that policies to facilitate accessibility are already in place but remain invisible, reflects another attempt to invalidate experiences, pain and loss. It qualifies as oppression and needs radical policy integration on an immediate basis. The kind of stimulus we have right now makes for a good impetus to start working on the goals.

In a community based model, we believe that every individual is already resilient by having survived their trauma. Like someone has rightly said, “nothing for us, without us”.

Specialised psycho-social care is required as an infrastructure to provide for the ones facing the brunt of everyday violence. We need spaces to bring in diversity without hierarchies of ‘purity’. Currently, the biomedical model dominantly used, masks the realities of power asymmetry and systemic coercion. This legitimises human rights violations and hurts those in spheres where normalcy is never achievable without balancing power in their social environment. We need to move from, what is wrong with you to what may have caused you to behave this way; fixing the former is a surface level change, fixing the latter goes a long way. We need investment in mental health care, but we also need to make use of it with a social-justice lens. Community healing techniques must be implemented. These have to be written by those who have experienced similar violence, and we have to be highly cognisant of the spaces we occupy while striving for each other’s well-being. In a community based model, we believe that every individual is already resilient by having survived their trauma. Like someone has rightly said, “nothing for us, without us”. The users and survivors get access to care with participation in peer-patient groups (which is non-existent in our country except for cancer survivors). Thus, enabling automatic critique and organisational unions to come together with their experiential learning. 

What is considered therapeutic is a simpleton facilitation of self-empowering in these spheres. We are highly socialised beings and we are a community no matter how much we would like to believe we are individualised so why not make use of this vulnerability.

 

“There is no health without mental health and there is no good mental health and well-being without embracing a human rights-based approach”  - Dr Dainius Pūras.

or scroll to continue reading

 

Recall Value

F.N. Souza: Father Of Indian Art Renaissance

The glorious revolutionary who illustrated modern India

Written by Shreya Gupta

Artwork by Angela Stephen

Recall Value is a series focussing on the unknown and overlooked in Indian History.

Layered, dynamic, brutally humanistic, his  paintings reveal an artist who never stopped experimenting throughout his six-decade career, perpetually seeking new modes and languages of painterly expression.  Francis Newton Souza holds an unshakable place among India’s most important and influential Modern painters.

 

Born in Saligao, Goa, in 1924, Souza was quite the rebel. During his school days, he was expelled from the school for drawing some naked graffiti in the school toilet. Souza then studied at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, but was expelled for his participation in the Quit India Movement in 1945.

 

Despite the vast sweep of painting styles encompassed by his oeuvre, Souza’s work is unified by overt sensuality, sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, but devoted above all to the human body as a wild, fragile, noble and corruptible object. Nudes, sex and violence dominate even his most abstract work, but he rejected the notion he was too aggressive toward his subjects, particularly women. He said, “I am interested in one thing, and that is aesthetics, the science of beauty. And my whole life has been the quest for beauty. Beauty is the final nuance of nature. I am searching for that beauty. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the cultivated eye.”

Conformity was never part of Souza’s oeuvre. His imagery, was filled with distorted human figures, landscapes, self-portraits, conflicts in a man-woman relationship, Christianity and the erotic. As he wrote in Words and Lines, he believed that he painted for himself and about subjects that pleased him, that no one could ever tell him what and how to paint.

 

A founder of the inestimably important Progressive Artists’ Group in Mumbai, along with contemporaries M.F Husain, K.H. Aara, S.H Raza, and V.S. Gaitondey, he wrote the group’s manifesto and was a crucial intellect in the group’s formation and articulation—as, indeed, he was for Modern Indian art on the whole. Rejecting Academic traditions, they were mindful of their heritage and open to new modernist tendencies from the West. In Souza's own words, "a new era of Indian Art was born."

 

Souza’s initial works speak mainly of Goa and its people, and is figurative in style. His works were inspired by his excellence in writing and readings from art history, poetry, and philosophy. The paintings had depictions of his ancestral village and the occupation of the people there. The paintings expressed his love for his roots as he never lived in Goa, it also  illustrated the plight of the Indian poor. One such painting of his was ‘Indian Family (1947)’. He was considered as a patriot and a revolutionary and led to his association with the Communist Party of India in 1947. Later, in 1949, Souza left the party on account of ideological differences.

One of the paintings by Souza, ‘The Politicians (1959)’ addresses his skepticism towards figures of authority and power in contemporary society. This deep suspicion towards those that wielded power was reinforced when Souza's Marxist sympathies led him to become a member of the Indian Communist Party. In fact, it was Souza’s outspoken, strong beliefs that fuelled the controversy that resulted in his emigration to the United Kingdom in 1949. The painting is the evolution and synthesis of these themes in Souza’s oeuvre, created at a moment in world politics where the spectre of the Cold War and the threat of annihilation loomed large. Souza was erudite and articulate, especially when it came to discussing and writing about political and social concerns, and he would unquestionably have been acutely aware of the political climate of the time. The period was significant in the British politics as it was the year for general elections and the two candidates were the source of inspiration for Francis Newton Souza.  ‘The Politicians’ encapsulates this sentiment with two darkly draped figures with subtle decoration, one on the left and another on the right. They appear interchangeable, simultaneously specific and anonymous.

 

His imagery, was filled with distorted human figures, landscapes, self-portraits, conflicts in a man-woman relationship, Christianity and the erotic. As he wrote in Words and Lines, he believed that he painted for himself and about subjects that pleased him, that no one could ever tell him what and how to paint.

Souza’s paintings from this early period, when he first came to London were influenced by an eclectic array of sources, from South Indian bronzes and the temple sculptures of Mathura and Khajuraho, to Spanish Romanesque painting. It also had flavours derived from  the work of European Old Masters, tribal art from Africa, European Modernism, and Catholicism. Souza was initially enthralled by the various facets and traditions of the Church and its representatives, from the imposing architecture to the vestments of its priests and the implements they used in worship. Later in life, his fascination turned into a repudiation of the faith but the visual culture of Catholicism continued to influence his work. Some examples of this imagery are: Black Pope (1965) and Flagellation of Christ (1965).  The portrayal of woman in the paintings of Souza has been done with strong erotic appeal and stark nudity. They seem to be quite shameless about their body display and their genitals are formed in a hyperbolic manner, which creates an impression of offering. They appear to rotate the gaze of the beholders through their staring attitude. This became Souza’s signature style and could be a result of fetishism. He was also criticised by the masses for portraying the female anatomy and sexuality through paintings of Indian goddesses, particularly Gauri Lajja.

One such painting, Head of a Woman epitomises an artist at the peak of his powers freed from financial constraints and unleashed upon his work with a voracious appetite. The subject of this portrait, represented as a half-length bust, captures Souza’s most iconic artistic qualities. Picasso's influence is seen in the darkened elliptical eyes, encircled by exaggerated lashes that slice through the cheeks and face. Souza extends these lashes to look partly like the tears of a stricken woman, and partly like hyperbolic instruments of seduction and violence in an almost ironic, paradoxical take on the trope of the femme fatale.

Unusually for Souza, who depicted women as creatures of beauty, purity or desire, the subject in this painting is represented in the vestments of the Catholic Church, and even wears a rosary around her neck. Set against a chalky white and blue background, this portrait embodies intentional paradoxes, bringing together the feminine, the primal, the deadly, the desolate and the religious in what is perhaps one of the finest examples of his genre.

 

Backed by the patronage of Eugene Schuster, of the London Arts Group gallery, in Detroit, Souza migrated to New York in 1967, where he received the Guggenheim International Award. Success waxed and waned in the years that followed, though his reputation was ultimately cemented.  Throughout his life, his work appeared in the world’s major art spaces, including the Halles de L’lle in Geneva, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Bose Pacia in New York, the Royal Academy of Arts in London and many others in Paris, London, Dubai and New Delhi.

 

Souza’s years in America were arguably the most technically innovative of his career. He painted colourful cityscapes and landscapes of the places he visited, such as Oklahoma City. This contemporary form of expressionism involved painting over or drawing figures onto pages torn from colour magazines, catalogues, printed photographs and newspapers, using chemicals to dissolve and manipulate the printer’s ink.

 

He died on a visit to his native country, in Mumbai, and was buried there in 2002. Since his death, his work has appeared in dozens upon dozens of exhibitions around the world. 

F.N Souza was unarguably the first post-Independence Indian artist to achieve recognition in the West. In 2008, his painting “Birth” (1955) set a world auction record for the most expensive Indian painting sold till then by selling for US $2.5 million (INR 11.3 crore) at a Christie’s auction. His expressionism and abstract figurative style till date, have a great influence and absolute weight on all cultures universally. His paintings introduced the era of Indian Modernism as in his own words he said “Renaissance painters painted men and women making them look like angels. I paint for angels, to show them what men and women really look like.”  His grotesque forms, and disjointed canvases reflect the cynicism of the modern world, post two World Wars and the existence of dictatorship.

The portrayal of woman in the paintings of Souza has been done with strong erotic appeal and stark nudity. They seem to be quite shameless about their body display and their genitals are formed in a hyperbolic manner, which creates an impression of offering.

or scroll to continue reading

 

Does the Sentence Ever End?

Has the rehabilitation framework made life post-imprisonment better for inmates?

Written by Hazel Gandhi

Artwork by Rachel Mathew

‘They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take’, a dialogue from Frank Dabaront’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) made me shudder then, and has the same effect now as I write about the atrocities of the prison system and the life inmates live there. And it holds true even today, in the Indian context.  For most former convicts, it is a lifelong struggle to navigate life – socially and financially.

 

Any correctional facility in the world has one primary goal apart from the usual ‘putting the criminal away for their crime’ – rehabilitation. The term in itself has a broader meaning and encompasses a lot of initiatives that prisons take –  a majority of them being educational and vocational training. This is done to best utilise the time the inmate spends indoors by equipping them with skills that might be useful in making them better citizens of the community after they are released.

 

India however, has digressed a bit from this path both on social and legal fronts. Social, because of how society perceives these criminals and indirectly enables the blot on their character for life, ensuring the absence of normalcy in society post-sentence in terms of jobs or overall social acceptance. Legal, because of the lack of initiative taken by the prison system that finds itself stuck in an endless bureaucratic rut to actually implement said reforms.

 

This lack of initiative on legal and political grounds is first evident due to the very limited spending on rehabilitation in prisons, specifically vocational training. Here, it is important to establish what actually comes under the purview of vocational training. Training for jobs like weaving, pottery, cloth-making, tailoring, gardening, soap-making, handicrafts, carpentry, and so on, are some of the jobs in which inmates are trained. The list has a plethora of other skills that inmates can choose to learn from.

 

These tasks are classified into skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour and are paid for accordingly in the form of wages to the inmates performing said tasks. Depending on their interest and existing skills, inmates are offered these jobs. Vocational training is voluntary, but inmates with a longer sentence are preferred for the same. This is because inmates with relatively longer sentences tend to adhere to rules better.

 

In the year 2019, out of the total budget allocated to prisons in India, only 1.2% (24 cr rupees) of the total expenditure on said training. In the same year, only 54,726 out of the total 4,78,600 inmates received vocational training, which comes down to roughly 11% of the total number. According to Dr. Vartika Nanda, founder of Tinka Tinka Foundation, a charitable trust working towards prison reform, this allocation is severely insignificant in bringing about a strong-footed change in the condition of prisoners.

 

The inmates are also selected on the basis of past employment history. This points to a certain bias that we often come across even in conventional hiring situations where an inmate with prior experience is preferred over an inmate that doesn’t. While this system is not wrong in terms of convenience, it is a smidge unfair to the inmate with no experience. They are deprived of the very chance the prison system is supposed to provide them in the first place.

 

Talking about wages, Dr. Nanda further adds that even among the highest paying prisons (a majority of them being in Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra), the wages given to inmates are not enough to carry out any expenses that they might have, legal or otherwise.  The latest Prison Statistics India 2019 (PSI) report released by the NCRB states that on average, even the most skilled worker will earn only about 300 rupees from a whole day’s work. The fact that semi-skilled and unskilled labourers are paid much less, and that the numbers decline even further in prisons with a lesser budget hasn’t even come up in the conversation yet. Dr. Nanda points out a severe disparity between the hours actually put in by the workers and the remuneration they receive for the same. She goes as far as recommending the pay to be doubled and how only then can the system come close to compensating them for their work appropriately.

Another lawyer (anonymous), LLM, practising in the High Court and Subordinate Courts, claims that most of the time, the wages are not quite enough for semi-skilled or unskilled labourers, be it for legal fees or bail bonds. He also says that prisons in Maharashtra pay well but barring that, most prisons severely underpay their inmates for work that has a much higher market value. This wage can go as low as Rs. 80  per day for almost 8 hours of work, which can, in another case, be compensated for sufficiently by making use of the surplus funds the department has every year.

 

This, when the total budget hasn’t even been fully exhausted yet. This branches out into another discussion- over the years; the prison department has always been over-funded, with some surplus amount always left every year. Yet, the allocation only seems to increase every year, with no clue as to what happens with the surplus amount.

 

The Surplus Budget Conundrum

 

Every year, especially since the past 4 years, the prison department has seen a constant surplus in its budget (an average of 12% since 2016). This average constitutes about 800-900 crore rupees left unused out of the total allocated budget. If this is the situation, it definitely makes a case for why more focus is not given to other pressing matters like vocational training, education, legal aid and financial assistance, something most inmates struggle with.

 

Even if it is not used, it would be better to allocate this budget to other departments that are severely under-funded like railways, health care, and education among others, that could make better use of these funds.

The main question that arises here is, why not use the surplus to fund vocational training or fill any other monetary gaps in the system? The problem is as old as modern governments. Bureaucracy.

The main question that arises here is, why not use the surplus to fund vocational training or fill any other monetary gaps in the system? The problem is as old as modern governments. Bureaucracy. This, coupled with the lack of interest displayed by authorities makes for a recipe of disaster, one that leads to funds being available, while still being inaccessible for use.

 

A major recommendation made by both Dr. Nanda and the lawyer is to increase the minimum wage offered to prisoners at a national level. With the current budget, a good management system to tackle bureaucratic issues can be put in place to ensure this. Since vocational training is voluntary, more programmes can be introduced to actually encourage inmates to take up jobs that will help them in terms of skill development and finances too. Moreover, the fact that most prisoners find it difficult to get employed after serving their sentence also makes up for the reality that we as a society are not open to.

Denying any individual a job due to any social or personal prejudices is not only wrong but also a major encroachment on their fundamental right to work and earn a decent living. If there was a proper system in place to train inmates well, there would be no need for them to live a hand-to-mouth life after their release. They would be competing on level ground with other skilled and unskilled labourers in their domain and be given an equal opportunity to move up the ranks. Depriving them of this opportunity will only result in entrapping them in an unending cycle of prison and release. The lack of jobs will consequently lead to a lack of income, which will then cause a relapse into criminal activities out of desperation.

Effective change in the prison system will take place only when it is seen as a system meant for development and not just punishment. We need to look at this system as a rehabilitation system, which it is since it helps inmates be productive after their release and avoid going back to prison.

Other than that, better allocation of funds is extremely vital to the situation actually improving. Usage of funds in an optimal manner can change the face of the system and help realize its actual purpose. Maintaining transparency and specificity can also result in better auditing and recommendations. In all, the Indian prison system, with all its monetary accessibility and spatial freedom can do wonders in the criminal justice department, not just for detainees and under trial prisoners, but also convicted inmates.

In the movie, Brooks, unable to cope with this change eventually dies by suicide. This heart-wrenching depiction is true of what every inmate feels while metamorphosing in the real world.

Shawshank depicts how Brooks, an old inmate who gets parole after spending decades in prison talks about his life in the real world now, ‘I can't believe how fast things move on the outside. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry’, depicting how difficult the transition is. In the movie, Brooks, unable to cope with this change eventually dies by suicide. This heart-wrenching depiction is true of what every inmate feels while metamorphosing in the real world. The struggle only intensifies when they are looked at from a place of judgement. Hence, having the right training to gain the financial independence they very much need after release is a crucial step that needs to be worked towards. Only then can the country realise its primary goal of having a prison system in the first place.

or scroll to continue reading

 

The (Sur)name Game

Will banning surnames lead to liberation from the shackles of caste?

Written by Sasha Shinde

Artwork by Kranti Gagdekar Chhara

What is a name? It is an identity. You hear it more than any other word in your whole life, and for many it serves as a matter of pride. But, a surname is more just a surname. It is a matter of familial pride for some. It speaks of centuries of unbridled patriarchy to some. For some others, it serves as a reminder of systemic oppression through generations. Interesting things, surnames.

If recent events in Hathras have taught us anything, it’s that no matter how progressive we consider ourselves as a country, to a lot of people, caste matters. It reinforces the inequality in society in contemporary times. And if caste matters, then casteist surnames also matter.

Let us dial back a bit to understand the relation between caste and surnames.

What’s in a surname?

 

As it turns out, caste and surnames are intertwined. The Manusmriti and earlier scriptures reveal the existence of surnames based on caste. Certain surnames were to be used by each of the caste: Brahmins could use Śarman, Kshatriyas, Varman, Vaishyas could use Gupta, while Shudras could use Das. These rules were not always followed in the post-Vedic period, with many Shudras using their father’s name or name of their village as surnames, or refusing to use surnames altogether to resist the shame associated with formerly assigned surnames.

During colonialism, the surname became more important. The colonisers needed to register land-records, and they started using caste surnames for the same. It must be noted here, that the British Raj was not responsible for the origins of the caste system, and simply acted as a stimulus for the changes occurring in its time. There were several who refused the practice of using caste surnames. And there are many who believe that this is the way to caste emancipation.

 

The Periyar Connection

 

In 1929, E. V. Ramasamy aka Periyar, dropped his caste surname (Naicker) from his name, setting a precedent that is still followed by many people from Tamil Nadu. It was radical at the time to do so, but has since become a practice that many follow and hail as a step in the right direction.

 

Surname is a major caste marker, just like the accent of local language, place of origin, and other external indicators worn. Periyar wanted to remove all of these caste markers, especially after the Self-Respect Movement, which sought to end the discrimination suffered due to differences in caste hierarchy.

 

Just this month, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) is to push a Constitutional Amendment to ban the use of Hindu surnames, thereby removing the aspect of caste from names; whether or not it actually gets passed in the Parliament is something only time will tell.

 

How does it matter today?

 

New Lesson from Old Book

Kamal, start the Maha-arati

Rijia, start the Maha-namaj

Gautam, go to the Mukhia’s house

and feed the cows

David, fly pigeons,

Karim, mark the temples

Chhagan, mark the mosques

mark each other’s religion

mark each other’s caste

and hate each other

hurl stones on each other

bring stones, hurl them on.

-Arun Kale, translated by Swapna Banerjee-Guha

 

As recently as 2019, caste markers like colour-coded wrist-bands, pottu (bindi/tilak), or even vests have been used to distinguish students by caste at some schools in Tamil Nadu. The practice has been condoned and subsequently asked to be banned by the Director of School Education, Tamil Nadu, in a circular. This practice evidently begins in kindergarten, at their anganwadis, where students are ‘taught’ who they are allowed to be friends with. This begins at home when Brahminical values are claimed to be the face of purity.

A cursory search on Google Play Store reveals an application that claims to be the place where “where anyone would know to which caste they belong to just by searching their surnames.” The comments mainly included complaints about how the app was not all-inclusive in its coverage, hence rendered useless. Rated 2 stars on an average, the fact that such an app exists, and that people have downloaded and reviewed it, just goes to show how importantly surnames reflect caste.

 

That’s not all. As important as surnames are in conversations about caste, they are seldom the only approach used. Seemingly innocent questions like ‘where are you from?’, ‘But, where are you originally from?’, ‘No, where is your father from?’, and ‘Where is your village?’ are often used to probe into the caste of someone who does not readily mention it to those who want to know.

Caste, and in turn, surnames that denote caste matter today because of the narrative being pedalled is that the Hathras case is part of a conspiracy to defame the UP government, as opposed to the prolonged, institutionalized, and organized violence against Dalits that it clearly is. It matters today, because caste-based violence has risen by a 6% from 2009-2018, according to a report  titled ‘Quest for Justice’ conducted by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) - National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. It matters today, because the same report points out the difficulties in filing an FIR and seeing results for the same under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. It matters because caste-based violence is severely under-reported and people are often suppressed from telling their stories.

 

Discrimination takes place only among the uneducated, right?

Wrong.

 

According to a 2007 study conducted by Thorat, Atwell, and Rizvi, in cases with similar educational backgrounds and qualifications, the possibility of a Dalit getting a job over an upper caste individual was 0.68. This means that for every 10 upper-caste individuals chosen for the job, only 6-7 individuals with Dalit names were chosen. The study was conducted by sending in job applications to various institutions with Hindu high caste names, Dalit names, and Muslim names. This study was conducted in the private enterprise sector proving that education does not serve as a criterion when it comes to biases on the basis of caste.

 

A 2016 working paper by Singhari and Madheswaran revealed the payment disparity between forward caste and Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates with the same qualifications. SC candidates were found to be underpaid by 14.1 percent in the public sector and by a whopping 23.6 percent in the private sector for the same work as the forward castes.

A cursory search on Google Play Store reveals an application that claims to be the place where “where anyone would know to which caste they belong to just by searching their surnames.”

In a 2019 collaborative report done by Oxfam and Newslaundry.com, it was found that our news media is overwhelmingly uppercaste. No leadership positions were occupied by people from SC or ST (Scheduled Tribes), throughout the study conducted over different news platforms, including newspapers, television channels, news websites, and magazines, and of the scant articles written about caste, more than half were by upper caste writers. When the organisations who deliver the news and coax public opinion lack representation in the decision makers, it becomes a point of concern for news consumers like us. Is the world we see being shown to us through unsolicited filters?

 

It has become clear, then, that there exists a clear prejudice when it comes to hiring and paying for Dalit and lower caste employees in corporate environments. And perhaps in certain situations, the banning of surnames is viable and even helpful, it cannot sustain as a long-term solution for the issue.

 

Surname hatao: the way forward?

 

If removal of surnames by Dalits and savarnas (those with a Varna, another term for caste Hindus) individuals would, in fact,  lead to eradication of caste-based violence; I am all for it. However the truth is, banning surnames will not even scratch the surface of the problem. Hailing it as a solution is, according to me, rather utopian.

 

This, apart from the fact that it will be extremely difficult to get savarnas to remove or change their surnames, will not ensure that their caste is not found out by other means. Removing surnames and other caste markers by everyone, Dalit or not, still does not erase the caste identity completely. The discrimination and oppression will still be present. There will be a difference in caste-markers, knowingly or unknowingly. An inequality will then be created between those who dropped their surnames, and those who did not.

When the organisations who deliver the news and coax public opinion lack representation in the decision makers, it becomes a point of concern for news consumers like us.

We continue to have inequality if caste is discussed in schools as a concept rather than reality; if a thirteen year-old proudly proclaims that she is Brahmin, and so vegetarian, when simply asked for her meal preference; if upper caste men continue to believe that they have a right over the body of a Dalit woman; if people like you and me remain clueless about the atrocities taking place within our borders; if scattered casual conversations about caste and reservation taking place in educational institutions, government offices, and homes is our only exposure to caste; if people don’t read about caste because it disturbs their perfect image of society; and if people keep denying that caste-based crimes did and still do happen.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, in his fiery retort against the caste system, Annihilation of Caste, said, “You will succeed in saving Hinduism if you will kill Brahminism.” His reference to “saving” Hinduism here is perhaps his way of saying that he does not wish for everyone to convert like he would eventually go on to, but in fact root out the true evil within Hinduism (which has spread to Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism via converts). As I see it, if we succeed in detaching the religious connotations from caste, (and this too is a utopia) it will become far easier to eliminate it altogether. Until then, token gestures like banning caste surnames will remain just that; tokenism.

 

Aggression

Ours is a silence

that waits. Endlessly waits.

 

And then, unable to bear it

any further, it breaks into wails.

 

But not all suppressed reactions

end in our bemoaning the tragedy.

 

Sometimes,

the outward signals

of inward struggles takes colossal forms

And the revolution happens because our dreams explode.

 

Most of the time:

Aggression is the best kind of trouble-shooting.

-Meena Kadasamy

Note: I write this with no personal experience of my own, a privileged savarna woman. For more on this topic by more authentic sources, read the writings of Yashica Dutt,  Meena Kandasamy, Suraj Yengde, to name a few. There are dozens of sources out there, and it’s time to understand for ourselves, and make true representation a reality.

We continue to have inequality if caste is discussed in schools as a concept rather than reality

or scroll to continue reading

 

The Politics of Contact Languages in the Realm of Text Messages.

Virtual space and minority language: A threat to migrants’ social identity?

Written by Niyati Karia

Artwork by Purvi Rajpuria

At nine past ten a message from Meena, my house help, popped up –

 

gud mrning didi aj na hm nhi aa paenge raj gaav se aya h or usko hospetl leke jana hai sry didi

 

– “Good morning, didi (sister). I will not be able to come today. Raj has come from the village. I have to take him to the hospital. Sorry didi.”

 

We have all received similar text messages from a Meena in our lives, but how often do we sit to examine what this means? There is a deep, underlying proposition that remains unthought in all of these exchanges. How can labourers like Meena profoundly experience the mobile phone’s text messaging options when they are so disengaged and distant from the script used by them to send the text?

 

Every language in every corner of the world helps foster feelings of shared cultural identity and solidarity. People coming from marginalised communities don’t usually communicate over text messages in the Roman script. They use their local language as an expression of their culture. In India, as a result of the ‘colonial hangover’, speaking in English is seen as a mark of prestige. Power dynamics are glaring at play when affluent English speakers interact with the less affluent. This contact reaffirms the class hierarchy in society. Socio-linguistic prestige is visible between different people living in socially stratified urban cities.

 

In order to be socially accepted and integrated into metropolitan society, migrants emulate people from higher social classes. This entails avoiding their vernacular language, which would otherwise help them construct their own identity. Time and again, migrants oscillate between the prestigious dominant language and their vernacular language. This phenomenon of freely speaking a variety of languages interchangeably is called code-switching. Meena’s simple message of being unable to work due to her brother’s arrival provides great insight into this.

Consequently, there is a constant tension between avoiding barriers of communication and retaining one’s own cultural identity.

In the wake of modernity, a safe environment has been created for the technologically-literate elite to thrive on it. However, the same urban society has conveniently neglected the marginal section’s communicative needs over mobile phones since they do not have the access to lexicons, alphabets and syntaxes of other languages- case in point, English. Nonetheless, the migrant population has been able to adapt the (not-so) alien language successfully. In fact, they have used the texting culture as an opportunity for upward social mobilization. Consequently, there is a constant tension between avoiding barriers of communication and retaining one’s own cultural identity. 

Due to Meena’s life trajectories and work prospects, she has to resort to text messages to share information. Her text message consists of nuanced code-switching practice and alternation of texts. She uses hybrid language by mixing two languages- Hindi and English. This factor uncovers the distinct use of non-elite bilingualism and usage of vernacular literacies, including a touch of Bihari spoken Hindi diction and inconsistent spelling errors, like that of “hospetl.” Besides this, we can see some traces of xenoglossia, a phenomenon where a person is able to write in the language that does not come to them naturally. This occurs when Meena uses the Roman script but what is actually said is in her local language. The deliberate use of English words like ‘good morning’ showcases how she wants to circumvent her class status and reformulate her identity within the community network. This attempt will help her to get accepted in a society where standard English norms are used. The texting style reflects how her mobility experience is inscribed in the language she resorts to while communicating. By using multiple languages and communicative codes, the migrants, like Meena, try to integrate themselves within the standard linguistic regime and social-linguistic hierarchies.

 

With this hybrid text, Meena was able to perfectly transpire her spoken words into text messages. The alternate language used by her is a result of conscious as well as unconscious operation of language normativity. Bilingual speakers (let us acknowledge that Meena knows the meaning of a few other English words that are used in common parlance) intentionally use words from another language when they lack a particular word in the primary language they use while typing. However, we see a departure from this ‘most available word phenomenon’ argued by Grosjean in his book ‘Life with Two Languages’, where he provides an authoritative take on the nature of bilingual experiences by stating that a bilingual person falls back to the easily accessible vocabulary. In the text message, Meena intentionally uses words from the language in which she is not most comfortable, to exhibit that she is competent enough to use them.

 

Whereas, we can also argue that the English lexicons are so normalized and integrated within the migrants’ communicative set of words, that they use them inadvertently.  Contrary to this claim, Kaschula and Anthonissen in their book ‘Code Switching and Code Mixing’, provide a deep understanding of language as a cultural agency. They assert that there have been various possibilities, where it appears that speakers do not make random decisions while using a particular form of language in a given situation. They often wish to operate on the lines of functions that communication targets. Meena’s case is one such possibility. In order to successfully deliver the information albeit fit in the urban spaces, Meena consciously uses Roman script and English vocabulary.

 

Furthermore, I would like to advocate that this unofficial language used by Meena facilitates her communication effectively. The switching of codes furnishes Meena with a powerful and expressive tool, which according to A. Jaffe in the book ‘Introduction: Non-Standard Orthography and Non-Standard Speech’, claims that migrants have “(the) potential to challenge linguistic hierarchies” by making “non-standard voices visible/ audible in a medium that habitually does not recognize them.” By her conscious effort to self-ascribe as a technologically literate person, Meena constructs the identity of an educated and proficient migrant. Taking cue from this, the conscious effort to prefer English words over Hindi also highlights the fact that English is deemed to be a superior language in India and underlines modernity. People adopt this culture by perceiving the things around them. It gives them an insight into other cultures by the medium of language which is used for communication. Mirroring such a prestigious language would help Meena  recreate her identity as a cultured and civilized person. Mind you, here she is transgressing her own culture, to have a share in another one. 

 

Usually migrants in India do not have a substantial command over English and are not exactly familiar with the language. They use a type of hybrid language - with flaws and an intricate mixture of codes, where grammar is thrown out of the window. There are many stereotypes of how migrant labourers use broken and incorrect languages. It is viewed from the prism of deviance and incompetency. The discourses classify that the migrant’s texting practices are perceived as literary gaps and inoperative text alteration are a result of their lack of linguistic capitals. Due to this, they are seen as ‘out of place’ in the elite bilingual regime on the virtual space, or what F. Barth in his book on cultural differences calls an outsider or unknown as ‘Other.’

The ability to refashion the style of communication to conform with the socio-linguistic regime has become an imperative measure to gain social significance among migrant users in the immediate social context.

I would like to buttress this argument. The texting culture has become a robust prospect for migrants to conduct and carry out cross-cultural communication. The ability to refashion the style of communication to conform with the socio-linguistic regime has become an imperative measure to gain social significance among migrant users in the immediate social context. The bilingual text message from Meena is unique in nature and of a particular style of voice that helps her make an attempt to redefine her identity along the lines of acceptable norms of the urban city. Communicative resources like text messages are regarded as a social glue for migrants, which provides them an entry into mainstream society.

 

Over a period of time, their misspelling and defective language has become a unique feature in their text message practices, which have ultimately become a norm in the communication mode over mobile phones. The difficulty in not communicating according to the standard official norms does not pose any hindrance in the comprehension of their text messages or project miscommunication. Migrants indeed have a wide range of text styles at their disposal, and this provides them with a certain degree of ‘social agency’. This uniqueness is rooted in the concoction of the two languages, giving it a shape of a hybrid language.

They are provided with a certain degree of social agency that bestows them with a sense of group solidarity where their voices are heard across the societal networks.

Next to no research is conducted in India that analyzes migrants’ texting style in the social context. In this brief attempt, I tried to explore informal non-elite exchanges between migrant labourers and ourselves, something we normally experience in our daily life but often overlook. I have used the impact of text messages as one of the tools to execute contact languages, to determine how migrants culturally appropriate and articulate themselves into the already established contemporary communicative regime, in a bottom-up manner and from the margins. They are provided with a certain degree of social agency that bestows them with a sense of group solidarity where their voices are heard across the societal networks.

 

The culture of text messages in  the Roman script has done more good than harm to migrants. It has helped them recast their cultural identity to show their belongingness in the urban space. M. Jacquemet in his book ‘Language and Transnational Spaces’, which harps on the interplay between language and virtual space concisely says, and I cannot agree more, that migrants “are inserted into a global indexical order which assigns superior values to certain systems of communication.” It has empowered and liberated migrant labourers, but paradoxically, they have to forgo their own culture. One must take a note at this juncture that language is culture and culture is language. In our case, this means that the migrant labourers reproduce themselves in the prevailing standardized communicative culture at the cost of their own traditional linguistic norms. In this way, they are silencing the already marginalized languages (and culture) and intensifying social inequality in the physical space.

or scroll to continue reading

 

Una Mujer Fantastica - A Look at the Trans Experience

Una Mujer Fantastica is a fiery response to the questions raised about transgender identities.

Written by SP

Artwork by Kranti Gagdekar Chhara

The Chilean film, Una Mujer Fantastica, follows Marina, a young transgender woman who is dating Orlando, a much older man. They are shown to have recently moved in together. When Orlando dies unexpectedly, Marina is subjected to a continuous violation of privacy. She is repeatedly insulted by Orlando’s ex-wife and family, and also the police. As the film progresses, she is stripped bare, both metaphorically and literally, of her identity.

 

Transgender people have a gender expression that differs from the sex assigned to them at birth. People commonly confuse transgender people to be the same as intersex people (people who are born with several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals). There is another misconception in thinking that transgender people necessarily need to have surgeries, or even that transgender people are necessarily a third gender.

 

Conservative views of gender have traditionally either rejected the very idea of transgender, or often exclude transgender people as an “Other” from the normative binary of male and female, sometimes quite literally. In India, for example, they are referred to as the “third gender” or as the “Other” in question forms, etc.

 

Certain radical readings of feminism gave rise to Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, which excludes the lived experiences of transgender women. They  reject transgender women as ‘real women’. Cases of trans-exclusion exist even in the intersectional LGBTQIA+ community. Against this backdrop of extreme prejudice and discrimination, Una Mujer Fantastica weaves in the main aim of the transgender person in life: to be accepted for what they are.

 

A quote by the Australian model Andrej Pejic best exemplifies what the film is trying to put across,  “As a transgender woman…there’s a lot of pressure to appear feminine. When I was younger, I was most insecure about my size, my angular features, my feet, my hands. At the end of the day, it’s about…being able to walk down the street and not have people question your gender.”

 

That’s exactly what the film asks the viewer to consider: acceptance.

The film punches in the fact repeatedly that this simple request will not be granted to our protagonist. Marina is denied her identity, much the same way as the transgender community has been denied its identity. She is put under a microscope at every end, questioned and denied her identity. She is dangled in front of everyone as bait, as a punchline, and never given the one thing that she’s been asking for. This, says the film, is the lived reality of transgender people.

 

An article in the Santiago Times points out a moment in the film that showcases how society sees Marina, and by an extension, the entire transgender community. She is harassed and her face is taped up, making her look artificially disfigured. She is seen to be a monstrosity, someone who doesn’t fit within the ‘dichotomy’ of genders, someone who isn’t “normal”.

 

In theory, the question of gender seems easier to tackle, as it is an abstract. The academic world grapples everyday with questions like “Is gender a social construct? Is it necessary? Can it be eliminated?” Against such a backdrop, various strands of radical feminism arise, one of them being that to eliminate oppression, one must eliminate gender-tropes. The same camp argues that the ‘concept of the Transgender’ affirms the gender-tropes that plague society, and therefore transgender people are not recognized.

 

Another camp of trans-exclusionary feminism suggests that transgender women that were assigned male at birth cannot be considered women because they did not live through the “woman experience”, and instead, they enjoyed all the privileges of being men. However, various cases of transgender people being assaulted or bullied for not being “man enough” prove that this argument isn’t absolute.

 

An important scene in the film points out the fact that discrimination against trans-people does not stop with society. It spills over into the realm of law. Marina is not believed even by a sympathetic detective. In fact, the detective refuses to believe that she was in a consensual relationship with Orlando, and instead investigates whether she was violated by Orlando, by stripping her bare of her clothes. However, the film does not cut here. It makes the viewer go through the gruelling process along with her. The viewer feels naked along with her. We suffer along with her.

 

The film also tries to demonstrate the idea that transgender people aren’t just oppressed through coercion, but they are often oppressed through ignorance. Numerous instances in the film point out that there is a refusal of acknowledgement  of Marina as a woman, despite some being sympathetic to her cause, simply because there is ignorance when it comes to the concept of gender.

 

A recent example, is the Indian debacle that is the Transgender Persons Protection Of Rights Act 2019. Ironically created to ensure the protection of transgender rights, this act was created without consultation from anyone from the transgender community. It has been widely protested by the same community it claims to protect and represent. The bill does not do a satisfactory job of differentiating between transgender people and intersex people, displaying a lack of understanding.

 

The true strength behind Una Mujer Fantastica’s success at inflaming debate has to be how relatable the character feels, and how intimately we connect with her from the very beginning. So, when the other characters begin questioning her identity, it hits the viewer almost like physical blows. The camera is always kept close to Marina; like we are a part of her, feeling each attack as she keeps trying not to crumble apart.

 

The film doesn’t shy away from showing us her humiliations and her lowest points. It never cuts away.  We look on, horrified. This, I feel, has led to the resounding impact it has on the viewer, resulting in critical praise and accolades.

 

I felt I knew Marina so intimately is why it invoked such a visceral response in me. How hard was it for these dogmatic characters to just accept her as she was? How hard was it to not heap all of their stupid, ignorant beliefs on her? Why couldn’t they let her grieve? Why didn’t they just believe her?

 

Then I took a step back, and thought about it. My understanding of gender before having watched this movie, had been solely from a theoretical lens. By putting in front of me a person with all their lived experiences, by putting a face to the struggles around basic rights that more privileged people take for granted, the film forced me to re-evaluate my perspective.

 

And I wasn’t the only one.

 

The film won Chile its first Oscar (in the Foreign Language category). That, coupled with Daniela Vega’s powerful acceptance speech was enough to bolster debate about a Chilean gender-identity bill that had not been passed for five years.

 

Martin Echenique writes in The Atlantic, “What was once a proposal with partisan backing is now seeing support from both progressive and conservative legislators. The bill seeks to allow individuals to change their legal name and gender officially and permanently; a major point of contention is whether it should apply to children and teenagers.”

 

The film garnered enough endorsement that many Chilean lawmakers, who had previously opposed the bill (the President going so far as to say that cases of gender dysphoria are “corrected with age”) such as Javier Macaya, and Andres Allamand, were willing to discuss the passing of this Bill, demonstrating yet again the incredible power of engaging cinema.

 

In conclusion, Una Mujer Fantastica forces viewers to take a long hard look at their beliefs about someone else’s reality. The frustration that the viewer feels for the protagonist then puts into perspective what the transgender community has been saying all this time: that they exist, and we owe it to them to acknowledge them as human beings, and not theoretical topics. Like any great work of art, the film makes the viewer think, and stays with them for a long time after.

She is put under a microscope at every end, questioned and denied her identity. She is dangled in front of everyone as bait, as a punchline, and never given the one thing that she’s been asking for. This, says the film, is the lived reality of transgender people.

or scroll to continue reading

 

But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim

Reaffirming Faith in Multiculturalism against Majoritarianism

Written by Hunardeep Kaur

Artwork by Ojaswi Kejriwal

Guftgu band na ho

baat se baat chale

subh tak sham-e-mulaqat chale

ham pe hasti hui ye taron bhari raat chale

 

hon jo alfaz ke hathon men hain sang-e-dushman

tanz chhalkae to chhalkaya kare zahr ke jaam

tikhi nazren hon tursh abru-e-khamdar rahen

ban pade jaise bhi dil sinon men bedar rahen

bebasi harf ko zanjir-ba-pa kar na sake

koi qatil ho magar qatl-e-nava kar na sake

 

(Let not the conversation cease

Let one word lead to another

And let our evening tryst go on till dawn

While the starry night-sky smiles down on us

Though we have hurled the stones of bitter

words at each other

We have swirled poison in our goblets in the

form of sarcastic jibes

Our brows furrowed, our gazes venomous

But be that as it may, let hearts awaken in chests

Let not despair imprison our words

Whoever the murderers are, let them not kill dialogue)

-Ali Sardar Jafri

 

We live in times marked by shrinking of the democratic, secular spaces, characterized by the normalization and the institutionalization of violence. We live in times where identities have become all the more fragile and conformity to a particular identity has become the norm; where differences have come to be perceived as deviations and heterogeneity a threat. In times such as these when majoritarianism seems to be overshadowing the secular, egalitarian principles of the Indian Republic, the multicultural, diverse fabric of the Indian society is under threat.

The exclusionist face of nationalism, the jingoist rhetoric of Hindu nationalism prevalent today is completely at odds with the inclusivist, pluralist definition of India as embodied in the Constitution. The outright exclusion of minorities from the idea of India has been accompanied by the systematic erosion of the idea of India from a multicultural nation to a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The advancement of the agenda of Hindutva has led to institutionalised violence against the minorities, particularly Muslims. The heinous mob lynchings of Muslims in recent years and the ineffectiveness and indifference of the police and the justice system in this regard are indicative of the imminent descent of India from democracy to mobocracy. Cow vigilantism and the violence instigated against the Muslims in its garb is not just disturbing but also inhumane. The lynching of Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan and many other innocent Muslims is a part of the exclusionary project of creating a ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

The idea of ‘love jihad’ and the creation of equation between Muslim identity and terrorism is an attempt to demonise Muslims and delegitimize their culture and identity. The recent Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens can be seen as an attempt to further the delegitimisation of Muslim identity by stripping them of their citizenship rights. The brutal police violence against the peacefully protesting students at Jamia Milia Islamia and the police complicity in violence against the students of JNU presents starkly the state’s intolerance to any kind of differences be it in opinion or identity. The remark, that the protestors can be identified by their clothes, by those forming the political leadership, reeks of prejudice and bigotry.

The pogrom against Muslims in North-east Delhi in February is a testimony to the sectarianism that has been constructed and expanded in India as part of the nationalistic agenda. Furthermore, the false implication of student activists as well as human rights activists in the instigation of Delhi riots is not just problematic but deeply disturbing. That peaceful protestors could be accused of perpetrating violence while the perpetrators roam freely is indicative of the breakdown of the democratic fabric of the Indian society.  Moreover, the recent Babri Masjid verdict that acquitted the accused who had been responsible for the instigation of the mob that demolished Babri Masjid becomes problematic. It needs to be looked at along with a preceding judgement that allocated the disputed land, where Babri Masjid once stood, for the construction of ‘Ram Mandir’. This is accompanied with the fact that the Prime Minister of a ‘secular’ India presided over the Bhoomi Pujan for the construction of the Ram Temple. All of this presents a dismal image of an exclusivist, majoritarian nation that seeks to assert its dominance through the creation and the exclusion of the so-called ‘other’.

The idea of ‘UPSC Jihad’ accompanied with the claim, that the Muslim community is seeking to infiltrate the civil services, advanced by Sudarshan TV’s editor-in-chief is hate speech at its worst. Moreover, it reflects and embodies the constant attempts being undertaken to create divisions and further the process of the otherisation of Muslims.

The incidents mentioned above are in no way isolated incidents of violence and discrimination, rather are part of the larger ploy to delegitimize and otherise the minorities, thereby asserting dominance and supremacy. In this majoritarian project, Muslim identities are being targeted; attempts are being made to dilute and erase their rich history by creating false stereotypical narratives. It becomes paramount then to counter the otherisation of the minorities by asserting and reaffirming the multicultural ethos of India. This has largely been overlooked and excluded from the false exclusivist narratives that have been constructed recently.

The current dominant discourse of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ is not just unnatural and divisive but also morally corrupt and myopic. It then becomes important to understand the pluralistic nature of the Indian nation and the richness that the Muslim culture has added to the Indian tradition.

The historical, cultural roots of India are diverse and pluralistic where dominant discourses have been constantly challenged and undercut by diverse counter discourses. Thus, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Bhakti Movement, Sufi Movement have co-existed and have challenged the dominant brahmanical discourse. At the same time, various cultural discourses have co-existed, often in perfect syncretism. The current dominant discourse of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ therefore is not just unnatural and divisive but also morally corrupt and myopic. It then becomes important to understand the pluralistic nature of the Indian nation and the richness that the Muslim culture has added to the Indian tradition. It is in this context that But you Don’t Look Like a Muslim, a book containing essays on culture and identity by Rakhshanda Jalil becomes a must read.

 

Divided into different sections, the book deals with issues of identity, culture, syncretic literature and religion. The personal and at the same time the political tone of the book makes it engaging, contemporary and relevant. The dilemma of having to choose one identity over another- Muslim or Indian has been raised by Jalil in the Introduction to the book. Her wish to celebrate being both Indian and Muslim without having to camouflage her identity is particularly significant in the present context where attempts have been made to present the Muslim identity as an antithesis to being Indian. The assertion that the two identities can and do co-exist and be celebrated is essential. It undercuts the prevalent discourse that seeks to establish Muslim identity as foreign to India. The stereotyping of the Muslims and the spread of hate speech against them in recent times is condemned by Jalil when she says, ‘While the entire Muslim community has suffered because of this steady infiltration of misconceptions and piling up of images and ideas- each more offensive and alienating than the other- a culture and way of life too has suffered due to this stereotyping’.

 

The creation of the binary between Muslim and Hindu has been accompanied by the creation of binaries between Urdu and Hindi, leading to the communalization of language itself. Urdu has come to be associated with Muslims and Hindi with Hindus with the erosion of the more syncretic Hindustani language. Jalil, in her book, calls for the reclamation of the common space between Hindi and Urdu and condemns the politicization and communalization of language. She writes, ‘The schism between the two languages was marked by partition, and the decades after 1947 saw a slow erosion of the common space between the two languages, a common space once called Hindustani but now virtually lost in the Babel of linguistic and cultural politics’. She further calls for bridging of the gap between the languages, thereby emphasizing on the need to be more tolerant and inclusive, ideas that powerfully act as a foil against the exclusive and intolerant ideas that are being routinely propagated today.

 

Through her essays and anecdotes, Jalil provides a glimpse into the diversity and richness of the Muslim culture. She counters the demonization of Muslims by humanizing the narrative and presenting the common human values that bind all cultures and religions together while at the same time bringing out the uniqueness of the Muslim tradition. Her essays about food, dawats, Jaipuri quilts, mixed with nostalgia of her childhood brings out the richness of the Muslim culture. She keeps asserting how her experiences are very much embedded in the pluralistic idea of India.

 

Rakhshanda Jalil in her essay Telling the Story of Ram-e-Hind recalls a time when Ramlila, far from being a religious festival, was a secular festival that blended the Urdu verses with Hindustani. By emphasizing on the idea that versions of Ramayana in Urdu flourished and existed, Jalil unravels the beauty of the syncretic Indian tradition where cultures were not rigidly demarcated along the lines of religion. Furthermore, the tolerance and acceptance of differences was accompanied with the adoption of traditions from other cultures. As she writes ‘There was a time, until not very long ago, when a common greeting was Jai Siya Ram! Even in practising Muslim households such as mine, I recall Sita Maiyya being held in the highest esteem…When and how this greeting changed to the militant, and masculine, Jai Shri Ram is another story; a story that is part of the larger narrative of othering’.

 

That Eid can co-exist and be blended with Holi, that Gita could be recited in Urdu, that Guru Nanak could be revered in Urdu poetry, that devotion for Islam can co-exist with devotion for Krishna, that Diwali could be celebrated through Urdu recitals, that plurality could be celebrated and differences embraced is the idea that Jalil brings forth in order to delegitimize the exclusivist narrative of the current times.

 

By tracing the literary tradition of Urdu from Amir Khusru to Rahim to Nazir Akbarabadi to the Romantic poetry of Shakeel Badayuni to the partition poetry in Urdu, Jalil not just establishes the richness and diversity of the literary tradition but also stresses on the multicultural ethos of the literature as well. The poetry that she brings into the essays is not just beautiful but powerfully relevant to the present times. The title of Ali Sardar Jafri’s poem ‘Dushman Kaun Hai’? (Who is the Enemy) becomes particularly important. It is a question that we really need to ask: Who is the enemy? Is it really the Muslim? Or are the enemies the jingoists, proponents of the exclusivist agenda?

 

Here, it would be appropriate to quote a few lines from Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem, included in Jalil’s essays, titled Chhabees Janwary (Twenty-Sixth January).

 

‘Why is the malady of religion still without a cure

What happened to those rare and precious prescriptions

Every street is a field of flames, every city a slaughterhouse

What happened to the principles of the oneness of life

Life wanders aimlessly in the wilderness of gloom…’

The book very powerfully counters the homogenization and the ‘otherisation’ of Muslims by presenting to us not just the myriad hues of the Muslim culture and the pluralist cultures of India but also their creative blending into a harmonious cultural landscape.

Thus, the book ‘But you Don’t Look Like a Muslim’ by Rakhshanda Jalil very powerfully counters the homogenization and the ‘otherisation’ of Muslims by presenting to us not just the myriad hues of the Muslim culture and the pluralist cultures of India but also their creative blending into a harmonious cultural landscape. The book asks significant questions that attempt to challenge and destabilize the dominant cultural discourse. As Jalil asks in the Afterword to her book, ‘Does my being a Muslim make me different from others, to the extent of constituting a threat to the idea of being Indian?...Shouldn’t these dissimilarities be a cause for rejoicing, I want to ask those who want to flatten out the differences because they equate difference with deviation? Must the other be alien and, therefore, frightening?’ These are the uncomfortable questions that we need to constantly ask, explore and understand. For the perils of homogenization are not just political or cultural but more importantly human.

 

If you enjoy what you're reading and want more, subscribe to our mailing list.

  • Instagram Logo
  • Linkedin Logo