Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Know thyself

Debating discrimination, differences and dissent in our part of the world

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The issue of racial discrimination has been in the news for quite some time. Some Indian pretended that they have been discriminated against in Britain while rarely speaking that India does not have its own house in order. Despite 60 years of independence India has not been able to transformed into a modern state, in terms of freedom, dissent and life of the common men. Though it may be a great satisfaction for some of us that India surrounded by autocratic military dictators still managed to strive the political democracy but instead of basking on the glory of ‘successful democracy’, we need to introspect our persistent failures of social life. If democracy has not reached the last man as envisaged by Gandhi or if social life does not convert into a social democracy as envisaged by Dr Ambedkar, Indians all over the world need to investigate that without empowering common man, India can neither claim a powerful nation nor an intellectual giant which many of the commentators do not stop claiming all the time. Pakistan has the same problem though it is not a democratic state yet its ruler claims a secular army and a working democracy on various occasions. Question is democracy is thwarted by the identity politics and undemocratic caste Panchayats. They are a threat but these caste panchayats are now being modernized in the name of new identity assertion among every one from the non-resident Indians to urban Indians under various shades and names. This assertion reinforces and justifies the age-old traditions in the name of culture. It jump on the bogey of victimization as soon as an elite of its own class face discrimination as in the case of Shilpa Shetty but remain conspicuously silent on the issue of its own contradictions and discriminations. Hence the Indians, Pakistanis and the other South Asians would rarely speak on their own track record of discrimination against ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in their own country. Oppression of women is always justified in the name of culture and vigorously defended.

A few days ago, I was reading the horrible tale of Mukhtar Mai who faced tyranny of the caste Panchayat called as Jirga in the North West Frontier Province, in Pakistan, which ordered her rape for a crime allegedly committed by her minor brother. Mukhtar Mai has become a legend in her own life times. Fighting against the feudal lords of the notorious North West Frontier Province, Mukhtari Mai showed how the village women in the Indian subcontinent have the courage to challenge the system. That, this system degrades and humiliates the victim is a well- established fact. And based on this principal, the rural women suffer in utter humiliation and indignity. Mukhtar Mai is not alone in such cases. Things are same in India, though a bit sophisticated here. It is important that a woman like Phoolan Devi would not have born if she had not shown the courage to fight against the humiliation. Rather than surrendering to the whims of the local powerful caste groups, these women stood up. Some chose the constitutional path while other decided to avenge it according to their own way. While Bhanwari Bai had to face the humiliation even inside the court where the judge in the Jaipur court released the accused establishing that an upper caste person would rarely rape a woman.

In her wonderful memoirs ‘ In the name of honor’, Mukhtar Mai, now symbolizing as an assertive woman protesting against the man made rules, says,’ police are directly controlled by the upper castes. Policemen act as the fierce guardians of traditions, allied with the tribal authorities. Whatever decision a jirga (caste Panchayat) makes will be accepted and backed up by the police. It is impossible to charge an influential family with a crime if the police consider the matter a village affair, especially if the victim is a woman’.

What Mukhtar Mai is saying reflect the farce in our system. As propagandists of family virtues, we, the South Asian have been at the height of hypocrisy blaming the west for every fault of their own. I am sure one would agree that these feudal values, the Manus law are not the invention of the wild west which our commentators often describe. The recent issue of race relation in Britain where a B grade Bombay film heroine earned huge amount of money, the South Asian communities are being presented as if everything has been imposed upon them and are being victimized. Ofcourse, the same South Asian would not like to be reminded about the growing number of honored killing in UK among the South Asian Communities. Shocking it may sound, but the fact is, that South Asians have more racial contours than their British counterparts. A study in UK showed how the Indians still are confined to their caste identities and how to get marry, every Indian boy come to India to look for an ‘ideal’ ‘ cultured’ and ‘fare’ color girl. Will we tell the world that we are more colours conscious than the British or European? That our boys are deeply intoxicated in the idea of varna and colour and that dogs can enter our temples and urinate over the gods but when the Dalits want to enter there the Gods become angry and their followers on earth goes on rampage.

Human life is not equal in this part of the world. Honored killing are not happening in Britton and Pakistan only but are very much part of our traditions. After all, all our marriages are not meant for the bride and the groom but for the parents of the both. Reputation is the biggest thing in these marriages.

A boy from the Valmiki family is still facing threat to his life for felling love with a girl from a Jaat family. Jaats are the peasant community and their men dominate the Delhi police hence when I visited along with other friends to the Assistant police commissioner some three years back, to provide security to this young boy, the officer said ‘. You see organizations like your should come forward and train the policemen, after all they too are human being and family. How do you expect them to change over night.’ I told the officer: Do you want to justify police negligence in the name of tradition.’ No, he said, but see how the society is changing. The girls move out in the evening without any escorts. How can police resolve every crisis that the society faces? I was aghast at this answer by the police officer that proudly claimed a JNU background. The officer certainly was not interested in telling that the police had failed to protect the victim and that such things should be stopped. I still remember how a younger sister of a girl who was slaughtered by her family and entire village community along with her husband, was happy and said that those who goes against social norms would meet the same fate.

Yes, the South Asian would not like to speak about the horrible culture of moral policing that they have developed without any change. The paradox of this is that they all enjoy best of multiculturalism in Europe and America but are highly paranoid of granting minority rights or space to dissent. For instance, Gujaratis world-over, have enjoyed the hospitality of multiculturalism. United States, United Kingdom and South Africa were their hunting ground. They build up huge empire. And see what is happening their native Gujarat? Most of the Non Resident Gujarati’s are financing the Babas, and the right wing elements. Narendra Modi might call Gujarat a vibrant state but it remains totally out of bound for the non-Gujaratis particularly Muslims and Chrisitians. During a trip to Gujarat last year, I put this question to a friendly Gujarati as why do they not want to keep Muslims in Gujarat. And the cryptic answer that this businessman was that the outsiders are creating problems in Gujarat. Gujarati’s are peace-loving people but it is the Biharis and others who created havoc in the aftermath of Godhara. It is tragic that India’s new vibrant culture is very much in tone with what is happening in Gujarat. There is no freedom in the air. The darkness in the noon is visible in Gujarat. The only thing is that you need to go and see beyond what is visible. The dangerous aspect of this newly immerging India is the growing middle class of upper caste Hindus which clearly want to look exclusive. Hence Dalits, Adivasis and others who are at odd with the current economic social set up feel suffocated and completely isolated. The government at the center is interested to placate this elite class and has launched another India shining campaign without including the poor people.

South Asian therefore needs to speak more vigorously against their own value system. That very few people stood up with both Mukthar Mai and Bhanwari Bai is reflection of our mindset. While Shilpa Shetty has detracted from her statement regarding racial discrimination, it is painful how the British upper caste Hindus and other upper South Asian elite made this a racial issue. Did they ever protest against the merciless treatment meted out to disabled in the Bombay films? How many of South Asian stood up and say that the depiction of the blacks in the Hindi films is most racial in nature. They are laughed. Our fascination for the fair color is well known. A dark skinned woman in India will hardly find a partner of her choice. Women’s skin her biggest ability or disability. Another disability in India is the physical disability, which is visible. One will rarely find a physically disable woman getting married to a ‘normal’ man because such things are not ever thought off. She will find a man in a ‘disabled’ person only. The girls born ‘Mangalik’ would be very difficult to get marry. And see, how our superstar icon Mr Amitabh Bachchan is behaving? One needs to see his discomfiture with a Manglik daughter in law. He goes from one temple to other temple to perform Yjnas and Pujas so that the evil spirit get off from the world queen Aishwarya Rai. More shocking is the fact as alleged in the media that the poor woman was asked to marry the tree to rectify the misfortunate. What these signals. Rather than becoming enlightened and accepting the person as she is or he is, Indian’s or South Asians still think in terms of his birth sign, physical appearance, cast and clans. Can we launch a movement against it or not. How long should we blame that the onslaught of the global powers have destroyed our culture and values.

It is not that people do not oppose it. Yes, those who oppose it live on the margin thoroughly isolated and dejected. But the grave danger comes from those forces who feel great in glorifying these customs. A well-known Gandhian activist has been promoting the idea of the caste panchayats. He would say, how great these Panchayats were in resolving the village problems. But going by the nature of these Panchayats, I a sure every saner person in the world would say demolish and destroy these caste Panchayats. Not only they have been anti people but also almost all of their decisions are against the basic tenets of civilization. Whether it is Jirga which gave decision to rape Mukhtar Mai or some disgruntled Panchayats in western Uttar-Pradesh which asked Imrana, a Muslim woman who was raped by her father in law, to marry him, these caste Panchayats are a blot to civilization and individual freedom and liberty. They promote fanaticism, parochial values and patriarchy. It is important that any glorification of these Panchayats need to be questioned. These Panchayats have authorized the goons to kill lovers, rape women, and exterminate families, which do not follow their dictates. In this hour of identity politics in India, these caste Panchayats are mushrooming very fast. Identity itself is patriarchical in terms and therefore there is very little that a woman can get out of it. That Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan came from a backward Gujar community does not means that this does not happen in that community. Only question is that she was a woman and her community was at the receiving end. The Gujjars in India are no better. Fully coated in the brahmanical stigmas, they do not allow their women to venture out.

Indians need to fight against such atrocious social behavior and practices. Unfortunately, rather than taking a strong action against the same, we are always put on the flimsy ground the issue of racial discrimination. One must question the upper caste Hindus as how many of them mix up with the Scheduled Castes in United States and UK. Not many years ago when I traveled to Bolivia to participate in a conference, a Kenyan friend questioned Gandhi and his intentions in Africa. ‘ You people have always claimed that Gandhi fought for our rights but where was the fight? None of the Indians ever want to share the issues with the blacks in Uganda and other part of the world. The situation is not much different in UK and USA where Indians do not want to be clubbed with Pakistanis.” Shilpa Shetty felt very bad when an in house lady called her Paki. This superiority complex has been injected in our heart and minds from the very beginning and the sooner we understand that the world has changed and going to be more civilized, would be better for us.

As I finish this, the news comes that the parents of the missing Children of Nithari say that the role of Noida Police was very fine in the act. They appreciated the state government and particularly the ruling political party of the state which lodged them in the five star hotels, gave them land and promised every member of the family a government job. I think nothing comes more shocking then this. This culture of considering people, as purchasable commodity is very much in existence in our part of the world. A majority of the missing children were Dalits and the upper castes in nearby localities said that it was not their problem.

British people gave a resounding verdict in favour a failed Indian star but will the South Asian communities be as mature enough to respect dissent, differences with in their own communities. One hope they would do so for the betterment of their own communities and their own country. I would like to finish with a Bangladeshi cab driver in London who was working with a new agency and took me to London Metro station when he said how happy his children were in London and that they do not wish to go back to Dhaka simply when they see violence in the name of culture and tradition. The simple driver had two houses in London and appreciated the multiculturalism in UK. There are other stories as well. While all written above does not mean to exonerate the western power for what they did through their imperialist agendas but then every one of us has this in our blood, it is only who is smarter enough then others. We all have at some point of time exploited the lesser powerful and marginalized communities. Now, in the 21st century, such discrimination and justifications in the name of identity, region, religion and language must be discarded and rejected.

Friday, February 02, 2007

On the death of a seasoned activist

A tribute to M A Khan

Remembering a man who committed his life for the tribal of Sonbhadra

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

He was a mobile Information Centre of Sonbhadra district in eastern part of Uttar-Pradesh, whose work during the past thirty years was utilized by those who do not have time to visit the villages and follow up the stories after they started. M.A.Khan was always cheerful related to his work, his love for the Adivasis and his conviction against the child labour, brought him close touch of the ground reality. His only concern was that ‘agencies outside Sonbhadra were using the ignorance and poverty of the poor people for their own purposes and not with an aim to lift the tribals and end poverty which they can very much do. Once the project was over, these agencies left the tribal for their own good.’ For the past few years, Khan in his every interaction with me displayed his disappointment of how the international donor agencies find their people and agencies in these regions but never found Khan and his Chaupal which had been fairly active in the region.

In a two days human rights consultation in Delhi, when I was informing a friend about Khan and his impeccable credentials for fighting the rights of the common man in Sonbhadra district, a shocking news was revealed by another friend that M.A.Khan passed away, a day before, on 27th of January 2007, in Varanasi. I was dumb and shocked to hear this. Just a fortnight ago, I spoke to him on his mobile when he told me that Doctors have found symptoms of cancer in him and that he wish to be transferred to AIIMS in Delhi. That time, the first thought in my mind was that this news would be wrong and hence I said ‘ Khan Saheb, you will get well soon. AIIMS is not the same as it used to be. If people like you are here who speak for the poor Dalits and marginalized, I do not know whether the doctors who do politics and not the treatment, would treat you well or not.’

M.A.Khan was quintessentially a secular activist with strong left leaning. He was not fit in the glamour world of NGOs where you are fixed in certain style of format and report as per it. Though, his documentation of events, custodial deaths, cases of torture of Adivasis and forest dwellers in Sonbhadra would remain unparallel. At a time, when NGOs masquerading to be human rights organization splash information with the purpose of publicity and not to really help the poor, Khan was refreshingly different with his people centric approach. He would walk down the villages, record the narratives of the victims and finally take them to the related authorities in the district and even file petition in the court. In fact, he had formed a group of lawyers in Sonbhadra who used to take such cases of illegal detentions of the tribal in the name of naxalism.

Born in 1946 in a Zamindar family of Robertsganj, Khan went to Deoband to earn a degree in Fazil and then he completed his masters. He worked very hard during the 1967 famine in the region. In 1968 he joined Communist Party of India and started Pragatisheel Kisan Manch (progressive farmer’s forum). He continued to travel around the villages and help the needy. In 1985 he founded Jan Sewa Kendra to assist the poor of his region.

It was his concern about the growing landless situation in Sonbhadra that he traveled around 500 villages of his district to understand the condition and found that tribal were living in utter misery. Their land being occupied by others and that they did not have two-time meal to eat. He felt that they lacked information regarding their rights. He found that the ignorance of the people was the biggest obstacle in their development and the officers were misusing it. In fact, one of his candid remarks was that despite huge funds flowing to NGOs in Sonbhadra and Varanasi, the condition of the poor and their rights remain the same. He would laugh and say that the NGOs have not come to remove the poverty of the people but their own poverty. ‘Chaupal’, a village initiative to discuss and resolve their problem by the villagers took shape during this period. He would form a team of 8 members in every village who would discuss their issues and carry the information to the central office in Robertsganj. Chaupal worked in 80 villages. Khan Saheb new it very well that it was difficult to run an organization without resources. Often, the big fishes would catch the members of Chaupal for their own purposes. He started getting depressed because of the growing commercialization of the civil society movement where the powerful elite had gathered all the NGOs in the name of ‘poor’. In the region of eastern Uttar-Pradesh where dirty tricks among the NGOs are the best practices, where NGOs are run by powerful connections and castes, Khan remain a grounded man. Very much down trodden who with the help of a few committed lawyers tried to do help the tribal.

Despite hailing from a Zamaindar family, Khan did not have much land and property at the end. He had a small typewriter where he would type reports of malfunctioning of the government department. If a tribal girl or woman would come to him, he would type their application and go along with them to submit it to the relevant authorities. He would nicely take a copy of the same in his file. And this was his regular practice. The habit resulted in one of the best documentation, which was hardly recognized and which remain thoroughly unpaid, that I had ever seen. It was this information, which proved volatile for police once upon a time and his office was burnt and valuable information got lost. Nevertheless, after that, he started working from him home and still had huge piles of files, meticulously maintained in his drawer.

For me he was a great source of information. He would send his well-written reports on issues as important as custodial deaths, National Rural Employment Guarantee programme, land and forest issues to be send to national and international agencies for lobbying. He felt betrayed that his work was not recognized by the international community leave along the donor agencies who have their own criteria for support.

Apart from sending these reports, which Khan was really very committed, the thing, which was very admirable about him, was his concern for the natural resources of the people and how they lost it to big companies and local feudal elements! His stories, many of which remain unpublished would be treasure to learn how the state and its apparatus have sucked the blood of tribal over the year. He had detailed information about how forest department captured the land of the tribal and how the NGOs from outside did not have enough information about it and they flash information and leave the place making the lives of the tribal more vulnerable to exploitation. I had promised to him to get them published in future. In fact, I introduced him to Hum Dalit, a monthly journal, which regularly published his well thought out articles.

I still remember the day when the villagers had come to protest in front of the district collector and all of them showed the food product they had been eating. The district Magistrate did not turn up but send his deputy and several forest officials. Seeing the tribal displaying their food produce the SDM became angry and said ‘ you sale our poverty abroad. You have no business do that. Go back.’ The forest department officers were equally angry and blamed Khan that he was responsible for misguiding them, a charge which Khan openly denied. Khan stood by the people all the time.

Being a local citizen of Sonbhadra, his house was always open for the tribal and Dalits of the region. Women would come to his house, get their work done and go back satisfying. In fact, for many of them, he was their father, who had performed the ‘kanyadaan’ during the marriage.

Once, I asked him why doesn’t he work on the ‘communal issues’. As usual he said ‘ I always feel my heart with the Adivasis of Sonbhadra. I never feel that I am different from them. They have been cheated by the regularly. The government has done very little for them. If they retaliate they are charged with being Naxalites and cases are filed against them.’ In fact one of the work that Khan did was to fight for a young 12 years old boy who was charged under POTA. This is tragic how police behave. Sonbhadra district is notorious for police highhandedness since they are unable to take on the Naxal, they exploit the helpless villagers.

It was therefore not surprising that the man who was arrested many time as well as whose office was burnt by the police in the name of alleged link with naxalites, did not find any favor from the donor agencies in their work for the region.

He would always say that the village needs to connect with international community. The idea of his Chaupal was to flood the authorities with complaints and information about the villages and the people and their problems. He would always ask me that internet and computers should linked to village and they would empower the poor people and reduce their dependency others to write letters for them as well as it will also enable the international community to see things at their own rather then being shown.

M A Khan remains simple all through his life. He was an anguished man that he could not communicate and write in English language and felt that it was the reason why people like him remain outside the net of those who matter. While, not many have had opportunity to hear him internationally, for the thousands of tribal people, he was one of their own, very own father figure, who went out of his way to help them and gave them a sense of dignity and honour. Like a lone man struggling in utterly difficult circumstances, he left a legacy of his work but no second rank leadership since he himself remained penniless till his end, struggling to get resources for his medication. That is the biggest irony of those work in the grassroots that they work for all and at the end they remain aloof from the world. None care to listen their problems and perhaps very few to bother that a committed man is no more. Since nobody care to inquire about each other particularly those come from not powerful families, there remain no news about them. It is tragic and it should end. The best tribute to MA Khan would be to strengthen the ideas that he gave and carry on his message of Chaupal so that the rural poor is saved from the a contemptuous bureaucracy as well as local middlemen who thrive on their ignorance.