Wednesday, June 28, 2006


A very serious matter was brought to my notice recently. It appears that a large number of villagers from Devarpalli were shelled with hand-grenades, as they approached the SJ camp at Dornapal. Some of these villagers might indeed have been armed. Curiously enough, first defintive reports of this alleged massacre began to trickle into Raipur only three days later, on June 12, 2006. Following the incident the Konta-Dantewada sector of the national highway had been sealed by S.P.Os.

The casualty-figure is speculative. Speaking to the Times of India, the CM said that ‘about 10 persons’ died. Mr. Manish Kunjam, the local CPI (M) chief, alleges that more than 150 persons were killed. A local press-representative, who recently visited the spot, puts the figure at around 40. However, given the devaluation- not to mention dehumanization- of tribal life in mainstream media, bludgeoned as it is by the draconian Chhattisgarh Public Safety (Special) Act passed during the last Vidhan Sabha session and an all-pervasive sense of apathy in the state’s urban areas, any report would have been ‘sanitized’: “SPOs bravely defend Camp against marauding Naxalites”.

According to one elected representative from this region, who visited the site two days after the Devarpalli Massacre, ‘mutilated bodies were lying for as far as the eye could see’. The reason why he wishes to be unnamed is because he apprehends that now that he has seen what he has seen, there is every likelihood of him being targeted by the SPOs, who would conveniently shift the blame onto Naxalites. Not surprisingly, he has left for Hyderabad, and hasn’t returned to his constituency since.

If what is alleged is true, then the Devarpalli Massacre is the first incident in post-independent India’s history where the state has deliberately bombed its own civilian population. Even more troubling is the fact that an event of such magnitude has gone entirely unnoticed, and that there is no effort- on the part of the media or the intelligentsia- to investigate what really happened. Read More (आगे और पढ़ें)......

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

NAXALISM: (C) Prachanda Shows the Way But Who's Interested?

Note: The following was translated into Hindi, and published by the newspaper ‘Chhattisgarh’ (26.06.2006).

Once I got through the drill of downloading the hindi font and re-encoding the text, I couldn't help feeling somewhat vindicated reading Shubranshu’s article (published in Daily Chhattisgarh as column ‘Basee Ma Ufaan’ on 23 June 2006).

However as a student of realpolitik, I also realize that the adage 'jo jeeta wohi sikandar' (winner takes all) holds.

Letting Mr Advani depute 157 CRPF and other paramilitary companies in Chhattisgarh's 25 'affected' constituencies- and then allowing them to remain mobile on active field-duty (rather than being kept as 'reserves' at district headquarters, as in Dantewada district where Congress won all three seats)- under the direct supervision of his two MoSs- Mr ID Swami and Swami Chinmayanand, both of whom were stationed in Bastar and Ambikapur respectively- was an open invitation to Disaster. In retrospect, any blind man could have seen what was coming. My father, for some reason, didn't.

Confirmation of what really happened came soon after election results were announced: the IGP Bastar, who oversaw central reserve forces deployment, was transferred as IGP Raipur the very next day, where he subsequently oversaw the reopening of the Jaggi case. Not many months later, he was promoted, out-of-turn ofcourse, to ADGP. Curiously, he is now overseeing counter-naxal operations. [Rahul's comment about] the BJP 'landslide' in rest of Chhattisgarh- or more specifically the Mahanadi basin (central Chhattisgarh)- is unmerited as the Congress won 33 of the 56 seats here (up from 24 in VS-1998). Furthermore, the polling percentage of 77% registered during VS-2003 elections at Bastar remains unmatched to this date: during the 2005 Panchayat elections (swept by the Congress), when polling is expected to be highest given intense local participation, only 51% of the electorate turned out to vote. Moreover, polling percentages in the 'affected' areas were significantly higher than in the non-affected areas of ‘Old Bastar’. To give a specific example, votes cast at the Orchha polling station during VS-2003 were 897 (up from 9 in VS-1998). So yes, there is a lot of sense in what has been stated in the article. Papa, along with all Congress candidates from Bastar, was to address a press conference on this issue on the very next day Mr Jaitley released his 'tape' (cash-for-MLAs scam). Naturally, that didn't happen.

As far as the Naxalites are concerned, I don't think it really matters to them who comes to power in the state: frankly, what they want- a separate Dandkaranya no less- deals directly with the first of what Pt. Nehru termed India's 'non-negotiables': the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of the nation. I don't see the Union agreeing to this particular utopian demand anytime soon. The state, on the other hand, is simply not authorized to talk on such subjects even though this Governor had made something of a show of visiting jails to hold impromptu discussions with LWE inmates. But if they are willing to emulate the Prachanda example [the hitherto elusive Maoist leader who recently joined Mr. Koirala’s national government in Nepal], then yes, there is Hope. I have stated as much in my prison diary entry (posted here elsewhere) when I spoke of 'cooption'- a formula that has worked in the past, though informally ofcourse. We could try it first at the level of local self-government before confidence can be instilled in both sides for taking it to the levels of state and national governance. I am told that while Indian-Maoist cadres are keen, the leadership isn't. That may change, if governments bring something more to the negotiating table. Sadly, political will- and insight- to do so is lacking.

This state government is only too aware of the role paramilitary forces have played in its coming to power: by ensuring that more and more areas become classified as 'affected' it hopes to repeat VS-2003 in VS-2008. And as long as the Naxalites remain mute spectators- boycotting elections because they don't believe in them- there isn't a thing they can do about it. And all hope for a Prachanda-like political solution will remain just that: a wasted opportunity to put an end to a senseless violence that has already claimed too many good lives. Read More (आगे और पढ़ें)......

Saturday, June 24, 2006

JAIL DIARY: Part Three: The Ballad of Raipur Gaol

July 8, 2005
From PC to JC

July 9, 2005
I am perhaps the only real prisoner in Raipur Gaol: all others, except those on death row (there aren’t any here), are allowed to roam the immense campus with only a nominal presence of unarmed ‘warders’ assigned to keep watch; they are free to mingle with each other, forge associations and bonds, which I’m told more often than not endure entire life-spans. I, on the other hand, am condemned to share my cell- a 7’ by 9’ (feet) structure that includes a toilet (the flush doesn’t work and I’m rationed two buckets of water daily)- with a variety of creatures, most notably flies, who I’ve long given-up shooing, but also an emerging colony of red ants and ofcourse the famous full-blooded Raipuriya mosquitoes. [There are others whose zoological nomenclature escapes me now.] Prisoners too bear the brunt of the change of government: for all of today- infact from the time of my internment- there has been no evidence of electricity, not that I mind terribly. Thankfully there is enough daylight for me to read the few periodicals and also finish the book (Keegan’s anthology: The Book of War) that my jailors have very kindly permitted me. After much persuasion, I have also been allowed the luxury of writing paper and a solitary ballpoint pen, with which I am now able to scribble this.

Any possibility of getting my trusty laptop, to which I’ve confined the over fifty-thousand words I’ve written on the history of Chhattisgarh, has been ruled out although my lawyer informs me that there is judicial precedence of prisoners being allowed the use of computers. [Charles Sobraj is a case in point.] It’s not as if the machination- the contemporary computer- is outlawed from jail premises: the hon’ble Jail Superintendent only this morning boasted of a computer-training program for convicts, but ‘security concerns’ prevent my enrolling in that commendable effort. Home-food is also quite out of the question for fear that I might be poisoned. Mummy’s request to personally deliver a lunch-tiffin was met with a curt ‘No’- and she had no option but to take it back. I am also free to walk about but the two feet path between my cell and its enclosure affords a somewhat dismal view of whitewashed walls topped with menacing iron spikes, which serves to make me even more acutely aware of my status as an undertrial prisoner, who in the prison’s somewhat skewed social-hierarchy are somewhat akin to second-rate citizens, the crème-de-la-crème comprised of ‘numberdars’ (Convict Overseers or COs) chosen from convicts sentenced for life. The latter incidentally are the fuel of the burgeoning prison-economy, where I’m told (most recently by K before he finally said goodbye) everything- animal, mineral and vegetable- is available but any many times the market cost. Since I’ve not brought anything with me that might be construed as ‘valuable’ in the remote, I am summarily excluded from the operation of this prodigious economy. The food given to me is adequate, I suppose, from a nutritional viewpoint although this morning’s loose-stool does seems symptomatic of impending diarrhea. I also fear an imminent onslaught of ulcer, given the prison-chef’s fascination with red-chilly powder, which is available in abundance since the prison has its own masala factory, of which my numberdar-designate Dilip Chhatri, a jovial enough character in for a murder he professes not having committed, is incharge.

With the exception of Mummy, Rahul and SNT, I’ve had no visitors today. Again: not that I mind since the presence of a visitor entails the rather loud- if not outrightly scornful- announcement of a prisoner’s- and his father’s- name on the public address system, which in the mornings and evenings is used to play devotional music, a highly effective therapy, to quote the Jail Superintendent, for prisoners of unsound mind, and also the unkindly prospect of walking a kilometer- my cell number eight, also called the Mahatma Gandhi Barrack, in the New Octagon is situated at an extreme corner of the prison complex- to the visitors’ room where prisoners are kept separated from their callers-on by a meshed screen. The absence- or paucity- of visitors should ordinarily contribute to my sense of solitude, but it doesn’t. Adequate security also means that I must remain visible, even while taking a bath: the prison warders, numberdars and even their assistants- always polite- are duty-bound to watch me, my every move. Infact this notion of shifting prisoners from the dark confines of a dungeon, which is where they have remained for much of history, to open cells where they may be watched from a central watchtower, as described in the elaborate architecture of the Panopticon by Bentham, governs much of the contemporary world’s fascination with prison reform. All modern ‘humane’ prisons therefore owe more than they care to realize to English Utilitarianism.

But the influence of Utilitarianism, indeed the entire corpus of western philosophy, on Indian mentalité specifically with respect to the concept of justice has not significantly progressed beyond linguistic and architectural manifestations; infact its ethos has been summarily overlooked. It has been, since times immemorial, been turned on its head. Lopsided. ‘A person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty’- the a priori principle from which arise all laws governing civilized societies- does not seem to apply to our ancient ‘kultur’, which presumes a person’s guilt until he is able to establish his innocence, and even then he might never be accepted as absolutely absolved. In India, justice is not only delayed and denied but also distorted and deflected. In my case too, the media- the word does seem under the present circumstances something of an anachronism; Paparazzi seems more descriptive- has not only reported, as it ought to, but it has gone a step further, and undertaken to be both judge and executioner. They are not on unfamiliar ground: the ‘Manavdharmasastra’ (Manusmriti) arguably the single most influential religious-legal treatise to shape India’s approaches to jurisprudence, is full of instances where say if a man from the lower caste is accused of a particular crime such as defiling a Brahmin’s sanctity by letting his shadow fall on the latter’s personage, the prescribed penalty is for him to be tied to a stone and hurled into a water-body. If the body does surface eventually, he is presumed innocent; otherwise he is pronounced guilty as charged. In so many ways, I too feel a bit like that unfortunate soul, drowning with the weight of a hundred stones tied to me. When justice does come- and I’m sure it will be years, possibly decades, before that happens, if it happens- it won’t matter one way or the other, not to me anyway. To cite a recent example, the acquittal of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the Bofor’s case just a couple of months ago will have absolutely no effect, retrogressive or otherwise, on him. Fifteen years ago, while campaigning in an effort to clear his name and return to power, his body was blown to bits by a depraved human bomb. I cannot help thinking that a similar fate awaits me.

The citation of the above illustration from Manusmriti (repeated also in later texts such as the Naradsmriti) is not intended to give the issue of my alleged complicity a caste-color. Frankly, the matter has been- and will be- politicized enough. Yet it would be equally farfetched to absolve people of their ‘caste-biases’ anymore than to attribute these as the sole determinants of their behavior: neutrality in emotive issues such as this is simply not an option, and Reason is often the first casualty. As a matter of socio-historical construction, the media and the so-called Intelligentsia, those people who by virtue of their peculiar societal roles and functions, are dominated by certain castes, and these, as it happens, are not my own. The dichotomy exists: there is no way around this conundrum but to admit to, and recognize this fact of existence. At a more immediate level, it was only after the summary removal- ouster, really- of the SP formerly entrusted with this case’s investigation that the Agency- the Kauls, Mishras, Sharmas and Pachauris- began its high-handed persecution leading to my arrest despite the fact that Papa belongs to the UPA, the incumbent Government at the Centre. Once again, I’m not alleging the direct interplay of caste-bias- I’m sure that, in the words of Marc Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ‘they are all hon’ble men’- but it would be hard for the astute observer to overlook entirely the aforementioned fact as happenstance or coincidence. Further proof, if needed, comes from the discussion I had with another prisoner jailed for the same case. This fortuitous meeting was an accident, whose repetition the authorities have taken extra-precautions to prevent. If what he has told me is true, then my investigators- from the highest level- have gone to great lengths to ensure that the actual perpetrators of this ghastly crime go scot-free, and that their false-testimonies, already recorded, become the principal instrument to condemn me. What saddens and shocks me is the growing realization that these one-time friends and well-wishers have done so for no particular reason but to save their own skins by feeding me to the lions, knowing full well that I’m innocent. My ‘guilt’, as they might see it in order to ease their own pitiless consciences, is not having done enough to thwart the course of this investigation, which might have been attempted had we been convinced even in the remote of our complicity. Knowing Papa, he would not have done so- at any cost. Now, I am made to pay the price of others’ misdeeds. At a more literary level- I am after all a creature of literature (more specifically: fiction)- I can’t help but see my peculiar predicament- the irony of it- in terms of Tolstoy’s classic tale ‘God Sees the Truth But Waits’.

[I offer this revelation only as part of my narrative, and not with the intention of arousing the anonymous Reader’s sympathy at any particular injustice resultant from a conspiracy. Admittedly, conspiracies- which in any case are organic to ‘realpolitik’- must be judged not on their morality but also less poignantly, on the basis of the ends they eventually seek to serve.]

[Tarun C. shows his influence by walking into my cell. If only he were sober-]
Read More (आगे और पढ़ें)......

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

NAXALISM: (B) DARBAGUDA: Prison Dairy Entry of 28.02.2006

The killing fields of Darbaguda are about a thousand kilometers away, lying further south of the Bastar hills: another country altogether, but I cannot help feeling as if a part of me was also blown to bits yesterday, along with a hundred or so of my unarmed tribal brethren. [The official figure is understandably a fifth of this number: part of the bureaucratic devaluation of tribal life.] Frankly I have no means of really knowing what happened except the little I read in the lone newspaper I’m allowed : with the recent passage of the Chhattisgarh Public Safety Special Act, even that must necessarily be remarkably sanitized. Babudom speaks almost in one voice but everyone else has been conspicuously silenced.

For whatever it is worth, Papa’s is the lone voice of dissent: from its inception he has opposed Salwa Judum, the state’s ultra-militarized response to People’s War. Not surprisingly, the germinator of this counter-offensive is an ex-Communist: a garden variety Revisionist. And the other is an officer returned belatedly from Bosnia, and the UNPKF’s pyrrhic “victories” at Kosovo. This makes the whole ‘movement’ all the more pathetic : both Mr. Karma and Mr. Rathore, it seems to me, not only believe genuinely in the efficacy of their method but go a lot farther than that : for them, there can be no alternative to it, and anyone who dares to think things differently is condemned summarily as a heretic. What they fail to realize is that Totalitarianism (reflected in ideologies that deny all other possibilities other than their own) is infact the world’s greatest heresy, and cause of so much wasteful & senseless bloodshed. Be that as it may, Mr. Karma has had his way: he’s got the entire state machinery, from the CM downwards, singing to his tune. To me, that is as much proof of Mr. Karma’s Zealotry as it is of this state government’s absolute intellectual bankruptcy: Dr Raman Singh, our CM No. 1, dutifully follows Mr. Karma, the Leader of opposition. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise when the Chief Minister, caught unawares by the terrible news while he was in the Vidhan Sabha, announced that his government would have to‘re-think’. Unfortunately that re-thinking has so far meant more guns, more helicopters, more bombs, more aircrafts, more troops and possibly even bringing in the military. Sadly the mindset in the Union Home Ministry has been only more than happy to oblige, principally because all this serves to increase its own influence: the proverbial Faustian bargain.

One gets the impression that Papa’s criticism hasn’t been taken too seriously. I won’t be in the least bit surprised if decision-makers at Delhi view it as just another instance of his “Cry Wolf” attitude. The fact is that he is unabashedly Churchillian in role as an opposition leader: the Opposition’s duty is quite simply ‘to oppose, to expose and to depose.’ Even before the Government announces its policy, there’s a statement from his very capable Political secretary (also a Churchillian) denouncing it as ‘anti-people’. Without going into the merits of specific instances, I would say that that’s slightly unfair. Alright the BJP, when they were in opposition, had crossed all limits of public decency, hurling the most bizarre abuses- allegations is too mild a term- against not only the CM but also his wife, his son, his dogs and his servants. But that does not justify stooping to their level. Criticism, in order to be sound, constructive & valid, must be based on hard facts: what a policy-decision actually does for its intended beneficiary. For example, in the various paddy purchase scams that have come to light, the vast sums of money paid by the Government to purchase paddy at what can only be euphemistically labeled ‘minimum support price’ (far in excess of market prices) never really reached farmers, siphoned en route by payments made for jute ‘gunny-bags’ that were never manufactured containing ‘paddy’ that was never produced and transported in ‘trucks’ that never reached ‘millers’ who were given cash- receipts for de-husking that non-existent paddy into equally non-existent ‘rice’, which was again transported in those non-existent ‘trucks’ to be stored in- unfortunately- very real but consequently empty Godowns and then quickly redistributed among rural laborers through equally non-existent ‘food-for-work’ relief programs.

Not surprisingly most of these societies, suppliers, transporters and millers happen to be very close to, and in some cases blood relatives of, the powers-that-be. However much one may try, such scams tend to leave a ghastly paper trial and almost certainly a good many cases of gross indigestion & flatulence. Pure, unadulterated stink.

Salwa Judum is an infinitely more sinister ‘scam’: rather than a paper trail, it’s left behind a gruesome blood trail. Human blood. Tribal blood. No ‘inquiry’ can do justice to that. What is needed is a total overhauling- possibly even scraping- of the ‘movement’. From what I hear, the reaction in Raipur- indeed in most of the cities- has been one of ‘pity’, not alarm. The killing fields of Darbaguda are still very distant and those massacred & abducted tribals aren’t exactly flesh and blood. But Violence especially the sort ingrained in ideology- any ideology- isn’t static or isolated: like HIV, it doesn’t remain content with mere habitation; it methodically destroys the immune system and eventually annihilates its host. Civilization, despite its ceaseless and persistent march of several millennia, hasn’t discovered its cure for the sole reason that it doesn’t think like us. Its primary objective is to seek and destroy- even if that means destroying itself in the process. Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ does not account for the evolution of viruses. With due respect to Sorel, Violence for its own sake is pure madness. And ‘Salwa Judum’ has decisively committed the entire state, all of its twenty million inhabitants, and most of its resources to this madness: how else does one explain forcing defenseless, unarmed tribals, through propaganda and often at gunpoint, to engage in fourth-generation guerilla warfare against an invisible foe ? How else does one account for the uprooting of tens of thousands of tribal families from lands they have lived on for tens of thousands of years and herding them into tens of thousands of makeshift road side canvas tents? How else does one justify converting India’s richest forests abounding in its richest mineral deposits into a bloody Bosnian Battlefield?

What’s truly frightening is that all of it has happened so fast, almost in the blink of an eye. Could it be that we have already crossed the ‘brink’: the point of no return. It is accepted wisdom that Left Wing Extremism (LWE) can be bisected: one part considers its causes; the other is a response to its methods (or symptoms). Let us not fool ourselves: no other explanation apart from the state’s abject apathy for the tribes’ welfare can justify the proliferation of ‘dalams’ in tribal homelands. Draconian environmentalism has made them exiles in their own homes and barred them from fruits of developments; evangelism (of the sort practiced both by Christian missionaries and Swayamsevaks) has led to widespread cultural displacement, a total loss of identity by breeding in them a false sense of shame about a proud & ancient heritage [how else does one explain the rapid death of Gotuls?]; political parties have patronized oppressive middlemen- former feudal lords and traders- to secure tribal vote banks; and most tribal-targeted welfare schemes are thwarted by an absentee or apathetic babudom. Not surprisingly, tribals, especially the youth, have become easy receptacles of the anarchist & revolutionary methods, espoused by Naxalites. It is only in respect of their ‘methodology’ that LWE is a ‘law & order’ problem. Remove the cause and the anarchism will automatically disappear. Enact the Tribal Bill pending now before Parliament and remove anachronistic legal and administrative barriers to development (FCA & WPA, 1980); pump funds into roads, hospitals, industry and colleges rather than bombs and bullets; stop imposing Orientalist Value-judgments & cosmetic leadership; and allow instead their own diverge cultures to blossom, their own leaders to speak – and by God we won’t need the military.

The good news, if one can call it that, is this: the Cause that LWE once espoused has itself become suspect. A parallel industry of Pretenders and conmen posing as ideologues and revolutionaries is indulging in rampant extortion and sexual abuse. Tribals are now as disillusioned if not more with this corrupted form of LWE than they are with the ‘welfare state’. In the three years that Papa was chief minister, we had very good reasons to believe that the ‘People’s War’ (then still comprising of two principal competing outfits PWG & MCC and a host of other splinter groups, all of which were more busy fighting each other than waging a united, centrally coordinated, full-fledged war against the state) were well behind their planned schedule, according to which- if intelligence reports are to be believed- the PWG moving northwards from Telengana via Bastar, and the MCC coming through Jharkhand into Ambikapur were to ‘merge’ in the industrial heartland of the state at Korba by 2002. Infact the PWG had been pushed back beyond Konta and into Abujhmar and our forces had regained total control over the Sukama-Konta segment of the National Highway and the adjoining habitations within a radius of seventeen kilometers atleast. The most tangible proof of this came in the form fully functional Panchayat offices I visited unannounced as far off as Muraliglida, where I was offered mangoes the size of watermelons and possibly the sweetest prawns I have ever eaten. I have no shame in admitting that ‘cooption’ rather than ‘competition’ saved those panchayat schools and primary health care center (PHC) buildings not only from being blown to bits but also ensured that persons posted there actually showed up for work. Infact I would go even further to advocate that cooption–involving LWE and LWE-sympathizers in the developmental process- is probably the only way out. I remember three particular instances when development wouldn’t have been possible at all without co-opting the Naxalites.

First: relief works in Dantewada. I had taken an Indian Express journalist friend from Delhi to do a story. This is what he discovered (much to my annoyance): the number of relief works completed by the so-called Naxalite- controlled panchayats in remote areas far exceeded those directly done by the district administration by a ratio of 3:1. Second: tendu-patta collection, which the state government privatized only in Dantewada district since the forest department had shamelessly raised its hands and said ‘No’. Not only did Dantewada top the district-wise table for minor forest produce collection that year but the tribals of Dantewada ended up picking a huge windfall in the form of bonuses over and above their daily wages. Third, and in my opinion, perhaps the most significant: a local MLA informed me that while a sum of Rs. 16 crores had been allotted for construction & repair of roadways, it had been lying unused because of two reasons: one, the Border Road Organization (BRO) wasn’t too keen on taking up new projects since they were already running a couple of years behind schedule on already existing projects and two, much of the areas where these roads were supposed to be built, connecting remote villages to the highway, fell under the category of ‘forest land’ where getting environmental clearance from MoEF was next to impossible. I asked him how he intended to overcome these two hurdles. His answer: cooption. I am happy to say that not one paisa of that road budget lapsed, and three months later I was with the Hon’ble MLA as he inaugurated a 7 kilometer road to loud cheers, including from certain members of the local ‘dalam’.

I am not saying that cooption is a perfect solution. Infact I am quite certain that in atleast one case, some of the monies allocated were sought to be used for arms purchases needed badly at that time to fight Mr. Naidu’s STF in Andhra Pradesh. Actually this is what happened. The poor private contractor had paid the ‘commission’ to one faction and when the other factions come to know of it they quite literally fought each other to the death. In any event not only was the project completed to the exacting standards that revolutionaries so often demand in others but even (the contractor confided to my informant that) the commission paid by him was less than half of what would otherwise have been extracted by our babudom.

I believe there are important lessons to be learnt here. Salwa Judum can’t be only about waging a war against a bunch of armed revolutionaries (most of whom curiously belong to the trader communities: for confirmation one need only look at the caste composition of the interim Politburo of the recently merged People’s War); the full potential of any state-sponsored People’s Movement, call it what you will, can only be realized by waging a full scale war on Poverty, Apathy, Corruption and Oppression that have given rise to those armed revolutionaries in the first place. So long as these remain, the echoes of mines blasting, mothers wailing and guns splattering will forever resonate in our forests and among the tribes, and in the not too distant future, in our own homes.

I am not against forcing anyone but they must be forced to do the right things, to fight the right kind of battles. Use force to get the tribals to go to schools & college and get degrees. Use force to build industries (NAGARNAR steel plant) and rail roads (Dondilohara-Jagdalpur Railway line) and power projects (Bodhghat Hydel Power Project) and mines (Raoghat Iron Mines) and hospitals (Apollo) so that they can put those damned degrees to use. Use force to make them the sole owners of the land on which they live (Tribal Bill). But for heaven’s sake don’t use force to herd them into lorries like cattle to attend staged rallies to listen to meaningless diatribes of a bunch of air-dropped Z-plus politicians urging them to wage a war they have not been equipped to fight against a lethal enemy who might just be a next-door neighbor: you might as well preach ‘euthanasia’ and get it over and done with.

Read More (आगे और पढ़ें)......

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

NAXALISM: (A) Salwa Judum: For and Against

Note: This article was translated into Hindi and published in NAVBHARAT (22.06.2006)

Very recently, I happened to be sitting next to SJ’s charismatic chief Mr. Mahendra Karma on a flight from Delhi. There is no doubting the fact that what he is doing- undertaking padyatras in the very heart of Naxalite territory to mobilize tribal support against LWE- is incredibly brave, even heroic. For the first time, the Naxalites in Chhattisgarh are, to put it mildly, perturbed. Not surprisingly, Mr. Karma’s ‘threat-perception’ is among the highest for any politician in the country. Certainly higher than the Chief Minister. But the problem with all mass movements, even state-sponsored ones, is that they have a remarkably short shelf life.
Writing on Gandhian strategy, the nationalist historian Bipin Chandra postulates the concept of S-T-S (an acronym for ‘struggle-time-struggle’). To the utter disbelief of his compatriots, the Father of the Nation summarily called-off the Non-cooperation movement after a mob set fire to a remote police station at Chauri Chaura in Bihar. The way historians now see it he didn’t have an option. Frankly, it would either have fizzled out and died its own death or- and this was a far worse possibility- it would have turned violent and gone totally out of control. Indeed, almost a decade had lapsed before the Mahatma had his second epiphany on the shores of his native Porbandar. The resultant Civil Disobedience Movement, inaugurated by the historic Dandi march to protest the salt tax, too was called-off in less than two years when he journeyed to London to participate in the Second Round Table Conference, and didn’t quite resume even after the Conference’s failure. Taking a cue from the Master of mass movements, isn’t it time SJ too was called-off?
Perhaps, it’s not fair to compare SJ with other popular movements. Popular movements, as a rule, are anti-establishment. With the notable exception of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, I can think of no other mass struggle in contemporary history wherein the state has played such a pivotal role. Salwa Judum- literally ‘Peace Path’ in Gondi- now provides the other exception. The question is this: can the state’s direct involvement in popular movements be justified? Put simply, political scientists explain the birth of the modern state in terms of a Contract between the individual and his chosen form of government. For example, the individual surrenders some of his rights, and in return the state undertakes to protect his life. It is usually when the state fails to fulfill its part of the contract that popular movements arise.
In the case of SJ, its very existence is proof of the state’s failure to protect tribals from LWE but rather than the tribals taking the law into their own hands, the state has virtually handed it over to them. That’s not all. It has conveniently displaced its responsibility. This has been done without equipping tribals with the wherewithal and training to fight a remarkably sophisticated militant organization. One might even say it has senselessly sent them- two hundred and six, according to official estimate, but thousands if first-hand reports are to be believed- to their deaths. I remember a press conference addressed by the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in Singapore. When asked by a correspondent, how he could justify sending three hundred thousand troops to Kashmir, he curtly said its for the state to decide what it takes to protect its citizens. Mind you, he didn’t say that he expected untrained Kashmiri civilians to do battle with militant outfits.
Surprisingly, Mr. Karma also cites the Kashmiri example to justify the displacement of over sixty thousand tribals from their ancestral villages into makeshift ‘camps’. Infact he views this ‘displacement’ as an unfortunate but necessary phase in the fight against Naxalites. Once again, this comparison isn’t entirely correct. Several Islamic militant outfits had given the call for Kashmiri Pundits to leave the valley, seeing them as traitors supporting the Indian Government. At no time have the Naxalites ever asked tribals to leave their homes. Infact such a demand would be self-defeating: a CRZ (Central Revolutionary Zone) minus inhabitants for the Politburo to lord over doesn’t make sense. They don’t want a lebensraum, like Hitler did, to repopulate it with purebred Aryans. The fact is that there can be no historical justification for displacement of thousands of tribals from villages they have inhabited for thousands of years. Instead any justification has to be geographical. When I asked Papa what he would have done had he been Chief Minister, he replied: “I would have fortified villages and trained villagers to defend themselves instead of abandoning them for the Naxalites to take over and herding them into camps.” That’s easier said than done. Its one thing to train tribals into a sterling fighting machine- as late as the 1960s, villagers of Lormiguda had revolted en mass against the state- but to fortify villages that are spread over several square kilometers is too big a task. Infact, herding them into camps is a lot more practical. But pragmatism cannot be allowed to defeat principles, and the principle is this: it is the state’s paramount duty to protect its citizens, more specifically those who inhabit its peripheries, and failure to do so cannot justify the uprooting of an entire people. The NBA is fighting displacement of tribals in the name of development. SJ, on the other hand, justifies displacement in the name of death. When Mr. Pisda, the Collector of Dantewada, tells Outlook that ‘either they are SJ or they are Naxalites’, that’s precisely what he means. The third option, of just going about the business of living, no longer exists for the tribes of Bastar, who must either fight or die.
I haven’t been to SJ camps but from what I gather a lot of the tribals who have been evicted from their villages now want to go back: monsoons, after all, is ‘a time to sow and a time to reap’. They are told that they would be shot if they did. By whom: Naxalites or SPOs? That isn’t made very clear. Why is this Government so keen on keeping them in camps? More than the security concern, this has to do with the politics- and economics- of displacement. Camps no doubt provide a remarkably convenient incubation zone for the Sangh Parivar to indoctrinate thousands of unsuspecting tribals into its ‘Hindutva’ fold. RSS-run shakas, I’m told by no less an authority than the correspondent of a leading national daily, have already become a common camp feature as have Saraswati Shishu Mandirs (ekal-vidyalayas) and Valmiki Kalyan Ashrams. Furthermore, camps have given birth to their own peculiar industry: to sustain sixty thousand tribals, the state has budgeted a daily expenditure of crores of rupees in the form of food and other civil supplies, health care and education, not to mention law and order. As with every other government welfare scheme for the tribals, its real beneficiaries are the middlemen- bureaucrats, suppliers and political cronies- entrusted with its overall implementation. Infact, to maximize its profits, people associated with this industry are only too happy to inflate figures of the number of ‘refugees’- this is precisely what the hon’ble home minister called them- living in SJ camps. Naturally, the living condition in these camps is bound to be atrocious, and in direct proportion to the ‘refugees’ desire to risk return.
I asked Mr. Karma how many Naxalites- ‘full-timers’- does he think are active in Bastar. He said: “about five thousand”. And how many SPOs (Special Police Officers) has he recruited? He said: “three thousand and five hundred”. And how long does he expect the fighting to last before the ‘Naxalite menace’ is wiped out completely. He said: “three more years”. These, broadly speaking, are the battle-statistics. What then are the problems? First, total intelligence failure. Fifty tribals were abducted from a SJ camp. Half a month later, thirteen bodies were found littered on the national highway. Now, to abduct and guard fifty tribal requires atleast one hundred able-bodied adults. Moreover, to avoid detection by the security forces, this band of one hundred and fifty persons must be constantly on the move, as indeed they were. The fact that nobody had a clue where they were shows just how little the security forces understand the terrain even though they- the abducted and their abductors- never ventured more than ten kilometers beyond the national highway! Secondly: SJ- by evicting villagers into camps- is perennially on the defensive. The whole point of SJ is to reclaim territory from the Naxalites, not hand it over to them. This can’t be achieved if Mr. Karma plays pied piper, leading tribals everywhere he goes into the illusory safety and comfort of camps. Ofcourse he hopes one day to send his SPOs- recruited mostly from surrendering Naxalites and among the youth of the camps, who are paid a monthly salary of Rs. 1500- into the abandoned territory to do face-to-face battle with the Naxalites. His contention with Mr. KPS Gill, the newly recruited Advisor to the CM, is more likely to do with this particular ‘phase’ of SJ. Super Cop Gill would no doubt favor deputing armed forces to systematically comb the jungles and flush out any Naxalites. The problem with this, as Mr. Karma points out, is that the armed forces wouldn’t differentiate between innocent tribals and dreaded Naxalites, leading to avoidable civilian casualties. The SPOs, according to him, would. That may not be entirely correct. Recent reports of SPO-activity suggests that these relatively untrained but armed men with an almost blanket license to kill are more likely to settle personal scores than wage sustained warfare. After all, isn’t this what happened with Mr. Hiteshwar Saikia’s SULFA (Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam)? Infact, in the not-so-long run SULFA came to be more dreaded than ULFA.
To make sense of all this, let’s look at the tribal himself. For him, it’s not a simple matter of choosing between the good guys and bad guys, as indeed Mr. Karma thinks it is. Frankly, we- those who believe in the legitimacy of the state- aren’t all that good. When Papa was CM, I had insisted on going to Orchha. At the heavily fortified government rest house opposite the tehsil office, I was accorded a traditional song & dance welcome by a bison-horn Maria troupe comprising mostly men and women my own age. I asked one of them, who knew a smattering of Hindi, what they were singing. His reply was revealing: ‘heaven is miles and miles of forest of mahua trees; hell is miles and miles of forest of mahua trees but with one forest guard in it’. This one forest guard- the single most visible state-representative and executor of the Forest Protection and Wildlife Conservation Acts (1980) in the area- has the potential of transforming heaven into hell. Indeed, the twin-legislations, based as they are on the presumption of dichotomy between tribes and their habitats, have not only reduced tribals to the status of exiles in their own homes but also given rise to a new species of environmentalism that has today become the greatest hurdle to development of the tribal habitat. Crores of rupees sanctioned as part of various tribal development projects have been pilfered. Successive governments have shamelessly exploited them as easy votebanks. Indeed the tribal experience with the welfare state has been one of disenchantment, and this more than anything else, explains the recent profligacy of LWE- from less than 100 districts in 1995 to over 170 districts in 15 states by April 2004 when the NDA was voted out of government- in tribal areas. Tribal leaders like my father and Mr. Karma understand this only too well. That is why they strongly advocate the setting-up of new steel plants by NMDC and Tata; construction of the Dondi Lohara-Jagdalpur railway line; opening of Raoghat mines; resumption of Bodhghat Hydel Power; and most significantly, the enactment of the Tribal Bill repealing the 1980 Acts. The bottom line is this: restore tribals as masters of their own destinies.
Isn’t that what the Naxalites also want?
Read More (आगे और पढ़ें)......

Sunday, June 04, 2006

TRAVELOGUE: Now In the Winter of Discontent, circa 2004


A Winter Interlude: From the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea

The incredible ecological and anthropological diversities of this antediluvian subcontinent were made manifest to me during the course of the passing week, as I journeyed, variously by means of motorcar, railroad, airplane and steamship, from the snow-draped peaks of the Himalayas to the sunny-sandy beaches off the shores of the Arabian Sea. Quite naturally, this bewildering excursion was not of my volition: fascinating as this might sound, it was portended by the peculiar alignments of planets, stars & other miscellaneous cosmic bodies, which astrologers & soothsayers of this ancient civilization have, since the beginning of Time, deemed auspicious for such occurrences as the solemnization of marriages; and since I am now come of that age when wedlock becomes something of an inevitability, it necessitates that I put-in an appearance, if not at my own betrothal, then at the very least at similarly elaborately contrived affairs involving childhood friends, who lacking my foresight and forbearance to endure parental pressures, are led, like the proverbial sacrificial lamb, to ‘tie the knot’ (here, the expression is entirely merited). Furthermore, I am bound to report (for the benefit of my Curious Reader) that it has been my sorry experience that as a Rule, people can’t remember who attended their weddings but rest assured, they are very unlikely to forget, let alone forgive, those that don’t.

Thus it came to pass that this portentous conjunction of the esoteric arts & human psychology (neither of which, I beg to point out, remotely appeal to Reason) made possible the experiences, which I shall presently venture to revisit in these pages, and whose memory I shall forever, in the bosom of my heart, cherish.


My Tale begins in a Pink City, christened rather unimaginatively after the peculiar color of its architectures, among which can be counted the globe’s largest astrolabe, visible proof of Descartes’ overwhelming influence on its Francophone founder Sawai Jai Singh; ever since Her Majesty’s Visit almost half a century ago, Jaipur has become something of a cause celebre among the 'White' Races, who bravely confront the extremities of its climate in order to catch manufactured glimpses of a Raj long since lost. Note, my Perceptive Reader, that the city that had formerly lent its name to a peculiarly uncomfortable brand of footwear, still fashionable among the inhabitants of this land, is now become a celebrated eau de toilette, whose musky odor permeates the most exclusive casinos of Monte Carlo.

Since the “Maharaja Suite” at The Rambagh Palace, residence of the last HH to rule Marwar & his wife (named by the People magazine as among ‘the ten most beautiful women’ of her Age) is presently under restoration, I was left with little option but to be content being cooped-up, incognito ofcourse, within the confines of what is labeled “an executive suite”; consequently, I spent the afternoon lounging about on the lawns, under the crisp halo of a bright winter sun, sipping Gin & Tonic drowned in tons of ice. Lunch comprised of prawn cocktail, served in a tall Martini glass with a most marvelous Hollandaise sauce, and an itsy-bitsy sprinkling of caviar, which was anything but Beluga (not that I’m complaining in the slightest). Having thus fortified myself, I prepared for my first wedding of the evening, which was to commence at six o’clock: much as I would have liked to be attired in the garments of the Palace staff comprising, in this instance, of formidable khaki trousers with bulging pockets (I’m sure they have a name for such pants: Jodhpuris?) and a riotous half-jacket, fashioned by a young local designer by the name of Raghubir Rathor, I had to make do with a black Armani two-piece but without the tie (its like having a noose tied around one’s neck). I carried a printed Hermes scarf- present from an estranged former-beloved- should the occasion have called for a dash of color.

As the evening unfolded, my circumspection proved wholly unnecessary.

This wasn’t my first time at an Indian wedding: like the artful film-maker Sooraj Badjatya (who incidentally hails from this state: Rajasthan), I too must have, during the course of the past two decades, attended several hundred; ofcourse, unlike me, Mr. Badjatya had a purpose in undertaking this prodigious enterprise: to create the format of ‘the perfect Indian wedding’ for his film “Hum Apke Hain Kaun!”, which turned out to be among the biggest blockbusters of all time. That movie’s leading-lady inspired the prodigious artist Maqbool Fida Hussain to devote an entire series of paintings on her. Not that they do justice, for it is impossible for any human-device to capture the essence of the ethereal. And it’s not just her: I believe every ‘bride’, during moments preceding her betrothal, evokes in the viewer, images of the divine. My mother never looked more beautiful than in her wedding photographs: it is as if she did not belong to this corruptible world. I don’t know why it is so.
There’s a colloquium in Hindi, which when translated would go something like this: suckle the mango, why bother about the seed? Still, there must be an explanation; or atleast, it must be sought. Culturally, Indian womanhood passes through three phases: in the beginning she is a daughter, beloved of her father, but one he realizes can never truly be his; then she becomes the dutiful wife, her husband’s constant companion and possession, in life as well as in death (the Rajput women were rather proud of their tradition of sati and jauhar, wherein the wife, after her husband’s demise, sits atop his funeral pyre to be consumed by its flames); finally, she is transformed into the mother, prolific bearer of sons (Indians view their country as “Mother India”: the supreme embodiment of self-sacrifice). In each of these phases, she evokes different emotions in the men in her life: adoration from the father; love, even lust, from the husband; and ultimately, devotion, from her sons. As the bride, she combines, in our ‘collective conscious’ (to use Carl Gustav Jung’s term), an incorruptible innocence with an enticing sensuality, metamorphosing at once into an object of worship and lust.

Personally, I find this peculiar conjunction of the earthly with the ecclesiastical endearingly exquisite.

Perhaps, for the very reasons I’ve discussed above, the Rajput wedding is a remarkably conservative affair, even feudal: there are separate spaces for men and women, and the twain seldom meet; on the rare occasion when they must- a marriage, after all, is the sacred/ contractual union of man and woman, as the case may be- strict purdah is observed, which means that the women’s faces remain covered at all times. To an outsider, oblivious of this custom, the entire event might easily be mistaken for a homosexual marriage; in any event, they would return to their homelands attributing to us Indians an undue measure of liberality. {This, as will be revealed during the course of my deliberation on a wedding that I was to attend in another few days, is in stark contrast to the rampant promiscuity present in another form of “Indian” wedding; but the reader is advised patience, which our sages hold to be among the most supreme of virtues.}

Now, returning to the wedding at hand, the Groom made a grand entrance, perched atop an elephant (whose gender I did not venture to determine). During the course of the reception, there was a lot of kowtowing, well not exactly that but something quite similar: the degree one was required to bend one’s torso was in direct proportion to the importance of the dignitary present. Since I didn’t know most of them, I was obliged to merely follow suit. Excellent exercise to boost anybody’s appetite! In any case, being part of the Groom’s Party, more often than not, we were the ones being kowtowed to. {I attended the Groom’s elder sister’s wedding some years back, and in the process, lost a few kilos. This was revenge, sweet revenge.}

I was among the privileged few who was whisked aside to a drawing room, where friends & relatives of the Groom (most of whom were, like me, bachelors) were in the process of consuming fiery kebabs washed down with copious amounts of beer, to be photographed with the Groom & his bride, who came accompanied by an ancient dowager, who doubled as her chaperone. This intrusion of a woman, the bride no less, into the world of excessive machismo- it is not difficult to imagine the kind of conversation that beer inspires among stags- was nothing short of intriguing; when the Groom asked her to remove the purdah, she was blushing wildly. This was done, I believe, as a tribute to my proximity with the Groom.
Afterwards, we proceeded to fire what I hoped were blanks from the freshly greased barrels of ancient rifles, heirlooms no doubt, in the air. Then, when the Groom was called ‘inside’, I decided it was time to beat the retreat.

I had another pre-wedding ceremony- a Cocktail Party- to attend. Talk of killing two birds with one stone, eh?

I arrived at the Cocktail Party at around ten o’clock, and not as clear-headed as I might have liked to be. Thankfully for me, ‘clear-headed’ wasn’t the term one would have employed to describe the general condition of the population present at the occasion, as could be deciphered from the several empty bottles of alcohols of various hues liberally strewn about the place, and the wobbling of feet on the makeshift disco-floor in the backyard. The Groom has recently being inducted into the Indian Police Service (IPS), and the Groom’s father happens to be a Custom Commissioner, so there was no dearth of Single malts.
The bride was not present, and the formal reception was to take place the following day. This was a less formal, more homely and intimate affair: a sort of a bachelors’ party, minus the strippers. I spent the first three quarters of my stay there drinking different varieties of Glens (Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas et al), and the remaining one quarters apologizing profusely for not being able to stay for the reception, for which I was gently reprimanded. The conversation meandered inevitably to the good ol’ College days, and memories of imaginary romances. At around one o’clock, we decided to drive up to the Nahargarh fort, for old time’s sake: despite stories of whimsical ghosts that haunt these splendid ruins, the view from here is quite simply incredible. The city of Jaipur looks like little stars twinkling on the ground; a similar view is offered from the Jehan Numa Palace at Bhopal. Upon our descent, a turban, some six feet in length, was tied around my head by the only person who knew how: the Groom’s ancient grandfather, who at one point, confused his moustache for the cloth.

Then: I left. For Simla, the erstwhile summer capital of the British Raj in India, for yet another wedding.


Six Nights & Days in Goa: An Encapsulation
(16th- 22nd December, 2004)

I hadn’t come to Goa on holiday (although it is that time of the year when everybody else does, partly to escape the Cold but mostly to imbibe the Goan ‘joie de vivre’) : I was here to spend time ‘bonding’ with my American cousin, whom I hadn’t seen or heard from for past three years. In this objective, this particular visit has been an unambiguous disaster.

Had it not been for dear Moks, who I insisted fly-in from Mumbai, where he was giving an interview, I might as well have been a hermit (quite aptly I had, for quite the opposite reasons, put myself up at The Hermitage, a quiet little villa atop Fort Aguada overlooking almost the entire expanse of Caligute beach). He had some prior experience ‘shacking-up’ in Goa but amnesia has set-in: consequently, he wasn’t much help in exploring the ‘hedonistic underbelly of this sea-side paradise’, to which so many of my acquaintances have eluded. Perhaps, this isn’t really the kind of place one would want to visit with a man-friend; rather one should bring the entire ‘jing-bang’, along with a guitar and an excessive, inexhaustible supply of alcohol (the local cashew-feni leaves an enduring stink). Or: it might be nice to be here with one’s lover: everybody else seems to be.

Despite the disaster- which sank in very slowly, and hence afforded me little time to make amends, like drastically reorganize my itinerary to include other fun-activities- we did manage to absorb a bit of Goa (admittedly, much of it has been in the form of food: I’m already dreading my next encounter with a weighing machine, which is happily absent at the Villa here). The single most significant achievement of this visit has been the ‘insider’s view’ we have had to a Portuguese-Goan wedding, with its pre-marital coconut-milk showers (lamentably, we were privy to only the groom’s part of this pre-Portuguese Konkani ceremony), elaborate menus, and abundant, unbridled dancing, which is what I enjoyed the most: the part where the blindfolded groom has to take out the bride’s garter that is aptly tied around her thigh with nothing more than his teeth is magically titillating (or if one prefers, titillatingly magical). The second important experience has been the time we got to spend at the Exposition, with the five century old remains of St. Francis Xavier (thanks to the good folks at the Raj Bhavan). I even partook in a Catholic Mass, my second in three days, which I believe, more than absolved us of our visit- Moks’ first- to an all-night Casino, where my winning-streak, despite my best efforts, continued unabated (remember: lucky in gambling, unlucky in love). I would have said that the third most important aspect has been the sea but honestly I’m not a sea-person. The Hills are for me. Infact the only thing I like about the sea is the sea-food, and for the last six days, we’ve eaten little else: Cafreals, Baffads, Fejoidas, Sorpotels, Vindaloos, Xec-xecs, Julians, Balchaos, Xacutis, Bebinkas…the list seems endless.

Perhaps, this is why Goans are such a jovial, boisterous people: they relish their food, and love their siestas. Small wonder then, that most people I met at the wedding mistook me as one among them!

Amit Aishwarya Jogi
December 21, 2004
The Fort Aguada, Goa


Two Emails: from & to a friend, in love with Goa

Dear Amit,
glad & thrilled to know that you were in Goa. Hopefully, you liked Goa. I never found its beaches beautiful but its the enviornment, energy and ambience of Goa which is unmatchable to any thing in the world. That is my purpose for the club and everything associated with it. Old movies potrayed Goa in the sleezy cheesy way; relatively new movies showed it in a real filmi way and new movies show it in the 'dark' genre - that is the tragedy. Honestly, I did not do anything for the tsunami disaster but am arrogantly proud that our country refused any foreign help & assistance.

Club Goa- I have and am commiting lots of mistakes, sometimes stupid, which is adding up to expereince. There has not been any 'red tape' element as of yet but the landlord, master of predicament, always slows things down. Every fortnight we learn about his illegal 'short cuts' just to get stuck in our work and end up fighting with the City or the Neighbours for him.

Hopefully, the club will start by Summer of this year...Apologies, again. NYE- I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan for skiing with friends and have become the 'James Bond' of that world. It was good fun and a good affordable and available break.

Please stay in touch,

Dear Gunjan,
i haven't seen this last matt damon film (bourne supremacy, is it?) but i'm told that a lot of it was shot on location in goa; also there's this WWII film with sean connery, michael caine et al called sea-wolves, and that too is based in goa. as far as indian (hindi) cinema is concerned, i rather enjoyed naseeruddin shah's jalwa; also, an early amitabh "bombay to goa" (but the action, as the title suggests, takes place enroute). raj kapoor's bobby too is inspired by its folk culture. shyam benegal's movie- i can't remember the name- belongs to film noir, and deals with witchcraft or some such subject. so: goa has, and continues, to exercise a significant influence in popular cultures of both India as well as 'the West' (although both are becoming increasingly enmeshed). but what is- or is there- a "goan culture"?

that is what my cousin, the one who works for Merril Lynch (is that how one spells it?) in Atlanta, came to discover: his biological father, and my aunt's first husband, traces his roots to margao. since he has recently been diagnosed with prostrate cancer, he wanted to show Josh (that's my cousin's name) his roots. the occasion presented itself in the marriage of ethelbert with (well, i forget the girl's name!), both of whom work for banks (ICICI and HDFC) in goa itself. ethelbert is josh's first cousin. now, i was told that josh would be coming to attend a cousin's wedding. ratna aunty asked me to spend time with him during his short visit. i didn't know about the father-son bonding purpose of the trip, otherwise i wouldn't have been so "available": you know, from our own trip to Dhanolti, that i prefer the serenity of the hills anyday. consequently, apart from the evenings (which were mostly occupied by wedding ceremonies) i had a lot of free time on my hand, which i employed judiciously to catch-up on my reading (David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (re-read), and a coffee-table book on colonial resorts) perched atop a quiet little villa on fort aguada (the place is aptly called 'the hermitage'), which offered an exquisite view of the calingute beach. also, titillated by local gossip, i ventured to explore the more discreet beaches of north-goa: arambol et al (i have developed a chronic distaste for south-goa after my dreadful stay at the Exotica, forty miles south of Vasco, attending a Marwari wedding last year: you probably know the Agrawal family that runs the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper: it was raining cats and dogs, the food was all kachoris and jalebis, and had it not been for Martin's corner, I might not have lasted a day); the all-night casino (where my luck- remember, the Taj Mahal at Atlantic City- continued unabated, and i left the place more prosperous than i had entered it); and best of all, these lovely little restaurants serving portuguese-goan sea-food.

perhaps most significantly, i got to spend a lot of quality time with the body of the blessed St Francis Xavier, at the decadal Exposition. the last time i was there, in 1984 to be precise, i wished "for good health"; the Saint was rather generous with his
blessings! what i found intriguing, apart from the residential presence of the phirang low-budget backpacker hustled in shacks for months together (the purpose of their visitation, I believe, is only too well known to you!), is the subterranean 'clash of cultures': between Portuguese (the Old Elite, of which my cousin's family is a good, if somewhat impoverished,
representation: they still speak Portuguese, and even have Portuguese residencies and passports, and view today's goa as occupied territory) and konkani (the masses, most of whom are fishermen); also, the large influx of Maharasthrians, Mangalorians and even Malayalis (the exotic population now far outnumbers the locals) poses a threat to pre-liberation culture of old goa.

the rise of the bjp, by wholly undemocratic methods, in the state does not augur well for its future: at any time, these tensions may be given a communal colour. there was a lot of resentment among the locals about the vast sums of money the state government spent in its international film festival when it could have gone into generating employment and building
roads; also, much of the mining activity in the state, which remains among the two principal sources of its revenue, has gone into 'non-Goan' hands, since labour from outside the state, especially UP and Bihar, is a lot cheaper. naturally, the young goans have to turn to tourism- become room-boys, drivers et al- or to relatives already migrated to the Gulf for sustenance. thankfully, apart from the nefarious narcotic activity, which I'm informed enjoys the full cooperation of the local law-enforcement agencies, tourism in goa has not been reduced for purposes of sexual-exploitation (pedophilia, as in Srilanka; or prostitution, as in Thailand): that is because unlike other places, the goans are relatively economically self-sufficient.

however, the average tourist to goa isn't really spending much money, as they might in say Monte Carlo or even the Caribbean, and the benefits to the local economy aren't what they can be. well, i think i have already spend too much time deliberating on goa but since you're so intrigued by the place, i thought it best to share with you, at considerable length, my observations on the place. infact, there's a little piece entitled "six nights in goa", which i penned down at aguada, that i'm sending for your perusal.(naturally, much of it will tend to get repetitive). i left goa on the 23rd of last month, ie three days before the tsunami (although goa, being on the west coast, was spared). however i'm told that the tsunami-terror did impact on the new year's bookings, atleast as far as our brave delhiites are concerned.

before i conclude, i must tell you the reason for my literary verbosity: in the aftermath of the new-year's celebrations, i'm down with viral, and almost bed-ridden. frankly, there's nothing else to do.
Joshua Solomon, after 3 years

Personal Reflections on an American Cousin


More than three years have lapsed since I last saw him; this is not to say that there had been a priori continuity in our relationship: we met only when we had to, and there was no promise- or expectation- of future encounters, not even the need to ‘build-on’ them. The adage that one tends to take one’s relatives for granted applies beautifully in this instance. The distances that separate us have endured, and widened. Technological advancements of past decades (which have- to deploy a phrase from a TIME essay- ‘shrunk the planet to about the size of a grape-fruit’) did remarkably little to bridge them. Yet despite- or is it because of- this that I have always had a special place for Josh in my heart.

More than anything else, it is (in my opinion) based on an acute sense of empathy that must necessarily be due to the commingling of antediluvian bloodstreams: the fact of having, in many ways, been incubated in similar wombs. At times, I wonder if our destinies might have been interchanged, much like Saleem Senai’s in Rushdie’s magnum-opus? That is a thought both intriguing (‘anything is possible’) and also, frightfully troubling (‘what if I am living somebody else’s life?’). So: it is less out of a sense of obligation than plain, simple curiosity of rediscovering my alternate-self- the one I could have been- that I have journeyed to Goa to partake in a ritual with which I have nothing to do, and in so doing, to subject myself to unnecessary exile, becoming an alien in my own homeland while the alien itself is domesticated.

The reason for Josh’s visit was revealed to me only today. It has nothing to do with his father’s brother’s son’s wedding. [After all, he isn’t planning on attending his mother’s brother’s daughter’s wedding, to whom I imagine he should by comparison feel infinitely much closer.] It isn’t about the decadal Exposition of the Blessed Saint Francis Xavier either. There is a veil of finality, an air of solemnity, which weighs heavily on this ordinarily joyous- festive- occasion: the shadow of oblivion; the erasure of lost possibilities frantically sought to be undone; the Child has returned to reclaim a past that can, and will, never be his. But the futility of this last, desperate effort does not make it any less meaningful.

Seventeen years ago- was it in 1987, I can’t remember- he had come, a shy-kid: that event was pregnant with possibilities. There was every chance he might have stayed, and our destinies would not have been so different after all. Fate willed otherwise. Now he has returned, if only to bid adieu to the land of his forefathers. [Perhaps he doesn’t realize this yet?] It is strange the relations children weave with their fathers; in Josh’s case, I know only half the story, and not even his half. Whatever little it is I know of “Uncle” Jossie Dias is from my aunt (Joshua’s mother): in her version, he abandoned her, and with her, also Josh. I do not wish to recount the sordid details, but rest assured, they are cruel: sufficient to scar a child for life. When I visited them in 1995, I got the distinct impression that Josh had already ‘found’ his ‘Dad’ in the person of his step-father (also: long since divorced from Aunty). It was not out of love; quite simply, there was no one else to fill the void: yes, Josh admired Dr. Gera, not for the affection he didn’t shower upon him (which in any case was not his to claim) but for the adulation- one might even go so far as to call it blind devotion- he exhibited towards his own son (Josh’s step-brother from the same mother). Six years later, in 2001, when I visited the States again, he had come of age: his own man, living- and working- in Atlanta, away from the looming shadows of mother, father, step-father, brother. I believe it was during this interregnum that he rediscovered his biological father, independently of everything and everyone else. By this time, Uncle Jossie too was transformed by the experiences of several failures: the promise of a prosperous future squandered away and wasted, he finds consolation in the one tangible his past offers him: his aborted dreams conceived again, in the flesh and blood of his blood and flesh; the sweet hope of immortality at the face of grave illness; a dying flame, suddenly rekindled. Or, to use his own words, “blood may be thicker than water, but Sperm is a lot thicker than blood”.

I imagine the present visitation to be the outcome of these conjectures: the son, in what is most certainly a twist to the Biblical parable, embraces the prodigal father, now returned. If this is an ending, it is a happy one.

It is never too late to search for one’s roots- I tell this from personal experience, for my search too has only just begun- but in Joshua’s case, I’m afraid there’s nothing quite there to look for; my dear Cousin will necessarily have to cultivate- plant, grow and nurture- his roots, in the hope that his generations to come will find their way home. Ofcourse where they choose to go from there, is upto them. But the sense of ‘rootedness’- of belonging- is essential, even more so for displaced children of diasporas: in the imagined soil of our ancestral graveyards, the miasma of identities, coiled like cannibalistic serpents of Benzene-dreams, crystallizes into a prism upon which, when the light falls, our multiple-selfs are revealed all at once. It is like standing atop the blind poet Borges’ “El Aleph” from where he beholds “all points that meet without mingling”, and suddenly, as if by magic (only it is wisdom, I think), he becomes omniscient. It is the mechanics of motion, captured for a brief but beautiful instant, in the description of chariot-wheels, in Kalidasa’s opening verse in “The Loom of Time”.

Let it be that at the end of days we may proudly proclaim: “I have traveled far and wide, and come home.” Home is where we choose to be.

Amit Aishwarya Jogi

December 14, 2004
The Fort Aguada, Goa
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ESSAY: (B) Eating Out In D'illi

Two obvious aspects stand-out about eating-out in Delhi: one, the almost overwhelming inclination among its restaurateurs to “cast food to their own taste” (here: notice the terrifying resemblance with E’lohim, the Hebrew-God of Genesis); two, the act of eating-out is just that: an act, which has less to do with the relatively simple pleasures of gastronomic-gratification, and is significantly more concerned with being seen- and heard- at the right places. Naturally, both these aspects tend to “feed-on”, if the expression can be merited, each other.

Since Delhi’s diners aren’t really concerned with what they dine-on so much as who they are seen dining with, restaurateurs remain more focused on getting the right kind of people than procuring the right kind of ingredients: with perhaps one or two notable exceptions, most of the exotic fare- Oyster Rockefeller, for instance- listed on menus are, on the rare occasion that they are called for, conspicuously absent. Not that Delhiites seem to mind one bit: the “Punjabification”- if the term can be applied- of their palate is now, more than ever before, a fiat accompli, and chefs all over town are, with remarkable dexterity and imagination, happily adapting spaghetti bolognaise or even a Peking-duck to meet the boisterous flavors of say, a chicken-tandoori (incidentally post-colonial India’s most famous contribution to world cuisine). Subtle hints of flavoring that more often than not constitute the epicurean’s ecstasy, are being revised- perhaps ‘intensified’ is a more appropriate term- to meet the challenges of the native taste-bud, which has, over long centuries of dominating the world’s fiery spice-trade, grown rather accustomed to full-blown onslaughts; the result, of course, is neither here nor there. Quite by accident, Delhi has entered into that most fashionable era of “fusion-foods”, which is now something of a rage in the West. Well, come to think of it, it’s not so much a fusion of foods as it is outright-domination of one kind of food (the Punjabi kind, in this instance) over another kind of food: the nationalist-historian’s postulate that “Delhi culturally conquers her political conquerors” holds true for much of the so-called foreign fare available in the city.

Contrast this with Mumbai- that “other” city on India’s west coast- where diners’ zeal to sample world cuisine, no doubt a manifestation of their more adventurous spirit, has propelled eating-establishments to procure ever-more novel ingredients to create “authentic” and ever-expanding menus in what has now metamorphosed into a veritable kaleidoscope of the global food-market. The rampant mushrooming of specialty-restaurants all over Town- and in her numerous exciting suburbs- bears quaint testimony to this most happy phenomenon. In the past two years or so, there have been rudimentary indications of prototypical-exodus by some of the more enterprising Mumbai restaurateurs to Delhi, but this has done little to alter the latter’s dining culture. Delhi-diners’ resistance to embrace change of any sort remains adamantly unabated. The only silver-lining, if one can call it that, is that this resistance is somewhat diluted when applied to spirits: while the city reportedly continues to consume more bottles of Black Label than are actually produced in all of Johnnie Walker distilleries in Scotland, there has been a slight shift towards niche-alcohols, the most notable of which is “single-malts” and of course, cocktails. Wines, especially the full-bodied reds, which one presumed went-down rather well with traditional Indian fare, have, for some inexplicable reason, not caught-on. Perhaps, it doesn’t fit-in with the “macho” sensibility of the capital’s dining-culture: Wine, after all, is for Women?

Well, it isn’t quite as simple as that. In Delhi, more than anywhere else in India, eating-out is infused with a sense of- some might call it misplaced- machismo. With the exception of weekly “kitty-parties”, women don’t dine-out on their own; when they do, most of them are accompanied- “taken-out” is more appropriate- by men. This might be due to a variety of reasons: the persistence of patriarchal inertia- the traditional demarcation of gender-roles- coupled with the perception that women don’t feel quite as ‘safe’ in Delhi as they might in Mumbai are the two most prominent. However, the city’s conservative dining-culture is not due to its domination by men- who since they don’t usually cook might tend to be less susceptible to the subtleties of gourmet-cookery but compensate this relative lack of appreciation by being, on the whole, more adventurous in trying out new kinds of cuisine- but merely its symptom. If anything, the further proliferation of “metrosexual” men in the city’s restaurants might well have become an instrument of transformation of a more fundamental sort: eating-out, paradoxically, isn’t about eating anymore; in Delhi, it had seldom been, but now, even the pretence is vanishing. The “happening joints” of today aren’t really focused on food at all: they are all about aplomb, glamour- a bit risqué, perhaps- and mightily glitzy. It’s where one gets hitched, or hooked, or- with an air of a succes de scandale- booked. To put it differently: it’s the unabashed worship of the Cult of Machismo: the brandishing of the phallus- whether in terms of irreverent power, vulgar displays of wealth, or even the not-so-subtle hunger for social aggrandizement- to which both the contemporary man and woman aspire. Yet the question remains, like an enigma: does brandishing of phallus necessarily imply the banishment of food? One might think the contrary: sex and food, experience informs, have always been two-sides of the same coin. In much of the literature available, the act of consumption has been compared to the act of copulation. Why then this dichotomy?

The answer lies in contemporary norms of the body-beautiful: the historical bias towards voluptuousness has given way- over the past century or so of systematic bombardment in mass-media of a particular notion of homogenous anorexic-beauty, applicable equally to both sexes- to its exact opposite. The very act of eating has taken on psycho-sociological undertones; while Dante might have condemned gluttony to Purgatory in the after-life, modern society has taken a surprisingly liberal view towards what constitutes gluttony (virtually everything does) coupled with a rather sinister view of purgatory (which begins here, in this life, as a social-outcast). Low-fat high-roughage diets, calorie counters and fat-free cooking, while pretending to be a celebration of New Food, have infact done more damage to the culture of eating-out than anything else. From time immemorial, civilization had sought to elevate eating from being a crude, necessary act of sustenance into a form of high-art, something people might even feel happy about. Over the past half-century, the reverse has happened: eating suddenly became associated with guilt. The fragmentation of society has meant that it is no longer a communal- or even a familial- ritual, as it once was, but instead something that individuals do, alone and often in front of their TV monitors.

Indeed, it would appear that the capital’s relationship with food is in a flux; it’s uneasy, at best. A majority of Delhi restaurants have a remarkably functional- perhaps even baser- existence: they cater to the contemporary nuclear-family’s need for sustenance. With both parents working, who has the time to cook at home? Take-out is the new mantra, and as always, our restaurateurs are fast to catch-on. Food is factory-produced: people pay more to eat less. Thankfully, Delhi has been more resistant to the homogenization overtures of global food corporations: there is no doubt that tandoori-chicken will survive the attack of the Big Mac. (Last heard, the Big Mac was posing as the Maharaja Burger, minus the beef; and Curry had replaced fish-and-chips as The UK’s staple.) The point however is this: it’s not about the battle of desi vs. foreign foods; it’s most definitely not about a post-modern feminist reclamation of public-dining spaces from machismo’s stranglehold; it’s not even about rescuing food from pangs of community-enforced psycho-sexual guilt; what eating-out is about, then, is the conflagration, co-existence, commingling and celebration of every conceivable kind of food mankind- and womankind- has endeavored to create, all within the confines of one city, one community: D’illi.

In the previous section on “Eating Out in D’illi”, I made certain not-so-generous observations on what can broadly be labeled as the capital’s dining-culture; expectedly, the response has been furious. Among other things, I’ve been charged with deliberately avoiding illustrations of these observations with real-life examples. Unfortunately, that accusation is not entirely incorrect: frankly, picking-on particular establishments for the sake of illustrating a point seems a bit- forgive the expression- distasteful. Infact, if anything, I believe the capital, despite the general downswing in its dining-culture, does indeed have remarkably fine eating establishments (restaurants), although these are more in the nature of exceptions than norms. After careful deliberation, I venture to submit, for the kind consideration of the epicurean-reader, a definitive List of the top five eating establishments in India’s capital.

In arriving at the List, the following three points have been taken into consideration:
(1) Above all else, the quality of food based on authenticity of cuisine, freshness of ingredients used and overall presentation
(2) Ambience: décor that compliments- and not takes-away from- the food
(3) Hospitality defined in terms of (a) willingness to adapt food to individual tastes of customers; (b) whether the person(s) taking the Order are sufficiently knowledgeable about the food; (c) promptness of service

The List (Definitive):

1. Karim, Jama Masjid
2. The Tea House of the August Moon, Taj Palace Hotel
3. Swagath, Defence Colony Market
4. The Big Chill, Khan Market
5. Punjabi By Nature, Vasant Vihar, N-Block Market

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To label Black “unusual” would be an understatement: indeed, with his fourth film, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has, to paraphrase the iconic Star Trek cliché, “boldly gone where no Indian film-maker has gone before”. Paradoxically enough, this tale of an Anglo-Indian deaf-blind girl’s peregrination into adulthood, and her relationship with a somewhat eccentric mentor, who, as it turns out, must embrace his own ‘blackness’ as advancing Alzheimer’s corrodes his memory, is a feast for the senses: in his previous film, the extravagant remake of Sarat Chandra’s early twentieth century novella ‘Devdas’ promoted as ‘the costliest Indian movie ever’, Mr Bhansali had exhibited an uncanny penchant for conjuring opulent mise-en-scenes reminiscent of a Raja Ravi Verma canvas (which, this reviewer posits, had the sometimes unfortunate effect of subsuming the characters, even the plot, altogether), but Black artfully balances the visual décor with an intensely poignant narrative, and all-round stellar performances. In Khamoshi [lit: Silence], his first film, silence gave birth to song, in a story about a deaf-mute couple’s daughter’s quest to discover music through love; here, the absences of sound and sight produce a world populated by words, and touch: a celebration of the senses sought in their absences. The circle, it would appear, is complete.

In Black, none of Mr Bhansali’s characters are blessed with heroic gifts: gone are the prodigious songstress of Khamoshi, the pristine, almost divine, beauty of Hum Dil Chuke Sanam, and the doomed melodramatic lover of Devdas; in Black, all Mr Bhansali grants his characters is an extraordinary measure of determination to overcome their all too frail human conditions. Amitabh Bachchan is a ‘pathetic’ singer; Rani Mukherjee is anything but a bella donna. It is refreshing to see how, under this dominating-demanding auteur’s defintive direction, Mr Bachchan- whose angst-ridden portrayals of the ‘angry young man’ stereotype almost two decades ago propelled him to unrivalled superstardom- is stripped of all glamour: in a career spanning over four decades, the Actor- undilutedly fierce in his determination to rescue his protégé from the inevitability of madness and perpetual dependency but also eerily human with his peculiar foibles and quirks- has emerged, perhaps for the first time, and the experience is nothing short of glorious; even Mr Bachchan’s at times over-the-top performance à la Al Pacino- the acerbic one-liners, like when he asks a colleague, who is devotedly putting drops in his eyes, what she sees in them, she replies ‘love’ to which he quips “you must be blind”, or in his letters to her, dictated as sarcastic soliloquies- become inherent to the characterization, as the ‘teacher’ metamorphoses into a ‘magician’.

Ms Mukherjee’s depiction of the deaf-blind girl is at once both heart-wrenching and heart-warming; Jaya Bachchan (then: Bhaduri) had done it once before, in Koshish, again a film about a deaf-mute couple’s romantic devotion for each other, but her’s was an acceptance of fate, not an outright struggle to overcome it. Ms Mukherjee, minus the cosmetic makeup, allows the viewer unbridled access into the brutal intimacies of her black-world: towards the end, as she delivers a ‘speech’ eulogizing her “teacher”, the movement of her fingers, the jerky sways of her frail body and eruptions of expressions on her face make their translation into uttered words meaningless. Here is ‘exposure’ of the supreme kind, which is more than can be said of certain other contemporary starlets. Not surprisingly, Mr Bhansali acknowledges Helen Keller as his inspiration.

The real surprise however is Ayesha Kapur, who plays the young Ms Mukherjee’s character for the first half of the film: she is, quite simply, marvellous. Mr Bhansali’s Simla, where the story unfolds, is not the cluttered city that it has become today, but glows, drenched in deep Oxford tones of the Raj, in ethereal timelessness, almost as if it were a character by itself: relics of another era- enormous Graeco-Roman busts, elaborate paintings done in the style of the Grand Manner, Victorian furnishings, vintage motorcars, wooden staircases, the Gaiety Theatre and the Cathedral restored to their former glory, the Woodwille Palace which serves as Ms Mukherjee’s family home, an Angelic fountain- accentuate visual density and amplify emotional impact, like a Peter Greenway film where each scene of the movie flows from one painting to another (isn’t that why a film is also called ‘motion-picture’?).

What works for the film is not so much the individual performances, or for that matter, the beautifully staged scenes with their complex dance of light and shadows, but the interpersonal bonds that Mr Bhansali’s characters establish among themselves. Themes considered taboo by many- such as the chrysallisation of Ms Mukherjee’s character’s feelings for Mr Bachchan’s character, from devotion to romantic infatuation as she becomes aware of her own sexual needs, and implores him to kiss her on her lips- are tackled with subtle poignancy, hitherto unwitnessed in Bollywood cinema, elevating this student-teacher tale into one of unrequited love, akin to the greatest love stories of any age. In the final scene, the student leads her teacher, now almost totally without recollections, to a window; together they stare-out at the falling snow, all communication limited to the intertwining of their fingers. The world has grown silent again, and another struggle begins.

For Indian Cinema, Black inaugurates the dawn of a new era.

Amit Aishwarya Jogi
Mumbai: February 10, 2005
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Amit Aishwarya Jogi
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