Manufacturing Sedition: Amnesty Controversy and Beyond

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Let me start this article with the disclaimer that till 30th of June this year, I was working with Amnesty International India as a senior campaigner and hence am quite aware of Amnesty’s position on Kashmir, among other things. However, this has not been written in the capacity of someone who had previously worked with Amnesty or as their spokesperson, but as an activist who works on issues of human rights and as also someone who was present at the event held on 13th August at the United Theological College, Bangalore.

Amnesty International India through its public statements has made it fairly clear that none of its employees shouted any slogan at any point, let alone raised any that were ‘anti-India’, or gave a call for Aazadi as alleged by ABVP. As someone who was present in the audience, I completely agree with their statement. This then brings us to the question that were no slogans like “Hum Kya Chahate Aazadi”, raised? No, I am not saying that either. There is no denying the fact that slogans were indeed raised, but it would be unfair to say that they were raised by only one ‘group’ (read Young Kashmiri—Muslims) as widely reported by media and claimed in the complaint.

AmnestyABVP

Members of ABVP protesting outside Amnesty office in Delhi (Pic Credit: HT)

In fact, the sloganeering was started by the very ‘group’ (Kashmiri Pundits and ABVP/Bajrang Dal activists) which was agitated with the idea of having such an event. From the beginning itself, they tried interrupting the event. And when MC Kash (Roushan Ilahi) started performing, they boycotted it and started shouting slogans like “Bharat Mata Ki Ja” and “Indian Army Zindabad” while leaving the hall. It was only towards the end of the event, when MC Kash’s performance was abruptly stopped due to pressure from Police, that slogans demanding Aazadi were raised. Earlier, there was some minor scuffle between the groups, which the Amnesty staff tried its best to end. But, and by no definition and at no point was anything that was even remotely seditious said, done or performed.

One can confidently say this because as per the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar 1962, the judgment clearly states that a speech would amount to sedition (Section 124 A of IPC) only if it involves an incitement to violence or public disorder. The court ruled that: “[C]riticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.” And the complainant knows this very well but is not ready to accept it because that would disrupt their game plan of harassing individuals and groups they don’t like or who don’t toe the line with them or their opinions.

They also know that their case is hardly going to stand in the court of law, especially in the Supreme Court. It is a well-known fact that convictions for sedition are rare. A report published by Newslaundry early this year clearly shows how the law of sedition does not hold any value in reality. It notes that, “…[T]he apex court of this country has not convicted a single person under (the charge of sedition), over the last 10 years. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sedition finds mention in 11 Supreme Court judgments between 2005 and 2015. None of these judgments, though, sentenced the accused on charges of sedition.” Hence, the complainants and their allies are mounting political pressure and using extra-judicial means like protesting outside Amnesty’s offices, resulting in the temporary shutdown of its offices in different parts of the country and the postponement of scheduled events in Mumbai and Delhi. In fact, this afternoon ABVP workers tried to storm Amnesty office In Bangalore with petrol bottles.

Research on law of sedition tells us, as is rightly argued in the latest report of Human Rights Watch that, it is “often used against dissenters, human rights activists, and those critical of the government.” And there is a long history to it, right from the very inception of the law. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi and B.G. Tilak during the colonial era and Binayak Sen, Arundhati Roy, Seema Azad and residents of Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu), to name a few in the recent past. Given its draconian nature, while pleading guilty Mahatma Gandhi had famously said in his deposition, “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law.”

But the issue here is not just limited to the charge of sedition but goes beyond that. In the wake of the recent controversy, as has been reported, “the Home Ministry has launched a probe into the funding of the non-governmental organisation for “possible” violation of foreign contribution rules.” This clearly indicates that, as often said in Hindi, sedition to bahana, hai asal mein kuchh aur nishana hai (Sedition is just a pretext, the real target is something else). In other words, by raising the bogey of sedition, anti-national slogans and foreign funding, the government and its political allies are trying to sabotage and attack the crucial human rights protection work that organisations like Amnesty are involved in.

Today, Amnesty might be the target but nor was it their first target nor will it end with Amnesty. There is a long list of human rights organisations and defenders across the country who have been targeted by government after government, political party after political party and state government after state government. In short, when it comes to the use of sedition, all seem united and in agreement. There is a close relationship between the use of the sedition law and the attack on the constitutional values and promises of India. They are directly proportional to each other and that’s the biggest problem.

Hence, if we want to get rid of the problem, the first and foremost thing that should be done is to strike down the section that deals with sedition from the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Because there is nothing that can be called the misuse of sedition law, as is often argued and perceived. There isn’t even one case that proves Sedition beyond reasonable doubt, or where the law was or can be used in a just manner. The law is inherently draconian and until we get away with it, the problem is going to persist in one way or the other. Notably, our erstwhile colonial masters (the British) which legislated it to muzzle dissent, have already stuck it down from its statute in 2009.

What then are we waiting for?

Book Review: Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002

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Displacement and migration constitute what might be called a traumatic experience for many as they lead to uprooting one from one’s base. But if this happens due to some large scale violence, which has a communal and a caste overtone, it makes the situation worse. It doubly marginalises the victims.  Till recently, it was the violence in Muzzaffarnagar that had become such a distressing story. According to a conservative estimate, more than 41,000 Muslims were rendered homeless, with most of them never being able to return to their village and having to live the life of a destitute. Gujarat (2002) was another example of a communal violence which had led to the displacement of a large number of people, as more than 2 lakhs were displaced within the first two years itself. Those who had to flee their homes had to settle down in houses on rent in Muslim concentrated villages and towns.  As per a status report (2012) published by the Ahmedabad based NGO, Janvikas, 16,087 of them continue to live in 83 relief colonies built by faith based (Muslim/Islamic) organizations and NGOs.

The book under review deals with this subject up to some extent. Taking cue from the much talked about and equally criticised category of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of the United Nations (introduced in 1998), the author examines violence in Gujarat since 2002. She argues that “displacement (in Gujarat) is not only symptomatic of the state being taken over by a majoritarian vision of the nation in which the minorities may be threatened, but that in our globalised times it entails a shift in the very idea of the state in terms of what can be rightly expected of it and the source of its legitimacy.” The author of the book currently teaches at the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai, and according to her, this work of hers is a result of almost nine years of research that had begun with a thesis at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State

Book: Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002

By Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande

Cambridge University Press, Delhi, 2015, Hardbound

pp. XI+ 216, Price: Not Mentioned, ISBN-10: 1107065445

Apart from the introduction, the book is divided into five chapters. These reflect the meticulous research undertaken by the author of using ethnographic data, government documents, archival materials, NGOs and media reports, and shows how over the years, people who were displaced during the anti-Muslim Gujarat violence of 2002 have been to reduced to the status of subjects from once being citizens, and how it is now affecting their lives. Presenting a brief history of communal violence induced displacement, the author notes that it is not entirely without precedent in Gujarat. “The displacement of thousands of Muslims due to the violence in 1969, which the camps bore testimony to, also meant a loss of livelihood and even the means of livelihood for thousands as those who had been rendered homeless had lost all their possession that included their tools, instruments and other means of livelihood,” notes Lokhande. (p. 113)

She further notes that, “The examination of the governance of communal violence through state responses in the many instances of communal riots in Gujarat reveal that while the scale of relief offered in different categories of assistance for the victims of communal violence was increased howsoever variably, the categories of assistance remained the same, even in the case of latest relief package offered by the UPA in 2007.”

In the author’s opinion, “the state government scrupulously avoided the term displacement or IDPs, referring to it as migration which suggests that the movement was voluntary and under compulsion.” Hence, these victims are not entitled to the benefits suggested under the United Nation’s guides for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). “These illustrate,” notes Lokhande “the state’s absence in the complex problem of displacement where a large number of people did not want to return to what was once their home because it had become a place of vulnerability that was exposed during the violence and in some instances, a site where crimes had occurred that after the violence held the probability of legal action and led to continued tension in neighborhoods”. (p.128-12)

In the second last chapter of the book titled Reconstruction And Rights Though Self-Help, the author rightly concludes that, “From (the) account of reconstruction after the violence in 2002 it is not just the long term effects of displacement that are illustrated, but also that the phenomena of displacement is not a ‘one time set of events’ bounded in time and space but continue long after violence as those affected negotiate the uncertainties in their changed realities. In Gujarat these negotiations have included the assertion of their rights through recourse to litigation and self-help for security, housing and social rights as well as through different forms of settlements or compromise to avoid conflict. These shifts gleaned from ground analysis reflect changes in the larger political universe that further need to be unpacked.” (p. 157)

This book is important in its perspective on displacement and communal violence. However, while one appreciates the author’s attempts at taking up a relatively untouched theme, there has been an attempt at trying to touch and cover almost everything, which makes the book slightly monotonous and uninteresting. One also feels that it could have been better and substantial had the author tried limiting it, and rather focusing it on the core subject (of forced migration) as the book starts with promises of examining the issue of forced migration in detail but gets lost in detailing the different aspects of the violence of 2002.

For someone who has been following the issue for some time, it might appear to be a bit repetitive and offer nothing new except for the intense detailing of the different aspects of 2002. However the book will be an interesting read for those who are new to the subject and are looking for a guide on it.

First published in The Book Review Journal, August 2016.

 

Remembering Abba, my Friend, Father and Philosopher

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This Eid (7 July) would have been our first without Abba at home, or so I had thought. But I was wrong. Because Abba had left us suddenly for his heavenly abode just two days before Eid last year, a day before Alvida Juma on 16th of July. He was in his early 50s and his departure was sudden. It was so sudden that I have to yet completely acknowledge that he is no more. That he is not around us to take care of us, to support us or disagree with us yet still approve.

Abba was like any other father. Yet, he was so different that only he could have been that way. He was known to many people by different names. At home and among his close friends and relatives, he was called Bulla, for that was his nickname given to him by his mother and my Dadi. She liked Bulla machhli (fish) so much that she named her first boy after it. She died a year before Abba who was in Delhi at the time of her death, and by the time he was able to reach, she had been buried. I was in Bangalore and could not reach home either. At Abba’s death however, I was lucky enough to be a part of his namaz-e-Janaza and burial. I reached home just in time for it.

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On the day of Eid, my younger brother, Shahnawaz Alam praying at the grave of Abba.

By no means was Abba a famous man. He did not hold any public office, never stood in any election and was not even a member of any political party or socio-cultural group except the Tablighi Jamaat and perhaps a customary member of the Teachers Union—Sikshak Sangh. Yet he was a people’s person. He was an activist of his own kind. He was a selfless activist—an activist who was not defined and bound by any organization and funding. Meet anyone who would have met him once or twice and they’ll tell you how deep his commitment for Khidmat e Khalq (social service) was. It was so fierce that at times he would forget his familial and professional duties. I distinctly remember us ‘fighting’ with each other because of this. He would often ‘surrender’, accepting his mistake but wouldn’t ever forget to remind me of the following couplet of Meer Dard (Mir Taqi Mir):

“Dard-e-Dil Ke Waste Paida Kiya Insaan Ko/Warna Ataa’at Ke Liye Kam Na The, Kar-O-Bayaan”

And would also add, but ‘you are also doing the same by ignoring you career, health and family’. To which, I would say, haan, ye sab aapka hi asar hai (it is all because of your influence) and by that time my Amma would enter the picture saying, tum sab baap bete aik jaise hi ho! And we would all have a great laugh collectively.

What was the one thing that differentiated Abba from other fathers in general? He was not authoritative and feudal. We were not afraid of him. We could speak in front of him, talk to him and argue with him. In fact, we could say nasty things to him, which I must confess, I have done so several times, in rage or frustration. Yet he would never take it personally. He was full of forgiveness and compassion. I have seen him helping people who had always conspired against him and back stabbed him. But Abba, despite knowing all that, would behave as if nothing of that sort had ever occurred in his lifetime. He would often remind us that out of the 99 names of Allah, the two most used (in Quran) were: Rahman and Raheem (beneficent and merciful).

To us, he was a friend more than anything. He would always have consultations (Mashwira) with all, big-small, male-female, everyone in the house before deciding or doing anything. He was a great proponent of consent and consultation. “Mashware me barkat hota hai,” he would often remark. When I look back and try to think, I realise that this was how the basics of democratic process was inculcated my life.

No, Abba was not a scholar or a highly educated person. Due to his familial responsibility (he being the oldest son had to help his father, who was a small time businessman), he could not study beyond senior secondary regularly. However, he did complete his higher education from Bihar Maradsa Education Board. He could read and write in Urdu, Hindi and English. Hence, he had a basic yet important understanding of religious texts. He was essentially a Hindustani speaker, with a heavy use of local dialect.

Abba was a religious man. He prayed five times a day and wanted us to do so too. But he was not the kind who would believe in my way or the high way. However, he would keep reminding us of our religious duties and encourage us to take part in it. He loved feeding the poor and helping the needy through cash as well as kind. Abba firmly believed in life after death.  Hence, his deeds were for his God. He was hardly into the business of showoff and always encouraged us to help people in whatever ways and means we could, irrespective of how big or small.

To Abba, what always mattered was one’s Neeyat (intention) not the action. According to him, if the intention was only to show off, then one would only get that in return. However, if the intention was to help people in reality, then the popularity would come its own way as a byproduct of it. To explain this, he would give an example:  if you go to the meat shop to buy bones, then you you’ll only get bones. But if you buy meat, then you will get bones as well.

He was a well-travelled man too, from parts of North East and South India to almost the whole of North. And all this was possible because before becoming a government primary school teacher in 1995, he was into business. Some of the travels could also happen because my uncle was in the Army and Abba would once in a while go to places where the former was posted. In return, Abba would bring stories and lots of eatables from there. Much later, when I started travelling to different parts of India, he would always have readymade advice to give. Places to eat, stay and roam around.

I was always amazed with the way he trusted people, including me. He was always in favour of giving people an opportunity. It was only his trust that I could make something of my life that made him send me to Delhi for higher studies, despite the fact that I was a below the average student. I was the first in my entire paternal family (khandan) to be sent so far for padhai. Many thought that Abba’s sending me so far away for higher studies was akin to ghobar mein ghee dalna, or in other words, total wastage of one’s resources. I am not sure of how much I was able fulfill his dreams. However, whatever I am today is primarily because of his belief and trust in me. And I am happy to say that he had always had faith in me that no matter whatever I do, I will not cheat people or indulge in anti- human activities.

As far as earning money and fame are concerned he had always taught us: Rizq ka malik Allah hai…He would also say, wato izzo mantasha, wato zillo mantasha. He was a Kabir panthi in some sense. His philosophy about economy was:

“Sain itna dijiye jame kutumb samay, Mein bhi bhooka na rahoon Sadhu na bhukha jay”

Clichés apart, a proper detailing of Abba’s life and works would be a book length piece as he was not just my Abba but a friend and comrade of many. And I know that he will be always remembered by everyone he met and worked with, even briefly.

Today, Abba is no more with us and I have often felt like a yateem because his mere presence was everything. I miss him much quite often, especially during difficult times. Since I was earlier able to take things for granted, but I can’t anymore. Being the eldest in the family, it is almost difficult to step in his shoes.

Abba, you are not with us yet you are there. Your teachings and life will continue to inspire me. Hoping to meet you, once again.

How Not To Fight Terror/ISIS

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This isn’t the first time. Nor will it be the last. Every single time a bomb goes off, or a Muslim man indulges in mass shooting, without fail the first thing you hear is: Why are Muslims silent? The demand for condemnations comes instantaneously: 9/11 and Paris, Akshardham and 26/11. Even at the time of Malegaon, Samjhauta and Mecca Masjid, in which Muslims were killed, and as investigations showed, the suspects were not Muslims.

While I appreciate Muslims condemning these brutal and inhuman acts, let me confess that I am wary of its politics. The politics of condemnation essentially means that each time we are being asked to prove our basic decency—as though somehow we are not moved by human tragedy. It hints at guilt by association unless we prove otherwise by shouting from the rooftops that we condemn bloodshed. Besides, it ignores the heterogeneous nature of Muslim communities.

The fact remains that Muslims in India and elsewhere have been condemning these acts continuously and spontaneously: fatwas have been issued against terrorism calling it un-Isl­amic; several conferences against terrorism has been organised by Muslim groups and ulema; and signature campaigns against ISIS have been carried out, and not just by ‘moderate’ but traditional and practising Muslims. But what has been the result: zero. Neither has it been able to stop acts of terror nor has it been able to persuade the masses that Muslims are against terrorism.

The question is: what should be done? At the cost of sounding a Muslim apologist, let me say: it is time to accept and understand that ‘terrorism’ is not just a ‘Muslim-only’ problem but a problem of a larger politics which cuts across the religious and ideological spectrum. So, instead of focusing on religious aspects, we should focus on the political asp­ects. Inherent in religion is the potential for both inspiring people to indulge in violent activities as well to fight for justice and peace.

Whether Islam is a religion of peace—or not—is not the issue; and little will be gained by quoting and counter-quoting texts and verses. The attraction that violent death—to oneself and to others—holds for some young men cannot be reduced to the promise of 72 virgins in jannat. Hold this view if you will, it won’t solve the problem.

Unless we recognise and address the political aspects of terrorism, we will be beating around the bush. And the political reasons are quite complex and need to be dealt with carefully. Otherwise, in the name fighting terrorism, we might end up siding with ano­ther kind of terror. And this we have already witnessed in the framing of innocent Muslim youths in India in the name of a war on terror. We must not forget that a war, no matter how noble its intention, can’t be suppressed with another war. It can only further displace, marginalise, terrorise and ruin people’s lives. That should be avoided.

First published in Outlook Magazine.

Book Review: From The Margins To The Mainstream

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As much a land of diversity, India is also a land of ironies. Diversity, because it is home to a number of groups and communities based on religion, caste, class, ethnicity, nationality and region. And irony, because this very diversity often leads to, and is the basis of exclusion – socio-political and economic. It often reduces the marginalized groups and communities from citizens to subjects. However, what is also noteworthy is that over the years, these marginalized groups have been able to ‘mainstream’ themselves as a result of various historical as well as ongoing movements, within and outside the community.

The book under review, which is an outcome of an international workshop held in 2013 on the subject of “Institutionalising Marginal Actors” tries to study the processes of the change and its institutionalization. It seeks to explain the struggles of marginalized groups, “for inclusion, voice and influence, by challenging long standing injustices and the potent interests and processes that sustain them.” The volume has 11 chapters, apart from a long introduction by the editors, and covers the issues of Dalits, Muslims, Tribals, Women and other marginalized groups from Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, along with an all India perspective on certain subjects. In their respective chapters which are based on field work as well as other data, the authors have deployed a critical viewpoint. And this is what differentiates the book from the other volumes on this subject.

From The Margins To The Mainstream

From The Margins To The Mainstream: Institutionalising Minorities in South Asia

Edited by Hugo Gorringe, Roger Jeffery, Suryakant Waghmore

Sage , Edition: Hardbound, ISBN: 9789351506232

Pages: xxxvi+294, Price: Rs. 950/-

It focuses on the question of “what happens when formerly excluded groups are integrated into the socio-political processes.” And it tries to “chart the processes by which people gain access to institutions—whether these are informal social institutions or the more formal political ones—and unpack(s) the consequences of these processes both for the groups in question and for the institutions that they enter.” In this regard, there is a very interesting and detailed ethnographic study by Qudsiya Contractor on the much celebrated peace initiative, namely the Mohalla Committees in Contemporary Mumbai, and its role in institutionalizing peace between Hindus and Muslims. Through her study of the Shivaji Nagar area of Mumbai, the researcher informs us that, “the labour in maintaining everyday peace is mainly the burden of local Muslim representatives that may or may not effectively diffuse communal tensions.” She argues that, “these efforts offer a façade of inclusion in social context where communal politics and the mainstream disgust against Muslims continues unabated, reinforcing representations of ‘Muslim’ areas like Shivaji Nagar as culturally deviant (at times anti-National) urban ‘disorders’ that need to be comprehended and dealt with by the state.”

A somewhat similar study, though on the subject of Institutionalising Informal Societies, in the context of the Dalit Urban Poor of Dharavi, Mumbai tells us a very different story contrary to the popular perception. According to the researcher, Martin Fuchs, “What seems striking here is that the concentration of a large number of Dalits and members of other marginalized groups in one place and the commonalities they otherwise share has not boosted Dalit unity, or Dalit-bahujan unity for that matter, or the fight for a common agenda. Also, considering institutionalization…Dalit parties have made few efforts to establish support base in Dharavi.” Moreover, he notes, “few Dalits in Dharavi have pursued a formal agenda of social recognition and political contention beyond the slum redevelopment issue. Those who did to a limited extent, tried to pursue this through affiliation to Dalit parties or Ambedkarite organisations based outside Dharavi, or, alternatively—and this may sound paradoxical at first view—through affiliation to Hindutva organisations.”

Another very interesting chapter titled “Challenging Normalised Exclusion: Humour and Hopeful Rationality in Dalit Politics” authored by one of the editors of the volume, Suryakant Waghmore, explores normalized prejudice against Dalits through a study of humour, drawing from ethnography on Dalit movements in Marathwada. “Humour serves as an important medium within Dalit movements to communicate and perform Ambedkarism,” explains Waghmore. While discussing the practice of humour in general, he makes a very important point of distinction, “Humour and laughter in Dalit movements, are less intended to cause disparagement and are largely about setting up new standards in which a critique of popular culture and ideas of purity and pollution is possible.” He rightly concludes, “While challenging the normality of caste violence, Dalit political humour also expands the ideas of tolerance and self-critique in the popular culture of Marathwada. Such humour and rationality, however, is still at the margins and speaks to the continued marginalization of Dalits in contemporary India.”

Other chapters included in the volume are equally engaging and enriching. However, one feels the sub-title of the book is quite misleading. Since out of the 11 chapters that are included in the volume, there’s only one chapter (Rise of Adivasi Janjati Movement and Nepal’s Political Interregnum) from outside India, or let’s say from South Asia. This mislead could have been certainly avoided on the part of the editors as well as the publisher, since, without a doubt, this volume is a very valuable addition to the existing and ever growing literature on exclusion studies in the Indian context. A must read for policy makers and development professionals.

First published in The Sunday Indian monthly, June 2016.

Shaam e Sher: An evening of pleasant surprises #UrduPoetry

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Last weekend, I attended a Mushaira in an unusual place. I say unusual because, of all the possible places in and around Dehli (as it’s pronounced and written in Urdu), which could be associated with Urdu and Mushairas, NOIDA stands the least probable. To be honest, I was very reluctant in going all the way. But there were two primary reasons which compelled me to go. First, since I had not been to any Mushaira in a longtime, despite being a regular participant of Mushairas for many years. In fact, when I had moved to Delhi in 2000, I would initially attend almost every Mushaira that would take place in and around the city. I specially remember taking the DTC specials in the night while returning from Mushairas that were held at the Red Fort as part of the celebrations for Independence and Republic Day. In my fascination, once I even walked all the way back from Barakhambha to Nizamuddin in the night, after having attended a Mushaira (Shankar-Shad) in SAPRU House. It was only after reaching Nizamuddin that we managed to get some vehicle to reach to Jamia Nagar.

ShaameSher

Secondly, this particular Mushaira was a gathering of young poets. Most of the Mushairas that I had attended in the past were full of old men, and only with a few lady poets. The only plausible reason to me was that the organisers didn’t want to take any risk and thus only invited established or known poets. Hence, I felt that it would be an interesting experience listening to young poets, and that too when it’s being claimed almost every day that Urdu is on the verge of demise as the young generation is hardly interested. And if at all, then their interested is limited to ‘romantic poetry’ and Urdu-laced Bollywood songs. So I went along with an Urdu loving friend of mine. The Mushaira was organized by Rekhta Foundation which has been organizing the annual Urdu festival, Jashn-e-Rekhta since 2015 in Delhi.

The hall was full beyond capacity with people sitting on the ground and many standing on the sides. It defied almost all the stereotypes (Old, Bearded, Muslim, Men) associated with Urdu poetry.  On the stage, as promised, were mostly young faces in their early thirties and late twenties, barring the Sadr (President) and the Nazim (Compere/Anchor). While the Sadr was an emeritus Professor of Urdu at Jamia Millia Islamia, Prof. Shameem Hanfi, the Nazim for the evening was an assistant professor of Hindi literature at Jamia, Rahman Musawwir. Hence, it was not surprising that there were some poets whose poetry had a blend of both Urdu and Hindi literary cultural traditions. However, what was surprising was the audience and the way they were appreciating the poetry. The majority of the audience was young and belonged to the non-Urdu speaking class or whose mother tongue was not Urdu. There I met an engineering student who had come along with his friends all the way from Faridabad. Another person that I met was a young sub-Inspector of Delhi Police (No, he was not in Uniform!).

It was not only me who was pleasantly surprised by the gathering and by the interest shown by audience but Sadr, Prof. Hanfi also expressed the same surprise. In his presidential remarks, he spoke about it at length, insisting that this is how it should be.

There were some disappointing aspects as well. While there were many ladies and girls in the audience, there was not a single one on the stage and those recited their poems that evening. One hopes that gatherings like these flourish in the months and years to come and also that the gender aspect of it will be taken care of. After all, like Urdu is not just language of Muslims, it’s also not the language of men.

Some of the couplets recited that evening:

Kitaab padhte rahe aur udas hote rahe/ajeeb shakhs tha jiske azab dhote rahe ~Shameem Hanfi

Kuchh log hain jo jhel rahe hain museebatein kuchh log hain jo waqt se pahle badal gaye~Shakeel Jamali

Raat karti hai khamoshi se hifazat din ki din hai ki chand sitaron ko bhi kha jata hai~ Rahman Mussawwir

Har mulaqat pe seene se lagane wale Kitne pyare hain mujhe chhod ke jane wale ~ Vipul Kumar

Gila nahin ke mere haal pe hansi duniya Gila ye hai ki pahli hansi tumhari thi ~Subhan Asad

Teergi se roshni ka ho gaya/ mein mukammal shayari ka ho gaya ~Prakhar Malviya Kanha

Verdict 2016: How Urdu Dailies reported Assembly poll results?

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While there is a lot of discussion happening around on how ‘Muslim voters’ polled in the recently concluded assembly elections in five states, there is hardly any talk of how Urdu (and Hindi) newspapers reported these results. As Hindi is not the primary language for the non-Muslim population of these areas, so too is Urdu not the primary language of the Muslims in these states. However, it is hardly a matter of dispute that Urdu enjoys an influential (if not large) readership base amongst Muslims in not just several states of North India, but also in southern states such as Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. In fact, West Bengal also has a bunch of Urdu dailies that are regularly published from Kolkata, such as the Akhbar e Mashriq and Azad Hind. I remember, in 2012, Mamata Banerjee nominated Nadimul Haque, the owner of Akbar-e-Mashriq to Rajya Sabha. Haque was one of the three journalists chosen by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief for the upper house of the parliament. Needless to say, it was done to woo a section of educated Muslims (especially Urdu speaking), as the paper is patronised and subscribed by them. Apart from Kolkata, the Urdu daily has editions coming out from Delhi and Ranchi as well.

AkhbarUrdu

So back to the question of how were the Assembly poll results reported in the Urdu Dailies. If I have to answer this in one sentence, I would say that unlike English, Hindi or other dailies, those in Urdu did not declare a #CongressMuktBharat (“Congless India, Almost” reported The Times of India) or a #BJPTsunami, as reported by Asomiya Pratidin (Assamese) in its headlines. For Urdu dailies, it was essentially the return of Mamata and Jayalalithaa. In fact, it was their grand come back. “Mamata Banerjee aur Jayalalithaa ki shandar futuhat, Assam mein pahli martba Kamal khila” (The grand victory of Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa, Lotus blooms in Assam for the first time), reads the banner headline of Akhbar e Mashriq.

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Maghribi Bangal mein didi aur Tamilnadu mein Amma ka qabza barkarar, Assam par zafrani saya” (Didi’s hold in West Bengal and Amma’s in Tamilnadu remains intact, Saffron shadow over Assam), reported the Inquilab daily in its Mumbai edition on the front page. The Delhi edition’s banner headline reads, “Didi aur Amma in iqtedar mein shandar wapsi” (The grand comeback of Didi and Amma). The sub heading of the news item reads, “Puducherry ne Congress ki izzat bachai, Assam mein pahli bar hukumat banane se BJP khush, Kerala mein bayan mahaz ne lahraya parcham” (Puducherry saves Congress’ reputation, BJP happy with forming government in Assam for the first time, Left front flags government in Kerala). In its editorial, clearly hinting at BJP’s ‘over enthusiasm’ on the election results, the publication terms it “Jeet se bada zashn” (Celebration’s bigger than the victory). Inquilab is one of the most widely read Urdu dailies in India today, with 14 editions simultaneously being published in 14 cities of 3 states of north India (Delhi, UP and Bihar), and one from west-central India, namely Maharashtra.

Siyasat

Siyasat daily, which is published from Hyderabad reports, “Assam aur Kerala mein congress ka safaya, Jayalalithaaa, Mamata Banerjee ki shandar kamyabi” (Wipeout of Congress from Assam and Kerala, grand victory for Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee). While Munsif, another leading Urdu daily published from the city calls it “BJP ki Assam mein tarikhi kamyabi” (Historic Victory of BJP in Assam), Politician Owaisi’s family funded Etemaad daily reports, “Bangal mein Mamata, Tamilnadu mein Jayalalithaa ka iqtadar barqarar, Assam mein BJP ko fatah” (Mamata’s in Bengal and Jayalalithaa’s in Tamil Nadu reign intact, victory for BJP in Assam).

Sahafat daily, which is published simultaneously from Lucknow, Delhi, Dehradun and Mumbai, reports, “Bangal mein Mamata lahar, Tamilnadu mein amma ki wapsi, Assam mein khila Kamal, Kerala hua lal (Mamata wave in Bengal, amma returns in Tamil Nadu, lotus blooms in Assam, kerala turns red)”. There is no news of the results on the front page of either the Sri Nagar or Jammu editions of Kashmir Uzma, a leading Urdu daily of Jammu and Kashmir.

However, the most striking aspect about vernacular media reporting, even if owned by the same group of publications, is that they present a different picture, which are often contradictory to each other (this might be equally true of other languages as well but here my argument is based on Urdu and Hindi dailies only).

Jagran

Let’s compare, reports of Inquilab (Urdu) and Dainik Jagran Hindi daily, one of the most widely read (according to its own claim of being the world’s most read daily) and influential Hindi newspapers. This comparison is important because both Inquilab and Dainik Jagaran are owned and managed by the same group of publications. While the Urdu counterpart terms it the “Saffron shadow”, the Hindi daily reports, “Bhari Bhajapa ki jholi, Congress aur simti” (BJP’s cup fills up, Congress’ further shrinks). The lead editorial calls it, “Aik achcha din Bhajpa ka” (A good day for BJP). It can be noted here that Narendra Mohan, the chairman and the managing director of Jagaran Prakashan had been a member of the Rajya Sabha as a BJP nominee, and L K Advani is considered to be his mentor. And Jagran is known for its pro-Hindutva reporting and editorials. SaharaUrdu.png

But why should the blame only rest with Jagaran when it is not just limited to them? Sahara India group, which publishes both a Hindi and an Urdu daily is not far behind when it comes to an opinionated and biased reporting. And as a regular reader of these newspapers, I can confidently say that this is their common practice. Sample this: while Roznama Rashtriya Sahara Urdu reports, “Amma aur Didi ki shandar wapsi” (Grand comeback of Amma and Didi), Rashtriya Sahara Hindi banner’s headline reads, “Bhajpa, Jaya, Mamata ne racha itihas” (BJP, Jaya and Mamata script history).

SaharaHindi

So clearly, both the publications, though brought out by the same media organizations, are trying to give two different messages, which might be totally based on their business interests. However, the end result of these heavily opinionated reports develop a viewpoint which can be essentially based on a ‘communal’ line. And which essentially feeds to the production of prejudiced mindsets, albeit in different languages.

Note: All the newspapers cited above were published on 20th May 2016, the day after the results were declared. 

Hum Khawateen: Voices of Muslim Women from Last Century

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If you are interested in knowing what Muslim women were thinking, debating and writing a century ago, then there won’t come a better opportunity your way than this Sunday (1st May) at India International Centre (IIC) Annexe, Delhi, 6 PM onwards. Raschakra, in association with Council for Social Development (CSD), is presenting a recital performance, “Hum Khawateen” based on the writings of Muslim women published almost a century ago. The performance’s texts are drawn from five articles written roughly 100 years ago and published in different Urdu Magazines such as Ustani (Delhi), Tahzeeb e Niswan (Lahore) and Khatoon (Aligarh).

HumKhawateen

A compilation (Kalam e Niswan) of such articles was published in 2013 under the editorship of Purwa Bhardwaj, who is also one of the four performers for Sunday evening. Other performers include Alka Ranjan, Shweta Tripathi and Rizwana Fatima. It has been directed by Patna based senior theater artist Vinod Kumar. What is remarkable is that these articles debate and discuss issues that are equally relevant in the contemporary times. The themes of these articles range from Politics to Education to Press Freedom and Socio-Economic problems of Muslim community in particular and the country in general.

Kalam e Niswan

According to Purwa, “While these writings help us to understand the minds of Muslim women, at the same time, it also compels us to think, rethink and question our understating and popular notions about Muslim women, their thinking, choices, dreams and contributions.”

To know more about Kalam e Niswan, click here

Why JNU in 2016 Is Reminiscent of Jamia in 2008

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It was late in the evening in the last week of September 2008 and I had to take an auto from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to Jamia Nagar. I had with me, a lawyer friend whom I had gone to meet in the university. We must have asked a couple of auto wallahs, but we were either met with a flat refusal or were demanded more than thrice the normal rate.

Bhaiyya, wahan se wapis sawari nahi milti,” was what a few auto wallahs said in defense, when I tried arguing with them. This was, needless to say, quite an invalid and bogus argument and there was hardly any truth to their claim. I thought of asking for New Friends Colony, an upscale locality in South Delhi and a stone’s throw from Jamia Nagar. This was, to no surprise, met with an instant agreement. My lawyer friend, who had to get down mid-way at Malviya Nagar, couldn’t stop himself from asking the driver on the general refusal to go to Jamia Nagar.

Kya batayen sir, darr lagta hai. udhar mullah, kat*a, aatankwadi log rahte hai. Aapne suna nahi, wahan se kayi aatankwadi pakde gaye hain aur wahan encounter bhi hua tha pichhle halfte” came the reply. (What should I tell you sir, I am scared to go. Muslims, terrorists stay there. Didn’t you hear that many terrorists were caught from that area and there had been an encounter as well last week).  My friend was aghast and agitated to hear this. He wanted to scream at the driver but I stopped him from doing so. I had to travel in the same auto after dropping him. And it wasn’t entirely his fault in harbouring such feelings. Following the media trail in the wake of the Batla House ‘Encounter’ last week (19th September 2008), it was too difficult to question the prevalent public discourse about Jamia Nagar and its residents.

There were concentrated efforts by right wing political forces to brand Jamia Nagar as the ‘Nursery of Terror’, and Jamia as a den that advocated terrorism and trained ‘terrorists’ instead of students. The more grievous fallout was that the children and youth from the area were teased and targeted in their schools and colleges and admission and jobs were being denied to them. Refusal to deliver services became the norm and those students of Jamia who were staying outside Jamia Nagar on rent, were asked to vacate their rooms by the land lords. It was even more harrowing for students and youth from Azamgarh.

There was a sense of fear and terror in the air as people were being picked up indiscriminately on an every-day basis in the name of ‘questioning’. The sense of being survielled was quite obvious even as plain clothes police men patrolled the area. Some of them were subjected to all sorts of brutalities like torture and mental harassment. An atmosphere of ‘who’s next’ plagued the minds of the people. The Youth was scared of going out and parents fearful for their children’s safety. This situation lasted for more than six months, and though far less, has still not gone down completely.

JamiaJNU

Having been a regular visitor to JNU, the crackdown on JNU and its students last month immediately brought a sense of déjà vu of the situation in Jamia Nagar and its neighbourhood in 2008. There were striking similarities between the two. The only difference was the element of mob-lynching and rightwing vigilantism.

Never in my wildest thoughts had I imagined that something similar could happen in JNU – to its students and teachers. The University was being targeted, students were arrested, random calls from the police were being made to students, teachers and journalists, unknown and late-night calls were a source of anxiety and there were reports of a few personal vehicles being trailed as they moved out of the campus. Students of JNU staying outside the campus were being asked to vacate their rooms. Autowallahs started refusing to go to JNU. People started referring to it as “Pakistan” (Jamia Nagar is still referred to as a mini-Pakistan). There was a sense of anxiety, fear and terror in the air while the remarkable fight for justice and the Stand with JNU campaign was on. Such was the fear that ordinary people had started avoiding mentioning JNU publically. And why not? Random people were being targeted, detained for hours at police stations because they looked like ‘JNU wallahs’.

There were vigilante groups outside the main gate of JNU, in Munirka and other adjacent areas. Students going to Munirka complained of being followed as they left the main gate of the campus. The right wing left no stone unturned in organizing protests against JNU, especially outside metro stations close to the campus. Loud speakers played speeches that incited hatred against the students while labelling them as anti-nationals. Solidarity marches held outside the campus in support of JNU were matched with protests and other kinds of mobilizations against JNU and it students, not just in Delhi but in different parts of the country. Professors were attacked (one even shot at), effigies were burnt for sharing articles, speaking out against the criminalization of dissent and witch hunt at JNU. What had taken four decades to build a space for democratic dissent and debate had been reduced to a space for criminalizing dissent and debate over a span of a few days.

It might sound hyper and ridiculous but I had to ask my wife (who is a research scholar at JNU) to remove the JNU sticker from the car to avoid confronting any untoward experience, especially near the university where the right wingers were stationed to organize and target those from the university.

Unfortunately, not much has changed. There is still a sense of loss, harassment and injustice. The crack-down has changed people’s lives, routine and perception drastically. I was travelling in the Delhi Metro a few days ago when I heard someone ask his acquaintance loudly, “JNU mein rahe ho kya?”  “Yaar, sare-aam pitwaoge kya,” came the reply.

Having been through this twice, I can only hope that it doesn’t repeat itself again, to another JNU or another Jamia.

(An edited and shorter version of this blog first appeared in TheQuint. )

Beyond Homosexuality and AMU: Why Aligarh is a Must watch Film

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Last week, a day after Hansal Mehta’s latest film Aligarh was released for public viewing in theatres across the country except Aligarh city, I watched it here in a Delhi multiplex. Unlike other movie shows, though not very surprisingly given it’s “A” certificate and ‘the subject’ of the film, the hall was not full. However, I must confess that there were more people than what I had seen for Shahid, almost akin to those that turned up for City Lights. I clearly remember that there were not more than a dozen people when I watched Shahid on the first day of its release. The first thing that I noticed after the film started playing was the tune of Beparwah, a song from Shahid. It had an electrifying effect on me. Ever since the release of the song, I have heard it a several hundred times and even today, I hear it on loop. Shahid was a deeply moving tribute to the man (Advocate Shahid Azmi) and his mission, though initially I was extremely skeptical about the film. Since this is not a blog about Shahid, I would not go into the details. However, those interested in knowing my take may read it here.

Let me talk about Aligarh. As soon as the film started, I got lost in it.  There were so many things in the film to watch, observe, understand, think, empathize, relate and engage with, that at the end of it, I was totally bogged by it.  It was an altogether different experience for me.  After watching the film, I did not know how to react to it, what to say and what not to. Literally, it took me a few hours to put down a small para on the film as my Facebook status. On reaching home, I wrote the following comment:

AligarhComment

Why did I say so? Let me give you a few examples. I felt so because, given the ‘controversial’ nature of the subject of the film and the university—Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which is actual site of inspiration of the film, it would have been much easier and perhaps a box office hit, had the film maker chosen to make a sensational film instead. There was all the masala available for it. But instead of that, the filmmaker chose to make a film which takes one much beyond its immediate subject (much like ‘immediate identity’, remember Rohit Vemula’s words?) The most remarkable thing about the film is that it engages with you. It does not scream at you. It is very poetic and political with no overt claim of being one. It forces you to relate to your own vulnerabilities and insecurities, and perhaps at some level, privilege as well. It leaves you with unanswered questions, which don’t haunt you but force you to constantly think and ponder about.

While watching the court argument about morality and homosexuality, I was reminded of the ongoing debate about patriotism and nationalism. One of the court room scenes succinctly outline the difference between conventional or popular notion of morality and constitutional morality, much like Prof. Upendra Baxi’s argument and the distinction about Popular Patriotism and Constitutional Patriotism, which he made in his latest column in Indian Express on 27th of February, the day I watched Aligarh.

Sorry, but I have to refer to Shahid once again. While watching the scene of outsiders barging into the protagonist’s house in Aligarh and making videos and taking their picture in an almost naked position and beating them black and blue, I was reminded of the scene from Shahid when he is tortured by police. To me, the very act of barging into someone’s house and filming their private and intimate part of life forcibly is nothing short of torture. In this sense, there was a striking similarity between the two scenes. The context might be different but the intent was the same. To humiliate and force someone in order to acquire a ‘confession’ that what he did was wrong.

Similarly, the scene where the land lord asks the protagonist to vacate the house because he is a bachelor, reminded me of my own vulnerability and that of many of my friends and peers. Not long ago, I was denied a place on rent by several land-lords and ladies in Bangalore because I was a Muslim and because I was going to stay alone. I was reminded of my helplessness, much like the protagonist.  And I was/am not the first and the last, many of my friends are denied houses because of their caste, religion, gender, food habits and region, to name a few.

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Many would argue that Aligarh is a film about human rights and justice. Agreed. But let me say this as an activist who works for human rights and justice that Aligarh is not a human rights story alone but a human story. It is not just about being gay but being human as well and all human beings are different from each other. In this case, the person featured in the film is different in terms of his idea of love (yeah, the film is just not about sex as many would like us to believe). And the protagonist of the film says it clearly when he is asked about whether he is gay. “ ‘Gay’ ? How can you define my love in just three letters?”

If you have not watched a good film in a long time, I recommend you to watch this as it will not disappoint you. It does not matter whether you are pro or anti-Homosexuality.  This is a must watch film even if you are not able to come to terms with it like a friend of mine who writes:

“How can someone end up making such a great movie! And how can someone bring such sensitivity to a character! Kudos Hansal Mehta and Manoj Bajpai. I’ll admit that even after years of effort, I am still substantially homophobic. And I don’t think I can change this at this age now. But any story told with such human touch, such sensitivity, deeply moves me. The only other film that did this to me was Brokeback Mountain. Do make time and watch Aligarh. It won’t be there for more than a week now.”

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