Sunday, February 24, 2008

To save tigers in Sunderbans, halt Arabisation

To save tigers, halt Arabisation
Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli
It's been a bad week for tigers. A pregnant tigress, which had strayed into a village in the Sunderbans, was chased and beaten; she barely escaped with her life. Another tiger, an ageing male, which had strayed into an adjacent village, was lucky not to meet a similar fate. But at Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh, a tiger died after being shot by poachers. The proud animals that once stalked vast tracts of our land, feared and venerated by the masses and hunted for perverse pleasure by India's dissolute 'royalty', are now reduced to struggling for survival in ever-shrinking forests that are supposed to be protected by the Government. The latest census presents an alarming picture: Our tiger population is down to 1,411 and dwindling fast.
When it comes to paying lip service to the plight of tigers, everybody does so -- politicians, bureaucrats, animal rights activists, forest rangers and national park guards are equally vocal on the need to save the big cats from going the way of the dodo. But precious little is being done to prevent poaching and halt the shrinking of forest cover. A slothful criminal justice system has made the task of saving this endangered species more difficult: Sansar Chand, a poacher and smuggler of contraband wildlife products who emptied Sariska of its tigers as the Rajasthan Government snored in blissful sleep, was arrested by Delhi Police on June 30, 2005. Two-and-a-half years later, he has been sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment in one case while other cases are dragging on in lower courts. By the time the appeal process is over, he will have done his time, tigers will have become an extinct species and media will have moved on to other 'exciting' news. Such is justice in this wondrous country of ours.
None of us would have heard about a non-descript village called Deulbari in the Sunderbans, the mangrove delta where the muddy, silt-laden water of Hooghly merges with the sea in Bay of Bengal through innumerable estuaries. The water rises and falls as the tide moves in and ebbs in a cycle that has remained unchanged even as the profile of the Sunderbans has changed, first slowly in the last two centuries, and then rapidly, propelled by factors other than human greed. Deulbari featured on the front pages of national newspapers and on prime time television news after a pregnant tigress strayed near the village. Given the fact that tigers in the Sunderbans are born man-eaters (various theories exist to explain this fact, including the salinity of the water they drink) it is natural that the villagers should have reacted with fear. Nobody, not even animal rights activists, would want to be mauled to death and devoured by a tiger - or a tigress, for that matter.
Therefore, it would have been understandable if the villagers had chased the tigress back to the forest where she came from, or informed forest department officials who are trained to deal with such situations. Instead, they surrounded the cowering animal and hurled stones at it. Dazed and desperate, the tigress tried to claw her way up a young palm tree. Amused by her 'antics', the villagers lit a fire under the tree, which singed the tigress's skin. Thankfully, some forest department officials had arrived by then and they used a tranquilliser gun to bring the tigress, roaring in pain and agony, under control. Later, she was released in the forest from where she had strayed into human habitation.
The conflict between man and beast in the Sunderbans is age-old, each trying to survive against odds. Ever since the first settlers came to reclaim land for paddy cultivation, this conflict has existed. Richard M Eaton, in his fascinating study, Human Settlement and Colonisation in the Sunderbans, says, "For several centuries after 1200, the Bengal delta saw two frontiers, both of them moving -- a cultural frontier dividing Turk and Bengali and an agrarian frontier dividing forest and field." Muslim rulers gave 'land grants' to those willing to "settle new areas and pay revenue/tribute to the state". Since grants were also given to religious institutions and families associated with them, the process of converting forest into field "went hand in hand in certain areas with the Islamisation of local populations".
Yet, while converting forest into field or foraging for honey and firewood, the settlers were mindful not to disturb the predators or rob them entirely of their habitation. Both Hindus and Muslims forged a common faith of sorts in the power of the forest and its beasts (symbolised by the 'demon king' Dokkhin Rai) and in a protector who could keep the beasts of the forest at bay (Bon Bibi). Conventional wisdom would suggest that both Bon Bibi and Dokkhin Rai are part of India's elaborate 'Hindu' folklore to which Muslim peasants and gatherers also blindly subscribed, but they aren't. In his essay, 'Wild Fictions: Narratives of Nature and the Politics of Forests', celebrated author Amitav Ghosh (whose novel, The Hungry Tide, deals with life in the Sunderbans) provides an interesting version of the origin of three deities, Bon Bibi, Shah Jongoli and Dokkhin Rai, intimately associated with life in the Bengal delta.
According to this version, the legend of Bon Bibi begins in the Islamic holy city of Medina in distant Arabia. After much prayer and penance, a childless Sufi faqir is blessed with twins -- a girl, Bon Bibi, and a boy, Shah Jongoli. When the twins come of age, Archangel Gabriel tells them that they have been chosen for a divine mission in distant 'aathhero bhaatir desh', the land of 18 tides, to make it fit for human habitation. And so Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli arrive in the Sunderbans, over which Dokkhin Rai held sway. In the battle that follows, Dokkhin Rai's forces are defeated, but he is not killed. Instead, Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli demarcate those tracts of the forests that will be his to control, the rest will be for men to till -- an unwritten pact between tigers and settlers to be honoured by both. Several stories exist about Bon Bibi's prowess; the most popular is about how she saved a young boy, Dukhey, from Dakkhin Rai. These stories are the foundation of the faith reposed in Bon Bibi and the reluctance to disturb nature's balance by offending Dokkhin Rai.
Or, if Deulbari is any indication, they were the foundation of a composite faith that transcended religion. Obviously, the legend of Bon Bibi, Shah Jongoli and Dokkhin Rai has begun to wear thin. This could be because of three reasons: Modernisation that demands rejection of tradition; Marxist repudiation of all that is rooted in this land; and, Arabisation of Islam in India. The first and second can be reversed; the third needs to be halted. For that, let's begin by imposing a ban on Tablighis entering the Sunderbans.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chasing out Biharis from Mumbai

Nothing unique about Mumbai
The deplorable assault on 'North Indians' and 'South Indians' in Mumbai, Nashik, Pune and other towns of Maharashtra by hoodlums masquerading as 'political activists' has understandably fetched condemnation from saner sections of society, including in those places where hawkers, taxi drivers and labourers are being targeted because they speak a language other than Marathi. It is immaterial whether the thugs on the prowl owe allegiance to Mr Raj Thackeray, who heads the so-called Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or to Mr Uddhav Thackeray, executive president of the Shiv Sena. If the situation so demands and the opportunity is rewarding enough, they would as well offer their services to the Congress or, for that matter, any other political organisation.
The Shiv Sena, of course, is the original sinner: 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians' is not only a slogan for Mr Balasaheb Thackeray's sainiks, but also the raison d'ĂȘtre of the deeply parochial organisation he founded in 1966 to combat "Marathi marginalisation". That was six years after Maharashtra's formation following an often violent agitation by Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, culminating in the infamous police firing on agitators at Mumbai's Flora Fountain in which 105 people were killed, forcing a cussed Morarji Desai to climb down from his high horse. Strangely though, Mr Balasaheb Thackeray did not unleash the city's lumpenproletariat on Gujarati traders and businessmen, who stayed put after Bombay State was carved into Maharashtra and Gujarat, but immigrant Tamilians and their Udupi eateries. It is the turn of 'North Indians' now.
Much has been said and written to denounce the current spate of violence against 'outsiders'; the Thackeray cousins deserve much of the castigation that has come their way. But in our haste to criticise their noxious politics of nativism, let us not forget that parochialism is the other name for regionalism. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that 'State politics' across India, as opposed to 'national politics', is largely based on pandering to parochial pride and provincial sentiments camouflaged as regional aspirations. In Tamil Nadu, the idea of a 'Dravida Desam' where Brahmins -- described as "agents of North India" in DMK pamphlets -- shall have no place, continues to titillate popular imagination. In Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao made 'Telugu Desam' the platform of his politics; his political heir, Mr Chandrababu Naidu, who now heads the Telugu Desam Party, continues to build on it.
It may be entirely coincidental, but it is interesting that soon after Mr Raj Thackeray set his goons on 'North Indians' in Mumbai and elsewhere, Mr Shibu Soren, who heads the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, addressing a rally in Dumka, asserted that Jharkhand is the "sole preserve" of adivasis and moolvasis. Reminding his adivasi audience that Jharkhand was created for the "rights of tribals and not non-tribals", Mr Soren said, "What we wanted was the rapid development of Jharkhand... (for) the actual sons-of-the-soil. We (adivasis) helped create Jharkhand, but we are yet to taste its fruits."
Mr Soren cunningly stopped short of declaring that dikus, or 'outsiders', are not welcome in Jharkhand, but his message was no less unambiguous than that of the Thackeray cousins. The lib-left intelligentsia will, of course, disingenuously suggest that there is merit in pursuing a 'tribals first' policy in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; after all, they are the original inhabitants and have been marginalised in their own land. But shorn of shrill and crude rhetoric, this is precisely what is being claimed in Maharashtra -- 'sons-of-the-soil' have the first right to jobs, housing and amenities.
A similar sentiment is cited to justify violence against non-Assamese in Assam where migrant labourers and traders from Bihar continue to be targeted by 'sons-of-the-soil' seeking to assert their rights in their State. Many would still recall the anti-foreigners agitation that was triggered by the discovery of voters in Mongoldoi having multiplied several times over, thanks to illegal immigration from Bangladesh, when a by-election was necessitated following the death of Hiralal Patwa on March 28, 1979. Till the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the All-Assam Students' Union, which organised the 'Bangaal kheda' agitation, held the State, and the country, to ransom. It is another matter that despite being in power twice, the AGP has failed miserably in tracking down and deporting Bangladeshis; the IMDT Act of 1983 is not alone to blame for this failure.
But few would recall that the seeds of the anti-foreigners agitation were sown during an earlier virulently parochial agitation against 'outsiders', disparagingly referred to as "Ali-Kuli-Bangaali". Very few Bengalis now remain in Assam, most having migrated back to West Bengal, while kulis -- tribals from what was once known as Chhota Nagpur -- employed in tea gardens continue to face the wrath of the 'sons-of-the-soil', some of whom recently stripped and chased a young tribal girl in the streets of Guwahati as others gawked.
It would, however, be incorrect to believe that the perceived rights of 'sons- of-the-soil' over those of 'outsiders' followed the creation of linguistic States. TN Joseph and SN Sangita, in their research paper, Preferential Politics and Sons-of-the-Soil Demands: The Indian Experience, have pointed out how the 'sons-of-the-soil' demands were advocated by leaders of the nationalist movement. "For instance, a report prepared by Rajendra Prasad for the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress presents an extensive survey of the Bihar situation as of 1938. This report, endorsed by the Indian National Congress, uses the term provincials to refer to the sons-of-the-soil and declares that their 'desire to seek employment in their own locality is natural and not reprehensible, and rules providing for such employment to them are not inconsistent with the high ideals of the Congress.' Rajendra Prasad argued in the report that it is 'just and proper that the residents of a province should get preference in their own province in the matter of public services and educational facilities... It is neither possible nor wise to ignore these demands, and it must be recognised that in regard to services and like matters the people of a province have a certain claim which cannot be overlooked'."
Between 1938 and 2008, India has travelled a long distance and the national economy is now vastly different from what it was even a decade ago. But provincialism -- or call it what you may -- remains as deeply ingrained as ever. 'Cosmopolitan India' is a figment of South Delhi's imagination.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Days and nights of the forest

Days and nights of the forest
A still from Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri, based on Sunil Gangopadhyay's eponymous novel
Some years ago, a television producer had commissioned me to interview Sunil Gangopadhyay, the finest writer of Bengali prose who is also considered by many to be the best contemporary poet. The interview was scheduled for a monsoon afternoon. It had been raining heavily since the previous evening and Kolkata had decided to take a day off as streets and lanes rapidly disappeared under water. There's no way he will come to the studio in this weather, we might as well call it off, I told the producer who had by then begun to compute his losses. But Sunil did come for the interview and he wasn't late either. We chatted for a while, had coffee, and then settled down for the interview.
I found Sunil to be a great raconteur and an effortless communicator who, once he warmed up, held me spellbound with his masterful ability to recall events and make them come alive without so much as shifting in his chair. He chose his words with loving care like an artist mixing colours on his palette to get the right shade before putting brush to canvas. What was equally impressive was his humility; while recounting his early years when he was struggling to make his mark as a writer, he let others take the centrestage while he remained the storyteller, deeply interested in all that was happening around him yet calmly detached.
It was while talking about his early years that he mentioned how he and his friends, including Shakti Chattopadhyay, all of them poets, would travel deep into rural Bengal and Bihar, explore forests and lead a Bohemian life that was our version of the 1960s and 1970s when Allen Ginsberg discovered the charms of Banaras. It was more than the shallow mystical flower power of the times; it was intense and, to an extent, daringly reckless -- you pushed yourself to the brink and then pulled back. For Sunil, Shakti and others, it was their most creative years which they spent rescuing Bengali prose and poetry from sloganeers and pamphleteers masquerading as writers. There was nothing dark and desolate about what they wrote; there was passion and ebullience. Even unrequited love was to be celebrated and treasured, not mourned over.
One such 'trip' -- that's the word Sunil used -- was to Dhalbhumgarh. "Four of us decided we should get out of Kolkata, we needed a breath of fresh air. So we just got into a train at Howrah station. We had not even purchased tickets for the journey... the idea was to get off at a place that would catch our imagination. So, on the way we paid for our journey to the travelling ticket-examiner. He asked us for our destination. We told him that we didn't know where we were going to. That really stumped him!" As Dhalbhumgarh approached, they were enchanted by the dense shaal forest shimmering in the early autumn morning light and they decided to get off at the tiny station.
The next few days were a journey of discovery for Sunil, an exploration of the way we who live in cities look at forests and their tribal dwellers, and the way they look at us. The mahua-soaked story of that 'trip' appeared in a puja baarshiki (annual literary magazines published during Durga Puja) in 1967 as Aranyer Din Raatri. "One day, I think it was Ashtami, I received a call. The person at the other end had a deep, baritone voice and introduced himself as Satyajit Ray," Sunil told me, carrying the story of the 'trip' forward in his inimitable style, "I couldn't believe myself. Satyajit Ray? Calling me?" By then Ray had made a name for himself and was a celebrity in Kolkata. The master filmmaker told Sunil that he had just finished reading Aranyer Din Raatri and wanted to make a film based on the novel. Could he get the rights? Sunil, of course, said yes.
The eponymous film was released in 1969 and was a big hit, marking Ray's shift to contemporary issues and 1960s Bengali middle class angst. Like many other films directed by Ray, Aranyer Din Raatri (or Days and Nights of the Forest, as it was titled for foreign audience) featured Soumitra Chatterjee, Rabi Ghosh and Aparna Sen. Pahari Sanyal and Kaberi Bose were there too. The surprise inclusions were Samit Bhanja and Subhendu Chatterjee. And the biggest surprise was the inclusion of Simi Garewal who played the role of a seductive young tribal woman, Duli, lisping in half-Bengali, half-Santhali, her large kohl-lined eyes as intoxicating as the heady smell of mahua even before it has been dried and fermented. Ray elevated Sunil's portrayal of the eternal conflict between man and nature and the clash of two worlds, one in which we live and the other inhabited by tribals, to cinematic brilliance. Next year, in 1970, Ray produced a second film based on a novel written by Sunil. Pratidwandi was an urban story, in sharp contrast to Aranyer Din Raatri.
That afternoon, after the interview was over and we were smoking cigarettes over coffee, Sunil reverted to Aranyer Din Raatri. "You know, I felt honoured by Ray deciding to make a film based on my novel. But I do wish he had consulted me on the script. When I saw the film, it was a lot different from my book," he told me. Which is true. If you read the book and then watch the film, the differences become stark. But Ray would argue that he was making a film while Sunil was writing a novel. The medium forced the changes.
Meanwhile, Dhalbhumgarh has changed, as has all of Chhota Nagpur as the plateau was called in the past. Jharkhand is only part of the region symbolised by Dhalbhumgarh in Aranyer Din Raatri. The dense shaal forests have disappeared, thanks to the timber mafia, and the rude intrusion of 'urbanisation' has changed the lives of forest dwellers -- the Santhals, the Mundas, the Bhumij, the Lodhas and the Sabars -- forever. You won't find Dulis dancing to the throbbing beat of madol or tribals happily high on mahua singing Tusu songs.
When we were growing up in Jamshedpur, we would often go for school picnics to nearby jungles beyond Subarnarekha or Domohoni where Subarnarekha meets Karkai, redolent with the smell of shaal, mahua and tendu. Those forests have been plundered by dikus with the help of tribal collaborators. The animals are gone, too. All this happened many years ago; the loot is being talked of now. In the name of 'development' and 'empowerment', we have destroyed the culture of the forest, the days and nights of carefree existence of an entire people now belong to the distant past.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Why Godse killed Gandhi

Why Godse killed Gandhi
Sixty years after the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a 'mahatma' to many but really a cunning politician who had mastered the art of manipulating the Indian National Congress and offering simplistic solutions to the most complex problems, apart from coercing others to toe his line by abandoning food, the story of his murder continues to elicit both curiosity and passion. He was not the first leader to be felled by an assassin's bullet, nor is he the only eminent Indian, or South Asian for that matter, to fall victim to an elaborate murder conspiracy.
Thirty-six years after Gandhi was shot dead, Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her security guards. In between, officers of the Bangladeshi Army killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the man whom Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had made Pakistan's Army chief sent him to the gallows after a bogus trial. At a lesser level, Pratap Singh Kairon, described as the "architect of post-independence Punjab", was murdered in 1965; three decades later, another Chief Minister of Punjab, Beant Singh, died when his car was blown up by Khalistani separatists. Rajiv Gandhi died a brutal death when an LTTE suicide bomber pulled the trigger of her explosives-packed belt. Last year Benazir Bhutto was shot dead on the same spot where Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated on October 16, 1951. Politics is a violent affair in this part of the world.
But Gandhi's assassination was different. Not only were his killers Hindu, they killed a man who had by then come to be regarded at home and abroad as an "apostle of peace" and symbolised the unique doctrine of 'non-violence'. In those early days of freedom, it was unthinkable that anybody would dare raise a finger, leave alone a gun, at Gandhi. Yet Nathuram Vinayak Godse did the unthinkable, with more than a little help from Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Gopal Godse, Madanlal Pahwa and Digambar Badge. The historic trial that followed - it was held in Delhi's Red Fort -- captured the imagination of the nation, unleashing sympathy and hate for the conspirators in equal measure. Barring Badge, who was either openly spat upon or secretly reviled for turning approver -- turncoats may win reprieve from the state, but they are looked down upon by all.
The first book of any substance on Gandhi's assassination was Stanley Wolpert's Nine Hours to Rama, published in 1962 and promptly banned by the Government of India; the ban still remains in place, although you can order a copy from It's largely an anodyne version of the killing that shocked the entire world, but Wolpert's suggestion that perhaps those responsible for Gandhi's protection failed in their task riled -- and continues to rile -- Government. Nine Hours to Rama was made into an eponymous film by Mark Robson in 1963; DVD versions of the film are also available at
Manohar Malgonkar's book, The Men Who Killed Gandhi, a gripping recreation of India's partition, independence and Gandhi's assassination on January 31, 1948, was first published during Mrs Gandhi's Emergency when manuscripts were cleared by censors who merrily ran their blue pencil through text which probably they could not even comprehend. "This made it incumbent upon me to omit certain vital facts," Malgonkar writes in the introduction to a new and lavishly illustrated edition of the book published by Roli, "such as, for instance, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar's secret assurance to Mr LB Bhopatkar, that his client, Mr VD Savarkar, had been implicated as a murder suspect on the flimsiest ground." The excised portions find their rightful place in the new edition, as do rare photographs and documents from the National Archives. Nathuram Godse, Apte and their accomplices look remarkably relaxed during the trial, unconcerned about the possibility of being sentenced to death - eventually Godse and Apte were hanged; Karkare, Gopal Godse, Pahwa were sentenced to life imprisonment. They never regretted their deed.
Those were terrible days. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were struggling to keep body and soul together. Many of them had lost their loved ones in the partition riots -- women were raped in front of their husbands and children; young girls were abducted; men were disembowelled; trains arrived laden with dead bodies; people fleeing marauders were set upon with ferocious brutality. Madanlal Pahwa, a young refugee, Malgonkar writes, "reached a place called Fazilka, in Indian territory, and discovered that another refugee column in which his father and other relatives had set out, had fared much worse. They had been attacked by Muslim mobs: 'Only 40 or 50 had survived out of 400 or 500...'." Delhi was flooded by nearly one million refugees, all of them desperately looking for food and shelter. They were distraught and traumatised, unable to figure out why their lives had been turned upside down in so gruesome a manner. Nor could they understand the rationale behind protecting Delhi's Muslims. What left them aghast was Gandhi's insistence that Hindu and Sikh refugees should be sent back to Pakistan and Muslims who had left India be brought back. It didn't make sense. Nor did the vicious blood-letting that followed. Meanwhile, Pakistan had launched its mission to smash and grab Jammu & Kashmir and was demanding that India hand over Rs 55 crore, its share of the cash reserve inherited from the departing British colonial Government.
The proverbial last straw was Gandhi's threat to go on a fast to force the Government of India to accept Pakistan's demand. In all fairness, it needs to be recalled that Jawaharlal Nehru was opposed to the idea: He famously declared that giving the money to Pakistan would mean providing it with "sinews of war". The old man was not listening: In the end, Gandhi had his way although people were aghast. But did this gross act of injustice to the people of India and the callous disregard for the sentiments of millions of refugees -- half-a-million people perished in the violence, 12 million were rendered homeless -- justify Nathuram Godse's action? What inspired Narayan Apte, son of a well-known historian and Sanskrit scholar, to decide on January 13 (the day Gandhi declared he would go on a fast to press Pakistan's demand for Rs 55 crore) that he must turn into a killer? What was Madanlal Pahwa's role in the conspiracy? And why did Badge turn approver?
Entire generations have come of age since The Men Who Killed Gandhi was first published. Children are taught in school that Gandhi was killed, not why Godse and Apte and the others did what they did. The new edition of Malgonkar's classic answers this and other questions; it's history brought alive. Read it.