On “India vs. Hinduphobia”

Mr. Juluri (“India v. Hinduphobia: What Narendra Modi’s Election as Prime Minister Really Means”),

Firstly, let me congratulate you for analysing the most recent elections in India and figuring out what the “youth” really want – a unified India, as opposed to Hinduphobia – which would apparently mean Mr. Modi losing. According to you, it seems to be a rather black and white issue – a divided India or Hinduphobia (the proof being “orientalist” articles in The Economic Times, The New York Times and The Guardian?).

I would like to disagree with you. I’ll admit it – when I read your article, it made me angry (we’ll come to that later) but then, it seemed ridiculous. I’m not going to lie, I laughed. I laughed at the utopian Hindu world you’ve experienced and lived (perhaps even live) in and I’m angry that this does not reflect my experience of Hinduism and “Hindu worldviews”, even though I was born in a Hindu household and bombarded with those worldviews whether I liked it or not. I laughed because my experience of these worldviews in Hindustan has been shockingly different. So you will understand, I think, if I try to put forward my perspective in response to yours.

We disagree on many points, but foremost amongst them has to be your assertion that respect needs to be accorded to the very little intellectual, emotional or moral purchase the “anointed” secular position has in “large sections of India’s young today”. Your belief seems to be that it is not really secular (“sickular”, perhaps) and has been anointed (but by whom?) and that a large majority of the voters (by association, youth) voted for Narendra Modi, secular criticisms against him have little influence or endorsement. Here, I want to point out that only 31% of the voters voted for him and no party has ever before won more than half the seats with a vote share of just 31%, which emphasises how fragmented the vote actually was this election. But I won’t go into figures and all that jazz now, since it seems that doing so only makes us hold on to our positions with renewed determination.

Apart from that, even if it were true that a large majority of “young people” (or is it young Hindus? Never mind) disregarded secular criticisms and viewpoints in the last general elections, does that automatically make it something which should be respected?

The “new way of being Hindu” which is being equated with everything nice, starting from tolerance to universal good – I don’t see that, I have never seen that.

What I have seen, however, is a resurgence of ideas which talk of how India is “finally” becoming the country it was “meant” to be – the Prime Ministerial candidate goes to temples, offers pujas and respects the Ganges. Have you ever seen anybody do that? No, sir. You haven’t. Here is a true Hindu, a real man who will finally show Muslims their place in the country and get rid of those bloody immigrants (only Muslim ones, mind you).

Yes, India will belong to the Hindus, to us. That seems to be the overriding sentiment when they talk. I don’t know how Hindus practice their worldviews in your (seemingly) utopian world, but these are their worldviews in mine.

And no, this does not exclude “young people”. Yes, most of us are not overt about it, but there is still an “us” versus “them” mentality. Very much so, we would like to hide it, hide from it, deny it – and we do. But that does not mean it is not present. It is everywhere. No, we are not what you think we are, at least not in my (admittedly not utopian) world. And this does not refer clear cut lines based only on religion. It extends to ethnicity, language, caste and class. In a country where you have a multitude of identities, you are bound to have a multitude of loyalties – especially since most social life still revolves around the identities assigned to us with our birth in a particular family.

Allow me to point out yet another assertion of yours I majorly disagree with and which is perhaps the whole premise on which your article is built. I don’t think this election can be as simple as “India vs. Hinduphobia”. Among the 31% voters for Modi, “Hinduphobia” was the least important worry on the minds of at least one camp. Incidentally, this is the “camp” that has the greatest number of “young people”. This camp has taken into account the accusations against him but satisfy themselves with clean chits and speeches where development is mentioned more than the Ram Temple, and how can Modi win without Muslim support (the number of Muslim MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha will be the lowest in 15 years. The BJP has fielded only 5 Muslim candidates but none of them have won) and the Gujarat model of development. We lust after jobs, security, no reservations and the Indian rupee. Many of us seem to have found in Modi a charismatic, interactive leader who portrays himself as being poles apart from Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has often been the butt of jokes due to the silent and formal nature of his interaction with the public. Hinduphobia is so far removed from the truth for them, it’s absurd.

However, to another camp, this election means something else. They are glad that there are only 23 Muslim MPs. They are against anything which does not fit in with their idea of “traditional, Hindu” values (read: gay rights, etc).

You state that different faiths divided by language, custom etc still share a land and history due to Hinduism’s “ancient legacy” of respecting all faiths more than the secular constitution India has. Do you not believe that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains have a legacy of respecting all faiths? Even if we assume your statement to be true, peace and coexistence cannot be achieved if only one religion is doing all the “respecting” and “tolerating”. Taali ek hath se nahi bajti [you can't clap with one hand] as we like to say, you know, as Indians.

The government which is to preside over us for the next five years has just been formed, and trust me, all of us who have voted want nothing but the best for India, even though our ideas about what “the best” really is might vary. Let’s see the direction India takes in the next five years. Acche din? For everybody, I hope.

 

How to Say Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu posted an audio pronounciation guide for his name on Tumblr yesterday, adding:

My career goal is to make people say my name properly. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS. Hopefully this post will help.

Hari is such an easy name I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t pronounce it correctly (after hearing someone else say it correctly). Kondabolu is harder, but just like Hari, there aren’t any syllables in it which don’t exist in English and most modern languages right? It should to be easy to teach yourself to say Hari correctly. Just say hurry. Or say hubby and replace the b sound with an r sound.

My experience in the UK was that most people said Soooo-nil for some reason – and it grated like hell. This despite them hearing me say it any number of times. The u in my name is actually pronounced like foot, and the i is pronounced either like eel or ill – I use the former, though most Sunils seem to use the latter.

I think it’s a basic courtesy to pronounce someone’s name the way they pronounce it, provided you can say all its syllables. If you can’t say them all, at least say the ones you can – make a “good faith” effort. If you’re not sure, ask! Some of my Indian friends don’t pronounce my name with the pronounciation I use either – I wish they would. (I also have friends who don’t say my name at all – I don’t want to think about what that means.) I’m not immune to this myself; but I try to correct myself. When realisation dawned that I’d been mispronouncing one of my oldest friends’ name for years, I corrected it overnight. When I had a colleague named Sarah I taught myself to say it – “say stair-ah and remove the t“. I’m not sure how to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s name, but I’m confident that once I hear someone say it correctly, I’ll learn that correct pronounciation.

The phenomenon of name mispronouncation takes on a more serious tone when the person whose name is being mispronounced belongs to an out-group – say immigrants or ethnic minorities. I did some searching on Google Scholar and came across this thesis The Racialisation of Names: Names and the Persistence of Racism in the UK by sociologist Emily Jay Wykes, which examines the racialisation of names including mispronounciation. It’s interesting stuff and there’s free access to the PDF, do take a look.

 

 

The BJP and Bangladeshis

With a recent outbreak of ethnic violence in Assam, the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants have been raked up with every party taking a stand on immigration.

One can see parallels between the “Bangladeshi problem” of India and the “Mexican problem” of the United States, with conservatives demanding for stringent immigration laws and deportation of everyone who they deem as a illegal infiltrators on one side and the liberals and the left accusing the former of being xenophobic (“communal” in India and “racist” in the US) and of fomenting an environment of fear and paranoia.

Now, whether or not immigration laws and enforcement of such laws are fair is a different matter altogether. What I am interested in is the Hindu Right’s obsession with the Bangladeshis. A friend of mine shared an article published in the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn (Indian elections: What taking potshots at Pakistan really means)

When Giriraj Singh talks of sending all those who oppose Modi to Pakistan, he obviously does not mean the Hindus. He wants to say that if the Muslims don’t vote for the BJP, which they don’t normally, they are the enemy.

This should put in perspective how the BJP imagines a Bangladeshi to be and their distinction of a “refugee” from an “infiltrator”. It would be foolish to think that a party with a Hindutva background, a Hindu Nationalist as its Prime Ministerial candidate (whatever that means), and with clear intentions of favouring Hindu Bangladeshis over Muslims, would hold a secular and impartial view in this matter. Talking about immigration and its legality is entirely different from targeting people of a specific nationality. The latter has specific mala fide intention of targeting Muslim Bengalis in West Bengal and Assam. This fits well with the narrative of the “immigrant vote-bank” which has little substance, lots of xenophobia (which in case of Assam borders on racism) and a sprinkle of the usual fear-mongering fantasy: “they took our jobs“.

On Not Having a Good Hindu Name

I met up with a friend yesterday, who, like me, is an atheist but has a Christian last name. As often happens these days, the conversation drifted to the possibility of having Modi as prime minister. She told me about a friend of hers, who has a mixed background – Muslim father, and Christan mother. Her friend said that she was apprehensive about having a Muslim name in an India where Modi is in charge. There would be a sense of fear lurking in one’s mind. What if.

[Read more...]

The Kingkiller Chronicle – A Review of Sorts

It is easier to understand if you think of it in terms of music. Sometimes a man enjoys a symphony. Elsetimes he finds a jig more suited to his taste. The same holds true for lovemaking. One type is suited to the deep cushions of a twilight forest glade. Another comes quite naturally tangled in the sheets of narrow beds upstairs in inns. Each woman is like an instrument, waiting to be learned, loved, and finely played, to have at last her own true music made.

Some might take offense at this way of seeing things, not understanding how a trouper views his music. They might think I degrade women. They might consider me callous, or boorish, or crude.

But those people do not understand love, or music, or me.

The Name of The Wind - Cover

Source – Wikipedia
Used under fair use.

That is what Kovthe, the protagonist of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle series has to say about women. It also sums up the how the series sees women – from the worst of the male gaze.

Is that a too harsh a judgement? I don’t think so. Our pop-culture reflects our patriarchal values. There are exceptions which are growing with time, but take any successful movie or a book and you’ll see the trend. This is even more so prominent in the sci-fi and fantasy genre whose traditional profit base have been men.

Given that background, it would be a big surprise if an author swims against the tide and risks upsetting his potential clientele. So in the two books of out of three released so far in the series you’ll find the baseline sexism and objectification and something beyond that.

The objectification is not casual, something you write down unthinkingly because of the setting of the story – in some old age in a different world where men rule the kingdoms and women exist to be wooed and won. That can be forgiven as lazy. You can’t expect an author to always pick up on the latest developments in ethics and factor them into their books.

But still, if you look at mythological paeans to patriarchy like the Ramayana, even after all the strict gendering of men and women, the women still manage to have far more agency than what you’d find in The Kingkiller Chronicle series which is a grand, epic story that spans a large many characters.

So the objectification is intentional. Whether it is because Rothfuss sees women that way or it is because Rothfuss wanted to write an old fashioned fantasy story with all the prejudices of its time is hard to say. Whatever it is, the end result is akin to you watching a beautiful scenery with someone sitting besides you constantly making a harsh, grating noise which you just can’t ignore.

The noise in the books comes largely by way of the metaphors used the by author. The full gamut of the patriarchal caricatures of women is put to use – beautiful, slender, frail, rousing, fickle, hard to comprehend, nagging, motherly, and powerfully destructive. These metaphors are found throughout the books and they can easily replaced with other non-sexist metaphors without losing any of the intended effect.

For example, to drive home the point that Kovthe’s inn was so clean, the author mentions that after Kovthe finished scrubbing it, the water in the bucket was so clear that a lady can wash her hands in it. The metaphor stands on the assumption that women are fastidious creatures who prefer tidy things (as opposed to men who are not so fussy and like to live uncomplicated lives). Even after conceding that the story was set in a time and place where women are expected to be like that, another metaphor could have been used that would still serve the same purpose. And it is like this throughout the book. Just when you thought the author hasn’t used one of those horrid metaphors in a while, he’ll drop another like someone who’s fastidiously punctual on deploying sexism and objectification.

And of course, there’s the crown glory quoted at the beginning of this post. It looks like the author anticipates that such a stark objectification of women will give rise to objections. So he uses the identification a reader typically develops with the protagonist while reading a book to explain away the objection; he presents an incontrovertible proof that such objectification is not really objectification. Because you, the reader, you who are Kovthe while you are reading, know how music is big part of your life. You know that though you can be a smartass at times, you really are a decent person. You know how you are kindhearted, just, reasonable and would never hurt another without reason. So the author asks you a direct question – are you a degrader of women? And you answer Of course no, I’m not that unethical. What a silly question! Okay says the author. Now you know that I don’t really mean to objectify women at all, right? All is well.

To sum up, The Kingkiller Chronicle series features some fine storytelling that is severely marred by the frequent resorts to sexism and objectification.

A Thought on “It’s Just a Joke”

Two days ago, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson was found uttering the N-word in unaired footage (video):

In the unseen footage – which was later edited out of the show – the £1million a year TV host is seen swinging his finger between two cars, while reciting a racist version of a children’s counting rhyme. Clarkson can be heard chanting: “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…” He then mumbles: “Catch a n***** by his toe”.

Clarkson initially denied using the word, after which the newspaper released the video footage proving it. Yesterday Clarkson made an apology video where he claimed that he knew it was a racist word which he “was extremely keen to avoid”, and that it “did appear” that he actually used the word and that he was moritified. And that “I did everything in my power to not use that word”, whatever that means. It’s hard to take him seriously when he and Top Gear have a history of racism, sexism, homophobia and just all-round harmful offensive marginalising shit. For example, just a few months ago Clarkson tweeted a photo of him sleeping with a sign saying “gay c***” pointing at him, with one of his Top Gear lads smiling smugly behind him. Or just a month ago when Clarkson refered to a Thai man as a “slope” – a racist slur referring to facial features.

But this post isn’t just about Top Gear, it’s more about people who say and do such things, and when others complain, they respond “it’s just a joke”. Here’s a thought I had on dealing with such people. When someone says “come on it’s just a joke”, ask them the following question:

Could you give me an example of something which you think should not be joked about?

Hopefully they do have such a thing. If they say no, there’s isn’t any such thing – and they really mean it – then this is probably a fruitless exercise, as this is someone who doesn’t have much intelligence or ethics. But presumably, for most people, there is such a thing. Then hopefully what you could do is get them to self-examine the premises behind their conclusion it’s okay to joke about X but not Y. They would have to come up with relevant dissimilarities between X and Y to justify their conclusion, and maybe if they do that exercise honestly, they’ll realise that actually there are many relevant similarities and few relevant dissimilarities between the two. So they ought not to joke about X either.

Maybe it’s a long shot, but hey a humanist can dream, right?

I’ll end this short post with one of my favourite comedy sketches ever – British comedian Stewart Lee skewering Top Gear. It’s excellent political comedy as well as all-out hilarious:

 

 

 

 

Rape Myths About How Victims “Should” Behave

In the wake of the Tejpal rape case, some articles and comments in Indian media have propagated certain myths about how “true” rape victims “should” behave. These myths echo depictions of rape in cinema and television, and go something like this:

  • rape victims always fight back against their attackers;
  • rape victims always scream “rape” and display hysterical distress after the assault;
  • rape victims always give complete and consistent testimony to the police after the assault.

When one looks at the scientific research on victim responses to sexual assault however, it becomes clear that the expectations that all rape victims “should” behave this way are unfounded. So let’s take a look at the research.

The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault

The first resource to see, is this seminar from the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), titled “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault”. The NIJ is the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice – it improves knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science. The seminar is part of a series of seminars on translational criminology, which attempts to guide and improve criminal justice through scientific research. The speaker is Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, who has conducted research on rape for the past twenty years – in particular on medical, legal and mental systems’ responses to rape. The seminar is an hour and a half long (and includes a lengthy Q&A with law enforcement and legal professionals); you can view all the slides along with the audio at the link above, and you can also read the entire written transcript here.

Here are the key research findings she shares during the talk, which are relevant to the above myths. She describes the neurobiology of sexual assault: the hormonal and emotional effects of the assault on the brain. Various hormones come into effect in the victim of a sexual assault – the catecholamines (one of which is adrenaline), cortisol (the “stress hormone”), endogenous opioids (like endorphins), and oxytocin. These hormones affect two parts of the brain: the amygdala, which modulates events that are important for the organism’s survival, and the hippocampus, which processes memory. The consequences of this on the victim are:

1) Tonic Immobility, also known as rape-induced paralysis. This is a muscular paralysis experienced by the victim during the assault, and explains why some victims do not fight back. As Dr. Campbell says, (emphasis mine):

The catecholamines are often going to be at very, very high levels during the assault. We talked about how these hormones are very helpful for the fight-or-flight response. On the other hand, we’ve also hinted at a little bit that those hormones may not be the best things in terms of memory. The other thing that these hormones are not the greatest at is that they impair the circuits in our brain that control rational thought. So the parts of our prefrontal cortex that allow us to do “IF this THEN that” — that’s rational thought in simple terms — those circuits literally do not work at their optimal levels when catecholamine levels are high. So a victim under sort of normal levels of catecholamine — meaning not being victimized — might be able to look at a situation and say, “Oh, well of course the rational, logical thing for me to do is this.”

The victim literally can’t think like that during the assault. The catecholamines have caused structural cellular damage to those circuits. It’s not permanent; it’s temporary. But at the same time, they can’t do that “IF this THEN that” thought. So when they’re in the middle of the assault, strategies like “Oh, you coulda, you shoulda, you would have done this” — they can’t even think of the options, let alone execute them. So again, kind of a tragic situation where our body is working at cross-purposes. On the one hand, it can help here, and on the other hand it’s not going to help the rational thought mechanisms.

[...] And then finally, for some victims, it’s the corticosteroids that have dumped out at very high levels and actually reduces the energy available to the body. Now, I’ve been talking so far about fight-or-flight. It’s actually fight, flight, or freeze — that for some victims, they don’t fight back. They don’t flee the situation. Their body freezes on them because of this hormonal activation by the HPA axis. And it can trigger essentially an entire shutdown in the body. And the technical name for this is tonic immobility. Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.” It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. [...] Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.

Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to the 50 percent than the 12 percent.

[...] Because they had this reaction, they’re afraid of how it’s going to be perceived by others, so they’re very reluctant to seek help. And when they do come help, it’s always there in the back of their mind. They are dreading that question “What did you do?” Because their answer is one that they don’t think anybody’s going to understand and quite frankly they don’t understand, because their answer is “I did nothing. I couldn’t do anything. I just laid there.” When people disclose tonic immobility, when victims disclose it, family, friends and service providers often react very negatively to this. You got the, “Well you must have wanted it, because you just laid there. You coulda, woulda [skips] something.” They can’t. Remember, it’s an autonomic mammalian response wired into our brains to protect the survival of the organism. So it can be helpful to try to explain tonic immobility and normalize this. Fight, flight, or freeze.

2) The victims’ emotional response after the assault is not always “hysterical” and “upset”:

Opiates released in very, very high levels during sexual assault, again blocking the physical pain, the emotional pain. But morphine — if any of you have had major surgery — morphine’s not sensitive to subtleties. It’s out. It blocks the pain. So the affect that a victim might be communicating during the assault and afterward may be very flat, incredibly monotone — like seeing no emotional reaction, which again sometimes can seem counterintuitive to both the victim and other people. It’s like “This was a horrible traumatic event. Why aren’t you showing these kinds of emotions?” Opiate morphine is not letting it come through. It has been blunted.

[...] These neurobiological changes can lead to very flat affect, that sort of bluntness or what appears to them to be strange emotions, or huge emotional swings that over the course of the interview you can see them high, you can see them low, you can see them somewhere in between. And you can see that all unfold in a span of about 90 seconds or less. And then the cycle will repeat.

So the behavior that they see is due to a hormonal soup. Remember how we talked about how those hormones can sometimes even be working at cross-purposes. Which hormones are released at which levels? We don’t know yet. We don’t have data on that, but we know that there’s a lot — that those are the four main ones that are being released and that they can kind of put the body at cross-purposes. So what is often interpreted as a victim being cavalier because she’s just sitting there or interpreted as lying because she seems so cavalier and not upset about it, is very likely attributable to the opiate levels in her body, because those will be released at the time of the assault and they can stay very elevated for 96 hours post assault. So the key thing that practitioners need to know is that there is, in fact, a wide reaction of emotional reactions to sexual assault, and it can be helpful to normalize those reactions for victims, because they don’t understand why they’re behaving that way either.

3) Memory consolidation and recall is difficult for victims. The encoding and consolidation of a sexual assault into memory happens in a fragmented way. There might be several gaps in memory too, particularly if the victim was assaulted while under the influence of alcohol.

That’s why memory can be slow and difficult — because the encoding and the consolidation went down in a fragmented way. It went down on little tiny post-it notes and they were put in all different places in the mind. And you have to sort through all of it, and it’s not well-organized, because remember I told you to put some of them in folders that had nothing to do with this. I told you to put one in the pencil jar. It’s not where it’s supposed to be. It takes a while to find all the pieces and put them together. So that’s why victims, when they’re trying to talk about this assault, it comes out slow and difficult.

But the question everybody wants to know about is the accuracy of that information, okay. And what we know from the research is that the laying down of that memory is accurate and the recall of it is accurate. So what gets written on the post-it notes — accurate. The storage of it is disorganized and fragmented.

However, there is an exception — alcohol. If the victim was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, the encoding process might not have happened at all or in any degree of accuracy. I think in a group of this size all 21 and over, we can appreciate that alcohol impairs encoding across the board — not just for traumatic events, for a lot of events. So if you have a traumatic event that occurred under the context of alcohol, the information might not have been encoded, and it may not be consolidated, and it may not be transferred into long-term memory. So for victims who are assaulted under the influence of alcohol, they may not have anything to retrieve. So to speak, their post-it notes are just blank. They may not have it, okay? But for those who are able to remember it, either in pieces and parts, it does go in accurately, it does come out accurately, but it comes out slow, steady, fragmented and disorganized.

[...] How are law enforcement and prosecutors trained to handle something that looks fragmented and sketchy? They’re trained to believe that that is something that is not truthful, and their job is to hone in on it and look at it from multiple points of views and keep cycling back on it to try to ferret out what is true and what is false. And again, they interpret this victim’s behavior as evasiveness or lying. And again, what it really is, most often, is that the victim is having difficulty accessing the memories. Again, the content of the memory the research tell us very clearly is accurate. It’s just going to take some time and patience for it to come together.

Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive?

Here’s a second resource on the subject: the publication Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive? by the U.S. National District Attorneys Association. Again it examines responses to sexual victimisation, and how these responses appear “counterintuitive” to the general public. The authors are careful to explain what they mean by that term:

The term “counterintuitive” is used to explain how a juror may perceive a victim’s behavior and not the behavior itself. For local and state prosecutors involved in sexual assault cases, it is important to remember that labeling these certain victim behaviors for members of a jury as “counterintuitive” reinforces the notion that there is an appropriate or “normal” way to behave after a sexual assault and that anything outside the realm of a presupposed reaction is somehow inappropriate or abnormal.

The authors go on to present research on (1) how victims cope with sexual victimisation, (2) the variability in victim responses, and (3) rape myth acceptance.

The need of the day is for us to educate ourselves and others about these myths. As Campbell points out, the widespread ignorance about these issues is partly responsible for the secondary victimisation of rape survivors. The police and prosecutors themselves have misconceptions about victim behaviour, which leads them to not believe the victims’ story. In fact, many rape survivors themselves are not aware of these facts, and as a result end up feeling guilty or blaming themselves. Here’s Campbell again, quoting one of many emails she receives from rape survivors:

“I cannot believe I am reading this article. After years of blaming myself, questioning myself, feeling tormented, I now understand why I froze every time I was assaulted. It now has a name. I don’t have to wonder why or what’s wrong with me or why didn’t I do anything. I can’t tell you how much relief this article brings me. You must know how much your website and your work helps those of us who have suffered in silent torment and agony. You give us a voice. You give us compassion. You give us strength and hope. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel.”

On Appropriation of Ambedkar

When Caravan published Arundhati Roy’s piece The Doctor and the Saint, I was one of those who celebrated it as the next big thing that was to emerge in the Indian academic circles. Roy’s essay constitutes the first half of Navayana’s annotated edition of Bhimrao Ambedkar’s seminal work ‘The Annihilation Of Caste’. The article, like every other work by Roy, sparked instant controversy. Almost in every controversy, and even in the sedition charge, I was one of the scores of Arundhati Roy Fans who not only argued for her right to expression but also the arguments she raised in her works. But this time, my support for Roy is only limited to her rights and liberties, and not the case she and Navayana is trying to make.

I was always of the opinion that Roy because of her activism understood very well how power works. Whether one agrees with her or not, one can not deny that her activism and her politics was always to put attention on the expendables of India. She was the one who made the following statement,

‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’

What baffles me is the most is that both Roy and S. Anand, publisher of Navayana, did not see that their action amounted to something as indecent as appropriation. Even this Scroll.in article misses the point. And so do every other privileged activists and writers.

The Dalit anger and resentment against both Roy and a Navayana is best articulated by the irreverent Anoop Kumar here at the The Round Table India (not the nationalist one).

You need Omprakash Balmiki’s Jhootan’s English version to know the caste horror. Need Fandry to get shocked. You required 60-70 years to discover Ambedkar..You also require your own high priestess to now interpret Ambedkar for you. To tell you what was right and wrong with Ambedkar. To force you to even start reading him..

How long this will go on man, just how long!

To be honest even I was of the opinion that all this resentment was highly misplaced. If for Roy reading Ambedkar’s work felt “as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows”, reading Kumar for me felt as if somebody snapped me out of the delusion that I’m blind. Blind to my privilege and the privilege of the likes of Roy and Anand.

In none of my rants I suggested that it is about her essay actually. I do not care what she has written on Ambedkar or on anything else she wrote about in her essay. My rants are about something else. My rants are about what she actually represents before us, not as a person, but as someone who gets two national magazines simultaneously to provide her ample space – to talk about her essay, about caste, about dalits, about Ambedkar – which is so cruelly denied to us, is shut for ever. Not even Ambedkar could ever breach it, till he got discovered by people like Ms Roy.

Closely related with what she represents to us is another issue of the whole politics of her introducing Ambedkar’s seminal text to the world, to upper castes, to western world as has been continuously professed by her publisher and his friends – both desis and whites- telling me in no uncertain terms that this publication is actually not meant for me, for dalits, for all those who know their Ambedkar but for upper castes who have refused to read him and for western academia who have yet to discover Ambedkar. Your introducing him will make them all to read more about Ambedkar they say.

And they are accusing me of wrongly calling you a messiah!

You are already a messiah, Ms Roy!

Declared and accepted by many, all those who actually matter in this country. It is not for nothing that national magazines provide you so much space on issues they care two hoots about. What is it if not the ardent belief of your followers on your miraculous power to make people read something that they have avoided their whole lives?

And like what happens with every messiahs, you already have very cunning followers who are quoting your messiah status for their private gains, cheating gullible masses who believe in your messiah-ness.

I am merely resisting your messiah status now being thrust on us. Just for the simple reason that it is more difficult to dislodge a messiah, a mahatma, than to create one. We spent some seven decades and enormous efforts in dislodging one, thrust on us quite forcefully, by others who also were as persuasive as you are today in claiming that it was only in our best interests.

The Age Old Cultural War and Broom Wielding Footsoldiers

This interview was done more than a year ago during a research concerning social prejudices in mass media of India. The research compared projection of Ganesha festival in Mumbai and Dr. B R Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Both of these events draw a huge crowd from different social groups. However, the mass media has been vehemently prejudiced when portraying these public ceremonies. Ironically, what Dr. Ambedkar had said about bramhanical mindset being “ascending scale of reverence and descending scale of contempt” continued to be a part of the nation’s cultural fabric and even made his legacy to disappear from mainstream public spheres.

Here is an interview of a former sanitation worker who like most others is from a socially and economically backward caste. He comments on the current nature of the cultural war between brahmanic and non-brahmanic forces that have been taking place in Indian peninsula for more than a thousand years. There exists a hidden apartheid in India where the former untouchables are still doing the duties allocated to them in traditional rural socio-economy. Most of the sanitation work in urban India is done by these castes without any hygienic facilities availed to them or any social security. These jobs are done on contract basis and carried on for generations even after India achieved independence. Most inhuman among this work is entering the manholes without any safety equipment and cleaning human excreta by broom and hand.

Some of the revered figures of this land who justified manual scavenging are M K Gandhi (well known as Mahatma) and current Prime Ministerial Candidate from BJP Narendra Modi. Even another Prime Ministerial candidate Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, who in the most gandhian fashion, is being described as virtuous also did not take any steps which he promised to the sanitation workers in capital region after hijacking their plebian broom as a symbol for his political party.

A recent article in a national newspaper is “surprised” over the existence of manual scavenging in India which is more offending than the existence of manual scavenging itself. Nonetheless she does try to save the last shred of upper caste journalist morality by saying “How can a country that sends rockets into space not be able to figure out how to prevent trains from discharging toilet waste on to the tracks? It’s the same nation whose capital city’s world class metro system has an unmanned ticket checking system but where men and women still have to get into sewers when they get clogged.

Interview of Mr. Ramesh Haralkar, a former Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) clean up worker. He is now a full time activist in Ambedkarite movement.
Date: 9th December 2012.
Venue: Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, New Campus, TISS, Mumbai.

Researcher: What is your opinion on Ganesh Festival?

Ramesh Haralkar: After Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion, the educated Buddhists started spreading the de-hinduizing message of Buddhism. To counter that, Ganesh idols which were inside the home, were brought out on the streets. ‘Sarvajanik Ganesh Mandals’ were formed. From those Mandals political leadership started appearing. From that leadership, Corporators, MLAs, MPs were born. Then, they became conscious of their roles as leaders and the need to protect religious identity and culture. On one side there stood (Buddha’s) Dhamma and on the other there was (Brahmanic Hindu) Dharma. But they noticed that, these people (Scheduled Caste Buddhists) criticize Hinduism but a lot of them still follow it. We (SC Buddhists) critique Hindu gods Ram, Ganesh etc. and make scientific questions about their non-human bodies and behavior. At the same time, they know that a large chunk still follows Hindu traditions. We lacked the co-ordination to implement this revolutionary thought of Babasaheb. We started following Hindu methods of celebrations blindly. We started celebrating Dr. Ambedkar’s Birth Anniversary like they do their festivals. They also started supporting it. They have a powerful mechanism to support such mass participation in grand public ceremonies. So they will encourage Christians, Buddhists et cetera to have rallies and grand celebrations. It is a ‘give and take’ policy. You scratch my back, I will scratch yours. We have adopted their culture. They play cards in the Ganesh Pandal and the lower caste people in the vicinity will also join them. Having such public ceremonies is a platform to gain political weight. The organizers will invite local politicians and the number of participants becomes a tool of displaying political power. Because of such mass processions in a crowded city, a sick person requiring urgent medical attention dies on the way to hospital. This happens regularly. When Bal Thackeray died recently, all the cameras were focused on the procession but no one cared about people’s access to hospitals. There should be some law and order but no one is willing to question this. Such is the terror (in people’s minds).

Researcher: So the processions are all about display of power?

Ramesh Haralkar: Yes. Display is the correct word.

Researcher: During this research I participated in the immersion procession of Lalbaugcha Raja as an observer. There is a mosque near Byculla railway station and the surrounding area was packed with Rapid Action Force, Bomb Squad, Reserve Police Force. So on one side, celebrating Hindu festivals like Ganesh Festival and Diwali is projected as being secular but at the same time we see a subtle discourse of Hindu nationalism in the celebration. No mass media talks about this.

Ramesh Haralkar: No. They don’t talk about it. When a muslim conducts ‘Aarti’ of Ganesh, he attains a status in his area. He is also respected by (Hindu) youth of Lalbaug. No muslim then dares to interfere with him. He gains political weight. Even those religious leaders issuing ‘Fatwa’ don’t dare to question him. They are worried about their own safety. The Imams of Delhi speak only when told by the political leaders.

Police standing outside Hindustani Masjid near Byculla station few moments before Lalbaucha Raja’s procession was about to pass by.

Police standing outside Hindustani Masjid near Byculla station few moments before Lalbaucha Raja’s procession was about to pass by.

Researcher: Please tell us about the treatment given to clean up staff during festivals.

Ramesh Haralkar: The clean up staff is also made to work more than 8 hours. They are treated like servants. Anyone mistreats them. At the time of immersion cleanup workers are considered as servants of that religion and not as BMC employees. (emphasis mine) Having so many festivals is a necessity of their religion. Their festivals are like garbage. Even small festivals leave huge heaps of waste. There are no guidelines or restrictions to it. Whether its Hindu festival or Muslim’s Roza, we are there to clean it 24 hours.

Researcher: 99% of them (cleanup workers) are Scheduled Castes.

Ramesh Haralkar: Yes. The clean up duty of Mahars in the village has continued in the cities. They have no saviors. All the Hindu religions are about noise pollution and waste. If a procession is passing by your house and an elderly person dies, you can’t dare to go out and tell people to stop their instruments. Those noise mapping instruments are used only in Shivaji Park . In the small alleys of city you can’t complain about noise.

Garbage outside Lalbaugcha Raja Pandal, Ganesh Galli, Mumbai

Garbage outside Lalbaugcha Raja Pandal, Ganesh Galli, Mumbai

Reseacher: What about the garbage on Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary? Is it because of internalization of populist Hindu culture?

Ramesh Haralkar: The people, who come to Mumbai for Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary, only want to pay homage. They don’t beg for any material desires. They roam the city and buy some books. I don’t know which caste group you belong but Dr. Ambedkar was a Hindu Mahar and so all of those who converted were only Mahars. Dr. Ambedkar was cremated in a small place outside Smashaan Bhoomi in Dadar. The whole neighborhood is dominated by Deshpandes, Bapats et cetera (Brahmins). They feel disgusted about the untouchables. The current scenario is that only old people reside near Shivaji Park and their children live in Thane, Pune et cetera. All of them vacate the place by 1st December to stay with their children. The incoming population of rural SCs doesn’t know the concept of cleanliness. In rural areas the waste has been traditionally organic. Throwing it anywhere was not a concern since it would be naturally neutralized. They will eat and sleep anywhere on Shivaji ground. It’s not as if they don’t want cleanliness but they don’t know the usage of dust bins. We have been serving food through stalls on 6th December since 1975. If you tell them not to spread waste, they will certainly listen to you. They will also wash their hands in the dust bin. That is why we must tell our people not to spread waste. Politicians and urban followers should tell them about this. Not because of the fear of Brahmins but as a necessity of maintaining cleanliness. It is our duty and not Brahmins’. After all, it will be ‘our’ (Scheduled Caste) cleanup worker who will be picking up waste. Brahmin will not be cleaning it. Now we will know (Shivaji Park residents’ attitude) about wastage because a large chunk will again gather on the grounds to commemorate Bal Thackeray’s death anniversary but they will be touchable folks. So no controversy about their wastage will emerge. The Ambedkarite people don’t get enough information about BMC’s sanity infrastructure so they will attend nature’s call in any less visible place they find. If a Brahmin shouts at them for peeing under the building, our people will threaten them. This gets published in print media immediately because ‘their’ people only handle it. Now on the coming 17th November we will see that all the arrangements are done perfectly by BMC on Bal Thackeray’s death Anniversary. Last year, we asked the Ward Officer about insufficiencies of sanity infrastructure on 6th December. The Sanity Van did not have flush. They were not attached to drain. By the Supreme Court order, they should have been attached to drain. Again, ‘our’ clean up worker will do those arrangements. There is no co-ordination. One more aspect of administration I would like to share. Wherever there is a majority of a certain caste or community, people from those social groups will be appointed by the government to arrange administration. In Muslim festivals a Kulkarni (Brahmin surname) is not sent. In Muslim dominated areas, only Muslims are appointed in Police stations. SC officers can also be accommodated but Brahmins are not sent in those areas.

Garbage on Girgaum Chowpatty after 10th day of Ganesh festival

Garbage on Girgaum Chowpatty after 10th day of Ganesh festival

It’s Time to Become an Anti-National

One of the goals of the Hindutva project is to make “India” synonymous with “Hindu”. So a true Indian is a Hindu whereas one who is not a Hindu or doesn’t acknowledge the Hinduness of India is an anti-national. Over the recent years, this Hindutva project seems to be gaining some perceptible ground.

A while back Subramanian Swamy wanted Indians to either acknowledge their Hindu antecedents or give up their voting privileges. This feat of bigotry cost Swamy his Harvard position. but his views won him millions of fans in India. By any standard, he is a very popular politician in India and that is not because of the various lawsuits he filed, but mainly because of his new found Hindutva piety.

Then there is the intolerance of any contrary views when it comes to issues like Kashmir. So people like Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan became seditionists and anti-nationals. The question here isn’t whether they are justified in their views or not, but whether they have the right to express those views in the first place. But the increasing jingoistic cacophony doesn’t make any allowance for such questions. It only has patience for one mindless chant – “India First”; where what counts as “First” is an euphemism for putting Hinduness before the constitutional idea of India.

In the recent weeks there was the rhetoric surrounding academic research on Hinduism. Apparently, not joining the Hindutva orchestra in demonizing the likes of Doniger is grounds for suspecting that one is anti-national.

And this week, some Kashmiri students were booked for sedition because they supported Pakistan in a India vs Pakistan cricket match. It may well be that the students are enamoured of the Islamic state of Pakistan and so support it, but that is no grounds for sedition.

So where does that leave freethinkers like me?

I liked Doniger’s “The Hindus” in that I got to hear Hindu voices that lie outside the framework of Vedic Hinduism. I think people like Arundhati Roy have the right to express their views without the threats of sedition charges. I have no love for the Islamic path that Pakistan has taken, but someone supporting a cricket team should never be treated as a thought crime that would eventually lead to they becoming traitors.

Given those views of mine, the “India First” brigade may well decree that I am an anti-national. In that case I gladly accept that label. I would not have settled for anything less, as for me people and their rights come first.

Riffing of an old Hindutva slogan, Garv se kaho hum anti-national hain (Translation: Proclaim with pride that we are anti-nationals).