During my travels all across Gujarat, there would always be a “store room” lurking behind the main dining room at the hotels I stayed at. I found that a very odd place to lodge a storeroom and wondered why so many men – sometimes foreigners – were spending so long in those storerooms. It was much later that I discovered these `store rooms’ were a euphemism for `bars’ – behind stacks of goods that made the godown look like a genuine store room, away from direct view there were set some tables and chairs and the drinkers were served in non-transparent coffee (or rather beer) mugs to escape notice in case of a sudden raid,
But those raids rarely ever happened because not only were the authorities kept rolling in bribes, many times cops were the basic source to secure liquor from. Prohibition is a bit of a joke in Gujarat as it was in Maharashtra for a brief while when it was in force during the Emergency era – even government clubs had their bars flowing though I do recall all the officers had to apply for licences before asking for a drink. That rule is even now in force in Maharashtra but no one enforces it – neither the liquor stores, nor the pubs and bars. But pubs do keep hundreds of licences handy – you can buy one for five rupees if you wish or not, for that is a stand by in case of raids. Names will be quickly entered and the permits (indeed many bars are known as `permit rooms’) handed out to drinkers at the bar. But, again, as in Gujarat, such raids hardly ever happen unless the establishment is running some other notorious activity like dancing girls or acting as a cover for criminals and their nefarious activities.
I notice Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s dilemma in banning alcohol throughout Bihar as part of his poll promise to women and the warnings that such prohibition will only end up enriching the law enforcers without necessarily stopping the men from drinking. But if Kumar wants to succeed and gain the confidence of the women at the same time, he has to look no further than Maharashtra and Sharad Pawar for a unique alcohol policy that will not only shut the liquor shops but also make the women feel – rather than just patronised by a chief minister attempting to make life easy for them.
The Maharashtra government is the only government anywhere in the world that has such a unique liquor policy and it is one of Sharad Pawar’s landmark achievements. In 1995, Pawar thought to attract the vote of women by giving them the power to shut down liquor stores and drinking joints in their villages. By this law, if more than fifty per cent of the women in any village are troubled by drunkard husbands and wish to get them off alcohol, they have the power to petition the Collector of the district to hold a referendum in that village. If more than fifty per cent of the women turn up to vote and the vote goes for the shutting of the bars and stores, the shutters are forcibly downed within 24 hours and stay down forever. There is no room for appeal.
The policy was slow to take off – women did not notice it in 1995 and Sharad Pawar’s government was voted out of power receiving a major drubbing at the assembly elections that year. But, by and by, women realised that they did not need an Anna Hazare to tie drunkards to a tree and beat them up until the transgressors fell in line. In the two decades since that policy became law village after village went in for a referendum and banned alcohol. There are whole talukas now which are alcohol free though this status has not come without inherent struggles. Women sarpanches, who have taken the lead in banning alcohol in these villages, have been under threat by the liquor mafia, the process does not come without the inherent bribery and corruption – attempts are made to influence officials to rig the results, women are threatened on voting day, sometimes tied to furniture in their own homes by their husbands, many of them go into hiding before surfacing minutes before voting commences, even Collectors are sometimes threatened from declaring the results. But the policy is succeeding on a grand scale — to such an extent that men from the villages have to travel to nearby towns to find their supply of alcohol. As a result, the Maharashtra government was in the process of considering extending the policy to areas governed by municipal councils to make it immensely difficult for the men to find liquor in a hurry.
All this is happening despite the fact that for the past 15 years during the Congress-NCP regime, largely run by sugar barons, many ministers were seeking ways and means to maximise not just revenues but even personal gains. Shutting down liquor stores meant huge losses in excise duties but the sugar barons also needed to find an end use for the molasses generated in their factories and they tried many a trick to overturn the policy but to no avail.
Sharad Pawar might be remembered for many things not too savoury or sweet but the rural women of Maharashtra largely associate him now with making their lives less miserable than before the liquor policy was introduced. It has given them a sense of empowerment – not just the Sarpanches or panchayat samiti members but even the ordinary housewife in the village feels she has a right to govern her own life and that she can make it happen.
Nitish Kumar should try this route to banning alcohol in Bihar. As such women voted for him in large numbers. He will never lose their vote again if he empowers them thus rather than just imposing a decision from above in a manner that is guaranteed to fail. Sharad Pawar is just a phone call away.
The last time I plucked an orange off its tree was in Greece. When I landed in Athens, I was startled to see orange bushes acting as dividers across the roads. They were in season and the orange fruit hung low from the branches. But, of course, unlike in India, it was not possible to just hop across and pluck one fruit. The laws were strict and Greek cops stricter. But, then, one day I wandered into a garden in the middle of the city to rest my tired limbs and as I stretched out on a bench, I discovered I was sitting right under an orange tree and ripe fruits were dropping off by the dozens all around me. I picked one up and then stood and plucked one off the tree, convincing myself it was no crime to take fruit that would be falling off by its own in a few minutes anyway.
I come from orange country in India — Nagpur – and I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me to find oranges right in the middle of Europe. Since then I have tasted Maltese oranges and had what they call Clementines in Europe but I have come to the conclusion I love my Nagpur oranges the best – even at Indian supermarkets which today are stocked high with imported fruits, I give the foreign oranges a wide berth, though I may pick strawberries from Denmark, which are sweeter than the Indian variety and definitely go for apples from New Zealand and China against my grain simply because our very own Kashmiri apples are neither crisp nor juicy and always seem over-ripe and aged by the time they come to the metropolitan stores. (I think we lack the transportation and storage techniques. I have plucked an apple off the tree in Kashmir once many years ago and it never tasted more good!).
So this week I was delighted to come across groves and groves of orange orchards as I drove through our orange county , for the first time in many years during the season. The oranges are just beginning to appear in the markets but they are still raw and sour and it will be a couple of months before the oranges begin to turn, well, orange on the trees. But even so, I was tempted so we stopped our car beside the highway and found a kachcha lane leading into one orchard. The gardeners were delighted to see us and allowed us to pluck dozens of those oranges for just Rs 20 (we gave them Rs 50, because anything less would have been just pennies — or paise).
“Won’t your employer, the owner of the orange orchard mind if we take these oranges away?” I asked.
“it is a bad season,” one of the gardeners said, flummoxing me completely. “He will be only too glad to get rid of some of this thus.”
“How is it a bad season when the trees are heavily laden with fruits ripening on the trees?” I asked.
That is why it is a bad season, he said and as he explained, for the first time I understood why orange farmers never commit suicide, only cotton farmers in Vidarbha do.
Orange farmers are never worried about how their crop fares because this is one fruit whose wholesale prices always cover the dearth or plenty of the crop. “If we have unseasonal rains and lose much fruit, the prices of oranges in the retail and wholesale markets will shoot up. The farmer will always recover his costs. But if there is a bountiful season then he has to sell the crop cheap but then there are so many oranges to sell that he still recovers the costs. Orange farmers make no losses any season.”
I haven’t checked the truth of this claim out statistically but, yes, I have never heard of farmers’ suicides among the cultivators of oranges and there is no orange politics in the state unlike that with cotton. No one demands remunerative prices for oranges as they do for cotton and the only time one politician did so, his own party men laughed him off. This legislator had brought a truck laden with the fruit to the assembly premises in Nagpur one winter session of the legislature and, I remember, the oranges disappeared in minutes as all fellow politicians, legislature staff, security guards and even us journalists commandeered dozens of those oranges for ourselves. Even the MLA who had tried to make an issue of the oranges was laughing at the speed with which they were consumed and the farmers who had accompanied him were not unhappy either for they had a bountiful crop that season — while they needed to sell heavily to recover costs on the low wholesale prices, they had enough and more not to want the fruits to go rotting on the roadsides.
And indeed this season, too, already mounds of the fruit are arranged on the roadside by villagers who have just picked them off the trees for free and were selling them at half the price that it is now beginning to be available in the city markets.
Vidarbha is both cotton and orange country and I wonder if cotton farming is really so fraught with the danger of failures and low cost recoveries, why don’t more and more of them shift to oranges? The black cotton soil of the region is very fertile and these trees, including lemon trees, grow just about anywhere, including in pots. My mother planted a small lemon sapling in a giant pot in her potted garden a few years ago and today it has grown huge enough to enable the neighbour upstairs to lean across and pluck some lemons off our tree each evening as they sit down for a drink or two with their friends and visitors. Last year, we even managed to pickle the lemons and make a squash out of some more in sufficient quantity to last the year. I thought we might do the same with oranges and asked the gardener for a sapling but he said there was a technique for planting an orange tree — and they could not grow in pots.
But since then I have got thinking that perhaps Sharad Pawar was right when as Union agriculture minister he advised the farmers of Vidarbha to go in for cash crops including tomatoes – for tomatoes are another crop that grows in a small patch in your garden and comes up with heavily laden fruit.
Now that is something which is being encouraged by NGOs from Nagpur – one particular group, Zero Gravity, run by Maitreyi Jichkar, daughter of former Maharashtra minister Dr Shrikant Jichkar, who was a farmer himself, organised a direct sale of vegetables from farmers to consumers at half the retail prices in the stores. The sale was a big hit and the vegetables, crisp and farm fresh, sold out in less than two hours. I believe if more such efforts are made, farmers should not be in distress at all.
Just like the oranges I picked off the trees, the vegetables too were crisp and almost raw. The tomatoes I bought from the Zero Gravity sale a week ago are still sitting on our kitchen counter, crisp and juicy as ever. The oranges which were a little tart to begin with are ripening and turning sweeter each day, And every time I peel one, I am still guilty that I paid just Rs 50 for five score and more. How much does that work out to per orange? You can guess. And I am told the orchard owner was glad to be rid of them at that price!
Last Sunday, I was charmed to have been confronted by a slice of my childhood again. I woke up in the morning to see bowls full of chocolates, toffees and other goodies resting on the dining table, there were colourful ribbons and some scarves and handkerchiefs also neatly folded beside the goodies.
For several years now I have been eggitarian (that is to say, I eat eggs occasionally when I have a protein deficiency). But that is not to say I have not tasted different meats ever – during my frequent travels abroad, I have eaten it all –foie gras, caviar, octopus (didn’t like any of them), duck, turkey, partridge, chicken (the fowl were okay), bacon, lamb, venison and, of course, streak – beef as well as reindeer (in Finland). For having beef steaks, I excuse myself with Veer Savarkar’s argument –he had had the same in the UK and wrote in one of his articles later that a British cow was not the same, or even holy, as an Indian one so he could be forgiven for having consumed cow’s meat away from Indian shores. My cow (indeed, if it was a cow and not a bull or a buffalo) was French and German though I stuck to fish and reindeer when I travelled closer to Santa Claus’s home near the northern lights (may Santa fogive me for having consumed a bit of his beloved Rudolf’s kin).
I now have no passion for meat, red or white, though for health reasons I am compelled from time to time to consume egg and occasionally fish. The Maharashtra government’s meat ban thus affects me in no way for they have excluded fish and eggs from their enforced restriction, so I should have no problem should I face a health issue in the fortnight of the ban and have to consume one or the other.
So why am I outraged by the ban? I think it is because this could be the start of invasion of all sorts of privacies – I still remember a visit to Romania where I learnt about a `bedroom police’ during dictator Ceausescu’s regime – they would make sure couples were not using contraceptives because the Big Leader wanted to increase the population of his country to make it as significantly big as India’s and China’s. With RSS ideologues already talking about going Indian in every aspect of life, I am afraid their invasion will not be limited to just our kitchens – I have heard whispers that toilets ae next because they believe commodes are British and the squatting type is more nationalist (I am not joking – there are published reports on this for there were some attempts during Atal Behar Vajpayee’s regime but they found no takers). So are we failing to read the signs of what is really happening to our polity and society in time? For there was a precedent to the meat ban several weeks ago when Gujaratis in a housing society in a western suburb of Bombay had picked a fight with a fish eating Maharashtrian family and that had polarised all Maharashtrians against Gujaratis. The matter was defused after a police complaint following fisticuffs between the Gujarati residents and the Maharashtrian family but there were enough of the Shiv Sainik types who had taken even to social media to express their outrage and avow that they will not be crushed by vegetarians, Gujarati or otherwise.
When I wrote about the history of a traditional warfare between the two communities which went back to the days of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule who had abhorred the sahukars from these communities for exploiting farmers of Maharashtra, I was told that I was deliberately trying to drive a wedge between the two communities and that they all loved each other so well.
Barely two months later, it is obvious that the Maharashtrians are not going to take Gujarati (or Jain) diktats lying down in their own state and cities – significant is the fact that both the Shiv Sena and the Maharshtra Navnirman Sena at last found common cause in this meat issue and took to defying the ban by selling meat openly on the streets. That the Sena should be an ally in the government with the BJP and fiercely resist the ban even in the municipal corporation of Mira-Bhayandar where they failed to block the move only because they had corporators missing durng the vote, is very telling.
The fact that serious fault lines have opened up between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians is made obvious by this food issue – it is not as if the BJP has introduced the ban. It has been in existence for years and was kept under wraps for a quarter century essentially because the BJP had allied with the Shiv Sena and wished to obliterate those fault lines in electoral interest. Now that they have broken away from the Shiv Sena, they are attempting to make a vote bank of not just Gujarati and Jains but of vegetarians per se and have completely failed to understand that more than sixty per cent of this nation is non-vegetarian and those include people who voted for the BJP at the last election.
But what surprises me now is that the government of Devendra Fadnavis, which is as Maharashtrian as it could get, somehow seems to be working against its own constituency and is kowtowing to a line set for it by its leaders from outside the state without taking time to understand the local sentiment and how badly such moves might go down with its own voters.
Maharashtra is a state where even sections of its Brahmins are routinely non-vegetarian, eating mutton and fish, if not beef, which on occasion is also offered as prasad after some ritualistic events. In this they are no different from Bengalis or even Kashmiri Pandits whose Shivratri celebrations have a lot of meats thrown into the fare at their feasts or even sections of Rajasthanis who make sacrificial offerings of, well, the lamb to appease the divine powers from time to time. But now so fierce has been the resistance, not just from the Sena and the MNS but all Maharashtrians and other communities living in cosmopolitan Bombay that the government has had to beat a hasty retreat – they wanted an eight day ban, they got four because of the Sena’s resistance. Now they have limited themselves to two days which is what previous governments had done to appease the filthy rich Jain community without whose funds no political party might be able to survive the rough and tumble of politics.
But it is not just the election funds why in this meat ban what is sauce for the goose is obviously not sauce for the gander – meat and chicken are banned but not fish and eggs. I do not understand the logic of letting eggs be but fish has been exempted for the same reason that they banned meat – the votes of Kolis, Bombay’s traditional fishing community whose livelihoods will be affected by the ban and who would be more than willing to take to the streets to protest. That exemption was a silly move given that they have had to chicken out within days because of the same reason – the millions of votes of Maharashtrians and other meat eaters compared to a few lakh Jain and Koli votes that they might lose to the ban. The government excuse is that fish is not slaughtered. Whoever thinks that has probably never visited a fish market to see how the huge fish are cut into pieces and the floor of the market left slimy with blood. The government obviously believed that abattoirs affect the livelihoods of only the minority they abhor — the Muslim minority which need not be appeased, But the appeasement of Jains, of course, is no big deal, I am sure.
Over the years, the Maharashtra Bhushan award has been given by the state government to a galaxy of writers, poets, journalists, even singers, among them Lata Mangeshkar. Just about anybody who has done Maharashtra proud, in fact.
This year it was awarded to Babasaheb Purandare and his nomination has once again upset the political equations in the state. There were bitter objections to his name by everybody to the left of the government – even the Nationalist Congress Party which is professing support to the BJP-led government in the state. In fact, the NCP was more bitterly opposed than even the Congress but there was a common thread to the objections that was not immediately apparent. A lot of young journalists called to ask me if the award was meant only for historians – that is the only feasible reason they saw for the objections.
But neither is the award meant only for historians, nor is Purandare strictly a historian, he is simply a balladeer who in the past decades has popularised the legend of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj through his poems and plays. But it is therein that lies the conflict. Purandare is not only accused of characterising Shivaji as anti-Muslim, focussing on just four incidents in the latter’s reign, among them his escape from Aurangzeb’s Agra jail and his killing of Afzal Khan which make him seem like an anti-Muslim king — which he was not.
Had he been anti-Muslim, former Maharashtra chief minister A R Antulay would never have ordered the writing of a 12 volume history of Shivaji in the 1980s which was, sadly, abandoned by a succession of Maratha chief ministers, among them Shivaji’s descendants, through the 1980s and 1990s and even this century. Nor would Antulay have attempted to bring back Shivaji’s legendary sword of Bhavani – he never went to wr without it — from Buckingham palace where it still sits proudly in the Queen’s collection. When I quizzed Antulay about his love for Shivaji, he had told me Shivaji was against the Moghuls and their subedars. That is not the same thing as being anti-Muslim, he said.
“In fact, more than a third of his army and half his most trusted generals were Muslim and he had also adopted the Moghul court dress as his own. He was against their expansionism, not against their religion.”
So was the opposition of the NCP and to some extent of the Congress to Purandare’s award on account of his portrayal of Shivaji as anti-Muslim? I do not think so. I think it was a caste battle at its ugliest – a fight for the OBC vote that has shifted towards the BJP after one of their own, Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre.
Only Sharad Pawar’s convoluted thinking in formulating an opposition to a Brahminical order (the RSS) through targeting a balladeer and playwright, albeit one who wrote on a popular historical figure and one who is, conveniently, a member of the RSS, which could bring such ferocity to the campaign.
But why it has also ben convenient to raise the rhetoric on Purandare is because his ballads make out Shahaji to be an absentee father and hint at an unusual friendship between his mother Jijabai and Dada Kondadeo, Shivaji’s tutor, who had a lasting influence on the Maratha warrior king. Purandare not only projects Shivaji as a protector of the Brahminical order (which may not be true, considering the Peshwas refused to recognise him and boycotted his coronation – he had to bring in priests from Benaras to do the honours). But, as emerges from American professor James Laine’s book, which has heavily relied upon Purandare’s interpretations of Shivaji’s life and times, Shahaji might not have been Shivaji’s biological father. For that one line, Laine’s book has been banned in India and, moreover, the Sambhaji Brigade (Sambhaji was Shivaji’s son) which ta draws its sustenance from the NCP, had ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for its help to James Laine in the writing of the book – that controversy and the successful campaign against Laine propelled both the Congress and the NCP, in alliance with each other, to power and kept them in government for 15 years.
Lately both the Congress and the NCP have been losing their OBC base, including the support of Marathas to the Shiv Sena and the BJP and this was too opportune an occasion to let go of – I am sure Pawar knew he would accomplish nothing by opposing the award to Purandare – the government was not likely to cow down. But that was not the intention which was more to once again drive a wedge between Brahmins and others. And the fact that Purandare is a member of the RSS while the state’s chief minister belongs to its political wing and is a Brahmin besides were convenient tools in this game of consolidating the anti-Brahmin votes in the state.
The government, of course, determinedly went ahead and awarded the honour to the 93 year old balladeer and the ceremony itself went off rather well despite all the noise preceding it. It is worth reminding readers that, while in power, the NCP organs had raised objections to a state government sports award – the equivalent of the Arjuna awards – named after Kondadeo. The award had been given out annually for three decades through several term of Pawar as chief minister with no one bothered about it. It is only when the NCP began to feel the ground slipping from under its feet that the Sambhaji Brigade came forward with similar noises and ultimatum. The Congress gave in. But neither that nor a 11th hour reservation for Marathas and Muslims ahead of the assembly elections in Maharashtra in October 2014 did much to salvage the parties’ electoral prospects. But now obviously the NCP realises that it cannot afford to be in the saffron space for too long and must consolidate its vote bank before it is too late. The award to Purandare was just tailor made for the purpose and it is not surprising that the agitation ceased abruptly after the awards ceremony.
In Maharashtra, I have noticed, there is almost a controversy a day with regard to Shivaji, even over matters as innocuous as the date of his birth. The government believes he was born in the month of Phalgun and so declare s a holiday in February-March, the Shiv Sena believes he was born in the month of Chaitra (two separate sets of historians have established both facts) and there are major celebrations around April-May as well. The next controversy is likely to be over the building of the 300 feet high statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea –a project started by the Congress but now being continued by the BJP and the Shiv Sena who are currently in power. They have appointed Purandare as consultant and there are already noises that his appointment will distort Shivaji’s image. How? I fail to understand. In writing his ballads he may have interpreted Shivaji’s life differently but how does a Brahminical mindset distort a physical image of Shivaji?
Only the NCP which claims a long line of his descendants have the answers.
I am getting rather tired of venting steam against trolls but I have to do this again – not for myself but for friends and fellow female journalists who think alike. There are many journalists who quickly switched sides once Narendra Modi came to power but I am glad to note that there are an equal number of people who did not. And I do not see why any of us should be apologetic about not believing in Modi or believing in the philosophy of the Congress party and by extension in Rahul Gandhi, its vice president.
It stands to reason that the BJP which was earlier making fun of Rahul for not taking off successfully, is today stung by some of his actions – most notably the `suit boot ki Sarkar’ comment which derailed Modi’s land bill and lately by his attack on the government for shielding corrupt ministers. And whether one agrees or disagrees with his views, it has to have hurt the BJP for Arun Jaitley to say something like ‘the more he ages, the more he immatures’.
As quips go, that’s a pretty remarkable one-liner and even if Rahul may have come off the worse against Sushma Swaraj in the debate on her alleged `humanitarian’ help to a fugitive from the law (Lalit Modi), there are enough of us who think she really had no answers to the questions asked by Rahul Gandhi and so was raking up the past instead of speaking in the present.
Many of us who dislike Modi do not necessarily adore Rahul Gandhi but there might be some who do. Fellow journalist Neeta Kolhatkar is one of them – but even if she does think well of Rahul, she has enough neutrality to write a tongue-in-cheek piece on the Congress vice president, advising him what he must and must not do to revive the Congress party.
Now what has upset me and other women journalists is that that piece brought forth a rather pre-pubescent kind of commentary from a blogger who calls himself `Chaiwala’ and who accuses Neeta of ‘orgasming for real’ over Rahul Gandhi.
It once again reminded me of how senior journalist Swati Chaturvedi was targeted for her charitable comments about Rahul Gandhi in virtually the same terms. Chaturvedi filed an FIR, Kolhatkar has complained to the Mumbai police’s cyber cell to locate this blogger who has been harassing female journalists in particular and to block the website and IP address he is using to post his blogs.
I do hope the Mumbai police will take some action against such anonymous trolls who have got away for far too long with attempting to cow down particularly female political commentators who refuse to go gaga over Narendra Modi. I must say even if many of us are non-believers in the supreme leader none of us resort to abuse, obscenities or unmentionable words to describe Modi or his supporters– not even when it comes to allegations of his affections for a certain woman when he was chief minister of Gujarat. And I may point out that while his own BJP party men make snide remarks and smirk about his affections for Smriti Irani, it was Rana Ayub, a fellow female journalist, bitterly opposed to the BJP and Modi, who took up the cudgels on her behalf and in a scathing attack on these BJP men said she would not tolerate any nonsense from them about Smriti unless it related to her work as HRD minister.
For all they call us `sickular’ and paid journalists, it is a fact that it is the BJP which pays an army of trolls to target those opposed to Modi and his policies and when General V K Singh called Arnab Goswami a `presstitute’ he did not even bother to look up the dictionary meaning of the term. In fact, it is the pro-Modi supporters who might be legitimately called that because a presstitute is someone who swallows the government, well, hook, line and sinker and does not even bother to investigate the facts. If those supporting Rahul Gandhi are not buying Modi’s rhetoric, then they are the exact opposite of presstitutes, even if they be on the Congress payrolls – which I doubt greatly. Because as was seen from the fiasco in parliament, the Congress had no intelligence and to manage its case and absolutely no ideas on how to manage the media – if they had they would have done better with their government for ten years and not lost the plot and the battle of perception to Modi so miserably.
But sometimes I believe these trolls are actually the Congress’s best friends – because the more they attack those not with them, they drive the dissenters closer to Modi’s rival.
I, too, began with a lot of scepticism about Rahul Gandhi’s ability to take the reins in his hands firmly. I did not ridicule him the way the trolls did but I wished he could do better than just that interview with Arnab Goswami. But now that he has begun talking and formulating his own witticisms, the trolls don’t seem to like it one bit and such is their lack of understanding that they are not even able to differentiate genuine admiration from tongue in cheek comments.
But I have learnt a thing or two from Neeta Kolhatkar – she told me she did not want to accord these trolls with more publicity by lodging criminal complaints against them. She has learnt to laugh off their comments – and, in fact, she knows she is doing something right when they go so wrong. On second thoughts, I suppose this is the best way to deal with trolls like Chaiwala. But I wonder, in the privacy of their homes, alone with their own thoughts do these trolls realise the kind of despicable human beings they might be? I seriously doubt they do.
This is not a plug for my year-old book, `Hindu Hriday Samrat: How the Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever’. However, just two days before Yakub Memon’s hanging a literary agent mentioned to me how chilling he had found the chapter where I compared the stories of a Shiv Sainik who had participated in the 1992-93 Bombay riots and a young Muslim who had been caught in those riots and lost practically everything.
Then, on the day of Yakub’s hanging, my former editor called to ask me to find him a blast victim and a riot victim for a similar comparison of their stories for a popular television show. It was very easy to talk to survivors of the blasts who are only too willing to tell their tale – embittered or magnanimous in their suffering, they are not shackled by any concerns in recounting their stories.
But when I called Mansoor Ali Khan, the man mentioned in my book, I had to take a reality check. I had had to search long and hard while I was writing my book to find a riot victim who did not fit the typical mould of a ghettoised Muslim with a story that might be similar to that of many others of his or her kind. I was quite excited to discover Mansoor – he was not living in a ghetto at the time of the riots, he was studying at a prestigious south Bombay college, wanted to become a pilot in the Indian Air Force and was the captain of his club’s cricket team where all other members were Hindu.
The riots changed his life overnight – his family was lucky enough to escape with their lives in the nick of time. He went from being a fellow Indian to his cricket team to being just a Muslim and had to leave everything behind including his old life to find shelter in a Muslim ghetto. I was apprehensive about approaching him, wondering if he would agree to go on record but he had no qualms in inviting me to his home — he had moved from a mixed locality to an exclusively Muslim housing colony but everyone in his family, including his mother, were willing to tell me their story, hoping someone would hear their tale and offer them compensation that was long due and thus far not forthcoming.
So when I called him that evening, I thought he would be 0nly too willing to go on television and let the world know. But I was very wrong. Now he did not want to draw attention to himself. “When you came to my house and we spoke for hours together, India was a different country. There was hope and there was confidence – in the government and the people. We thought that sooner or later someone will cut through the red tape and hear us out. Now it is different. The country has changed. There is no one who will hear our voices. They will instead single us out and hound us to go to Pakistan.’’
“Oh, but they hound me too,” I protested.
“There is a difference,” he said. “And I don’t think I need to explain that to you, sister.”
Then he sent me a message in apology for turning down my request. I found it heart rending – main sirf ek baat kehna chahta hoon ke ALLAH (capitals his) jise log BHAGWAAN bhi kehte hain woh hamesha HAQ yaane SACH ke saath hota hai. Usko kisi daleel ya saboot ki zarurat nahin woh sab jaanta hai. God bless u, sister — ek baat aur, Hamare Hindustan ko kisi ki buri nazar lag gayi hai.
I was speechless and teary eyed for hours afterward.
It was the same story as I made call after call to locate riot victims for my former editor who might be willing to talk. At last I succeeded but even this survivor agreed to do the interview after a few caveats.
The experience has only confirmed my belief in the travesty of justice offered to riot victims, not by the courts but by successive governments and investigative agencies. I remember the officer in charge of investigating the Bombay riots was himself an accused and even then as a young reporter I knew the investigation would go no further. It is only the Srikrishna Commission which came as a safety valve for the affected victims to vent their feelings of injustice against the state and it was a great relief that Justice Srikrishna could nail the guilt of the perpetrator of the riots – Bal Thackeray. I have recounted the story of the journalist who mounted an unknowing sting on Thackeray during the riots at his home in Matoshree and brought to us how Thackeray provoked his Shiv Sainiks to burn Bombay and kill Muslims in large numbers from the safety of his home, and then later tried to shift the blame on then union defence minister Sharad Pawar. Had it not been for Yuvraj Mohite’s affidavit before the Srikrishna Commission, the truth would never have been known – and it is just as well that Mohite loved to tell the tale. For the Sena left no stone unturned to ferret him out from his hiding and kill him to prevent him from turning up in court.
But no government took action against Thackeray. The Srikrishna Commission was dismissed by Chief Minister Manohar Joshi when the Shiv Sena came to power in 1995 but was reinstated by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during his thirteen day tenure in the hope that that would reduce the BJP’s untouchability, even as it was in search of allies to make up its numbers in parliament. Justice Srikrishna submitted the report to the Joshi government in 1998 and while it was not expected that that government would act against its own supremo, even the Congress and the NCP which came to power a year later did not think it worth taking action against the perpetrators of the riots.
Nine hundred people were killed in the riots (less than 300 in the blasts which were a retaliatian for the riots). Thousands of FIRs were launched yet only one man was ever punished – former Shiv Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar who got a year in jail for possessing arms and ammunitions in a notified area during the riots. For the same crime Sanjay Dutt has gone to jail for five years – where is the notion of justice for all and injustice to none enshrined in our Constitution?
I do not blame the Courts for any of this, the judges have done their jobs to the best of their capacity, But in this country now you are a terrorist if you are Muslim and a patriot if you are a Hindu committing the same acts of killing innocents and bombing mosques and shrines and trains and buses.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is way off the mark when he complains that the UPA coined the term `Hindu terrorist’ and destroyed the reputation of the country. In fact, I believe the emergence of saffron terrorism, though not to be condoned was a great safety valve which came out of the blue to the rescue of the minorities who were otherwise all dismissed as terrorists, negating LK Advani’s earlier very arrogant statement – all Muslims may not be terrorists but why are all terrorists Muslims?
That no longer holds valid but now it is high time that the scale of justice are tilted to the balanced position once again from the heavy tilt in favour of rioters and home-grown terrorists from the majority community. A terrorist is a terrorist, a victim is a victim, his or her religion does not matter. What’s sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander. Otherwise people like Mansoor will suffer silently until the faultlines explode and all of us be imperilled by the lava of that volcano just waiting to burst sooner rather than later. We will all be scorched.
Some years ago, when my phone rang and I answered, Vir Sanghvi, then my editor-in-chief, said without preamble, “Spell Palkhivala!”
Startled at the sh Read more
I finally succumbed to a Kindle (e-book reader). I resisted buying one for a very long time even as every one around me was waving one in my face all the time. That made no difference to me because I love books – and particularly the smell of a newly published one. And that is why, inspired by Khushwant Singh who never allowed anyone to borrow his books, I never lent any one of mine to any friend, foe or relative, however close, feared or beloved. And since I did not lend, I never had the gumption to borrow—so I bought every book I read or wanted to read. Now this meant, over the years, with a small home such as mine, every table top surface in my home was soon crowded and piled high with books. Now, not every book I bought to read is worth keeping, so I have decided to give them away – and thank God for events like Literature Live which have introduced an annuak book swap – I am only too willing to donate them all without taking back one in return. Vut they still stand piled high in every corner of my home.
So, recently, when some seemingly very interesting books were launched in the market, I decided to buy myself a Kindle. With great longing I looked at the covers and could almost smell the fresh new glue of a just published book – I decided that I would buy a copy if I felt it was worth keeping on my shelf.
But the advantage of a Kindle is that I could acquaint myself with some ancient, perhaps out of print, classics which I had read as a child and quite forgotten. Among these were a collection of short stories of Rabindranath Tagore and I also bought his Gitanjali on my Kindle. And just then Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh started a controversy on the national anthem stating that Tagore had written the poem in praise of King George then visiting India and hence we must drop the words `adhinayaka, Bharatm Bhagya Vidhata’ from these verses.
Now where had I heard that before? At school! The theory that Tagore wrote that in praise of British royalty is as old as anything but I also remember our teacher disabusing us of the idea that Tagore could ever have written that poem in praise of the British monarch. Even at that time when politics in India was not so polarized and the RSS was a banned organization, the BJP not yet born, Kalyan Singh God alone knows where and journalism not even in our vocabulary, our teacher told us many things about Tagore. That he was a nationalist to the core and had returned his knighthood in protest against th e Jalianwala Bagh massacre. That he had given Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi the title of `Mahatma’ but that he had bitterly disagreed with the burning of British-made goods during the Swadeshi movement. Not because he thought these were good but because he thought that proved nothing about nationalism. When I read up on Tagore later, I discovered Tagore’s definition of nationalism, which has stayed with me forever and influenced my thinking on pluralism and equality of all. For, according to Tagore, nationalism did not mean rejection of anything (as, I might add, today saffronistas do with all, including minorities who do not agree with them and refusea to be Narendra Modi’s camp followers), but acceptance. Tagore believed accpetance of the best values and of even those not our own (in this context the British) and the acceptance of each other was true nationalism. How much relevant it is in today’s context and how well that proves that Tagore truly deserved his Nobel Prize which no other Indian has been able to win for literature.
But, above all, what I remember my teacher sayng – and wonder if that has influenced the way I practice journalism today by not writing before I have checked out every fact – is that there were some stupid British reporters around at a particular Congress meeting where the Jana Gana Mana had first been sung. They never understood Hindi, let alone Bengali and did not even bother to ask for a translation and make sure knew the meaning (if not the nuances too) of every word spoken. And they mixed up their facts. That, indeed, the British had wanted a laudatory poem on King George to be written since the Congress was a party set up by a British man (AO Hume), another poet had penned those verses. Of course, it did not matter to those British journalists that they neither understood one nor the other and they did not even bother to cross check the names of the poets and went with Tagore because he was the more famous. I do not now recall if my teacher mentioned the name of the laudatory poet but if he did, it is not surprising that he is eminently forgotten because which fiercely independent tnation as India is would hold a sycophantish writer in high esteem?
I remember my parents, too, had endorsed what my teacher had said – my father who had been working for the British government before Independence and my mother who was the daughter of a fierce freedom fighter who was all the in and out of demonstrations, rallies and meetings to gather support for Independence were both in full agreement on this, so I am sure no one who knew Tagore and the language he wrote in would ever mistake him to be anything but nationalist.
I guess Kalyan Singh and those Sangh supporters who believe otherwise should not fall into the trap that the British journalists of se times did . Unlike those reporters they should check out their facts and ask for a proper translation of `adhinayak’ which basically means God who alone is the writer of India’s destiny (Bharata Bhagya Vidhata ). Which is neither Modi nor the RSS. Neither the BJP nor the Congress which fought for Indeendence despite starting life as a congregation of Brown Sahibs in support of the British – while the RSS, supposedly a home grown organisation, influenced by Hitler his Brown Shirts in uniform and ethos begged the British not to quit India and leave her to her fate.
Well, the adhinayaka has not done too badly by India although there might be lots to complain still. And I can only again quote Tagore’s great lines –`Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. That is the India of all —Punjabis, Sindhis, Gujaratis, Marathas , Dravidas (south Indians), Utkalas (Oriyas) and Bangas (Bengalis). And, I may add, of Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists alike.
Meanwhile, I am dusting off my old hardcover volumes of Tagore’s collected works and placing them prominently at the front of my book shelf. They will not be given away.
There was a time in the last decade of the 1990s when Bal Thackeray was ranting and screaming blue murder at the Atal Behari Vajpayee government at the Centre. Vajpayee had taken a bus to Lahore (and broght back some goats on it), had invited Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to Agra, had attempted to build bridges to the minority Muslim community and, at one time, even donned a typical green turban.