For the greater good

The self-appointed conscience keeper in every society seems to be the activist but the label denotes a less self-absorbed and far more empathetic human being; a person with a cause to fight for. And that is no self-aggrandising motive!  The activist lives for others, listens to the oppressed, feels for the fragile. This ‘for others’ condition is further specialised into specific commitments  such as social justice, minority and Dalit rights, LGBT issues, environment, education, animal welfare, organic food, cultural activism and so on .

And so activists are inspiring people but, for many of us, they are intimidating as well. We feel inadequate in their presence; utter failures, in fact. We have after all only drawn from society, consumed, lived for ourselves, never seen the real hardships of the nirbal, have hardly ever dirtied our hands. We believe that providing education for the son of our house help or donating ‘X’ amount is social service. We understand socio-political-environmental issues not by facing them but from Facebook, Twitter and the headlines. We feel we are moral and ethical compromisers while they, the activists, are men and women of principles. It is also true that some activists by their body language and patronising tone perpetuate this air of superiority.

Let me make it clear that I have the greatest respect for activism because it entails, at various levels, the curbing of man’s greed. But I do find that activism can itself become a self serving, narrow tunnel within which the activist is trapped. In this trap exists that very same un-deflatable ego that blinds the activist, making him believe that his cause is the ‘end’. Like his antithesis, the CEO of a multinational, he too at times ignores the side effects or, should I say, the collateral damage caused by his thought and action. And like the fight for resources among the corporate tsars, here too that very battle for resources takes place, establishing its own turfs and turf-fights, as also hierarchies. It is ironic that within the world of activism also exist haves and have-nots! The battle among activists for financial, social and cultural space can become dirty, liberty becomes selective, jingoistic nationalism becomes an essential tool. From deep within the crevasses in the activist’s mind appear patriarchy, dogmatism and ‘poof’ goes idealism. But the fascinating aspect is that it is camouflaged behind the basic fact that the activist is working for others.

During the recent hungama about the beef ban in Maharashtra, one set of animal rights activists expressed great happiness about this decision. Their logic was simple “I don’t care about the reasons behind this ban or its socio-cultural implications. I am happy that at least cows will be spared”. Here the end has been met for the animal rights activist but at what cost? Caste, nutrition and cultural issues are not his/her concern. Another aspect that I find intriguing is how several activists involved in organic living tie their movement to Hindu religious superiority. ‘Shuddha Vegetarian’ or ‘satvik’ food,ahimsa, yoga and Ayurveda bundle themselves into an affirmation of Hindu culture. All of a sudden, caste becomes a distorted social evil of British-Raj origins while in its original fount — Manu — it was the much-needed varna classification. This is something even the celebrated socio-cultural-religious-political activist Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi battled with.

Some activists become hyper sensitive to comments from the west. I agree with some of the criticism ofIndia’s Daughter, but the fact remains that there was a lot in the movie that came as a powerful revelation. Irrespective of who produced or directed it, it needed to be seen. And so there were those who did not support the ban but were unhappy with the ‘foreign’ criticism! Culture and heritage activists have similar conflicts of being caught in a spider’s web of religion, class and history. In all this we see an inability to look beyond their limited need and condition.

I know that activists of various causes speak to each other, but I am not certain they listen enough. This lack of listening causes an inability to open their own selves to revisiting ideas about the larger world that may even push them to re-imagine their cause. Like all of us, they are protectionist about themselves and stay caged.

The danger to activism comes not so much from the outside as from itself, since it allows individuals to believe that their sphere of activity makes them introspective, contemplative and therefore transformative human beings and consequently somehow ‘superior’ people. As an individual it is essential for all of us to realise that being an activist, politician or a CEO is only a mode of functioning. Ultimately, it is who we are that needs addressing. Being in activism is only playing a role, being a self-inquiring human is living.

Originally written for The Hindu

Who am I?

During a recent conversation, I was asked: Is T.M. Krishna a rebel, a revolutionary or a communist? Around the same time an individual tweeted: ‘(T.M. Krishna) would be my favourite singer if he wasn’t a commie!’

Both shared the ‘communism’ thought. But What I found curious was the need in both to place an individual into a mould, description, an all-encompassing idea, something that defines him. We segregate opinions only to bring them together in clusters that place those opinions and their holders into different boxes. We do this not only to others but also to ourselves. In fact we comprehend, justify and celebrate our own ‘self’ based on these categories. Is it not, one might ask, ‘normal’ to classify and justify? Yes! But we must ask: Is something lost in the process? If not, we will reduce ourselves to pre-designed sculpted mannequins.

Let us look at a few ‘models’! Politically we say a person is of the ‘right’ or ‘left’. In a nuanced way, some are ‘left of right’ or ‘right of left’. When I visualise these directional descriptions of what are essentially ideational processes, I see the full spectrum. Every person has to fit into one of these strands; all that radiates from him will be painted over in the respective hue. In matters of religious belief, I have to be atheistic, theistic or agnostic; socially, liberal or conservative; artistically traditional, contemporary or experimental. We not only get placed or place ourselves in these different positions but also further interlink the religious, political, social and even the artistic. By making these ‘combos’, we complete our own colourful self-portrait.

But can a ‘theist’ not also be a commie? Can the liberal not be conservative on, say, gender issues? Can the artist be traditional, yet experimental? Let us go a little further. Cannot even the most hardcore communist feel, for a fleeting second, that something beyond his control has designed the events unfolding before him? Does the presence of these seemingly contradictory ideas reveal confusion, dishonesty or vulnerability? Each of us experiences these situational conflicts where our own actions or thoughts seem to be touching upon two opposing philosophies. We deal with these perceived dichotomies in many ways. We either pass them off as moments of weakness or conditioning and bury them deep within our subconscious, or argue that the personal must be separated from the public or wiggle out of the situation by the clever use of language.

Recently former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi faced an unusual situation. He has penned the script for a tele-serial on Ramanuja, the Vaishnavite philosopher and social reformer. In an interview, the self-proclaimed atheist was asked about the conflict between his atheism and Ramanuja’s strong unquestionable theism. He unconvincingly said that he respects Ramanuja as a social reformer, but disagrees with him on religious belief. When asked why he did not write about him earlier, he said, “There is no specific reason; I did not get an opportunity to write about Ramanuja then.”

I took no time in judging the octogenarian as intellectually dishonest and making an opportunistic political statement with the hope of gaining a few votes for his fragile party. I had “solved” the conflict that I saw as irreconcilable by placing the individual into the tightly closed trunk marked ‘atheist’ and keeping out that which ‘did not fit’ by labelling it a ‘lie’. To be sure, Karunanidhi himself needed to justify himself by getting the rationalist in him to remain boxed-up in that very same trunk trying to explain the covert presence of that non-rationalist.

But who created that tight iron trunk? Karunanidhi or the viewer: us? Since the ‘inner-self’ and the ‘outside’ are only extensions of one another, can we really point to the origin of identities? Does it even matter? We need to ask ourselves something more significant. Do we need to resolve these perceived conflicts? The moment we come in contact with such situations — whether with ourselves or in someone else — do we need to ‘clarify’ the picture, discard the seemingly inconsistent and spot the duplicity?

The truth of being human is that — individually and collectively — we are contradictory and it is in the conversations between these various voices within and around that we remain alive. When we constantly crunch people into constricted spaces, we are not only erasing the beauty of their multiple tones from our view, but also lowering ourselves further into a deep well from which our view is limited to a narrow circular opening.

In the desperate urge to rationalise our own life, we forget that we are creatures of ‘emotional thoughts’ (reads like a contradiction doesn’t it) that flirt with the rational but bond with the intangible. We are, at different times, right, left, theistic, atheist, traditional, modern, liberal and conservative. We should not have to trivialise any of those to bring ‘order’ to our lives. All we need to do is be aware of this multiplicity.

Originally written for The Hindu

Ceaseless Pursuit

Poverty is often blamed for the lack of literacy among the marginalised. Poverty is only one part of the problem. Every poor tribal or Dalit wants to educate his or her child but what is stopping them? Collective social neglect.

A few among us may, in the flush of idealism, go ahead and start a school for the underprivileged, but brace yourself for challenges from the most unexpected places.

Which curriculum does a new dream school adopt? Not knowing the potential and strengths of prospective students, you may decide that the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) will be most appropriate. NIOS offers a curriculum up to Std.XII with an Open Basic Education (OBE) scheme up to Std.VIII, which gives a strong base for further academic pursuits. This is not a school dropout or adult-education programme, although NIOS was originally conceived for this purpose. The norms laid out allowed for a school or institution environment. Many schools across India have adopted NIOS as the curriculum, or its OBE scheme until std. VIII.

Just when you think you are ‘set’, you are told that, in 2009, came the ‘Right To Education’ (RTE) Act. All children between the ages of six to 14, the RTE Act mandates, have the right to get educated and in a school environment. But wait! Though the OBE scheme allowed for it to be implemented in schools, the government has indicated the withdrawal of this scheme. The argument is that the OBE is mainly meant for home schools or for after-school programmes, which contradicts the RTE mandate of a ‘school or institution environment’. This means that children studying in such institutions will have to find admission in other schools affiliated to State or Central boards.

So what is plan B? Opt for another affiliation and recognition that would award a certificate to the students at the end of 10 years? If you choose to apply to a board such as ICSE, you are in for a long-drawn rollercoaster ride, being shunted from pillar to post for that most elusive document called the No-Objection Certificate (NOC).

Until recently, an NOC from the state government was a compulsory requirement for affiliation to ICSE and CBSE. To acquire this certificate from the state government, you have to become a file, and then as a file commence a long journey — village to city to state capital, rectifying the various defects listed by the inspecting authorities. But the list is never-ending because every time the file is returned a new set of queries are presented. There seems no final list of corrective measures you can take and no one assures you that it will end.

The RTE enactment also requires all schools, including those already affiliated to established boards, be recognised as per the guidelines of the RTE and norms of the respective state governments. The mutually contradictory ambiguities between the two are playing havoc with administration of schools. When states such as Tamil Nadu insist that all schools need to re-apply for recognition every three years, insecurity grips educators, parents and students.

Recently, the CBSE replaced the NOC condition for affiliation with the recognition requirement of the RTE. But, in both cases, it is the state authorities that issue the necessary certificate. If you are a new school seeking recognition, you try and submit all the necessary papers hoping that you will reach the end of the rainbow.

To the inspecting officers, issuing an NOC or a certificate of recognition under RTE makes little difference. They are confused about the various norms, or may be they just don’t care because power is still vested in them and their superiors. State board affiliation is no different with its own set of complications once again enforced by the same officers.

But the bottomline is: Nothing will happen until money has been unfurled into the machinery. This is not just about politicians; it is a murky world of black money curated and manicured by private trusts with enormous funds who are willing to pay large sums of money to obtain all the necessary permissions.

Exhausted and frustrated, you turn to the legal system to find an answer, a direction. That is another long drawn wait.

By this time your students are ready to take the std. X examination, and their parents are worried. That is when you see how the education that you wished to offer can be stifled and strangled by the political and bureaucratic machinery.

That is when you ask yourself: Is this entire struggle really worth it? But before despondency makes you a prisoner, you remember the sparkle in children’s eyes and recall the smile in their eager parents’ faces. That is when hope returns, and energy, and you keep going. The question is… For how long?

Originally written for The Hindu

No equal spaces

Every journey holds within it a commentary on the world we inhabit. But ‘we’ are not people of the whole of planet Earth; we are residents of a tiny microscopic construct that we think of as ‘our world’. We see, feel and even listen to the ‘rest’ from within this paradigm.

Last week I travelled to two places for two very different reasons but inexplicably they got intertwined. My friend Nityanand Jayaraman took a few of us to Kodungaiyur, a suburb situated far away from middle and upper-middle class Chennai; to its ‘due North’. In Kodungaiyur is located one of Chennai’s main garbage dumps that receives the majority of the garbage generated by ‘us’. Living within and around this dump are communities making their living by segregating plastics, metals and selling the city’s waste. The sight is astounding; acres and acres of garbage, rising to a height of over 25 ft. Nearby flows — rather does not flow — a narrow toxic canal. The sight and stench are revolting.

I live in a South Chennai apartment complex. We like to think of ourselves as being an eco-friendly community. We segregate garbage and harvest rainwater. I even use solar power! But at the Kodungaiyur dump, in contrast, everything from below the surface to the smoke-filled sky was polluted.

By whom?

Their garbage is not theirs, but ours. What they live with is what we throw out of our homes. Our every act of avaricious consumption is an act of violence on these people. We have dumped our filth on Kodungaiyur and we call it a dump, meaning a place for valueless objects. Are the people who suffer our excesses also valueless?

For a child born around this dump, the aroma of life means something different from what it does to my daughter. To her, what we discard at home is something that goes into the waste bin. For the girl in Kodungaiyur, what we discard becomes her ‘common’.

Many believe that discrimination on the basis of caste is an over-exaggerated preoccupation of the self-flagellating left-leaning liberal. But if we do not realise that Dalits and other lower castes live amid the most polluting and hazardous filth, which is not created by them but by others we are truly inhuman.

A few days after experiencing Kondungaiyur, I travelled to Mumbai. Travelling for a concert is ‘secure’. We arrive at an airport, stay in a comfortable hotel or with a close friend, perform, lap up all the praise and money and head back. This Mumbai visit was no different until I came across this notice in an up-market apartment complex.

“Lift No 1 & 2 to be used only by the client & architects. Any labour or contractor found using these lifts will be fined Rs. 2,000.”

This must have been put up when the building was being constructed; may be still some work is in progress. But, really! The labourers build every inch of your house, craft your interiors, carpet your flooring and decorate your bathrooms. They make that place you call home classy for you, yet they are not classy enough to travel in the lift with you! If this is not apartheid, what is? In the Nirbhaya documentary, the rapist has said what many think. Here the notice only put into words what many feel. We do not want to travel in the lift with a worker or house help and they know it, which is why many will not enter the lift when the ‘malik’ does.

What was even worse in this notice was the accompanying fine in case of violation. Equality was made a punishable offence! We will be given many reasons for this posting, like labourers spit out paan indiscriminately or carry tool kits that may damage the lift. I wonder if we will stop the owner of the house from carrying golf kits on Lifts 1 and 2?

The hard truth is that we look at this class of people who work as labourers, domestic help, electricians, plumbers, painters as being unfit to share ‘our’ space. They are there only to serve our needs for which we compensate them. We cannot be equals; we have all the rights and power and it is up to us to decide and choreograph their place in society.

Within a few days I had seen two different environments connected in an unusual way. Places like Kodungaiyur soak up our filth to keep our surroundings clean. The labourers, whom we treat as lesser mortals, work for the upkeep of our homes. It is ironic that dignity, beauty, elegance, and functionality are stripped out of the lives of the ones who provide them to us.

Originally written for The Hindu

Left behind?

We have been told that the vice-president of the Congress Party has taken a leave of absence in order to ‘reflect upon recent events’. This is indeed humorous considering the fact that his party itself seems to have been on an extended vacation for the last five years.

With ‘loser’ attention being drawn by the old and mighty Congress, we have all missed a no less great political tragedy of our times — the practically unnoticed disappearance of the Indian left. Most of the middle and upper-middle class will probably be pleased with this since they have always considered it obstructionist and anti-development. Unfortunately with some of its ideological predispositions, the left has self-created this perception.

But can anyone deny that they have been essential to the wheel of a peoples’ democracy? And hence if they vanish we lose an honest voice. The left is the voice of large sections of the oppressed and marginalised classes of this country. The left represents in spirit the true nature of social activist-politics that allowed for subaltern voices to be heard and helped this country retain a socialist ethic.

Does the left believe in a soul? Its orthodoxy may cavil at that term. But let me use it nonetheless. The soul of the left is in the upliftment of people and in the upholding of their rights. But this ‘soul’ cannot be boxed within a certain dated book. Every one of the left’s ideas need to be reinterpreted within the times that we live in. Unfortunately the left has been unwilling to revisit its beliefs.

This is baffling given the fact that they are probably the only ones among our political parties to have stayed in contact with the common man. They should know where they are relevant and where they are passe! Yet they do not.

Egalitarian living does not mean one does not imagine a more affluent life for oneself. A person on the street side watches cars whiz past and naturally imagines himself in one. If we do not respect that dream there is nothing liberal about us. Yes, the core principle of equality and fairness must govern the idea of liberty but we cannot dictate to the marginalised the type of living they must seek and unfairly judge those who don’t fall in line. I greatly respect the frugal lifestyle of most left-wing politicians and activists but this does not give them the right to be judgmental of the rest. It stifles even those who feel leftist guilty about their own innocuous dreams.

In this age of the Internet and television where every citizen watches the capitalist-market driven affluence it is hypocritical to denounce or judge this aspiration. We have to build this reality within our need for social parity. Not doing so is politically hollow and philosophically flawed.

So the question the left must ask is: How is it to remain the voice of the oppressed yet work with the empowered in a way that makes them change their way of living? In other words, can the left redefine the idea of ‘a better life for all’? Instead, the left has taken the rest to be enemies, opponents and this hurts them.

Even while in power the Left has been unable to make a real difference to the lives of marginalised Dalits and Muslims. Speaking out for them is one thing and changing their lives is something else. In Kerala, the higher social indexes at least in the past were due to the core socialist drive powered by the left.

In Bengal, the left’s handling of Nandigram and Shingur left a huge dent on their pro-poor and pro-farmer stance.

We cannot profess a socio-political position that is primarily about being ‘anti’ something, someone or some country. There is no doubt that a lot the left says about the US for example is accurate yet when this is seen alongside the left’s inability to strongly speak up on human-rights violations in China they lose credibility. The left has to think of itself as being ideologically universal but politically and culturally Indian and not as a member of some ‘international communists society.’ This disassociation will change the way they see themselves.

This is not a political analysis, it is a philosophical distress call. I am deeply saddened by the lack of vision and ingenuity among the left establishments. It is time that the word ‘Left’ is rediscovered and celebrated not just in that cliché ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’, but with the people.

Originally written for The Hindu

Diversity in discrimination

A common subject of conversation among Indians who have travelled to the U.S. is about what their airport security calls a ‘random search’. We see in this some sort of racial profiling. Ever so often, an Indian celebrity appears on television complaining about the ‘treatment’. For that matter I have myself narrated stories of what I have perceived as rank discrimination while travelling in that country. There is no denying that because of the racial stereotyping of the terrorist the world over, people with certain features are more randomly checked than others. But somewhere behind this lies something intrinsic, a deep-seated suspicion, discomfiture, even a sense of superiority. This neither starts nor stops at U.S. airports. Sections of the ‘whites’ in certain states are clearly colour-phobic.

But are we, ‘tanned’ Indians, any different? No. We have our own ‘traditions’ of racism. People of African descent studying or working in India routinely face our version of racism. Let us be honest enough to admit that we stare and snigger at them and say the rudest imaginable thing about their looks. This low is our sense of humour! Watching the government’s Atithi Devo Bhava campaign, I strongly felt that in our perception the atithi is almost always a white or far eastern male.

But this isn’t new. Many of us have heard our grandmothers preen about the daughter-in-law’s fairness. Even today, matrimonial ads contain the old ugly phrase ‘wanted fair girl’ and fairness creams are advertised extensively. Within our non-white skin shades, we seek the whitest of them all. Let us not make the mistake of presuming that these practices are largely found in ‘uneducated’ communities. They are as prevalent among the most educated sections of urban society. The language may be subtle but the attitude is the same. What is worse, we associate personal hygiene with skin colour. The darker skin is considered less ‘clean’ than the brown and white. But our bias does not stop with just skin colour, does it?

People from the northeast who live in other states as students and professionals are constantly singled out for their facial features; in fact the ‘mainstream Indian’ (whoever that is!) does not consider them quite Indian. Don’t they look ‘Chinese’? Irrespective of whether the city is New Delhi or Chennai, women from the northeast are seen through very sexual eyes by men who hold this perverted notion that women with Mongoloid features are ‘easy’.

It is not just about colour or race; we are also homophobic. People with a different sexual orientation are targets for ridicule, seen as abnormal and even sexually violent. Insensitivity towards lesbians and gays is rampant. The situation for the transgender is even worse. They are not even given the respect of human beings. I am ashamed to confess that even with all my awareness, I have to consciously tell myself to discard my inhibitions and wariness when a transgender approaches me. My conditioning is so deep.

The good old forms of caste- and gender-related discriminations still slither around us. Even today there are households where a separate drinking glass is used for the household help or for the low-caste/class outsider. There are still streets and temples where the Dalit is not permitted. We read about these struggles in our newspapers and brush them aside as stray happenings, not realising that similar ideas lurk within our own minds. We differ only in degrees.

Patriarchy remains the foundational basis for our society. Religious bias is not far behind with the Muslim facing the brunt of this abuse. Typecast into a visual mould of a man with a skullcap or as a woman wearing a hijab, they are homogenised as a visual image only to further typecast the community as dangerous. Collectively we continue to push the Muslim onto the rim of society.

The ‘diversity in discrimination’ we practice is frightening. This is us. Every society is unequal, but that does not make our underling attitudes passable. Furthermore we cannot remain blind to the blatant discriminations that we practice and perpetuate. The first step is for us to look within and acknowledge our predispositions. In this honest acceptance of our prejudices, we can hope to find the strength to change. We have to celebrate our differences and see people for what they are: unique human beings. Being a part of any kind of majority does not make it the norm or ‘ideal’. It in fact obligates it to be that much less judgmental, prescriptive and biased.

Originally written for The Hindu

In the name of ghar wapsi?

In its seemingly simple construction lies the intended subversiveness of the term ghar wapsi. While the English term ‘homecoming’ seems to be the literal translation of the expression, ghar wapsi is — and means — much more for the authors of this agenda. Ghar (home) implies all that we associate with our home — origin, lineage, safety, security, trust, faith and, of course, family. But here, in the hands and minds of its originators, the ghar is the Hindu umbrella, which they conveniently call ‘Sanatana Dharma’. Wapsi is even more dangerous, for it characterises certain people as lost, strayed, misled, stolen or captured.

Any form of violent religious conversion must be condemned. But that does not and should not deter us from being critical of what is a vulgar exercise of socio-religious violence in the form of ghar wapsi.

The dominant philosophy driving this programme is to establish the Hindu’s first right over this land. Ghar here means that the Hindu faith is the ‘original home’ for all those born in this land. It re-establishes the right-wing rhetoric that this is a Hindu rashtra. It also tells us that, if you want to feel secure or safe within this land, you have to be Hindu or accept Hindu antecedence, precedence and dominance. We are also told that you are family only when you belong to this faith; we trust you only if you are Hindu. The idea of the ‘original’ or ‘first’ is concocted and hammered down so that the rest feel inadequate unless they find ways to be part of that authentic lineage. Each of these implied messages are violent and need to be addressed head-on.

This is a land where many millions of Hindus live but that does not make this a ‘Hindu land’. This is a land of various belief systems, including religious ones and has always been that way. The Adivasis as the expression itself indicates are probably one of the earliest inhabitants of this land. Are they Hindu? Most certainly not. So, is their system of faith the real ghar? Or have we appropriated and mutilated even that? Does it matter where and when the Hindu faith began or for that matter Christianity or Islam? Does it matter if one was practised on this ‘piece of land’ before the other? Faith is not about geography; it is about living practice. As long as there are people living their life believing in a faith, it belongs to that place.

We also need to strongly counter the linear single-line narrative that the right-wing Hindus have drawn between the Vedas and religious practice today. In these thousands of years, there have been numerous counter narratives that questioned rejected practices that we call Hindu today. But by appropriating every one of those ‘rejections of the Vedic tradition’, these counter-movements have been cleverly made mainstream Hindu. This is where the term Sanatana Dharma becomes a very useful tool. The Jains and Buddhists have also been appropriated as part of this idea of Sanatana Dharma (let us not forget that Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu!), while they were actually the strongest independent rejections of Vedic postulations. We cannot and should not forget that this land was, for a period of time, Buddhist and Jain until these religions were overpowered with political support by the Hindu Bhakti movements. So then, should ghar mean Buddhism and Jainism?

People have over centuries converted and reconverted so many times and not just between faiths but even within faiths. The rejection of Vaishnavism to embrace Saivism is also a conversion since it involves the replacing of one set of beliefs and practices with another. In fact, changing strong philosophical positions is also conversion. Wasn’t the rejection of Advaita to embrace Visishtadvaita a form of conversion? But we do not recognise it now as conversion since we have homogenised the idea of the faith. But during its time it caused serious socio-political upheavals. We are all converts of some sort.

Be it the Shankaracharyas, the leading monks of the Ramakrishna order or the various new age yoga/mystic gurus, they have all uniformly remained quiet. Many have in the past raised their voice against what they have seen as forced conversion. I wonder in what category they place these ugly ghar wapsi rituals. It also has to be acknowledged that the vast majority of the non-political Hindus like myself have not protested enough.

Our ghar is not based on religious beliefs but is home to diverse thoughts and philosophies. Which came from where; what was shared, argued, added, deleted is irrelevant and undecipherable. What is true and real is that the people allowed all of these ‘ways of living’ to rub shoulders, contest notions and adapt as they moved and travelled among the people of this vast land. So where is the question of any wapsi?

Originally written for The Hindu

Raise your voice

Dear fellow-citizens of the Islamic faith,

I have never liked the phrase ‘Indian Muslims’. The reason for my discomfort with that description is that it is deeply divisive. It also homogenises you, making you ‘Indian Muslims’ first and last and nothing else. It also in its subtext splits your identity into two parts, where ‘my’ focus is on the ‘Muslim’ and not the Indian. Have you ever wondered why we never hear the phrase ‘Indian Hindus’?

In this lies a very old and stubborn habit of mind which reflects the fault lines of our society, the deep divides in our individual and collective psychologies.

We are in reality a divided nation where all that connects the two communities are the economic services that you provide society. In every other aspect of life, you are ‘unknowns’, even suspect in the eyes of many. But this categorisation is not the intent of my column today. I am forced to ask you some difficult questions since I believe we are in a crucial phase in our history.

Generalisations are odious and I do not want to generalise. But allow me to make what can be called a broad-brush observation. Individual exceptions apart, ‘Indian Muslims’ have taken that description without challenge. By this I do not mean to say you have not protested about it; you have interiorised it within yourselves, so much so that you have become complicit, by default perhaps, in your continuing ghetto-isation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the way you respond to happenings, political, social, military around the world but more sharply to events nearer home. Would you not agree that a great many of you seem to think, speak, act as ‘the community’, ‘the qaum’, almost flock-like, moved by a herd-instinct to defend yourselves against ‘the majority’?

Of course you must be vigilant, alert, against the bullying instincts of Hindutva. But why should you remain — again, I am excepting individual exceptions — so deafeningly silent when manifest wrongs are perpetrated by your own ‘co-religionists’?

Wrongs are wrongs and should be responded to as sensitive human beings should react to wrongs.

I am deeply disappointed by the fact that apart from some wise and brave individuals, so many of your leaders remained silent when children were massacred in Peshawar. I was waiting — and continue to do so— for powerful Muslim Indian voices, condemning that savagery. I have wondered why I have not heard a collective outcry of disgust. Could it be because you perceive the present Indian government as pro-Hindu? If this is the reason, it is nothing but an alibi. I also thought of another reason, which I hope is completely wrong. I wondered whether your America-sceptic stance on the Palestinian issue made it difficult for your leaders to condemn the Taliban, since they are at war with the U.S. If this has even a semblance of truth, I don’t know what to say. I am certain that neither one of these ‘reasons’ offer a full explanation. But then, why have I not seen multi-denominational public rallies of condemnation across this country led by your leaders? I wait for the day when not just the first but the wisest and most daring voices are raised by your leaders against terrorism that speaks in Islam’s name. Do not allow the words of the Holy Quran to be used as religious and political tools by anyone, whoever he may be.

I also wait for the day when you, the simple folk of your faith raise your voices against any Islamic religious leader who refuses to condemn violence. There is an urgent need for socio-religious introspection within your community and it has to come from within and not forced upon you. The multiple voices within your faith have to be heard and respected.

Please — and this is crucial — goad your leaders to speak up for gender equality. Do not give a handle for narrow minds to say ‘Oh, the Indian Muslim keeps his women in medieval backwardness’. Don’t, please, oblige the Hindu bigot by giving grist to his mill.

Do not misinterpret this appeal as a right-wing demand to prove your loyalty to ‘India’. It is most certainly not. I write to you since I sincerely believe that there is need for fearless thought and action within the Islamic world. Many in this country, by instinct and conviction, stand by you, in fact, as you because like you they are human beings who happen to be citizens of the Republic of India. They get branded, quite often, as anti-national or pseudo-secularists. Strengthen their hands so that they can strengthen yours and India’s. Don’t let them down.

India has been enriched by you, like the world has, through your great legacies of the heart and mind. The time has come for that legacy to show its capacity for a new and bold leadership that breaks out of cast-iron moulds.

Yours in admiration and hope,
T.M. Krishna

Originally written for The Hindu

Why do I read you, Outlook?

Not to seek a reiteration of my own opinions or for a vindication of my beliefs. Not to seek contrary opinions either. Both those reasons would be self-defeating. The former would lead to a pretentious ‘I was right’. The latter, while urging me to reconsider my stances, would, most of the time, actually do the exact opposite. I would ‘dig my heels in’ even deeper. I read you, really, to hear ‘voices’—voices from across the sea of humanity, giving me many eyes and ears to sense society with. In general, socio-political publications tinker with the voices, change accents around, “clean up” dialects or, even worse, press the “mute” button.

Outlook for me stands out as a distinct publication where the voices have been varied, diverse, soft, loud, intimate, mannered, violent, tender, brash, considerate, empathetic and even sterile. But they have been voices, real, true, human voices. We are the owners of every one of these emotions and Outlook symbolises us, the human race, and specifically the ones living within the cultural basket we call ‘India’.

Originally written for Outlook

I am going to begin this column with two commonly used words that cannot be published: f**k and ba****d. These are two simple examples from the large collection of abusive words that all of us process in our repertoire in various languages. They are not taught in any classroom but imbibed through social osmosis. As is often said the first words we pick up in a new language are words of abuse. We hear them being flung at targets and cannot fail to be struck by the strength of their utterance. Understanding the full import of the abuse often comes after the volley of sound, yet it is never a deterrent.

Using these words gives the teenager a sense of adulthood; for the adult, power and control. These are expressions of violence used when we snap. Very often, the use of these words is the point when a verbal bout degenerates to physical assault. They then illustrate, in a word-image, a physical intention. Verbal abuse then becomes an attack on the other person and meant to hurt deeply. Right through history ‘bad language’ has been a form of protest, a non-conformist counter to what is acceptable in society. And may be it is because of this nature of these words, that they vandalise ‘that which is rarely discussed in the open’ — sex and sexuality.

These words have been created by the masculine social construction we call society and are, naturally, male-chauvinistic! Take for example the ‘four letter word’. This is not just an expression of sexual intercourse; it signifies sexual violence. When you are abused by anyone with that term, you are being attacked. This term also comes from the perception among men that the sexual act is controlled by ‘him’ and hence even its abuse is part of his artillery.

Put all this together and I don’t see how the typical four-letter word isn’t regarded with the horror that ‘rape’ is. Women use this word with equal nonchalance. Living in a male-dominated, discriminative environment, being comfortable using these abusive words gives the women a sense of being ‘one of the boys’, even acceptance among the men. If we survey any language, we will find that verbal abuse is almost always a combination of sex+violence+women.

There is more. We know that the worst form of physical abuse in custody is targeted at the most sensitive parts of the human anatomy. This gives an insight into why verbal abuse too targets actions associated to the very same parts of our body. Both physically and emotionally, anything associated with sex makes us vulnerable; that may be the reason why historically we have saved the worst insults for sexual acts.

But, all this over obsessing with verbal abuse of only one kind has made us numb to other verbal abuses that we use freely. In fact we consider them acceptable, even funny. Take for example all the terrible expressions that target the physical disability of a person, even the simple phrase: ‘Are you blind?’ We use this with ease every time our child is unable to find something that is right in front of her. There are many such words, the ones in Hindi for instance, that target physical disability — kana (one-eyed), langda (lame), behra (deaf) and, of course, pagal (mad). We hear them everyday, as part of banter and fun, never feeling even for a moment that they are expressions of violence and discrimination.

There are some other abuses that are more than acceptable. I can freely use them in this column without wondering about repercussions: moron, retard, idiot, stupid, dimwit, imbecile. I have used them from the time I can remember the idea of ‘word’ itself. Like foul sexual abuses, we use these too among friends. But we also use them when we want to insult or question a person’s intellectual capacity or insinuate a lack of mental faculty and, as with all abuse, from a position of power we attack and put down the victim, making him feel incapable. We don’t care that these words cause as much hurt as the ‘real ones’. Even worse we are totally insensitive to what they say about people with serious intellectual disabilities.

We live in times when we have taken steps to evolve sensitive terms such as ‘differently abled’, and socially banned the use of several racial and caste related insults. Yet, we use terms that abuse the physical, mental capabilities and the sexuality of people without batting an eyelid. It is time to pause and think.

Originally written for The Hindu