Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Operation Green Hunt

I had difficulty sleeping the night I read this account of Arundhati Roy's meeting with the Naxals/Maoists in the forests of Dandakaranya (Walking with the comrades, The Outlook). The Government of India has unleashed or is to unleash, as reports indicate, Operation Green Hunt to 'contain' the 'Maoist insurgency' in India's red corridor.

The report lays bare the truth behind the so called 'Maoist insurgency' in India. Roy, a writer and activist, has done what self-respecting Indian journalists should have done years ago. But probably the Maoists would not have trusted the representatives of India's corporate media, so they might not have succeeded in getting what Roy has got in her report. With every new piece, Roy is pushing the envelop further -- and I am talking about 'the piece' purely as a writer of daring. (I expected something similar from gutsy writers like Pankaj Mishra and Amitava Kumar but where are they? Prof. Kumar has written a book on terrorism but I don't hear much about Mishraji.)

Roy's piece was simply hair-raising: one the one hand, she came across as a brave writer, a woman among armed strangers, comrades, deep in the forests, talking to them, living among them, walking on for hours without food or shelter, eating chutney of red ants, sleeping under start-studded skies in jhillis. It all came across as a romantic adventure, and I felt it difficult to suppress my guilty pleasure in reading the account as a romance.

But at the same time, I was feeling ashamed and angry. Ashamed, because it was about some of my own people, people of my country, who the government wanted to crush because they came in the way of 'progress.' I felt anger because I felt powerless to stop the Operation Green Hunt, the intention of the government of India to crush the revolt of the tribals. Government should find a solution by talking to the oppressed who have taken up arms when they have no other way of defending themselves.

Here is something from the article that I wanted to copy down as a reminder. It rings so true:

By institutionalising injustice in the way that it does, the Indian State has turned this country into a tinderbox of massive unrest. The government is quite wrong if it thinks that by carrying out ‘targeted assassinations’ to render the CPI (Maoist) ‘headless’, it will end the violence. On the contrary, the violence will spread and intensify, and the government will have nobody to talk to.

Then I read some of the comments posted by readers. I liked this one a lot:

Before I make this comment let me make this clear - I love my country India as much as anyone else. This is to make sure that I am not labelled anti-India as is done to anyone who speaks on its weaknesses these days. The Indian parliamentary democracy is rotten to the core. The election process is a sham, an eyewash in the name of democracy. Yes, the people do vote - more than the Americans do - but it is like selecting the least rotten potatoes from a sackful of rotten potatoes. It serves no purpose - the looters reach the parliament and start the loot of this nation. They pass every bill except the ones the citizens want them to pass - foremost being a strict anti-corruption bill. Now, some will say it is rotten but it is the best option for us. How on earth can a rotten item be the best option? Some say it will take time to improve the system but with the same breath they say India is a mature democracy. So, if a mature democracy has an immature system, isn't something wrong somewhere? "Chalta hai" is not just a cliched expression - it is a cancer that we all are affected with, which we all falsely believe to be our symbol of nationalism. Helpless at the functioning of the system, we say "chalta hai, hamara desh phir bhi achha hai". Yes, we can ask the tribals to fight elections but do we know that fighting elections is a multicrore business transaction? A few IIT people decided enough was enough and formed a party and decided to fight the elections. As was inevitable, they lost their deposits in the election and the party is no more heard of! If educated folks can't "fight the fight" of elections do we believe that uneducated innocent tribals stand a chance? The system has effectively driven this point into the minds of the masses - especially the middle-class - that to speak against the system is to speak against the nation, which is NOT. The nation is much more important than the system. The system can be changed several times to improve the nation. If one really loves the country, one must be willing to analyse every aspect of the system.
Reader Man
Kolkata, India


Do you have any thoughts on this issue?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Theatre Review: Model citizens

I’ve not seen all the plays that Director Alvin Tan and Playwright Haresh Sharma have done together in the last 20 years but amongst the ones that I have seen, “Model Citizens” is one of their best—honest, direct and biting.

Weaving the plot around a crisis—the stabbing of a Member of Parliament (MP) in this case—the play exposes the angst of Singaporeans that often remains hidden from the public gaze or is seldom discussed.

With an all female cast (Goh Guat Kian, Siti Khalijah and Karen Tan), the writer-director duo tells a story that shows how women in a society like Singapore’s are affected by actions that men take. In a way, they want change in their lives but they are trapped in situations that are not of their making—they are silent sufferers in a system that seemingly has turned against their own.

Take, for example, the MP’s wife. She used to teach science in Mandarin in a school. She is not comfortable with English as a medium of instruction. But that’s exactly what happens when the government changes it policy. As a result, she can’t teach in school anymore. She marries the politician whom she had met in college and becomes a tai tai. She wanted to have more than two children but then again the law changed. The government said, have less children. As a model wife of a parliamentarian, she had to gag her desires.

She misses her roots and she wants to go to China but at one point she admits that even China has changed now. There is no escape for her from this life of boredom: an existential angst. An entrapment. She wonders if there is any point to return to China as Singapore might, in her cognition, one day become the capital of China.

The Indonesian maid’s character, played by Siti Khalijah, is the most developed character of the play. She has a different agenda. Coming from a poor country, her escape lies in attaining the Singapore passport. She wants to ensnare a Singapore man and then take Singapore citizenship—her guarantee of escape from the eternal grind of poverty and hopelessness. For this, she is ready to go to any length. She leads a dual life: by day she is a docile maid, by night she is a raunchy sex worker. Her lover, a cleaner, stabs the MP in a public meeting when his plea for help to allow him to marry a foreign domestic maid falls on deaf ears. He is then sent to an asylum, facing a long jail term. Her dreams of marrying the man come to an end. But she tries her best to help him—for her own selfish reasons.

Khalijah has played her role with dexterity. The only gratuitous scene is perhaps the one where she forces upon herself a miscarriage—but for that I think I should blame Haresh. What was he trying to evoke—the inherent dangers of being a prostitute?

The maid has a great relationship with her husbandless boss who treats her like a sister. The boss has lost her son and she does not even know why she lost him. She keeps remembering her son which is natural. At one point she complains about her children—how did I create such monsters—and then she keeps on fondly remembering the son. That was perhaps the only instance of a loose wire in the play; the whole thing was a bit unclear in the dialogues.

However, this is a very controlled play and showcases the maturity of the writer. The dialogues are crisp and biting. The three actors have done a fantastic job. I loved the structure of the play which starts with a crisis and then moves back in time, only to come back to the present moment and move the story forward to, unfortunately, a melodramatic ending.

Among other things, the play shows a clear disconnect between a ‘master class’ of rulers and the HDB-dwellers of the prosperous city-state—the ruling class being insensitive to the needs of the downtrodden, all in the name of progress and development, and controlling their destinies by perennially moving the levers of laws. What Haresh and Alvin seem to suggest here is that in the current set-up, the only way to become a model citizen is to join the system and enjoy the fringe benefits of belonging. It would be akin to killing oneself from inside but that is the price one has to pay for the luxury of belonging.

3 – 6 & 11 – 13 March 2010, 8pm
6 – 7 & 13 – 14 March 2010, 3pm

The Necessary Stage Black Box
278 Marine Parade Road
#B1-02 Marine Parade Community Building
Singapore 449282

Tickets are available at all SISTIC authorised agents, via the hotline at 6348 5555 or online at www.sistic.com

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hussain’s master stroke

When news broke that India’s pre-eminent painter M F Hussain has traded his Indian passport for a Qatari one, many in India got a shock. On Facebook and Twitter, in newspapers and TV studios, people expressed their sadness and displeasure at Hussain’s decision. But many, including some non-resident Indians, even rejoiced. Good riddance, they said.

The itinerant painter has been in self-exile since 1996 after being hounded by the right-wing outfits for his nude paintings of Hindu deities. Frail, at 95, Hussain changes his citizenship. The man could die any day. So what’s the big deal?

In his last days, Hussain chooses to die as a Qatari, not as an Indian. That is the big deal.

To me, Hussain’s relinquishing his Indian citizenship is nothing less than a national shame, a slap across the face of those Indians who have become so smug in their new-found material success that they have abandoned all regard for freedom of speech or for the larger freedoms constitutionally ensured for citizens in a liberal democracy. And a slap across the face of those who have silently supported them.

It is also a slap across the face of the Indian government that has shown progressive incapability of safeguarding any of its guarantees to the citizen. As Indian journalist Sadanand Menon has noted elsewhere, this has resulted from “democratic deficit,” a Chomskian term for describing the fatal inability of institutions within a democratic state to contribute positively towards sustaining democratic principles. As Menon has written, “caught between daily threats to his life and freedom on the one hand and an impotent state unable to guarantee his protection on the other,” Hussain chose to live abroad in self-imposed exile.

“I still love India. But India doesn’t need me. I am saying this with deep pain in heart,” Husain told Gulf Madhyamam in an interview.

Hussain wanted to return to India. He even apologized to those who might have been offended by his paintings. But the apology was never accepted, the hounding never stopped, the threat persisted. “When Sangh Parivar outfits targeted me, all kept silent. No one, including political leadership, artists or intellectuals came forward to speak for me. But I know the fact that 90 per cent of the people of India love me. They are with me,” Hussain said.

There a political argument (Brain Barry) that says that in democratic politics, it is better to be lucky than to be powerful. Hussain had neither luck nor power on his side.

“A painter at 90 deserves to be in his home—painting his canvas,” Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the Delhi High Court said in a judgment in 2008, quashing a bunch of cases against Hussain.

Hussain was not allowed to return home. Some he changed his home.

The lunatic fringe wins again

In Hussain’s abdication of his Indian citizenship, the lunatic fringe has won again—the same lunatic fringe that has become the de facto DNA of Indianness, the defining element of a fast-globalizing nation whose bottom feels the pinch only when it experiences an economic hurt. These are the same people who call Arundhati Roy a “slut” because she speaks for the rights of the tribals and the minorities. These are the same people who return Narendra Modi to power after watching over the massacre of several thousand Indians (minorities in this case). These are the same people who dance to the tune of the Thackerays in Mumbai, and beat up and even kill other Indians—Indians hailing from other states or Indians belonging to linguistic or religious minorities. A shade different, but they are the same people who kick up a storm whenever a Taslima Nasreen writes against the Islamic obscurantists.

And many are silent spectators or their tacit supporters. Just look at the reality that obtains in India today. According to Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist, a Muslim today, in Ahmedabad, cannot buy a house or own a shop in the western up-market part of the city. Muslims are mostly confined to ghettoes and they live in fear and insecurity—this is the same state that has Modi at the helm, who was touted as prime ministerial material by the likes of the Ambani and Tata and who has a superstar like Amitabh Bachchan to represent the state as its brand ambassador. I hear the same about Mumbai where even well-known film actors such as Shabana Azmi and Emraan Hashmi have been reportedly denied apartment purchases in posh areas.

Every time the lunatic fringe has mounted its attack, it has succeeded, be it the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the Guajarat massacre—without the fear of being punished. Today, this lunatic fringe seems to be more powerful than the court and the constitution, the government or its hallowed institutions. If it were not so, why would the injustices continue in a country that calls itself a functional democracy and derides Pakistan for being a failed state?

If Hussain’s decision signifies anything, it is this: India, a secular democracy envisioned by Gandhi and Nehru, is a failed state today. Hussain prefers a non-democratic state like Qatar to a so-called democratic India because what is the use of a democracy and a secular system that does not exist anywhere but on paper only, run by a “master class”, which has, in Menon’s words, successfully violated every principle of democratic politics. “I enjoy complete freedom in Qatar. Now Qatar is my place. Here no one controls my freedom of expression. I am very happy here,” the painter said.

The biggest culprit is the failure of the state to check the rise of the lunatic fringe and to inculcate the right secular and liberal values in its citizens. Nehru believed that communalism will die its own natural death when scientific and technological education is imparted and scientific temper cultivated. In the RSS schools, children are taught that Islam was spread in India by shedding rivers of blood. What will be the values and mindset of such children?

By abandoning the state’s education system to rot, generations of children have been raised with biased views against the minorities—so will the state stand up and take the blame for jettisoning its duty of shaping the value system of its citizens? If you don’t understand where I’m coming from, simply visit Singapore or meet Lee Kwan Yew. How could he raise a prosperous nation of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic citizens? What values did he foster and promote in the citizenry? For, to quote Russell Hardan, a New York University professor of politics, “it would be wrong in the shibboleth of our time, to say that the institutions could be neutral, that is, that they would have no effect on what values people sought. A massively coercive religious state could have great impact on individual values as seems to be shown by the cases of Iran under the Ayatollas, and of Afghanistan under the Taliban…An individual immersed in a licentious society can find it difficult to sustain personal adherence to a rigidly religious or moralistic value system. Some value systems therefore seem likely to require specific institutional supports, and it is prima facie false to suppose that any institution can be neutral with respect to all values or value systems.” (How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge, Princeton University Press, 200; p.97.)

The Indian hypocrisy

Yet, in the long run nothing will happen. After bemoaning Hussain’s decision, everything will continue as it. The liberals would move on to the next issue. For the rest, there is no shame, there is no awakening. The sectarian value system will perpetuate unless the state intervenes.

As such, the future of secularism seems to be dark in India as long as the liberalism, that is by and large common in the elite, also gets bedded down in the consciousness of the children of the poor, who go to the god forsaken government schools, who read vernacular or newspapers with biased political views or are harnessed by a criminalized political system for vote-bank politics.

As Asghar Ali Engineer, a prominent Islamic scholar and an activist for inter-faith harmony, says in one of his essays, since most of the key posts in administration, in teaching and in policing, are held by upper-caste Hindu officers, many of whom are under the influence of the RSS ideology, the implementation of secular values and secular spirit of Constitution appears to be wanting.

Though Engineer does not feel that the future of secularism (in India) is despairing in any way, I disagree. If Hussain’s decision has shown anything, it is this. I would love to be proved wrong, but it seems that the road to true secularism, along with a clean and effective law and order system in India, is a long way off.

As for those who choose to remain silent, let them remember this: there are collective implications of individual liberty.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Asia Sentinel on 4 March 2010.

Also appeared in The Daily Star, Dhaka.

Postscript: After this article was published, many readers wrote to me how bigoted I came across as a writer.

I appreciate their point of view.

The following is for the readers who wrote to me:

Let me tell you that you have every right to be offended by Hussain's paintings.

Many people don't understand my perspective. I may not like Hussain's paintings for any number of reasons, including religious reasons. But nothing gives me the right to thrash him up, or not allow him to function or work in his own country. I would drag him to court if he offended me. Same with Rushdie or the Danish cartoonist--if I didn't agree with them, I would take them to court. But nothing gives me the right to attack these artists outside the court of law. Courts were invented to resolve disputes in a civilized way. That's all I am saying. Implementation of rule of law and equality before law is all I'm asking for. That will save everyone's rights. India's Constitution is secular, and once rule of law is firmly established in India, secularism will come into play too.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Love and Lust in Singapore

Three Singapore-based avid short story writers, Femke Tewari, Caz Goodwin and Joye Hoe, are putting together a collection of short stories by writers from around the world, living in Singapore. The theme of the collection is 'Love and Lust in Singapore'. The editors have kindly included one of my short stories in the volume.

To promote the upcoming volume, the editors have started a blog, featuring short interviews with the contributors. Some of the contributors include Jenifer Raver, Linda Collins, Peter Myers, Michele Koh, Dawn Farnham, Felix Cheong, O Thiam Chin, Claire Ellis and Marc Checkley, among others.

You can read my interview here.