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India at 60
Free Spaces, September 2007
01 Sep 2007
Sixty years in the life of a people

Sixty years in the life of a nation and its people is both a benchmark – a significant anniversary – as well as a quotidian number, sixty years. Concerned with issues of freedom and democracy, creativity and diversity, law and governance, Communalism Combat decided to mark the occasion by evaluating the creative
space and the public sphere as we evolved from independence, battered by partition, into a nation that embraced constitutional governance and electoral democracy.

This period has also straddled decades of political evolution, even fragmentation, from elephantine political parties to caste representation and blatant communal consolidation. State and bureaucratic controls have made room for the private interest puppeteer; the mantra that works today is control of the marketplace. The people of India have faded into a blurred distance as the media cleverly constructs the myth of a mass readership, or viewership, never mind exacting details like actual numbers.

India, we are told, is on the threshold of a spectacular take-off. Mumbai is being showcased as what the future may bring. Why would we want to be the proverbial sour grapes and deny ourselves, fellow Indians and India a spot in the global sun? Taking stock of a young nation’s coming of age, looking closely at how we see our own people, walking down the streets of central Mumbai or travelling in a state transport bus through rural Bihar or Maharashtra, a niggling worry creeps in. Watching our films, scanning our newspapers or tracking our national debates only sharpens the growing sense of unease. Our public spaces have changed in character to reflect the ghettoisation of our minds and intimidation of the spirit. Violence and hatred stalk unfettered here.

Through the range of special features in this 14th anniversary issue, CC has tried to put forward a unique evaluation of six decades of lived democracy in India. We thank our contributors, friends of CC, for their help in shaping this issue. We will, through this year, continue with special features on the theme, expanding our scope to include articles from our neighbours in South Asia.

India, to us at CC, is a unique example of diversity, of peoples, languages and faiths. Interchanges between people of such diversity have themselves been unique and varied, spanning the course of centuries. The pluralism of India’s people and even its rulers in the past stemmed from a pragmatic acceptance of this lived reality. However, sharp caste and class divisions have always impinged, often brutally, on this landscape.

Our own experiment with constitutional democracy, a government of the people, for the people and by the people, has always presented an especially grave challenge. Our tryst with destiny is now six decades old and for the sake of our young we need to face the future with a degree of candour. A celebration of the right to vote, electoral democracy, must necessarily be tempered with a debate on the ability of an honest and popular candidate to fairly contest, and win, an election. Our appreciation of an independent judiciary must be matched with extensive analyses and debates on judicial trends with regard to human rights, gender and mass crimes. Our embracing of the global space must be accompanied by a commitment to basic professional ethics and values whether in the field of medicine, education, law, business or governance.

As we take stock of, and celebrate, sixty years of Indian democracy and nationhood, we must have the courage to face up to our flaws and failings, to acknowledge and address the steady and systematic exclusion of large sections of our people. Only then can we step forward to become a mature democracy and a truly responsible nation.

– Editors

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, Editorial

Khan Saheb in Kashi

Khan Sahab

There are moments when I love my job or rather, my business of journalism – even I, a hard-nosed cynical hack of nearly three decades. It is because you love and cherish these moments that you are so grateful you are in this business. How else would I, a hopeless, hopeless philistine, hope to find myself on a rain-drenched terrace in old Varanasi with Ustad Bismillah Khan? As it happens, it was almost exactly the same time last year.

I can fill the rest of this space just describing the beauty of his face, his spirit, his talent, his madness, even his commercialism. To date, he is the only guest who demanded, and was paid – though only a very reasonable tribute – for appearing on Walk the Talk. He said he had a large family to support, even at 91, and could do with whatever money came his way. And when I reminded him, while leaving, that he had to come and perform at my children’s weddings, he said yes immediately. And then quoted the price: five lakh, plus air tickets and stay for seven people. You could touch his innocence with bare hands in the heavy monsoon air.

Khan Saheb let me down on this one though. He will not come and perform at my children’s weddings, whatever the price. But he left me with memories – and lines – that will never go away. What was the difference between Hindu and Muslim, he asked. What, indeed, when he sang to Allah in raga Bhairav (composed for Shiva) and brought to tears the Iraqi maulana who had just told him music was blasphemy, "evil, a trap of the devil". Khan Saheb said, "I told him, Maulana, I will sing to Allah. All I ask you is to be fair. And when I finished I asked him if it is blasphemy. He was speechless." And then Khan Saheb told me with that trademark mischievous glint: "But I did not tell him it was in raga Bhairav."

Why did Khan Saheb not migrate to Pakistan with partition? "Arre, will I ever leave my Benares?" he asked. "I went to Pakistan for a few hours," he said, "just to be able to say I’ve been there. I knew I would never last there." And what is so special about Benares, his glorified slum of a haveli in a grandly named Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan Street that had more potholes than footholds and more heaps of chicken entrails from nearby meat shops than garbage heaps from homes? "My temples are here," he said, "Balaji and Mangala Gauri." Without them, he asked, how would he make any music? As a Muslim he could not go inside the temples. But so what? "I would just go behind the temples and touch the wall from outside. You bring gangajal, you can go inside to offer it, but I can just as well touch the stone from outside. It’s the same. I just have to put my hand to them."

How is that devotion in a week when our parliament was rocked by issues like the forcible, and criminal, chopping of a Sikh boy’s hair in Jaipur and the controversy over state-mandated singing of Vande Mataram in schools to launch the 150th anniversary of 1857? Or when we were all so outraged by the paranoia that caused the Mumbai bound KLM-Northwest flight to return to Amsterdam, the racial profiling of Muslims, particularly Asian-Arab Muslims and so on?

Khan Saheb’s was a talent worthy of a Bharat Ratna and immortality. But he also personified, so strikingly, the fact of how the Muslims of India defy the stereotypes building up in today’s rapidly dividing world. They may be poorer than the majority, or even other, smaller minorities, they may still live in ghettos of sorts, but they are a part of the mainstream, nationally as well as regionally and ethnically, more than Muslim populations are in most parts of the world. A Tamil Muslim, for example, is as much an ethnic Tamil as a Hindu or a Christian and certainly has more in common with his ethnic cousins than with fellow Muslims in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. India’s Muslims work in mainstream businesses where their interests are meshed inextricably with the rest, particularly the majority Hindus, even if they happen to spar occasionally.

That is why, unlike Bush’s America or the western world in general, India cannot even think of the diabolical idea of "Islamic" fascism or terrorism. No country can survive if it starts looking at nearly 15 per cent of its population as a fifth column. That is why India’s view of the war against terror has to be entirely different from the western world’s, more nuanced, more realistic and, most importantly, entirely indigenous.

It is a difficult argument to make in times when it is so tempting to tell America and Europe that see, the people who are terrorising you are the same as the people who have been terrorising us. So far you never believed us. Now with every other terror suspect being traced back to Pakistan and, more precisely, Jaish or Lashkar, accept and acknowledge that we have been in the forefront of the global war against terror for a decade before it hit you. The danger in that approach is, the Americans and the Europeans can choose that approach – though it is not working for them as well – because for them these Muslims are outsiders, different, and therefore candidates for racial profiling. You can racially profile a million people in a universe of 27 crore. Can you profile 14 crore in a universe of a hundred crore? Particularly when most of them, in their own big and small ways, are as integrated in the mainstream, as zealously proud and possessive of their multiple (ethnic, linguistic and professional) identities as of their faith?

That is why the key to fighting, okay, this wave of terror emanating from Muslim anger is to absolutely avoid the "global war on terror" trap.

The terrorists know it. That is why attacks in India, even by angry Indian Muslims, are not directed against some evil global power or its symbols. Nor are they meant to support some pan-Islamic cause, Palestine, or even, for that matter, Kashmir. Their objective, always, is to strike at our secular nationalism. Every single attack has had the same purpose, starting with the first round of Bombay bombings in 1993.

Sharad Pawar made a bold confession to me earlier this month that he parachuted from Delhi into a riot-torn Bombay then figured immediately that the terrorist plot was to kill a large number of people in Hindu localities to trigger large-scale mob attacks on Muslim areas where automatic weapons and grenades had been stored with their agents. Once the mobs were stopped with these automatic weapons it would lead to a carnage that would be uncontrollable. It is for that reason that, he says, he lied on Doordarshan that there had been 12 blasts (where there had been 11) and added the name of a Muslim locality as the 12th. Today we can all rue the fact that judgement in the case of those blasts is still awaited, 13 years later (this article was written in 2006). But we should also cherish the fact that in eschewing any rioting and actually returning to work the very next morning, Bombay had defeated the larger design of the terrorists.

Every attack since then, the temples at Ayodhya, Akshardham and Varanasi, Raghunath temple in Jammu, even the bombs at Delhi’s Jama Masjid, had the same purpose: widening that divide. But it is tougher in India where any notion of ‘Them versus Us’ is an impossibility given how closely communities live, work and do business together. It is one thing to say that we have learnt to live with diversity for a thousand years. It is equally important that we internalise the idea of diversity, equality and fairness that is in our Constitution and in the process of nation building make the very idea of a global war against ‘Islamic fascism’ totally alien and ridiculous for India.

There is a war on for us and there is no getting away from the fact that some of those on the wrong side today are fellow, angry Indians, and we have to deal with them firmly and effectively. But we will need to evolve an idiom and a strategy entirely our own, in tune with a society which loves equally Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar, who both sing and pray to Allah and Shiva, Krishna in ragas composed for either. Today India enjoys great respect in the world because of its unfolding economic miracle. If India can get this nuance right, it could be the toast of the world tomorrow for an even greater socio-political miracle, a secular but deeply religious nation that defeated terrorism while taking its 14 crore Muslims along.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Music

The growing ‘democratic deficit’
Sixty years of indifference and the throttling of the public sphere in India

Democratic deficit is American linguist Noam Chomsky’s term for describing the fatal inability of institutions within a democratic state to contribute positively towards sustaining democratic principles; indeed, systems that perform the opposite function by choking information, dialogue, dissent and crucial sharing of opinion. 

Within a worldwide emerging doctrinal system, democratic agencies that deliver educational, administrative, electoral, judicial or communicational and media functions turn sclerotic and conspire to cook up a ‘permitted democracy’ where crucial subjects hardly enter the realm of public discussion, depriving the public largely of the opportunity to form considered opinions. 

A system of shadow-boxing emerges, within which democracy is acceptable only if it is consistent with strategic and economic interests. The day-to-day engagements, so necessary to create a functioning democratic culture within which the public can play a role in determining policies, is effectively throttled. This means a deliberate rollback of the state and the active promotion of social buccaneering. 

Since the ‘public sphere’ is already an integral element of the bourgeois state, any dent in the role of the state can only lead to a guillotining of the idea of the ‘public sphere’. 

The emergence of ‘public sphere’ as a notional device during the long passage from a monarchical to a more open, democratic form of society was conceived as a level playing field for plural and contesting interests to enter into dialogue. It was premised upon the abstract existence of an independent ‘critical-rational’ space within daily life, which took one to social commons like the market, the theatre, the media, the library, the public transport or the club. 

The manner in which scholars of the Frankfurt School posited the idea, there was an emancipatory aspect to the notion of the ‘public sphere’, as it opened out hitherto closed or controlled areas of a citizen’s life under more totalitarian systems and thereby tended to extend the formal limits of democracy.

Within the binary counterposing of ‘state’ and ‘society’, the ‘public sphere’ found legitimisation as a site for contestatory public opinion that would provide the check and balance against arbitrary exercise of the state’s authority or a deviation from any rule of law. 

Thus, in an ideal sense, the ‘public sphere’ necessarily encourages both, a diversity of opinion and practice as well as the conditions for dissent from majoritarian pressures. The theorists, however, failed to sufficiently delineate the nuances between, say, a bourgeois ‘public sphere’ and a socialist ‘public sphere’. 

The distinction would have been both substantial and significant. It would have alerted us to the trajectory of the ‘public sphere’ over at least the past fifty years, as having been a flight path that successfully achieved a high degree of information denial, advertisement induced consumer slavery, mass surveillance, media generated dumbing down and collective hysterical behaviour thriving on pathological violence.  

It would also have emphasised the need to comprehend the idea of the ‘public sphere’ as a dynamic and constantly forming one, and not as something frozen in time and space as an institution ‘out there’ and to be taken for granted.

It would have further informed us of the recurring possibility of the vitiation of this sphere every time the state undergoes corporatisation, meaning, when the democratic agenda is hijacked in a unidirectional manner towards solely serving the purposes of the elites. 

Right from the outset of the Indian nation state, the public sphere has been a stillborn baby. If, even after sixty years, our statistics throw up absurd figures like 44 per cent of the population living on less than US $1 a day or, in other words, 440 million people (double the population of America) living on less than Rs 40 a day, the notion of the ‘public sphere’ becomes largely abstract. It, in fact, becomes a space from where they can mount an attack on the infructuous state. It becomes a site for both lumpen and elite vigilantism, for mystical revivalism, for majoritarian fascism and for militant Maoism. 

The cultural commons and the discourse within it has now been systematically usurped by mainstream cinema with its cynical messages on the status quo or glorification of the violent hero or neurotic appeals to the divine. This has become the staple mass consumption. Supplementing it is the contagion of mass mysticism. Satsangs and bhajan mandalis have become the new polluters of the public mind where literally millions of people are administered their daily dose on the virtues of conformism to the brutal, savage society they live within.  

The fight against Maoist resurgence takes the form of private landlord militias like Salwa Judum on the one hand and massive state mobilisation on the other to "flush out" the "Naxalite menace". The entire language is as if that of mosquito eradication with not even a token concession to the possibility that this movement (albeit violent) from below might be a marker, a window to the real frustrations and exhaustion of patience of a large number of people. Instead, almost one third of India running vertically "from Pashupatinath to Tirupatinath" is dubbed a "red corridor" and a staggering budget of some Rs 12,000 crore is earmarked to carry out "aerial assaults" on them with devices including ‘Agent Orange’ – last heard of being used in the killing fields of Vietnam. 

Or take the consequences of some five decades of annual floods in Bihar, brought about by the entirely non-democratic mechanism of building embankments to contain the north to south flowing rivers in that state. The whole exercise has turned monster and systematically submerges thousands of villages every year, taking lives and snatching livelihood. Over 2.5 million people in Bihar today reportedly live on top of these narrow embankments, as they have nowhere else to go. The rest of India perhaps doesn’t even know this. And this is boom time for the media, with papers and channels sprouting faster than scruff on young chins. But the Indian media has collectively decided that it will now stay entirely with ‘good times’ India. As a crucial player in the ‘public sphere’ it will operate within a cordon sanitaire and insulate its middle class consumers from disturbing realities.  

Take the other monstrosity, Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Extensive areas, which were once rural districts, are being turned into SEZs. This again is one of the most un-debated and undemocratic activities of our times, where large chunks of land and other resources like water, power, labour, etc are written off in favour of single-minded economic extraction. People living in such zones then get recalibrated as criminals or lawbreakers if they make any claims to a sense of ‘residence’. 

Or consider the deafening national silence over the proposals of the National Commission on Creative and Cultural Industries – total silence in the media and in every other public sphere. Not even a single editorial in any language or a public symposium in any language on a proposal that promises to mop up Rs 60,000 crore by parasitising on the crafts and artistic base of the nation. This can only be construed as a victory of the market management of the ‘public sphere’ within which large-scale silence can be interpreted as consent and artificially manufactured opposition can be interpreted as ‘public will’. 

The past weeks must have been particularly difficult and alarming for all those who put store by the growth of democratic institutions and the consolidation of a healthy, supple, responsible ‘public sphere’ in India. A wave of vigilantism seems to be mobilising and replacing the existing spaces of political negotiation.

And the cascading violence has also turned unrepentant. A lad in Palanpur is lynched for eloping with a girl. In Bhagalpur a petty thief is beaten up by a mob and then, in full view of television cameras, tied to a police motorcycle and dragged through the streets until he falls unconscious.  

Principals and professors of colleges are dragged out, assaulted and killed. Fatwas are issued for cross-dressed religious leaders in Punjab or feminist writers like Taslima Nasreen. The Bhandarkar Institute in Pune ends up endorsing the violent censorship that wrecked its own research library. Media institutions like Dinakaran in Madurai and Outlook in Mumbai are ransacked and torched for ‘opinion polls’ that disseminate results unpalatable to some parties. Caste panchayats across the country now increasingly determine how people should live or dress or love or marry.  

Films like Fire, Water, Parzania, Jo Bole So Nihal, Rang De Basanti, Jashn-e-Azadi, etc are attacked; plays like Ponga Pandit, The Vagina Monologues, etc are threatened, artists like MF Husain, Surendran Nair, Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh, etc are pilloried. 

In the most bizarre of these incidents, the dean of the faculty of fine arts at the MS University, Vadodara, Prof Shivaji Panikkar is suspended for having upheld the law by supporting the fundamental and artistic rights of his student, Chandra Mohan, who was attacked by a mob that illegally entered the university premises.  

In an equally bizarre manner, Leela Samson, director of the Centre administered Kalakshetra, the revered school for Bharatanatyam and other arts in Chennai, is at the receiving end of an anonymous campaign vilifying her and insinuating that a ‘Christian’ director is bound to be detrimental to the ‘Hindu’ character of the institution. 

Since the deliberate ravaging of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 in full media glare, and with absolutely no one being brought to book for it, one can trace a new era of right wing activism that has been set in motion, in which strategic mob action unleashes rounds of violence in the public sphere, claiming injury to specific honour or pride or identity. 

Of course, it must be mentioned that the blueprint for this was drawn up earlier, in 1984, during the all India anti-Sikh riots in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That is when the Indian state officially decided that it would henceforth speak through the mobs. 

Since 1992, however, the Hindutva brigades, proclaiming themselves custodians of social morality, have conducted several operations against beauty pageants, Valentine’s Day events, cricket matches with Pakistan, Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls, the Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali and so on.

The domain of artistic expression, in fact, has come in for special attention. Art criticism in India now comes with a cutting edge. Literally. Pens have been replaced by penknives. The new critics swing together in shoals of thirty, forty, hundred connoisseurs. They pay periodic visits to art galleries (like the one in Surat a few years ago) where they display equal interest in the works of pioneers of contemporary Indian art like the late NS Bendre, radical pioneers like KH Ara and MF Husain and young modernists like Chittrovanu Mazumdar; to stage plays (like Habib Tanvir’s Ponga Pandit in many towns of Madhya Pradesh); or even libraries of rare manuscripts (like the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune).  

Even as mainstream Indian media seems to collectively shut out serious arts coverage, comment or critique (rendering the individual ‘critic’ redundant), a new cabal of critics has taken to the streets. They fly diverse flags – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena, the Sambhaji Brigade. Yet their critical sensibilities are distinguished by suspicious similarities. They believe in instant judgement and in swift enforcement of aesthetic yardsticks (and stones). Scar, tar, mar, is their preferred mode of critical practice. 

It is not an entirely new approach to art. Many hatchet men have romped through the portals of history, slashing a canvas here, lopping off an exposed breast there, hammering a sculpture elsewhere. The Taliban even carried out, with great success, missile target practice on the Bamiyan Buddhas. The complex structural and technical features of those awesome giant sculptures or even Buddha’s own beatitude seemingly had no calming influence on the rubble-masonry experts of artistic fundamentalism. 

The new Indian aesthetes (who seem to have no qualms about emulating the deep cultural tutelage of the Taliban) do not place much value on what ‘pleases’ in art. They focus selectively on what ‘offends’. And that’s a pretty broad criterion to apply. For, one can offend with anything. Humour, irony, sarcasm, candour, irreverence, imagined insults to imagined cultural values or traditions; anything can instigate their critical faculties. In the blink of an eye they can pull out their idle kerosene cans and matchboxes and apply their well-practised pyromania on the offending object. 

These ‘cultural zappeurs’ are forever alert and active. They track individual artists. They ambush auditoria. They throttle theatre. They are cynical of serious cinema. They dread documentaries. They get into hysterics with history. They cannibalise canvases. They gherao galleries. They parade their penchant for pinch-hitting. "Apologise, or else!" becomes their magic mantra for regulating a compliant art. 

Their steady list of victories, over the past decade and more, includes corralling individual artists like Husain while thoughtfully torching the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad which housed the Chester Herwitz collection of Husain’s works; amputating the work of leading Indian historians in exhibitions like Ham Sab Ayodhya in Faizabad and Delhi; terrorising scores of individual artists and writers; censoring filmmakers like Deepa Mehta or Mani Ratnam or even an entire festival like the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). 

The ‘little man’ that political psychologist Wilhelm Reich so beseeched us to beware of has now turned critic. We are squarely into the era of an aesthetic of erasures where it is not creativity that will evoke pleasure but destruction. Here, destruction is the magical antiseptic in the hands of necrophilic agents, to be used on what seems "offensive and impure" in order to maintain social hygiene.  

Perhaps the day is not far when a casual tourist to our cities will be able to identify the location of a handful of art galleries there by the quantum of police bandobast around them. 

The more worrying issue is about the artists who have not been singled out and targeted or whose works are ‘non-objectionable’. What are they to make of themselves? Should they now preen at being certified ‘safe’ artists or should they voluntarily consign their works to the flames for not being good enough to provoke anyone? The essential premise of the post-classical foundations of art in modern times has been about the individual artist’s sacred right to self-expression – often against the grain. If classical art was considered divinely ordained and canonical, resulting in it becoming over-decorated and decadent, modern art has sought freedom to turn the canons upside down, to seek a more liberating human content.  

Poets, painters, playwrights, dancers, filmmakers, have functioned on the premise of an imperative need to assert their personal insights on the inner universe of the mind on the one hand and the outer world of social practices on the other, often coming up with views quite divergent from accepted beliefs or familiar and comfortable positions. Artists have claimed a space that has the potential to undermine, disturb, subvert, the status quo. In fact, their art consists in their very ability, in Italian semiotician Umberto Eco’s words, to perennially "carry out a new and subtle guerrilla warfare at the borders of meanings". This has been construed as their valuable civilisational contribution which, in turn, confers an aura upon the arts and artists.

 But violent chastisement for having transgressed imagined boundaries of the permissible is now considered a legitimate activity within parties of the Right. Way back in 1993, senior ideologues of the sangh parivar like LK Advani, KR Malkani and others attempted to publicly instruct MF Husain on how and what to paint. In 1996, VHP president Ashok Singhal cautioned Husain to "ceremonially burn" his "offending" paintings of Saraswati to demonstrate his "good intentions". A far more belligerent Uma Bharti had also recommended "psychiatric treatment" for Husain. 

Since those days in 1993, the art appreciation brigade of the Hindutva flank has not missed a trick in drumming up the bogey of uncontrolled art leading to social prurience, erosion of cultural values and, more significantly, simply being critical. It is hardly surprising now to hear Mr Advani doling out artistic advice to students of the Vadodara school of art, on the "limits of artistic freedom". 

There is a well-articulated middle class conceit that the cut/slash/rip/dig formula of art appreciation is the dark hubris of a loony fringe of the sangh parivar. They would assure us that these are small and isolated incidents whose perpetrators are mere lumpen madcaps and should not be confused with the otherwise sane and cultured lot of the parivar. Well, perhaps the news needs to be delivered to these worthies – the fringe has, in fact, usurped the field. 

The pleasures of destruction are unquestionable, as any child psychologist will corroborate. But extended into adulthood and the public sphere these merely become self-indulgent pleasures. As a society grows, it needs to find filters to curb this destructive tendency. All residues of it can only be termed malignant.  

What they surface as then, to the eternal shame of any claims to a democratic ‘public sphere’, is the kind of state instigated/supported genocide that we witnessed in Gujarat. For parties intent upon aggrandising the ‘public sphere’, one of the advantages of encouraging such deviant violence in citizens transformed into mobs is the well-known psychological fallout – Guilt. Their silence in the face of injustice and their complicity in guilt merely propels them into further cycles of escalating violence. Only this can explain the totally remorseless and sullen non-acceptance of the ‘Best Bakery’ savagery or the videos of the brutalities of the riots now circulating through video libraries in the state as ‘home entertainment’. 

It is clear that the existence of a supple and robust ‘public sphere’ has always been a well-nurtured myth of Indian participatory democracy. It is a myth that conflates the principle of ‘voting rights’ of citizens with the idea of ‘janata janardhan’ (people power), making out as if the sheer exercise of casting votes ensures the nurture and amplification of the ‘public sphere’. 

No one has explained more clearly than Herbert Marcuse (German-born philosopher, sociologist and member of the Frankfurt School), the blinding fallacy of this premise. Marcuse said, "Free election of masters abolishes neither masters nor slaves."  

Indian democracy has enabled a rapid formation of this ‘master’ class, which has successfully violated every principle of democratic politics. It has also substantially reneged on the idea of a ‘democratic commons’ that can not only inform democratic practice but create a community of activist-citizens who fiercely defend the systematic throttling of the ‘public sphere’. 

"I am tired; tired of the patience of my people," the ‘nightingale of India’, Sarojini Naidu had exclaimed in exasperation a decade before independence.

Six decades after independence, the marker of that collective ‘patience’ progressively translates as an increasing silence over the daily encroachments into the public sphere.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Polity
Redefining public space
Ushering in the age of portable new publics

Recently, I was invited to speak at a seminar about ‘Media in the Market Place versus Media in the Public Sphere’, which gave me a chance to interrogate the limitations and possibilities of both "public" and "market" in relation to the preposition "versus". While I was thinking through the two words, I received an email from a former student of mine working for a leading television production company. The mail read as follows:

"Dear Shohini,

I am going crazy working in a news channel… not that it’s not good work. But there is a lot of false glamour attached to a job on television. Apparently [Channel X] is the number one channel… I don’t believe the TRP game since the entire thing is lopsided. But anyway, having said that, all the creative, experimental ideas are now being shelved because they fail to generate numbers for the channel. And being [Channel X] there is focus first on profit and then if there is scope for creativity, they’ll give it a go! I did, early in the channel, get an opportunity to do a lot of exciting things but the days of glory are officially over and a lot of saleable things are being solicited. Unfortunately, I know that channels are not meant to be creative, they are mostly commercial. And my expecting something outstanding from a news channel is immature."

This email is typical of the emails that I receive almost every week from former students who have found employment with various television channels jostling to become number one in the TRP (television rating points) race. The email sums up perfectly the compulsions and aspirations of media in the marketplace. But I must clarify at the outset that my critique and reservations about the corporate media never makes me nostalgic for a pre-liberalisation era when the state had monopoly over the airwaves. Doordarshan’s political dishonesty combined with its spectacular lack of imagination is a chapter that needs firmly to be put in the past.

But both Doordarshan and the corporate media have used the term "public" to justify their politics and functioning. Doordarshan’s selective reporting and repressive culture was perpetuated in the name of "public interest" while corporate television claims to cater to "public demands" as testified by TRPs. Both state and corporate media liberally use terms like "public concern", "public issue", "public interest", "public service" and "public morality".

In the last decade, "public interest" has been cited as the guiding principle behind corporate media’s spectacular intrusion into private spaces through "sting operations" using hidden cameras and a range of entrapment strategies. The most high profile sting operation, Operation West End, was conducted by the web portal, Tehelka, where hidden cameras and ‘set-ups’ were used to ‘expose’ corruption in defence deals.

Two journalists posing as agents from a fictitious arms company called West End hawked a non-existent product to the defence ministry and paid money to the president of the (ruling) BJP, bureaucrats and army men in order to push the deal through. All transactions were recorded on spy cams and the footage was released at a press conference. Operation West End created a sensation and came to be reported widely in the print and electronic media.

Tarun Tejpal, editor of the web portal, Tehelka, and mastermind behind Operation West End, justified the use of spy cams by insisting that "extraordinary circumstances demanded extraordinary means" and argued that by exposing corruption in defence deals Tehelka had served "public" and "national interest". Unfortunately, the extraordinary means did not yield extraordinary results as the "entrapped" politicians went largely unpunished and were eventually reinstated in public life. Tehelka, on the contrary, had to provide lengthy explanations to the enquiry commission appointed to investigate the Tehelka exposé until finally the web portal had to be shut down.

The spate of sting operations that followed amply illustrated the lack of consensus in interpreting "public interest". In 2005, India TV conducted a "sting operation" to prove the existence of the ‘casting couch’ in the Bombay film industry. A 21-year-old reporter pretending to be an aspiring starlet solicited the mentorship of Shakti Kapoor (best known for playing the villain in Bombay films) to make a career in films. She pursued the actor, invited him to a room and offered him a drink. Predictably, Shakti Kapoor offered his mentorship in exchange for sexual favours at which point the ‘hidden’ camera crew barged in, claiming to have "exposed" the "casting couch" and the "sexual exploitation" of young women in the film industry.

Even a cursory telling of the story reveals how flawed the ‘rationale’ for such an exercise is. Coercion and violation of consent are central to the definition of harassment, none of which existed in this case. This was a case of two consenting adults agreeing to indulge in unethical business practices of which the exchange of sexual favours was a part. Moreover, corruption, unethical negotiations, the exchange of favours (both material and sexual), are not exclusive to the entertainment industry but rampant in all professions and institutions including supposedly ‘respectable’ professions like law, medicine, education and even journalism! Money, privilege and sexual favours have always been staple ingredients of bribery and corruption. Consequently, the sting operation achieved nothing apart from making invasion of privacy synonymous with the ‘right to know’.

During a recent debate on the ethics of using hidden cameras, Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal wrote, "Every responsible journalist believes that stings should not cross into private lives" and that "every sting should be tested on the anvil of public interest". Were we to take stock of the entire gamut of sting operations carried out after Operation West End, we would find them to be poised precariously between private lives and perceived public interest. Where does public interest end and private life begin? For instance, does the planting of spy cams in the homes of public officials constitute public interest or violation of privacy? The line between the two is as slippery as the one that divides pornography from erotica. As the old saying goes, "what I like is erotica and what you like is pornography."

We need to remember that the acceptability of such intrusive strategies in the name of investigative journalism comes from being embedded in a larger culture of surveillance that has become endemic to our urban existence. Security cameras in public and private spaces, wiretapping, citizen journalists brandishing phone cams, information supplied to banks and credit card companies, and legislations like TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) routinely violate our privacy. Research done by friends at Sarai: the Old and New Media Centre in Delhi reports that the Ministry of Home Affairs has a proposal for a multi-purpose national identity card system that will probably house the largest collection of biometric data the world has seen and will include information on health, medical services, education, lifestyle, economic status and transactions, fingerprints and retinal scans. It will not be long before we hand over to the state an enormous slice of our private lives imagining that we have "nothing to hide". The long shadow of surveillance will soon be cast over the many overlaps between our private lives and public selves.

Most importantly, private spaces are not just for the playing out of personal lives but are integral to the nurturing of political thought and the contemplation of social action. Take, for instance, the attempt to stifle the circulation of Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), Sanjay Kak’s new documentary on the Kashmir crisis. On July 27, 2007 the Mumbai police stopped a preview of the film for an invited audience at the Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan in Prabhadevi.

Notwithstanding irate protests from the audience, the police seized and confiscated copies of the DVD. Next, they issued a notice to Prithvi Theatre where a subsequent preview had been scheduled, warning them of consequences were they to show the film. The justification for this unwarranted intervention arrived in the form of a letter dated July 29 that senior inspector of the Dadar police station, MG Sankhe, wrote to Sanjay Kak. Quoting Section 7 of the Cinematograph Act in defence of the seizure, the letter directs Kak to apply for a censor certificate because "the film contains inflammatory and provocative scenes based on terrorism in Kashmir". It further states that "there are certain scenes that are objectionable and if the said film is shown to public (sic), it may create law and order problem".

Jashn-e-Azadi has had a number of previews across the country and has not caused any "law and order" problems. Made over two years, the 139-minute documentary is a meditation on the political crisis that has gripped the valley for over a decade and is an articulation of the disillusionment and alienation that the Kashmiri people feel at this historical juncture. One may reasonably ask why Sanjay Kak is being difficult and not applying for a censor certificate. The answer is obvious. He will never get one. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) will insist on cuts that would defeat the very purpose of the film. Besides, the granting of a censor certificate would not guarantee safety for either film or filmmaker.

The extra-legal censoring of Deepa Mehta’s Fire despite a censor certificate is one such instance. The "law and order" argument has always functioned as a veiled threat. Paraphrased, it means, "If some individual or group does not agree with your work and puts your life and work in danger, don’t count on us for protection. On the contrary, we may press criminal charges against you for causing such inconvenience." This argument is akin to the ‘tight-sweater excuse’ that sexual harassers resort to when they declare that the victim of harassment "had asked for it". Painter MF Husain and more recently, writer Taslima Nasreen, are victims of this twisted logic.

In the last decade, documentary filmmakers have persistently campaigned against censorship, and demanded an urgent review and amendment to the Cinematograph Act under which the CBFC was set up in 1952. The three amendments urgently proposed have a direct bearing on the Jashn-e-Azadi case. The first proposed amendment seeks to make the CBFC an autonomous body free from the stranglehold of the government. The second amendment demands that the CBFC have powers of certification (through ratings and classifications) and not the power to censor. The third and most urgent amendment proposes that non-commercial public screenings be decriminalised.

According to the existing law, screening a film without a censor certificate, even within educational institutions, classrooms, clubs or private gatherings, is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment (for up to three years) and a minimum fine of one lakh rupees. All three amendments are long overdue and essential for upholding the constitutional right of free expression. Demanding the decriminalisation of non-commercial public screenings will be an important step in creating a strong civil society that is not threatened by cultural experimentation, dissident expression or new and outrageous ideas.

The 21st century confronts us with both utopian and dystopian possibilities around the access and circulation of information. The dystopian impulse of allowing our lives to be subject to increasing censorship and surveillance needs to be resisted by the creation of "new publics" that lie outside state control and corporate interests. These new publics may not reside within concrete venues but may appear anywhere, albeit temporarily, as people and ideas converge.

Take the independent documentary film, for instance. In the absence of television broadcasts and theatrical releases, documentary films are screened in spaces where people and ideas converge and "new publics" are born. These new publics are created, dismantled and endlessly recreated in a multitude of spaces as the documentary film travels from one place to another.

The power and potential of this new public was not lost on those who stopped the screening of Jashn-e-Azadi. Which is all the more reason why we should fight for our right to occupy such spaces. This holds true for all writers, artists and media practitioners whose work may not find circulation through mainstream distribution channels. Every film, media product or artwork should be able to carry with it possibilities of its own exhibition and circulation.

The age of portable new publics has finally arrived.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Media
Two images
Minorities and Bollywood

Two images.


I am watching Black Friday (2007, dr Anurag Kashyap) in a Muslim-dominated area of the city in which the film is set, Mumbai. There is a tense silence as Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) tells Badshah Khan (Aditya Srivastava) what he thinks of him and those who were inveigled into the plot to set off bombs across the city. It is such a cold silence that I go to see the film again in a more mixed setting. The same scene evokes another response. There are cheers and jeers until someone from the audience shouts, "Yahaan bhi to hai (There are some morons here too)."


In a discussion group I led at a girl’s college in Mumbai, a young Muslim girl stood up to accuse Fanaa (2006, dr Kunal Kohli) of representing Muslims unfairly.

"They show [the character played by] Rishi Kapoor drinking," she said.

I was somewhat taken aback by that.

Did she mean, I asked, that no Muslim drinks?

"No, but why should they show like that?" she asked.

It was a good question and a bad question. Good because representation is increasingly important in a country where symbols have more power and potency than in many other lands. Bad because it inaugurates a process in which every maker of art will be called on to be responsible for every character she or he creates and will have to consider whether each character has the potential to hurt someone’s feelings.

This is perhaps not the place to discuss whether Bollywood is or is not art. But one has to admit that some creativity is involved in its creation and therefore perhaps it should have all the protection other art forms are offered at least in theory.

The question is: does the character played by Rishi Kapoor stand for the Muslim man? No one seemed to think so in the reviews. But then why did Kajol saluting the flag in the beginning seem to stand for the Muslim girl? It was mentioned often in the reviews, sometimes slightingly and sometimes with deference.

If Rishi Kapoor’s character is only a single heartsick character reacting to his circumstances, nothing can be wrong with that. But besides the intention of the filmmaker, there is also the way in which it is consumed. And today consumption patterns are no longer as predictable as they once were.


Our relationship with Bollywood has always been a complex one. It is only quite recently that we have begun taking it seriously or looking at the material with any attention. This is partly because of the remnants of our leftist-brahmanical contempt for anything by way of bread and circuses. All India Radio, as we all know, wouldn’t play Hindi film music and drove all the real comrades, the bhai bandhu of the mills of Mumbai into the arms of Radio Ceylon.

But now that there is a non-Indian academic turning up every week to study the films of Manmohan Desai, we have started wondering whether we should have been doing the spadework already. This is not to offer any disrespect to the non-Indian academic. Dr Rachel Dwyer of the School of Oriental and African Studies, for instance, knows Sanskrit and reads and writes Urdu and Gujarati as well. I don’t know any Indian academic who has done as much work in order to get to know Hindi cinema.

Everyone’s a Hindi film buff now that popular culture has become a ticket to a series of conferences in different parts of the world. This has resulted in much half-baked information and very little understanding of how Bollywood actually operates.

I believe Bollywood’s relationship to the minorities depends on commercial arithmetic of the most basic kind. Bollywood is an industry, even if it is a chaotic, ill-regulated and ignored industry. It produces a certain kind of product and it wishes to maximise profit on that product. Hindi cinema had no simple equation with the religious communities of India. On the surface, this should have been simple since it should not have mattered. The religious identity of a villain could scarcely matter; there would be bad eggs in every basket.

As I wrote in Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (Penguin India, 2006),

"But the early filmmakers knew that they were not simply making films. As the only valid pop culture, they believed that they were creating texts to help build society. Since they were men, these texts were largely patriarchal, probably not out of enlightened self-interest but probably because they genuinely believed that benevolent male despotism was good for society as a whole. The theme of the ‘educated wife’, for instance, was oft repeated and each time disaster would follow her inclusion into the family. Later, this theme would change to become the ‘westernised wife’, anathema in her own right. However, in the fifties, the patriarchs were concerned about the nation that was being crafted. They often sought the blessings of political figures although a good word from Jawaharlal Nehru was not likely to increase ticket sales significantly.

[Gandhiji simply thought cinema was a waste of time; it might surprise the Mahatma to know how firmly his legacy is being appropriated both by art house and mainstream cinema.]

"They were aware as few others could be of the scars left by partition. Some had lost their families, their hometowns. Others had watched friends depart. Still others had arrived as refugees from the newly formed state of West Pakistan. They felt the need, as a community, to emphasise the importance of coexistence and of mutual tolerance, if not respect, of India’s diverse religious communities. Yet there were still some liberties that could be taken as long as these were taken with the communities who had no hand in deciding the fate of the product that Bollywood was making.

"If political secularism arises out of arithmetic, the secularism of cinema arises out of commerce. When Kaagaz Ke Phool flopped, Guru Dutt went out and made a Muslim social, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, although he did not do it under his own name. When he was asked why, he said that he needed a hit. Segmenting the market works. Think of Coolie and Pakeezah and Nikaah, all hits.

(As in everything that one says of Hindi commercial cinema, one might, on the other hand, point to Deedaar-e-Yaar, one of the biggest flops of 1982, but then it had Jeetendra playing a nawab.)

"However, there are certain limits to this secularism. For instance, Hindus and Muslims don’t marry on screen unless it is an overt act of political significance (Bombay). Too many people might be offended and secularism had to be measured against what the audience would accept. Since Hindi cinema, like most popular culture, is majoritarian, it also managed to maintain a subtle power balance within the caste system. When the hero was a romantic and a scholar, he could be a Brahmin, even if it was the Muslim, Dilip Kumar, playing him. When the hero turned into a warrior, his identity turned Kshatriya. Secular gestures had to be similarly calibrated since a sizeable proportion of the Hindi-speaking audience was Muslim. The Muslim characters were, therefore, rarely shown in an unfavourable light. They were honest friends, loyal soldiers, good policemen, bluff Pathans, friendly uncles. But unless it was a Muslim social (which was another kind of commercial gamble), there were no Muslim heroes."

Recently, we have had some discussion about whether Kabir Khan in Chak De India is a Muslim. It seems an odd moment in our history. Anti-Muslim hysteria is at an all-time high. In a personal conversation with the novelist, MG Vassanji, I was told that Gujarat continues to be a fascist state in which the Muslims are tense and even the moderate Hindus unwilling to speak for fear of being "overheard". This should have been no surprise to me for Communalism Combat arrives every month with more news from the war against ‘othering’. At the same time, we have four Khans (Aamir, Saif, Shah Rukh and Salman) who rule Bollywood. None of them has ever played a Muslim character except in a Muslim context.

With Hindus representing the mainstream and Muslims in the audience, there were two communities who could be mocked without any economic repercussions.

Again, if I may be allowed to quote from my book on Helen, these were, "the Christians and the Parsi. For one, they were perceived as ‘westernised’, which was tantamount to sleeping with the enemy. For another, they could be offended without upsetting the box office since they rarely patronised Hindi cinema anyway.

"So Parsis figured as stereotypical eccentrics with walk-on roles. Christians got more screen time but were used in strange ways. In the odd hierarchies that custom and power have established, a heroine could be Christian. Liz (Waheeda Rehman) in Baazi, Miss Edna (Madhubala) in Howrah Bridge, Bobby (Dimple) in Bobby, Jenny (Parveen Babi) in Amar Akbar Anthony and Annie (Manisha Koirala) in Khamoshi – The Musical all marry their men without trouble. In Bobby, the hero’s parents only object to her social standing and her lack of wealth. There is no mention of a different religion. There were some startling positive images of older Christian characters (Lalita Pawar and Nadira, both as Mrs D’Sa in Anari and Saagar; Premnath as Mr Braganza in Bobby; David as John Chacha in Boot Polish) but by and large the community was seen as degenerate. In Mome Ki Gudiya (1972) a Christian family has a mother played by the obese Tun Tun, the father played by a midget, and in order to win their daughter and to fit in with them, the hero’s sidekick claims that he has started drinking, smoking, going to mujras and even eating non-vegetarian food.

"But perhaps the classic encapsulation of Hindi cinema’s attitude to the morality of the young Christian community can be seen in a single song from Swarg Narak (1978). Briefly, the story deals with two marriages. The feminist, Shobha (Moushumi Chatterjee!) marries college lecturer, Vicky (Jeetendra), while the traditional Indian doormat, Geeta (Shabana Azmi!) marries playboy and businessman, Vinod (Vinod Mehra). The latter marriage fails from the very beginning since Vinod who, as an act of rebellion against a marriage into which he was forced, spends his wedding night dancing with an unnamed mistress (Komilla Virk).

"One night, when Vinod tries to go out, his mother (Kamini Kaushal) stops him. He almost slaps her, then pushes her out of the way. She runs after him and falls down the stairs. Vinod and his unnamed mistress go out dancing. Helen is the floor show, singing the ‘English song’ mentioned in the titles. The unimaginative lyrics include lines like ‘Love you, come hold me’ interspersed with some Aah-ing. However, this is enough to attract Vinod, who callously pushes Virk out of the way and makes his way to where Helen, dressed in High Arabian Fantasy, bathed in red light, is singing, ‘I am lonely, come hold me/ Life is so dreary, come, come, come.’

"Director Dasari Narayan Rao intercuts this sequence with scenes of Vinod’s mother dying, of the doctors giving up, of the dutiful daughter-in-law reciting the Bhagavad Gita. At the nightclub, Helen and Vinod are now in a clinch. The scene is bathed in red light as she pours alcohol into his mouth. A church appears in silhouette against the walls of the nightclub and church bells begin to ring. It is true that few filmmakers have gone so far in their association between degeneracy and Christianity but it was a statement they felt free to make."

So it was with villains. You could name the moll Lily or Rosy, you could name the henchman Robert, but where would your villain come from? It is no accident that many powerful villains have had no Indian caste identity at all. We do know where Gabbar Singh came from – we even know that his father’s name was Hari Singh – but we have no idea where Dr Dang (Karma, 1986, dr Subhash Ghai) came from or Shakaal (Shaan, 1980, dr Ramesh Sippy) or Loin (Kalicharan, 1976, dr Subhash Ghai) or Mogambo (Mr India, 1987, dr Shekhar Kapur) for that matter. They were villains who were free-floating signifiers. Dr Dang could be Chinese if you wanted him to be Chinese. He could be South-east Asian or even from a tribal belt in India. It did not matter because he could not be located and so could not become an insult to any community. Henchmen were also given ur-names: Jagga, Raaka, Kaalia, Saamba.

Things changed radically when Pakistan became a name that was allowed. It should be remembered that for very long we did not name names of other countries since our censor code actually had a clause stipulating that nothing in a film should harm the nation’s friendly relations with other states. We were so careful about names of other countries that From Russia with Love (1963, dr Terence Young) was only released in India when its distributors agreed to change the name to From 007 with Love and the title song was dropped. When Pakistan became a name that we could say, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001, dr Anil Sharma) happened. It was a loud hysterical film and since the mood was loud and hysterical, it worked magically, becoming one of the top earners of all time. A spate of ‘Pakistan’ films followed, some of which were hits and some of which failed.

In some ways, Godhra proved to be a watershed for the Hindi film industry as it did for the country. (Now, if only Parzania (2007, dr Rahul Dholakia) had been a good piece of cinema instead of a film with good intentions.) The new verities were suddenly looking shaky. The Urdu title of the film name, missing in action for many moons, began to come back. Cynics might claim that this is the possibility of Pakistan as a legitimate market as opposed to being the place where Hindi cinema sells on pirated DVDs. Cynics might be right. It is still a product, still an industry.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Cinema
Another stage
IPTA, the Indian People’s Theatre Association turns 65 

In May this year, the Indian People’s Theatre Association completed 65 years. There was a gathering of litterateurs and theatre people celebrating the event and discussing the growth and achievements of the unique organisation. A large part of the evening was spent in nostalgia, listing the luminaries associated with IPTA, the great plays staged by them reaching out to the common citizen as opposed to the theatre going elite, and so on. There was a small note of self-criticism as well, a brave admission of the fact that while IPTA may not have lost its initial purpose of putting up socially relevant plays, it had perhaps failed to keep up with the times.  

Notwithstanding constant accusations of being old-fashioned, mediocre and unable to reach out to contemporary urban audiences, IPTA still remains the oldest and only organisation of its kind – one that functions like a democratic community of like-minded people rather than a personality driven group, the kind that dies down once its leader is no longer active. IPTA has a presence in 22 states of India with more than 12,000 members in its various units.

IPTA was set up by KA Abbas, Anil de Silva, Ali Sardar Jafri, Dr Bhabha and Dada Sharmalkar during the Quit India movement in 1942, when a group of writers, artistes and activists felt the need to reach out to the masses with nationalistic (the independence movement was at its peak) and progressive ideas through drama, music and dance. IPTA workers fanned out all over the country, performing in remote villages, outside factories and in bastis on makeshift stages.  

The association not only went on to become a significant cultural institution, it also had a great influence on the cinema of that period for several people associated with the group also worked in Hindi films, including writers and poets belonging to the even older Progressive Writers’ Association established in 1936.  

The draft resolution of the IPTA conference in 1943 stated: "The immediate problems facing the people are external aggression by the fascist hordes who are the deadliest enemies of freedom and culture; internal repression by an alien government which seeks to hold our people in subjection and prevent them from organising an effective defence of their homeland; rapid disintegration of the entire economic life of our people and particularly the havoc wrought on the morale and the health of our people by the shortage of food and other essential articles; and lastly the absence of sufficient unity among the people’s forces which alone can compel the imperialist to retire, stop the economic disintegration of the country and defeat the fascist aggressors."

Important among the early plays was Navanna (New Harvest), about the 1943 Bengal famine, and Yeh Kiska Khoon, Gandhi Aur Goonda, Zubeida, Basti, Danga and Mera Gaon – all based on social problems of the time.  

A member of the group for several years, Bengali composer and poet, the late Salil Chowdhury said in an interview that IPTA had a "tremendous impact on society, a lot of things that are available today were made possible by the contribution IPTA made. The IPTA cultural movement and the peasant movement were mainly responsible for the rights that the peasants and workers enjoy today. The kinds of rights that a peasant couldn’t enjoy even 20 years ago, they have got those rights these days, both the peasants and the workers, thanks to such movements… If we staged a play among the peasants, they would take care of us, provide food and raise money for us." 

For a while after independence, IPTA lost its focus but then regrouped in various places and continued the work started by its pioneers. Some IPTA plays that are still remembered by old-timers include Kafan (based on the story by Munshi Premchand), Africa Jawaan Pareshan, Lal Ghulab Ki Wapsi, Ek Chadar Maili Si, Election Ka Ticket, Bhagat Singh, Mahanirvan, Bakri and Sufaid Kundali. 

Plays such as Shatranj Ke Mohre, Ek Aur Dronacharya, Moteram Ka Satyagrah, Aakhri Shama, Tajmahal Ka Tender, have lived on for years even as newer plays like Raat, Kashmakash, Chaubees Ghante, Sarphire and Ek Baar Phir did not find much patronage among today’s entertainment-seeking audiences.

However, IPTA’s current general secretary, Shaili Sathyu feels that comparisons between the old and the new are not quite fair, as issues have changed from the forties to the present day. "What we need to do today is not just reach out to people who agree with us anyway but to put thoughts into the heads of people who don’t go by our democratic beliefs… as long as there is segregation of people for any reason – caste, religion, money or gender – theatre can be used to mobilise opinion and make an attempt to uplift the marginalised."

Current causes like communalism, farmer suicides and loss of idealism in today’s youth may not have found their way into IPTA plays the way issues like corruption, political and bureaucratic ineptitude, and rural oppression did in the past. But in Mumbai, as elsewhere, IPTA still has a dedicated set of workers who keep the group going. Attempts are made to reach young people through the children’s wing, IPTA Balmanch, and the Inter-Collegiate Drama Competition, an institution in itself, which was started in 1972 and has been held every year for the past 35 years.  

Towards the end of the year IPTA will host a three-week long All India People’s Theatre Festival to showcase talent from the group’s units across the country. This may well be a good time to regroup, gather strength and plunge into the deteriorating cultural scene with ideals refreshed. A group that survives 65 years could, perhaps, aim for immortality.


"When we catch children young to make them better human beings through entertainment and games, plays and songs, we transform ourselves also. We receive the innocence of children in our soul and feel happy."

– Ismat Chughtai’s message for IPTA Balmanch in 1984

IPTA Balmanch, the children’s wing of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, was started with a view to inculcate in young and growing minds a sense of appreciation and understanding for the performing arts.

It all began with a theatre workshop production of Munshi Premchand’s short story, Idgah, which premiered at Prithvi Theatre on September 16, 1984. Idgah was adapted as a play by Ranjeet Kapoor and directed by Madhu Malti. The play featured over 30 child artistes including Rajeshwari Sachdev and Shaad Ali among others. Balmanch’s second production was PL Deshpande’s Naya Gokul, also directed by Madhu Malti.

IPTA Balmanch was instrumental in the early years of artistes and theatre personalities like Lubna Salim, Rajeshwari Sachdev, Sagar Arya, Shaili Sathyu and others.

Balmanch has organised theatre and music workshops over the past few years and is planning to make this a regular activity for its young members. In 2006, IPTA Balmanch premiered Gulzar’s Agar Aur Magar, directed by Salim Arif. The play has also been staged at the Jashne Bachpan 2006, National School of Drama, New Delhi, and at the Mumbai Theatre Festival 2007 in Mumbai.

IPTA Mumbai hopes that it can continue its efforts in sensitising children about the world around them through the medium of theatre and performing arts.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Theatre
The gifts of the magi
The birth of the Progressive Artists’ Group

Unlike the bombs that devastated the planet as the second world war blurred the lines between East and West, civilian and combatant, honour and terror, the bombs that exploded in the salons of colonial Bombay’s art scene in the late 1940s were crisp and bright, smelling of fresh paint and fresh ideas.

Many of Bombay’s art lovers, brought up on the genteel aridities of academic realism, found themselves grappling with shock. What did they find on these canvases bearing unknown signatures? Statuesque women modelled in planes jagged enough to draw blood, strangers to the sedate portraits favoured by the patrons of the age. Landscapes laid in impasto thick enough to chew, startling when mounted beside the delicate vistas and faux Mughal-Rajput miniatures approved by prevailing taste. Voluptuous nudes that had cast aside the coyness of their demure life class counterparts, to delight in the immediacy of skin and breath.

A new group of painters had made up their minds to seize centre stage, convinced that they alone could pick up the storyline of the Contemporary in India from where it had been dropped in 1941, after the deaths of the brilliantly idiosyncratic Rabindranath Tagore and the flamboyant but demon-haunted Amrita Sher-Gil.

Souza and Ara, Raza and Husain, Gade and Bakre: these young men were "strange and powerful animals", as one of them recalled fondly, in the course of a conversation with this writer some years ago. They were intense; and intensely frustrated with the canons that guided the practice of painting and the conventions that conditioned its reception in society. They were eager to record unfamiliar sensations, to grasp new and vibrant ways of putting brush and knife to canvas.

Even as India attained independence, they banded themselves into the short-lived but legendary Progressive Artists’ Group. Husain, the oldest, was slow to come on board; Souza, the youngest, was the febrile leader and ideologist. Amazingly, and this is a tribute to early post-colonial India’s – and specifically to early post-colonial Bombay’s – inclusive spirit, most of them belonged to religious minorities that had been shaken and dislocated during the partition that had been the dark twin to independence, their sense of self challenged and their reasons for belonging questioned.

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, the Progressives established themselves as the standard-bearers of India’s first post-colonial generation of artists and dominated the art scene in this country. They decided to explore a path distinct from the indigenously achieved modernism of Santiniketan, the utopian forest-university that Tagore had established in Bolpur, in the tribal heartland of eastern India. For the brilliantly eclectic Santiniketan artists, the toy-making and bell-casting techniques of tribal shamans went into the same crucible as Brancusi’s sculptures and Picasso’s epiphanies.

But the Progressives were Bombay artists. Although they were later to change their minds, the hinterland of India represented all that was to be left behind; the future lay elsewhere, in the metropolitan centres of the West. They were intense in their engagement with Art (they always speak of pictorial practice in the upper case), certain that it should be autonomous (even if they were not always certain of what it should be autonomous of), and quick to dismiss many who did not belong to their circle as social decorations, charlatans, or simply, as ‘non-artists’. They were convinced, also, that they should aim for standards of excellence that were international rather than merely local. And yet, these firebrands may never have been transformed into the sophisticated and magisterial figures that they later became without a crucial encounter that stimulated their energies, catalysing their enthusiasm into achievement.

The volatile Souza may well have wasted his life in prolonged tirades against god, the state and society, like many other Goan cranks. Husain may have hesitated, despite his resourcefulness and pragmatism, to break free of his anchorage in the Muslim artisanate and upper working class and redefine himself as an international nomad. The cautious Raza may not have received the impetus, so early, to book a passage to France and devote himself to a switching between the parentheses of Indic metaphysics and European urbanity.

These young men may not have transformed themselves so radically without the gifts of three eastward bound magi of Central European provenance answering to the names of Rudolf von Leyden, Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel Schlesinger. Without this troika of expatriate patrons who introduced them to the powerful languages of European modernism, the Progressives may well have remained raw, troubled rebels with the vaguest glimmering of a cause. And how intriguing that these magi should themselves have been affiliated to a minority group that had been stigmatised in Europe, herded into annihilation or driven into exile.


This meeting between the Central European magi and the future masters of post-colonial Indian art is a classic example of the enabling fortuity of the great city, the serendipity with which a global metropolis can nourish intercultural encounter. Von Leyden, Langhammer and Schlesinger were refugees from a Europe overshadowed by the Third Reich, who had made Bombay their home. Situated safely midway between the embattled harbours of the second world war’s eastern and western theatres – with Marseilles and Suez at one end, and Shanghai and Singapore at the other – Bombay played host to a varied cast of characters transiting from one uncertainty to another.

In this exodus were men and women who had narrowly escaped the SS, leaving behind sumptuous apartments or villas in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Vienna, Salzburg, Budapest, Prague and many other glittering cities that had fallen under the jackboots of Hitler’s armies. Like their diasporic forefathers, who had been forced from their homes first in the Levant and later in Reconquista Spain, these representatives of the refined German-speaking Jewish elite had carried into exile what was most precious to them: their culture. Theirs was a connoisseurial heritage, its amplitude measured in musical scores and instruments, paintings and books.

Von Leyden, Schlesinger and Langhammer had arrived in Bombay at various points after the Nazis had seized power in Germany in 1933 and re-established their interrupted lives. Each had prospered reasonably by the mid-1940s and found a place in their host society: Langhammer was art director of The Times of India; von Leyden was a senior executive with the Swiss-Jewish firm of Volkarts and also art critic for The Times of India; Emmanuel Schlesinger owned a pharmaceuticals firm. Together, they had formed a circle into which they gradually invited some of the most gifted young artists who had appeared on a scene benumbed by British colonial taste. The Progressives were invited to the Sunday morning meetings that Langhammer held at his home, which von Leyden and Schlesinger also attended. Here, these transplanted Europeans would open before their protégés the sophistications of the Eden they had known and from which they had been expelled.

For the Progressives, whose knowledge of modern Euro-American art came mainly from art books printed on war quality paper and confined to black and white reproductions, the full-colour amazements of Schiele, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Rouault, Modigliani, Klee and Picasso, these were invaluable lessons. In retrospect, it also seems clear that the troika also infected their acolytes with a nagging sense of discontent and dislocation, the belief that the horrors of experience could only be healed by the affirmations of art, which could only be found in the lost Europe of their nostalgia.

To the Progressives – both the nucleus of founder members and their associates, Akbar Padamsee, VS Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna and Mohan Samant, life could no longer go on as before. They were seized by a yearning to travel, to unchain themselves from the familiar. Despite Nehru’s stirring evocation of the "soul of a nation, long suppressed, [finding] utterance" at the threshold of independence, the new India had begun to devote itself obsessively to the practical rather than the imaginative aspect of collective life: while culture was celebrated and even institutionalised as a monopoly of the dirigiste, developmentalist state, cultural practitioners did not necessarily receive support unless their activities could be brought into the ambit of an official national art. If they could paint murals and produce public sculpture, this was acceptable; more conceptual, experimental or private departures were not regarded as pertinent.

The Progressives, like many other young artists elsewhere in India at this time, wanted to remake themselves in societies that were hospitable to the imagination and where they did not have to assert their preference to be artists rather than engineers, social workers or medical practitioners dedicated to the task of building a new nation. Most of them went westward: some to Paris, others to London, one or two brave souls to New York. Some settled in their new homes; others returned after varying periods of residence abroad; and yet others among them have shuttled back and forth for decades.


The trouble with latter-day magi, as O. Henry’s Christmas parable suggests, is that their gifts can go tragically awry. While the Central European troika gave the unruly talent of the Bombay artists a sense of direction and purpose, their patronage also had a certain negative and even limiting effect. The acolytes, flying on their guides’ instructions to Europe, missed the transatlantic flight of talent, capital and knowledge that had already taken off during the war. Painters and critics, collectors and dealers, museum specialists and historians had all escaped the Nazi onslaught to settle in the USA, mainly in enclaves on the east coast. Apprenticing themselves to the School of Paris, which was already fading before the School of New York, some of the Progressives condemned themselves to years of epigonic work justified by an exhausted rhetoric of originality and heroic quest; a fate from which they were not released until changed historical or personal circumstances allowed them to grow beyond the context of their apprenticeship.

Fortunately, some of the Progressives and their associates took up the challenge of formulating an artistic language that addressed its immediate location and yet could communicate across borders without restricting itself to the auto-Orientalism of ethnic or nativist choices. As the impact of personal encounter and the charisma of their European mentors faded, the Progressives could discard the biases and preferences they had imbibed, and distil the lesson of transcultural receptivity from their encounter with the magi.

Over the decades they have opened themselves to diverse artistic lineages, becoming attentive, variously, to impulses that came from T’ang painting and the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, from Gupta sculpture and the Rajput raga-malika paintings, from cinema and mathematics, Sanskrit grammar and Santhal mythology. The leading spirits of the Progressive Artists’ Group emerged strengthened from this confluence of lineages and have remained committed to a lifelong quest for the crucial rather than the alluring image, seeking it through the icon of the heroic survivor, the allegorical tableau, the visionary landscape and the symbol that mediates between time’s decay and the luminosity of the eternal.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Art

Hamara Shaher
Mumbai is sinking into a sea of narrow-mindedness, insecurity and exclusion

Recently, I was scanning the lanes of Mumbai to look for heritage buildings as part of a consultancy on behalf of the Mumbai Heritage Committee. The objective was to enlarge the scope of ‘heritage’ beyond architectural monuments to include locations of cultural importance as well. Working together, my friend, Rafique Baghdadi and I decided to include in the list the residence of writer Saadat Hasan Manto while he lived in Bombay.

We arrived at a middle class housing colony located in the heart of Central Mumbai, inhabited predominantly by non-Hindus. Beyond the closed gate we could see a large central open court surrounded by a cluster of modest Art Deco buildings. One of them could be the place where Manto once lived and wrote. The security guard at the gate refused to let us in unless we told him which colony resident we wanted to meet. Unable to provide him with a satisfactory answer, we requested him to let us speak to the men chatting in the courtyard, who, as luck would have it, turned out to be office bearers of the society.

With the locked gate between us, we explained the purpose of our visit and asked them to please allow us to enter. Yes, they had heard of Manto a few years ago when a foreigner came looking for Manto’s former home but failed to locate it. But now we know the exact apartment in which Manto lived, Rafique told them, so could they please let us in? No. We pleaded with them, we even tried to force our way through in desperation and things finally ended just short of a physical fight before we were thrown out of there.

This was the changing face of Bombay for us, post 1992-1993. Over the last decade and a half, the city seems to be reverting to its early character of being a cluster of islands. Islands of glittering steel and glass towers to keep up with global imagery, islands of sprawling housing complexes with private gardens and swimming pools, islands of slums and chawls locked in terror by the real estate mafia, islands of educational institutions controlled by politicians built on caste, community, language and religion, islands of majority and minority ghettos, and the high status island called the ‘town’ associated with the colonial past. These are the new islands with their own fortifications turning Mumbai into a multi-fortressed city. The causeways that connect these islands seem to be sinking into an ocean of unprecedented intolerance and insecurity.

This new environment has adversely affected the physical and social mobility of citizens at large but particularly its women and now, surprisingly, the city’s youth. I teach as a visiting faculty member in a college of architecture located in Mumbai’s richest suburb. I notice a wide rift between the students from South Mumbai, who are called ‘townies’, and those from the suburbs. I have also observed that today’s suburban youth rarely travel to ‘town’. In the past, students, their parents, chose a college based on its reputation rather than its proximity to their home. Today the position has been reversed.

It is surprising to learn that, on an average, 50 per cent of the students from well-to-do backgrounds seeking admission into architectural colleges have never visited public monuments like the Town Hall, the university or the museum located in South Mumbai. Safety and security are the current mantras for parents who also support moral surveillance by the state police, never mind if their children’s mobility and exposure is limited to their own PCs and neighbourhoods. This anxiety is no longer restricted to women alone. I know of a parent from the distant suburb of Borivali who, after last year’s train blasts, made her son give up his admission to a prestigious college near Churchgate and settle for a college in their own suburb instead!

The suburbs began to grow enormously in the seventies, responding to the emerging aspirations of nuclear families. This also coincided with the government’s realisation that its future lay in real estate development. The prestigious Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade areas were developed by reclaiming the sea at the city’s southern end, a clear indication that the city’s politicians had no real intention to reduce the commercial and administrative importance of South Bombay whose claim to fame is its cultural links to the colonial period. Developed by real estate investors, the new suburbs of Andheri, Malad and Borivali, to name but a few, encouraged the movement of the middle classes from the crowded chawls of South Bombay to self-contained flats.

Initially dependent on South Bombay for their social and cultural ties, over the years the suburbs generated their own commerce and culture. The eighties saw an increasing number of migrants – many of them single women – from professional fields like the law, media, art and culture who found that this city offered them the freedom, mobility and safety they were denied in most other urban areas of India. The suburbs grew in density of population, property development being facilitated by an increase in the FSI (floor space index) through changing urban policies, but without their due share of physical and social infrastructure.

Today malls and multiplexes are the landmarks of post-industrial suburbs that once were marked by industries and working class settlements. In the absence of adequate public spaces like parks, playgrounds, libraries and cultural centres, these malls and multiplexes are promoted as places for family recreation although not without their class-based exclusivist norms for entry.

Last Christmas, as I was waiting by the entrance of a mall enticingly decorated with a super size floating Santa Claus and various toys, I saw a working class father awkwardly entering the foyer with his young son. The security officer stopped them at the door and on learning that the father wanted to buy the boy an ice cream, promptly directed them to a roadside stall. When some of us lodged a strong protest, the mall authorities drew our attention to a board which clearly stipulated that right of entry was reserved. While we were busy arguing, the family had quietly walked away.

There was a time when Mumbai’s industrial character kept it alive, 24x7. Even late at night and in the wee hours, local trains would be bustling with workers, men and women, working various shifts throughout the day. The post-industrial landscape has affected life in the city in more ways than one. The vibrant community life that once characterised working class chawls and city slums is getting trapped in the high density ‘free’ housing provided in multi-storey towers with virtually no open space on the ground. Industrial disputes in the early eighties, the closures in the nineties and the resulting unemployment often supplied the cadres needed by emerging mafias.

If the state housing policy is an indicator of the future, the working classes will soon be housed in large townships outside the city and only be brought in to work by a rapid mass transport system. Is this not reminiscent of a time when blacks required an entry pass to remain in the city after sunset during the years of apartheid?

The growing paranoia about safety and security in the city has given rise to an unprecedented territorial claim made by the elite middle class on their respective neighbourhoods. Known as Advanced Locality Management or ALMs, these neighbourhood citizens’ groups have, as an interface of civil society initiatives, taken it upon themselves to save their own neighbourhoods by cleansing and beautifying them. More often than not they do not represent all the voices in the locality. In such initiatives ‘ugly encroachments’ of hawkers or slums are replaced by beautifying elements such as flower planters along the pavements and decorative fencing around playgrounds, parks and waterfronts to keep away the unwanted ‘others’. This ‘othering’ on the basis of class, caste and religion has shaken the very foundation of urbanisation.

I recall an event that the cultural centre, Majlis, had organised as part of a youth festival called ‘India Sabka’, held a few months after the Gujarat riots. We announced a competition for city students to create a design intervention in a playground located between a Muslim and a Hindu settlement that had become a battleground during the riots. One of the more striking proposals was a plan for a community centre designed as a composition of carefully fragmented built forms loosely assembled together. The line below the model read, "Reclaiming our common space".

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Architecture
Thoughts in a temple
The growth of Hindutva; the demise of Hinduism

Two weeks ago, I went for a walk with my daughter to the Birla temple. It is not far from where I live and I have seen it coming up for years, from a time when I did not actually live in Calcutta but when, during long or short periods of transit, would look at it from the balcony of this flat. It was built – this plush Orientalist artefact – by the family after which it is named: the Birlas, whose forefather moved from Rajasthan to Calcutta and made his fortune here.

I can’t say I unreservedly enjoy going to this temple; there are, however, only so many places to walk about in Calcutta. My daughter, though, does enjoy going there, without reservation, and this was both her second visit and mine. The first time must have been almost exactly a year ago. I remember the warm marble floor under our bare feet from that excursion, the floor that must have absorbed the heat all day to give it out in the evening. I can also remember my daughter, a year younger, running across the space before the main shrine. On our second visit, the marble was warm again beneath our feet.

On this visit, the precincts of the temple were more crowded than the first time I went there. It was a site of recreation – men and women, and some children, sat in the large space before the steps that led to the sanctum in which the arti (evening prayers offered to the deity) was being performed. They looked content, like people at the seaside. My daughter, easily frightened, was alarmed at the sound of the bell and did not want to investigate the arti – the familiar tune, which one can hear these days even when certain domestic water filters are used, was being played on a tape – and so we roamed around the premises. A thought came to me: would these people condone, or at least defend, what was happening in Gujarat?

The question was probably grossly unfair but impossible to keep out of my head or leave unasked. In the last ten years, gradually, the idea of the ‘peace-loving Hindu’ has been turned inside out. The most innocent-seeming of activities appear to be charged with unarticulated violence. To walk in the Birla temple was to sense – perhaps to imagine, but to imagine powerfully – that subterranean violence which Hinduism is now charged with in its totality: because you cannot isolate one kind of ‘religious’ activity from another.

Perhaps it was the location; perhaps I wouldn’t have felt this discomfort if these people had gathered at a more ancient, less ostentatious, place of worship. I have never really cared for the Birla temple, for its security guards who hover not very far from you once you enter, its marble floor and enormous chandelier, its expansive air of a lobby in a four star hotel, its spotless, garish, unimpeachable idols.

This spectacle is part of the production of a version of Hinduism that has been a steadily developing enterprise in independent India: Hinduism as a rich man’s, a trader’s, religion. Although aggressive exhortations are made on behalf of Lord Ram, the principal deities of this religion are Ganesh and Lakshmi: not Ganesh, the wily and rapid transcriber of the Mahabharata, but the bringer of good fortune to the black marketeer; not Lakshmi, the agrarian goddess, but the goddess who presides over the urban dowry system. As ever, our divinities bless their devotees indiscriminately.

I have heard Hinduism celebrated for the resilience with which it, unlike other religions, has embraced capitalism, but perhaps it has embraced capitalism a little too well. It has left the Hindu with an importunate will to fit into the modern world, and without a social conscience.

Hindutva – the BJP’s frequently used ontologically and culturally assertive term for ‘Hinduness’ – does not so much promote religion as it does material success for the followers of the Hindu religion. Success, in the nineties, has been its keyword, but success for the majority only. It will not barter or share it with anyone else; it will even pretend no one else exists. If they do, it will see to it that they cease to. I presume it is not a coincidence that the extreme measures of ethnic cleansing in Gujarat should be undertaken by those who have been the most effective proponents of the new Hinduism’s mantra of material well-being. Many of the sources that fund our new kitsch Hinduism are also those that fund, or quietly encourage, a government that has a chief minister who defends and protects murderers, and a prime minister (Atal Bihari Vajpayee, this piece was written in 2002) who defends and protects that minister. Then there is the largesse that flows in from overseas, from businessmen in London, from expatriates in England and America. Does it only take an arti to keep our gods happy?

Hinduism was never in the past (unlike Christianity) at the heart of a revolutionary political movement precisely because it was never an evangelical religion; it had no word, or truth, to spread. The killings done in its name today are not part of a jihad and nor are they the residue of a misguided evangelism. They are a brutal and calculated exercise of power in a moral vacuum: Hinduism as the punitive instrument of the powerful.

Christianity has often had a quarrel with modernity and the materialism it denotes in its eyes; Islam has a related quarrel with the West, modernity’s synecdoche. That is why Islamic militancy, even at its worst, has the dimensions of an ideology albeit a distorted one. Hindutva, on the other hand, has no problem with modernity or with the West and it rushes to embrace the latter’s material benefits. This happy concordance, in Hindutva, of cultural extremism and materialism makes it less like a ‘fundamentalist’ religious movement than like fascism.

‘Hinduism’ and the ‘mainstream’, how frequently are these words juxtaposed and made synonymous with each other by the ruling political party! ‘Mainstream’: the word that would mean, in a democratic nation, the law-abiding democratic polity, is cunningly conflated, in the newspeak of our present government, with the religious majority and those who don’t belong to that majority become, by subconscious association and suggestion, anti-democratic and breakers of the law.

Ironically, saffron is the colour of our mainstream. Saffron, or ‘gerua’ in the Indian languages: its resonances are wholly to do with that powerful undercurrent in Hinduism, ‘vairagya’, the melancholy and romantic possibility of renunciation. At what point, and how, did the colour of renunciation and withdrawal from the world become the symbol of a militant and materialistic majoritarianism? Gerua represents not what is brahmanical and conservative but what is most radical about the Hindu religion. It is the colour not of belonging, or fitting in, but of exile, of the marginal man. Hindutva, while rewriting our secular histories, has also rewritten the language of Hinduism and purged it of these meanings; and those of us who mourn the passing of secularism must also believe we are witnessing the passing, and demise, of the Hindu religion as we have known it.

We perhaps owe the politicisation of the colour saffron, its recent use in India as a sign of national pride, to the Hindu revivalist, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). We largely owe to him too (more than we do to any other single person) the notion of ‘Hinduness’. Vivekananda is a curious figure and an exemplary one; his story is inflected with the conflicts of interest, the contradictions, of the emergence of Hinduism into modernity.

Vivekananda’s real name was Narendranath Datta. He was a graduate of Calcutta University and had studied European religions carefully. Like many other middle class, educated men of his generation in India and elsewhere, he was a seeker after metaphysical and religious truth, but his search was related to the self-awareness of a colonial subject. After rejecting the major religions and philosophies he was surrounded by, Datta finally found his master in a rustic visionary and saint, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who was a priest in a town north of Calcutta, who spoke in parables and homilies and claimed to have ‘seen’ Ma Kali. Ironically, and characteristically of the time, he first heard of Ramakrishna from an Englishman, Professor WW Hastie. And it was Ramakrishna who reportedly identified Datta’s spiritual potential and named him Vivekananda – ‘the one who exults in a clear conscience and in discernment’.

Ramakrishna was an extraordinary man himself. He had experimented, literally, in varieties of religious experience. He could practise, for periods of time, faiths such as Islam and Christianity. His immersion, during these trance-like periods, in these alternative modes of worship was so complete that he would begin to internalise the habits and customs of other religions, to spend, for instance, long spells inside a mosque and eat beef; he’d even experience a sort of revulsion towards his beloved deity, Kali. His experiments led him to conclude, influentially, that all paths led to god (‘jata mat tata path’ – ‘there are as many paths as there are faiths’).

This, then, was part of Vivekananda’s liberal inheritance but it was an inheritance quite different from that of the liberal humanism that had come to exist in Bengal by this time, and which Vivekananda, as Narendranath Datta, would probably have subscribed to had he not met Ramakrishna. It was a middle class humanism that decreed tolerance towards all faiths regardless of whether or not you adhered to one yourself.

Ramakrishna, on the other hand, located these various religions not in the society or nation he lived in but in himself. It was here they coexisted and competed with each other, often annihilating each other temporarily. History animated him from within.

The liberal humanism of the Bengal Renaissance formed the basis of the secular Indian state. The experiments of Ramakrishna, in which different ways of seeing existed in a sort of tension within oneself, formed the basis of the creativity of the modern Indian. It is no accident that every significant Indian writer or artist has negotiated seemingly antithetical world views or languages in his or her work.

But the relationship that the BJP and the new BJP-governed middle class have with Hinduism is prescriptive, not creative. For years now, the BJP’s satellites of the far right have imposed a violent if illegal ban on imagined offences to the Hindu religion, and abused and harassed artists and writers for their supposed transgressions. This is not only a failure of secularism; it speaks to us of the imminent death of Ramakrishna’s inheritance: leaving us unable to negotiate any more the different ways of seeing in a way that might create rather than destroy.

In 1893, a penurious Vivekananda travelled to Chicago to attend the Parliament of World Religions. By this time he had abandoned the white apparel of the brahmachari, the celibate devotee, for the saffron of the sanyasi, the wandering holy mendicant. As a follower of Ramakrishna he had graduated from brahmacharya to sanyas, from celibacy to renunciation, and yet it was now that he and his religion would embrace the world, not only in a metaphorical and metaphysical but in a new, global, sense. His address in Chicago, in which he announced a resurgent Hinduism to the West, made him famous and made, by association and almost by chance, the colour he was wearing the sign of that resurgence rather than of liminality.

We might think we see some of the lineaments of today’s Hindutva in Vivekananda’s revived faith and while it is hard to deny the lineage, it is important to distinguish between the two.

Certainly, Vivekananda wanted Hinduism to stand on its own two feet, to become less inward-looking, and exhorted it to become a more ‘manly’ religion. Like other figures of the Bengal Renaissance, he welcomed western rationalism, science and materialism, and wanted Hinduism to enter into a transaction with these things. Hindutva continues that journey westward but the West itself has become a different entity from what it was in the late 19th century. Vivekananda could not have foreseen a West that is synonymous, principally, with the benefits of the free market, which the twice-born Hindutva now rushes towards. Moreover, Ramakrishna, the rustic seer, was important to Vivekananda as the vernacular root of Hinduism. He couldn’t have known that the religion he helped revive would venture so far into the world that it would become, in essence, a globalised urban faith, in Delhi and Bombay, London and New York, divorced from the vernacular experience that Ramakrishna represented. The followers of the postmodern Hindutva still ritually, and piously, celebrate Vivekananda but, a hundred years after his death, no longer exult in conscience or discernment.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Society
No Entry for the New Sun
Dalit poetry in India

No Entry for the New Sun
By Vilas Rashinkar

With determination they set
the stamp of approval
on their own garrulous tongue
so it becomes easy
to collect a hundred tongues
and spit on the sun.
They prop up crumbled bastions
in ten places
with the twigs of history.
They unwrap the scriptures
from their protective covers
and insist –
‘These are commandments
engraved on stone.’
From pitch-back tunnels
they gather ashes
floating on jet-black water
and reconstruct the skeletons
of their ancestors,
singing hymns
of their thoughts
worn to shreds.
There is no entry here
for the new sun.
This is the empire
of ancestor-worship,
of blackened castoffs,
of darkness.
(Translated by Priya Adarkar)


By Narendra Patil

‘Merely an exhalation’
have slapped down a suit
on the burning thoughts
in my mind!
They’ve put all burning minds
In custody.
all gardens of dreams.
But how long can this bird
remain in this dungeon
whose very walls tremble
with his every exhalation?

(Translated by Shanta Gokhale)


To Dear Aana
By Suresh Kadam

The sunset does not bury our sorrows,
nor does sunrise bring new hopes.
Everything continues, relentlessly.
Society, bound by her rituals of ages,
chews up chunks of human flesh
in blind fury:
the horse she rides
bleeds and foams at the mouth:
she holds the reins
of an ancient system;
her predator’s ears
listen for the twittering of birds;
in the orthodoxy of her world
passion and intensity are ridiculed.
Therefore, dear Aana,
you ought not to have cherished expectations
of a lingering kiss in the long night.

(Translated by Vilas Sarang)

By FM Shinde

Once you’re used to it
you never afterwards
feel anything;
your blood nevermore
nor flows
for wet mud has been slapped
over all your bones.
Once you’re used to it
even the sorrow
that visits you
sometimes, in dreams,
melts away, embarrassed.
Habit isn’t used to breaking out
in feelings.

(Translated by Priya Adarkar)
This Country is Broken
By Bapurao Jagtap

This country is broken into a thousand pieces;
its cities, its religion, its castes,
its people, and even the minds of the people
– all are broken, fragmented.
In this country, each day burns
scorching each moment of our lives.
We bear it all, and stand solid as hills
in this our life
that we do not accept.
Brother, our screams are only an attempt
to write the chronicle of this country
– this naked country
with its heartless religion.
The people here rejoice in their black laws
and deny that we were ever born.
Let us go to some country, brother,
Where, while you live, you will have
a roof above your head,
and where, when you die, there will at least be
a cemetery to receive you.

(Translated by Vilas Sarang)

Light Melted in Darkness
By Meena Gajabhiye

Day slants, narrows down
And then I melt
in the empty space of darkness.
Though I am severed in two
no one cares.
Their leafless bough
never blossoms!
Although they strike root
seeped in my blood
I am entangled in python-coils
for ages.
Their venomous hiss
turns my day into night.
And when I reach out for a sunray
it recedes far away
like the end of a dream
when the eyelid is opened.

(Translated by Charudatta Bhagwat)

By Bhau Panchbhai
How do we taste milk in this town
where trees are planted of venom?
Enemies invite nothing but enmity
How can we share a drink of friendship?
How can I know this town as my own
where workmen are slaughtered daily?
How do I burn to light the path
at this turn
where hutments are set on fire?
They all partake of fruits of faithlessness
How am I to join such company?
Change your cradle if you would
How do I twist the shape of a newborn babe?
I see the clash of prisoners
Trained in schools of warfare
They die, how am I to survive here?
(Translated by Charudatta Bhagwat)

White Paper
By Sharankumar Limbale

I do not ask
for the sun and moon your sky
your farm, your land,
your high houses or your mansions
I do not ask for gods or rituals,
castes or sects
Or even for your mother, sisters, daughters
I ask for
my rights as a man.
Each breath from my lungs
sets off a violent trembling
in your texts and traditions
your hells and heavens
fearing pollution.
Your arms leapt together
To bring to ruin our dwelling places.
You’ll beat me, break me,
loot and burn my habitation
But my friends!
How will you tear down my words
planted like a sun in the east?
My rights: contagious caste riots
festering city by city, village by village,
man by man
For that’s what my rights are –
Sealed off, outcast, road-blocked, exiled.
I want my rights, give me my rights.
Will you deny this incendiary state of things?
I’ll uproot the scriptures like railway tracks.
Burn like a city bus your lawless laws
My friends!
My rights are rising like the sun.
Will you deny this sunrise?

(Translated by Priya Adarkar)

(Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, Arjun Dangle (Ed.), Orient Longman Limited, 1992.)

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Voices
Pakistan: Ideological illusions
Sixty years of Pakistan

Pakistan with its newly emerging society inherited three elements as legacy. First was the poetry of Altaf Hussain Hali and Muhammad Iqbal, structured around an illusion of a supposedly glorious past, enthralling readers and subsequently giving birth to revivalist movements of all hues. Second, having developed, perhaps understandably, an inferiority complex and a sense of insecurity, the Muslims of the subcontinent adopted an anti-Hindu and anti-democratic attitude. Third, the leadership quickly turned to dealing with all political issues sentimentally rather than rationally.

When the demand for Pakistan was put forward, it shaped itself into a claim for a separate homeland for Muslims where they could live according to their beliefs. Consequently, separation rather than integration became the core of the Pakistan movement. Today, sixty years after independence, as we look back at our history we find these elements still alive in Pakistan’s body politic.

The country has faced a number of political, social, economic and cultural crises after its creation. However, the state survived and took a direction that was supposed to help determine its identity. The factor that played an important role in shaping this identity and determining its destiny was the formulation of an ideology. To have an identity separate from India, the new country also required an ideology. If India was secular, Pakistan had to be an Islamic state in order to justify its separation and the partition of the subcontinent.

In the early phase, the task of framing this ideology lay in the hands of modern scholars such as IH Qureshi and SM Ikram who provided a historical basis for the concept of ‘two nations’ and the role of Islam in shaping a solid Muslim community on the subcontinent. In his book titled Ideology of Pakistan, published in the fifties, Javed Iqbal observes, "Obviously Pakistan is an ideological state and can therefore survive now only as long as its ideological integrity is ensured. It is this ideology which is the foundation of our nationhood, and is the source of our national, political, economic, cultural, religious and moral values or ideals and their expression." He further writes, "Pakistan claims itself to be an ideological state because it is founded on Islam."

In the second phase, the task of consolidating and solidifying the Pakistan ideology was taken over by religious scholars and educationists or authors of textbooks who had government backing. In one such textbook, Pakistan Studies, the author, Gul Shahzad Sarwar says, "The ideology of Pakistan means the ideology of Islam. It guides us in every aspect of life." The same theme is repeated in other textbooks prescribed by educational institutions. Guided by ideology, the state and society itself underwent the process of Islamisation with rapid transformations in our educational, legal and economic systems that subsequently opened the floodgates of confusion and chaos.

The implication of the Pakistan ideology is that the state is a religious entity whose official faith is Islam. It contradicts the concept of a modern nation state, in practice in modern democracies all over the world, whose base is secular nationalism. It naturally excludes all non-Muslim minorities from the concept of nationhood and relegates them to a secondary position of citizenship. A severe blow was dealt to these minorities in Pakistan when the Objectives Resolution was passed in 1949 declaring, "sovereignty belongs to god". The very idea contradicts the modern concept of democracy in which sovereignty belongs to the people. The resolution also declared that no law could be passed that goes against the texts of the holy Koran and the Sunnah (traditions of the holy prophet).

Consequently, as far as Pakistan was concerned the entire process of law-making remained at a standstill if viewed from the perspective of a fast changing modern world, new technologies and a revision of outdated or extinct values. According to the Pakistan ideology, the concept of two nations did not end with partition and serves even today to know the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims. Today our ideology is sacrosanct and to challenge or deny it is a crime punishable with 10 years of rigorous imprisonment (under a law passed during former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s regime).

Today this ideology seeps into every aspect of an average Pakistani’s life. Religious parties have gained strength while enthusiastically and repeatedly calling for the creation of a ‘truly Islamic’ state. They adopt two approaches to achieve their objective. In one case, the strategy is to capture power by armed struggle, which they call jihad, against secular and irreligious elements. In the other, there are parties that would like to control the state through the democratic process but with a promise to implement the shariah. Mainstream political parties also publicise the religious provisions in their manifestos to counter religious parties and gain popular votes. Undeniably, religion has become the most important factor in the politics of Pakistan, even dragging the army into the fray when the army’s job is to defend the nation’s frontiers.

This ideology has also transformed and reshaped the images of two individuals who are the pillars of Pakistan’s creation: Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Iqbal is identified as the person who presented the idea of Pakistan as a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. In this respect, as creator of the idea, Iqbal assumed a position of greater importance than Jinnah who was only given credit for actualising the former’s dream, which automatically relegated him to a secondary position. The Pakistani state recognises Iqbal as its ‘national poet’ and it was no coincidence that his ideas suited the interests of Pakistan’s ruling class. Iqbal has also become a favourite figure for Pakistan’s religious parties who continue to discover themes in his poetry that help them promote their religious agendas. His concept of ghazi (holy warrior), momin (true believer), Muslim ummah and his faith in military power for the glorification of the nation, his anti-West, anti-democracy, anti-women, anti-philosophy and anti-fine arts rhetoric provides rich and persuasive material to the fundamentalists.

The same elements have also transformed Muhammad Ali Jinnah into a religious figure. The fact that he was secular in his private life is comfortably ignored. On the basis of speeches in which he mentioned Islam, his personality and his views were reconstructed and he is today portrayed as a deeply religious person. In a tactical move, the religious parties, instead of disowning Jinnah, transformed and adapted his image to suit their interests. Popular articles, especially in Urdu newspapers, narrate stories about his religious zeal. In his official portrait Jinnah is deliberately shown dressed in the traditional sherwani, which immediately gives viewers the impression of a man of faith. These fabricated images of Jinnah and Iqbal are effective tools in the hands of right wing parties today.

An ideological state has to carry a heavy burden. It has to constantly defend and protect itself from all manner of challenges on a permanent basis. It must also justify its existence scientifically, culturally and socially, distort facts in order to hide its weaknesses, and interpret and reinterpret its image on a quasi-perpetual basis to legitimise its existence and usefulness. In an ideological state only one truth prevails. All thought is discarded. All doors to new ideas are adamantly banged shut.

If we analyse the situation in Pakistan at this juncture, we realise that its society has suffered and declined as a result of this infamous ideological stranglehold. Since there is no space for new ideas and fresh thought, creativity has seen a decline; it is no longer capable of producing philosophers, historians, poets, artists, filmmakers, architects, short story writers, novelists or musicians. Intellectually and culturally, it has become barren. There is nothing that could nourish young minds except obsolete or outmoded ideas.

The writer Qurratulain Hyder ultimately returned to live in India following bitter criticism of her novel, Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire). Josh Malihabadi’s poetry was banned when the establishment and religious groups did not like comments he made in an interview. The poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz stayed out of the country for most of his life. (Credit must go to Habib Jalib who continued to write rebellious poetry despite being imprisoned on several occasions.) A much dejected Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, master of classical music, returned to India where he was received enthusiastically, as was his due.

In the academic field, too, the country suffered heavily. To meet the exigencies of an ideological state, two new subjects, "Pakistan Studies" and "Islam", were introduced at all levels of education to turn successive generations into "good" Pakistanis and "good" Muslims. Historians and political scientists began expending all their energy in attempting to justify the creation of Pakistan. As the standard of academic research declined, Pakistani "scholars" lost all contact with international academia. Sadly, there are no organisations for social scientists to come together and discuss recent research, and only a few substandard research journals that are, understandably, not recognised internationally. Internationally, Pakistan stands nowhere in academic status and credibility. This is a tragedy.

When only one truth and one ideology prevail, society plunges into extremism and fundamentalism grows rapidly as the only solution to all problems. As there is no alternative to challenge this fundamentalism, society at large believes in its validity and its power to change and reform. Ironically, technology is also helping to popularise conservative ideas with the help of cassettes, documentaries, CDs, the Internet and email. Almost every television channel in Pakistan broadcasts programmes that promote extremism and make people more narrow-minded.

In a sign of superficial religiosity, the organisation of religious gatherings has become a popular phenomenon in order to express piety and devotion. There is a popular trend to go for Hajj and Umrah in order to earn respectability in the eyes of the people. In the name of charity, the rich, especially the business community, donate a lot of money to madrassas and mosques. But in spite of this show of Islamic fervour, society remains morally corrupt and inept. Crimes against women are increasing: kidnapping, rape, honour killing and the parading of naked women has become routine.

In these sixty years Pakistan’s performance has not been much to write home about. While some individuals and groups have raised their voices against ideological restrictions, and made an attempt to create a liberal and progressive atmosphere, not much attention has been paid to these brave initiatives. As for the question: Is there still hope that Pakistan will rid itself of the ideological stranglehold? The answer is both yes and no. It depends entirely on the creative powers that may still be struggling to break free.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Pakistan 1
Pakistan: Requiem for a tradition
Classical music is languishing in Pakistan

Classical music is standing on its last legs in Pakistan. The sarangi and vichitra veena are dead. There is only one sarod  player in the entire country, Asad Qizilbash. Tari Khan is the only tabla player who can play a complex rhythmic cycle. Ashraf Sharif Khan Poonchwale is the only sitar player who can rub shoulders with sitar players of international repute.

The saddest aspect is that none of these artistes has a successor and their art will be buried with them. Vocal music is also in shambles. The progeny of Fateh Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan have been a great disappointment to their gharanas. Thus, the gaiki (style) of Patiala and Sham Chaurasi is literally dead. Ghazal and thumri are also on the deathbed, ever since the incapacitation of Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano due to age.

Pakistan inherited classical music, like other assets, at the time of partition but did nothing for its development. It was unable to retain even a genius like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Bureaucratic arrogance forced him to surrender Pakistani nationality and settle in India where he was revered like another Tansen. Ustad Alla Rakha received much the same treatment as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. His greatest contribution to the world of music is his son, Ustad Zakir Hussain, who is regarded as the tabla player of the century. Alla Rakha could never have made this contribution had he lived in Pakistan.

Some 20 years ago, a great Indian sitar player, Rais Khan became a Pakistani national after marrying our Bilquis Khanum. Neither the music institutions nor the artistes in Pakistan bothered to benefit from this opportunity. He was given the same treatment as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and as a result his music never witnessed further progress. Rais Khan, by becoming a Pakistani national, deprived his son Farhan of the vast exposure he could have had in India. His son can never be a good sitar player while he lives in Pakistan.

The mindset of musicians has also caused colossal damage to music in Pakistan. Pakistani musicians deliberately kept their art secret and made no efforts to pass it on to coming generations. A friend, Hassan Azad, a mathematician and a student of sitar, was always curious about the secret behind the systematic expansion of ragas. No Pakistani musician was willing to share this knowledge with him. It took Hassan 45 years to learn the secret after he was able to instantly notate the music composed by stalwarts such as Ustad Fayyaz Ahmed Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Inayat Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Shahid Parvez. (See Hassan’s work at math/hassanaz/essays-music.htm.)

Musicians like Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Roshan Ara Begum never vocalised their bandish (compositions) clearly. All their music was in aakaar (improvisations that involve using vowels alone). Perhaps that is why classical music could never attract a lay audience. Moreover, not a single musician documented the music of his gharana. As a result, their gharana gaiki passed away with their death.

Pakistani musicians have been extremely miserly about teaching music – even to their own sons and daughters – so that no one could overshadow them. A well-known tabla player from Lahore who is given to challenging everyone has recently been challenged by his own son! Music is not impossible to learn but the attitude of musicians has made it so. When one hears from an ustad (teacher or master) that it took him 20 years to perfect the first note, sa, who would want to learn music? And if at all one still persisted, musicians employ other deterrent tactics. They start fleecing you in the name of gunda-bandi and nazar (tutelage and gifts). A friend, Nazir Khan says he spent about one million rupees on a well-known Rawalpindi musician to teach his son tabla and classical vocal music. The musician literally ‘robbed’ Nazir Khan for eight years to teach Khan’s son what he could have learnt from an attai (non-gharana musician) in three months.

Naqi Khan, grandson of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, wanted me to become his gunda-band shagird (committed disciple) before he answered my question pertaining to voice culture. On the other hand, a leading sitar player from India, Ustad Shahid Parvez had no reservations about giving me the right tips on the telephone! He was in fact magnanimous enough to teach me a 13-beat rhythmic cycle that he had himself composed and which had been played by Vijay Ghate in one of his recordings of raga Rageshri.

I asked Tari Khan, who is also a good friend, what the first lesson he had learnt from his guru had been. "I don’t remember," he said, thinking I might benefit from his reply. That is the mindset of Pakistani musicians. The result is that classical music is declining in Pakistan and thriving in India.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Pakistan 2
Pakistan: We sinful women
New standard-bearers of progressive Urdu poetry: The feminist poets

Anyone who is familiar with the field of Urdu poetry will readily recognise and acknowledge that it is extremely gendered. This gendering works at two levels. First, most of the poets are men; virtuosity in verse is still considered to be a male purview and women poets, even well-known ones, continue to be marginalised. Second, the predominant themes and metaphors of this genre assume the poet-as-male (and consequently the reader-as-male) and revolve around the themes of the beauty of the beloved, the plight of the lover and the pains of unrequited love.

Women feature mostly as an abstraction and as the object of the male protagonist’s desire83. As Rukhsana Ahmad points out in her introduction to Beyond Belief (the first collection of feminist poetry published in Pakistan), ‘(t)he bulk of published Urdu poetry is still love poetry bound in the old traditional idioms and conceits’84. These ‘conceits’ include the male poet as the embodiment of agency and the woman as a mere object, represented as ‘a feckless beloved, who was endowed with heavenly beauty… fair of face, doe-eyed, dark-haired, tall, willowy, for whom the poet was willing to die but who vacillated from indifference, shyness and modesty to wanton wilfulness and cruelty85.’

The PWA [Progressive Writers’ Association] poets, notwithstanding their commitment to social change and egalitarianism were, for the most part, inheritors of this legacy of Urdu poetry as well as its purveyors. In their work, a woman was frequently seen as an exemplification of beauty and a repository of purity. She was often depicted as a weak victim of oppressive structures who depended on men to save and protect her and on their generosity of spirit and sense of righteousness to rescue her from her plight…

In their role as social reformers, the Progressives did, at times, take issue against the oppression of women and sought to highlight their condition. Speaking against the institution of the veil in his poem Purdaah Aur Ismat (The Veil and Honour), [Israr-ul-Haq] Majaz offers the following commentary:

"That which is not visible cannot be Exquisite

That which remains hidden cannot be the Truth

That is not Nature, nor is it Destiny

Whatever else it is, this is not Virtue"

There are also the occasional moments when the progressive poet sees women as potential rebels and agents who have a role to play in the public space and in social transformation. In a poem Naujavaan Khaatoon Se (To the Young Woman), Majaz writes:

"It would be better if you shrugged off this wicked veil

It would be better if you used your beauty to cover yourself…

This scarf that covers you is beautiful indeed

It would be better if you converted it into a banner of revolt"

While Majaz’s poems take a position against the sequestering of women behind the veil, it is important to note that their tone tends to be patronising for they are essentially exhortations by the male poet to women. Perhaps the poem by a male progressive poet that comes closest to representing a woman as a subject in her own right is Aurat (Woman) by Kaifi Azmi:

"The past hasn’t recognised your worth

You are capable of producing flames, not just tears

You are Reality, not merely an interesting tale

Your Being is more than your mere Youth

You will have to rewrite the theme of your History

Arise my love, that we can walk together

"Destroy the idols of Custom, break the shackles of Tradition

Free yourself from the enfeeblement of Pleasure, the false ideas of Delicacy

Step out from the confining circle of Femininity drawn around you

And if Love becomes a prison, then reject the constraints of Love

You will have to crush not just the thorns, but the flowers in your path too

Arise my love, let us walk together..."

Kaifi’s poem is radical in the way it positions a woman as a fellow companion, in its exhortation that women break free from the confines of tradition and custom, but particularly in its insistence that women not only crush the ‘thorns’ in their path but also its ‘flowers’ (delicacy, elegance, femininity, grace and even love) that serve as mechanisms of limitation and control. Where it falls somewhat short is that while Kaifi is establishing the position of his female companion as a comrade, he demands that she shed her accoutrements of femininity in order for her to ‘accompany’ him on his quest. Nor does Kaifi manage to fully reject the conventional characterisation of women in the dominant discourse of the time, for the woman of his poem has the capacity to produce flames ‘in addition to’ the ability to shed tears; her existence is ‘more than’ her beauty and youth.

Notwithstanding a few scattered examples of such engagements with patriarchy, none of the PWA poets ever wrote in a manner that unambiguously assumed women’s independent power, subjecthood and agency. For this to happen in the field of Urdu poetry, we had to wait for the works of the feminist poets from Pakistan, particularly Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riyaz. In order to understand and appreciate their work, it is important to place it in the context of the material and social conditions in Pakistan within which it was written.

The political, social and cultural milieu of Pakistan in the 1980s was defined by General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation programme and its attendant attack on women’s rights. Zia’s misogynist policies were an articulation of the anxieties of class and gender felt by middle class men during this period who resented what they saw as the increasing presence of women in the public sphere and feared the repercussions this might have in the private sphere of the family. It is perhaps a testimony to the force of these anxieties that the state’s blatantly sexist policies and the far-reaching changes they forged within Pakistani society and culture did not inform the work of progressive male poets in any significant way (perhaps the one exception was Habib Jalib, the only one who participated in the famous 12 February 1983 demonstration organised by the women’s movement against the [discriminatory] Law of Evidence). This burden was left for feminist poets to bear.

The challenge posed by these feminist poets to the establishment worked at different levels: first, they were women poets writing in what was an overwhelmingly male literary milieu; second, they were feminists raising their voice against an increasingly hostile and misogynist social and cultural context; and third, they were producing work that effectively subverted existing, accepted conventions of poetic form and content.

The poetry of these feminists was not confined to women’s issues; they were fierce critics of the reactionary political, social and cultural changes taking place in Pakistani society. However, given that the brunt of the state’s retrogressive Islamisation policies along with the changes they wrought in other aspects of Pakistani life was borne by women (and minorities), most of their poetry did overwhelmingly address ‘women’s issues’ such as the Zina Ordinance (which included punishments such as stoning adulterers – both male and female – to death, and which tried rape victims under charges of zina, or adulterous sex).

Not all women or poets of the time chose to challenge the prescribed literary forms or themes, nor was all women’s ‘progressive’ poetry (that which worked to subvert the patriarchal establishment) of one piece. Progressive poetry written by women ranged from the work of Parveen Shakir and Ada’a Jafri – whose poetry was less explicitly political insofar as it did not address explicitly ‘political’ issues, and who tended to use conventional poetic forms such as the ghazal (and in the case of Jafri, some of its standard expressions as well) – to that of poets such as Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riyaz, whose writings were stridently feminist in their tone and subject matter.

However, given the male dominated nature of the Urdu literary establishment, the very fact of a woman writing ghazals was itself subversive since it inverted the implicit convention that women were the objects rather than the subjects, or agents, of romance and desire. Feminist poets had to deal with a significant backlash, including criticism from the largely male status quo, for their ‘loose morality’ and their ‘masculinity’86, and were frequently subjected to the threat of violence from the state and individuals87.

Since women were at the vanguard of the movement against Zia’s martial law government and its policies, it is not surprising that they were also the most political and prominent writers/poets/artists of the time. As Kishwar Naheed points out in her well-known poem, Hum Gunahgaar Auraten (We Sinful Women):

"It is we sinful women

Who are not intimidated

By the magnificence of those who wear robes

Who don’t sell their souls

Don’t bow their heads

Don’t fold their hands in supplication

We are the sinful ones

While those who sell the harvest of our bodies

Are exalted

Considered worthy of distinction

Become gods of the material world

"It is we sinful women

Who, when we emerge carrying aloft the flag of truth

Find highways strewn with lies

Find tales of punishment placed at every doorstep

Find tongues which could have spoken, severed"

Besides being a harsh indictment of those who sold out to the establishment, these words also directly subvert the dominant stereotypes of women as weak and ineffectual and their accompanying ideas about ‘femininity’. The phrase ‘we sinful women’, repeated like a chant throughout the poem, functions as a slap in the face of the religious orthodoxy and the state, referring as it does to the Zina Ordinance which uses the crutch of Islam to hold women responsible for all sex crimes.

Fehmida Riyaz’s poem Chaadar Aur Chaardiwari (The Veil and the Four Walls of Home) was another explicit example of the way feminists used poetry as a medium of dissent against the Zia regime and as a critique of the hypocrisy of the religious orthodoxy. The poem derives its title from the name of the campaign started by Zia’s Islamic Ideology Council, which was part of the general move to restrict women’s participation in society to the domestic sphere…:

"Sire! What will I do with this black chaadar

Why do you bless me with it?

I am neither in mourning that I should wear it

To announce my grief to the world

Nor am I a disease, that I should drown, humiliated, in its darkness

I am neither sinner nor criminal

That I should set its black seal

On my forehead under all circumstances

"If you will pardon my impertinence

If I have reassurance of my life88

Then will I entreat you with folded hands

O Benevolent One!

In Sire’s fragrant chambers lies a corpse

Who knows how long it has been rotting there

It asks for your pity

Sire, be kind enough

Give me not this black shawl

Use it instead to cover that shroudless corpse in your chambers

Because the stench that has burst forth from it

Goes panting through the alleys –

Bangs its head against the door frames

Attempts to cover its nakedness

Listen to the heart-rending shrieks

Which raise strange spectres

"They who remain naked despite their chaadars

Who are they? You must know them

Sire, you must recognise them

They are the concubines!

The hostages who remain legitimate through the night

But come morning, are sent forth to wander, homeless

They are the handmaidens

"More reliable than the half share of inheritance promised your precious sperm…

"My existence on this earth is not as a mere symbol of lust

My intelligence gleams brightly on the highway of life

The sweat that shines on the brow of the earth is but my hard work

The corpse is welcome to this chaadar and these four walls

My ship will move full sail in the open wind

I am the companion of the new Adam

Who has won my confident comradeship"

In this powerful poem, Riyaz, by rejecting the chaadar being offered to her by the self-styled keepers of people’s conscience, also rejects the Islamists’ construction of her as a sexual object that is required by the law to be veiled and sequestered within the four walls of the home. She subjects these powers to biting sarcasm by repeatedly addressing them with mock honorifics such as ‘huzoor’ [sire], and a series of formulaic phrases such as jaan ki amaan paaoon [have reassurance of one’s life], dast-basta karoon guzaarish [entreat with folded hands] and banda-parvar [Benevolent One]. Since she is not in mourning, nor a sinner or criminal, she argues with mock innocence that she does not understand why she is being offered the black shawl (or, by implication, the seclusion of the chaardiwaari). The rest of the poem lists the crimes against humanity which her addressee is guilty of, particularly the (sexual) exploitation of women through the institutions of concubinage and marriage, an exploitation that often begins at a very young age.

The poem ends with her concluding that it is he, not she, who needs the black shawl so that he may cover his own hypocrisy and shame. Although Riyaz never mentions Islam directly, it is the absent referent in her text because it is under the chaadar (cover/cloak) of Islam that women have been subjugated for ‘long centuries’. The ‘spectres’ of all these female victims who carry the stench of death are the skeletons in the Islamist’s closet to which Riyaz ‘respectfully’ draws his, and our, attention.

The last stanza of the poem is worth noting, for in direct contrast to the depiction of women in Urdu poetry, Riyaz counterposes her own reading of women against the traditional as well as Islamist ideal of ‘womanhood’ and proposes a new female subject – an intelligent, sentient being (as opposed to an object of desire and symbol of lust), a worker whose ‘sweat shines on the brow of the earth’, a quintessentially modern subject whose ‘ship will move full sail in the open wind’. The relationship between men and women is also redefined as one of comradeship between equals; this kind of comradeship is only possible, however, with a radically reinvented and redefined man – an Adam who is capable of winning her confidence and is thus worthy of her89.

In her poem, Riyaz lampoons the normative Islamist discourse of a patriarchal and paternalistic relationship between women and men and rejects the notion of a woman as an obedient wife who revels in her role as the ‘light of the home’ and one who is supported by a husband who has unquestioned authority over her in all matters. The idea of an equal and companionate relationship with a man is thus a radical proposition, especially when accompanied by implications of a life of unfettered freedom expressed through the trope of the sailing ship, deliberately counterposed to the chaardiwaari. It is also worth noting that Riyaz’s use of words like laasha (corpse), gala sada (rotten) and natfa (sperm) – words not normally used in poetry – along with the explicit references to sex and depravity provide another layer of subversiveness in terms of both form and content.

[In] [y]et another poem by Riyaz, titled Aqleema… [t]he explicit references to the female body are Riyaz’s reminder to us that patriarchal society objectifies its women and treats them as sacrificial lambs, destined to be butchered and consumed. The poem goes on to draw attention to the fact that Aqleema has a mind too, one that is rendered invisible by the patriarchal system, not merely to human beings but also to god himself, who has chosen to reveal his word to the world through male prophets alone...

The deconstruction of the normative ideals of womanhood and femininity was a recurring theme in the work of the feminist poets, who deployed a radically different aesthetic both in the choice of their themes and their language in order to challenge existing standards of public discourse and poetry. Boodhi Ma (Old Mother), by the contemporary Punjabi poet Gulnar, is an address to an old woman who has been repressed by patriarchal structures of power and control throughout her life and is a defiant call to all women to reject the roles imposed on them by societal and religious norms. It is interesting to note the unselfconscious use of the English word ‘symbol’ in the poem, another flouting of the conventions of Urdu poetry and its formal diction. This deployment of everyday speech in a literary piece is testimony to the fact that the Urdu for these poets is a living language:

"Old Mother

Why are you teary-eyed today?


"Why are you sad?

You, who have given birth to sons?


"Oh Mother, your fate!

Your childhood spent in bondage to your father

Your adolescence under the control of your brother

Your youth in bondage to your husband

And your old age in your sons’ servitude

But doesn’t Heaven lie beneath your feet?!

Then why, in the cruel cold of winter

Are your feet bare?..."

In the Islamist rhetoric, women are idealised as mothers beneath whose feet lies heaven and as good wives who are the ghar ki rani/malika or the ‘queens’ of the domestic realm. Gulnar critiques these ideals by inserting the figure of a woman who, despite having adhered to all the conventions and expectations of the good woman in her avatars as daughter, sister, wife and mother of ‘seven sons’, is nevertheless left shelterless and uncared for.

In contrast, Gulnar offers a protagonist who is the Islamists’ nemesis: modern, enlightened, educated and unwilling to accept the roles assigned to her by mainstream society in general and religious orthodoxy in particular. She is sensible and hard-nosed (a far cry from the whimsical beloved of mainstream Urdu poetry), wears leather shoes, adopts ‘spectacles’ to see the world clearly through her own eyes, and has rejected the realm of abject domesticity for the world of letters and the realm of intellect. And unlike the protagonist of Riyaz’s poem, Gulnar’s woman does not appear to need a (male) companion in her quest for self-actualisation.


While the feminist poets focused considerably on the condition of women in Pakistani society, they also articulated a comprehensive critique of their contemporary social conditions. Poems such as Kishwar Naheed’s Sard Mulkon Ke Aaqaaon Ke Naam (To the Lords of the Cold Nations) offers a commentary on Eurocentrism while Censorship and Section 14490 challenge the state’s repressive policies. Fehmida Riyaz’s Kotvaal Baitha Hai (The Police Chief is Waiting) and Khaana-Talaashi (The Search) describe her interrogation and the search of her home by the police. Ishrat Afreen’s Rihaa’i (Release) is a poem that talks about how the fight for liberation from ‘the mountains of dead traditions, blind faith, oppressive hatreds’ (Pahaad murda rivaayaton ke, pahaad andhi aqeedaton ke, pahaad zaalim adaavaton ke) is an obligation owed to the next generation while Neelma Sarwar’s Chor (The Thief) reflects on the cruel disparities of wealth in society.

In a similar vein, Fehmida Riyaz’s long prose poem Kya Tum Poora Chaand Na Dekhoge? (Will You Not See the Full Moon?) uses the moon as a metaphor for truth while deploying colloquial terminology to criticise conspicuous consumption and ridicule the subservience of Pakistani society to the petrodollars of the Saudi kingdom...

Understanding that the Islamisation project was a ‘culturalist evasion’91 of the real issues facing Pakistan, Riyaz uses her poem to highlight the concerns of the people at large who live under conditions of starvation and depredation while the city panders to the desires of the elite. The poem is replete with gothic representation and a pastiche of strange and ominous images such as the kites circling a burning sky, the city as web or a trap and the pathological and almost sexual lust for imported commodities which awakens the ‘whore of purchasing power’. This stark reference to the increasing commodity fetishism of the wealthy classes and the symbols of this fetish (the shopping plazas, the mansions) are described as boils on the molested body of the city, just as conspicuous consumption is a sore on the diseased body politic of the nation state.

The satirical allusions to the influence of petrodollars and the throwaway Arabic phrases are references to the Pakistani state’s proclivity to look towards Saudi Arabia for affirmation in the political, economic and even cultural spheres, the increasing use of Arabic words on Pakistan Television, the introduction of Arabic as a compulsory subject in public schools and the Arabisation of Urdu itself, all of which were a result of the Zia regime’s effort to move ever further away from an Indo-Islamic culture which was shared with India and towards an ‘Islamic’ identity defined by Arabic elements.

The onward march of capital and the obscene culture of consumption it engenders are depicted through the superimposition of sexuality, depravity, lustfulness and disease in a way that highlights the indifference of the system to the poor and the dispossessed. Fehmida Riyaz’s theme throughout her long poem is that Islamisation is simply a ruse with which the rulers defuse dissent and construct consent while dividing the nation sharply between those who have economic and political power and those who do not.

The arrival of the feminist poets in the realm of Urdu poetry signalled the beginning of a new brand of progressivism, one that took on the establishment in ways that were radical and powerful. These poets – Kishwar Naheed, Fehmida Riyaz, Ishrat Afreen, Saeeda Gazdar, Neelma Sarwar, Sara Shagufta, Zehra Nigaah, Gulnar and others – transformed not merely the themes of Urdu poetry but also its language and its grammar. As Rukhsana Ahmad writes, these poets represent ‘that strand of the progressive tradition in Urdu poetry which had in the early forties so powerfully contributed to the freedom movement.92’ They, more than anyone else in the contemporary period, are the true inheritors of the tradition of progressive poetry, its champions, and its trailblazers.

A very short poem by Ishrat Afreen, titled Intisaab (Dedication), sums up the contribution of the feminist poets to literature quite well:

"Mera qad

Mere baap se ooncha nikla

Aur meri ma jeet gayi

(My height
Surpassed that of my father
And thus, my mother won)"

(Excerpted from Anthems of Resistance – A celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry by Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir; India Ink, Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., 2006.)


83 Admittedly, some might dispute this claim, citing the example of the ghazal in which both the lover and the beloved are referred to in male terms. However, the themes of these poems and the actions of its protagonists, particularly in the context of the times, leave us with little doubt about the gender of the subjects/objects of the poet’s voice.
84 Rukhsana Ahmad (editor and translator), 1990, Beyond Belief, Lahore: ASR Publications, p. iii.
85 ibid., p. ii.
86 The charge of masculinity was most often thrown at Kishwar Naheed because of her blunt personality and her even more blunt poetry.
87 Both Fehmida Riyaz and Kishwar Naheed were targeted repeatedly by the state. Fourteen cases of sedition were filed against the magazine edited by Fehmida Riyaz, one of which carried the death sentence. Riyaz had to go into exile in India along with her family. Naheed was constantly harassed in her job as a civil servant and frequently threatened. Cases were filed against her as well. Clearly, both were seen as threats to the state.
88 A standard way of beginning an address to the prince or emperor.
89 This poem can be interestingly juxtaposed against Ishrat Areen’s Adhoore Aadmi Se Guftagu (Dialogue with an Incomplete Man) in which the poet declares:
"How can I share my thoughts and feelings with you?
How can I take you along on this journey of the intellect?"
Despite his ‘artistic skills… stature… personality’, the man being addressed by Afreen is seen by her as no more mature than a callow boy:
"You are a mere boy
Who is attracted to
Weeping girls
Wounded and flightless butterflies
Boats anchored at the shore
And who seeks sanctuary in the simpering pleasures found in the broken wings of a dove
Who for the sake of immature desires
Will sacrifice his principles"
90 Section 144 in the [Pakistan] Penal Code is used to restrict assembly of people in public spaces, a common law deployed to prevent public gatherings and therefore, pre-empt dissent.
91 Samir Amin’s term.
92 Rukhsana Ahmad, op. cit., p. iv.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Pakistan 3
Pakistan: Report what?
Simple answers, complex situations

Anis Haroon, the well-known women’s rights and peace activist, relates a story about the time she visited Bangalore, India, in 1989 to attend a South Asian women’s conference. She was among the three Pakistani participants but the only one to have a ‘police-reporting visa’. This led to a memorable incident at the local police station, at a time when few Pakistanis were able to visit India and vice versa…

Pakistan-India relations had for years been marked by acrimony and tension at the best of times, punctuated by outright war at others, the most bitter of which was still a not too distant memory – 1971, when Bangladesh won its liberation from Pakistan with India’s help. But by 1989 there was a different atmosphere. The cold war was over. So was the Afghan war. Those were the heady days of the ‘restoration of democracy’ in Pakistan. Gone was Gen Zia-ul-Haq who had taken Pakistan in an altogether different direction than envisaged by earlier leaders. Gone were Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi and their tense competitive relationship, particularly since 1971. A cautious thaw in Pakistan-India relations was discernible with the new generation of leadership symbolised by Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom had recently come into power in their countries, holding out the promise of participatory democracy and better neighbourly relations.

But all the years of a lack of contact between Indians and Pakistanis had made the people of either country almost an alien species to each other – and it took a grumpy subinspector to bring home the ridiculousness of this enforced separation, when visas were difficult to obtain – and then only for those visiting relatives across the border. The eighties saw the formation of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation in 1984 and the rise of the NGOs. Many individuals and NGOs began to form regional alliances to discuss issues of mutual concern – the earliest such meetings were focused on safe ‘non-political’ issues like environment and women’s rights, and played a crucial role in bringing people together on these platforms, particularly Indians and Pakistanis.

It was in this context that Anis Haroon, in India to attend one of the first of such regional meetings, found herself outside a police station at the remote suburb of White Plains in Bangalore, armed with her ‘police-reporting’ visa and accompanied by a conference volunteer.

South India is another country for many North Indians and Pakistanis. The only common language is English and some Hindustani. The following conversation took place in a mixture of both, with some frustrated exclamations in mutually incomprehensible Urdu and Kannada escaping the protagonists from time to time.

"Hello, I’m a Pakistani," Anis announced, waving her green passport at the drowsy subinspector inside the police station.

Grunt. "So?"

"I’ve come to report," she persisted.

The policeman finally looked up, displeased at being disturbed. "Report what?"

"I have to report my arrival."


Nonplussed silence, then: "...Because I was told I must."

He seemed more alert suddenly. "Are you here illegally?"


"Have you lost your passport?"


"Your ticket then?" Inspector a bit irritable by now.

"No but..."

"Have you lost your luggage? Has someone misbehaved with you?"

"No, no, no." Anis also somewhat irritated.

"Then WHAT are you reporting? Go away and stop wasting my time!"

With this bit of irrefutable logic, the man flapped Anis and her companion out of the police station and returned to his snooze.

Perturbed at not having the precious stamp attesting to her legal sojourn in India, they reluctantly began to turn back when the station house officer put-putted up on his motorbike. A superior officer! He would understand the complexities of Pakistan-India relationships and legal requirements! The two women explained the situation and the SHO went inside to confront his recalcitrant junior. After five minutes of loud arguments in Kannada, the visibly annoyed subinspector beckoned in the source of annoyance, who returned inside meekly to present her passport to him.

Grumbling loudly in Kannada, he scribbled something on the police reporting form, and gave back her green passport (thankfully duly stamped) and gestured her away. Safely outside, Anis Haroon looked at what he had written: "A Pakistani has come to this police station to report. But she has nooooothing to report."

Thankful to at least have the precious stamp attesting that she had ‘done the needful’, Anis returned to the conference where she recounted the story.

Later, Shoaib and Salima Hashmi made a skit out of it, which they played out in front of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto – both reportedly laughed a great deal at the ridiculousness of the situation, which was actually a true story. But their personal response to the story notwithstanding, neither was able to do away with the visa requirement that Pakistanis and Indians visiting each other’s countries must report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure (although this condition is occasionally waived).

A child of 15 or a grandmother of 70 – unless they have the connections to obtain a waiver, all Indians and Pakistanis visiting each other’s country must present themselves to the police after arrival and then before departure. The logic of this requirement defies all reason.

The subinspector in Bangalore in 1989 hadn’t caught on yet because there were, at that point, so few visitors from Pakistan, but the only beneficiaries of this archaic and discriminatory requirement are the police, who make a nice extra packet every month by facilitating such reports.

As Dr Mubashir Hasan (founding member of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission) notes, even when the rulers try to end this requirement, the bureaucracy stands in their way – he cites the specific example of Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee during that historic bus trip in 1999 when the senior civil servants in attendance shot down this proposal made by the two prime ministers during their meeting.

With the composite dialogue dragging on and on, showing no results, surely this is something both governments can agree on – something that a grumpy police officer in Bangalore recognised years ago – that Pakistanis and Indians legally visiting each other’s countries have nothing to report. n


Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Neighbours

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