Category Archives: Politics

Sorkari Patnaik: The Wrong Arm of the Law

Patnaik is the superintendent of police of Balangir in Year of the Weeds. His first name as seen on a small black plastic rectangle pinned to his chest is merely the initial ‘S.’, causing much speculation among the Gonds of the district over who he looms like a colossus with near infinite power. Some say his first name is ‘Sanjay’. A mild, inoffensive name. And therefore unlikely to be his, say the Gonds. For such a great and powerful man must have a name of equal power. Mostly, the people of Balangir think the ‘S.’ stands for ‘Sorkari’.  For who in the entire district is more government personified than this slightly dark-skinned man of average height and brushy moustache? So his name must be ‘Sorkari’, if not something much worse. And the Gonds say: if he is indeed ‘Sorkari’, there could not be a name worse than that.

Sorkari Patnaik strides through the everyday life and consciousness of Balangir like a malign cloud, like a promise of infinite violence, reinforcing by his very presence the helpless of ordinary citizens in the face of the government’s might. He is absolutely convinced of his rightness, of his infallibility, of his superior judgment. He can know the inner workings of people just by glancing at them. And of course all Gonds are malcontents, lazy and poor because that is all they can ever be. He is the first and last defence of the rule of law in these parts. Without him, it all goes away. He is (but only for himself) the Necessary Man.

The problem with police in India arises from the extraordinary power and privileges they enjoy. In remote areas like Deogan and its neighbourhood, the hapless citizens would have no recourse but to get used to living under the boot of a person like Patnaik. In the novel, as the Gonds start their agitation against the bauxite mine which will destroy their sacred hill, Patnaik reacts with characteristic cruelty and aggression. In the beginning, he has a great deal of autonomy and agency (which he chooses to employ as a blunt instrument of disruption). As events unfold, he too becomes increasingly subservient to the demands of extremely powerful people in Bhubaneshwar and Delhi. In his own district, Patnaik becomes an extra in a series of events, although he keeps up the pretense that he is in control. As Ghosh, the Company’s specialist problem-solver tells him, the old ways of lathi charges and the administering of pain on a numbed people will no longer work in a world of social media and overnight image makeovers. Patnaik then decides to become his interpretation of the New Policeman. ‘Don’t worry,’ he tells a top Maoist leader he has just arrested. ‘We will not beat you. Not much, at least.’

The excesses of police in India have been well-documented. Much talk has been expended on police reform, but like other law enforcement agencies, it is not in the interests of political parties, the administration or the executive to make India’s Sorkari Patnaiks any better than what they actually are, any less violent, compromised or corrupt.

It is not just a matter of a few hundred rupees palmed at a checkpoint. Corruption is of multiple kinds. The exchange of power and influence, the influence on policy decisions or their implementation on the ground, the nexus between businessmen, police officers and the administration are too subtle and deeply entrenched to be uncovered as part of a single scam or case. Entire careers are built, sometimes across generations, on this network of privilege and raw might. It is only occasionally that a Patnaik, either through hubris or predictability, may stumble and fall. Mostly, they continue, much as the other organs of the state endure. And people like Korok and the other residents of countless Deogans manage to continue with their existence knowing the true extent of their powerlessness.

Occasionally, a Patnaik’s weaknesses might snap this chain of oppression. Usually, the chain proves resilient and malleable, and wholly immune to change, either from above or below. That is the true tragedy of Sorkari Patnaik. An individual capable of tremendous self-deceit, he is a virus masquerading as a khaki-clad cure.

‘Our lost brothers’: Adivasis and the Hindu Right

This article was published in the Duckbill Blog on October 22:

The Hindutva experiment has been, since its beginning, an imperialist enterprise, as all forms of fascism are. The militaristic motifs and language, the public display of weaponry and reverence of militaristic historical and mythical figures, the geographic revision of the idea of India, the seeking of empire in its history and iconography are by now familiar in mainstream discourse. One of these imperialist elements is the mission of the Hindu Right to ‘civilise’ what it claims to be outliers of cultural and scriptural Hinduism — the Adivasis.

The traditional Hindu varna system — that is, caste as hierarchy — has placed Adivasis and other tribes of India, whether in the centre of the subcontinent or its peripheries such as the Northeast, outside the four major caste categories. Till the advent of the Government of India Act, 1935, and elections two years later, Adivasis were not considered significant enough to be engaged with by upper caste Hindu leaders, just as Dalits had not been traditionally included in the upper-caste definition of ‘Hindu’. But with elections came constituencies, and demographics, and other statistical measures. The Hindu Right and upper-caste Hindu leaders of other parties like the Congress, needed to include Adivasis in the Hindu fold in as many ways as possible, and through whatever means they could find.

Over the decades, the Hindu Right’s co-option of Adivasis has been along two parallel lines. The first has been the ‘rediscovery’ of Adivasis in scripture. Therefore Sabari in the Ramayana, who has been hailed as an epitome of piety towards Rama. Therefore Guha, king of the Nishadas and friend to the exiled prince. Therefore Eklavya, the ‘good’ Adivasi who sacrificed his greatness as an archer because the Brahmin Drona wanted the Kshatriya Arjuna to remain the world’s greatest archer, in the Mahabharata. The sub-text was clear: Adivasis were to be accommodated as Hindus provided they knew the rules and were subservient to the caste hierarchy. The varna pyramid was not modified; only its base was expanded. In the Hindu upper-caste imagination, there has always been room at the base.

The second approach has been a relentless demolition of Adivasi identity, culture and religion. Co-option of belief systems where convenient, rejection by decree where not. This is not a new process. All religions, particularly polytheistic ones like Hinduism, have co-opted myths, beliefs and practices from cultures they have subsumed. Consider Manasa, a folk goddess of snakes who has been popular since the Middle Ages in Bengal and Western Assam. Her tribal origins are clear, and for Brahmins in the Middle Ages she presented a difficult problem: she was not a Vedic goddess, but by the 10th century she had become popular among the lower castes and needed to be accommodated.

The process by which this was done was bureaucratic. By the 11th century Manasa was considered a daughter of the Vedic and Puranic sage Kashyapa. In the next three hundred years, with the Manasa cult becoming even more powerful, she had to be ‘promoted’ and considered a daughter of Shiva. Symbolically, tribals could only hope for a subservient status to caste Hindus, just as their gods could, at best, be children of mainstream deities.

The modern Hindu Right’s methods are more direct. Co-option continues, but those elements of Adivasi life which make upper castes uncomfortable need to go. Consider the religious ceremony of ‘indal’ among Adivasis in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. A celebration of their creation myths, ‘indal’ is an intimate ritual performed by individual families, involving spirit possession, alcohol and animal sacrifice. In its unfettered abandon, in its joyous celebration of fertility and life, ‘indal’ could very well stand for the directness and the simultaneously complex philosophies behind tribal rituals. But it is these elements — alcohol, animal sacrifice, spirit possession and dance which is not exactly staid and measured like ‘classical’ temple-mandated Hindu dance forms — which make upper-caste Hindus uncomfortable at an atavistic level. Over time, the pressure of co-option on tribal families practicing indal has been intense.

Consider the storm of abuse and threats which erupted when an Adivasi college lecturer in Jharkhand asked on social media, in June 2017, where he could find beef. Ironically, Jharkhand, a state created to safeguard and promote Adivasis, has been enacting laws which mirror upper-caste Hindu sentiments more than Adivasis’. Thirteen years ago, the state passed a law under which cow slaughter would lead to imprisonment for 10 years, the highest such sentence for this offence in any Indian state at that time. The process of co-opting Adivasis has only quickened with the rise and rise of the Hindu Right in the past few years. Therefore ‘shuddhikaran’ ceremonies in which Adivasis are formally adopted into the varna fold, regardless of the fact that there is no scriptural basis for such ceremonies. Therefore new temples in places where there hadn’t been any. Therefore, in Odisha’s Balangir district (where ‘Year of the Weeds’ is set) the indigenous Kondhs can’t practice animal sacrifice during the Mathkai festival. Upper castes, who also worship at the tribal temple, have claimed the Mathkai deities are Shiva and Durga, and have successfully prevented Kondhs from claiming their own gods or practicing their own rituals.

The Hindu Right’s message to Adivasis is thus: we will accommodate you, whether you want this or not, but on our terms, and whatever is ‘un-Hindu’ has to go.

In ‘Year of the Weeds’, Korok the gardener from a Gond village occasionally visits Balangir town, and comes to know of a new temple built by an organisation that wants to bring ‘the lost brothers’ back to Hinduism. New gods, new systems of coercion and co-option. There is very little difference between the methods of operation of the Hindu Right and predatory multinational companies which first create demand and then attempt changes in behaviour patterns. There is almost no difference between imperial entities of the past and proponents of Hindutva in their absolute conviction about the civilising mission of Hinduism.

One of the two political groups which attempt to parachute into the Gond movement against a mine in their sacred hill includes these people who built the temple in Balangir. Their prominent leader, a ‘grim fellow’ full of what the cadre call ‘purpose’ gives a speech at Deogan village, where Korok lives. The big leader calls the Gonds ‘his tribal brothers’. His speech is mainly about how some nefarious people want the Gonds to worship other gods, to eat beef and pork, and drink alcohol. The Gonds in the audience, including Korok, are puzzled and ultimately find the argument hilarious because these are activities they have traditionally done. The leader also promises a temple to the goddess of the hill, unaware — or unwilling to acknowledge — that there is no goddess of the hill as understood by a Hindu. The entire hill is sacred and its gender is incidental to the Gonds’ beliefs. But these are nuances that have always escaped the Hindu Right.

Ultimately, nothing much emerges from the big leader’s speech, as has happened in peoples’ movements in real life. Bulldozing of traditions and cultural nuances, of ways of life and identities of Adivasi deities continue. As the Hindu Right continues its agenda of undermining what had once been India’s experiment with modernity, the Adivasi ways of life too are at greater peril than before.

Interview by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

This interview was first published in the Duckbill Blog on September 15, after which a part was carried in Scroll on October 21:

This book can easily be called the best book of the year. This is Year of the Weeds, the new novel by Siddhartha Sarma.

Year of the Weeds is set in a village called Deogan in Balangir area of western Odisha. The area is inhabited by the Gond Adivasis and Deogan is home to the Devi Hills, the hills which are sacred to the Gonds. The government, prompted by a corporate house that wishes to mine bauxite in the Devi Hills, tries to displace the Gonds so that the mining activity in the area could be done easily.

The plot is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought the corporate house Vedanta and emerged victorious. Year of the Weeds is the story of a people’s movement and has a terrific punch, but what really struck me about it is how Sarma spells everything out so explicitly: how this nexus between the corporate houses and government works and how an already disadvantaged group is made more vulnerable by the actions of the police and the judiciary and also the middle-class educated and salaried people. Though this novel has been placed in the young adult (YA) category, this is a book that everyone should read. Seen through the eye of a young Gond boy named Korok, Year of the Weeds is an insightful, eye-opening, and very important and timely book.

Siddhartha Sarma is assistant editor with The Times of India. His YA novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, won the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book. He has written two more books for children – 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff and 103 Historical Mysteries, Puzzles, Conundrums and Stuff – and a non-fiction book for adult readers, East of the Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land. In this interview with The Duckbill Blog, Sarma tells us about Year of the Weeds.

Q1: The detailed manner in which the working of corporate houses, the working of the judiciary, the condition of jails, and – most importantly – the life of the Gond Adivasis and the day-to-day life in Balangir have been shown in your novel, Year of the Weeds, that, I think, can be written either by a journalist or an activist or a keen observer. We would really appreciate if you tell us a little bit about your background. Are you a journalist or an observer? Also, you have written four books before Year of the Weeds – one of which, The Grasshopper’s Run, won the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book – so please tell us a bit about your previous works as well.

A1: I used to be a reporter and have covered insurgency (mainly in the Northeast), crime, law and very briefly, external affairs. I am an editor now, but my reading of current events is still, and perhaps will always be, from a reporter’s perspective. I studied Economics in graduation and have a pre-doctorate in Military History.

My previous novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, was set in 1944 during the Second World War in East Assam, what is Nagaland today and Myanmar. I have written two non-fiction books: 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff, which is about the great travellers of the world (including plants and animals) and 103 Historical Mysteries, Puzzles, Conundrums and Stuff. My fourth book was a travelogue, East of the Sun, about the Northeast.

Q2: Like I already mentioned in my previous question, Year of the Weeds is a detailed recounting of the injustices and atrocities that the underprivileged, the have-nots of our society – the GondAdivasis, in the case of your novel – have to face, the way they are exploited, how it is not easy for them to get justice. What inspired you to write this story? Please give us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Year of the Weeds.

A2: I follow peoples’ movements and issues related to land rights, communal and caste conflict, ecological exploitation, conservation movements and corporate activity in vulnerable areas. I had been following the Niyamgiri agitation in Odisha practically since it first began in the early 2000s. These issues gestate or pass through multiple phases. The May 2018 shooting of protesters against the Sterlite plant at Thoothukudi was not part of a new agitation: it had been going on since 1994. Mostly, it has been an exhausting experience reading about the fate of these movements; following relentless campaigns by really powerful forces which are designed to win.

And then Niyamgiri happened, and the gram sabhas got the opportunity to vote against the bauxite mine. It was an unexpected victory, and although I knew it was provisional, it was still a victory, and I wanted to hold on to it. Sometime afterwards, the Right began its election campaign for the 2014 General Elections. I was familiar with the personality and policies of the leaders of that campaign, so I knew what was going to happen in the country. I was thinking of a story to tell about the country’s systems and processes, because these stories have become even more important than earlier. My wife said: ‘Why not Niyamgiri? You were happy about what happened.’ So I started on it. In the process — the story took a long time to finish — I included other aspects of India I wanted to talk about.

Q3: This might seem like an extension of the last question. Why is Year of the Weeds so detailed? Why is an exact, true-to-life description of a jail in small town India (down to the mention of beedis) given? Why do we read about the tin shed outside a court where lawyers sit with their typewriters? What was the thought behind giving all these details? Were you sure that your target readership was prepared to accept all this?

A3: This is a story of corporate greed, but it is also a story of how the state structure has failed the people. Not just failed, but has preyed on the people. To explain this, I needed to not only talk about the human faces of this failure—Superintendent of Police Sorkari Patnaik and Collector Behera among others —but also about the apparatus. Giving these details was necessary for explaining the fundamental workings of the apparatus. The typewriters under the tin shed convert the words of the people into legal jargon, and the system swallows it up whole. Collector Behera’s air-conditioner defends him from the heat which grinds down people like Korok and his villagers. The jail is an eco-system with its unique rules and systems for chewing up undertrials and keeping them inside those massive walls while the apparatus marches on. The key is in the details. It is a system so massive that an individual standing next to the beast would not miss the pores of the skin, the curve of the fangs, the bristles on the head. Therefore the details.

Q4: Year of the Weeds could very well be a novel for adults. Had Korok been an adult or even if Korok would have been our child guide to the story – like Lenny in Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Ice-Candy-Man, or Rahel and Estha in Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things – even then Year of the Weeds could have been a novel for adult readers. So why did you write it as a YA novel?

A4: I hope alleged adults read it and respond to it. Yes, Korok and Anchita could have been protagonists in a novel for adults as well. I wrote this as a YA novel because I still have hopes from young people. Our generation has failed, mostly, and has bought into the propaganda, the bigotry, the greed and the depredations of corporate groups and the government. But I still have hopes from young people. By writing it as a YA novel, I was hoping young people would have access to this story, which I was not certain they would have if I had written it for an adult readership. Adults are good at hiding these issues from young people.

Having said that, these labels are provisional, so I hope everyone reads it and has a take on what I have written.

But there was another reason. I wrote this story for Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar at Duckbill, who are simply among the most wonderful people I have known — excellent and inspiring writers and marvellous publishers, but also the kind of humans who make you want to be better than what you know you are. So I wrote it for them.

Q5: Children in mofussil India could be familiar with how police and courts work and the contents of Year of the Weeds might not come as a surprise to them, while children in big city India might find the contents of Year of the Weeds shocking. Do you find it ironic that your novel caters, primarily, to that English-reading, English-speaking, city-dwelling YA which will have first access to your novel and which itself is a beneficiary of that corporate system which this novel intends to unmask? Do you expect this urban YA to fully appreciate your book?

A5: Yes, it is ironic, and I hope the book will spark discussions among some of the young readers in urban India. We have gone on for far too long with pretending there are two Indias, of which only one is legitimate and the other invisible. Even if there are two Indias, they shouldn’t be. So children in urban India should know, read about and engage with these issues. If they are shocked with what they find, I hope they will also ask themselves why they are shocked, and why these issues are unfamiliar to them, and what needs to be done. If that means they go to their teachers and parents and tell them: ‘You have not been talking about these things with us, but we are smarter, kinder and better than that, so let us start talking,’ I will be content.

Q6: My favourite part in the novel is this passage:

“It was strange, Ghosh would sometimes think. It was…ironic, that’s what it was. The most valuable resources were usually found under the feet of people who didn’t seem to need them. Even worse, these were usually people who needed the land more than more than what was inside it. And if that did not complicate matters, sometimes the land meant more to them than just space for farming and living. Sometimes it would be ancestors buried there, other times it would be gods and legends. But, and no less ironic, the best veins of these resources were under tribal lands. Take Chhattisgarh, or Jharkhand, or [this place in western Odisha where the Gond Adivasis live]. Invisible people who no one was interested in.

“[Ghosh] sometimes wondered what the people of New York or Delhi or Shanghai would do if rich veins of crude oil and iron ore were found under their houses and streets. They wouldn’t just get up and leave, even if the iron and bauxite would be needed to build their cars or aircraft, and the crude oil would be needed to run their cars or aircraft.”

I cannot say how much this particular passage has moved me and I wish people read Year of the Weeds if only to read this particular passage.

In this part of the novel, you have introduced the character Ghosh who is some kind of a middleman between the corporate world and the government. Ghosh is, of course, a shrewd and ruthless man, but he is also a thoughtful man. Only a thoughtful, sensitive, and understanding man would think the things that I have quoted in the passage above. But, as we would later see in the novel, and I am afraid I might drop a spoiler or two here, Ghosh is not what he seems to be. So what exactly is Ghosh? Why did you leave him somewhat mysterious and did not sketch him in as detailed a manner as you sketched the other supporting characters, like, Jadob?

A6: To answer the second part first: Ghosh is a vital part of the system, and I had to bring him into the story because he influences the course of events in a significant way. But he is so complex and alien to Korok and Anchita, the protagonists, that for them he would be an apparition, a mysterious entity. Patnaik and Behera they would understand, but not him. Therefore he is present in the story, but because he is not relevant to Korok and Anchita’s understanding of things, I have not sketched him in as detailed a manner as the other characters.

But yes, Ghosh is really important for the story, and I wanted readers to know about him. One could call him a middleman, I suppose. In real life, people like him are called different things, and some companies have specific code-names for them. Specialist, consultant, advisor, facilitator. There are different categories of people like Ghosh. Some are just middlemen who know the basic workings of the system. Some are very well-connected. But there are some, the really, really good ones, who are very different. They are extremely well-educated, very aware, informed and well-read. Their understanding of issues, systems and ideas is profound. You can find the personality type in other professions too, such as artists and academics. Very intelligent people who can think in abstract terms all the time, who can think in terms of continents and centuries. But Ghosh, despite all that knowledge, is a sociopath for who empathy is an unimaginable concept. He can frame a question, such as the one you have mentioned: what if people in big cities were thrown out of their homes because there were resources underneath? It is very difficult for a mere apparatchik like Behera, or a blunt instrument like Patnaik, to frame the details of this question: to examine the scenario, to understand the logistics, to consider the historical precedents. Ghosh can, but that’s about it. He does not have empathy at all. Nor does he do what he does for money, or pride, or power. He would find them amusingly trivial. He does what he does because he can. In a conflict such as the one in the story, Ghosh is the person you need to beat. The others can be dealt with; they have shortcomings, they become complacent, they make mistakes, they would spend three hours in the sun and make a stupid decision because of the heat. Ghosh would not. He is more, and less, than human.

I have met some people like him. It was an instructive experience. He is a composite of these people, like the other characters in the novel.

Q7: The Grasshopper’s Run was set in an Ao Naga village, while Year of the Weeds is set in a Gond village. Are you fascinated by the lives of the indigenous people or is it just a coincidence?

A7: The historical periods and contexts of the two stories are different, but yes, it is significant that in both cases and in others, the most vulnerable societies, in any conflict in the subcontinent, are tribes. This is not a coincidence, and understanding why this is so will help us understand some of the problems with the structures we have today. There is very little space for the individuality of indigenous tribal societies in today’s world. Tectonic forces are at work, and, like the Gonds of Deogan (the place in Balangir area of Odisha where Year of the Weeds is set), these communities are extremely vulnerable. The other issue is how arriving at a common tribal movement, or platform, is difficult. The general problems —state apathy, ineptitude and persecution, or corporate machinations — are common, but specific problems are very local or regional. The interplay between tribal societies and more privileged classes is different in various parts of the country. This could be one of the reasons why the Dalit movement has charted a different course. There was an Ambedkar for the Dalits. I am not sure there has been an equivalent for Adivasis, because these local issues do not translate well across geographies.

Q8: Would you like to recommend any other book or written work like Year of the Weeds that readers – readers in general and not only YA readers – might read to know about the struggles of the Adivasis against land grab, rampant industrialisation, and atrocities committed by corporate houses?

A8: My understanding of these particular issues has been purely from my own experience or from interacting with other journalists and academics, or from following events. Unfortunately I have not read fiction about these issues. I hope to correct that at some point. I also hope there will be more translations of indigenous writers and poets, for those of us from other geographies.

Q9: Who is your favourite character from Year of the Weeds and why?

A9: I find all of them interesting, and would like to know more about them. There are questions I have to ask them. How did the Stringer take the photo? How did Bishto and his bus disappear when the politicians came? They are all interesting. But the two most significant characters in the novel are: first, bauxite, that sacred creature for which so much evil is done. And second: the state, which endures, which acts without remorse, and which, as Korok knows, will return.

Q10: What are you writing right now? Are you working on your sixth book?

A10: I am writing a series of blog posts and articles about the novel, its characters and themes at present. I hope to talk more about them in future. Deogan is a peaceful place, and Korok has a beautiful garden. I think I will stay here for a while.

Let’s talk about consent and consensus, shall we?

Ever since the latest accounts of sexual harassment in India emerged, I have been sitting here and waiting for something. I have been waiting for men to speak up. Not about the usual male response to such issues, which ranges from dismissive jokes which trivialise the matter to legalistic concoctions on the lines of ‘where is the evidence’ (funny how every male is a lawyer at heart, isn’t it?) or ‘what was she doing for so many years’. Not discussions on ‘the percentage of fake cases in sexual harassment complaints’. Not fears and anxieties about being ‘unfairly targetted’. I was waiting for some evidence, even the tiniest bit, that men were carrying out some sort of soul-search. That they were questioning the privileges which have led to a situation like this. Some indication that they were examining the problems with patriarchy or with the boys’ club. I was waiting for the tiniest hint of self-examination.

I have not heard anything. Therefore, for what it is worth, here are a few things.

The standard response of any power group to evidence of their privilege and suppression of the powerless is predictable. It ranges from denial to a fixation with trivialities to deprecating, even insulting, humour to violent reprisals. Therefore the standard urban upper caste response about caste discrimination is to deny that it exists, and to ignore instances of it in their own lives. Therefore the racist seeking refuge in euphemisms where the older discriminatory language no longer suffices. Therefore the male reaction to Me Too.

I used to think, till two days ago, that the male response this time is this standard reaction of an entrenched power group. That the virulence of the arguments against Me Too and the harassment allegations are a part of the male response to the idea of gender equality. I now realise that I was somewhat wrong. The renewed strength and virulence of the boys’ club is a symptom of deeply-held fears about the possibility of gender equality and justice at some point, a situation which males are simply not able to face with honesty or self-awareness.

This is why even the ‘nice’ men, those who worked with predators, often in powerful positions, and were witness to these incidents have not spoken up. This is why there have hardly been any male voices talking about the need for some soul-searching by their brothers. This, too, is a form of consent. The silence of these men, their inability to acknowledge or perhaps even realise how deep the rot runs is a symptom of their consenting to the evils of patriarchy. It is, at once, consent and a consensus: this unified response from men which is deafening in its silence.

So, men ask: please tell us what harassment is? How long should a handshake last? Now we will be scared of talking to our female colleagues or in social circumstances. We are scared of fake cases, we are scared of reprisals. Really? When did male fear become the issue? How did a movement about women being relentlessly preyed upon become about assuaging male anxieties? Why is the onus once again on women to be on the guard, to take steps, to pursue cases, to gather evidence? Why have women, once again, been tasked with ‘civilising’ the boys? When there is a viral infection, do we give counselling to the body or do we deal with the virus? Or is it that, by ignoring the truth that the problem lies with men, we are acknowledging that men are incorrigible; that individually they are irresponsible and collectively they have the moral qualms of a wolf pack? If that were the case, the implications should offend men. So why do these ‘nice’ men not speak up now?

So, men ask: what is harassment? When you tell a double-meaning joke or anecdote to your male colleague in the earshot of women, does that not harass her? When you know there is a predator in your midst, and will not speak up, is that not consent on your part? When your individual behaviours, in individual, everyday ways, lower the bar day after day, when ordinary, everyday behavioural patterns force women into silence and into corners, is that not a part of the problem? Or is it only outright criminal behaviour that is to be classed as harassment?

This deafening silence, this absence of an internal dialogue, this inherent dishonesty among men is the problem that they need to address. Or are they waiting, once again, for the women to call them out on this so they will come up with more retorts and trivialities?

What is needed is honesty by men, an acknowledgment that they are complicit. They need to speak up. It is very late, but they can still speak up. Because they might be complicit in ways they may not have realised.

Ages ago, when I still considered myself male and was in college, I found myself in front of a typewriter that a very close friend had bought. He wanted me to inaugurate it by writing a story. I thought: let me try a genre I had not written in before. So I wrote a small passage of erotica. I was complicit in my maleness, in my privilege, in my inability to understand what the egotistical male mind is capable of. I wrote the story, and in my stupidity I made the central characters my friend and a female classmate. The story happened to be circulated, and caused considerable pain to both these classmates, and infinitely more to the woman. Was that not a result of my male privilege and refusal to understand the responsibilities of a writer? And why was it that I did not realise this while writing it? Because I was a man, and was blind to the implications of male privilege. There has not been a day when I have not regretted this, and not a day when I have not rebuked myself for my actions, even afterwards when I stopped considering myself as a male.

The response from men need not be limited to acknowledging your own actions and words. That is an easy way out. ‘Oh, I have never harassed anyone. This issue does not relate to me at all.’ But it does. As witnesses, as participants, as enablers and as members of this boys’ club that grows bolder by the day. Examine your conscience. Speak up. Fix the disease. Get rid of the virus. It is your responsibility. It has always been your responsibility. Don’t con yourself into thinking otherwise.

Destiny is the mischief child of god!

Guest post by Krishna Mangalam

Sunday, December 6, 1992, at Ayodhya saw an event which launched my career. As a writer.

Only that, a full 25 years later, I have nothing to show as a writer! Not one piece published by any journal. A career launched by a momentous event; one that never really took off the ground, let alone make a mark in people’s mind.

A career that never was.

Rest in peace, thinker! Bury your pen! One that flowed with such flourish, with such wit and verve, over that, and all the later events. A critique of reason. One, which never saw the light of day.

Today, I celebrate the silver jubilee of that event. One that launched a career. One that never took off.

Who will ever say I was a thinker, or, even ever know that I felt and thought deeply — over events that engulfed my people, and my nation.

Who cares for a feckless, forlorn critic, and his critique?

Who cares for an unborn child!

Who cares for the pangs, and the pain, it never felt?

Who knows what joy or despair, what wisdom or folly, it would ever unleash once it came into the world and saw the light of day!

25 years gone, and only a hack!

I was ambitious, but destiny had already carved my role.

“Only a pawn!” it wrote in my lifebook, and I took it lying down.

“OK!” I said. “One day, maybe, you will just change the script!” I said, and smiled and simpered, thinking that destiny would hear.

It did, I am sure; but it did not listen to my soft prayers.

Destiny kept playing footsie, and raised a 100 people all around me, raised them up for all the world to see, and crowned them — “Thinkers, Poets, and Wits !”

I was happy. Happy that my time, too, would come.

Today, I still wait. And smile, and simper!

I no longer write.

I retired my pen and sent it back to its quiver.

You see, I cannot justify the treadmill I put my poor pen through, if there is not even a speck of light to grace on its wet ink.

Who cares for wet ink?

Who gives a thought to inchoate wit and vision, not blessed by the publisher yet!

Now, I am only a hack.

No higher purpose than the cheque at the end of the month.

So, why do I still smile and simper, and bow obsequiously, whenever I think destiny is looking my side of the town?

It is a habit.

Why should I abandon worn and trite habits?

They give me a reason to live.

And, while I live, I smile and simper all the more, whether destiny looks hither or not.

Also, I bow to it, obsequiously, every now and then, for the cheque I get every month end.

Once, I was ambitious. But, never was I an ingrate.

I believe in destiny.

There is little other reason I see in all those men, once fools and men of straw, risen to the ranks of wits, poets, emperors, generals, and statesmen, but for the play of destiny.

I think destiny is the mischief child of god.

A god, who has gone and parked himself in another Universe.

(Krishna Mangalam is a senior journalist with The Times of India)

Ode to Shashi Tharoor

There never was a math as poly

As Shashi Tharoor, gruss Gott and golly:

His mien grave, his accent mysterious

(But cruel voices hiss ‘Another Pistorius!’)

Pay no heed, the calumny is old,

What Shashi touches turns always into gold.


A diplomat, writer, now a historian,

His pincered wit is, verily, lobsterian.

Observe him on stage, waving to acolytes,

Fending queries from moss-covered troglodytes;

So far along the curve you can barely keep up

On Shashi’s ideas the Right doth trip up.


Master of mots, both bon and juste,

Rivals quail, and fail, and bite the dust.

From Twitter to ‘gram, his triumph is plain,

His typos send us to dictionaries in vain.

Do you have a cause, unchampioned but dear?

He’s the man, parachuting in without fear.


A Bill should do it (but the Act will be stuck!)

But brownie points were there to pluck,

And a wedding proposal, also some humour,

But further progress is just a rumour;

Other fields, fallow, untilled beckon

Ideological windmills of number without reckon.


The Tharoor’s big foes are Brits — gadzooks!

We’d forgotten those colonial crooks;

Reparations he seeks, and a sorry, to boot,

For Hastings and Wellesley’s orgy of loot.

Their guilt the Brits have repeatedly shown

(‘But Shashi’s forgotten the Peacock Throne!’)


The Persians, Burmese, Afghans and Turks

Are aghast: ‘He ignored our genocidal works!’

Or the Japanese, for ’43, ’44, ’45 —

But Tharoor dreams only of ‘mea culpa’ from Clive;

Post-colonial, you see, seeking political renown,

Jewel with a conscience of the Stephenian Crown.


We’ve had many PMs, to our great misfortune,

Statesmen and dictators, to realities immune;

To ‘entire pol science’, from a quiet economist

Like doomed puppets in the wind we twist.

Now Tharoor, they say, will take ‘em to the stars;

In which case, goodbye, I’m leaving for Mars.


That’s where I’d wanted to end my verse;

But wait, there is something much worse,

In ’02 (Gujarat) I said I would secede

If NaMo to RCR did ever proceed;

It happened, I was stuck in durance vile —

An exit strategy was never my style.


So here is an idea, my last play,

And Tharoor can take or toss it away:

Your attempts at academia I’ll still deplore,

But parachute politics I may just ignore,

Get a ‘sorry’ from the Mongols, on a contrite note,

And, Chetta, you may (probably) get my vote.

What’s the problem with squirrels, anyway?

I have the highest regard for all species, barring humans, of course. There are just two other exceptions. I don’t like monkeys because they don’t follow the rules, or know of them but don’t care, which is worse. Predators come at you, and prey run away. Monkeys are not prey, but they not only come at you, they are also not clearly predators, so there is very little you can do except hand over your ice cream and back off. And they hang about in gangs. A traumatic childhood incident comes to mind, but I have talked about it before and mustn’t bore you.

But squirrels, now they are a totally different matter.

They just rush around and look busy, and make you feel guilty for slacking off, even when you aren’t. I don’t understand why they have to act so busy. And when they pass you by, they sometimes stop mid-stride and stare at you like they are some kind of superior beings. I am convinced it is all an act, and they just behave like that to annoy people.

Take parks, for instance. I don’t usually visit them, not in the city where I live, because they are crowded. Once, after several weeks of staying at home, I went out into a park next door. Very beautiful place it was, I remember. I was sitting on a bench when I was ambushed without provocation by a most horrible human infant which had crawled underneath. I don’t know where the fellow came from, or what he had against me, but he bit my ankle. Some of you may remember I had immediately returned home and announced that the Infantocalypse had started and we should head for the hills.

Don’t get taken in. It is up to something

Anyway, the point of this digression, amusing though it may appear to you (it is not to me, or my ankle, because I have been permanently hocked since then) is that parks in my city are hazardous to begin with, so it doesn’t help that there are squirrels running around all the time. They are up to something, I am sure of it. Some kind of infernal conspiracy.

You remember that poem by that fellow we all had to read in school? ‘What is this life, if full of care…’ and so on, that’s how it went. I had found it a ridiculous read back then. It was redundant for me. I was always standing and staring. In fact, people used to think I was slow, which I probably was. Thing is, there is this bit about ‘No time to see, when woods we pass/ Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass’. The reference to nuts would make us boys giggle stupidly, but the bigger point is, the poet clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about. Have you ever seen a squirrel hide anything on the ground? Nope, they hide stuff up in the trees somewhere. Probably giant hoards of stuff. So they are up there, and they watch us all the time, and they act smug.

Back in my college days, I was once sitting in my room at the hall of residence, not attending classes but reading something of great significance. I put down the comic book and looked outside, and there, on the first floor balcony, was a squirrel, staring at me. I immediately went for the (slightly) modified airsoft gun on my desk. Man of action, that’s what I was. I realized the fellow was there to whack the piece of moderately burnt toast I had kept from breakfast.

‘Begone, foul fiend, to the depths of the Abyss from whence you came!’ said I. In my fury I tended to get biblical back then.

‘Begone, you pestilential peanut-procurer! Avast, you areca-acquiring arboreal assassin! You cashew-craving crook! I shall defend my toast to the last breath, preferably yours. And if you say “Nevermore”, I will run away, which I feel too lazy to do,’ I said.

That squirrel just stared at me for a while, and then (I am not making this up) turned a double somersault on the spot and ran away. Why would any decent animal do that? Would you, after staring at someone eating a quiet toast in her home, turn a double somersault just for the heck of it and disappear? What explains this level of d-baggery?

So they are up to something. Some kind of universal plot. We may find out to our peril someday soon. You mark my words. Even now they are running around, passing messages and acting like they know something you don’t.

They haven’t even left mythology alone. So there is this fellow, name of Ratatoskr, from the Norse sagas. Runs up and down the World Tree, carrying news from the serpent Nidhoggr underground to the eagle Vedrfolnir on the top branches. Why does it need to do this? What business is it of this squirrel to be a busybody? Why can’t he leave the eagle and the serpent alone? Doesn’t he have some World Acorns or something to gather?

I understand some of you may have a soft corner for this animal. But remember my warning. They are up to no good. Be on the alert.

How religions work: The Assam example

Critics of Islam write that the religion has been, historically, a vehicle for Arab imperialism, based on two important aspects: the prominence of Mecca and the insistence that the Quran must be studied in Arabic (I do not refer to Islamophobes here, who do not have the patience for even such a partially-nuanced argument). There may be some substance to this, although the rest of Islam, including its history, was created with considerable non-Arab influence.

However, such imperialisms are common to virtually all organized religions. When you have sacred geographies, and scriptural infallibility, you will have belief systems where the believers have to acknowledge the prominence of places and languages not their own. Hinduism is no different.

Suppose you are an old woman in a village in the far eastern part of Assam. All you have known or connected with in your life is your village community and the Brahmaputra, if it is next door. Then one day you die, and if your sons (it’s always sons, isn’t it?) can afford it, they cart your ashes to North India and immerse them in the Ganga, accompanied by hymns in a language you never knew. It is not much different from the Haj, structurally speaking, or rabbis insisting the Judaic Pentateuch can only be understood properly (that is, as Yahweh meant it to be) in Hebrew.

But when such structures cause the progressive disintegration of a society, one needs to be concerned.

Sacred stones in Meghalaya

‘Assamese society’ is a problematic term, and much hair has been split, and considerable blood spilt, because it is problematic. Broadly, it consists of people who speak Assamese as their first language. Over the centuries that this society was formed, it has been composed of Hindu caste elements and tribes. Of these, the Brahmins were said to have been descended from families out of Kanyakubja (modern Kannauj).

I will not go so far as to say that in the past this society was one long happy picnic in a still densely forested part of the world. No society has ever been like that, and in India, people never live with each other as much as near each other, in an ersatz community. But there was a semblance of fellow-feeling and not much overt falling out.

Of course there were religious influences from the rest of the country. This included appropriation of indigenous beliefs, and importing of others. The Kamakhya temple, which the scholar Banikanta Kakati concluded was built on an old sacred ground of the Garo tribal goddess ‘Kamekha’, was then fully integrated into the Puranic canon. Vaishnavism arrived in the Middle Ages, and songs were written about the ‘vrinda’ groves of far North India. This too, was inevitable.

For 600 of those years, from 1228 to 1826, and particularly for the last 250 years of this, Assamese society was under the political rule of the Ahoms, of Tai Shan extraction from northeastern Myanmar. They too were eventually Hinduised.

After the British came, however, the resulting Assamese middle class charted a course that I am deeply uncomfortable with. Finding themselves, for the first time in the history of the land, to be politically connected with the rest of India, they dug up the old gotras, the genealogies of their upper caste forebears. They looked west, seeking social legitimacy with the other middle classes of India, themselves composed of the upper castes. And in this process, there was a subterranean fracturing of Assamese society. Caste Assamese began to see themselves as different, as more connected to the great history of Indian (read Hindu) civilization than to their neighbours, the tribes.

Hindu beliefs and practices, rooted as they are in notions of ritual and genealogical purity, make it extremely difficult for truly multicultural, multiethnic social formations to emerge. Adherence to the caste system, or even the pale facsimile of it found in Assam, made it easy for caste Hindus in the 19th century to express disdain for ‘the tribal’, for ‘the hillman’, for the ‘Anarya’. These attitudes were gradually and easily internalized, until the fractures became profound.

And so the Nagas, with who Assamese society, particularly in East Assam, had such intimate connections, were estranged. So were the Garos and Khasis with West Assamese society. But that was just prologue. By the late 20th century, the Bodos asserted their difference, their separateness from Assamese society. A decade later, Misings, Tiwas and Rabhas, who speak Assamese at home, who celebrate Bihu (if a song and a dance can be the ultimate cultural identifier, which it can, in some cases), have periodically expressed intentions of going their separate way. Even the Ahoms, who gave so much to the land and its history, who created its true Golden Age, feel slighted enough to want their own space. This is unprecedented even by Indian standards.

How did Assamese society come to this? At the dawn of British rule, the emerging Assamese middle class had a choice. They could be true to their local heritage, or they could behave true to form and be what Hindu caste-based societies have mostly been: fractious, exclusivist, revisionist social formations that ignore existing realities for a mythic heritage.

Something similar happened in Manipur, although the Meiteis successfully held on to both Krishna and their local god, Pakhangba. But the Hinduisation of Manipur pushed away the tribes around them, a process worsened by the rise of the Meitei middle class during British rule. And therefore, lurking in the back of both the Meitei and Assamese mind has been the question — am I Hindu enough? And if I want to be more Hindu, what needs to be done?

So do not be surprised if the Hindu right makes even more inroads into Assamese society, and these fractures deepen. The process started a long time ago, and was waiting to happen in its current iteration. Because the imperialism inherent in Hindutva is also the imperialism inherent in similar organized religions and religion-based structures.

What the newsroom taught me: Part II — Intellectual commensalism

Ladies and gentlemen, our next exhibit in the newsroom menagerie is the Echeneidae, a family of fish better known as the remora. An interesting fish it is, and I warmly recommend you to study it in some detail. The remora comes with suckers atop its head, by which it latches on to bigger organisms and derives sustenance from them. This sort of relationship is called commensalism in zoology. The larger organism derives neither benefit nor harm from the remora.

The average newsroom tends to have a large number of people with artistic, academic or intellectual inclinations. Several have genuine academic heft, and produce, sometimes in arcane fields, admirable scholarly works. Others write non-fiction, some very well-researched, either on current events or on subjects that bridge the newsroom-academia divide. Both types, as I have seen from personal experience, try their best to reconcile the everyday demands of the newsroom with their respective interests and pursuits. I am very fond of them, but they are rare, and tend to vanish from the newsroom quickly and go somewhere else.

The remora in the newsroom does not belong to these two categories. You will find him usually towards the top of the pecking order. Unlike the snark, you can’t ‘threaten his life with a railway-share’, because he has done well, financially, thank you very much. The remora considers himself an intellectual by virtue of having done well in the newsroom. It is a matter of ticking boxes for him. Top of the pecking order — check. Therefore, scholarship — check. Therefore, books — check.

The remora, you see, makes the error of equating an interest in words with an ability to write books, or even tell stories. The error of equating professional success with artistic merit, or proof of latent creative ability. A harmless inference, you may say. Print journalism is mainly toRemora do with words, after all. But there is a considerable difference in the contexts in which words are used. We know so many who are very well-read and have a remarkable vocabulary. Their minds are inclined towards the nature and combinations of letters and words. You can’t beat them at Scrabble any day of the week. But they may not be very good writers.

Yet others may have a considerable amount of independently-derived ideas, or gleanings from several afternoons with Messieurs Camus and Foucault. But they might not be good storytellers. These are disciplines which require different kinds of skill-sets and temperaments. An accountant and an applied mathematician both deal in numbers, but we can’t confuse one for the other. Nor can every competent graphic designer be an abstract artist.

The remora, however, does not make this connection, perhaps because it has not occurred to him, which in turn indicates a somewhat defective capacity for reasoning. Or perhaps the argument I mentioned above is incorrect, and the remora is right in believing he has merit. So he writes his book, and this is where the commensalism bit comes in. With the accumulated power of the newsroom, he can now get the book published, because people know him well. Successful man, must be creative too. He thus channelizes the power of the organization, and his place in the pecking order, to tick another box. This is classic commensalism.

Let us consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose I write a small book of my own, perhaps a humble novel. Very kicked about it, I then hawk the MS around town, perhaps standing in line at a publisher or two, perhaps hoping somebody would find some merit in the work, and give me a chance. Scores of people live in hope this way. Some get a chance, others, perhaps not. But the remora, he goes straight to the top, and his book comes out. Once again commensalism kicks in, and there is no end of gushing admirers to vindicate his view about the merit of the book. Perhaps the book does have merit. But the playing field, for the people lined up outside the publisher’s, is not equal. So here we have commensalism and class working very well together.

Now, armed with the book, and the vindication, the remora is in a comfortable place indeed, to sit in judgment of others, perhaps even in the newsroom. Now his vindication of others’ tastes or ideas matters. It has always mattered, within the newsroom, but now he has the book to back him up. Now it becomes necessary to seek his intellectual approval, and perhaps engage in intellectual discussions with him. And thus the newsroom carries on.

‘Remora’ in Latin means ‘delay’, because the fish is supposed to act as a hindrance to large vessels. In the world outside the newsroom, the remora is mainly used by fishermen to lure tortoises. So I suppose that is what the remora is, in the larger scheme of things.


And by observing him, one learns a lot about the world and the ways of humans.

The ‘I am a Hindu, but…’ argument is flawed

We live in a time when religion is increasingly being debated in the public sphere. Till some years ago, it was hoped by many (I among them) that discussions on faith would be largely relegated to the purely academic sphere, where I for one was perfectly willing to participate. That this has not, and that the discourse on faith in the public sphere would actually become more political in tone, should have occurred to us. Why this has happened, globally, is an interesting question, and will be dealt with separately.

But it has happened, across religions. Faith-based political ideologies now occupy a considerable part of the general discourse. Proponents run the usual gamut, from true believers to the mean of spirit which faith-based systems seem to attract in all historical periods, because there is a good deal of exclusivism attached. The joys of belonging to a select club, let’s say.

It is the opponents of such ideologies that I want to talk about here, specifically a certain type of opponent that I have been wary of, for a while. In India, this is the kind that feels the necessity to preface a critique of Hindutva and its adherents with: ‘I am a Hindu, but…’

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, syntactically this phrase is problematic for Hinduism, because we will first need to define what Hinduism is, and my blog will become a multi-volume book which will end with me admitting the answer could be anything at all. Doctrinally, being a Hindu could mean any of a wide number of sometimes contradictory positions. Legally, the Supreme Court has very kindly laid down about half-a-dozen qualifiers. We are on no firmer ground in terms of practice, considering the diversity of the practiced faith. Of course, a Hindutva proponent would have a one-line definition of what being a Hindu means, and this is one of the principal flaws with that ideology: the intellectual dishonesty of the simplistic.

Let us just say that when someone writes ‘I am a Hindu, but…’, two possible thoughts are occurring simultaneously to the person. First, being a Hindu is whatever the person thinks it is. In other words, she might be talking about a specific practice, such as not eating cow meat (itself a common practice for others self-identifying, or being identified by the upper castes, as Hindus). Or, she might be referring to being a Hindu from the point of view of refuting a specific argument made by Hindutva proponents. Such as, Hindutva proponents say a good Hindu, or the true kind of Hindu, does not eat beef. The critic might be saying, ‘I am a Hindu in every way, but I eat beef.’ In this case, the prefacing phrase is being used to argue against a specific definition in Hindutva.

My main discomfort with the phrase is that it is not, essentially, an intellectual argument. That is, it seeks greater legitimacy for whatever argument the anti-Hindutva critic might be making by pointing out that she, too, is Hindu. This leads to the corollary: that an argument against Hindutva is more legitimate, or should be seen as such, if it is made by a Hindu.

This leads us to the compulsion of agreeing that only those arguments made by people within a faith are truly legitimate. That is, ‘I am a Muslim or Christian, and here are the problems I have against Hindutva’ becomes a less significant critique. This in turn runs the risk of compartmentalising the discourse into faith-based positions.

One may say my objection to the phrase is common sense, but if one takes a look around, one finds a large number of people arguing from this essentially emotional ground. As I was informed recently, a certain senior journalist, who is known not to be a practicing Hindu, has made it a point to preface his remarks on Hindutva by clarifying that he is, actually, a regular temple-goer. His internal reasoning might be that this somehow increases the legitimacy of his voice.

A critique of Hindutva should actually be done on purely intellectual grounds. As a former Hindu, I have as much legitimacy in the arguments I make against Hindutva provided my arguments are based on facts, on doctrine, on practices, on the scientific method of understanding history, in this case political history. My critique of Hindutva should be based on an understanding of what their ideologues say, in addition to a proper understanding of both Hindu doctrine and practice. This takes time, and some degree of reading, and a great degree of interaction with believers, but in the end, for any discourse about faith, it is the only intellectually honest one.

To qualify any discourse on faith by seeking legitimacy as a believer is a fatal weakness, and does not stand up to unbiased scrutiny.