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Saturday, January 27, 2007

India: No stranger to racism

As a person from the North East of India, bearing Mongoloid stature, feature and colour I cannot help but say that my personal experiences in Delhi, the capital city of India, have witnessed numerous slurs of racist fork. They were not soft ones. I am not alone to be subjected to such indignities. Everyone from the region has his or her own stories and experiences, which have been rather silently buried. I know such vocal attacks have, on many occasions, resulted in violent anger, arguments and fights between the so-called “mainstream” people and the people from the North East. Mother, they are racist lot. Unfortunately, I have actually accepted the inhumane practice as a part of the culture of the “mainstream” people. A culture cultivated by the “sink of localism and den of ignorance”. But that doesn’t mean I accept racism.

The outrage explosion over the “racist attacks” on one Bollywood actress, Shilpa Shetty by her white housemates on British reality TV show are an exaggerated one, even when racism ought to be condemned everywhere. The drama that has been unfolding for about two weeks made it obvious that Indians are ready to talk about Indians being racially discriminated outside India. But what about the equally serious condemnable racial discrimination within India? Did we ever care to raise the issue and put a question to ourselves? Are we blind to it because we practise it indignantly? If Shilpa Shetty was called a “Paki” by her white’s housemates, the Indian citizens from the North East states are still called “Chinese”, “Chinky”, “Japanese”, “Koreans” or “Nepalese.” If Shilpa Shetty was poked for her poor chicken cooking style, the North Easterners are poked for their “dirty”, “foul smell”, “stinking”, and “junglee” food habits. There were times when North East students living in the Capital city of India had to actually ask their landlords or hostel warden, “What smell is allowed to cook and what is not?”

Through all these years, it was not an easy ride. I realised that it resulted out of the much-celebrated diversity of India, which is quenched by ignorance and chauvinism. As culture clash, the ride demanded tolerance and understanding, which was not an easy one. I have accepted the discrimination that is, otherwise, getting negatively popular in the ancient city. Day in and day out, friends, acquaintances or people who are new to the city would narrate their experiences, which are more than enough to put the nation to shame. I was lately wishing there was some sort of reactive internal ministry, like the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that reacted immediately for Shilpa Shetty, to look into the disturbing situation of racial discrimination in India.

I wonder if the media, general public who overflow with sympathy and empathy for Shilpa Shetty, or the authorities in the government are aware about the pubs, restaurants and discotheques in Delhi showing no entry to people from the North East of India? The grim situation does not care even if you have money. They care about your colour. That’s how they made the judgement and decision. You bear the Mongoloid look and the door is closed before you. So don’t be surprised when those bouncers did not let you in. India’s democracy has too big a space that it grows racism too.

When I was first told about these public places and their sick practise in Delhi some four years back, I was taken aback. Shocked actually. But I said to myself who cares when I will never be seeking comfort or chilling out at these places even if I have money for the purpose. On the other hand, my second thought resulted in anger, desperation and helplessness over such harsh inhumane practice. It is still alive and going strong. For me it is not about these places, but the racial discrimination practised in these places, which is getting more popular than before. It affects me as I also bear the same colour, feature and stature, which are used to judge a person. If you don’t fit into their scheme of colour, you cannot be a customer. In the growing urban Indian market the password is defined by the colour of your skin. I thought it would be colourblind. I thought it would be race-blind.

So I asked how they made their options. They told me that they have to find a place that accept and admit them despite the colour of their skin. Even then, how can we enter, eat, sit, and dance away as if we never care? As if it is nothing. Is this a surrender to racial discrimination? When we learn to accept that one cannot enter that place, eat there, dance there, or sit there because the colour of one’s skin is different, we realized that the other Indian is much alive. The others in the village.

The situation is grimmer for the girls and women from the North East. Due to the colour of their skin, they were popularly believed and supposed to be an “easy” and “cheap” sex prey. They were victimized lot. Delhi is a living witness to that. Asked them? Everyone has a story. A story untold. A story filled with shame and anger. They represent the silent untold stories. My cousin’s white husband was shocked and surprised when he found that his wife and her friends, all from the North East of India, were not allowed to enter to eat and dance in one of the city’s public places during one of their visit to Delhi recently. The reason was out of a judgement where the colour of their skin was already used to decide them to be a customer or not. Delhi never seems to care as places like these multiply with inhumane norms and rules defined by race and colour.

I am not talking about stray or isolated incident. This is about everyday life and struggle in Delhi. Shilpa Shetty’s experiences and the feelings and sympathy that we have, as concerned citizens, exported to England should be immediately imported back to Delhi to understand and redress the racial bruise of the other Indians. They are being discriminated more than what Shilpa Shetty could imagine. Worst, they are not paid for it. It is beyond the MEA’s jurisdiction to talk about the racial discrimination that is seriously taking place in India. But on moral and humanitarian ground, it could if it is so concerned about racial discrimination and not just Shilpa Shetty. If not, authorities of the several internal ministries, media, NGO’s and concerned activists should immediately step in to kill the colourful game that has already become shamelessly popular and dirty. The celebration of diversity has no meaning if the nation remains silent to the domestic realities of racial abuse and discrimination. India is no stranger to racism.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

AFSPA: Chained in Chain Reaction

Sharmila’s quest for the removal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, from Manipur and other parts of the North East states got a jolt with the massacre of innocent Hindi speaking migrants in Asom by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Unfortunately, the unwanted incident in Assam has, once again, muddled the image of the North East as well as the civil society organisations movement for the repeal of AFSPA from the region. It has justified the “mainstream” understanding of the region as a “disturbed zone”, even when that understanding has to be questioned. The understanding seems to attain more justification when the victims are “Hindi speaking people”. I wonder what the government, media as well as the diverse civil society would response and react if the victims were non-Hindi speaking people. Well, the killings of innocent non-Hindi speaking people at the hands of armed state actors as well as armed non-state actors, in the North East, always go unnoticed when such serious cases really deserved equal concern and attention. Unfortunately, they always got wrapped under the blanket of “disturbed zone” and AFSPA. The attitude ought to raise serious questions, which are otherwise neglected or untouched. Any democratic interest should never compartmentalise issues or questions on the lines of touchable or untouchable. The state ought to open itself to confront, discuss and negotiate issues where its actors, armed as well as unarmed, create a hindrance to the people it represents.

When the region sits on the mapped “disturbed zone”, the recent ULFA’s inhumane act has its immediate spillover effect in other parts of the North East states. The prospect of the much debated and controversial AFSPA seems to be decided once and for all again. When the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, after his visit to Imphal, was mulling over the future of AFSPA to rub its teeth and claws so as to prepare for a more humane AFSPA, the draconian Act, however, will continue with its “special powers” after the ULFA massacre. Even after acknowledging its inhumane nature and character, the Act will be allowed to operate with all its “Special Powers” again. The disturbing thing is that the Act has become an accepted rule for the region and not just an exception. In every manner, when the deployment of armed forces or para-military forces of the Union to restore public order, peace and security in any part of the country ought to be an exception, the continuous strengthening of armed forces in the region, which has been going on for decades, is an indication that the problems of the region deserve more than a military solution. The recommendation outcome from the report of the Justice (Retd) BP Jeevan Reddy Committee will be awaiting a “kind consideration” again.

In the case of Assam, the Government of India declared the state as a “disturbed area” under the AFSPA on 27-11-1990. The authorities felt the need to resort to the use of armed forces in aid of civil power in the face of the threats from the ULFA. The areas falling within 20 km of wide belt in the State of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya along the border of the State of Assam was also declared as “disturbed areas” on 17-09-2001. Since 20-08-1997, the Government of India has been reviewing the extension of the Act after every six months. On 04-11-2004, the Act was extended for a period of six months till 03-05-2005. However, the Act continues to operate as the state found itself under “tremendous strain”, which was pressured by the ULFA and NDFB then. Dr BK Gohain, Commissioner and Secretary to the Government of Assam, Home and Political Department, in his letter to the Secretary to the Committee to review the AFSPA wrote on February 11, 2005: “ … the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 remains a critical requirement for augmenting counter-insurgency operations under the ‘Unified Command’ grid to meet its objective of combating militancy by increasing the pressure on militant outfits with a view to veer them around the mainstream.”

Defence Minister AK Antony recently ruled out the repeal of AFSPA in the wake of the ULFA massacre of Hindi speaking migrants. This has again authorised the Army to celebrate as they prepare themselves for an environment of more frequent sub- conventional warfare and for longer periods. As Assam gets set for an “all out operation” against ULFA, Army Chief JJ Singh has in his mind a multi-pronged counter-insurgency military operation and not purely a military approach. JJ Singh was right when he said, “The problem in Assam has social and economic dimensions…” The same implies to the AFSPA mapped region beyond Assam that still awaits revolutions from white to green even after more than 50 years of the nation’s independence. The much talked about “humane face” should be addressed at such time. The face and image of independence, freedom and liberty are yet to show itself to the populace who are living with all sorts of exemptions and expectations. The region seems to be attracting more heads and minds of the defence specialists than that of the economic or educational specialists.

The celebration about India’s economic triumph and the endless talk about India as the emerging global economic power have not even reached the region. Welfare and development approach of the government has been that of an exclusive one, which restrains the region from any relative celebration. The North East is a real picture of the Other India where welfare, development, security, governance, democracy and all the other big words still have to find a space for itself.

Who is responsible?
As the mayhem has also stirred alive political parties to lift the political leverage for their share of the vote banks, the unusual blame game takes its own turn. The blame game, however, will never lead to clue the desired solution. This has once again made it obvious that the government failed as it indulged in the blame game. If the political parties did not blame one another, the finger will, without any hesitation, point to outside actors like ISI, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Of course, we should not rule out the probabilities, but the problem is homegrown and the solution has to grow from within. The observation of the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) deserves special attention when it said that the reason behind the ongoing unrest in the North Eastern states resulted out of the failure of the governments. ARC chairman, Veerappa Moily said, “The main cause of the conflict in the region is the failure of the Government to initiate dialogues and discussions on issues confronting society. There is no problem in constitutional and legal aspects of the country, but the problem is the failure on the part of the Government to understand the ground realities in the region.” The Commission members also said that the laws enacted by New Delhi were not in line with the ground realities in the North Eastern states. Moily was right when he said, “We cannot afford to look into these conflicts at a micro level.” That is when the need to look into the social and economic dimension becomes needful. The talk about India as one of the emerging global economic powers should have a meaning to the region that is alive with resources, human as well as natural. Focussing on a military strategy alone to curb the decades old problems would fail to identify and uproot the real problem.

On the other hand, we continue to hear the accusation of people like Mamoni Goswami about the “insincere” attitude and approach of the Government towards the ULFA in the appointed dialogues even when India extends its arms wide open. The language of ULFA’s inhumane killings was also interpreted and read along the line of that Government’s attitude. Even if the ULFA, on their part, resorted to deliver their message by hit and run violent method, they cannot finally deliver themselves without any dialogue. Similarly, the Government of India should realise that the solution could be realise by welcoming a sincere dialogue and not merely smoking them out through an all out military operation. A bad decision has been putting the innocent civil society at the worst position whereby they have to stand defenceless to negotiate the faceless enemies. The spillover eventually trickled down to gnaw the freedom and security of the civil society.

The need of the hour is to make a digressive move from out-of-the-box thinking. As militarisation gets strengthened in the region with the unfolding of the New Year, the government also ought to immediately put into war-footing effect a well-designed and crafted educational, economic, and administrative policy to touch that still untouched “social and economic dimensions”. It would heal all if we could wake up to realise that they are not untouchables. Peace first approach will not work out if only the armed state actors are involved. The all-out operation should also be equipped with equally “ignited minds” to impact the “social and economic dimensions”. Only then, the “humane touch” would be realised peacefully. Until then, the spiral would continue to limit any understanding and policies behind the veil of “disturbed zone” and AFSPA. What a botch.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Democracy whining

As the clock strike ushering the New Year, I wondered what would follow with worn out citizens. The expectation was embraced with apprehension as the developing events got quenched one by one with mortals fulfilling vanities. Everyday of the New Year has been greeted with chilling news. It began with the hanging of Saddam Hussein. That was not polite in the age of democracy to the once elected leader who was dejected by the US. The walk of US foreign policy is itself a threat to its campaign for democracy. But nation states were clogged with the fire from the Bush when he said, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” India ought to realise that the statement, without any consideration, abruptly closed the door to its age-old policy of Non-Alignment. The statement itself was an attack to the crux of India’s foreign policy. Saddam Hussein’s hanging was not even strongly criticised. I wonder why India voices itself too softly. But India seems to know that its son, Narendra Modi and his tribe, who could be clubbed with George Bush anytime, was harboured with power and dignity in its democratic umbrella. Saddam Hussein would have been very much safe, alive and in power if he was one of the chief minister, union minister in India. He could have sought salvation in the veil of India’s democracy. That puts a big question on the kind of democracy we have been practising in India. A democracy where we were dictated and prohibited from making a choice and opinion. A democracy where orders were imported on how it should function. India is still hanging on to the love for everything foreign. A democracy where rulers were partners to riots and bloodshed. If this is what democracy is living with today, isn’t it time we redefine what democracy ought to be? Bush dictated definition of democracy was a desperate reaction to the war against unseen enemies who, otherwise, operated with a resort to unreasonable tactics of terrorism. When institutions like the UNO failed to stand up against Bush and his supposed saviour of democracy, Saddam put a big question on Bush. The UN could look up to Saddam Hussein as someone who made a check and balance to the US foreign policy. But it could not. It did not. The UN as well as India were also indignantly silent on Saddam Hussein’s hanging. Is this a result of being a part of the “concert of democracy”? Fitting and isolating nation states into and from the democratic space has resulted in immense human suffering. If this happens in the name of democracy, what difference will democracy exhibit after the war against terrorism surface with the winner? As the assumed beauty blots our eyes, democracy takes a backseat. But in its name.

The next day there was the macabre news report of the psycho paedophiliac duo who not only celebrates in sexually assaulting and kills children but also try to eat their flesh in Noida. As the poor parents were made to realise their powerlessness with every passing day, the exhumed bones and skeletons were far from delivering them the expected justice. The big question in India’s democracy is, will the culprit find the safety valve again? It won’t surprise anyone if the gruesome events collect dust in stagnated files and the culprits go scot-free.

What follows was the massacre of poor and unsuspecting Biharis by the ULFA in Assam. The toll has reached 70. As the poor and helpless Bihari workers from different parts of Assam started fleeing Assam, the sleeping Leviathan missed the fire-fighting challenge. It is not about handing out two or five lakh rupees for compensating lost lives. As the government is oiling its barrel to give back an eye for the eye, it should also learn paedotrophy – the art of rearing children. Its celebrated democracy has produced and raised too many spoilt children. Start simple. Talk to them sincerely. Let them also respond honestly. The hit and run or shoot at sight game will lead nowhere.

Then again, the Midnapore land grabbing resulted in killings. The men in power must be saying, all these problems are opportunities in disguise. What about the North East beyond Assam? Khengjoi block in Chandel, Manipur is still gripped by the threat of landmines. The Indian Army is carrying out counter-insurgency military operation. In the process, it is the innocent villagers who suffer. As limbs and lives were lost, the authorities continue to show irresponsibility and insensitivity. The region is accepted by those in power as a disturbed zone. Whatever comes out of the place justified their understanding. Come what may, it is expected of the region. Therefore it affirms their expectation. While the syllabus in schools and colleges are packed with the concept of democracy, the region is alive with draconian law like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The region also teems with the armed forces. As men in guns and weapons populates the region to make peace and security, the blanket of that gets thinner. No economic security. No human security. Just no security at all. The land and people are deprived of governance, employment, institutions, roads, electricity and the biggest resource, which is peace.

The plights of the region and its people multiply as it only remains geographically mapped, but unreached and far from the “Ignited minds.” The region hardly knows if the urban villages are talking about India as the emerging global economic power or overtaking China sometimes after 2010 or ten or fifteen years after that. But the region is already flooded with Chinese goods. The most underwear items, the sound, lights, sight and taste of everyday use in the region comes from China. Shall we still talk about free trade? Or the Look East policy? The walk will take a long soft way still. Shall we blame the Chinese for discovering the gunpowder, with which the region is booming? State actors as well as non-state actors all up in arms. But in India’s democracy, number game matters. The region, when compared to the fertile billion zones, is too small to move the hands of its democracy. Weak representation raising voices in a politically divided democracy has weaker impact. Merely pumping budgets and funds will not help. That is not the only way to do. But it is already becoming an excuse to say we did. There is a need for a sincere tilling of the land as one’s own if the interest is for peace, welfare, and development. The region is packed with potentials, which can be converted to become winners and champions in every sector. Till as your own. Only then the panacea will grow. Until then, the New Year seems sicker with the import and imposition of democracy everywhere. That will validate them to further extend the claws of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Democracy is whining

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Tribute to the living

It is just one year after the rape of young girls and women in Tipaimukh. The sore still lingers. Not just a trace. But in pain. In helplessness. In anger. Dejection. And shame. Memories will never forget. Nothing is healed. It will go down as the sore bruise in the history of Zoram Khawvel.

I remember our visit to the Tipaimukh villages in the early part of February 2006. The rape victims were nursing their shame and pain in the deserted villages. Many left for Mizoram to seek refuge. Some of the rape victims too. Those left behind, unable to flee, remained owing to various reasons. Some were too poor to even flee. Some dare not leave with their bags of shame and pain of being raped. Some did not leave saying it would be too difficult to start a new life in a new place.

The village was wet with tears. It was high dry from any help. It was just empty and hollow. Some brought the snake when they needed the bread. Those were their brothers. Their fathers. Their mothers and sisters. But they had to bite the snake too. Misery was printed large everywhere. The village was silent with the grip of fear. It was shivering with anger. It was on the verge of bursting out with desperation. They thought and wonder, who would care?
The man and human in me were reduced. I was so small that I almost forgot I was alive. I almost see myself fading away as I was confronted with victims and their sad stories. The eyes were moistened and blurry. The voice mutters and croaks. The body was moving against the science of what was normal. Silence was all that I could afford as I listened to their stories.
They were young. Just about to flower to the beauty of youth. The age of hope and aspirations have embraced them. Their dreams of woman-to- be have touched their innocence. They were clothed with the pride and dignity of woman. It was the time when their head was held highest. Queens of the local hearts they knew they were. The magic of love and life has started to tail them. They were the shelter of young hearts. They, the source of beautiful songs and music that grows from the village. It was that age they just started to open to. It was supposed to be their time. The moment was waiting for them.

Unfortunately, the spillover of men draped in disguise of political salvation robbed them of their innocence. The heart of life was torn for them. It was a loss. The biggest loss. The night turns darker for them. They wish no more for the sun to rise. Unlike the day before, there was no longing to see the day faithfully following the night. It ripped them apart. The glow fades. It shocked them to shame. There was no other word to define the act that was done to them. They were raped.

We started our visit from the first victim’s house. The house was a pastor quarter. She, the pastor’s daughter. We entered from their kitchen. The house was glowing with fire from the hearth. The fire dance wild with yellow flames making larger than life shadows of us on the wall. It was not the dance of joy. The restless flames seem to be burning with the desire to express what the victims parents must have shared as they tame the fire. If today voices were given to the voiceless, the world would draw closer to hear the truth. If today the voiceless were allow to speak out, many of the wolves would be naked with their sheep’s skin ripped. Meanwhile, our shadows seem to grow bigger as we struggle to find words. The victim’s father was also badly beaten by the same perpetrators so that they went to Silchar for medical check up. Her mother told us that she’s been isolating herself since that fateful night. The Pastor, a humble and polite one, told us her daughter has been waiting for us in her room just above the kitchen. We went up to find her sitting bowed and alone with a Bible in her hand. Our footsteps were loud in the quietness of the isolated house. Like the march of ten thousands foot soldiers. The Bible in her hand seems to be her last resort. The Book was at ease in her hands. She was seeking peace in The Book. The Book had a red lining and black cover. She was holding the Bible as if to find an answer to what she was thirsting for. I wonder what she must be praying for at that time. Was it for forgiveness? For strength? For His blessing? Or for helping to forget. Will it be: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We started talking. Words flows with tears. It flows with shame and anger. It flows with the desire to hide forever. The desire to die. It was not fun at all for the listeners.

I struggled so that my tears did not find a way outside my eyes. It was not very good time to wet the eyes. I thought to myself that it would be more shameful if I return to be silent. I would do them more injustice if I only listen to their stories and did nothing, which I ought to do. I would cease to be a man if I dare not stand up for what is right against the wrong. I would cease to be human if I cannot call wrong as wrong and right as right. If I remain silent, what will I say when the merciful providence ask me where my brothers and sisters are? What will I say, if, tomorrow my sisters are also raped? Will it be fair if I remain silent today and expect others to speak out against it? What will I say if today I remain silent and others also do the same tomorrow? Where would I hide if I remain silent today and others speak for the same sufferings tomorrow? Will there be forgiveness if that takes place? Will I be forgiven? Will I be able to forgive myself? If I were silent today, the sins of silence would haunt me till the grave. Pilate would not be there to help me wash my hands. It would be unusual to sleep the long sleep with dirty hands. I would not be able to forgive myself for that. God will sulk over such creations. Black Eyed Peas have a question for everyone: Where is the love?