We feel cheated by BJP’s communal politics, say Patel leaders in Gujarat

We feel cheated by BJP’s communal politics, say Patel leaders in Gujarat
Photo Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP
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On August 25, 2015, even as Rahul Desai joined thousands of Hardik Patel supporters in a rally demanding caste-based reservations for Patidars, he could never have imagined that he would be spewing venom against the Bharatiya Janata Party one day.

But six months after the infamous Patel rally, which led to rioting and vandalism in Ahmedabad and reported police atrocities on Patidars across Gujarat, Desai cannot contain his bitterness against the party ruling both the Centre and the state. The 31-year-old Desai is the Ahmedabad West convenor of Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, and has been actively mobilising community members ever since Hardik Patel and other leaders of the organisation were arrested on sedition charges in October.

“In all my speeches, I remind people that we Patels have supported the BJP for years, not just through votes but also through notes,” said Desai, speaking to Scroll.in on a busy street in Ahmedabad’s Bapunagar suburb. “Patidar money helped BJP rise to power, and now look how they are treating us. We cannot let them win in the state election next year.”

Rahul Desai, a convener for the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti in Ahmedabad
Rahul Desai, a convener for the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti in Ahmedabad

Police atrocities unpunished?

Like many of the Patels around him, Desai’s grouse isn’t merely that the BJP is refusing to grant Other Backward Class status to the Patidar caste. The more immediate complaint, he says, is that the state government of Anandiben Patel has so far allowed the Gujarat police to get away with impunity with the many crimes it allegedly committed in the days after August 25, 2015.

For two days after the rally, in Bapunagar, Naroda, Ranip and other Patel-dominated neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad, army and Gujarat police personnel reportedly assaulted residents in their homes, vandalised their windows and cars, and made sexualised threats towards women. Similar allegations were made by Patidars in Surat, Mehsana, Patan and other parts of Gujarat.

Six months on, hundreds of Patel men have been slapped with what Desai calls “predominantly false” charges of looting, rioting, murder and attempt to murder. “But not a single FIR has been lodged against the police for breaking into our homes, beating innocent men and women, and destroying so much of our property,” he said. “We have gone to file complaints several times in the past few months, but none of it gets formally lodged as an FIR.”

The only case filed against the police so far has to do with the custodial death of Shwetang Patel, a 30-year-old from Bapunagar, and it was lodged only after the Gujarat High Courtordered the Criminal Investigation Department to take over the case. “All these months later, the CID’s investigations are going nowhere,” said Desai, one of the many Patidar Samiti members who pursued the registration of the First Information Report in Shwetang Patel’s case. “Only two policemen have been suspended so far, and they are both constables with desk jobs who could not have been involved in the beatings that led to Shwetang’s death.”

‘Congress did well because of Patels’

For many Patels, the outrage at such police “harassment” and the lack of media sympathy for their plight has led to a compounded frustration with the BJP government and its leaders.

The Patidar demand for OBC reservation was born out of growing unemployment, corruption in higher education and the alleged failure of Narendra Modi’s famed Gujarat model of development. Six months ago, the criticism of the BJP, which has ruled the state for 20 years, was guarded and hesitant. Now, as Patels struggle to cope with a newfound fear of the police and the perceived indifference of the state and Central governments, the anti-BJP sentiment has been pouring out.

When Gujarat had its local body elections in December 2015, the Congress won an unprecedented 21 district panchayats out of 31, even though the BJP retained its hold on civic bodies in urban areas. “The Congress did so well in rural Gujarat because of us Patels,” said Maheshbhai Patel, a diamond polisher from Bapunagar. “We could have made the BJP lose in urban areas also, but the names of at least five lakh Patels were taken off the voters list.”

Despite these allegations, Maheshbhai Patel is relieved that in India Colony, a neighbourhood within Bapunagar, all four civic corporators who won the election are from the Congress. In Mehsana, the local Patidar Samiti president Lalbhai Patel states with pride that the new chairman of the Mehsana municipal corporation’s town planning department is a Muslim woman from the Congress – Allahrakhi Belim. “This is the first time in years that a Muslim has held a post of authority at the municipal level in Mehsana, and the Patels are in a way responsible for that,” said Lalbhai Patel.

‘Godhra train burning was a BJP plan’

Six months ago, Patidars were uncomfortable bringing up the obvious parallels between the police atrocities they faced and the Muslim victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. But today, Patidar Samiti leaders like Rahul Desai and Lalbhai Patel are candid enough to raise the communal question themselves as they lash out against the BJP.

“The BJP is fundamentally a communal party that has been planting its ideology of fearing Muslims for years now,” said Desai. “I can tell you with certainty that Modi would never have been re-elected as the chief minister in 2002 if it had not been for the Godhra train burning.”

In February 2002, a mob at Godhra railway station killed 59 commuters of the Sabarmati Express by setting fire to its coaches. Thirty one Muslims were later convicted. The arson was followed by intense communal riots across Gujarat in which more than a thousand people died. Desai, who was in school at the time, remembers being shown videos of the Godhra train burning in class.

“They were doing it to propagate the idea that all Hindus need to come together or else the Muslims would kill us,” said Desai. “I don’t know if the men who burnt the train were Muslims or not, but I know that the Godhra train burning was a pre-planned political stunt by the BJP to win the state election later that year.”

When communal thinking takes root, says Desai, it is very difficult to get rid of. “Because of the BJP’s propaganda, all of us began to think communally, and I feel kind of cheated now,” he said. “Even today, people are afraid that Muslims will riot against them, but honestly, even if they don’t, the BJP will get it done.”

‘Such politics leads to Naxalism’

Desai acknowledges that he may not be speaking for all Patidars in Gujarat, but he is certain that all other members of the Patidar Andolan Samiti share his views.

In Mehsana, Lalbhai Patel could not agree more. “Of course, Godhra and the 2002 riots were orchestrated by the BJP. It is obvious to us now, but back then it wasn’t,” said Lalbhai Patel. “Last time they targeted Muslims. Now they are allowing the Patels to be persecuted. This is exactly the kind of politics that leads to the creation of Naxals.”

For now, Patidar leaders are in no mood to support the party they were once loyal to in the state Assembly election next year. But even as the community accepts help from the Congress to fight various cases against Patidar men, Desai and Lalbhai are firm that Patel allegiance will not blindly bend towards the Congress this election.

“We will vote for whoever gives in to our demands – both reservations and justice for the police atrocities,” said Lalbhai Patel. “The Patidars are already now building connections with OBC Thakors and Miyas [Muslims], so you never know – even a third front might come up.”

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The Independent newspaper dies as it was born – in the white heat of technology

The Independent newspaper dies as it was born – in the white heat of technology
Photo Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP
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Sunday, bloody Sunday: things began to go wrong for The Independent when the decision was made in 1990 to publish a Sunday edition. From the outset, it haemorrhaged money. And Murdoch dealt a second debilitating blow when he cut the price of competitor The Times. Revenue evaporated, and the Indy titles never truly recovered.

Perhaps the British media’s most regular topic of idle speculation in recent years, the question of how long the Independent newspapers could soldier on for has been answered emphatically by the news that the papers are to cease printing in March and become an online-only operation, with the loss of many jobs.

I was one of the journalists that launched the Independent in 1986 and worked there until 1995. As the dust settles, the autopsy will identify a sequence of events that turned the greatest Fleet Street success story of modern times into a protracted tragedy.

The Independent was perverse, smart, irreverent, sceptical – and very well written. It began without much idea of where it was going. Early news content had rather too many stories about what was “set to” happen, too much about what people said and too little about what they did. But the editors, sub editors and reporters hit their stride. They were encouraged to find stories and project vividly what was unearthed; if the Press Association news agency was covering it, then let’s take their coverage and have Indy reporters out finding unique content.

And they did. Tony Bevins in politics, for example. Heather Mills in home affairs. Paddy Barclay in football. John Carlin in South Africa. John Price’s news editing. Photographers were encouraged to eschew conventional picture composition. And their striking images were used imaginatively.

But the paper’s greatest virtue from was perhaps its copy tasting, the process of decision-making about what should be published, what prominence it should be given, and what should be discarded.

One typically compelling splash revealed the high number of babies born in New York to mothers who were HIV-positive. It was a story that had been buried in copy filed by a news agency. But the Independent’s curiosity was aroused, the story developed and competitors were left baffled by what they had missed – just one example of the paper’s independent streak.

Some of the distinctive journalism that characterised the papers was lost as ownership shifted. By the mid-1990s the Mirror Group had a stake. In the early 2000s it moved to a compact (tabloid) formatm and more recently it launched a successful cut-price spin-off, the i, which is being sold on to to Johnston Press.

The i was born under the Lebedevs who bought the titles from Independent News & Mediain 2010. In recent decades there have still been traces of the paper’s original voice, but only a shadow of that early élan.

Saved by Thatcher

Readers responded, but slowly. One month, not long after launch, the company only narrowly found the cash to pay wages. Its saviour was probably Mrs Thatcher. Her governments polarised opinion, in Fleet Street as well as among the electorate. So theIndependent’s boast of neutrality – “It is, are you?” – was suited perfectly to attract readers to its coverage of the 1987 general election.

Other ingredients merit mention. It was Murdoch, paradoxically, who made theIndependent possible: excellent reporters and editors on The Times and The Sunday Timesopted not to cross picket lines at the paper’s union-busting printers at Wapping, and were promptly recruited by the Indy’s founders, especially editor Andreas Whittam Smith.

Whittam Smith, the son of an Anglican clergyman and known by his staff as “the saintly one”, was a thoughtful, slightly detached figure. For humble reporters, it was hard to discern the essence of his ability. But he created in the City Road offices an atmosphere in which staff felt they had a proprietorial and emotional stake in their paper, a compelling incentive to do what they loved to do: good, serious and (also importantly) occasionally frivolous journalism. As circulation climbed, narrowing the gap with the Guardian, theDaily Telegraph and The Times, there were more reasons to be cheerful. This was the place to work on Fleet Street.

It was also Whittam Smith’s decision to launch the Independent on Sunday, something that puzzled those members of staff who recalled him not that long before denying any intention to enter the Sunday market. Perhaps it was an attempt to stymie the Sunday Correspondent, which had just launched.

From 1990, after Murdoch fired the first shots in the price war, energy levels dipped. The papers were never without flair, without imagination. But there were increasingly without money. But for those four or five years, it hardly seemed to matter. We were masters of the newspaper universe.

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How ABVP is bringing caste violence into universities by imposing its idea of the sacred on everyone

How ABVP is bringing caste violence into universities by imposing its idea of the sacred on everyone
Photo Credit: IANS
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The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has a long list of taboo subjects that it considers outside the purview of discussion and contestation. To engage with these subjects or ideas is to violate the ABVP’s idea of the sacred. What has precipitated the crisis in universities is that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing also wants to impose its notion of the sacred on all students and teachers.

The tendency of one group to impose its idea of the sacred on others has its origins in the caste system, which, as we all know, is organised on the principle of purity and pollution. Any violation of the ABVP’s idea of the sacred now runs the risk of encountering violence, or invites punishment from the authorities, or both. This too is a feature of the caste system.

Taboo topics

The ABVP does not want students to discuss the hanging of Yakub Memon or Afzal Guru, or the inclusion of beef in the mess menu. It believes a seminar on human rights violations is akin to supporting Maoism, which is deemed anti-national. It opposes seminars on Hinduism unless these are unequivocally in its praise. The list is long and forever evolving.

Just how this form of imposition is linked to the caste system can be illustrated through an example. The higher your caste, the less polluting your occupation – but you would be defiled in case you were to shake hands with those whose very touch is polluting, or dine with him, or partake of beef, or remove the carcass of a dead animal.

You can choose to refrain from certain activities. That is your decision. You can, for instance, get another person to remove the carcass from your compound. You can, obviously, abstain from eating beef.

But you also have to depend on others to subscribe to caste rules for preserving your purity. What are you to do if the pariah insists on touching you? What if the outcaste draws water from the tap you too use, or demands to drink tea from the same tumbler as yours?

Either you will adjust to this reality or you will dissuade him from polluting you by striking the fear of retribution or punishment in him. This is often at the root of horrific caste violence in the country. Indeed, for caste rules to have salience, it is vital not only for you but also for others to adhere to them as well.

Caste ethos

It is this caste ethos, and arrogance, the ABVP brings to universities, more fiercely now because the BJP government rules at the Centre. Ideas designated as sacred can’t be violated and what the ABVP views as profane must be shunned. In case some choose not to, the ABVP would pressure the authorities to take punitive action against them. It is on the fear of punishment (or violence) that the caste system breeds

Discussions on ideas that the ABVP considers taboo cannot defile its members. Whom does it defile then? It is the Mother, the deity that is India, whom we must worship. Her spirit infuses all spaces, more so the campuses. Just as Dalits were (and are still) proscribed from entering temples, certain ideas have attributes that defile Mother India.

This was indeed the theme of the statement Union Minister Smriti Irani issued following the arrest of protesting students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Ideas of purity and pollution and religiosity are fused in the politics of ABVP, as is true of the entire Sangh Parivar.

The ABVP’s list of taboo subjects can be arranged in a hierarchy. The most profane is the idea of self-determination. Try conducting a seminar on the issue on campus. It is bound to get disrupted by boys who will later be discovered to be belonging to the ABVP.

Ask for a just trial of terrorists – and every word spoken in favour of it will lead to the defilement of Mother India. Try to get Delhi University’s Law Faculty to organise a talk on the need to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It won’t, because that is a taboo subject, as is the issue of observing human rights in Chhattisgarh.

Proscribed from university campus are even those whom the AVBP considers Naxalite sympathisers. To check this hypothesis, Delhi University should invite writer Arundhati Roy to address the students. It was the reason the ABVP cited to deny journalist Siddharth Varadrajan from speaking at Allahabad University.

Historical personalities can be assigned to a higher or lower order of profanity depending on the location of a university. It is taboo to make a critical appraisal of Shivaji in Maharashtra or Rana Pratap in Rajasthan. It is taboo, as students of Hyderabad Central University have repeatedly discovered, to demand that the college serve them beef. Outside metros, you periodically hear of the ABVP demanding a dress code for girls.

Lost ironies

The ABVP’s obsession with its list of taboos creates hilarious situations at times. The ABVP vociferously protested against philosopher Ashok Vohra at Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur. The reason: he had addressed an audience of around 100 on The Religious Dialogue: The Need in the Contemporary Times. The ABVP claimed he had insulted Hinduism.

Vohra had done just the opposite – he had criticised western Indologists, such as Wendy Doniger. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vohra wrote,

“To evaluate theories supported by these scholars one has to use their vocabulary, their descriptions and their interpretations. I chose this because American writers speak very derogatorily of Hindu gods and goddesses… (But) if you want to rebut an argument, you must quote it.”

The poor philosopher, quite clearly, missed the point. They protested against him for much the same reason as the higher castes disallow the Dalit groom to mount the mare in a wedding procession. It may not violate the principle of purity, but it certainly conveys Dalits assertion. It is possible they could feel emboldened to infringe caste rules in the future, just as a few in Vohra’s audience could become intellectually curious about Doniger and learn to question the Hindu religious tradition.

In the ABVP’s imagination, Mother India is dressed in the fabric of nationalism and Hinduism. To question either is to defile her. It is of little significance to the ABVP that its activists don’t contest these two ideas. This is because it believes Mother India would be defiled anyway because of those who are willing to debate the taboo subjects.

The ABVP has now taken upon itself to teach them a lesson for their audacity, in much the way, the dominant castes punish the transgressor of caste codes in villages. This is why our universities are now in tumult.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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Why the Centre and the ABVP must take classes on citizenship and democracy

Why the Centre and the ABVP must take classes on citizenship and democracy30.3K
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There are two forms of political engagement. In one, the exchange of ideas, and even intractable disagreements, are part of the rough and tumble of democratic politics. In the other, the coercive power of the State is used to settle all arguments forever.

The battle lines between proponents of these two forms of political engagement were firmly drawn this week, when union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, responding to complaints of his party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP sent the Delhi Police on to the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, with the intention to intimidate an entire University.

Plainclothes policemen entered the JNU campus. A police photographer took pictures of students and faculty gathered at the university’s administrative block to protest the police presence and the arrest of students’ union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, on February 11.

Kumar has been remanded in police custody as the police “want to investigate any links he may have with terror organisations related to Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan”.

Central intervention

Rajnath Singh said the police were acting on his instructions. He pre-empted any formal investigation of a complaint and the verification of facts with his comments a day after Kumar’s arrest. “… about what has happened in JNU… I have given the police all instructions necessary in these situations,” he said. “…strict action will be taken against them… Under no circumstances will I forgive those who raise this type of anti-Indian slogan or who question the unity, integrity…. of India.”

With the might of the State against it, the faculty and students on the JNU campus feel like they are under siege. The University has a system of complaint redressal, and a committee was set up to inquire into the events of February 9. That day, students are said to have chanted “divisive” slogans at an event organised to discuss the execution of Parliament attack-accused Afzal Guru, and the right of self-determination of the people of Kashmir.

While there was some dissatisfaction with the composition of the committee, everyone agreed it was within the norms set by the university. There was no disruption of work and classes. Life should have gone one as usual. Yet, the administration caved in under government pressure and allowed the police to enter the campus to do what it “deems fit” after receiving a letter saying there was “seditious activity” on the campus.

The everyday world of a university like JNU has room for all sorts of opinions and political affiliations. Even the students’ union is composed of three different political groupings, one of which is the BJP affiliate, the ABVP. That JNU students of the ABVP themselves summoned the coercive forces of the State has shaken the world of this campus, where hot words and angry arguments are usually the most extreme form of political engagement.

The Rohith connection?

A master’s student from the Hindi department, who was standing alone on the edge of the crowd of students gathered at the academic block, told me in a quiet voice that the police should not have been brought into disagreement between students. “This is a disagreement between students, even ABVP students are JNU students, why have they sent the police?” the student said. “I don’t agree with some of the slogans that were shouted [on Feburary 9]. But how can they arrest students for a slogan? I think because JNUSU supported Rohith Vemula and the government is looking bad because of Rohith Vemula, all these things – Siachen deaths, slogans etc., are being combined to attack JNU students.”

But, this is not the first time that the ABVP has acted in what might be a less-than-straightforward and collegial manner, and the BJP government has lent it active support. When wardens in JNU shut down a “havan” in a hostel room as a fire hazard, ABVP students filed a police complaint of sexual harassment and hurting religious sentiments against a Christian faculty member present. A university fact-finding committee has proven the claims false, yet a court case continues. At IIT Madras, a letter from the Human Resource Development ministry based on an “anonymous” complaint got the Ambedkar Study Circle banned. In Hyderabad, it was an ABVP student’s complaint to the same ministry via a BJP member of Parliament, and a court case his family filed, that escalated a campus students’ dispute into a battle between the BJP and non-ABVP students. This led the university administration to take disciplinary action against Rohith Vemula and his friends. In JNU this week, an ABVP complaint to the police and a BJP member of Parliament about a students’ dispute over slogans raised on campus unleashed the wrath of the union Home Minister against non-ABVP students.

ABVP vs the others

It is indicative of what the two sides in this battle represent that the ABVP massed non-student supporters from the neighbouring Munirka colony to protest against students inside JNU. It also held a demonstration at India Gate calling for the arrest of students in JNU.

The non-ABVP students have raised concerns about the police presence on their campus and against arbitrary arrests in the public spaces of the university. For the ABVP, this is clearly part of the Sangh Parivar’s battle to redefine the idea of India in which anyone who does not agree with them is a “desh drohi” or anti-national, but for the non-ABVP students, this is a battle for the rights of students at a university in India.

By bringing its clenched fist down on a university campus the government may be winning the battle of the airwaves, but it is not winning the battle for the hearts and minds of students in JNU.

“ABVP is always trying to say if you don’t agree with them you are anti-national, that is not a good argument,” said a woman, an undergraduate student from the School of Languages. She was one of a group of first-year undergraduates who have not joined the protests on campus because their parents told them not to. But they said they supported the protests in spirit because they felt Kumar’s arrest was wrong. “He is not the type to shout such slogans. Even if someone did, how can you put him in in jail?”

JNU legacy

The BJP and a segment of the media like to portray JNU as a hotbed of subversive political activity, or in the words of a BJP member, “a Maoist production factory”. This characterisation finds favour with those who watch aggressive television anchors shout their studio guests into submission or silence every night. But there is truth beyond television news.

A young woman from Assam, a first year MA student, tried to explain to me why she and her friends were going to join a student and faculty protest at the administrative block in JNU. “Look, you must understand, it was our dream to study in JNU,” she said. “Now we are finally here, and they are telling us that in JNU they teach us about terrorism, that we support terrorists! They have sent the police to arrest students! They are saying this university we worked hard to enter is a bad place and we are bad people. That is why we are going.”

Play

There is a video now online of Kanhaiya Kumar, the students union president, who is spending this weekend in police remand. The video is an eloquent young man’s impassioned affirmation of the idea of India that was created through the struggle for independence, of democratic principles, the value of the Constitution and a denunciation of the “constitution written in Nagpur” (the home of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

He clearly does not need lessons in nationalism from his political opponents. But his political opponents and our central government, however, could do with lessons in citizenship, how democracy functions, and on what universities are.

In a democracy a State does not intervene in the functioning of a university where life and limb are secure. Universities are not factories where people are beaten into identikit followers of state ideologies, but sanctuaries where young people can think, argue, debate and become the active questioning citizens that make democracies thrive.

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