Compared to the three weeks that my family and I spent in Kolkata, Istanbul now seems an oasis of calm. July and August are the only months we get to visit home for any length of time, yet it is the worst possible season to do so. The noise, pollution, heat and humidity are enough to fray normally calm tempers. Add the stress of accumulated resentments, the strain of putting up with situations which one would like to avoid but from which there seem no possible escape, and the continuing worries of attending to the aged, the urgency of repairing this and arranging that...and what you get is a situation where the most innocuous remark or banally ordinary event like an incoming telephone call can set off an explosion of emotion. Sadly, even what we normally call home and family now seem like emotional minefields.
As if all this were not enough, our younger son fell ill with a mysterious pulmonary condition that had him coughing out blood every morning. More trips to the doctors, sitting for hours in smoke-choked traffic in the humidity of an unending downpour that has clogged up streets for miles around, wading through knee deep drain water in the streets...My son's lung condition subsided and eventually disappeared, but not before it had the entirely salubrious effect of weaning him away from smoking altogether...well, at least for the last couple of weeks. The cause was mysterious, and could have been a combination of excessive smoking and pollution. The doctors were never certain, since no tests showed anything serious or conclusive.
The only high points of the trip were the visit we paid to Dada in jail, and the wedding reception of a cousin who lives abroad. We had no time to visit old friends or old places.
The jail authorities were initially quite stubborn in their refusal to let us in. The rules permitted one visit a week, and someone had apparently visited him the day before. I spent a whole hour pleading with people through a tiny window in the jail gate, being alternately lectured to and ignored by the guards at the jail gate, and greeted by sundry passing policemen who seemed remarkable well-disposed towards us after they discovered who we were. I noted that the local policemen referred to Dada as Doctor Baba (the word Baba has connotations of respect reserved for monks and other sorts of itinerant holy men). At one point, the problem seemed to be that I had written my petition in English, so one of those friendly passing policemen wrote me a chit in Hindi, but it had no more effect than my petition. No amount of pleading or cajoling seemed to work, until I called up a senior bureaucrat in the state government known to my younger brother. Ah, the power of elite networks! Within the half hour, Dada appeared before us in the jailer's office, but not before I was treated to a homily by the superintendent of the jail on the need for reading the jail manual, and on how difficult it was to allow exceptions to rules.
Dada seemed to be in good spirits and pleased with the kurtas and the books we had brought with us for him. I expected to see him rather the worse for the three months in jail, but he seemed no worse than when I last saw him over a year ago. I was unable to contain my tears at first, since an unspoken emotion seemed to have gripped me, but I quickly controlled myself, since he seemed very happy to see us, and further lachrymation may have queered the pitch somewhat. We spoke on a range of different things, including the conditions in jail (miserable, water undrinkable, food inedible, a weird caste system operating among the inmates), and what he did the whole day (read, wrote and exercised by pacing for two hours up and down a twenty foot long courtyard, cooked his own food, treated the water with chlorine tablets). His companions were convicts who were imprisoned for long terms for murder, but he had managed to strike up a good relation with many of them. The meeting ended after forty minutes when the jailer finally found time from the continuous stream of visitors and papers into his office to remind himself of our presence. There were many questions that remained unasked, but if Dada was supposed to be deterred by his experiences in jail, there was little sign of it.
We returned to Kolkata the same day. Thankfully, the weather goods seemed well disposed towards the world, and we had remarkably pleasant weather in Raipur that day for that season.
During the course of our visit, I managed to gauge the degree of impunity that seems to have infected the politics and administration in India.
a) Taslima Nasreen, a noted Bangladeshi feminist and atheist currently enjoying asylum in India from Muslim extremists in her own country, is physically attacked by the representatives of an Indian Muslim extremist party in Hyderabad (the Majlis-i Ittehad-i Muslimeen, or MIM), where she went to present the Telegu translation of her book Lajja (Shame in Bangla) in which she is highly critical of some of the teachings of Islam. The representatives claim that she has insulted their religion, accuse her of apostasy, and warn her that she will be killed if she steps foot in Hyderabad again. The attackers are the local state assembly representatives of their party. One wonders how a party with these kinds of beliefs, and which openly practices violence, is legal in our system. In a surprising turn, the police in Hyderabad have in turn accused Taslima Nasreen of inflaming sectarian violence with her writings. The attackers were released on bail almost as soon as they were arrested.
b) The Shiv Sena, which has gained notoriety over the last twenty years as the storm troopers of the fascist Hindu right wing, enjoys parliamentary representation in local assemblies in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and no doubt elsewhere too. Their representatives ransacked the offices of Outlook, a national weekly which had singled out the party leader Bal Thackeray as one of the villains this country could have done without in its issue celebrating sixty years of Indian independence. The same party earlier threatened further violence if cases against its members were revived by the ruling Congress Party on the basis of the Srikrishna Commission Report, which the BJP and the Shiv Sena had managed to ignore and vilify when they were in power in the state of Maharashtra. The Srikrishna Commission Report had identified members of the Shiv Sena and the police force who were guilty of instigating and participating in the Bombay riots of 1992 (which was basically a pogrom against Muslims, presaging the second pogrom in neighbouring Gujarat a decade later, led by the same bunch of fascist goons), and had recommended that they should be made to account for their actions. The then ruling BJP had ensured that all the guilty went free. But now, in the wake of the sentencing of those guilty of the blasts in Bombay in 1993 following the riots of 1992-3, the question of justice for the victims of the riots has risen again with sufficient force for the Congress president to insist that special courts be created to try those identified as guilty by Srikrishna. [Strangely, there is no online version of the Srikrishna Report. The site that appears to have it, SABRANG, has a virus that disabled my browser everytime I tried to access their page.]
c) My third example comes from a blog called Kafila. Aditya Nigam reports on a case, similar to Dada's, of a woman picked up by the police for her human rights activism. Here is the relevant passage, although the entire post should be read.
If there is any doubt about the impunity with which the police operates when dealing with even the most legitimate dissent and opposition, then witness this statement made before the media by a police official of Sonbhadra district, in the context of Roma’s arrest. This official, Ajay Shankar by name, tells the press: “Us aurat ko to jail mein hi theek kar diya jaayega. Vaheen phaad diyaa jaayega” [That woman will be set right in jail. We shall tear her apart, right there]. The reporter goes on to say that these were the most ‘civilized’ of the statements made by them; the rest are unprintable.
Anybody who has the slightest idea of how the police works even in big cities like Delhi, with complete impunity, framing people for any ‘crime’ – especially where they are themselves involved and thus need protect the real offenders and yet, to show that they have ‘caught’ the offenders – will know that ninety percent of the crime flourishes because of the police. It is they who produce criminals. The story of the rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, where this drama is being enacted, is really no different. The struggle for rights over land, water and forest (jal, jangal aur zameen) is of course what is creating the real problem here. Organizations like Kaimur Khsetra Mahila Kisan Sangharsha Samiti (Sonbhadra), Bhu Adhikar Manch (Jaunpur), Patha Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Manch (Manikpur) have been involved in the struggle for land rights in these areas. In districts like Sonbhadra, Mirzapur and Chandoli, the land mafia has control over large tracts forest land, according to the organizers of the struggle. In their view, this mafia has a section of the local police at its service – for reasons that are not difficult to seek.
Nigam goes on to refer to Salwa Judum and Dada as well, to make the point that cases such as Roma's or Dada's cannot be isolated from the politics of land acquisition for "development".