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Contents
Memoir

Dangerous little things

An account of turning political

MY GRANDFATHER WAS once in jail.

As a kid, I’d pronounce this with a little flush of pride. My grandpa! Way back in 1941.

As a young man, my maternal grandfather became involved with student politics and wrote rousing poems, neither of which the British government cared for. A warrant was issued. He went underground, but was eventually arrested.

I know nothing of his jail stint except that he wrote more Urdu poetry and learnt the Hindi (Devanagari) script. I did ask once if his mother was mad at him for getting arrested. She was upset, he said, mainly on account of the family’s reputation. His marriage had been fixed, but after his arrest the girl’s side broke off the engagement. Clearly, not everyone thought it was such a fine thing to go to jail – not even in the name of the freedom.

My pride rested on the fact that Grandpa was a political prisoner. So was the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the tallest leaders of India’s freedom struggle. Some were charged with ‘sedition’, causing disaffection towards the government, but that didn’t stop them. They courted arrest, confronted police batons and went on hunger strikes. They emerged from jail with their heads held high.

Then came freedom. On 15 August 1947, at the stroke of midnight, politicking was no longer quite the same. Inquilab Zindabad – ‘Long Live the Revolution’ – became a fraught slogan. My grandfather was no longer so political. The sedition law stayed on the books.

 

ONE OF MY earliest memories has me standing under a dilute sun at morning assembly in school, feeling nervous and weepy. Every day we stood in neat rows, sang a prayer, recited a patriotic pledge wherein we swore that all Indians were our brothers and sisters, after which our hair, nails and teeth were inspected by the class teacher. That particular morning, in 1984, we were asked to stand for one minute’s silence to mourn Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The sudden silence had frightened me. I was six years old and didn’t understand assassination. My mother did not discuss the assassination at home, even though we had a photograph of her and my infant brother with the late prime minister.

Mrs Gandhi would meet citizens at her residence in New Delhi, and the photo must have been taken either just before or just after she declared a state of emergency. For twenty-one months, between 1975 and 1977, all constitutional freedoms were suspended in India. Critics, opposition leaders and many student leaders were jailed. Newspapers were censored. People, mostly poor men, were picked up and forced to undergo sterilisations in a misguided attempt to control the population. I wasn’t yet born.

Even after it was called off and elections had been held (Indira Gandhi lost), the word ‘Emergency’ was uttered neither at home nor in school. None of my teachers talked about it, nor about the prime minister’s assassination, its context or its fallout – the brutal anti-Sikh riots. In the years that followed, nobody discussed the militant separatist movement for Khalistan, a separate Sikh homeland.

I ask my mother now how she felt about the Emergency. She says she had no clue what was going on. I am incredulous: How is that even possible?

She shrugs. A young wife and mother struggling to stay afloat, she seems to have sleepwalked through the Emergency. Even before, as a student living in the national capital, she wasn’t conscious of the fact that the largest political party – the Indian National Congress, whose leadership had guided the freedom struggle – had split. Many campuses were roiling with what the newspapers called ‘unrest’, but she, her friends and her siblings did not join any protests, peaceful or otherwise.

Politics was already a slightly soiled word, suggestive of manipulation, aggression, a thirst for power that led to a bottomless well of moral compromise. Good kids didn’t look in the well, not even if there was a stink coming off it.

For citizens like my mother, trying to hold on to middle-class respectability by the skin of their teeth, it was enough that Indira, Nehru’s daughter, was in charge. Surely, things couldn’t go so very wrong?

Nearly four decades later, bewildered by the turn national politics has taken, my mother finally asked me: So, what actually happened during the Emergency?

 

I HAVE ONE memory of a political discussion in school. Elections were around the corner and kids were talking about who their parents would vote for. Mum wasn’t registered in that state and we never talked politics anyway. Still, I was taken aback when other kids said their parents were voting Lotus, the election symbol of the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

One classmate, visibly upset, said she wished a bomb would fall upon the heads of BJP voters. Another classmate lashed back: How can you say something like that? What’s so wrong with BJP?

I didn’t yet know words like ideology, but I sort of knew hate. Nobody spoke of hatred at home, except along the lines of: I hate spinach. Even then, chances were, Mum would lecture. Hate is a strong word. But we did know there was a divisive line somewhere. On one side, there was us. On the other side, the Sanghis.

Sanghi came from ‘Sangh’, literally meaning ‘a group’. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) describes itself as a social and cultural rather than political organisation. However, its affiliates make no secret of their majoritarian, anti-secular agenda. The RSS was first banned for a few days in 1947, before India’s independence and partition. In 1948, one of its former members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi; the organisation was banned again, this time for more than a year. In the decades that followed, the RSS grew tens of thousands of branches across the nation. People associated with the Sangh, its religious and political affiliates, were called Sanghi. Many politicians in the BJP came out of the RSS, wearing its uniform and practising its salute – hand turned towards the chest, elbow out. Not quite a Nazi salute, but its founder-leaders were known admirers of Herr Hitler.

I knew the Sangh meant trouble, but nobody told me why. I didn’t know that the most prominent BJP leaders were making speeches to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments, that such speeches were often trailed by murder and gang rape. I was fourteen when they were destroying the Babri mosque. Then riots broke out across the country. My brother had moved to Bombay, and the city was burning.

Let me rephrase that: Bombay was set afire. The hands and tongues that offered the incendiary material never went to jail. A right-wing party won the state elections and renamed the city Mumbai.

The year before, in 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s son, had been assassinated. We still didn’t discuss assassinations or riots in the classroom, although we were now required to read out news headlines at the morning assembly.

Politics was the needle through which our lives were threaded. But nobody wanted us to examine the hands that held the needle. At fifteen, I was pulled up for wearing my hair loose instead of having it braided and beribboned. My nails and teeth were still being inspected. I still didn’t know how the pieces of the puzzle fit together – speeches by politicians, riots, elections, urban nomenclature.

 

I GREW UP thinking of politics as a grubby thing. Student politics was painted as particularly dangerous. A good kid was supposed to walk in the opposite direction if she saw one of those wannabe politicians, those who had connections with actual politicians.

One heard stories of semi-authentic students, young men in their late twenties and early thirties who kept signing up for courses so they could remain eligible for student council elections or, at least, could influence the outcome by bullying others. In 1983, a state-appointed panel had recommended putting an end to campus elections in the state of Bihar, and to ban teachers from contesting elections at local, state or national levels. Their report quoted a teacher of Patna University as saying that every third student carried arms, and there were over a hundred cases of stabbing each year. Subsequently, Patna University did not conduct student union elections for nearly twenty-eight years. This wasn’t so unusual: student elections have been banned by several Indian states in the decades since independence.

But I had little cause for worry. I was enrolled at a girls-only college run by nuns. Violence was as likely as snowfall in a desert. Political awakening was as unlikely. I’d opted for sociology and economics along with English literature, but our teachers didn’t discuss politics or how it impacts the economy. Some would dictate notes that we’d copy, longhand, in our notebooks. We’d mug up on notes, rocking back and forth in bed late into the night before exams: three definitions of money, eight types of marriages recognised in traditional Indian society. Why Macbeth killed the king. We didn’t discuss why kings, or prime ministers, get assassinated.

At eighteen, we were eligible to vote for parliament. Almost as soon as we entered college, we, at least in theory, decided weighty matters like whether food and education should be universal rights, whether there would be blood on the streets in the name of religion, how much affirmative action was acceptable. College elections, on the other hand, decided nothing.

The student council chose Head Girl, who got to wear a saree and make a polite speech at the college annual day celebrations. Elected reps didn’t voice grievances. They wore badges and were occasionally assigned minding duties, keeping order and so on. Still, we talked about candidates as if it mattered. This one seems ambitious. That one is suddenly friendly. Too proud.

Perhaps to give us a taste of future participation in democracy, the secrecy of the ballot was maintained. The year I was up for class rep, my heart went boom boom boom once counting began. I was afraid I’d only get one vote, which would be my own, so perhaps I shouldn’t have voted for myself? Surely it is better to declare that even you have no faith in yourself, if nobody else does? But I got my badge after all.

Most of our parents wouldn’t have wanted us to do more than wear a badge. They wanted us to pass exams, pick up a bit of culture or sports. They didn’t want us involved with unions. Suspicious as they were of politics, the middle and upper classes have a horror of collective action. The phrase I’d heard grown-ups use was ‘ganging up’. Workers ‘ganged up’; students ‘got misled’. CEOs and businessmen ‘demonstrated leadership’.

It wasn’t just parents and college administrators. It was our pop culture too. Movies in the 1980s and 1990s showed aggressive students forcing others to boycott classes, preventing teachers from teaching, threatening violence. Some stories were rooted in reality. Friends at bigger universities said ‘lumpen’ leaders did try to force the administration to postpone exams and there were real concerns they’d lose a whole year. News reports informed us about vice-chancellors needing guns to ward off mobs.

A depoliticised campus was the safest bet. Yet, it was in a thoroughly depoliticised environment that I had my first brush with collective action.

I was the student who rarely bunked class, who participated in dances and plays, exercised on schedule, worked on the college magazine, didn’t complain about the food in the hostel mess. Then, one Sunday, a discreet meeting was held. A bunch of girls wanted to do something about the quality of the food, the way it was served (someone was insulted when she went back for second helpings). Perhaps there were other grievances, though none were mine. But the girls asked if I’d support them and I agreed.

The chosen method of protest was skipping a meal. In the corridor outside the mess, we sat on the floor in a neat row, each girl doing something appropriate: reading, sewing, embroidering. The warden walked past, asked what was up. We said nothing.

I have no clear memory of how we dispersed. Perhaps the warden asked us to go back to our rooms and we did. Later we were summoned and asked to explain that little piece of drama. I remember quailing under the unfamiliar glare of disapproval: You too, Annie? I’m disappointed!

The food did not change much, and I didn’t think there was a lot wrong with it in the first place. But that one hour – sitting there, refusing to eat, quietly reading a book – achieved something. It introduced me to a tool called non co-operation. I’d read about it. Mahatma Gandhi had used it against the British. Now I understood it.

 

ONE OF THE first photos I uploaded on Facebook has me holding a placard that says: DOW, DON'T FEED US WITH POISON.

I was reluctant to upload photos initially. Why put my face out there for strangers to look at? But once I decided to face the world, I chose a political image even though I wasn’t a card-carrying member of any party. I still struggled to talk to people who wore their political affiliations on their sleeves. But a lot had changed between me being an undergraduate at a safe campus in 1999 and being a reporter at a news magazine in 2004.

I’d been walking past India Gate in New Delhi when I saw a bunch of people holding placards and lighting candles. The protest was against the Dow Chemical Company, the American corporation that had not taken full responsibility for the 1984 toxic gas leak in Bhopal. Hundreds of thousands were sick and over sixteen thousand died as a result of the leak. Warren Anderson, the American who headed Union Carbide, the international corporation that controlled the Indian subsidiary (Union Carbide India Limited), never saw the inside of an Indian jail. This was the twentieth anniversary protest, and it took me less than five minutes to stop watching and join in.

One of the activists held a placard that said: DOW, TAKE YOUR SHIT BACK. Union Carbide sold its stake and was eventually acquired by Dow Chemical Company in 2001. Conveniently, Dow acquired the business but not its toxic tail. There remained hundreds of tonnes of hazardous waste in Bhopal. People were struggling with disability. Babies were still being born with birth defects. The twentieth anniversary was followed by the twenty-fifth, then the thirtieth. Dow never felt compelled to take its shit back.

Working as a journalist, all my assumptions about freedom and politicking began to crumble. Managers wangled promotions, corporations lobbied governments, PR firms offered junkets to journalists, judges accepted post-retirement jobs offered by politicians, pharma companies offered incentives to doctors, medical and engineering colleges accepted ‘donations’ in lieu of student admissions. All of it was dirty and dangerous. Yet, these players – doctors, industrialists, lawyers – were not seen as murky, their actions were not interpreted as dangerous in a democracy.

Among the people who helped me interpret and connect the dots between action, inaction and social violence were research scholars and professors. Many were associated with Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the latter being our most prestigious postgraduate research institution for the social sciences.

JNU also had a reputation for being a hotbed of communists, leftist sympathisers and all other manner of free thinkers. The way people said it, ‘free’ sounded like a bad word. I’d wanted to apply for a master’s degree. One of my relatives had laughed and warned: JNU? We hear they have boys and girls living in the same hostel.

Of course, there were separate hostels. But it was true that there was greater freedom on campus and it made a lot of people anxious. Many students were affiliated with mainstream political parties, including the left. They were known to ask big questions. The women were not known to be wallflowers. They participated in every aspect of campus life, including attending political meetings held after sundown. This was an intimidating idea. Those who are taught to see depoliticisation as ‘safe’ must struggle with the corollary: politicisation was risky.

But it was also seductive. I wanted to be among such people. The professors who taught there occupied several column lengths in the national newspapers.

On the other hand, aspiring to JNU was potentially a humiliating idea. I was utterly unprepared to participate in this sort of academic life. It was as bad as never having been to college at all. I’d be an intellectual dwarf.

I applied anyway. I wasn’t admitted. I felt a bit resentful, but the blade of envy was soon blunted by respect. Many of the Delhi University and JNU scholars I met in the course of my work were smarter, better informed, more articulate than any others I’d met before. Some helped me shed class prejudice. Some helped me regain my love of poetry in my own language, introduced me to poets who were not on any syllabi. From them, I learnt not to be cynical. From them, I learnt to say ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ without feeling squeamish.

The slogan had been coined in 1921 by the poet and freedom-fighter Hasrat Mohani to protest British imperial rule. It has since been part of people’s movements across the country, be it the right to food, education or employment, or protests against displacement or clampdowns on free speech.

We have grown up hearing stories of how the young freedom-fighter Bhagat Singh had raised this slogan while tossing a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly in 1929. The bomb didn’t kill; it made a loud noise and was accompanied by a shower of pamphlets. Singh was an active organiser as a student, joining and founding groups, writing pamphlets critical of the British government. But he also advocated violent opposition and was accused of assassinating a police officer. At twenty-four, Bhagat Singh was executed, along with his associates Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru. When they went to the gallows, the young men cried out Inquilab Zindabad! Long Live the Revolution.

Bhagat Singh is a national icon, known as Shaheed-e-Azam. The greatest martyr. His statue sits in the Parliament House Complex in New Delhi. There are colleges named after him. Though he was an avowed leftist, centre and right-wing parties have appropriated him. Our current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, tweeted on Singh’s death anniversary that his sacrifice would never be forgotten. Yet the government does not want students to speak of aazaadi, freedom, as an ideal and a guiding principle. In our hearts, we all know: if Bhagat Singh and his friends were alive today, they would be arrested and denounced as dangerous little things, running about with pamphlets while mooching off the largesse of the taxpayer.

 

IN 2016, SOME students of JNU were protesting the execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri accused of conspiring towards the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. The protest was organised by left-leaning students. Matters spun out of control, with unnamed outsiders showing up and raising what were described as ‘anti-India’ slogans. A rival group of students from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), known to be affiliated with the RSS, had summoned a television crew to the campus. Soon the event snowballed into a national debate. Journalists were either provided doctored videos or certain newsrooms doctored videos in a manner that presented leftist student leaders as anti-India.

The president of the student council, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested for sedition. Warrants were issued against five others. A year later, the court ruled that there was no basis for a case of sedition. The state-appointed vice-chancellor’s response was to recommend that an army tank be installed on campus, to instil feelings of nationalism.

Earlier this year, Ramjas College of Delhi University was hosting a seminar called Cultures of Protest. Two prominent JNU students were invited. The seminar was disrupted by students affiliated with the ABVP. The bogey of anti-India slogans was raised again. Violence broke out. An associate professor was brutally attacked, leading to serious injuries and hospitalisation. Allegations of sedition and criminal conspiracy were tossed around. Again, the police found that video footage of ‘anti-national slogans’ was likely doctored.

Elsewhere too, students and teachers have been accused of anti-national activities as a way of getting them to shut up, stop wrestling with ideas of citizenship. More than one institution of higher learning has postponed or cancelled seminars for fear of similar violence.

These allegations don’t necessarily flow from a challenge to the idea of India, such as through separatist movements, armed rebels or forced displacement. The flimsiest excuse suffices. At Punjab University, students protesting a sudden fee hike were charged with sedition. Students of Lucknow University were beaten and arrested for waving black flags at the Chief Minister. Blocking his convoy was described as a ‘security breach’. The University of Hyderabad, which had also witnessed protests, tried to get admission seekers to sign an undertaking to the effect that they would not participate in protests that are not ‘in accordance with’ university rules.

The most shocking response came in September 2017, when female students at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) protested sexual harassment on campus and the administration refused to ensure their safety. None of the women was armed. The vice-chancellor called the police anyway and the women were beaten. He later made a derisive statement about ‘those who are not committed to the nation’. He had earlier said in an interview that the administration was working to prevent BHU from turning into JNU.

There is indeed a great gulf between the two. When JNU students were arrested, the professors responded by holding a series of open-air lectures on nationalism. When the BHU women were beaten, none of the professors made any public response. BHU has discriminatory rules for women. They are not given the same Wi-Fi access as men and are denied meat in the hostel mess. That evening curfew descends much sooner for female students barely makes news; it is so at most women’s hostels across the country. In fact, there is an ongoing campaign in Delhi against discriminatory timings and higher hostel fees for women, called Pinjra Tod. The phrase means ‘break the cage’. Clearly, it is a cry for freedom and as such it is viewed as a national security risk – as students of Delhi University’s Hindu College discovered. The administration contacted parents, claiming that their children were involved with ‘terrorist and unethical’ organisations. The organisation mentioned was Pinjra Tod.

The word ‘aazaadi’, freedom, is a red rag. It is a lit fuse. It forces us to ask, freedom from what? Television channels have been fiercely debating campus politics but they refuse to ask honest questions: what does it mean to be a free citizen? What sort of nation are we? Why are women still in cages?

Again and again, aggressive questions are thrust at students: Have you been sent to college to study or to do politics? Why should the taxpayer subsidise you? For women, there’s an additional smackdown: Were you sent to college only so you could bring shame upon the family?

When JNU was at the heart of the sedition storm last year, a politician from the ruling party, BJP, chose a peculiar mix of wild allegations to stigmatise the students. He claimed that fifty-thousand pieces of bone, three-thousand used condoms, five-hundred used abortion injections and ten-thousand cigarette butts were found on campus every single day, and that men and women danced naked at cultural events. He was spelling out the worst prejudices and deepest anxieties of upper-caste India – drinking, meat-eating, sexually active young people, and women who have control over their own bodies.

Many young people responded with glee and bravado. There were jokes about said politician digging into dustbins and fishing out used condoms. However, the question of freedom – From whom? To do what? – hung heavy in the air.

When Kanhaiya Kumar was released on bail, instead of retreating into a quiet corner, the students at JNU rallied around as he boldly led a chant for aazaadi. This time, the slogans made it clear what they were about: freedom from hunger, from capitalism, casteism, communalism. Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

 

POLITICS IS LIFE and death. I know this now. There is no such thing as being apolitical. Each citizen makes a daily, hourly political choice in asking – or failing to ask – what life, and what sort of death, belongs to which of her compatriots.

Will it be a slow-dripping night of death for a malnourished woman trying to give birth? Will it be the silent, airless death of a newborn in a government hospital that runs out of oxygen? Will it be the screaming deaths of people tortured to extract confessions for which no evidence is ever found? Or death via lynching by a manufactured mob? Will it be a life jangling with rewards given to men who beat and rape the poorest women? Is it going to be a life spent paying taxes that go to pay the salaries of such men? Is it going to be a life spent watching helplessly as your own parents get older without the assurance of medical aid?

Questions of bread and meat, potatoes and clean water, ambulances and abortions – they make the state nervous, and nervous rulers can be dangerous. But the greater danger is citizens who don’t want to hear the answers.

 

MANY OF MY parents’ generation, and my own, have worn freedom like a ceremonial badge instead of nourishing it as a living thing. A billion people could end up paying the price. New words have entered our public discourse: ‘undeclared emergency’, ‘proto-fascist’, ‘anti-nationals’, ‘sickulars’. There is growing anxiety as our freedoms – to eat and drink what we will, love who we will, write what we think, conduct business in our language of choice, to change our religion – have been curtailed, if not lost.

There has been some push back from professors, students, artists and activists who reject the hollow dictum of ‘don’t do politics’. On good days, they are derided. On bad days, someone gets threatened with rape or death. On worse days, someone gets beaten, shot, or charged with sedition. Others sit at home and wonder, Can we afford to go to jail?

Some friends caution each other: Be careful. Watch what you write/publish/tweet/share. At demonstrations these days, there’s always a cop around who’s filming the whole thing. Those who show up at demonstrations exchange hugs and rueful smiles: so many familiar faces. They sing. A lot has changed since I first held up a placard on the anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy. I’ve learnt to sing the songs of protest. I’ve learnt to show up.

I know now it is disengagement that makes us disenchanted, makes our politics unhinged. We ought to have been taught this before we turned eighteen and started sending people to parliament. At twenty-five, a citizen can stand for national elections. To tell university students not to ‘do politics’ is a slap in the face of democracy.

My grandfather was in jail at twenty-five. He must have been afraid of being beaten. Or getting sick and dying. It must have crossed his mind that he wasn’t sent to college to do politics. He could have returned to his village, become a farmer of sorts. He was a young man who could have made the status quo work for him, who could have chosen to benefit from the disenfranchisement of the poor and the illiterate. I wonder, if he were alive and watching virulent televised debates where leaders tell students not to do politics, what would Grandpa say? What would he think of a people grown suspicious of a once-beloved word, aazaadi?

Sometimes I think he’d join a protest. Some days I think, no, he’d gently change the subject and talk of poetry instead. Perhaps, he could be persuaded to recite one of his old poems, the one about the young braves of Hindustan who stood in the line of bullets and did not flinch. He might even advise the young to keep their heads down and get a university degree. But of this, I am certain: if they refused to keep their heads down, he would secretly be a little more proud of them.


From Griffith Review Edition 59: Commonwealth Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review