How Bezwada Wilson Liberated Lakhs Of Manual Scavengers In India

First published in HuffPost India, 27 June 2016

Since the Indian Parliament outlawed manual scavenging in 1993, the very existence of a dry latrine became illegal. Bezwada Wilson’s Safai Karmachari Andolan would take a crowd of former manual scavengers, mostly women, to demolish dry latrines wherever they could find them. On one occasion, they even did it inside a court complex!

The resulting hullabaloo around the demolition would help Wilson spread awareness about the law against manual scavenging. This is just one of many ways in which Wilson has brought down the numbers of manual scavenging from lakhs to a few thousand.

The story begins in 1986. That was the year when Wilson finished school in Karnataka’s Kolar district. He decided to volunteer to teach children in his sweepers’ colony. He found that there was a high drop-out rate among the students.

Why did you dropout?

“Our parents are alcoholic, they don’t want to send us to school.”

He asked the parents: “Why do you drink day and night and not spend on your children’s education?” “We drink because our work is such.” “What is your work?” “Cleaning toilets.” “But why does it make you drink?” “Our working conditions are bad.”

What did they mean by bad working conditions? Why do they make them drink alcohol? Or was it all just an excuse?

Wilson wanted to see it from himself, but they won’t let him. He followed them on the sly and found them picking up human excreta from dry latrines and putting them in buckets. One karmachari’s bucket fell into a pit of human excreta and he put his hands in there to pick up the bucket. Wilson pushed him away. “What are you doing? Let me do my job,” the manual scavenger shouted back.

“That day I cried for the first time,” Wilson said. He went home and told his retired parents about it. He was in for more surprise. “This is what your parents did all their lives,” they told him.

That day, his life changed, and so it did for the lakhs of manual scavengers all over India.

The people in his colony were employed by Bharat Gold Mines Public Ltd. Kolar had India’s first labour union for the scavengers, but the Marxists just wanted to use them to have a bucket of human excreta strewn outside the houses of those who didn’t strike. The excreta had to be later cleared by the same scavengers.

The manual scavengers did not want to make it an issue. Bezwada got someone to write a letter to the Bharat Mines officials. The reply denied the existence of dry latrines. He sent them pictures, and dispatched copies of the pictures to the prime minister and all Dalit members of parliament. In 1993, thanks to international pressure, India had outlawed manual scavenging. The Centre got the Bharat Mines to demolish them. The manual scavengers were taken into other jobs.

Wilson then moved to Andhra, where he found that municipal corporations had employed 8,340 karmacharis in 16,380 community latrines in the state. The state government actually employed people to do something that had been declared illegal. This is a likely true even today of the Indian Railways and some municipal corporations in a few states.

Lobbying with Dalit MLAs in Andhra, Bezwada got the government to demolish most of them. Bezwada’s Safai Karamchari Andolan went on a 45-day-long yatra in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, demolishing dry latrines that the state government didn’t exist.

At the Nizamabad court complex, the court intervened when they were demolishing the toilet. Wilson got the court to order stopping the demolition in writing, and then wrote to the Supreme Court asking how a local court could violate the law. The Supreme Court had it demolished in 24 hours.

Self-taught in English, fighting caste with humour, Wilson was meant to become part of the Christian clergy, but destiny had something else for him. A follower of Ambedkar, Wilson rebuffed Christian clergy and politicians alike who tried to use him.

Once a top politician invited him and said, why don’t you organize a dry latrine demolition and I will join you. Wilson realized this was a way of winning Valmiki votes. “You have such a huge all-India network of party workers, why don’t you ask them to identify dry latrines in their area and demolish them. Then I will come to attend the demolitions,” Wilson replied. The politician was suitably chastised.

Wilson has spent the past many years getting the law implemented, getting central and state governments to rehabilitate manual scavengers – of course the rehabilitation packages are swindled away by politicians in most states. The hardest part has been to nail the lie — governments, municipal corporations and institutions like the railways deny the existence of manual scavenging.

So Wilson’s organization took to undertaking massive all-India surveys to identify manual scavengers, and then do everything they could to make them leave the work. Since manual scavenging paid them so little, Wilson’s organization motivated them to leave it and find alternative work. Anything could pay more. There were those who hid their caste, migrated and found work as house-helps. Others started small roadside shops or took to basket weaving.

In one event he organized, I heard woman after woman speak their stories, with tears of joy. Andolan people came and made us leave the work, they said. Wilson calls them liberated women. One woman whose face I can’t forget, spoke about how she did manual scavenging for 50 years – right from her childhood. In her old age, she had been liberated.

Wilson has now moved to making lives better for those who work to clean sewage lines and septic tanks, often leading to deaths. With determination, humour and all-round goodwill, there is little doubt he will succeed.

Bezwada Wilson has brought hope and joy to so many lives, the Magsaysay Award is the least he deserves. Most of all, he deserves our time and attention.

Bihar’s Greatest Mystery: How Did BJP Let Its Caste Strategy Go So Awry?

(First published in HuffPost India, 25 October 2015.)

First they said they have an OBC-EBC strategy. Then they gave away a large number of tickets to upper castes. Then they said their chief minister will be from amongst the backward castes. Now Amit Shah says it could be from upper castes or backwards, we’ll decide after the elections.

The BJP’s shifting, confused, botched up caste strategy in Bihar can best be described with the Hindi proverb, Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka. By now the party finds itself between a rock and a hard place, sending mixed signals and confusing all voters.

In an interview to Dainik Bhaskar newspaper on Saturday, BJP chief Amit Shah said that the party’s parliamentary board will decide after the elections who the chief minister will be. He said that unlike the Nitish-led Grand Alliance, the BJP had no dearth of chief ministerial worthies. “Chunav baad taye ho ga CM agda ya pichda,” Bhaskar said in the headline.


Until September, the party’s strategy didn’t seem so confused. In August, a number of media reports had outlined Amit Shah’s strategy in Bihar. All such reports highlighted how the Bharatiya Janata Party was attempting to stitching a grand social alliance of upper castes and Mahadalits with the Extreme Backward Classes, the EBCs, and even wooing Yadavs.

In September, this strategy was not reflected in the BJP’s ticket distribution. Of the 160 seats it is contesting, it announced tickets candidates for 153 of them by 20 September. It was clear in the names announced by then that a bulk of the tickets were going to the upper castes, way beyond their 13% population. This was the beginning of the end of the BJP’s idea of creating a broad-based coalition to win Bihar.

If backward caste voters had any doubt that the BJP was going back to its identity as an upper caste party, Mohan Bhagwat laid such ambiguity to rest. On 21 September, news broke that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had called for a review of reservations in an interview in Oragniser, the RSS mouthpiece.

It was immediately clear that the ticket distribution and Mohan Bhagwat’s statement were together used by the Nitish-Lalu Grand Alliance to make “backward vs forward” the key point of polarization in the election. Lalu Yadav said as much openly on 27 September, for which the BJP took him to the Election Commission.

The next day, Union minister Giriraj Singh, himself from the upper caste Bhumihar community, declared that the BJP would not make an upper caste person the chief minister of Bihar. He had first said this in July, but now it gained a new urgency. In response to a question, finance minister Arun Jaitley endorsed the view.

However, ​former deputy chief minister Sushil Modi, himself with chief ministerial ambitions, told the Indian Express on 5 October that these were personal opinions of some party leaders, and ultimately the BJP parliamentary board will decide who the chief minister will be, should the NDA win the election. “Any Bihari will be CM,” he said.

On 12 October, the first day of voting, party leader Shahnawaz Hussain unilaterally announced that the party’s EBC leader Prem Singh will be chief minister.

Now, after two phases, the party’s national president Amit Shah has added to the confusion by saying that forward or backward, the parliamentary board will decide. In political circles, this statement is being interpreted by some as a way of stopping upper castes from voting for the Grand Alliance.

The BJP’s inability to decide the caste of their future chief minister, leave alone his name, is only a symptom of how its grand strategy of wooing all castes has gone awry. After the first two phases, it has stopped pretending that it is interested in wooing the Yadav vote, and is now trying to make it Yadavs vs EBCs and Dalits. But perhaps this has come too late in the day.

While the BJP accuses the Grand Alliance of caste politics, Sushil Modi has said that Narendra Modi is India’s first EBC chief minister. (His caste, Teli, is in the EBC category in Bihar.) This is a correction over his earlier statement that Mr Modi was India’s first OBC prime minister. Nitish Kumar had responded by saying that that title goes to HD Deve Gowda.

The BJP in Bihar has tied itself up in knots with its caste strategy. The root of it all lies in the NDA giving 90 odd tickets to upper castes – that is, around 37% tickets to a community whose population is 13%. This created a threat of upper caste ruled for the OBCs and EBCs, uniting them in favour of the Grand Alliance.

The BJP defends its ticket distribution by saying that the upper castes are their core vote-bank, but in saving the core-votebank it seems to be losing out on retaining the EBCs and OBCs who had voted for it in large numbers in 2014.

Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point

(First published in HuffPo, 16 November 2015.)

Home minister Rajnath Singh, himself a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has this to say on the BJP’s resounding defeat in Bihar: “Victory and defeat are part of the democratic process. We had won elections in the past, we had lost elections in the past. We will not do justice to future if we decide future only on the basis of one elections.”

The top leadership of the BJP is playing down the Bihar defeat. The opponents came together, they say. We lost to their caste arithmetic. It’s just one election. We still got a good vote-share.

None of this adds up. Try as the BJP might, it can’t deny that Bihar was a turning point for it, not least because the BJP itself made it a prestige election.

Soon after the BJP won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with a clear majority, the party said it wanted to usher in a Congress-free India and be the country’s natural party of governance. In that project, the Delhi assembly election results in February this year were seen as an aberration.

After becoming BJP president, Amit Shah had in his speech at the BJP’s national council meeting emphasized the importance of winning every state election. He had said that the party needed to help form a “BJP-led government from J&K to Kerala and from Gujarat to Nagaland.”

He had said, “We must form our governments whenever elections are held in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Also, we will have to make special efforts to win elections and form our governments in states like Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Tamilnadu where we have polled significant percentage of votes. To realize this objective, we should make BJP’s effective presence felt in each and every village Panchayat, Zilla Parishad, municipal corporations and other elected bodies.”

In July this year, just before launching his campaign in Bihar, Shah had said that the BJP needed to rule India for a lot more than just five years to make it a “Viswa Guru” or world superpower. Shah had reportedly said, “It can only happen if a party has an uninterrupted reign, from panchayat to Parliament, like Congress enjoyed from 1950-67. Therefore, the BJP must ensure its victory in elections at all levels — from panchayat to Parliament — for the next 25 years in order to accomplish the objective.”

Bihar was clearly up there in the scheme of things. Launching the campaign in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on 16 July, Shah had said, “I want to tell the people of Bihar to not think that the impact of the Bihar verdict would be limited to Bihar. The Bihar verdict will decide whether power in India is going into the hands of selfish politicians or those who are working to uproot poverty. Bihar will send a message to all of India.”

In several interviews during the Bihar campaign, Amit Shah noted how important it was for the BJP to win Bihar: “Bihar is very important for BJP,” he told The Economic Times, “because we believe that we have had a comparatively poor electoral mass base in eastern India. After forming the government in Bihar, it will become an entry point for us into eastern India. It will become a big symbol for acceptance of our ideology in the east.”

In one of his 30 rallies in Bihar, prime minister Modi had echoed Amit Shah’s views on the national import of the Bihar elections. “The people of India get to learn a lot from the political wisdom of the people of Bihar.”

Ignoring the Bihar results, as though the statements cited above were never made, is not an option for the BJP. And the explanations don’t add up, either. If the BJP’s allies in Bihar are to blame, it was the BJP which made the choice to go with them. If the caste arithmetic of the Mahagatbandhan is to blame, then it must also be pointed out that Amit Shah was said to be putting together a much superior caste arithmetic, one that would “redraw Bihar’s caste map”.

It is also facetious for the BJP to say that Bihar was a foregone conclusion because, if you look at the vote shares of the different parties in 2014 and apply them to the 2015 assembly election, then the Mahagatbandhan was going to win anyway. If the Bihar result was so obvious, why was a third of Modi’s cabinet camping in Bihar for days on end?

Besides, the numbers show something more disturbing for the BJP. The BJP, and the NDA, have both lost significant vote-share since 2014. The BJP’s voteshare fell from 29.4% in 2014 to 24.4% in 2015. The NDA’s voteshare fell from 38.8% in 2014 to 34.1% in 2015.

Truth is, voteshares don’t count for much in the first past the post system. The Mahagatbandhan’s vote share actually fell from 44.3% in 2014 to 41.9% in 2015. Voteshares are sometimes more reflective of how many seats you contest, not how many you actually win. That is why the Congress won only 4 seats from 8.38% votes in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections. This time, it won 27 seats with 6.7% votes.

This is also why it is facetious to say the BJP has increased its voteshare from 16.46% in 2010 to 24.4% in 2015. In 2010, the BJP had contested 102 seats, but in 2015 it contested 160 seats. If greater votehsare than 2010 is an achievement, than losing votehsare over 2014 must also count as proof that brand Modi is losing some of its value.

In his first speech as BJP president, Amit Shah had said, “We will win these (assembly) elections by reaching out to the people on the strength of our well-knit organisational structure and on the commitment of providing good governance in these states.”

Prime minister Modi himself addressed 30 rallies in Bihar. Twenty-six of these were held after the polling dates were announced. In 16 of those constituencies, the BJP lost.

It could not have been that the Amit Shah’s team would have put up a bad organisational structure in seats where the prime minister himself addressed rallies. The only thing that can explain the losses, then, must be the voter’s rejection of the BJP’s commitment to good governance.

Why Pakistan Won’t Burst Crackers if BJP Loses Bihar

(First published in NDTV, 31 October 2015.)

In an election address in Bihar yesterday, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election Chanakya and president expressed concern about crackers in Pakistan. “Even if by mistake,” he said, and repeated the caveat, “should the BJP lose Bihar, there will be fireworks in Pakistan. Would you like that?”

By now I don’t know what the BJP is seeking votes in Bihar for: for the Ganga of development to flow in the state, to ban cow slaughter which has already been banned here since 1955, to save or disturb affirmative action for the lower castes, or to prevent fireworks in Pakistan.

Let us take his statement at face value for a moment, and not infer it to mean that Muslims in Bihar would happy to see the BJP lose.

Amit Shah’s concern over firecrackers in Pakistan not only reveals his anxiety over the numbers that November 8, counting day, will throw up, but also what he thinks the BJP represents in Pakistan. He seems to suggest that Pakistan likes the BJP to be out of power in India. This is not true.

The truth is, many in Pakistan were looking forward to Narendra Modi becoming prime minister. If you look at media coverage from Pakistan around the 2014 general elections, it was quite positive.

For one, many Pakistanis think the BJP is better placed for an India-Pakistan detente. As a right-wing party, it whips up nationalist paranoia when the Congress tries to do the same. Liberal Pakistanis fondly remember how Atal Bihari Vajpayee was able to push India-Pakistan peace, both before and after Kargil. The Congress’ Dr Manmohan Singh didn’t even have the support of his own party to pursue peace with Pakistan beyond a point.

Secondly, the trade lobby in Pakistan thought that Narendra Modi, like Nawaz Sharif, was more openly for laissez faire than the Congress was, and would thus be good news for India-Pakistan trade.

These hopes haven’t come true, because they were silly in the first place. For liberal Pakistanis to think the Indian right-wing in power is good for crossing the Wagah border is akin to Indians loving General Pervez Musharraf in power.

Thirdly and most importantly, Modi’s ascent has been the best news for the Pakistani right-wing. Why just right-wing, even a liberal Pakistani friend told me why he was happy to see Modi take the prime minister’s office. “India’s secular mask needed to go,” he said. “India pretended to be this secular country and Pakistan looked bad in contrast.”

It goes further. Pakistan’s formative idea is the two-nation theory, the idea that Hindus and Muslims are not just separate communities but separate nations, deserving their own nation states. It’s an idea whose polar opposite is Indian secularism, which sees Hindus, Muslims and everyone else co-existing together, with no state discrimination on account of religion.

So why would Pakistan be unhappy to see the rise of the BJP and the discrediting, indeed disavowal, of Indian secularism?

When an Akhlaq is murdered on false beef rumours, Pakistanis feel vindicated. When BJP leaders and ministers justify the incident – it was an accident, cow slaughter hurts sentiments, etc, – it proves for Pakistanis the rationale of the two-nation theory. That without their own country, Pakistanis would have been facing bans on cow meat, and getting lynched even if they were eating mutton.

The RSS-BJP’s clear agenda is to make Indian Muslims second class citizens, one election at a time, which is exactly what Jinnah said he feared, except he feared it from the Congress!

The Hindu right likes to provoke neighbouring countries with the idea of a Greater India, Akhand Bharat, but if you sit down and ask, they don’t think Partition was such a bad thing. Partition reduced the proportion of Muslim population vis-a-vis Hindus, how could it be a bad thing?

“Narendra Modi is the best thing that could have happened to Pakistan,” veteran Pakistani journalist Ayaz Amir wrote recently. “He is making India look like General Zia’s Pakistan. Can there be a bigger favour to Pakistan than that?” he asked.

He writes what India looks like from Pakistan these days: “Assaults on liberalism, threats to free speech, people killed because of their beliefs or what they stand for, hate and bigotry on the loose, extreme expressions of religiosity, indeed religion entering the political discourse like never before…these were things that were supposed to happen in Pakistan.”

“Narendra Modi is a godsend to Pakistan. More power to Hindutva,” Ayaz Amir writes. Amit Shah should read his column to realise Pakistanis would actually burst crackers not if the BJP loses Bihar, but if it wins Bihar.

No matter who wins Bihar, the falling depths of the BJP’s communalised campaign have already made India lose some of its claim to moral superiority over Pakistan.

Pakistanis won’t need to wait till 8 November to say, in Fahmida Riaz’s words:

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
ab tak kahaan chhupe thay bhai

(You turned out to be just like us
where were you hiding all this while).

After travelling hundreds of kilometres in Bihar, a reporter’s diary on why Modi lost

(First published in Quartz, 8 November 2015.)

Patna, Bihar

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost a key, prized state election in Bihar. His party’s alliance had done stupendously well in the state in the general elections in 2014, winning three-fourths of the seats. But, in the state elections, the incumbent tied up a better coalition.

The BJP had hoped to transform its 2014 victory into a 2015 win in a state that it has never directly ruled. They had hoped that the Modi government’s performance would be appreciated and applauded by voters in the state, who would thus reward them with a chance at the state level, too.

This has not turned out to be the case. The BJP told voters that the same party ruling the centre and the state would be ideal for Bihar’s development. But voters have clearly rejected the idea, giving the incumbent alliance a two-thirds majority. Why?

Travelling hundreds of kilometres to different corners of Bihar this election, I met many voters expressing disenchantment with the Modi government. Referendum is a strong word, but voters were clear in judging the BJP’s campaign with its performance so far at the centre.

Voters complained, most of all, of food inflation. Thanks to falling oil prices, overall inflation has been under control since Modi became India’s prime minister. But rising prices of certain food products have pushed the retail inflation higher in the last few months. In the middle of the campaign, the prices of arhar dal—split red legume—shot through the roof, becoming a campaign issue.

Voters also complained that the Modi government had reduced funds in social welfare schemes, particularly the Indira Awas Yojana, a scheme to help build pucca houses for the rural poor. They were also unhappy over funds drying up in a rural employment guarantee programme and a food subsidy programme, as well as reduction of the minimum support price for farmers.

“Modi is good for the country. Perhaps he is good for the cities. But he is not good for the villages,” said a wealthy farmer in West Champaran, near the India-Nepal border.

Taking the government’s focus away from poverty alleviation programmes is an article of faith for Modi’s government. When his key aide, Amit Shah, took over as president of the BJP, he said in his acceptance speech:

“We have to understand that the entire emphasis of the Congress-UPA government was on entitlement-based policies. They believed in entitlement first and empowerment later. In our thinking, empowerment has to come first and entitlement would naturally follow. We do believe that people have right to good governance. But more importantly, first and foremost it is the duty of the government to give good governance. Using rights as a vote catching gimmick is just unacceptable to us. We believe that neither framing of an act nor an agitation by the people is required for them to get their rights. It is our considered opinion that we have to create conditions in such a manner that people automatically get their rights.”

The unequivocal response from Bihar’s voters is that the Modi government needs to rethink this formulation of entitlement versus empowerment.

There were many voters across castes, and even some Muslims, who said they had voted for Modi in the 2014 general elections, partly because they needed to oust the Congress government, and partly because Modi showed them hope. Now, they said, they were losing hope. Voters expressing this sentiment insisted that they didn’t care about caste.

Even those who said they were voting for the BJP again, who came mainly from the upper castes, said that food inflation was a problem. Meanwhile, they struggled to name Modi’s biggest achievement as prime minister. “He has improved India’s stature before the world,” they said, and soon became defensive about the prime minister’s frequent foreign trips.

It can easily be said that the Bihar results are a reflection on Modi’s government in New Delhi, because Modi himself campaigned extensively in Bihar, telling voters about his achievements as prime minister so far. He spoke, for instance, of signing up hydropower projects with neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan, which would bring electricity to Bihar. He also spoke of the Jan Dhan Yojana, an effort at banking inclusion, which has so far given bank accounts to 190 million citizens for the first time.

However, poor voters complained that they had queued to sign up for the bank accounts under the impression that they would get money from the Modi government into those accounts. The impression was fed further by the opposition parties, who went around Bihar showing voters a video of Modi from the 2014 campaign. In the video, Modi was seen telling voters that they could get Rs15 lakh ($22,700) each if he managed to bring back India’s black money stashed abroad.

It is important to consider the points voters across Bihar have told me. For the next few days, there will be a lot of commentary on the Bihar results, on the arithmetic of caste and religion, on personality clashes and vote share percentages, but most will miss the voice of the electorate.

How DDLJ ruined my generation

Like most Bollywood films, Dilwale Dhulania Le Jayenge ends unrealistically. The film ends with the girl’s father letting her go with her suitor, after having forever decided how she will live her life and who she will marry. “Ja Simran ja,” he says at the railway station, “jee le apni zindagi.” Go live your life. She runs as the train had begun leaving, catches Shah Rukh Khan’s hand and we get one of the most iconic Bollywood scenes.

While the happy ending makes the viewer happy, the overwhelming message of the film is inescapable: if your parents don’t let you marry who you want, don’t run away. Convince them. The obvious implication is that if they are not convinced, eloping against their wishes is not an option.

Simran, the girl in question, played by Kajol, is ready to rebel and run away. Her mother and sister are happy to support her in this. But the mad lover, Raj Malhotra aka Shahrukh Khan, doesn’t want to disrespect elders. In other words, men keep family and tradition (read patriarchy) alive, and they keep in check women’s unbridled desires which threaten tradition. That is what we learnt from DDLJ. That fathers should let their daughters choose their own destiny, which happens in a contrived way in DDLJ’s final act, is hardly the message you go home with.

DDLJ not only told us to not rebel, it made love’s rebellion against tradition rather uncool. Making the same point, Siddharth Bhatia writesthat this isn’t DDLJ’s fault. He writes, “Films reflect reality, not create them. Indeed, it is to Aditya Chopra’s credit that he understood the new ethos of the nation and captured it so well and so early on.”

I disagree. More than capturing a reality, DDLJ shaped one.

This may sound like pop sociology but DDLJ wasn’t a mere film. For those who grew up in the ’90s, the film defined love. It was the coming of age film. It is so iconic that its dialogue and scenes have become shorthand. Suddenly, mustard flowers became a symbol of love. Mustard flowers! This was the film Shah Rukh Khan says made him a star, and its train scene has been copied in tribute in a number of films since then.

A film so wildly successful could not but have a deep cultural impact. Whenever I see my peers and friends give in to family pressure and choose marriage over love, I wonder why rebellion isn’t an option for them. I have come to the conclusion that DDLJ is to blame.

Amongst the middle classes and the elites, when was the last time you heard of young men and women defying their parents in matters of love and marriage? You see it in villages and small towns and amongst the lower classes. That’s how you hear of honour killing. A family killed their daughter in the national capital just a few days ago.

There are several variations of the marriage problem that men and women on their twenties and early thirties face. They don’t want to marry yet but do it because the parents want it. They love someone outside caste or religion (rarely class, these days) but break up because parents won’t accept it. Or they don’t want a traditional wedding. Or they don’t want the families to spend their life savings on a week-long wedding. But tradition must be kept alive.

A thousand weeks later, Simran and Raj Malhotra must have become parents. They probably have a son and a daughter in their late teens. Having won his wife from her father, how much do you think Raj Malhotra is willing to let his children rebel? In all probability, he has become the tough patriarch who he once fought against.

DDLJ isn’t exactly a film to be celebrated.

(First published in Scroll, 29 November 2014.)

Why I won’t apologise for being a Macaulayputra

I thought I had written a great essay in the Hindi test, but while returning my paper the Hindi teacher singled me out in the class. “You are using too many Farsi words,” she said in chaste Hindi. She had circled each Farsi word and given me poor marks. For days I wondered what she had meant because I don’t know Farsi.

This was not a government-run Hindi-medium school. This was an elite Christian-run English-medium school where the board exams we took were administered not by the state or central education board but by the Anglo-Indian-dominated Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations.

I had many levels of language confusion, perhaps I still do. The Hindi that my schoolmates and I spoke each other with, the Hindi that we spoke at home and in the bazaars was a Hindi that my teacher insisted had too many Farsi words in it – and would penalise me for using it in writing. I identified myself as primarily being a Hindi speaker, and only later did I understand the minor difference between Hindi and Hindustani.

Yet Hindi was not my mother tongue. I was the second generation of Punjabi refugee grandparents. My grandparents came from Multan and Lahore and settled in Lucknow. But even my parents didn’t speak any Punjabi. Unlike Bengalis, Punjabis get easily deracinated.

Somebody once shamed me for not knowing Gurmukhi, “the script of your mother tongue”. Yet I discovered that my parents wrote in Nastaliq, the script of Urdu. More recently, as I made many Pakistani friends over the internet and told them I was a Multani from Lucknow, they asked me with awe if Multanis in India still speak Seraiki. It turns out that there’s a whole Seraiki movement in south Punjab in Pakistan these days. They say they are not Punjabi, that their language isn’t a mere dialect of Punjabi but completely different.

My Punjabi grandparents had settled in Lucknow, a city that was once the most important centre of Urdu as Delhi declined. Yet the Lucknow I grew up in was a capital of Hindi nationalism, where the language of the street was labelled as foreign by my Hindi teacher. Even the Urdu that the Awadh court patronised until the British annexed the province was not a language of the people. The language of the people was Awadhi, of which there seemed to be no trace in Lucknow anymore.

I wasn’t great at English. The year that the Hindi teacher ticked me off for using Farsi words – I must have been 13 – I flunked the English exam because I didn’t understand a word of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I wondered if people in England still spoke English like that.

My parents were educated in Hindi-medium schools. They knew what disadvantages that brought in this world. They were proud of sending my brother and me to Christian-run English-medium schools. We subscribed to two newspapers at home, one Hindi and one English. The Hindi teacher in school often mourned the declining standard of Hindi in the newspapers. The English papers taught me the peculiar Indian newspaper English. Soon I found myself in love with both Shakespeare and Kabir.

Macaulay’s minute and the Rajbhasha committee

I learnt later about Macaulay’s minute (“English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic”) and the English Education Act of 1835 whose purpose was to creating a native ruling class to assist colonisation. I also learnt about the Hindi-Urdu debate and its centrality to the Partition of India, and the Rajbhasha Committee of 1960. It is this committee, both a product and a propagator of Hindi nationalism, that was the reason why the Hindi I was taught felt like a foreign language.

The same school taught me Sanskrit for four years. I loved Panini’s rules of grammar, getting a sense of a classical language, using Sanskrit words for “dog” and “fool” as expletives towards friends. This is also how I realised that the shuddh Hindi that was being shoved into our minds drew words from Sanskrit to replace the so-called Farsi words – words with origins outside the Indian subcontinent. This was an agenda of those who believed in “Hindi Hindu Hindustan”, though ironically none of those three words is indigenous.

As school became a distant memory and I didn’t have to read and write the Devnagiri script as though my life depended on it, the Hindi part of me has reduced considerably. Yes, I am a Macaulayputra but please don’t pretend you don’t know who’s to blame. It’s not Thomas Babington Macaulay but the Rajbhasha committee. I speak Indian Hinglish only. It is a more authentic Indian language than the joke that is shuddh Hindi.

That is not to say my confusion over language is over. I have come to terms with the thought that I will never be flawless in any language. Language mein bohot problem hai.

I have often wondered which language I think. I have to ask myself that question often these days because the Hindi nationalists are in power and every day they are telling me I am an elitiya whose mind is colonised by Lord Macaulay. I would say I think in English but feel in Hindi.

Those who champion Hindi  – such as the Rajbhasha Committee –  mostly argue in the name of nationalism. It is our language, national language, official language, mother tongue, we need to promote Hindi. Yet the Hindi they are promoting is an alien language. I don’t even know what my mother tongue is. Hindustani? Hindi? Seraiki? Urdu? Indian English? Awadhi?

If my mother tongue is the language my mother speaks, it is Hindustani, and I speak it too.

There is no one mother tongue in India, not even in the Hindi heartland. People speak Marwari and Bhojpuri, Gondi and Brajbhasha, Maithili and Mewari, Bundeli and Garhwali. This is why the Hindustani poetry of Amir Khusro, written 800 years ago, is more naturally intelligible to me than the gibberish Sanskritised Hindi that my government tells me is my language. Those who condemn me as a colonised, deracinated elitist who uses English as a tool of social domination must ask themselves, for instance, why Macaulayputras like me love watching Hindi cinema and hum Hindi songs all day.

It is not only the English-speaking whose minds need decolonisation. The nationalism of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan was created by and in response to colonisation. Modern nationalism itself came from Europe, thanks to the colonial enterprise. The decolonisation of language would be an artificial one, real decolonisation would require us to question nationalism.

English was not only the language of colonisation but also central to the Indian freedom movement. Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Jinnah and so many others wrote in English. The Indian Constitution was first written in English, borrowing and making better ideas from Britain, the United States and elsewhere. India was imagined in English.

The colonisers brought many things to India, such as tea. When they left, tea was still a drink of the elites. Can you imagine telling someone at a chai shop to stop drinking chai garam chai to recolonise ourselves? That is how ridiculous the attack against Indian English is.

To promote Hindi, don’t promote it

If Hindi nationalists want to promote Hindi, they should learn from the history of English. The English language has developed, thrived and become the lingua franca of the world not by closing itself but by being open to influences from all over the world. If early English borrowed words from Latin, today’s English is a language juggernaut by having borrowed local words from Macaulay’s putras. Hindi nationalists should see the “Farsi” words that are used in English today, many of them having made it into the Queen’s language via India. They should read Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, a delicious book that the British are happy to read even today.

All successful languages are mongrel languages that allow themselves natural, organic evolution through those who use it. This means not being insecure, nativist and xenophobic about foreign words.

In 2011, a bureaucrat with the backing of the Urdu-speaking prime minister Manmohan Singh Kohli, sent out a circular asking central government departments to use simpler Hindi. She gave examples. For instance, she said, the sentence “Tankan aivam ashulipi pariksha ke pariksharthi swagat-patal par panjikaran karayenge” would be a lot more comprehensible if it were expressed as, “Typing aur shorthand exam ke ummeedwar reception par registration karayenge.”

I don’t know if good sense prevailed, but it is never too late for Hindi nationalists to learn. The Rajbhasha Committee worries about why government institutions such as the Indian Railways continue to use English. They want to promote the use of Hindi by doing such things which are rewarding officials who use Hindi. They should ask themselves why they need to promote a language if it is the mother tongue of the people.

All that the Rajbhasha Committee needs to do to promote Hindi is to dissolve itself, and all that Hindi nationalists need to do to popularise Hindi is to swallow their nationalism.

If Narendra Modi wants to promote Hindi, he should go to his constituency Varanasi and pick up a newspaper called iNext, published by the Dainik Jagran group for the young reader. It is a bilingual paper that uses both Roman and Devangiri scripts, the Hindi and English languages, sometimes in the same article.

iNext newspaper – Hindi and English together

(First published in Scroll, 8 August 2014.)