When A Pakistani Hindu Visited Delhi’s Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid

(This article first appeared in HuffingtonPost.in on 26 July 2016.)

On a hot summer afternoon in Delhi, my Pakistani Hindu friend was visiting the Jama Masjid. After all, he had come to tour Delhi. In the evening, we met in a restaurant in Connaught Place.

He was staying with a relative in Mehrauli, where the (Indian, Hindu) neighbour told him not to cross the road. “Muslims live there,” the neighbour warned. That was funny, because our visitor lived in Pakistan, where no roads could be crossed without meeting Muslims. Continue reading “When A Pakistani Hindu Visited Delhi’s Jama Masjid”

The Reader Is Not Interested In The Story

(First published in Scroll.in, 9 December 2014.)

Some years ago, I was a reporter in the founding team of a new news magazine. When the magazine launched, the marketing team sent journalists an email saying that we could gift four free subscriptions to anyone we liked, but could we please make sure the four recipients fell within the magazine’s TG? Continue reading “The Reader Is Not Interested In The Story”

Why Pakistan Exports More Mangoes Than India

(First published in HuffPost India in April 2017.)

It’s that time of the year again when Pakistani mango nationalists start beating the war drums, raising their claims of mango superiority to decibel levels that cross the noise pollution mark.

The campaign has begun. It’s not even May yet. Lies, damned lies and statistics are being used to suggest Pakistani mangoes are better. Looking for foreign approval as always, Pakistanis are tom-tomming export figures that show Pakistan exports more mangoes than India, even though India produces a lot more of them. Continue reading “Why Pakistan Exports More Mangoes Than India”

India-Pakistan ‘mango diplomacy’ isn’t fruitful

(First published by BBC in July 2015.)

In a South Asian tradition, Pakistani leaders send mangoes to their Indian counterparts every year. The fabled ‘mango diplomacy’, however, does not really help lower tensions between the two neighbours, writes Shivam Vij. Continue reading “India-Pakistan ‘mango diplomacy’ isn’t fruitful”

Why Indian mangoes are better than Pakistani ones

(This article has previously appeared in Scroll, Quartz India, The Express Tribune and Dawn in the summer of 2014 and 2015.)

I am telling nothing but the truth when I tell you that Indian mangoes are better than Pakistani mangoes. It infuriates me when Pakistanis don’t agree. That makes mangoes an India-Pakistan dispute just like Kashmir. Like a good Indian, I don’t think this needs a referendum. Of course our mangoes are better. How could anyone even think that isn’t the case? Continue reading “Why Indian mangoes are better than Pakistani ones”

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.

bihar

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.