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.

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).