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. Continue reading “How Bezwada Wilson Liberated Lakhs Of Manual Scavengers In India”

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. Continue reading “Bihar’s Greatest Mystery: How Did BJP Let Its Caste Strategy Go So Awry?”

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. Continue reading “Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point”

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.

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. Yet, 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. Yet it wasn’t Urdu but an associated script, Shahmukhi.

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 the capital of Hindi nationalism, where the language of the streets was declared foreign by my Hindi teacher.

Even the Urdu that the Awadh court patronised until the British annexed the province was not the 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 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. Eventually it was in Indian English that I found myself a language. I read RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond and Mulk Raj Anand to find that English could describe the world around me with great ease, something that shuddh Hindi could not. 

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. T

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 in. I have to ask myself that question often these days because the Hindi nationalists who are in power tell 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. Yet the Hindi they promote 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 decolonise themselves? 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 government institutions such as the Indian Railways continuing 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

(An earlier version of this article first appeared Scroll, 8 August 2014.)

Sex in the courtroom

First published in DNA, 21 December 2013.

A politician is exposed using State surveillance to allegedly woo his love interest. An editor tells a reporter his daughter’s age that the easiest way for her to keep her job would be to have sex with him. A godman and his son are both arrested for sexual assault and rape. A riot in Muzaffarnagar over false rumours of inter-religious ‘eve teasing’ left 48 dead and 15,000 homeless. The debate on rape, consent, gender relations sparked by December 16, 2012 continued throughout 2013. And by the end of it the Indian Supreme Court decided that the Indian Constitution’s letter and spirit were not being violated by criminalising consenting adults for having sex, in case the sex happened to be anything other than peno-vaginal.

India 2013 is like a pubescent 13 year old realising there’s something about the body that the mind needs to grapple with. There’s something about power, pleasure, social mores, class, law and so on, that comes together in the body and negotiates its way through bodily desire. There’s a sexual churning out there, and it’s not as titillating as the annual sex surveys news magazines do, nor is it as literary and profound as the language an incarcerated editor wields.

The churning out there is saddening and hilarious at the same time, but above all it is banal. If you want to see what I mean, read through notes of the Supreme Court’s hearing in the 377 case prepared by the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. Available online, these notes give more than a moment of reflection about India’s problem with sex. “We never used to discuss this,” Justice SJ Mukhopadhyay said at one point in the 377 hearings, referring to sex. “Now we are openly discussing it in court.”

The court was bound to discuss sex in detail because the law it ended up restoring is rather too specific despite being vague. Despite using vague terms like “against the order of nature”, Section 377 basically outlaws non-missionary sex, for the purpose of saving the world from anal sex. One petitioner, Purushothaman Mulloli, whose NGO JACK India believes AIDS does not exist, even complained that the Delhi High Court’s decriminalisation of gay sex was making too many people talk about the existence of gay sex. Even my friend’s grandson is asking me, he complained. What do I tell him? One of the judges replied it was great that children these days were aware of the Indian Penal Code!

Sometimes the courtroom felt less prudish and more giggly like a bunch of schoolchildren. Talking about non-missionary sex, one lawyer said, “We have material from the Kama Sutra but you may not want us to submit that.” This was met with laughter in the court. Justice Singhvi replied, “We don’t mind it.” This was met with more laughter. Justice Mukhopadhaya explained: “When pathologists go for tests, they don’t mind what they are testing.”

Like pathologists testing a body, the courtroom discussed “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. What was carnal intercourse? Why does the law use the word carnal and not sexual? What is against the order of nature? What is nature? Is there a legal definition of these terms, and not just a dictionary definition? Fali Nariman, representing a group of parents of LGBT persons, explained that Macaulay deliberately chose vague language in this section. Nariman quoted Macaulay as saying that he was “unwilling to insert, either in the text or in the notes, anything which could give rise to public discussion on this revolting subject.” Any benefits that might arise from a more precise wording, Macaulay said, would be far outweighed by “the injury which would be done to the morals of the community by such discussion.”

Getting rid of the England of Queen Victoria from our minds and groins is not going to be easy, but despite a bad judgment, that the Supreme Court of India is discussing it, and making politicians take a stand on it, is a start.

Justice Singhvi remarked in one hearing that homosexuality may or may not be abnormal. “We can’t say, only persons with experience could say so,” he said. This remark resulted in laughter in the court. As the Supreme Court gets a chance to correct its bad judgment, one hopes it will realises that a lot of Indians do have experience of homosexuality from before and after 1860 and that they don’t find it abnormal.

The invisibility of the LGBT community has been used against it in keeping it criminalised. In one hearing, Justice Singhvi asked a government lawyer, “Do you know any person who is homosexual?” The lawyer replied, “I must confess my ignorance about modern society.” On another occasion, after reading a note by a gay man’s mother, Justice Singhvi remarked that he had “never met a gay person,” and said that he had learned a lot during these hearings.

In one hearing, the bench remarked: “The number of homosexuals in America are… one third of the population is gay. And the number is rising. Fortunately the number as per NACO is only 22 lakhs in India.” The word ‘fortunately’ there betrayed homophobia.

When given a list of well known LGBT persons, Justice Singhvi said, “But for this list we would not have known that Vikram Seth was homosexual. I enjoy his work but did not realise he was of different orientation. Ismail Merchant, nobody would know about.” But he wondered why there were no people from the legal fraternity, at which lawyer Anand Grover pointed out names of Justice Kirby and Justice Cameron.

This sense of shock and scandal over the existence of homosexuality was overcome by India with the Delhi High Court judgment. In response to that judgment, there was very little anger. How many anti-LGBT protests do you remember? The Supreme Court judgment has only helped bring about a greater public acceptance that criminalisation of consensual sex is wrong. Ironically, it helps India grow up in its sexual attitudes.