Thursday, December 18, 2014

Peepli Live @ Agra Slums

December 12th, 2014

Probably the only achievement of my Agra visit to unravel the conversion-mystery was - I was asked by the residents of the slums of Vednagar near Deori Road, Agra, to stay back for a while and have lunch with them.

Belonging to a fraternity with which they were, by then, thoroughly pissed off to such an extent that a mere sight of a creature toting a camera and brandishing a mike would immediately send them in search for a hiding, a lunch offer was indeed an achievement. 

It was a community lunch. Vegetables, rice and wheat flour had been provided by a local Muslim group headed by a Samajvadi Party (SP) leader. 4-5 days of near standstill in their hand to mouth existence had brought them together; crisis has this cohesive effect. In that freezing cold weather, it was the first meal of the day for many, thanks to intermittent rains which had turned the entire slum area into a swamp and pushed the lunch time to as late as 4 PM.

In the morning, with 5-6 police personnel with SLRs (Rifles, not the cameras) right at the entrance of the slum cluster, I was a bit apprehensive about the success of my mission when i showed up at ground zero. Surprisingly, no one stopped or interrogated me. With every passing minute, my ease with the area grew. By noon, I felt at home!

Neither my eyes nor my local inquiry could confirm the figure doing the rounds in the newspapers - 380. The number of Muslims claimed to have converted to Hinduism. Less than 200 people live in the slum according to Ismail aka Thekedaar, the contractor of the rag-pickers in the slum. He was the point of contact between the converters and the convertees.

The two RSS affiliated Hindu right-wing outfits - Bajrang Dal and Dharm Jagran Manch - the proud organizers of this so called 'Home-coming' ceremony have asserted that these people converted 'voluntarily'. They even have a video-proof of the same in which a few dozen people donning skull caps are performing a 'hawan', putting 'tilak' on each other's forehead and Ismail admitting that the conversion took place with their consent.

Ismail now claims to be totally unaware of the 'nature' of the 'hawan' till the very end. He says that he was abruptly told by the Pundit, who himself appeared at the eleventh hour, that 'hitherto you were a Muslim but now you are a Hindu' when the hawan concluded and he had to fake willingness lest the men in saffron should run a rampage in the slum. "They were 30-40 men surrounding us. Had I declined then, there would have been khoon-kharaba (riot) here," he said.

May be Ismail and his friends were duped into conversion or may be they were simply lured. But now that the issue has transcended local boundaries and captured the space inside the parliament, the only possible option with the Vednagar slum dwellers is to reject conversion altogether. They can't say they agreed to renounce Islam and embrace Hinduism for BPL cards etc for such an act attracts severe punishment and ostracisation under sharia law. In some Islamic countries, the punishment of apostasy is death!

I asked this question to Mufti Mudassir Qadri, Secretary of Tanzim Ulmai Ahle Sunnat, Agra, the organization which is now running a Madarsa in the slum post-incident to teach the children and youth about Islam religion.
"These people say that they have been duped into conversion. But let's hypothetically assume that these people converted willingly. What would have happened then?"

"Since it's a hypothetical question, lets first disassociate it from these people," he replied. "Now answering to your question, if they had moved out, nobody would have come to persuade or force them to return to Islam and they would have been boycotted by the Muslim community. What's worse than being banished by the community?"

"What community?" was also a question that flashed my mind but i chose not to ask. Do these people care what community thinks about them? or vice versa. I mean, who gives a damn to the lives of rag-pickers living in deplorable shanties in a hard-to-find slum? Who cares whether they are Muslim or Hindu?
To put things in perspective, this whole activity was so nondescript that even the neighbours living in their pucca-houses only came to know about this National-issue happening in their backyard through TV and newspapers. The didn't even know for how long these people have been living there in the slum in that area.

The people in the slums simply had no clue that this seemingly inconsequential activity would become such a big issue and that they would become an overnight celebrities. Suddenly, the entire nation, especially Media and certain religious and political groups, was taking keen interest in their lives. They were under surveillance.

If the slum dwellers were grappling with this mouse turned monster, so were the RSS and its affiliates which carried out this conversion exercise. They invited the media to cover the event to announce the resurgence of saffron power to the world. Instead, it boomeranged on them with charges of forged conversions. 

Now, they too have no choice but to refute any doles or promises made out to these poor Vednagar slum residents. They can't say we 'bribed' these people with BPL cards etc to embrace Hinduism for it's a crime to induce someone to convert according to constitution of India. Bajrang Dal maintains that it's the self-realization of these people that Hinduism is the best way forwards which has motivated them to leave the religion which their ancestors accepted under certain circumstances.

What amuses me in this argument is that the Bajrang Dal and company are so sure about the religion of the ancestors of these people but they have no clue about their Nationality! Now that the issue has backfired, it has suddenly manifested to the saffron brigade that many of these slum dwellers are from Bangladesh!

Lets assume all of them are illegal Bangadeshi immigrants. If you had this apprehension, why didn't you verify their nationality before organizing this mass-conversion for them? Or is it that nationality doesn't matter to you at all as long as one is becoming a Hindu? 

And what about the promise of BPL cards? Doesn't one need to be an Indian Citizen for that? Oh I remember, a Hindu is an Indian (Hindustani) citizen by default.

Has this nationality trump card deflected the focus from the question of conversion? well, partly yes. Media loves controversy and new twists in the tale are constantly needed to keep it fresh and juicy. Journalists picked the bait with pleasure. A 'nationalistic' reporter of a Hindi News Channel in particular took it personally. He was so convinced that Ismail was from Bangladesh and alluded it so many time in his brief P2C, that even the Election Commission of India would be forced to check whether it issued voter Identity card to Ismail by mistake. He later went on to grill Ismail and his sister to ascertain their identical paternity. Like a grammar Nazi, he would catch a mismatch in their pronunciation. I was amused and befuddled by the superlative journalistic skills of my friend.

I couldn't help but ask him why he was so hellbent on proving Ismail a Bangladeshi?
"Why is it appearing to you so?" he replied.
"Not just me. Anyone can see through what you are doing."
"but nobody else is speaking."
"not my problem if they are not."
"Then you should also shut up."
"I wish I could."

By that time, somebody intervened and the argument was cut short. No I am not saying that one should simply trust what he is being told. But I guess being skeptical doesn't mean you stoop below minimum level of courtesy and professionalism expected from you. My hunch is, if this controversy had erupted in an middle class locality, he would have done many things differently.

Having said that, the only good thing that happened to Vednagar slum out of this controversy is - education for the kids. I couldn't clearly identify the reasons behind almost no kid going to school; perennially absent teachers was one of them. Of course the focus of the new makeshift Madarsa is on acquainting the children to Islam but they are taught Hindi, English and Urdu as well. If this initiative survives the test of time, maybe some of the children, some years down the line would move up the socio-economic ladder so that they don't have to convert their religion again for some petty benefits. And trust me, some of the kids were really smart to actually make that change happen. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sex-Education and the 'Butterfly-Effect' !

Courtesy: Huffington post
Sex Education has always been an emotive and controversial issue in India. Schools have stayed away from including it in their curriculum preempting a backlash from the parents. In fact, Dr Harshvardhan, our ex-Health Minister wants the “so called ‘Sex-education’ to be banned” and expose students to India’s cultural traditions and yoga.

Kids, however, are least bothered because they get to know whatever they want to know anyways via TV, films, internet and friends.

Of course, not the best of the ways. Because the majority of the media focuses more on titillating the senses than educating the mind and the peers might not know (if at all) more than the person himself. But in absence of any formal sex-education, what else they gonna do? After all, people will go to quacks in case of a medical emergency if there is no MBBS Doctor around.

I, unfortunately, didn't even go to a quack. First I ignored the symptoms, then I suppressed the disease in its early stages and later resorted to self-medication until that little ailment became a full-blown malignant tumor!

Through out my junior high-school life I had been more or less a book worm; would play cricket when not doing homework or reading textbooks. I was pretty good at studies and always stood first or second in my class. My home never had a cable TV connection, so I couldn't get ‘corrupted’ by the western culture. Internet connection was a far cry.

I was such a nerd that until class 7th, I had no friggin idea how a baby is born. I and some of my equally ignorant friends would often ask this question in the class and when a ‘learned’ friend would tell me the process, I would reject him saying, “Dude, gimme a break. My parents are too ‘moral’ to do that!” Finally a girl, whom I considered equally (if not more) ‘intelligent’ and more informed than me, did convince me that to produce a baby it’s important for a man and a woman to do what’s called ‘Sex’.

Few more years passed and by the time I was 14, I had already passed class 10th. I chose science stream in my high school with an aim to become either (yeh, the usual stuff) - a Doctor or an Engineer!

11th class is one of the most crucial academic years where students choose their career paths and due to sudden expansion of the subjects, it’s also one of the toughest. To focus on my studies better, I opted for a study room. It was a secluded room away from the busyness and noise of the main building of my house.
That was also the year when I, probably, came of age. My hormones started doing tricks what they are expert at.

One fine day, while clearing a store room full of old books; I got hold of a porn magazine. I don’t know for sure, but it’s highly likely that it was my father’s stuff. It was a bizarre moment. Believe it or not, I saw an image of a nude woman for the first time in my life! The text (in hindi) inside was mind boggling. I can’t even describe what was going on in my head and ‘down under’. I felt as if I have committed a sin and felt an obligation to protect others, especially my younger sister, from it.

I took the magazine in my ‘safe custody’ for ready ‘reference’ in the future. The study room no longer remained the ‘study room’. It became my ‘dream room’ where my imagination would go wild. It also became my ‘laboratory’ where I would experiment on myself. Without going much into the details, I would only say that going by the creativity of my experiments, I am thankful that I didn’t have a vagina! Otherwise, I might had been making headlines like these.

I had discovered a new ‘toy’ and I would play with it quite often. Sure, I would enjoy the rush and the feeling every time I would masturbate, but I would also get swamped with guilt and shame after that. I felt as if something was wrong with me and that I had lost all the discipline in life.

I wish somebody would have told that kid that masturbation was absolutely natural and normal. I wish I knew that pornography existed and its OK to be curious about it. I might not have been as possessed by it when I confronted it.

Studies, inevitably, suffered. At a time when my friends were highly targeted, aiming to crack top Medical and engineering exams in the country, I lost all my focus. Though I didn't understand most of the concepts in almost all the subjects yet I managed to get decent marks in the tests, thanks to my brain which could still hold a lot of stuff that was taught in the classes, and vomit it in the exams.  I fared well in most subjects except one.

 I flunked in Mathematics. It was a shock of my life. I didn't know what it meant to “fail” academically before that. Class 11th was the darkest year of my school life which has profound impact – like butterfly effect - on my life. I could have become a Doctor or an engineer or an Officer in the Army but such was my level of confidence during these precious two years that I didn't even fill most of the entrance forms and where I did apply; I didn't appear for the test!

Of course, one can argue that there’s no guarantee that I would not have behaved precisely the same way even if I had all the knowledge. All I can say is, “May be” or “may be not”. And my hunch and common sense says that the probability of the latter is much higher.

To brush aside ‘Notional Loss’ is a very easy thing. That was precisely the response of UPA-II government to the allegations of 2G-spectrum or Coal Scam. Same can be the response of our ex-health minister or anyone who undermines the importance of sex-education.

Unlike a medicine, where the effects, in most cases, are clearly visible and quantifiable, there is not way in which one can prove that it was because of sex-education that the person did or didn't succeeded in life. And that’s why, for every one person advocating sex-education, you would find 10 who would say, “I never got any formal sex-education but I figured it out myself and look, I am doing absolutely fine in my life today!”

Having said that, I am glad I did recover in the second half of my final schooling year. I did score a decent grade which helped me to get in a good college of Delhi University and get my life partly on track. I never became a doctor or an engineer but I eventually became a journalist and I think I kinda like what I do. (Of course there is a tremendous scope to improve, grow…and probably earn!)

As far as sex-education, I did figure out most of it myself by reading stuff on sex, relationship, dating, human biology and psychology. So much so that I went on to the other extreme. Today, my friends playfully blame me for having most of my Facebook status updates on either girls or sex!

But what if I couldn't have been able to make a come-back? Where would have I been lurching today? I don't know. But let's just say "all's well that ends well" and sweep sex-education under the carpet once again.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How to Build 'Just'-Cities

The "Right to the City Campaign" was launched two days back on 1st December. The crux of the launch, as per my understanding was to build ‘Just-cities’, cities which have a justified place for everyone, instead of classist smart-cities.

Cities are employment magnets. They attract people from everywhere who aspire for a better future and this influx is not going to reduce in the near future.
Our governments have consistently failed our villages. Agriculture, despite all the tax-benefits, remains one of the riskiest and least-return professions. Education in most government schools is a sham. People will come to cities in search of their livelihood and education for their children.

Where would they live?

Presently, those who can’t even afford a rented accommodation in middle, lower-middle class localities of these Metro Cities live in ghettos, unauthorized colonies, Slums, under flyovers, Jhuggis by roadside, footpaths or simply under the sky.
It’s not a small number. 40% of Delhi lives in unauthorized colonies. (Interestingly, the revenue lost to “leaks” of Delhi Jal Board also hovers around similar number!)

So what’s the solution?
Should a government acknowledge their right to live in the city? To put it bluntly, it means a government simply turning a blind eye to any encroachment on its land and other properties. How sound a policy can that be?

Of course I am in favor of optimum utilization of resources – land included. What better way to use a vacant piece of government land than to provide shelter to homeless? (It even earns you good Karma, and votes!). But the problem arises when one day, they try to reclaim the land for a project and the people show them their finger! Also, how would the government differentiate if the so called encroacher is a land mafia, me or a migrant labourer? (Although financially, the last two are at par!)

Are there ways through which a government can allow homeless people live on its vacant land yet retain the ownership of the land? Can these people be ‘tenant’ to the government? And what’s an amicable way to get that land vacated in a least invasive way when, after say 10-15 years, the government needs that land for some project?

Should government earmark its land as “habitable for 5 years”… “10 years” … so on and so forth depending on the probability of that land’s requirement in the future. And should the government enter into a lease with its “tenants” for the respective period (and extend it, in case the land is not used after that period)

What if the project is to build a sports complex or Multiplex? Would it be questioned or subjected to ‘emotional atyaachaar’ by inhabitants and various other organizations to not go ahead with such a project as it uproots the ‘poor’ to cater to the ‘rich’?

Same is the case with other public spaces like Roads, footpaths etc.
Research after research has shown that Delhi and most Indian cities are not pedestrian friendly (let alone disabled friendly). Footpaths simply don’t exist! But whatever limited number of footpaths that we have are encroached!

Of course, not all the ‘encroachers are chai-wallas, vegetable vendors and other micro-entrepreneurs selling various stuffs. They can also be established shopkeepers ‘extending’ their business on the available and free public space. On what basis would a government ask these shopkeepers to wind up but let the small time vendors carry on?

What comes at a higher priority for the government – inconvenience to the public or the livelihood of these small vendors?

Now let’s take an extreme example - a man sitting right in the middle of the road, selling momos. Should traffic police chase him away and fine him for obstructing the traffic or just let him continue earning his 'livelihood'? Of course, former. But I don’t mind buying a plate or two from him if he is doing the same business by the side of the road or footpath where he is not posing a major obstruction to neither the traffic nor the pedestrians.

Instead of complete wipe-out of these small vendors (because rigid city planning guidelines say so) we must set flexible thresholds of how much ‘inconvenience’ is acceptable in exchange of the undeniable services these people provide at an affordable price. A Monday or Thursday market is a good example of this mutual understanding.

When we talk of just-cities, I think the challenge is to bring this accommodating nature in the policy of the state itself. So far we have seen authorities utilize their discretionary powers highhandedly. It's time to replace it with sensitivity without compromising too much with the original purpose of that public good/property or the authority to regulate its use.