Karthigai Carnival

Chennai remained wet for many days; low pressure lay like a monster for days near the coast of Bay of Bengal. There were torrential downpours; grey water blankets fell all through the nights until the pores of the earth could take no further. The rainwater spread like rippled carpets all across the city, forming rainbows patterns on spilt oil, opaque grey smudges over gargoyles of sewage. Gentle waves lapped as vehicles drove cautiously through the sheets of water and cut through slabs of slush.  

Once the rains had spent itself of its fierceness, the low pressure brooded sullenly pouring bucketfuls at the most unsolicited moments –when someone was a few yards from his office, or when a person was waiting for the traffic lights to change, or when women swathed in yards of silk were leaving to attend a marriage (remember, it is the Thamizh month of Karthigai – the month auspicious for weddings, upanayanams, engagements).

Now we have had seven perfectly dry days. The trees are all awash green, a freshness permeates the air; polished and waxy leaves reflect the brightness of an unclouded sky. Dragonflies swarm the air, droning through the lazy afternoons. Heat hangs heavy around the dappled shadows cast by large trees. Multi hued butterflies descend on flowers and spill pollen. Isals cloud the twilight sky and come indoors in search of lights. They lose their fragile lacy wings as they bump on tube lights and filament lamps. Bereft of wings they crawl on walls and floors only to be devoured by house lizards that retreat languidly behind large photographs after their feast.   

The morning air is crisp, ropes of heavy chillness press down the skin of morning walkers. Mamis have turned meteorologists – they observe the nippiness in the air, point to the dew on the leaves and wetness on the grass and announce that it is pani. Pani, they say, is a death knell for monsoon. So according to them we are through with rains for the year, at least the type that comes with low pressure and cyclones. It will rain during Karthigai deepam, which is just a week away. It will turn windy; the gusts will frustratingly put out the lamps that are kept out to decorate homes in the evenings.  

The Sunday Express newspaper had a section on Margazhi  ( the Thamizh month that extends between 15th   December and 15th  January ), which is a good two weeks away. Margazhi is undoubtedly a beautiful month, but let us celebrate the month of Karthigai first.

There is the right amount of dampness and a comforting heat that is conducive for the procreation of various organisms. My terrace garden of hundred pots is teeming with life; it is a planet of existence. There are worms, insects, dragonflies, and butterflies, gluttonous and bulbous caterpillars that will sleep like Rip Van Winkle and tear out as butterflies, flowers, pollen dust and seeds that spill on the red tiled floor. Pigeons and crows visit every morning to peck at the rice ball that my cook leaves on an earthen plate. There are a variety of flowers – sunset yellow, washed out pink and bright red roses, ruby red jathi malli, clusters of violet coloured morning glory, white, pink and red hibiscus, milk white and cream textured nandia vattai, pink and white oleanders, maroon, pink, orange and sandal coloured ixoras and red and violet December flowers. 

Quite like the earth and atmosphere that exhibit a tumultuous throbbing of life and celebration, the spirits of the people are astir after a satisfying monsoon. This is the season for marriages. Sastrigals tear across the city on motorbikes with their wet hair let loose to dry, to make in time for marriages. Garland makers deliver special custom made garlands of roses and lilies dripping with water and dew, these garlands woven expertly carry a fancy price. Women dressed in pattu pudavai and men in  jarigai veshti make the most of this season, for Karthigai is the month for matters all  temporal.

How Much Do We Do

How much do the brief reports in the newspapers leave an impact on us? These are   reporting of events that appear on the first page, they run along the margins of the main story. We sip our morning tea as we sleepily skim the first page, not even registering these strips of news that we read as we impatiently move on to more interesting stories. If we come across names that are familiar, these stick in our memory out of context. That was what happened when I read about a dharna that VP Singh led in which Raj Babbar participated. These two names were impressed in my mind in isolation and I did not register any thing else – what was the issue at hand, not that the news report itself was helpful. When I rack my brain hard I can recollect that it had something to do with farmers, nothing else I remember.

There are two main concerns here. What do we read in the newspaper? Do they leave an impression on us? Is this dependent on the way I read, the background and personality that I carry to my reading activity or is it the politics of reporting that conditions my reading? A criss cross of issues construct a text, the newspaper is a text that is constructed at various levels by various scribes – the reader being an important one.

I hail from a certain background, I carry a certain personality to my reading – reading, especially newspaper reading on certain days, in certain frames of mind becomes an activism. Further, my subjectivity that inflects every activity, my reading included, is constructed by factors like family, values, class, culture and gender. It is on this layered site that my responses are shored up.

I open the door a couple of times to check if the newspaper is delivered, I have to wait for the newspaper to have my tea. These two have to go together. If the paper is late, I carry the irritation to the reading activity. The script starts being constructed on this frame of reference.

I carry memories of reservation bill that VP Singh introduced during his reign as the Prime Minister of India. This provoked a large furore among the youth of the country, hundreds of young people partook in strikes and protests and many expressed their anger by immolating themselves. VP Singh came to power after the jaded era of Rajiv Gandhi when everyone became suspicious of the cloyingly disarming smiles of the failing Nehru scion. VP Singh seemed a foil to Rajiv. The sanguine man with intense eyes appeared like a perfect mix of ideal and passion that those belonging to the era of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel found lacking in the new generation Congressmen. At least he will not sell the nation to the Quattrocchi, everyone thought, which he did not at any point. He may have bungled as a leader, one can sit and analyse his decisions about the reservation policies. But, images of young people dousing petrol over themselves and killing themselves keep appearing. I was a student then, I could not believe that people could kill themselves for a cause – can any cause go beyond one’s own life? This is the VP Singh that got embedded in my mind and this remains the palimpsest on which any text about VP Singh gets deposited – he has taken various avatars as a politician, an activist, a writer, an artist, a poet. When I read any piece of news concerning V P Singh, I carry this baggage and if the text of the news is not explicit, I construct my own text. So is it with Raj Babbar the aging actor from yester years who married the stunning Smita Patil. Even if the news item in the paper did not offer a strong text, I had already constructed one – I had carried certain assumptions and beliefs to the text.

The script surfaced and got rewritten when I read in the web a couple of days later an  article called ‘Corporate Rule = Fascism’  written by Vandana Shiva. What remained disengaged images of people who did not matter much, coalesced into a meaningful narrative that was scripted not by the big names that remained with me when I read the news in the paper, but by the grit and courage of farmers in their combat with the government and a rich industrial house.

In this article the environmental scientist and activist Vandana Shiva writes of the plight of the farmers in Dadri in the outskirts of Delhi on Ghaziabad, whose farmlands have been acquired by the Government of India for aiding Reliance set up its gas based power plant. Dadri located in the rich Gangetic plain has been chosen as the site for the 10,000 crore power plant. Passing it off as developmental work, the Government has put to use the Land Acquisition Act and acquired the land without informing the farmers about it. Only on the day of inauguration of the Project did the farmers know that their lands have been taken by the government. Their lands were fenced away. When the farmers protested, the government offered to pay compensation. Located at the helm of urban boom, the value of land here is Rs 13,5000 / sq.m and the amount offered by the authorities is Rs 120/ sq.m. When the farmers protested they had been asked to fight their case at the court. Though only 700 acres of land is going to be used for the power plant, 2500 crores have been acquired keeping in mind the high value of the land. Farmers of seven villages in the region have been protesting and it was during one of the protest that VP Singh and Raj Babbar participated.

Vandana chronicles the details of the protest, she brings to the centre stage the lived experiences of the people who bore the police attack, an event that mainstream media marginalised and drove behind the giant shadows that VP Singh and Raj Babbar threw.

She writes:

Sharavati has been attacked severely on her legs and neck. She cannot speak.

Sona’s pregnant daughter-in-law was dragged out of a room after breaking down the door. The attack has traumatized her to such an extent that she is having fits. Her husband Charan Singh was thrown in Jail.

Maya, a widow had all her cash and jewellery stolen. Her son, Sunil drives a taxi for a living. He had just sold an old car for Rs. 30,000/-. That was taken. Tear gas was exploded in his eyes. He has lost his sight. Maya said, "His eyes were what kept the family alive. How will we survive?"

Even the disabled were not spared. Makhan Singh was attacked by a bayonet. When Lal Giri was attacked, his aged mother Asharfi threw herself in the way to protect him.

Dalit labourer Udaibir’s son Jagdish’s son’s leg has been broken, and a 16-year-old son Chandeema is in jail. His wife’s mangal sutra was snatched. His one and a half month grandson Kapil who was in his lap was snatched and thrown on the floor.

No one was spared. Shiela was hit on the head and face with a bayonet. Her head is still bleeding.

Vandana Shiva explains what she means by corporate state. The state that has power joins hand with moneyed corporates to exploit the powerless people. She writes, “The partnership between corporations and Government is leading to the emergence of a corporate state – with the state using its political power to help corporations appropriate the wealth and property of citizens, and the corporations using their economic power to help politicians who have helped them to crush democratic dissent.”  The marriage of the two powerhouses has resulted in spawning of several SEZs across the country.

In an article that I read online in Down To Earth on SEZs, Sunita Narain writes of a nation that has hurried into an enterprise, which is a win win only for the rich. Not even government stand to gain anything at large except for the kickbacks that ministers get in using their power to take away land from the farmers at
discounted prices under the guise of antiquated Land Acquisition Act. The industrialists do not buy the land at the prices that the seller wants to sell, and very very large tracks of land are acquired at discounted prices; the land is worth its money in gold as the value of the land will soar sky high because of their proximity to important cities in fairly well off states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh. Is anyone thinking of Bihar and Chattisgarh? The industries that are set in these special zones are exempted from income and excise taxes, so what does the government stand to gain by subsidising the rich? Sunita Narain writes:

The fact is that sezs are not even about creating a few special zones. They are about the abdication of responsibility to sort out the underlying problems that plague the country as a whole. The fact is that infrastructure, power; water, housing, education and health services are in a mess. Over the past 50 years, we have tried in our ham-handed socialist ways to find answers to provide services for all. We don’t know why, but this approach is not working. There is growing impatience about growth. Therefore, the easier and much less complicated answer is to let that part of India, which can provide for it, to prosper. The grandiose idea will be then the government can take care of the needy with some sops and some more developmental schemes. But we forget that the reason why the answers of the past were not working was precisely because we ensured that the rich were ecologically subsidised in the name of the poor. Now this will get worse.

Talking of developmental schemes and sops given by the government, it is fitting to invoke Partha Chatterjee’s essays ‘Populations and Political Society’ and The Politics Of The Governed’ where he differentiates between the civil society that consists of selected elite members who are citizens and the political society made of the populace who are the targets of various schemes and policies of the government. He traces the origin of this dichotomised society to the birth of nation state. He begins at the French Revolution from where he traces the history of nation states through the colonial period to the present day. The western nation states born out of the French Revolution were built on the beliefs of sovereignty and equal rights, citizenship and freedom. However, this did not extend to the countries that they colonised.  The people who were colonised were not citizens but subjects, targets of various policies relating to “land settlement, revenue, recruitment of the army, crime prevention, public health, management of famines and droughts..” Before the nation state, the developmental state was born with its innumerable policies targeted at the population/ subjects by the colonialist. In the postcolonial period too this legacy continues where the concept of civil society with its egalitarian ideals of freedom, citizenship and equal rights to all members of the society exists in the theoretical realm alone. In actuality civil society is restricted to “a small section of culturally equipped citizens”; the rest, the large population are excluded from this elite group by the institutions of the state. The state looks at this populace not as citizens but as subjects to be controlled and taken care of by various economic, administrative and developmental policies. Partha Chatterjee writes, “Most of the inhabitants of India are only tenuously and even ambiguously and contextually rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the constitution. As population within the territorial jurisdiction of the state they have to be looked after and controlled by various governmental agencies.” They are the recipients of doles in the form of schemes given by the government. The subject/objectification of the populace does not go uncontested; the bastion of the elite civil society has always been subverted by the “natural leaders” from the population, in an exercise that can very well be called as “expansion of democratic political participation”. Further the populace negotiate power through their electoral rights. Partha Chatterjee writes, “India is the only major democracy in the world where electoral participation has continued to increase in recent years.”  It is the electoral mandate that invests people with power. 

Aruna Roy the social activist alludes to this while criticising the backing of SEZs by the government. She said thousands dependent on agricultural land will be displaced and left without livelihood and that the government is accountable to these people. On the concluding day of the Indian Social Forum she said, “We will fight for our rights in different ways .. to draw the attention of the government that is out to destroy democracy… We leave this place with a pledge to oppose SEZs, and work for the formulation of policies for the poor and the displaced. Ultimately the politicians have to come to us for votes, and that will be the time to give them a fitting reply.” The population/subject of the political society evidently calls the shots as they decide how they shall be governed.

Coming back to the average reader who sees fringe news going centre stage. S/he is assailed with so much about SEZs – both the endorsement of such enterprises as well as critiques. Newspapers are used both ways – as a medium to blot out the voices of the suppressed that are represented at various forums, and as a neutral medium that broadcasts counterpoints. There is the hunky dory story from the industrialists and the ministers – their tone is liberalistic, celebratory, conceptualising the bridging of the urban and the rural, the artisans, and farmers with technocrats and bureaucrats proclaiming that this symbiotic wedding will change the face of India. Stories of dissents and protests led by farmers and activists leave hopes in the heart of the reader – the reader is impressed with the media that remains unbiased. Being a liberal at heart, s/he is glad that so much noise is being made, so nothing will go wrong. The average reader believes that progress and development need to bring a difference in the lives of everyone. S/he believes in an egalitarian society where wealth percolates down the layered society – a win win for everyone concerned. S/he sits every morning at the table, sipping tea and exuding an air of importance and purpose stemming out of the belief that the act of reading, being informed and taking a stand is an activism, an armchair activism nonetheless.