Sahir Ludhianvi – Communist and a Poet

By Saswat Pattanayak

It was more than a coincidence that Sahir Ludhianvi was born on an International Women’s Day. His concern and respect for women was as much personal as it was political. For him, no one – and nothing – was more important than his mother Sardar Begum. Resenting her husband’s feudal properties, his mother had left that household and raised Sahir on her own. And Sahir grew up as an organic revolutionary against landlords and burgeoning capitalism of that era. And more importantly, as a progressive poet deeply aware of the capitalistic exploitations of women and the working class.

An avid reader of Marx, Sahir early on was influenced by Faiz and Josh – prominent communist poets of that era. His early compositions included “Jahaan Mazdoor Rehte Hai” [Where Workers Reside]. In 1937, Sahir joined All India Students Federation (AISF), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI) – committed to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles. He was expelled from both the colleges (in Ludhiana and Lahore) that he attended, due to his political activisms. Sajjad Zaheer’s Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) would subsequently provide Sahir his cultural platform, to express himself as a socialist poet rejecting ‘art for the sake of art’.

As a revolutionary poet, Sahir wrote “Kuchh Baatein” [Some Issues]:
“Des ke adbaar ki baatein karey
Ajnabi sarkar ki baatein karey
Agli duniya ke fasaaney chhoddkar
Is jahannumzaar ki baatein karey”

[Let us talk of the nation’s tribulations
Talk of the colonial power impositions
Why bother with heaven’s splendors
Let us talk of the hell we possess]

As a communist poet, Sahir wrote the poignant verses “Aurat ne janam diya mardoen ko, mardone ne use bazaar diya” [Women gave birth to men; men made them commodities]. His analysis of feudalism/capitalism manifested itself in the splendid tribute to Taj Mahal, full of scorn borne out of a materialistic outlook that defined his work.

He wrote,
“Anginat logoen ne duniya mein mohabbat ki hai
Kaun kehta hai ke saadiq na tha un ke jazbe
Lekin un ke liye tasahir ka samaan nahin
Kyon ki woh log bhi apni hi tarah muflis the”

[Countless peoples in our world have showered love in abundance
Who can claim their heartfelt love ever lacked sincere affections
But they lacked the means of advertisement, of crude exhibitions
After all, they were like you and I: submitted by birth to cruel situations]

Sahir’s secular credentials were unmatched. An avowed atheist, he rejected the organized religions as impediments on the path to attaining a sense of humanity. Addressing an abandoned child without a social identity, Sahir wrote:

“Accha hai abhi tak tera kuchh naam nahni hai
Tujh ko kisi mazhab se koi kaam nahni hai
Jis ilm ne insaan ko taqseem kiya hai
Is ilm ka tujh par koi ilzam nahni hai”

[A bundle of joy you are, sans a given name
Disconnected from religions, that’s your gain
Religious texts have only divided humanity
My child! So far they couldn’t attack your sanity]

As a communist poet, he was not just dedicated to women’s empowerment and secular values, he also was a peacenik who refused to believe in sanctities of geographical borders that justify militarism. He wrote –

“Khoon apna ho ya paraaya ho
Nasl-e-adam ka khoon hai aakhir
Jung mashriq mein ho ki magrib mein
Amn-e-alam ka khoon hai aakhir
Bomb gharoen par giren ya sarhad par
Rooh-e-ta’amir jakhm khaati hai
Khet apne jalein ki auroen ke
Jis’t faakoen se tilmilaati hai”

[Shed our blood, or theirs
Lives lost are of human race
War on the East or against the West
Casualty is troubled peace
Bomb our land, or across the borders
Afflicted are souls under construction
Homeless our people, or theirs
Suppressed is oppressed expression]

It was his internationalism that was recognized in the Soviet Union and his commitment to humanist values remain unchanged till the end of his life. In 1961, when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by CIA, Sahir would protest and leave behind a haunting masterpiece, like none other –

“Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki aukaat hi kya
Zulm bas zulm hai aagaz se anjaam talak
Khoon phir khoon hai, sau shakl badal sakta hai
Aisi shakley ki mitao toh mitaaye na baney
Aise sholey, ki bujhao toh bujhaaye na baney
Aisey naarey ki dabaao toh dabaaye na baney”

[Injustice can only do so much
Capable of nothing much
But the blood can take many shape
Shapes that are permanent
Inextinguishable Embers
And indomitable slogans]

Sahir’s dream coincided with that of a revolutionary who is capable of imagining not just a world without borders, but also a world without prison cells – a song that is so relevant today in light of sedition charges routinely applied to silence independent thinkers of the society Sahir once had sought to liberate.

He wrote –
“Jis subah ke khaatir jug jug se hum sab mar mar kar jeete hai
Jis subah ke amrut ki dhuun mein hum zahar ke pyaale peete hai
In bhookhi pyaasi ruhoen par ek din to karam pharmayegi
woh subah kabhi toh aayegi…

Manhoos samaaji dhaancho mein jab julm na paale jaayenge
Jab haath na kaate jaayenge jab sar na uchhale jaayenge
Jailoen ke bina jab duniya ki sarkaar chalaayi jaayegi
Woh subah hum hi se aayegi”

[For the dawn, that for ages, we nurtured with sacrifices
For that morning of nectars, have we not consumed poisons
These impoverished souls will finally be rewarded
And such a dawn, shall one day be ushered in…

As crimes cease to be structural givens of societies
Justice no longer served with torture, death penalties
A new world needs no oppressive prison
We shall usher in such a new dawn!]
——

As a communist poet, like Neruda, Sahir was close to the women of his life. Since none of his relationship could be formalized, and he died shortly after his mother’s demise whom he loved endlessly, he remained much misunderstood in his personal life. Many criticized him as an egotist megalomaniac seeking attention. But Sahir remained indifferent to both adulation and brickbats.

In 1971, when he was awarded with the prestigious Padma Shri, he told his close friend and fellow progressive poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, “Yaar Jan Nisar, ab sarkar ko tumhe bhi Padma Shri se nawaazna chahiye” [Jan Nisar, the government should now honor you with a Padma Shri as well].
Jan Nisar, amused, asked Sahir, why [“Bhala aisa kyoun”]?
Sahir wryly replied, “Ab yeh zillat mujh akele se bardaasht nahni hoti.” [I cannot bear this embarrassment alone.]

———

[All translations by Saswat Pattanayak]

More translation of Sahir’s poetry –

Fellow Decent Humans

Taj Mahal

Radical Child

Giving Back

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Looking for Jesus and Finding them

By Saswat Pattanayak

Perhaps the prevailing eurocentrism in the world makes more non-Christians celebrate this day with such fanfare, than they would observe an occasion from any other religious text. December 25 resonates in all, regardless of religious backgrounds, owing to our colonized subconsciousness. Amidst humanized samaritan renditions of a generous Santa rewarding submissive kids, most folks today set aside their intelligence while momentarily forgetting how Christianity has been the most gruesome and atrocious religion in the history of the world, single-handedly responsible for genocide of indigenous peoples all over the planet through its spread of terror and imperialism.

The only redeeming feature of this horrendously traumatic saga of lies and outright deceit is the possible salvaging of Jesus as a working class hero, albeit a nonviolent one. Like any other religious icon, Jesus too is imagined to be on the side of the oppressed and the dispossessed, on the side of truth and justice, on the side of the revolutionaries, the imprisoned and the conscientious, on the side of the internationalists, the communists and the labor organizers.

Malcolm X said, “they charged Jesus with sedition” because he went to the exploited and the downtrodden. Woody Guthrie said, Jesus was laid in his grave by the preachers, bankers, landlords, rich men and their soldiers. If every revolution needs a few myths to provide hope, every religious text provides to the believers some myths to cling unto. But for revolutions to succeed, humanization of icons is not adequate. It does not suffice to celebrate that alone which is dead, but also to embrace the best of what is living. What is needed is to recognize today’s revolutionaries as Jesus. Ideally, all religions should be declared extinct, as they historically have been tools for the ruling elites to exploit people of the world by dividing them up into various conflicting sub-groups. Unfortunately, majority of the world is still not ready to prioritize struggles for liberation from superstitions. As Lenin had said, “No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.” Until the time the working class is awakened to unite itself, we may find it empowering to wrest the gods from the tax-free temples and churches and mosques – and to find them in revolutionaries amidst ourselves instead.

And therefore, the trans woman Chelsea Manning who languishes in the jail past six Decembers for sharing powerful truths, is Jesus. Physically disabled GN Saibaba, the revolutionary from Delhi University who is suffering the brunt of a fascist Indian state for holding radical views, is Jesus. The Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera suffering from a sentence of 70 years in an American prison, charged with “seditious conspiracy”, is Jesus. Black Panther and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal who remains the undying conscience of a world crying for freedom, is Jesus. Countless freedom fighters “hard-working and brave”, to quote Woody, across the globe resisting ruling class excesses and facing charges on behalf of us today, are all Jesus – today, and they are various other gods too, on other religious days. With due apologies to George Carlin, Gods don’t just need money to remain relevant; they also need great human beings, to survive their purpose.

Eurocentrism as Terrorism

The War on Terror has been raging since the hegemony of the West was first challenged, says Saswat Pattanayak.

By Saswat Pattanayak

Let’s not romanticize terrorism. Terrorists blew up Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Terrorists organized the White Army to kill over 3 million Russians. Terrorists funded the Nazis and the Fascists, killing nearly 12 million Jews and Communists. Terrorists killed nearly 3 million Koreans in an anticommunist war. Terrorists killed 2 million Vietnamese, half a million Cambodians and Laotians in the name of Cold War. Terrorists killed nearly 200,000 Algerians whom the French colonized. Terrorists infiltrated into Greece and colonized Philippines. Terrorists disrupted lives in Albania and Iran. Terrorists flew into Guatemala and killed Syrians and Costa Ricans. Terrorists targeted Indonesia and Haiti and Ecuador. Terrorists colonized and killed over 8 million people of Congo under Belgian kings. Terrorists introduced death squads in Brazil and went on a rampage in Peru and Dominican Republic. Terrorists threatened Ghana and tortured working poor of Uruguay and killed Che Guevara in Bolivia. Terrorists funded Pinochet in Chile and invaded Grenada. Angola, Zaire, Jamaica, Seychelles, Morocco, Suriname, Nicaragua, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador – terrorists imported their dreaded forms of democracy through murders, rapes and territorial invasions.

All these terrorists have had one religion – Christianity. All of them have had one civilization – Western. All of these terrorists have been upholders of one ideology – Eurocentric colonialism. And they have one common claim – that, they have been fighting terrorism and civilizing the savages, one Thanksgiving at a time.

The so-called “War on Terror” has been going on ever since slavery was challenged by African freedom fighters, feudalism was challenged by the Russian communists, and colonialism was challenged by the nationalists of the Global South. In the latest instance, the War on Terror is a series of targeted attacks on the Arab countries and allies that currently challenge the unipolarity of NATO powers.

Žižek and the spectre of Western Values:

The renewed “war on terror” in the wake of Paris attacks is merely a continuation of the moral argument that the Eurocentric colonialists need to protect the cultural purity of western civilization. Slavoj Žižek’s latest argument decrying the refugees that are threatening the fabrics of “radical western roots” through attacks on the soil of western lands is an intelligent summation of racist justification for colonialism; a nostalgic tribute to the “good old days” when France used to be an apostle of “liberty, equality, fraternity” while it enjoyed brutalizing its colonies (Algeria, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Tahiti, China, Lebanon, Syria).

Advocates of Eurocentrism have not only deemed themselves superior on basis of “Western values” which Žižek pays rich tributes to in his latest essay, they also preempt the possible conjecture, if not an informed critique, that a response/retaliation may be warranted. Take the case of “pitiless” actions of France in Syria, the day after Paris attacks – 10 aircraft dropped 30 bombs hitting among other things, a soccer stadium, a museum and medical facilities and destroying electricity facilities affecting 200,000 people. Most likely, the human casualties in Syria in coming months will not even be counted, let alone mourned.

Just as there were no European tears shed following deaths of 26 in Iraq the very day Paris was attacked. Or, over the killing of 43 in Lebanon the day before, over the deaths of 66 in Pakistan, and of 56 Palestinians, last month. 300,000 have died following the NATO’s “War on Terror” in Syria. Over 4 million Muslims have died world over in the process of reclaiming Western values of liberty and democracy. And there have been no civilized grief over these.

In fact, quite the contrary. Defense expenditures among NATO nations are on an increase. If the United States as leader of the rogue nations spends $1,891 per capita on defence, the allegedly peacenik Norway is not far behind with $1,328 per capita in funding the war on terror. They are able to persist with such military spendings against the interest of working class in those countries, precisely by employing a moral parameter that defines terrorism as the act conducted by the people of Global South, by people not practicing Judeo-Christian faiths.

Scholars like Žižek and Richard Dawkins take pride in rational views, as enlightened Europeans who are clearly not conservative rightwingers. But while at it, they consistently depict the roots of Western civilization to be categorically progressive and advanced. In many ways, they conveniently overlook the subtle contradictions in their preferred narrative by overtly attacking the regressive elements, that are more obvious. A case in point is the way Dawkins refused to acknowledge the slave-owning heritage of his family estate, while attacking Islam as a religion that has produced no Nobel laureates. Likewise, Žižek refuses to attribute centuries of racist wars and genocides to European onslaughts, while riding high on the allegedly “Western legacy” of “egalitarianism and personal freedoms”.

Fanon and the Wretched:

What is the Western legacy that Žižek and Dawkins take pride in? What is this Europe if not a region built upon the sweat and blood of the Third World? As Frantz Fanon wrote on the Violence in the International Context, “Moral reparation for national independence does not fool us and it doesn’t feed us. The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth…Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The riches which are choking it are those plundered from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks in Bordeaux and Liverpool owe their importance to the trade and deportation of millions of slaves…..Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn their flag and their police force from our territories. For centuries the capitalists have behaved like real war criminals in the underdeveloped world. Deportation, massacres, forced labor, and slavery were the primary methods used by capitalism to increase its gold and diamond reserves, and establish its wealth and power.”

Fanon is right. Contrary to what Žižek claims, egalitarianism and personal freedoms do not comprise western legacy – their suppression in the name of colonialism is. One cannot rule over and plunder another country for decades if not centuries, and then blame the “backwardness” on the ruled subjects. Has Žižek analyzed the role of French colonialism in treating Algerians and Syrians as little more than animals and forcing them to be refugees in their own lands before equating the issue of terrorism with the issue of “refugee crisis”?

Žižek squarely blames the victims while ridiculing the “anti-Islamophobia” in the following words, “Multiculturalist or anti-colonialist’s defense of different “ways of life” is false. Such defenses cover up the antagonisms within each of these particular ways of life by justifying acts of brutality, sexism and racism as expressions of a particular way of life that we have no right to measure with foreign, i.e. Western values.”

A scholar of Žižek’s repute can indulge in some more word games to create a dialectic therein, but the above postulation as a normative already exists in the mainstream. He merely fuels it by using it as a proposition, no matter what conclusion he derives at the end. For instance, it is already a widespread belief, thanks to the new-age atheists, that Islamic believers are intolerant brutes. This analysis based on Charlie Hebdo shooting is Islamophobic precisely because it does not take into account the hostile pattern in France towards Muslims as a historically gruesome reality. Hebdo incident was a reaction, not an initiation. The denial of Paris massacre of 1961 was for decades not considered an act of Christian terrorism. But come Hebdo, and it was suddenly Islamic terrorism. So much so that 54 people who exercised their free speech rights to defend the attack on Charlie Hebdo were arrested as “apologists for terrorism”.

In India too, we now witness branding of Mani Shankar Iyer, Salman Khurshid, Azam Khan and Shakeel Ahmad as apologists for terrorism, simply for failing to parrot the grand Eurocentric narrative that demands unconditional regrets over acts of terrorists of a specific faith – Islam. Not only one needs to condemn “Islamic terrorism” (Iyer has been criticized for being anti-Islamophobia instead of simply calling Paris attacks as terrorism), but in case of Ahmad’s tweet, one cannot bring in religion into picture to depict a terrorist who is a non-Muslim (Chhota Rajan as a Hindu terrorist is inadmissible because the “Hindu terrorism” is still a misnomer in India, just as “Christian terrorism” finds no usage in Europe/US).

Violence: Whose Prerogative?

As a lazy researcher, Žižek repeats the charges of “brutality, sexism and racism” against the anti-Islamophobes. A closer look at the global situation would reveal that these very features are tools of oppression for the ruling elites precisely everywhere in the world. Žižek does admit to the anti-immigrant racists in power while conceding slightly – but where he fails to discern the all-important distinction is the necessary Marxist critique that is completely absent in his analysis. Who gains from these weapons and who suffers? Islamophobia has been claiming lives world over, just as Eurocentric colonialism had been. Racism/sexism/brutality as state policies are radically different consequential tools compared to those as reactionary mechanisms with the subjects. Anti-colonialism which Žižek mocks, is not an ideology created to profit those who are suffering due to NATO’s Eurocentrism. It is a necessary tool to oppose all too-familiar colonial aggression about which both Fanon and Sarte have extensively written. But it is in no way a shield to protect values of brutality, sexism and racism – whose primary manufacturers and sustainers as such happen to be the former colonial masters.

What are the wars, whether “world war”, “cold war”, or “war on terror” – if not a front to prove who is the bigger champion of brutality, sexism and racism? Imperialist wars in the name of “war on terror” have been notorious in usage of tortures and brutality – sleep deprivation and waterboarding of prisoners; they have wrought nothing if not rapes of women as prized captures, and have achieved nothing if not ethnic cleansing. The “Torture Memos” advising the CIA to use enhanced interrogation techniques that are otherwise illegal, but are permissible under the pretext of “War on Terror” are revealing in this regard. Let alone, “Western values”, where is humanity in all of this?

Selective Humanity

Was any humanity there when Paris attacks happened? This has an expected answer: of course not, because no matter how ghastly the past maybe, nothing can justify the killing of innocent people who are watching a rock concert. However, this type of feel-good assertions are deeply problematic, in that they assume that violence of any sort is just immoral – when it occurs in France or in the United States. When Facebook activated a “Safety Check” button for folks who have relatives in France, to the exclusion of similar buttons for relatives of victims of terrorist attacks in Palestine, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen, then there is something else to the “humanity” question that we subconsciously overlook.

It points directly to the dehumanization of black and brown people. While flags of many countries went half-mast in many countries to honor those who lost lives in France, and many monuments lit up with colors of French flags, there was no such display of official mournings by these countries when terrorist attacks were occurring in countries like Pakistan and Palestine and Lebanon. What explains this is a climate of extreme racism amidst media and their consumers in the world today, which in turn remains entirely Eurocentric. And this invalidates Žižek’s longing for the missing Eurocentric values. Indeed, the Eurocentric values themselves are central to this crisis, not alien.

The Eurocentric tears are in the backdrop of a denial that the countries worst affected by terror attacks are indeed Muslim countries themselves. According to Global Terrorism Index (GTI), in 2014, 82% of those killed in terror attacks were in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. And ever since the “War on Terror” has been launched, the number of deaths from terrorism has in fact increased five-fold: from 3,361 deaths in 2000 to 17,958 in 2013.

Not only NATO member-states have suffered the least from terror attacks so far, more importantly, they have enabled terror organizations through direct funding and military assistance to “rebels” who have subsequently grown beyond their intended purpose (if at all). If Taliban was enabled by Reagan administration to destabilize the secular fabric of Afghanistan in an effort to contain the Soviets, and Al-Qaeda was funded to destroy Libya’s stability under Obama, it was Bush and subsequently Obama administration which were also responsible for funding the hate that produced ISIS at the first place. Thus far, these outfits have been causing significantly more havoc among the Islamic societies than in the NATO countries. It is to the credit of the Islamic countries that they are not only bravely fighting these terrorists who have been emboldened via foreign fundings, but these societies are also retaining a calm that is infinitely more surprising than it is praiseworthy.

The video clips of women and children on the streets of Baghdad beating their chests and cursing the aerial bombardments in search of the mysterious WMDs are not isolated ones. The Abu Gharib torture and Guantanamo Bay abuses are part and parcel of inhuman foreign policies instituted and indeed continued to this day by the NATO member states, principally led by the United States. To assume that there will be retaliations on part of those we have “othered”, is infinitely more prophetic, than it can ever be justified.

Glorification: Gun, bombs and violence

Gandhi did remind us once: “an eye for an eye only ends up making the world world blind”. And he was right. We are headed that way. But if we must take shelter in Gandhian ideals, then we should be in a position to condemn violence in all its manifestations. It is wrong when people take up arms and aimlessly shoot others. And it is all the more evil when the state uses military force to strategically eliminate innocent people of foreign lands under the pretext of killing a select few terrorists. Violence needs to be treated as bad each time one violates the principle of non-violence. One cannot endorse political parties that retaliate swiftly with drones and indiscriminate shootings and then blame a handful of terrorists for what was coming. One cannot remain indifferent when people are bombed to deaths in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Libya and then get all teary-eyed at Paris shootings.

ISIS has spared none and has been criticized by all sections and people across all religions. Precisely due to this then it is like the inspector who called in; the conscience gone wrong, horribly wrong. ISIS aside, the deaths of innocent beings in Paris still must be looked within the prism of manifestation of reactions. Waterboarding and torture tactics done by NATO folks are equally evil, more so, because they are carried out in the name of taxpayers. As citizens, we partake in the glorification of militarist exhibitionisms. Our violent-prone culture is such that the decorated war hero of Indian origin in Canada is actually being applauded for being a “badass” defence minister because some reports suggest he is expert at torturing enemies. One Putin meme is circulated widely because it shows Putin saying he can send the terrorists to the God. Killing of human lives whether through capital punishment or via cop “encounters” are cheered by enthused citizenry. Indeed, the foremost patriotic song of India that make us emotional has these lines, “Thi khun se lath path kaaya, phir bhee banduk uthaake // Das das ko ek ne maara, phir gir gaye hosh ganvaake”.

Gandhian/Buddhist/Christian values do not distinguish between people as they do between values. What sort of violent world we are building up for the future generations depend on our endorsements of terror tactics or opposition to them, regardless of who is the perpetrator. As long as we use guns and bombs and drones as tools to resolve crisis, both the state and non-state agencies will take the cues and up their games in the contests within the ambit of conventional warfare/terrorism. When police officers can be awarded in India with medals who torture and sexually abuse women prisoners like Soni Sori, then we have a real lack of humane values. Against the backdrop of violence and flaunting of “license to kill”, from Singham to James Bond, our popular culture overflows with justifications for gory violence to end all ills.

A few months ago, one of my articles opposing death penalty for Yakub Memon had invited the wrath of the lynch mob, one member of whom publicly stated on a Facebook page that I should be handed over to the RAW for torturous interrogation so that I can confess to my ties with terrorist groups of Pakistan. The audacity to make such serious remarks in such casual fashion points to the level of normalization in ourselves regarding the acceptance of terror tactics, and any tool of violence as a legitimate measure to win even an argument.

Unsurprisingly and not entirely unrelated to the issue of terrorism in civilized lands, the gun violence in United States does demand special attention. In this year alone, from gun violence, 11,696 have dies so far, and 23,787 have suffered injuries. There have been 293 incidents of mass shootings within last ten months. 627 children (age 0-11) and 2,329 teenagers (age 12-17) have lost their lives so far. Violence has become not just commonplace, but also the preferred method to reach a resolution.

However, not all violences are condemned and therefore gun violence is not taken as seriously within the United States. That is because, unfortunately in the current world, which of the mass shootings are acts of terrorism indeed depends on the religion of the perpetrator than on the nature of shooting. And the spiraling silence around this prejudice, while pitiless responses await innocent civilians outside the zone of NATO member states, should have been disturbing us even all the more. Alas, thanks to an Eurocentric world, we still need an imperialist narrative to define what should be considered to be terrorizing us today.

(Written for Kindle Magazine)

Silent Majority

First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Pakistani.

Then they came for the women, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Feminist.

Then they came for the Adivasis, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Naxalite.

Then they came for the Dalits, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not an Ambedkarite.

Then they came for the rationalists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the farmers, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Gandhian.

Then they came for the beef-eaters, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Sickular.

Then they came for the historians, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not an Intellectual.

Then they came for the filmmakers, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a starving Artist.

They are coming after the working class, dividing us up, every single day –
And I know I will not speak out still –
Because I am not really a revolutionary.

– Saswat Pattanayak, Peoples’ Poet, 2015

(My reflection above is inspired by the famous poem by Martin Niemoeller who was an outspoken critic of the Nazis. The idea is to convey that one Hitler or one Modi is not responsible for the mayhems in any society. They are accomplished with the tacit support of the otherwise decent people who choose to remain silent while oppressive policies continue against “other” groups to which they immediately do not identify with. In Indian context, too many of us have remained silent throughout as state machinery and hindu nationalists have continued to target various marginalized groups. And it will not be far when those of us who have been thus far spared of the wrath have to also pay the price for maintaining stoic silence. Revolutionaries do not remain silent at atrocities – they have always spoken up and chosen sides and vocally articulated their position. And the circumstances to produce revolutionaries are not ordained by divine orders. They are for us to realize. Each of us has the ability to speak up, to protest. Let us not wait for an opportune time guided by just our own interests.)

Roots (and prospects) of Justice

Our justice system has failed to protect the very principles of liberty and equality it was tasked to defend and become a willing participant in the State oppression it was supposed to prevent. Reforming it requires us to revisit what we’ve previously held sacrosanct, says Saswat Pattanayak. (Kindle Magazine)

“I request this House to adopt the same conciliatory attitude to all political minorities and to adopt the same principles as have been adopted by the Soviet Union…I propose my amendment and request Dr. Ambedkar to accept it—That in the Preamble for the words ‘We, the People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic’, the words ‘We The people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a union of Indian Socialistic Republics to be called U.I.S.R. on the lines of U.S.S.R.’ be substituted.”

—Amendment proposed by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, 17 October 1949

Maulana Mohani’s visions were threefold: “Our Constitution must be federal, it must be centrifugal, and the constituent States or Republics should willingly hand over certain central powers to the Centre”. He was highly critical of the draft under consideration and minced no words: “We should take our minorities into our confidence. Instead of doing that, you are going to outcaste them altogether. You are passing anything you like, without the slightest consideration for the interests of even your political minorities.”

The Constituent Assembly of India had quite predictably negatived Maulana Mohani’s proposed amendment. The feelings were reciprocal—Mohani, the man who symbolised religious harmony and coined the phrase “Inquilab Zindabaad” also remained the only voice of dissent in the Assembly and refused to go along with the finally adopted Constitution. His desire for a free voluntary democratic Indian Union of sovereign units never materialised.

Almost seven decades have passed since, and the sole dissenter Maulana Mohani has been vindicated. India has failed on both grounds: our states are constantly at odds with the Centre, and our political minorities are routinely persecuted. Both social justice and individual liberties are duly neglected and travesty has become synonymous with justice.

Social (in)Justice

India’s most devastating failure to tackle social justice started only a year after independence was gained. The Hyderabad massacre of 1948—the deaths of around 40,000 people, mostly Muslims killed by Hindu mobs—was well documented but remained suppressed for decades and no justice was rendered. Two decades later in 1969, the Muslim community was again targeted, this time in Gujarat where Hindu nationalists killed hundreds of Muslims and destroyed nearly 40 mosques and 50 dargahs. Exactly two decades later, Bihar (Bhagalpur) witnessed the worst communal violence until that period, resulting in over 1,000 deaths (900 of them Muslims) and the displacement of over 50,000 people. The Moradabad riots of 1980, the Nellie massacre of 1983, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the anti-Muslim Bombay riots of 1992–93 and the 2002 Gujarat riots together have resulted in innumerable deaths and massive distrust among minority communities. Add to these the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, the plights of Northeast and Kashmir and we have a region fragmented into different imaginary and competing republics, bound by the law of the land, but not by its spirit.
What can explain the dismissive manner in which the accusations of over a hundred “political” rapes in Kunan Poshpora (among many others in Kashmir) have been handled? What about the justice in caste-based violence resulting in the rape of Dalit women in India (statistically, 21 rapes every week)? So absurdly absent has judicial intervention been that people not only have “taken the law unto their own hands”, but private militias have been established to oppress the Dalits. As a result, the dispossessed are either too often casually disregarded as willful participants in the violence, or are publicly used as case studies carrying Maoist aspirations.

From vilifying insecure communities and terrorising the marginalised, to carrying out broad daylight romanticised “encounters”, the Indian justice system has stoically overlooked communal clashes, rendered selective justice, oppressed political minorities, ignored indigenous peoples and fostered hegemonic nation-building excesses. In the latest instance, the Hashimpura massacre has turned out to be a textbook example of injustice. Even as the police and the military orchestrated the murder of 42 innocent Muslim youth, no one has been found to be guilty. Nearly three decades have passed, and yet not a single member from the military could be brought to the trial for investigational purpose. From entertaining charges of sedition against Arundhati Roy and Geelani, to actually declaring Dr. Binayak Sen guilty, the judicial system is notoriously indifferent to heinous crimes of hateful nature, while it promptly penalises conscientious dissenting citizens who express unpopular political opinions. Even as the sacrosanct wings of democracy in the form of executive-legislative-judiciary-military have long ceased implementing laws that can guarantee a life of dignity for all the citizens of India without discrimination, they have been acutely enthusiastic about reminding people of how serious a charge of “sedition” can be—a remnant of a cruel colonial legacy that has been neatly preserved.

Individual Liberty

Like Maulana Mohani, there was another unsung member of the Constituent Assembly who had predicted the approaching disasters: Mahavir Tyagi. While Mohani was concerned that in our anticommunist quest, we were ignoring an emancipatory USSR Constitution, while heavily borrowing from colonial legacies of oppressive Constitutions of the imperialist world, and that, by doing so, we were facilitating prospects for dangerous communal violence in the coming years, Tyagi was equally emphatic in rejecting the proposals of the Drafting Committee that had introduced the clause of “Preventive Detention”, which curtailed basic individual liberties and in turn made the judiciary system a draconic one.
“What relevancy is there for a detention clause in the Constitution which is meant to guarantee fundamental rights to the citizens? I am afraid the introduction here of a clause of this kind changes the chapter of fundamental rights into a penal code worse than the Defence of India Rules of the old government. I have suffered under the Defence of India Rules long detention“. Tyagi went one step further and proposed that a truly emancipated people must possess the capacity to overthrow a government that acts destructively against the rights of the people: “I would ask Dr. Ambedkar and the Drafting Committee if they are also prepared to arm the people also with the power to overthrow a government which works destructively against the fundamental rights which they have granted to them. Surely the people have got the right to overthrow, abolish or alter such a government and to constitute another government which they think would be more likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

It was not a matter of sheer coincidence that both the divide-and-rule policies resulting in communal violence and curtailment of liberty by means of detention without trial were gifts from British colonialism. R. Palme Dutt cited in India Today (1940) the official policy of the British Raj: “Our endeavour should be to uphold in full force the (for us fortunate) separation which exists between the different religions and races, not to endeavour to amalgamate them. Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian government.”

And yet, despite having an anti-colonial spirit at the forefront of freedom struggle in India, we heavily retained the colonial judicial chapters. Ironically, the British have themselves completely abolished sedition as an offence, but India has zealously guarded the provision, which reads: “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government estab­lished by law shall be punished with im­prisonment for life, to which fine may be added”.

Let alone entertaining Tyagi’s demands for rights to the citizens to oppose reactionary governments, the Indian injustice system is rife with criminalising citizens without providing them with basic safeguards. Nearly 70 percent of the prison population in India comprises citizens who haven’t been tried (pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners), even as the occupancy level in the prison system is at 118.4 percent. Monthly pending cases in just the Supreme Court amounts to 61,300 (February, 2015). The number of pending cases in the High Courts is 44.5 lakh and in the lower judiciary, the number is 2.6 crore.

Judicial Activism

Even as the pending cases and prison system are depressing indicators, the enthusiasm to encourage judicial activism is a parallel development that is founded upon utter hopelessness. If democracy is meant to reflect the will of the people, then judicial activism/overreach is in reality a legitimate tool to undermine that will. There is no doubt that public interest litigations have done a world of good and that the Supreme Court of India has enormously improved the country’s state of affairs, but at the same time, by essentially violating the separation of powers principle, the courts are setting wrong precedents. Most notably, the manner in which the Chief Justice of India and four other judges get to select and appoint judges clearly sends alarming signals.
Most of the judicial activism is made possible owing to interpretations of our Constitution, which are perfectly legal (naturally), but it will not be a stretch to visualise the courts as the new bureaucracy. Not to mention, considering the social locations of the powers to be within the judiciary, a tad elitist (again, naturally so).

As the recent “Nirbhaya” documentary episode demonstrated, not only was the ban itself rightfully controversial and therefore ignited discussions, but the media interviews with the defense attorneys displayed almost a trend of judicial vigilantism. Whatever be the nature of its content and regardless of how useful to or judgmental of the feminist movements it is, the excuse that the telecast of it can influence the due process of law is open to debate. The vigilantism accompanied the manners in which one attorney threatened a member of the audience with an accusation that he was insulting the Supreme Court if he was going to pose critical questions to the lawyer. The lawyer then went on to boast how his daughter would never do something for which he would have to set her on fire—as he was the custodian of his adult daughter.

As shocking as such revelations appear to be, the truth is the lawyers and judges hail from the same patriarchal society which enables rape culture, the same casteist regions that pervade the entire landscape of the country, and the same corrupt playing fields that separate the commoners from the VIP judges for whom the traffic gets cleared on priority.

Back to the Basics

The same meritocracy, which continues to disadvantage the historically oppressed, finds its greatest manifestation in the country’s judiciary. It is undeniable that the justice system—law enforcement and courts alike—bears great responsibilities, especially during times when the executive and legislative branches have reached the lowest ebb. But it is even all the more important that while judicial activism arms the judges with the unprecedented privileges, they open up to much greater scrutiny.
One of the ways to move forward is to ensure social justice and individual liberty, while at the same time abolishing provisions for seditions and detentions without trials. Constitutional interpretations are necessary, but thanks to amendment provisions, there are greater hopes still. For amendments of course, using the participation of other branches of governance is crucial, so that overreach of any specific unit is contained.

India has multitudes of problems when it comes to issues specifically impacting the women and religious minorities. If we have not been able to adequately safeguard their interests, it is quite possible that we may need new laws in place, employing feminist languages that aim at liberating the oppressed.

For instance, in the past, we might have neglected to consider the USSR Constitution or the idea behind the Soviet of Nationalities or Korenizatsiya. Following Maulana Mohani’s proposal, if we look at 1936 Constitution of the USSR, we shall realise how we could adopt a right to free higher education conducted in the native language, a right to rest and leisure that guarantees a working day to last not more than seven hours. We shall realise how as important it is to provide for a fundamental right in the name of religious worship, it is equally necessary to let people enjoy the freedom to conduct antireligious propaganda. To make sure that citizens are “guaranteed inviolability of the person”. where women are accorded equal rights with men without exploitations, citizens have the “right to maintenance in old age and also in case of sickness or loss of capacity to work. This right is ensured by the extensive development of social insurance of workers and employees at state expense, free medical service…”

Whatever might have been our collective past, the future still shall hold promise if we revisit what we have conventionally considered sacrosanct. We need to improvise upon our own laws, to be more inclusive, to be more sensitive, to be more egalitarian. To do away with capital punishment, to consider marital rape as a crime, to prohibit corporal punishment. To prioritise structural reforms over a penal system. To redefine what constitutes a crime: a petty theft out of hunger owing to failure on part of the State to provide for basic needs, or accumulation of disproportionate private properties no matter how legitimate the means may appear to be.

A justice system’s success does not lie in exceeding the capacity of prison cells, as ours has done. It lies in establishing conditions in such a manner that prison walls will need to be crumbled down. That is the new era we have to work towards, and hope for.

As Sahir Ludhianvi so prophetically wrote:

“Manhoos samaaji dhaancho mein jab julm na paale jaayenge
Jab haath na kaate jaayenge jab sar na uchhale jaayenge
Jailoen ke bina jab duniya ki sarkaar chalaayi jaayegi
Woh subah hum hi se aayegi”

(As crimes cease to be structural givens of societies
Justice no longer served with torture, death penalties
A new world needs no oppressive prison
We shall usher in such a new dawn!)