Monday, November 28, 2011

No Turning Back (My memories of Rev. C. M. Khanna)

“The arrest of Rev Khanna was shocking and humiliating. He was clearly framed and he had not confessed to any person that he was involved in conversions by force or allurement.”
Rt. Rev. P. K. Samantaroy, Bishop, Diocese of Amritsar, Church of North India

“The whole Christian community feels humiliated because a religious leader like Rev Khanna has been treated in a manner so undignified. The charges of forcible conversion are totally baseless and false.”
Alwan Masih, General Secretary, CNI

My first memory of Rev. C. M. Khanna is rather faint. He was leading a prayer meeting at a friend’s birthday party. I might have been about three or four years old but if there’s one thing I still remember in that birthday party is the figure of the padre in his characteristic priestly cassock, sporting long hair and flowing beard. We children were sitting on the durree while the adults sat on the chairs around. Right opposite was the filigreed table for the cake and the eateries. In front of that table stood the young priest, who looked every bit like Jesus Christ himself. But I remember him for a peculiar reason. As he brought us the Word of God, he had closed his eyes and he kept on swaying to and fro. At that age, all I could think of while looking at him with an upturned face was, why does he have to swing like that?

Second time, I was brought to think of him was when, many years later, I was rummaging through some old books in a modest library – just a few bookcases, actually – at the Diocese of Chandigarh head office in Ludhiana. There were some old books on religion, theology and philosophy. The one that interested me was a little Pelican paperback The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich, the great German-American theologian, an “outspoken critic of Nazism”, who was “forced to leave Germany in 1933”. I came across Tillich’s name while reading about existentialism but hadn’t yet found anything originally written by him. I was thrilled to see that book and pounced on it. The book originally belonged – the rubber-stamp impression informed me – to Rev. Chandra Mani Khanna, Assistant Presbyter, Christ Church, Sector 18, Chandigarh; my congregation where he had served many years back. It was a pleasant surprise because it was hard to find many presbyters interested in reading “serious stuff”, or, for that matter, reading anything at all. It seems he was the last presbyter-in charge of the CNI congregation who had any interest in reading. Anyway, I felt a sense of respect for the man. It was heartwarming.

Third time, I actually heard him from a distance. He was addressing public meeting in Delhi. It was a religious gathering for the youth. Rev. Khanna, I learnt, had just come back from England, where, if I remember right, he had gone for some kind of higher studies. This was about 10 years back. He spoke on the cultural trend in the West, particularly postmodernism, and how it was challenging the traditional beliefs of that society. He wasn’t too impressed with that shift. He thought it was a disintegrating factor. He also spoke of “mortification”, which he seemed to suggest is the way to counter corrupting influence of postmodern consumerism.

Fourth time. I read a news item. “Pastor held in Valley over ‘forced conversions’”. While it is a routine thing to come across such propaganda, two things seemed particularly odd. One, the incident happened in the Kashmir Valley and not in a BJP/NDA-ruled state and, two, that it was Rev. C. M. Khanna who was arrested. One can criticize the religious leadership of the valley but that is already being done, started by brave Muslims like Javed Anand (and this editorial in Times of India). John Dayal has called attention to the“fragile unity” of minorities. However, on a personal note, what is most disappointing is the way the bogey of “forced conversions” is raised to humiliate a senior cleric like Rev. C. M. Khanna. It seems one only needs to bring up the C-word and you can get away with almost anything. Nuns can be raped, priests can be paraded naked, missionaries with the little children can be burnt alive, a 64-year-old priest can be picked up like a petty criminal by the police and vilified by the jingoistic local media. Say “conversions” and the blade must fall and the heads must roll.

Rev. Khanna is as much a victim of religious fundamentalism as he is of this worst kind of postmodernist approach to journalism. The “truth” doesn’t matter, selling of the story does. Make it sensational, pander to emotionalism, and cover up any attempt towards rational assessment of the situation.

Like, Tillich he faces the power of the might of the state. Government ministers have already pledged “strict legal action” against the padre, even before the case has properly been probed. According to reports, Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Sagar has said that government would not allow any person or group to create disharmony. “J&K is known for communal harmony and co-existence of religion. Any person who will try to create hatred or ill will against any religion will not be spared, but will be dealt under law,” he said.

 “Every one should cooperate to maintain the peace,”

However, in the virtual world hate-filled messages against Rev. Khanna are apparently being encouraged to proliferate. “We swear to kill all Christian missionaries and burn their buildings, churches and schools, I offer myself volunteer to find this man, this priest should burn” – these are the kind of comments one gets to read beneath the YouTube video of the baptism ceremony Khanna is leading. (One could hear in the video the chorus normally sung at baptisms, the Hindi version of “I have decided to follow Jesus/No turning back, no turning back”) Nathan Khanna, Rev. Khanna’s son has said that the government is totally indifferent to this and has no intention to remove the video. He told “I have no doubt that my phone and my mother’s phone are under control … it is clear that someone is trying to provoke Muslims against my father in the name of religion.”
In all this, I go back to the first memory of the man. His resemblance to Jesus Christ now goes deeper. His hair is much shorter and beard a modest French style. However, in suffering, he is like his Master. Trumped up charges were brought to discredit and dispense with both the men The Jewish Sanhedrin could not pass a death sentence on Jesus, so they sent Him to the Romans to be crucified. The kangaroo court of the “Grand” Mufti may similarly not be able to prosecute Khanna but in connivance of the state, the objective may actually be fulfilled. 

I go back to the first memory of the man and I picture him praying to the Master with eyes closed, swaying to a fro and singing – “No turning back, no turning back”. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

… And they killed their merit

A list of Dalit students who committed suicide in the last four years in leading educational institutes was recently released

Linesh Mohan Gawle died on 16 April 2011. Committed suicide, to be precise. Or perhaps it would be far more precise to say that he was forced to take his own life. Gawle was a Ph.D. scholar at the National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi. He was one of the 35 scholars who made it to the prestigious institute during the academic year 2009–2010. And now he adds his name to the list of 18 Dalit students who committed suicide across various institutes of higher learning in India in the last four years. Anoop Kumar, the Delhi-based advocate, whose Insight Foundation has compiled this list, says that the actual number of suicides may be much higher; the listed cases are the ones pursued by friends and family of the victim. All of these instances of suicide are in one way or the other related to caste-based oppression.
Gawle’s is the most recent instance of a Dalit student committing suicide. Though all the details are yet to come out,  the institute lost no time in declaring it a case of “failed love” . Fellow students mutter that it is the pressure at the institute that has taken its toll; most students at such elite institutes practically work as slaves and are at the mercy of the faculty for things like favourable recommendation letters and smooth interviews. But one cannot deny the fact that Gawle is the second Dalit student to commit suicide in this institute in the last three years.
Kumar says that in all such cases the so-called premier institutes are ready with stock responses: The student could not cope with the pressure of studies. He was battling with “personal” problems. By this they also imply that these “quota students” actually do not belong there. But according to Kumar if these institutes cannot deal with the diverse backgrounds of their students then they should openly declare that they will only admit urban, English-educated, upper-class, upper-caste students. They should stop calling themselves “national” institutes. “The problem lies with the institutes and not the students,” Kumar asserts.
He also denies the charge that these students are not able to “cope up” with the pressure of the studies. A year before Gawle took the extreme step, Bal Mukund Bharti, a final-year medical student from All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) had hanged himself. A bright student, Bharti had cleared his IIT entrance exam and yet changed stream to pursue a career in medicine by enrolling in India’s best medical college, AIIMS. They don’t come brighter than that; and, yet he was traumatised to such an extent on account of his caste, that he tried to end his life twice and, unfortunately, succeeded the second time.
Suicide sans suicide note
What Anoop Kumar finds most intriguing in all these cases is that, except in one instance, the typical suicide note has never been found.  In the absence of such a crucial evidence, which otherwise is almost always left by the victim, authorities get away with citing any reason they like. Dr Jaspreet Singh, who hanged himself in his college library in 2008, was the only one whose suicide note was found and that too accidentally by his father. That note clearly expressed the reason for his suicide: caste-based oppression.
A bright student at the Government Medical College, Chandigarh, Singh cleared all the exams he ever took during his MBBS but was deliberately failed, by just one mark, in “Community Medicine” by his examiner, who had repeatedly told Singh that he would never become a doctor. In his suicide note, Singh mentioned the Head of Department’s and two fellow students’ names who so tortured him that he was forced to take this extreme step. After his death, the answer sheet was re-evaluated by a three-member expert Board of Examiners, and it passed him. The HoD has never been prosecuted in any way, either by the institute or by the law. It was perhaps this injustice that drove his younger sister to follow in Singh’s footsteps. On the day of Raksha Bandhan the next year, she too ended her life.
The act of suicide is never a sudden decision; in the case of Dalit students, it is result of a long-standing process of denigration and demoralisation . What the SC/ST students need is a healthy, affirming environment (see “Suicide”, pp. 45–47). But can our upper-caste-dominated elite institutes effect a change of this nature? Or shall one look at other possibilities? Anoop Kumar’s Insight Foundation is one such way, which also runs a helpline for students facing caste-based oppression at their institutions.
OBC–SC/ST Combine?
Now, since the reservation in educational institutions is extended to the OBCs as well, a new scenario may emerge in the days to come. There may emerge a Dalit–OBC alliance that stands up to caste oppression. Kumar believes that though OBCs are not welcomed by the upper castes, they are seldom the target of verbal or physical hostility, which is almost exclusively directed towards the SC and ST candidates. Because of a deeply rooted casteist mindset, the upper castes “are trained to use violence against the SCs,” Kumar says. However, a similar kind of caste-based animosity that both the groups experience would bring them together. Kumar hopes that with the increasing number of OBCs in these institutes, caste oppression may actually reduce. This is likely to happen primarily because the monopoly of a few selected upper castes over these institutes will be broken. Diversity of castes will cause a rupture in the vicious caste nexus in these places. The numbers will also play a part. Kumar says that there is violence because upper castes are greater in number and hence they are able to overwhelm the miniscule minority of Dalits. “What chances do 5 have against 95?” Kumar asks.
But now there is a possibility of a coalition between the OBCs and SCs/STs, a possibility of brothers becoming each other’s keepers. And, it will go on to make these institutes truly talent-nurturing centres instead of being graveyards of merit!
Dalit & Adivasi Students Helpline: 0 99 99 48 42 49
This blog documents all kinds of casteist oppression in institutions of higher education, including the kind which results in the ‘suicides’ of young and meritorious Dalit and Adivasi students.

(I was reminded of this story I did for FORWARD Press magazine when today few friends on FB drew attention towards this news item: Exams where caste stigma has no answer. )

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Decapitating Democracy

Such remarks were mostly seen in the comments section of an online article, where one could safely conceal one’s identity. Whenever the topic of conversion cropped up in any article, some reader with the name “Bharat”, “Indian” or “NRI” would say that those who convert others and/or those converted should be beheaded. Later such comments also came with proper, if not real, names. But one still saw such language in the comments. The Indian Express yesterday, 8th November, carried a report with the headline: “Behead those who convert Hindus: Togadia”. The newspaper may have wanted to sensationalize things but then it carried it, at least in the Chandigarh edition, not on Page 1. It may be giving an unambiguous warning.

“Behead”.  I am not sure if this is cow-protector Pravin Togadia’s way of saying “Happy Bakara Eid”. He made this statement in Ahmedabad in village Pirana inhabited by a substantial population of Muslims. Speaking at the third and the final day of the Akhil Bhartiya Dharmaprasar Karyakarta Sammelan, 2011, which coincided with Bakrid, he also said, according to Times of India, that while anti-conversion was a priority, re-conversion of those converted to Islam and Christians was a bigger priority. Earlier he had given the call to Muslims of the area to reconvert to Hinduism and mocked the idea of politicians wearing skull caps during Muslim festivals.

Of course, Togadia has been making such inflammatory statements since forever and though they have certainly contributed in making savages out of human beings, many believe that the country has moved on from those horrifying instances of communal violence. The great Indian middle class believes that we have all matured and will not be swayed by such crass rhetoric. In fact, some news sites have called it a “lackluster” affair and they may even be right. The event may not have been very well attended but it has made a significant statement—a significant communal statement.

The sammelan was held in an RSS-run village school and many of the delegates stayed on the campus that included a Sufi shrine, a dargah, of Imam Shah Baba and a Hindu temple. The dargah attracts both Hindu and Muslim devotees. Hindus, called “Satpanthis”, comprise 85 per cent of the followers while the rest are “Saiyed” Muslims. The balance is tilted in the favour of the Hindus, though there had apparently been no history of communal tension. The trust of the shrine is for obvious reasons dominated by the Hindus. There are reportedly seven Hindu and three Muslim trustees. The Muslim trustees did not want extremist Hindus to hold a three-day event there. “We are against such meetings and we haven’t given any permission orally or in writing. They (Satpanthis) are doing what they want to do. All we want to say is that if you don’t believe in the ideology of what Imam Shah Baba taught, should leave the Dargah alone,” DNA quoted Saiyed Nuruddin Bade Miyan, a Muslim as saying. And though the dargah was a symbol of communal harmony in the area, the differences arose between trustees of the communities in 2002 and about six years ago, the communities clashed. Each accuses the other of communalizing the dargah. A 2006 article in the Christian Science Monitor highlighted the increasing communalization of the village: “Eager to slough off the shrine’s Muslim identity after the Gujarat riots of 2002, Hindu devotees of the saint built a barbed-wire fence between the shrine and the mosque that was originally built in the same complex. Muslims and Hindus then accused each other of stealing religious items and are now locked in a bitter court battle, each claiming the shrine is rightfully theirs.”

On the day the sammelan began, two organizations, Movement for Secular Democracy (MSD) and Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) gave a memorandum to the Gujarat governor Dr Kamala Beniwal to requesting her to “ensure peace and harmony during VHP’s conference”. While their efforts did help prevent simmering communal explode, they could not do much to check VHP capitalizing on the already tense relationship between Hindu and Muslim followers of the shrine.

On 7th November, the last day of the sammelan, the communal degeneration of the dargah was inscribed, if not unveiled, when the chief of the trust handed over a cheque worth Rs 1,11,111 to the saffron outfit. While ToI said that this act allayed pre-event fears of communal conflict, reports are yet awaited as to how the Muslim trustees reacted to this gesture of unmitigated gratitude. It’s possible that the majority of members overruled any dissent within the trust.

It is, thus, not difficult to see a clear divide within the trust as well as the communities in general. The Hindu trustees have already thrown their lot with VHP hoping some backing from the militant outfit even as they continue to battle legally with their Muslim counterparts.

This particular event has indeed added fuel to the fire but the reason that it becomes uncannily frightening is that it is part of a larger resurgence of Hindutva forces within last eight or nine months.

For example, the recent “clashes” in Rajasthan’s Gopalgarh (Sept. 2011) between Meo Muslims and Gurjars have been called communal riots, where the local BJP MLA tried to raise the bogey of Muslim fundamentalism. The truth, however, is that it is clear case of massacre by the police, targeted at a particular community (see Pramod Ranjan’s “Not a Riot, Repression”, Cover Story, FORWARD Press magazine, Nov. 2011). That little town did not witness any communal riot in the past before the RSS became active there.

The rise of the so-called anti-corruption movement under Team Anna too is symptomatic of this resurgence. While skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboard for the leaders, the discussions, especially on the social media are exposing the true face of the rank and file of this campaign. The self-righteous freedom fighters of the “second freedom movement” are the same sort of people who brought down the Babri Masjid in 1992. For many of them, corruption-free Indian is nothing but another name for saffron brigade’s Akhand Bharat. Krantikari Manuwadi Morcha is one of the many Hindutva organizations extending their support to Anna Hazare’s campaign. It holds that reservations are the chief cause of corruption in the country; and it is not difficult to see that it has become especially vocal since implementation of reservations for the OBCs. Gail Omvedt, in a recent column, suggests that possibility of OBC influx in educational institutions and government jobs has terrified the Manuwadis, the casteists. Talking of reservations she says, “This major aspect of democratising and acting against the old privilege of birth, is hated by those who benefit from it. Now those who hate it are getting a chance to divert attention into the single issue of ‘corruption,’ with the hidden agenda of blaming much of it on reservations!”

Almost every evening the ‘fans’ of India Against Corruption on Facebook berate and hurl choicest abuses at all those who seek serious dialogue regarding Team Anna’s crusade, its larger motives, programmes and goals. Behind their ferocity is nothing but a misguided caste and communal pride that is deeply offended by democratic principles of affirmative action and even the Constitution. When I last followed one such a discussion, I found people calling it a pirated document, which needs to be thoroughly revamped.

It’s not before long that this anger falls on another cardinal democratic freedom, freedom of conscience. After reservations, conversion can be the next target of this movement that initially only wanted its own version of a bill to be passed. After all, there are ready-made arguments against corruption—in the eyes of the Hindutva forces, conversion is always a result of Christians and Mulsims “bribing” the so-called poor (read, lower caste) people.

Such is the force of this argument, though quite illogical and so far without any credible evidence, that a former member of Team Anna has already made a statement against conversions. Recently the head of the Roman Catholic Church, who is also revered by many Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI sent his Diwali wishes via a letter to all Indians, in which he mentioned that one should also celebrate the freedom to change one’s religion. Swami Agnivesh responded to that letter “suggesting a moratorium on the religious conversion of ‘unlettered tribals’ and children who cannot make an ‘informed choice’”, reported Hindustan Times. A totally unnecessary reply, one would think. It is a common knowledge that in most families, except where both the parents are atheists, children as young as one year old are taught to bow before the idols and are shown religious books and pictures to train them in religion. That aside, one must ask what propelled Swami Agnivesh, who is respected across religious spectrum, to make such a suggestion. It may be that continuous personal attacks on him by virulent Team Anna followers have forced him to establish his credentials as a good Hindu, in the mould of Gandhi and Vivekananda, who made similar suggestions. And, these two are also inspirational figures for some of the most powerful Hindutva ideologues.

The feel-good campaign of the saffron brigade may not have been politically approved by the electorate in the 2004 general election, but the socio-cultural machinery that creates and perpetuates it was never shut off. Now when the Congress party is in ruins, Hindutva forces are already sniffing victory in the 2014 election. Earlier this year in an interview with Frontline magazine Christophe Jaffrelot said it as a maxim: “…the centre of gravity of the political discourse in India has shifted to the Right.” It’s their best chance.

Pravin Togadia seems to believe that. Swami Agnivesh perhaps thinks likewise. Who knows, he may even be trying to play Good Samaritan by asking Christians and Muslims not to involve themselves in conversions, else Togadias of VHP would act on what they are only saying. Behead!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Cruelty will come like culture, warns the artist

Sunday,  July 24, 2005

AN actor must not be confined to drama alone. Acting is not synonymous with performance; poetry is acting; conversation is acting.

On Saturday evening, theatre personality Ram Gopal Bajaj demonstrated what acting means when liberated from the confines of an auditorium. Sitting atop a table, and not behind it, Bajaj read poems and spoke to a spellbound audience.

In a meet-the-artiste evening organised by the Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademy, Bajaj drew the attention of the audience to the fact that in the last fifty years the "mood" of the society has become more aggressive, pernicious and violent. This he ascribed to a complete overlooking of foundational matters of culture and education. Identifying with each other is exactly what is missing from our degenerating culture, Bajaj said.

Theatre, he said, has not become part of our primary education system like other arts namely, painting, musicand dance.

When someone from the audience asked him about the future of theatre, he said without mincing words, "I am horrified when I see the symptoms of decay."

With the maddening increase in the city's population how many cultural centres, had come up, especially for children, he asked. Interspersing his talk and audiences' questions with poems of eminent Hindi writers like Kumar Ambuj, Kunwar Narayan and Ajneya, Bajaj lauded poetry for engaging with culture in a critical manner, a point that theatre misses out.

He said while the theatre doyen Alkazi had shaped his dramatic skills, it was Ajneya who shaped his sanskaras and his ethical notions.

By the time the evening ended with Ajneya's poem "Ghar", the soft spoken thespian had made one thing strikingly clear - In a shrinking cultural space, acting is the only way to survive.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

About love, Among Other Things

Sunday , May 15, 2005

Estranged spouses can become exasperating habits. Easy to pick in the days of youth. Hard to leave as you grow old. Divorce, then, is just a sorry reprieve. Raell Padamsee's play Anything but Love which opened to a full house at Tagore theatre today grapples with this theme in a comic yet forceful tone. Directed by Vikranth Pawar, the play revolves around two characters Seema and Anish, played by Mandira Bedi and Samir Soni, respectively.

The play begins with the chance meeting of the two in a restaurant. Divorced for five years, they can't wait to put the other one down. What follows is a hilarious exchange of whipping wit, immediately hooking the audience, and they are seldom let off.

After the initial fusillade of sexual insults and indefatigable repartee, the play lays bare the complex lives of the two characters, still retaining its risible flavour. Having divorced Anish, Seema, a one-time feminist, marries a younger man. Anish, a bisexual, absent-minded physics professor carries on his flings with, what Seema calls, "overgrown" schoolgirls. Even after five years of water gone under the bridge, both feel jealous and threatened by the presence of another lover in the former spouse's life. The jealousy is countered by an attempt to reclaim the old state. Guess what! They end up in bed again. Undergoing therapy with impossible shrinks, they realise that they are each other's best support.

Legally married to someone else Seema decides to go back to Anish. And then things go bad, again, and she moves out again only to bump into him in a restaurant again. That's where the curtain falls.

The play looks at the woman's fear of growing old and the man's dread of impotence. Samir Soni was flamboyant as a nutty professor. His timing and control was admirable. The quirks and whims of married individuals were brilliantly portrayed by both the actors who shared a great chemistry and acted out the characters as well as the relationship with impeccable empathy.

Once in the play Anish says that choosing whom to marry is like selecting a mobile phone service. You never know the hidden costs until later. But probably a better metaphor, taken from the play itself, is that of the crossword puzzle. It's all about helping each other with the clues to get it right.


This Tendulkar Is Never Out of Form

Jun 04, 2005 at 1028 hrs IST

When it comes to exploring the elemental violence inherent in human relations or delineating the hope that springs eternal, few come close to the master playwright Vijay Tendulkar.

Baby, a play written by this award-winning dramatist and staged in Tagore Theatre today, projects the life of its protagonist with supreme empathy and piercing insight. Despite its agonising length and a delayed start, the play maintained a firm grip on the audience. Such is the power that the original master blaster of Indian Theatre wields.

Directed by Rajinder Sharma of Art and Act Academy, the play tells the story of a young woman ravished and resuscitated by the same man. It begins with arrival of Baby’s brother Raghav, who has spent a year and a half in a lunatic asylum. Because he tried to save his sister from the local goon Shivappa, he was falsely declared insane.

He comes back only to find out that his sister has started living with the same man as his mistress who is responsible for their miseries. ‘‘Such is life, Raghav,’’ Baby tells her brother. Shivappa kept her, got her a job as an extra and provided her with lodging when everyone else turned on her. The play explores the entanglement of cruelty and mercy that mark human relationships and celebrates the hope that keeps the world going.

The knock-down script was executed with √©lan by the able caste. As their director calls them, the ‘‘amateur yet seasoned’’ actors gave scintillating performances. Gaurav Sharma as Raghav, a terrified, broken man was brilliant and so was Sachin Sharma who played Shivappa, the sadistic ruffian. Yogesh Arora as a struggling bisexual assistant director provided much needed comic relief. It goes to his credit that the Karve never became a caricature.

Alongside these confirmed histrionics, Anmol Bharati in the role of Baby made her debut. A promising talent, her hard work was evident. Lights for the play were handled by Parveen Jaggi, who in spite of the limited lights available in the theatre was able to create an ambiance.

(Review originally published in Indian Express: