State and the snake

September 8th, 2010

It had been, admittedly in a rather off-handed fashion, pitched at the weekend meeting that is slowly beginning to define my journalistic week. But after gauging the response that it had evinced, I had silently left it to foment in my head, while working on a new angle for a renewed sales effort later.

That renewed effort, though, was never required.

The Mahindra Bolero, as I had climbed into it at dusk, had seemed rather robust. But as it sped through in complete darkness, the vestige of a metalled road under it put things in perspective.

 A local walks by the red mud ponds of Vedanta Aluminium's refinery

A local walks by the red mud ponds of Vedanta Aluminium’s
refinery, built immediately under Niyamgiri, in Orissa’s
Kalahandi district. (Photo: Devjyot Ghoshal)  

The car, along with the driver and I, lurched and lamented with near absolute devotion through the hours, as the plains of Kalahandi melted away. Ahead, just as the forests began clearing, the mountains arrived, barely framed by the bolts of lightening that momentarily lit the sky.

There was something vaguely unnerving about being driven, so quickly, into the near unknown; an unfamiliar terrain that had come to capture the imagination of millions. Some, from even as far away as London, had decided to paint their faces blue in support.

But I had to travel only some 20 hours from Kolkata to see that faint orange glow grow increasingly stronger. It wasn’t till another few minutes passed that I realised I had arrived.

The dimension, among others, was something I was unprepared for. I knew Vedanta wanted to mine atop a hill, but I had never thought Niyamgiri would be what it is.

The piercing lights of the refinery, situated immediately below the mountain, merely added to the drama. Because where their reach ended, the clouds moulded a wreath around the plateau that comprises the summit.

And the wreath refused to remain unmoved. Wave after wave of suspended vapour wrapped itself around Niyam Raja’s fabled abode. Then, the moon finally broke through. Niyamgiri seemed alive.

Sometime in the beginning of this year, Jairam Ramesh sat onboard a wobbly speed boat deep in the Sundarbans. As the craft jetted through the mangroves forests, he spoke of how the “unrealistically low rate of rejection” of environment and forest clearances given by the ministry of environment and forests had to be changed.

Subsequently, the discussion veered towards brinjals and remained there.

But at Lanjigarh, under the shadow of Niyamgiri, morning came swiftly. The Dongar, as hills are known in local parlance, continued to have its head stuck in the clouds. With the sun climbing steadily, the Bolero was revisited.

It gunned down the narrow forest track that winds it way around the sacred mountain. Bleary eyed, I danced with it, completely oblivious of what was coming. Abruptly, the tree line broke. The excruciating green of the Niyamgiri hills stood naked.

Deba, my driver, felt no such pain. Blankly, he stopped at Oolbali, where my guide wanted to introduce me to the medicine man. Laksa Majhi came in nothing but a white loincloth; his greying hair tied back.

The intensely dark eyes said he knew his world and when he raised his right hand, I believed them. A mangled finger drew the map of mountains that his forefathers worshipped; the corrupted digit supposedly the result of a Cobra’s fang.

I curved my hand to imitate the snake. He nodded plainly. Later, he said, “We have served Niyam Raja, and he has given us life. But if the government wants to save Niyamgiri, they should kill us first.”  

Laksa Majhi feared the state, more than the snake. I am sure he wasn’t the only one.

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The Divided Colours of Bengal

May 26th, 2010

With inaccuracies possibly intact, not since the British left Bengal last century has colour been at the centre of politics as it is now.

That’s not to say that politics in the state has been devoid of colour. Rather, there has always been an element of raucousness that has defined the weeks leading up to hustings.

Being repeatedly woken up by street corner meetings with their battered but blaring speakers spewing disjointed poll rhetoric; constantly visiting the balcony to accost party workers for daring to mar your walls with electoral graffiti; subsequently, smiling sedately while they deface the neighbours boundary wall.

That, however, is just the sedate bit.

Public meetings that block traffic for kilometers and hours, trapping ambulances, cops and sometimes cows; organised rigging, booth-capturing and such, with the distinct possibility of a murder or two; shady money trails leading out of or into even shadier environs; back-room dealings and other paraphernalia that make elections that stuff of Bollywood blockbusters.

But the words on the street this time, with the Municipal polls slated for May 30, is not about the usual colour that characterises a wholesome hustings in West Bengal.

Instead, there is talk of shades: mainly red and green, and some others in between.

Without a pigment of imagination, much of the state’s contemporary past has been dipped in generous quantities of red — that unwavering symbol of the longest stint of any government, Communist or not, in the country.

And then, there is the resurgent green of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress which is seeking to unseat over three decades of institutionalised mismanagement. Every tragedy needs a catharsis.

Banerjee, though, has not stopped at just green. As the helmswoman of the Indian Railways, she has taken up the paint brush herself. After embellishing the gastronomically disastrous but fast Duranto, the firebrand politician is now hitting the platforms.

Railway stations across the state are turning into multi-coloured destinations with a smattering of all colours except, unsurprisingly, red. Although, greens — florescent or otherwise — are the dominant shade, diverse counterparts including purple are being punched together to create a unique ‘colourful’ ambiance.

Therein lies the fear and mystery. Since Banerjee’s disdain for anything red is well-documented, and her ambition to unseat the incumbent Left Front well-known, the colour of Writers’ Building that houses the West Bengal government is turning out to a consummate poser.

The century-old heritage building has kept a red facade for most of its lifetime and Communists inside for most part of the last fifty years.

If the political soothsayers are correct, the occupants on the inside are to change. But what of the outside?

Or, will Banerjee walk into the red building, even as the Left turns green with envy?

The distortion of history is a fact of life in West Bengal, and predicting the future a facile pastime.

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Abjure silence

April 6th, 2010

After Mumbai burnt on 26/11, India was hurting. As the dust settled, heads began to roll.

Notably, the dapper Shivraj Patil vacated command of the Home Ministry and the then Finance minister P Chidambaram took over.

That was before the economic slowdown came and went; before the Naxal upturn came and refused to go.

Last December, it was with some pride that Chidambaram stood in West Bengal’s capital city speaking of his unblemished record after taking over as Home Minister.

He claimed that the system had been improved, the sharing of intelligence streamlined and more importantly, the country’s complacency of terrorism had been shaken off. “It has been a terror-free year, so far. I hope it will end this way,” he said.

To the Naxals he said, “We will talk if you abjure violence.”

Two months later, a bakery in Pune was blown to bits.

Incidentally, Chidambaram was in Kolkata’s Writers’ Buildings just days before the terror attack attempting to coordinate the offensive against the Ultra Left rebels, or the now famous ‘Operation Green Hunt’.

It is another matter that two of the four chief ministers who were requested to attend the meeting did not turn up. Of the two who did, one sits in the very building they met in.

But all along, the hinterland burnt, while Chidambaram continued with his stance of ceasefire before conversation.

Subsequently, the telecommunication ping-pong ensued. The Home Ministry made public its public fax number, followed by the Naxals making public some random mobile number.

To believe that both couldn’t connect without the media playing matchmaker is absurd; that they wouldn’t is another matter.

As the situation deteriorated, including the firefight at the Silda camp where two dozen security personnel were killed, the demands for reconciliation increased steadily.

Even the Trinamool Congress’s enfant terrible Kabir Suman put his name down for a possible list of mediators between the Centre and the Naxals.

Last weekend, Chidambaram finally went to Lalgarh: Bengal’s geographical indicator for Naxalism. There, in a supposed spontaneous change in his itinerary, the signifier of the classes went to meet the masses.

“I, too, come from a village like yours, named Sivaganga, in Tamil Nadu,” the Harvard-educated minister is said to have told a villager.

But Sivaganga witnessed the opening of 43 bank branches during his previous tenure in the UPA government as Finance Minister. With it came some semblance of an attachment with India’s economic growth story.

Lalgarh, unfortunately, has none of that. The local police station doesn’t even have a proper rope to hold back over-enthusiastic journalists, reports said.

But the local Block Development Officer can’t be blamed. His office has reportedly been closed down. Now, no one is quite sure where the job cards, or the jobs, are coming from.

Chidambaram, however, stuck to his guns. He asked locals to resist the Naxal rebels and continue supporting the government, despite the latter having delivered next to nothing.

Not that the former have done much either, but thankfully they aren’t elected representatives.

Then, the Home Minister said, “The buck must stop on the chief minister’s table”.

After a night of rumination, the chief minister disapproved of Chidambaram’s analysis as “not good language”.

The Naxals have not said much, even though they are crucial to solving the particular debate and the larger problem.

The Centre, state governments in question and the rebels have to hit the table before one is seriously debilitated, and time is running out.

On Tuesday, over 70 paramilitary troops were killed in a series of ambushes at Dantewada, Chattisgarh.

In all likelihood, the fight will intensify and the body count will rise, unless talks start.

Instead of violence, maybe Chidambaram should considering abjuring silence. As a representative of the state, he has a monopoly over the former.

But the absence of the latter is key to ensuring that it stays that way.
 

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Saving the tiger, and Thackeray

February 22nd, 2010

It is ironic that a tiger is the mascot for the Shiv Sena. Because both are rather publicly fighting for survival. At the heart of both battles, however, lies a phenomenon that has almost always evoked strong reactions: migration.

From a basal perspective, the Sena and India’s endangered national animal are fighting to save their respective turfs from outsiders.

Although the analogy is far from complete, what brings the two further together is that both are failing to realise that their survival lies not in evicting the itinerants. Rather, defining the ‘insiders’, as it were, and embracing the migrants is essential for their continuity.

Initiated in 1972, Project Tiger was India’s biggest chance of saving the big cat. But as has been declared recently, only 1,411 of them are left in the country. Sometime in the 1990s, their number stood at 3,500. Clearly, something has gone wrong. And it is not just the lack of money.

A few leading conservationists are steadfast in their belief that the relocation of villagers who live in and around the 40-odd tiger reserves in the country must be undertaken to save the tiger. Primarily, the lack of employment opportunities juxtaposed against a booming economy often drives those who live in the vicinity of these reserves into the lucrative ‘tiger trade’.

At the risk of oversimplifying the complexities, a possible solution would be to integrate them into these projects as some sort of stakeholders. After all, most of these communities have shared a historical relationship with the tiger. Without them, protecting one of the most awesome creatures to walk the forests of India will be next to impossible.

However, the questions remain: who exactly are these stakeholders and what should be their actual stake in these projects? Who should stay and which section have to be relocated? How much responsibility should be invested in whom?

These are yet to be answered comprehensively. One can only hope that the voices of the stakeholders will be given a fair hearing. Thankfully, Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has shown a seeming affinity for public consultations, so far.

In the jungle that is Mumbai, the situation isn’t altogether that different. The Sena is the ‘tiger’. In that the organisation’s mascot is the national animal, maybe it enjoys the particular anthropomorphism.

The Marathi Manoos, the Sena claims, are those it has shares an ethnic relationship with. Not unlike the association between India’s four-legged tiger and the villagers that live in and around the forests.

Here, too, the difficulty lies in defining the demographic entity. Mumbai, like much of the country, is a fascinating smörgåsbord of peoples and cultures. But then, possibly the ‘Bun Maska’ really is anti-Marathi.

More importantly, though, it is hard to imagine that the Marathi Manoos, whomsoever they might be, would want all the others to pack their bags and leave a city shaped by over a century of multiculturalism.

In the disturbance that has erupted since taxi drivers were asked to take tuitions, the commoner has been relegated to the shadows. Most bow before the blow.

But as Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray continues to roar, he forgets that the Sena’s mascot is endangered today because it was hunted. And today, if the tiger has a future, it is because the huntsman has turned crusader.

But who will save the Sena when its fort crumbles, as it did in last year’s parliamentary and assembly polls? Certainly not a man called Khan.

 

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The Burning Bus and Bengal

December 10th, 2009

Once upon a time in West Bengal, the State, as Max Weber chose to define it, had monopoly over violence.

The legitimacy of this ascendancy of the administration within its demarcated territory is a question that events at Singur, Nandigram and, more recently, at Lalgarh have raised. It is altogether another matter that we, as a democracy, have been unable, or maybe unwilling, to suitably answer this. The hustings in 2011 will decide, is the refrain.

However, there is a far more fundamental, almost tectonic, change that is sweeping though the capital city of West Bengal. The transformation of a landscape, a return to the volatile days of the 70’s, based on a principle that has, unfortunately, been an integral part of our political heritage: violence.

It would be decidedly naive to detach arms from the man who casts India’s ballots, but there is a riveting nexus between the ubiquitous government bus and the fabled Kolkata bandh that is hard to ignore. Far more fascinating, though, is the intellectual ability of the city to accommodate such discord with an unreal sense of ease.

Last week, BJP activists stalked Kolkata with an authority that has no precedent for them. Not in recent memory has India’s saffron party stormed the red, and now greening, bastion with any intensity. That the Babu would not go to buy fish because men with lotus-emblazoned flags roamed the streets was close to unthinkable. But, last Monday, the Right took on the Left, and succeeded.

In July this year, the Congress, too, pulled off a similar coup. Mamata Banerjee watched from afar as her former party men struck at will, while Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee ruminated quietly at the elegant Writers’ Building. A volatile vacuum was created. It continues to fester.

It is from within this chasm created by the abdication of duty on part of the government and the Opposition, that a new regime of the political underling has emerged in Bengal. A space where political legitimacy is once again based on the disruption of public life. A system where political respect is gained out of the number of road-blocks enforced. Realpolitik, here, now consists school boys jostling for authority on a playground that is the state. The penchant for games on the Maidan is unmistakable.

But in these riots that have rattled the establishment, it is the decrepit and derided government bus that is the bell-weather of success. Not unless a few of these are set alight, preferably on Howarh Bridge, that icon of Bengali pride built by the British, is a lock down close to being complete. A suitable strategy though; a photograph of a contused automobile, framed under the steel rafters of amongst Asia’s busiest bridges, is definitely Frontpage material. The customary 300-word article is almost always an accompaniment, too.

“The CPM has done it before. So has the Trinamool. The Congress did it, too, you know. And now, we have done it. So the next time the BJP calls for a bandh, they’ll know we mean business. It’s not the first time buses have been burnt. But yes, attacking the IT Park was a bit too much,” a saffron party worker nonchalantly observed.

Indeed, intimidation now is the ideal route to indoctrination.

The bullet is stronger than the ballot. Lincoln, who said the opposite, was killed by the former.
 

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Jitters at Jhitka

November 24th, 2009

A strange sense of foreboding envelopes you as the car races into the forests of Jhikta, on the way to Lalgarh. After passing through seemingly peaceful villages interrupted by a smattering of paramilitary forces, the rising tree line of the notorious woods remind you of the terrain where the country’s most perilous insurgency survives and thrives.

Rows of verdantly gaunt Sal trees rise from above a thick undergrowth. The sonorous ring of the forests’ name and the half-hearted expectation to be accosted by the now-famous Lalgarh Naxals rattle relentlessly inside your head. As the cool November wind whips by, you peer into the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of a covered gunman or two. But the forest recedes as quickly as it begins.

In Lalgarh proper, though, the reality is obvious. The state is limping and despair is growing. The security forces are holed up in their yet-to-be-completed station on the outskirts of Lalgarh town. The liquor shop facing the police station declares the end of this little oasis, often visited by scribes. The rest seems almost inconsequential in its existence.

From there on, the long arm of the law might as well be severed. On the potholed road that leads to Kantapahari and then onto Goaltore, the isolation appears complete.

In the hamlets that line the road, life continues. But beyond the fields that follow the administrations’ lifeline from point-to-point, there is little knowing of which powers hold sway. There is an inkling, though.

Suspicious faces, which piercingly look through you, are abound. There is an obvious reluctance to hold conversation with outsiders and, if at all, that happens there is only that much you can glean from their disinclined minds. There are some questions you just do not ask; others go unanswered.

As the afternoon sun begins its descent, you trace your path out of the Naxal heartland. There is more confidence now; after entering, and working in, a district that much of Bengal’s capital city views with a certain exoticism. The news, one thinks, has been procured. All that remains is to distill and transcribe it.

Bypassing Lalgarh, the car speeds back towards Jhitka. Only this time, a two-file patrol of paramilitary troops line the forested road. The photographer reacts with a professional impatience to capture that stereotypical frame of a state at war. In a flash, the man descends on the road, camera in hand, to hold court with a uniformed soldier to help structure that perfect picture. There is a sense of occasion.

The adrenaline is infectious. Before you know it, you, too, are on the metalled surface. Standing; hand–at–waist; observing; sometimes supervising. Colourfully costumed locals go by on the bicycles, unperturbed by the gun-totting men. The car idles a few meters behind. You watch sedately and stare into the forest.

That is when it hits you. The foreboding reappears with stunning speed. The realisation of being witness to what is India’s widest ranging internal conflict returns with a numbing swiftness. Beyond the facade of placidity, a war is waging.

Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist.
 

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