Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi


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Partition at seventy: A family story

Growing up in Amritsar seven years after the Holocaust I grew up with the trauma of some of the worst scenes of massacre of the Partition tragedy.

Business Standard, August 12, 2017

In the entrance hall of Bikaner House, the capital’s new cultural hub, is placed a large map of India in outline. Next to it are reels of black string and scissors; visitors are invited to plot their family’s migration during  “Trace your family’s journey on the map,” reads the heading over a dense criss-crossing of strings to numerous cities from to Calicut, and Quetta to Chittagong, in the undivided sub-continent. You can also join the exercise online at www.1947partitionarchive.org by recording the privations and horror your parents or grandparents endured during that blood-spattered chapter of history. In a month-long memorialising of the at 70, a calendar of daily events includes films, talks, and seminars; elsewhere in the capital there is a spate of revivals, such as the late Sheila Bhatia’s Punjabi opera Chann Badlan Da, plays by the Chandigarh-based director Neelam Mansingh, and new accounts by Aanchal Malhotra and Barney White Spencer. Like the European Holocaust, the attempt is that memory should not suffer the erasure of a terrible time when sectarian violence left 2 million dead, 12 million displaced, thousands of women raped, towns and villages torched.

I am not a child of but grew up in close proximity to it. I was born and spent my early years in Amritsar, seven years after the event, where my family had a settled history of a century or more. Our extended family home was a rambling, red brick bungalow called “Sunbeam” off Mall Road in Civil Lines, where the family moved from the old city in the 1930s. In a happy if spartan childhood, I am old enough to remember a world of smelly thunder boxes and iceboxes, coal fires, boiler stoves, and table fans that let off puffs of smoke, steam, or cool air to fend off the city’s bitter winters and scorching summers. Where children are told soothing bedtime tales, our daily fare were stories of the bloodshed my family had witnessed, scenes, my father said, of the sewers turning red and the overpowering stench of corpses.

The strangest account was of my grandmother’s disappearance at the height of the killings. She was an unlettered but iron-willed matriarch, wrapped in widow’s weeds of white dupattas, who, with very little money, had brought up six able-bodied sons to find their way in the world. During those fateful months she refused to leave her crumbling home in the inner city because of its closeness to the Golden Temple, her place of daily worship. Now, with an outbreak of cholera, acute shortages of food, water and petrol, links between the old city and Civil Lines snapped. For five days her sons looked for her in vain; finally, summoning their youngest brother, an army lieutenant, they made it to the Golden Temple, a teeming mass of refugees. Leaning against a gilded pillar, they found her in the inner sanctum, serenely reciting the gurbani. But when they tried to lift her, my frail grandmother proved unaccountably heavy. She was seated, it turned out, on a wooden dowry chest filled with her gold ornaments. “Where did you think I would go?” she irritably asked. “I could only go to the Home of my Saviour.”

Talismans my brother and I possess of that summer are two small Afghan carpets with the traditional pattern of Islamic charbaghs. They are the parting gift of an Afghan merchant of our father’s acquaintance whom he hid in his office before finding him safe passage across the border. For years afterwards, they exchanged letters but never again met.

My wife’s families, on both sides, are from Lahore; although not bloody, their migration was grim. Later on, when they retired in Delhi, they only seemed mildly interested in my trips to Pakistan. They did not ask questions nor express a desire to revisit their childhood homes, schools, and colleges or the scenes of their courtship. They politely changed the subject.

It is human nature to excise our blackest experiences, to exercise what Salman Rushdie’s mother memorably called “forgettery”. Among the many stories recounted in Amritsar’s Museum, the painter Anjolie Ela Menon describes her family’s evacuation from Murree, where her father was an army surgeon. She was seven at the time but gives a graphic account of him “operating on wounded people left on the road”. Then she asks: “It strikes me as strange that very little art came out of those experiences. I think we don’t want to remember.”

For many like them, the past was another country.


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India’s insuperable bureaucracy

Despite vastly enhanced salaries and retirement benefits why do India’s government servants go on greedily demanding more?

Column in Business Standard, July 29, 2017

After if there is one class of public officials that looks after itself generously it is the For years the country’s elite services of the IAS, IFS, and complained that their salaries and perks were hardly commensurate with the levers of powers they controlled; and that in retirement they were relegated not only to lives of relative obscurity but also impecuniousness. It was one reason suggested for declining levels of probity and increase in influence-peddling and corruption among the “officer class”, including the defence services. Compared to their peers in the private sector or professional services like doctors, accountants, and engineers, they earned pitifully, never mind the passing glory of occupying bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi or state capitals with all the panoply of official cars and subordinate flunkeys.

 

Several memoirs of the period, for example, The Service of the State: The Reconsidered (Penguin, 2011) by the upstanding civil servant Bhaskar Ghose, give an accurate portrayal of challenges faced in the districts and the Centre. He doesn’t much remember entertaining even a close group of friends simply because there wasn’t cash to spare on anything more than a few bottles of beer. Then came the 7th Pay Commission with a substantial jump in salaries and pensions — and you would think the carping might stop. But no. Although the Commission was wound up a couple of years ago, this week central government employees accused the Finance Minister of “cheating” them. Why wasn’t their minimum pay hiked beyond Rs 18,000 a day as promised?

 

Like Mrs Gummidge, the chronic complainer in David Copperfield, everything is much worse for this class of Indians than for any other. This week, too, one Col. Mukul Dev served a legal notice on the defence secretary for replacing free rations to officers in non-conflict areas with an allowance of Rs 96 a day. An army officer of my acquaintance wholeheartedly agrees. “Daily withdrawal of free rations could feed a family of two or three,” he rues. “But what will Rs 96 buy you these days?”

 

Cast a colder eye on what civil servants earn by way of enhanced pay scales and retirement benefits and the picture is actually quite rosy. At the top of the pecking order a secretary-level officer (or an equivalent director-general of police) receives a salary of Rs 2.5 lakh a month; at the bottom of the step-ladder the starting pay is Rs 56,000. Pensions are half of the last-drawn salary so the hallowed brethren get about Rs 1 lakh a month after turning 60 plus full health cover at most hospitals. Some of my widowed aunts, wives of long-deceased soldiers and officials, are quietly smiling after years of scrimping and saving.

 

Despite every government’s commitment to cost-cutting and reducing staff strength, the administrative machine’s expansionist notions greedily demand more. Jitendra Singh, current minister of personnel and pensions, stated in the Lok Sabha recently that in the last four years the annual intake of officers has increased to 180, of to 110 and to 150. Yet he expressed “serious concern…[over] the persistent shortage” of authorised numbers in the three services — 1,400 in the IAS, 560 in the IFS, and 900 in the (against their present strength of 4,926 IAS, 2,597 IFS, and 908 serving officers).

 

Expectedly, the highest number of vacancies are in the Hindi heartland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the race to join the powerful “afsar” class ensures lifetime security apart from vastly improved marriage prospects. Increased numbers of women in government employment have altered the matrimonial equation, however. There’s a higher “bride price” for such women looking for suitable boys. As one prospective father-of-the-bride said, “My daughter will bring “kirayamaaf” (rent-free) accommodation for life.”

 

Heavily subsidied grace-and-favour housing is one of the biggest perks of sarkari life. In Delhi, with its hordes of central and state government officials, most neighbourhoods are mixed, punctuated with large swathes of dwellings to house the babudom’s innumerable layers. Many of these are now undergoing the most dramatic and visibly ostentatious makeover by the government’s richest redevelopment agency, National Buildings & Construction Corporation. Gigantic fluorescent screens are transforming huge government colonies such as Nauroji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, and Netaji Nagar into lavish commercial high rises and new government housing. The NBCC, a listed company with revenues of Rs 600 crore, recently sold a 10-floor tower (the first of 12) in Nauroji Nagar for a record Rs 1,100 crore, higher than Connaught Place prices. Part of the proceeds, says the NBCC’s chairman, will double the existing government housing units from 12,970 to 25,667 at a cost of Rs 32,835 crore. Private real estate developers can only dream of such unattainable prices and locations.

 

In his magisterial, as yet unmatched, history of the origins of India’s Philip Mason rightly called it the “heaven-born” service. In our time, its grasp and growth is yet more self-perpetuating, privileged, and insuperable.

 


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The politics of grievance

From a riot by domestic servants against employers to caste as a shield for corruption “grievance politics” are take on new avatars.  

Business Standard, July 15, 2017

A small and ugly broke out in the capital’s satellite city of Noida this week. A 26-year-old Muslim maid went missing from an apartment in a prosperous housing society. When she did not return home to the nearby slum at night, a large crowd gathered and began stoning the building; its residents were expectedly terrified. The dispute turned to be a nasty but not uncommon maalik-naukar (master-servant) row. The maid’s employers said she had stolen money and had footage to prove it; she accused them of unpaid wages and ill-treatment. Meanwhile, conditions in the servants’ settlement, as in many urban slums, were described as appaling — a mass huddled in an insanitary, garbage-choked warren, living under tin roofs in the full pelt of the monsoon. But an uglier subtext to the violence soon erupted. Although the slum settlers are migrants from Cooch Behar their settlement is known as “Bangladeshi colony”. A series of provocative WhatsApp forwards and statements by residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) on the “terror of in Noida” aggravated tensions. Example: “I would advise that all RWAs ban entry of Bangladeshi workers with immediate effect…they are encashing our need…and thinking it our weakness…[and] will all come down on their knees (sic).” In short, a class antagonism of rich versus poor took the colouring of a communal confrontation.

 

Enmities of class, caste and creed have flared up in bigger, more virulent ways, from beef bans and lynchings of Muslims and Dalits to love jihads, but increasingly, the real and imagined politics of grievance finds expression in unexpected situations. I got talking to a well-informed and articulate professional at a social occasion recently – of the sort that right wing trolls label a “libtard” – and on being asked what she did, with good-humoured irony, she replied, “I’m a professional anti-nationalist you could say. I teach at Jawaharlal Nehru University.”

 

Many a good professor is troubled, most notably Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, a documentary on whom has been held up by the censor board until the words “cow”, “Gujarat”, “Hindutva view of India”, etc. are deleted. The censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani has done worse, from making B-grade films to doting music videos on Narendra Modi; evidently his Hindutva identikit of gau rakshak disallows anyone else from using the words. The aggrieved documentary-maker plans to challenge the decision, adding to the quagmire clogging the courts.

 

The bitter twist of caste identities and grievance politics are best exemplified by the champion of social justice, Lalu Prasad, and his corrupt progeny, a “Cricket XI” that beat the cricket control board for nefarious wheeling-dealing. Cornered in a gigantic property scam of ill-begotten farm houses and real estate in Delhi and Patna, Bihar’s deputy chief minister and former cricketer Tejashwi says he will go to the “people’s court” to seek legitimacy. Like other icons of deprived classes such as Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, Bihar’s first family today stands for, in Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s withering phrase, “the Robert Vadra model of development”.

 

Their aspirations are of princely proportion, their identities defined by social markers of untold wealth. Ms Mayawati may strut around in diamonds to unleash a building mania for pleasure parks in B R Ambedkar’s name to rival the Bourbon queens but her political rivals in Uttar Pradesh are driven by a craze for foreign cars. While Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh Yadav profess a preference for latest bullet-proof Mercedes models, younger son Prateek proudly posts images of his sky blue Rs 5-crore Lamborghini. This flagrant exhibition of rapacity contributed to their defeat in the state election in the spring.

 

The noose of financial malfeasance is also tightening round Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif, as investigations into his family’s huge hoard of hidden overseas assets are spotlighted. Here is columnist F S Aijazuddin’s writing in Dawn this week: “One has only to turn the leaves of Pakistan’s ledgers kept since 1947 to see how almost every ruler – whether elected, nominated or self-appointed – has in time blurred the distinction between state ownership and private possession…The situation now is so chronic that…should Pakistan be headed by an honest leader, determined to cleanse the country of corruption, he would be hounded out of office soon enough for incompetence or unforgivable negligence.” Like Mr Tejashwi, Mr Sharif is also mulling the idea of approaching the “people’s court”. A general election is due next year but will he call a snap poll to test his mandate?

 

As Mr Aijazuddin cynically remarks, “Pakistani politicians could never become Roman Catholic priests. They refuse to take a vow of poverty.” That fate, as in India, is reserved for the so-called Bangladeshi slum dwellers of Noida who took to stoning the apartments of their well-to-do employers. The real injury of the aggrieved is not the same as the grievance politics of those in power.


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The complicity in murder

The gathering at Jantar Mantar signals that the saffron tint of hate crimes against Muslims are swiftly becoming a taint.

Business Standard, June 30, 2017

Exactly as predicted by the weather office, the monsoon hit the capital on Wednesday afternoon. What was entirely unexpected was the crowd that descended on to join the “Not In My Name” protests in response to posts by documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan. As the clouds opportunely rolled back for a while people kept pouring in, my phone buzzed with social media alerts and messages from colleagues, friends, and neighbours on their way.

The gathering was neither politically orchestrated nor propelled by fury. The numbers were not as many as the city saw during Anna Hazare’s or the but even a few thousand was large for spontaneous word-of-mouth outreach. There were some well-known lawyers, activists, and performers on stage but not, as some cynically suggested, more journalists present than protestors. I encountered people of all age groups and backgrounds. Arogyan Kumar, a middle-aged office worker, came by Metro from Gurgaon, “kyonki daftar mein do din se is meeting ki charcha hai” (there has been much talk about this meeting in my office for two days). Mohd. Vakil, a college student, confidently sporting his skull cap, came all the way from Modinagar with classmates. “Sirf Junaid ki yaadmein,” he said simply (we’re only here in Junaid’s memory).

Unlike Mohd. Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri or Pehlu Khan’s in Alwar on false allegations of storing beef or trading cattle for slaughter, the 16-year-old Junaid Khan was brutally stabbed in full public view, in front of his siblings on a train, for no other reason than he went shopping for Eid. That the cold-blooded murder took place on the outskirts of Delhi was made more horrifying by the complicity of two Delhi government officials who egged on his killer.

Ms Dewan, who organised the meeting, is not a street agitator, she says. “Yet the tipping point came with the lynching of Junaid…[he] was just a child….and got killed by a mob near Delhi, my city. You become complicit in this violence by keeping quiet. I didn’t want to be complicit in this. We can’t wait for an eternity to protest.”

As the “Not In My Name” call spread to other cities via the simple and speedy tool of social media, devices that the prime minister and his government relentlessly use for puff jobs and self-promotion, their complicity in the humiliation, intimidation and targeted killing of Muslims gets darker by the day.

It has been the gloomiest Eid in memory. In official circles the festival is marked by a series of iftaar dinners, with political leaders competing to outdo one another by hosting lavish feasts to break the day’s fast. Far from doing so, not a single member of the Union cabinet attended the President’s iftaar. In Lucknow, the saffron-robed Muslim-baiting Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath broke from precedent and followed his leader Narendra Modi by failing to host one; he also pointedly skipped the governor’s iftaar. “He should have been courteous to attend it. It has been a longstanding tradition,” the imam of Lucknow’s idgah remarked. In the city that epitomises an embedded syncretic culture of Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb, the omission was a deliberate insult.

A repudiation of the most important Muslim festival is one thing but the terrifying roster of hate crimes against Muslims another — their numbers have soared since Mr Modi came to power and growing in BJP-ruled states. In a recent piece on the shape of India’s political landscape to come, the historian Ramachandra Guha says that though the BJP juggernaut may be unstoppable, “it has not been able to suppress either reasoned debate or independent documentation and analysis … In society at large, tens of millions of Indians remain committed to an idea of constitutional patriotism that is steadfastly opposed to Hindutva. These Indians do not want their country to become a Hindu Pakistan. They do not want to be told what to eat, how to dress, whom to love and whom to vilify. Seventy years of independence and of life under the Constitution have led to the inculcation of mores and habits that run against the grain of authoritarianism and majoritarianism”.

The crowds collecting in cities this week in stunned sympathy for an innocent teenager’s killing could snowball; a trickle could become a flood that the BJP’s masterful managers might find hard to contain.

Mindful of this Mr Modi took to invoking the Mahatma, spinning the charkha at Sabarmati ashram and denouncing cow protectors that Mr Guha calls “gau gundas”.

But before the country’s saffron-tinted map becomes a taint, Mr Modi has to demonstrably prove that he means what he says, and that his cohorts in New Delhi and party faithful in the states are not complicit in foul murders.


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Indira Gandhi’s centenary: Two views

As a demoralised Congress Party prepares for Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary on November 19 two new books on Mrs Gandhi offer an reappraisal of her life. 

Business Standard, June 16, 2017

It’s an inescapable irony that in the year the gears up to celebrate Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, the fortunes of the family firm she properly founded are at a particularly low ebb, reduced to a woeful presence in Parliament and bruised by a succession of election defeats. What would the country’s second-longest serving prime minister (after her father), of whom it was said that she fought best when her back was to the wall, make of her heirs, who exhibit neither strategy nor stomach for getting ahead?

 

Reviled and revered, deified and demonised, the Indira mythology has consistently grown since her assassination in 1984.

 

Her memorial at 1 Safdarjung Road draws crowds greater than Rajghat; and a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that she was the most recognised Indian after the Mahatma, ahead of Jawaharlal Nehru. It has even been suggested that top BJP leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, however grudgingly, harbour admiration for her controlling streak and steely resilience. She remains every ambitious power seeker’s copybook PM.

 

Two new chronicles turn the spotlight back on the paramount “Mrs G” — Journalist and broadcaster Sagarika Ghose’s Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister (Juggernaut; Rs 699; out on July 7) and Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh (Simon & Schuster; Rs 799). Ms Ghose’s is the greater labour; in eight trenchant chapters, with the kind of incisive, often coruscating, commentary that marks her journalism, she trawls through a large corpus of Indira biographies, memoirs, official papers, media records, and personal interviews (including with Priyanka Gandhi) to update the leader’s life and afterlife for contemporary readers.

 

The publisher’s hype (“Insecure Daughter. Betrayed Wife. National Heroine. Tough Dictator”) may be overheated but this is neither hagiography nor a muckraker’s account of “India’s original high command leader”. A sense of uncanny déjà vu is amplified in her analysis of “the hankering for power, the near-conviction that she alone knew what was best for India, coupled with a deep insecurity about her own future…[It] meant that ended up undermining and destroying the very institutions that her father had so painstakingly nurtured”.

 

Ms Ghose effectively builds a portrait of a complex, conflicted personality through shades of contrast. “When she came into a room it was as if she was surrounded by electricity, bijli,” says Natwar Singh. Jacqueline Kennedy describes her as a “real prune — bitter, kind of pushy horrible woman … it always looks like she’s been sucking a lemon”. And here’s Mark Tully: “I don’t see her as an iron lady. I see her as an indecisive woman who kept dilly-dallying … each of her periods in power thus ended in disaster … If she had realised her own power she could have risen to the level of a great stateswoman. But she didn’t realise her power to do good. She only realised her power to stay in power.”

 

The biographer employs an unusual form as framework for her study, each chapter prefaced by a personal letter questioning Indira’s decisions and traits, a series of “What if…” scenarios. Perhaps the idea was to create a Brechtian or sutradhaar-type distancing device, to engage and provoke readers new to Indira’s life. I often found them distracting from the strong, core narrative.

 

Jairam Ramesh — MP, former environment minister, and speech-writer for the Gandhis — explores an aspect of Indira, supported by rare archival photographs, of her deep and abiding affinity to nature. The love of trees, birds, stones, and mountains was a personal solace in a friendless childhood, an education interrupted by constant uprooting and spells in jail; essentially an introvert, her retreat to the hills was an escape from the rigours of office. Many of the books she collected or her personal correspondence brim with details of fauna and flora; an ardent bird-watcher she treasured friendships with ornithologists such as Salim Ali, Dillon Ripley, and Malcolm MacDonald. Her father and she turned the gardens of Teen Murti House into a menagerie that included a baby crocodile. “It bit everybody except me,” said her son Sanjay. “But when it bit Mother, it had to go.”

 

Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1966, she created the Indian Forest Service; in 1973 she launched Project Tiger and closely monitored its progress, introducing further legislation for the creation of national parks and preservation of other species.

 

As the country hurtles towards an environmental crisis — and the world is convulsed by the climate change debate — Mr Ramesh leaves no stone unturned to place Indira’s life as a naturalist and standard bearer abroad, for example, in her seminal 1972 speech at the UN human environment conference in Stockholm. His copious research is also an attempt to unravel the inner life of an enigmatic and problematic figure of political history.

 

Indira-fan or Indira-phobe, these two views are a timely diversion from the summer heat and the progress of the monsoon.


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Delhi’s unaccountable ‘Raja Kejriwal’

As Aam Aadmi Party chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s troubles mount he is not only out of touch with the city’s woes but also with his wayward flock.

Column in Business standard, May 20, 2017

After more than 40 years of living in the same house in a south Delhi neighbourhood, I recently moved to a temporary flat a few blocks away. Close by the old house stands a magnificent 16th century Lodi dynasty mosque, badly neglected by the Archaeological Survey; next to it a large municipal school. Both are plagued by a humongous garbage dump that also services the colony next door where, ironically, reside some of the country’s most influential legal luminaries. Years of protests have failed in regular clearance of mountains of refuse where cows and other strays forage freely. It is a fearful health hazard for hundreds of schoolchildren who cross it daily. The garbage dump near my new home is smaller but ruled by street dogs so vicious that they hunt and howl like packs of wolves all night. They put the fear of God in thieves and homeowners alike.

 

This bleak dystopian scenario in garbage disposal and waste management is visible throughout the city; come the monsoon, epidemics of dengue, malaria and fevers will stretch hospitals and mohalla clinics beyond breaking point.

 

Researchers like Bhanu Joshi and Eesha Kunduri of the Centre for Policy Research who conducted recent fieldwork in the working-class resettlement colony of Mongolpuri in northwest Delhi report accumulation of filth as a major governance failure. gandagi to dekh hi rahen hain, (You can see the filth everywhere) said respondents, now aspiring to middle class standards, to Ms Kunduri’s questionnaire.

 

The BJP has been entrenched in Delhi’s three municipalities for a decade, and in last month’s municipal election, the Aam Aadmi Party was thrashed, with the BJP sweeping 181 of the 272 seats for a third term. (was down to 48.)

 

Unlike its triumph in the Assembly election two years ago, there was hardly a broom in sight during the campaign; AAP’s “Jharoo King” received desultory attention from voters. Chronic civic ills like garbage disposal, and cash-strapped services like hospitals, are managed by the municipal corporations. In addition to the capital’s multiplicity of power centres, the BJP-political logjam at the top means that “Swachh Bharat” will leave India’s capital untouched.

 

The BJP’s recent success can be ascribed to one main reason: Arvind Kejriwal’s incredible loss of image and collateral downgrade of AAP’s reputation. In addition to Narendra Modi’s rise as a pan-Indian leader, the BJP fielded new faces in virtually all constituencies.

 

AAP, on the other hand, has consistently lost its moral compass and moorings. Many of its ragtag tribe have been exposed as a bunch of cheats, crooks, wife-beaters and wheeler-dealers. Since 2015 more than a dozen of its 67 MLAs and ministers have faced dismissals, arrests and jail terms. Former law ministers Jitendra Singh Tomar (fake educational degree) and Somnath Bharti (domestic violence and setting his dog called Don to bite his pregnant wife) have served terms in Tihar; MLAs like Amanatullah Khan, Dinesh Mohaniya and Prakash Jarwal were arrested on charges of molestation and sexual harassment; others have been accused of land grab, assault, abetting suicide, desecrating the Quran, inflaming caste rivalries, among other allegations.

 

The scandal currently convulsing the party concerns Kapil Mishra (former water minister just as the city is gripped by acute water scarcity) accusing the chief minister of taking a cash bribe of Rs 2 crore, money laundering, fixing land deals for his late brother-in-law and taking cuts on amenities like water tankers and retiling of footbridges. Mr Mishra may be slyly put up by political rivals but the irony is inescapable: The crusader who made his name and fame as purging national politics of corruption is now taking a direct hit. How does that make different from any other party?

 

In one respect Delhi is a capital unlike others. Many of its past rulers have been long-term residents of the city with an acute awareness of its complex structures of ownership and administration, and a finger on the pulse of competing interests and a restive population. From Indira Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, key appointments, of lieutenant-governor and top administrators, were in the prime minister’s gift. Mrs Gandhi (and later Rajiv and Sonia) attended art exhibitions and LK Advani could be spotted browsing in bookshops. Even an outsider-turned-insider like PV Narasimha Rao had a wide range of non-political acquaintance and interests. Files pertaining to tree-cutting on the Ridge or cultural appointments went up to the PMO or home ministry. Mayors were (and remain) powerless figureheads but corporators were manageable. Grace-and-favour offerings, including the thankfully abolished habit of subsidised government housing to media favourites, were commonplace.

 

In short, many of these figures behaved like benevolent monarchs with the common touch. and don’t have old or deep roots in Delhi. Most unaccountable of all is “Raja” Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi’s prophet, who’s out of touch with both the city and his own flock.

 


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Kishori Amonkar: A tempestuous diva

Before a great music patron like Sumitra Charat Ram I saw Kishori Amonkar turn from a ferocious feline to a docile kitten

Business Standard, April 8, 2017 

“Sit up,” she shouted into the mike, her voice a shrill rasp. A front-row member of the audience was lolling on a bolster. Looking up while tuning her instrument she went for him again. “Sit up!… I said SIT UP!… Did you not hear me!”


The evening screeched to a standstill before it started. It was a first up close view of Kishori Amonkar, the tempestuous diva of Hindustani classical music, who quietly passed away in her sleep, at 84, this week a few days after her last concert.


The occasion was an ill-starred performance at an odd venue in the early 1980s — the Taj Mansingh in Delhi trying to connect culturally with a traditional baithak in an opulent chandeliered hall. The photographer Raghu Rai, also present, recollects this week her sharp reprimand when he made the cardinal mistake of lighting a cigarette. Among her legions of fans, he later captured her gaunt features and something of her obsessive performing style vividly in black and white images.


My encounters with her were the result of a friendship with Delhi’s greatest patrons of the performing arts, the Shriram family. From a young age, my brother and I were taken to the Shriram Shankarlal Festival each spring, then held on the open grounds of Modern School on Barakhamba Road. This was a sort of late-night mela with hundreds streaming in and out before a vast stage on which the musicians came and went. Often carried home in the early hours, our joy was when our mother announced, “All right, no school tomorrow.” The (not the holiday) was among their many gifts.


The 70th edition of this annual festival, now held at its permanent home, the Kamani auditorium, and featuring such greats as Girija Devi and Rashid Khan this year, has just ended. It is the bequest of the late Sumitra Charat Ram who put her husband’s fortune to good use by gathering the great and the good among India’s legendary performers. Her legacy, glowingly enhanced by her daughter Shobha Deepak Singh, is unique: Neither ticketed nor sponsored, the festival, as she points out, is sustained by avid followers.


On the numerous occasions I sought an interview with the irascible, mercurial I was dismissed. On one occasion she was downright rude.


In 2000 she was the festival’s star performer. On behalf of NDTV I importuned Ms Deepak Singh to help. She was understandably non-committal but added, “Mummy is giving a lunch for Kishoriji. Come if you like and we’ll see if we can persuade her.”


Sumitra Charat Ram’s was a remarkably benevolent and calming presence. In her simple cotton sari, large bindi and mangalsutra she presented a picture of the vanishing courtesy and grace of Uttar Pradesh — made more disarming against a backdrop of museum-quality treasures that filled her grand home. (For an unusually frank appraisal of Sumitraji’s life, read her son Siddharth Shriram’s birth centenary tribute to her in Business Standard, November 15, 2015).


Utterly humble before her, turned from ferocious feline to docile kitten.


She promptly agreed to the recording; in the candid interview she spoke movingly about her life and art. She recalled the hardships her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, faced as a young widow. “She had to travel to concerts in third class compartments. I would often go to sleep in her lap as her accompanist. We lived in a one-room chawl. She needed every penny to educate me and my siblings.” She dwelt on how she sought to create “an architecture of sound” by exploring the colour of each note. “For me the audience also becomes the raga.” Later, off the record, she was unsparing about playback singing, and her rejection of film after singing for Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne, a 1964 potboiler by V Shantaram.


Of the ameliorative power of her my best recent example is of two young women — my daughter and her close childhood friend — going through a taxing time in foreign capitals. It was a time of tedious struggle; when verbal succour failed, I sent them a link to a composition by Kishori Amonkar, a profound solace to me in times of sadness or stress.


This is a 48-minute-long khayal in the Raga Hamsadhawani, an invocation to the Remover of Obstacles, whose fame is so universal that when Barack Obama, after his India visit, was asked what he brought home, he delved into his pocket and produced a little Ganesh. The piece is largely devoid of the soaring taans and shrutis (virtuoso and micro-notes) that are hallmarks of her style. In an unruffled contemplation of Ganapati’s playfulness and prescience she draws eternal truths. Namita Devidayal, author of the bestselling musical memoir The Room (Random House; 2007) concurs that it is possibly one of her most inspiring pieces.


Kishori Amonkar’s greatness was that, from her troubled life and temperament, she produced of transcendental healing.


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The Romeos of Hazratgunj: An elegy

Yogi Adityanath’s orthodoxies threaten a highly evolved culture in UP

Column in Business Standard, March 25, 2017 

“The pursuit of happiness…in of the 1950s meant pursuing girls…The theatre of operations revolved around Hazratganj…They would arrive in cars and rickshaws wearing tight, extremely tight, salwars and kurtas…Glances were exchanged, remarks were passed, optimistic conclusions were reached…”
—Vinod Mehta, Boy, 2011

For generations a favoured sport in the city of is “Gunging”. This has nothing whatever to do with the OED meaning of clogging or encrusting with “sticky, congealed matter”; it refers to loitering with intent in the cafes and cinemas of Hazratgunj, the city’s ever-popular thoroughfare. The cool dudes of lay in wait for the passing beauties and bluestockings of Isabella Thoburn College. In Mr Mehta’s time the swains included the late politician from Padrauna, C P N Singh, father of the former Congress minister R P N Singh, and the well-known journalist — “Saeed…in his black shirt and tight black trousers…compiled sexy English poetry about the girls of and pasted it all over Hazratganj.”

In Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh such wayward Romeos would all be in the lock-up. The setting up of “anti-Romeo” squads at police stations all over the state is only the start of an enforced new morality that will cover what people can eat, how they dress or how they behave in the streets. The Muslim-baiting chief minister’s views on women and male-female relationships are well-known: He rails against “Western feminism” — whatever that is — because it “hampers the creation and stability of the home and family”. And if men “acquire women-like qualities they become gods but when women acquire men-like qualities they become ‘rakshasa’ or demon-like.”

In provincial towns such as Meerut there is already a backlash against police patrols to round up any suspected Romeos outside colleges or paan stalls; but in the IG has ordered a squad in each of the state capital’s 11 zones. If this is an attempt to maintain public peace it could also be a flimsy excuse at settling scores. First targets: Any Muslim youth seen within yards of a Hindu girl.

Uttar Pradesh has a highly politicised police force, often seen as incompetent and corrupt. In Mayawati’s heyday thousands of officers were transferred overnight; five years of Samajwadi Party rule, and in its earlier phase of power in 2003-2007, a gradual Yadavisation took place. This was the cause of goonda raj, a blatantly partisan law and order machinery, the BJP campaigned against. The political weather vane has now swung again, and the UP police are adept hands at pleasing their new masters.

While the ill-fated Romeos of await corporal and other punishments, the saffron leader’s food rules are more punitive. Slaughterhouses are being shut down, illegal or not, the saddest casualty being the century-old shop of Tunday’s succulent kebabs, in Lucknow’s old Chowk area and other outlets. For many no visit to the city is complete without a taste of its refined Awadhi cuisine, its galautiskakoris, biryanis and kormas. This pinnacle of culinary excellence is under threat. Tunday’s blighted shop owner has run out of buffalo meat and is offering chicken as a poor substitute. Thousands of others will be put out of livelihoods in UP’s celebrated food industry.

This first wave of cultural intimidation will take a serious toll of a highly sophisticated, syncretic, intellectually stimulating and idiosyncratic culture. Memoirist after memoirist, from the writer Ira Pande, daughter of the great Hindi novelist Shivani, to the historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg, have recorded it vividly.

In an obituary of Hazratgunj’s famous bookseller Ram Advani, who died last year, Ms Pande records uniquely Lakhnavi terms for local landmarks — the Zoo is called Bandriya Bagh, the Museum known as Murda Ajayabghar and Loreto Convent Bhaktin Iskool. For a more delightful and rewarding compendium there is nothing to beat Prof Talwar Olderburg’s Sham-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow (Penguin; Rs 395) that takes in the times of Wajid Ali Shah, the lives of its courtesans, accounts of the 1857 revolt and the many strands of a mannered culture that form the crucible of Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb.

This rich tapestry has given Indian cinema some of its richest dividends. Will Mr Adityanath also ban blockbusters such as Chaudhvin Ka ChandPakeezah and Umrao Jaan for portrayals of pulsating romance and promiscuity? Or ordain as subversive dramatic fictions spun from history and literature such as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Shyam Benegal’s Junoon?

The ill-starred putsch against the Romeos of is like sucking the Gomti river dry — it’s now just an arid trickle. Perhaps it’s time to compose a new kind of marsiya, an elegy traditionally sung by the Shias of Uttar Pradesh, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain that and his family movingly rendered in “Expressions of Muharram” described in this column on October 24, 2015.


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UP’s shifting jigsaw

Were it a separate country, UP would be the sixth most populated in the world

Business Standard, February 25, 2017

As the juggernaut of the seven-part election rolls on to a close on March 8, all eyes are on Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state of more than 200 million. Were it a separate country, UP would be the sixth most populated in the world. The way the vote swings in the Hindi heartland will not only be a verdict on some of the titans of Indian politics —Prime Minister Narendra Modi, supremo Mayawati and the relatively young duo of and — but also have a decisive bearing on who rules India in 2019. Despite its intricate tapestry of region, religion, caste and linguistic dialects UP handed out decisive verdicts in the last two elections — in favour of the Samajwadi Party dominated by the Yadav family clan in 2012 and a clean sweep for the Narendra Modi-led wave in 2014.

 

This time looks different because no one is taking firm bets. In sharp contrast to Punjab where there is unanimous agreement that the Shiromani Akali Dal-are certified losers, the uncertainty of the UP verdict has cast a pall on the predictions of professional pollsters, squadrons of out-in-the-field reporters and every jack-in-the-box pundit from street side vendors to yogis, gangsters, cheerleaders and thousands of contestants for 403 seats. Many polls that gave a clear lead in January, for instance the India Today-Axis poll of 171-184 seats against 97-104 for the SP-alliance, in February show the alliance closing the gap with 168-178 seats against the BJP’s 180-191. Two-thirds of the way through it seems a neck-and-neck race, with Mayawati lagging a distant third.

 

Does this mean a youth dividend for UP ke ladke and that can override the complex, shifting permutation of caste and regional configurations? Over 40 per cent of the populace is under 30 years, a huge demographic segment hungry for education and employment. Moreover the 43-year-old has completed a full term as chief minister, fought and won a bruising battle with a bunch of corrupt volatile family elders, shown an earnest commitment to development, however imperfect, and adroitly negotiated a partnership with Rahul Gandhi, who is just three years older. Can this youthful gathbandhanmatch the JDU-RJD-mahagathbandthan that vanquished the in Bihar in 2015?

 

That the two are scions of troubled political dynasties is no longer an issue; the BJP’s long-professed antipathy to dynastic succession has been cast to the winds, several candidates in the fray being relatives of political leaders starting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj.

 

Hidebound UP watchers will argue that a progressive youthful outlook, untainted by corrupt practice, together with development projects, don’t add up to all that much; and that ultimately candidates who successfully pander to affiliations of creed and community in every constituency will prevail. These are the fixers, as former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan once illuminatingly analysed in a public lecture, who grease the levers of the political system at the ground level.

 

Narendra Modi’s right hand man, President Amit Shah, has been burning midnight oil for two years in preparation to put this system into practice for the UP debacle. Tellingly, the has not fielded a single Muslim candidate in a state with a 20 per cent Muslim population. Its strategy rests on stitching together a pan-Hindu coalition of upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, amongst others. So why is the party betraying signs of anxiety as the voting machines lumber slowly from west to east across the spread of the Gangetic plain?

 

For several good reasons. It has been unable to find a face for the chief minister’s post (having burnt its fingers from the disastrous consequence of putting up Kiran Bedi in Delhi two years ago). Mr Modi alone is the BJP’s star campaigner and practised orator; there is no second in command in sight. Despite his seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy, can he whip up sufficient national appeal — and Hindu nationalist sentiment — to bring home the prize?

 

In many pockets, the after-effects of demonetisation still linger. Core supporters from the powerful Jat sugarcane farmers of western UP and many urban traders have grievously suffered and could extract revenge. There has also been bitter infighting over the distribution of seats and Mr Shah’s perceived highhandedness.

 

Whichever way the pieces fall on March 11, the shift in UP is the biggest test for the BJP’s future. If it loses the state even by a few seats, Mr Modi’s chair in New Delhi will be shaken. And if it wins, his position will crystallise invincibly.

 

 


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A tale of tattered posters

Sasikala’s rise to the top heralds a new kind of ideology-free transactional politics

Business Standard, February 11, 2017

Last May, not long before she disappeared from the public view, fought her last election as sitting MLA from R K Nagar in north  She didn’t campaign but swept in unopposed. R K Nagar is a proletarian, lower middle area but why is this nondescript neighbourhood so important?

Because it is the only vacant MLA seat in Tamil Nadu’s 234-seat legislature. Can V K Sasikala, pretender to Amma’s throne, fill that seat?

The plain answer is “No”. The R K Nagar by-election is imminent but Ms Sasikala is so deeply detested in that she knows she will be thrashed. Each time her posters come up in the city they are ripped apart. The tale of tattered posters, in a nutshell, encapsulates the political crisis in Tamil Nadu, a succession battle so gripping that it has put every other story, including the ongoing state elections, in the shade.

Ms Sasikala’s bid to become chief minister is a case of political inheritance so odd as to be almost without precedent. She is neither a dynastic nor a designated successor; she has never fought an election; she’s played no official role in party affairs till her sudden elevation as chief after Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5. Her sole claim to political power is that she allegedly holds the keys to Amma’s vast treasure chest, a fortune she helped amass over the years. This may buy her most of AIADMK’s 135 MLAs but it wins her no popular support. If she was to legitimise her position, she would have to find a some safe Thevar-dominated constituency. Andipatti near Madurai is being mentioned as one such option.

How a 60-year-old former video parlour owner from Cuddalore emerged from the inner recesses of Poes Garden to stake her claim as chief minister is a saga stranger than any fiction.

Ms Sasikala has conveniently dropped her husband M Natarajan’s name, though, as befitting a respectable “Chinamma” (which translates as mausi or mother’s younger sister) she still sports a diamond-studded thali or mangal sutra. But it is to Mr Natarajan that she originally owes her ascent to power.

In the early 1980s, employed as a government PR, he requested his boss, Chandralekha, the district collector in South Arcot, to introduce his wife to Jayalalithaa, then a rising political star. Ms Natarajan (as she was then known) ran a small videography shop, hiring camera crews to film weddings and other functions. Ms Sasikala made a flattering video on Jayalalithaa’s appointment as propaganda secretary, following up with another glowing portrait when she entered Parliament as a Rajya Sabha member.

From those modest professional encounters began a friendship between the two women, a relationship so close that in time Ms Sasikala came to run not merely Jayalalithaa’s house but oversee her business affairs. (Chandralekha’s introductory favour was not returned – the IAS officer-turned-politician was the victim of an acid attack in 1992.) There is an unusual photograph on the internet that sums up Jayalalithaa and Ms Sasikala’s mutual well-being and wealth – the two women are dressed as brides, draped in matching rich red-and-gold saris, and covered head to toe in gold ornaments.

There have been only a couple of nasty blips in this long-standing association: In 2011, Ms Sasikala and her relatives, who formed a cordon sanitaire around the chief minister, were expelled from the party and Ms Sasikala evicted from the house. The reason for this expulsion hardly stretch the imagination. Among those disowned was V N Sudhakaran, Jayalalithaa’s “foster son” (in fact Ms Sasikala’s nephew), whose fabulously expensive wedding hosted by the two women had some years ago brought to a standstill. Swiftly distancing herself from her kin, Ms Sasikala, however, was back in favour within months and safely home.

Among her first actions after the chief minister’s demise was to conduct a purge of officials such as Sheela Balakrishnan, Santha Sheela Nair and

K N Venkataramanan, considered close to Jayalalithaa. From there to ordering party MLAs to pledge allegiance to her promotion as chief minister was but a short step.

O Panneerselvam’s challenge, after his deep communion with Jayalalithaa’s departed spirit at her Marina Beach memorial, must have come as rude surprise. Like her, he belongs to the Thevar community and could rob some of her political base. But unless the Supreme Court puts her back in jail for her ill-begotten riches, Ms Sasikala’s rise to the top heralds a new kind of ideology-free transactional politics. It shows the way to other political heirs: All that matters is financial muscle and enough rented hotel rooms to lock up your MLAs in. Public support is as dispensable as torn posters blowing in the wind.