Sunday, December 31, 2017

A true Badshah of the people, after all

I have just finished reading a biography of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan by Rajmohan Gandhi. I started by wanting to share some snippets from the first chapter but as I read, I found that I wanted to share almost every page of the book. This is not possible (for copyright reasons). So I'm putting down a little that I've learnt about the man known as the 'Frontier Gandhi'.

As a schoolgirl, I didn't properly understand what the 'Frontier' was and its significance in the geo-politics of the Indian Subcontinent. Reading this book, I realise that we've forgotten just how hard won our freedom and our democracy is. 

All we know about the freedom struggle is the names of some leaders and patterns of political behaviour created in the 1930s and 40s. We are also told very little about the 'struggle' meant for those who do the struggling. 

MK Gandhi and leaders like Nehru, Patel, Ghaffar Khan went to jail. But what does it really mean to go to jail? What was the big deal about being treated like a political prisoner vis a vis being a "seditionist", subjected to worse treatment than thieves and murderers?

Here are some things I've learnt about Ghaffar Khan, also known as Badshah Khan and Bacha Khan: 

Badshah Khan's beloved first wife died after her firstborn son fell gravely ill. The family says that she wept in prayer, and offered her life to the Almighty in exchange for that of her child. And so it was. He remarried but his second wife too died in an accident. He never married after this. 

He was first arrested protesting against the Rowlatt Act. He was arrested, put in fetters and, because he was unyielding and clearly unapologetic when he was produced in court, he was sentenced to remain in fetters. Six months in fetters and he gained life-long scars around his ankles. His 90 year old father, Behram Khan, was also put in prison for three months, although he was not an activist and had shown up at a political meeting only because he was so concerned about his son's anti-British stand.

Before his arrest, and after his release, Badshah Khan's focus was education. He raised the standard of a school he had set up, and also began to tour the region, talking to Pathans. He was arrested once more and this time he spent a significant period in solitary confinement, in a cell where the toilet was overflowing with excrement. He was sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment.

“He was given filthy food, ordered to grind twenty kilos of corn each day by rotating a heavy stone chakki, and abused by lackeys of prison officials. Again and again, he was invited to find relief through petty bribing, an apology or a surety... At the jail in Dera Ismail Khan the superintendent was an Englishman who only knew English, the jailor was an aged and inert Muslim, and the deputy jailor, who was the prison's real boss, a Hindu called Gangaram. Badshah Khan described Gangaram as 'a veritable rogue'. In his autobiography, he would say about Gangaram: 'In order to extract bribes he made the prisoners fight among themselves and supplied young boys to the prisoners'....”

Thanks to his attempts to contain the corruption in jail, Gangaram complained and had him shifted to Lahore jail. This turned out to be good for Ghaffar Khan. He met other political activists and people of all religions. He read the Gita and Guru Granth Sahib along with the Quran.

“At the previous jail, he had lost fifty five pounds, contracted scurvy and lumbago, and damaged his teeth.”

His mother died while he was in jail and his family didn't have the heart to tell him. He found out through a newspaper.

In another section, Gandhi writes about Ghaffar Khan having started a newspaper. Pakhtun, was written in Pakhto or Pushto. Its topics were varied and in one piece of commentary, a woman called 'Nagina, a Pakhtun sister' writes:

“Except for the Pakhtun, the women have no enemy. He is clever but ardent in suppressing women. Our hands, feet and brains are kept in a state of coma.... O Pakhtun, when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?”

“Many early issues carried these lines by Badshah Khan's son, Ghani, now fifteen years old, whose name, however, was kept out:

If I a slave lie buried in a grave, under a resplendent tombstone,
Respect it not, spit on it.
When I die, and not lie bathed on martyr's blood,
None should his tongue pollute, offering prayers for me. 

"Impatient for items from the son, his father, Ghani would recall in the future, sometimes sent 'a letter abusing me that I could not write ten lines for my country and that I was a disgrace to the nation and so forth'. The result would be another column entitled “Nonsense”, signed by 'The Mad Philosopher'."

In 1930, after Salt tax defiance and the Qissakhwani Bazaar massacre (like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, unarmed and peaceful Pathan protestors, perhaps as many as 300, were killed by British fire). Badshah Khan was already under arrest. Now Pakhtun was banned... The younger son, Wali, just 14, was almost killed in the ensuing crackdown on Khudai Khidmatgars. The KK office was burnt down.

In 1934, Badshah Khan (as well as his older brother, popularly known as Dr Khan Sahib) was released from jail. But within a few months, he was re-arrested on the charge of sedition. He was sent to Sabamati jail where he was to sleep on the floor, in a solitary cell, and warders were instructed not to talk to him. Then he was sent to Bareilly jail, again in a solitary cell. He was unused to the hot summer of the plains and his body broke out in boils. Finally he was moved to Almora jail where he “completed a garden that Jawarharlal Nehru had begun.”

When Jawaharlal Nehru offered to increase funding to the Peshawar Congress Committee, Badshah Khan responded: “Panditji, we do not need your carry your load, we shall bear ours. If you want to help us, then build a girls' school and a hospital for our women.”

In later chapters, Dr Khan Sahib and the Khudai Khidmatgars come to power through elections in the Frontier (NWFP), despite the best efforts of the British to prevent this, and to prop up the Muslim League instead, hoping to drive a wedge between the KKs and the Congress. However, this unity could not prevent Partition. Despite Badshah Khan's appeals, British India was partitioned and the Pathans were fated to go with Pakistan. The details of how this was achieved are heart-breaking, for this is a tale of not just betrayal, but also a pointer towards how different our joint histories might have been if only the British establishment had not been so meddlesome, so determined to divide South Asians along religious lines rather than regional and linguistic lines. If only they had been a little more humane, genuinely democratic, before their exit from the Subcontinent. Consider the fact that while Dr Khan Sahib and Badshah Khan were prevented from campaigning and travelling in the Frontier province, the Muslim League people were free to do so. That was anti-democratic sabotage by the British, who wanted to curtail a peaceful Pathan who spoke of unity rather than more aggressive Muslim leaders who preferred disunity.

When Badshah Khan tried to speak of the dangers represented by the Muslim League, when he tried to seek autonomy, when he tried to speak of protecting minorities, he was accused of being a Hindu, or a Hindu agent.

Badshah Khan (and his brother and the sons) was jailed again, and again, and again, in independent Pakistan, both by elected and military rulers. His newspaper was banned. His social service center shut down. When he was not in jail, his movements were severely restricted. Ultimately, he was allowed to travel, but not to India or Afghanistan. Yet he never gave up on peace, nor stop speaking truth to power.

When he went to Cairo, he managed to slip into Kabul, where he was treated well by the king. And finally, he visited India too. In 1969, the Indian government made an offer, asking him to stay here. He refused, saying: “Even if I live in India for a hundred years, it will have no impact. No one cares here for the country or the people.”

On another occasion he said, (about Indian politicians) “It seems as if you think that to clap, give or hear speeches and get photographed is work.”

Bless his soul! If he could see India now, what would Badshah Khan say? Well, I suppose he would say the same thing that he said in 1970:

“I am no friend if I offer false praise.”

I cannot recommend this book enough, especially if you have an interest in South Asian history and the freedom movement. It is very lucid, well written too.

Sarcasm on a bumpy road

Journalists quoting chauffeurs, cab or auto-rickshaw drivers has become a bit of a cliche. After the last election, there was a fair bit of eyerolling about it and part of agrees: it would be nice if political ideas were formed outside of a car.

Yet, I also undersand that taxi and auto drivers are a reasonable indicator of public sentiment as far as governance goes. Three big issues that have traditionally affected Indian elections are bijli-paani-sadak. Electric supply, water supply, motorable roads. This might be changing, especially in rural areas where farm income, debt and employment are have become urgent questions. But in cities bijli-paani-sadak remain some of most important issues, along with housing and food prices.

Auto-rickshaw drivers are likely affected by shortages and inflation like everyone else. But they also have the advantage of being outdoors a lot, listening to several other people in public spaces. They can access to a wide range of viewpoints and listen in on conversations. Some of the drivers also develop a rather unique style of political commentary.

The other day, I was in an auto-rickshaw and the ride was a very bumpy road. I exclaimed at one particularly bad stretch of road. The driver responded by saying, “Isn't this great?”

I thought I had misheard him. But he said it again. “This road,” he said. “It's terrible. Isn't that great? It's good for everyone.”

I wasn't sure what to make of him. So I cautiously pointed out that it wasn't so great for the human spine.

He let out a short laugh. “So? Aren't you happy for the nation?” he continued. “Everyone gets something to do if the roads are bad. If you hurt your back, you are supposed to go get a massage. That helps the economy too.”

I said I had to disagree. Back injuries can last several years, even incapacitate a person, put them out of work and so on.

I couldn't see his face but I imagine that at this point he was rolling his eyes. “That's I'm saying,” he said. “It works out for everyone, doesn't it? Before I picked you up, I was going to stop near the pheriwalas (cart vendors), some friends of mine. I just wanted to call out a greeting and remind them of how awesome life is these days. They're still paying hafta (protection money), and they're also being told that they'll soon be driven out of this area.”

My destination had arrived. I got off the rickshaw. The driver said, “Madam, I was joking. You understand?”

I said, I understood. Then he said, “Do you know the latest? Some of the municipal engineers don't come to inspect the roads after the repairs are done. They sit comfortably in their office. The contractor takes a photo of the potholes he claims he has filled, sends it over Whatsapp, and he gets his work approved.”

Before I could get out of the way, a much bigger car, an SUV, swung dangerously close and honked sharply. I turned around to glare. The driver, a woman, wasn't looking at me. She was glaring at the auto instead.

After he was gone, I wondered what he would say to the next passenger, how he'd say it. Perhaps he would say, “Isn't it great that so many people are buying big cars these days? It's the best thing to happen to a city. Now, if you had had an accident back there, think of how many people would have benefitted. What? You don't want your country to progress?”

Monday, December 25, 2017

To the language of love, with love

Here's a twist on the Ship of Theseus paradox. The original paradox is this: if a ship has been restored or fixed after having all its parts replaced, is it still the same ship? Now what if a ship was taken apart, its rusty parts polished, its software updated and the whole thing re-assembled and manned by a new crew. Is it still the same ship?

A decade ago, Urdu was a cultural vessel that looked the worse for repair. Lovers of the language spoke of it ruefully, as if it was headed for the shipbreaking yard.

Mushairas (public poetry recitations) were organised in a few cities but tucked out of sight of the cultural mainstream. A generation educated in English medium schools couldn't even read the posters advertising the event. Besides, Urdu wasn't necessarily their scene. College fests had jazz and hip-hop rather than ghazals and qawwalis. The new leisure was gaming and memes, selfies and social media, Netflix and trying to chill. Couplets and metaphors?

Actually, yes. Couplets and metaphors.

Enter the new Urdu. The old ship has got a fresh coat of paint, new steel joints and a robust crew.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Riding with ladies

Last week, I was very upset with Kirron Kher for shifting blame onto a gangrape victim, suggesting that she shouldn't have gotten into a share auto-rickshaw when three men were already seated inside.

The day after she made the statement, I found myself getting into an auto-rickshaw with three male passengers and one male driver. This is actually fairly common across small and big cities in India. The suburb I live in currently is quite far from the centre of town and there was a time when sharing a rickshaw was the only mode of transport available. Cabs were unheard of. Sexual assault was also unheard of.

Many nights I'd be dead tired, having travelled nearly an hour in the over-stuffed ladies compartment of the local train, loathe to enter another crowded space. Auto drivers simply refused to use the meter in those days, so I'd often pay three passengers' fare just so I could travel alone. Even so, I'd have to argue with the drivers before they would let me hire the auto as a solo passenger. Things have changed now and the autos have fallen in line with meters. Even so, if I try to hire an auto solo, it takes twice as long to get home.

Many drivers are reluctant to take a solo passenger and not just because of the few extra rupees. They like the ease of working set routes without having to go off the main roads. Besides, there are too many passengers waiting. In the monsoons and in the sweltering summer, mosquitoes hovering overhead and around everyone's feet, the wait is particularly galling. People get annoyed if they see drivers taking solo passenger.

Still, male passengers seem to understand if a woman doesn't want to share. They may feel insulted by the insinuation that a potential co-passenger doesn't feel safe with them. They may feel she is over reacting, or ultra orthodox, if she doesn't want to sit next to men. But they don't usually say anything.

Female passengers also seem to prefer travelling with other women. They don't say anything, but there is quiet relief in their eyes, a relaxation of their posture, small smiles exchanged as three women tie up to share a ride. I suppose there is similar relief in my eyes too.

Every so often, I think of Kathmandu. The memory of shared tempo ride, in particular, is vivid in my mind. Me and my friends got into a tempo. Most of our co-passengers were male. The driver was missing. A moment later, the door opened on the driver's side and a woman got behind the wheel. A woman wearing a traditional blouse and saree and bright red lipstick. I was the only one gawking.

My friends informed me that this was not an uncommon sight. Women were starting to drive shared tempos in Kathmandu. Fourteen years later, the startling delight of that moment hasn't faded. The presence of the women tempo drivers had brought me a great sense of safety in that city, despite the curfews and sporadic reports of violence. It even brought me joy, though I could not manage to ride in autos or tempos driven by women most days. Still. It was enough to know that they were out there, lipstick on their mouths hopefully, and a fun song playing on the radio.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Slavery (Or why there's so much drama over a girl choosing a boy)

At 18, you are expected to bear children, keep them healthy and craft a judicious citizenry. You are expected not to die in the process. At 22, you can renounce the world. At 13, you can stop eating food. That's not illegal.

At 18, you are expected to be sensible of human, civic, democratic rights. At 25, you can enter Parliament and make laws that govern the land. When you take an oath to uphold the Contitution, you are expected to be equal to this task.

But at 25, you are not deemed fit to choose the man you sleep with or your personal divinity. Indian girls and women, never let yourself forget – the men who rule your nation think you are old enough for sex and childbirth at 18, ONLY as long as you don't get to choose your mate.

There was a time they thought it was okay to have you handed over to a stranger at 12; the law did not see it fit to impose an upper age limit for the groom they picked out. They married you off at 8, or 9, or 12, or 14, or 18, because they wanted to pre-empt you making your own choice.

There are polite ways of saying it. That they are tradition-bound. That they did their best for you. That life is hard and match-making complicated. That they want you to be safe and the neighbourhood is rough. That you don't know enough about the world. But under the polite veneer remains the hard, cold diamond of truth – they want you stripped of choice. The corollary sounds worse: they want you to have sex as per their command. If it sounds ugly, it is.

Since I am not feeling polite these days, I will put in it simple words: this is slavery. A person who does not get to choose her/his sexual mate is a slave.

A dry solution

I had been in the hills a few weeks ago, wandering around with a notebook. One afternoon, I went to a little restaurant on a highway and drank coffee milky enough to sate a calf. Honestly, I would have referred a bench on a roadside dhaba. The only reason I had come to the restaurant was because it was attached to a hotel and was therefore likely to have a bathroom.

A lot of our decisions are governed by the question of functional bathroom access, especially for women. The 'functional' aspect is the tricky part. One of the biggest challenges to Swachh Bharat is the lack of water. People are being chased off roads and beaches, fined, and publicly shamed, and one man has been killed for protesting against such shaming. But no humane government can possibly expect people to use toilets without a reliable and affordable water supply.

This is a big ask. We have desert landscapes in India and water supply is a perenniel problem even in major metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Yet, the government has not seen it fit to look for ecologically sound solutions, even when the solution is right under its nose and waving frantically.

In that restaurant in the hills, I noticed a local gentleman talking in Japanese. The gent sensed that my curiosity was piqued and struck up a conversation. Turned out, there was a Japanese delegation in India, trying to build business ties with various state departments. The fabled Bullet train is the result of similar business collaborations. However, it is a very expensive deal and one we don't urgently need. What we need very badly, and the Japanese can offer, are creative toilet solutions.

The gentleman said that one of the things his group has been trying to do is persuade our governments to adopt dry toilet blocks, especially in water scarce districts. I asked him how they worked and he jumped up to offer me a demo. He had the basic toilet out of its cardboard carton and set up in less than ten minutes. All it needed was a patch of land with a deep pit dug below. One would still need water to wash oneself but for flushing, dry materials like sawdust or sand would do.

I knew of dry toilets and have even used it once, in Australia. Instead of sawdust, mud and dry leaves were used. It felt weird, I'll admit, because of my cultural conditioning. Water feels critical, even for flushing. But think of it; those who live in hot or cold deserts must have alternatives. In fact, report suggest that nearly 40 percent of the world will be facing water shortages by 2050.

The Japanese-speaking gent sounded disappointed. Hundreds of millions of Indians do not have access to plentiful water. Thousands of crores are being spent on building toilets and promoting the idea of an open defecation-free India. But people can't use these toilets if there's not enough water. Bureaucrats and ministers, he said, have been approached. They say they're open to the idea of a pilot project with dry toilets, but refuse to pay for it, regardless of how urgent the need, regardless of how much cheaper or how eco-friendly the alternatives might be.

It is indeed disappointing that we can pay through our noses for a faster train in the name of progress, but can't be bothered to invest tiny sums of money in something as basic as a functional toilet.

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