All posts by Chinmoy Banerjee

Ambedkar’s search for liberty, equality and fraternity

The house on Primrose Hill
Ananya Vajpeyi OCTOBER 13, 2017

AMBEDKAR

13THAMBEDKAR
The search for freedom can take many forms that need not be overtly ‘political’. | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou
Underlying Ambedkar’s crusade to annihilate caste was a fundamental desire for freedom

On October 14, 1956, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism during a massive public ceremony held in Nagpur, at a place thereafter named Deeksha Bhoomi. He took Buddhist vows in order to reject his Hindu birth at the very bottom of the caste order, and because, as he declared: “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” More than 400,000 people, most of them born Dalit, underwent the conversion, along with him, on that historic day 61 years ago.

The blue plaque
In the London borough of Camden, on Primrose Hill, No. 10 King Henry’s Street is a townhouse that bears a round blue plaque, announcing its historical significance: “Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1891-1956, Indian crusader for social justice, lived here 1921-22”. On an evening in late September as I stood on the sidewalk looking at the building – bought by the government of Maharashtra in 2015, but yet to be opened to the public as a museum – I thought about what that house represented.

Ambedkar lived there as a boarder during his final years as a graduate student. He was over 30, married since he was 17, with a young wife and a small son back home in Bombay. He and his wife had lost two children in infancy. He had resigned his position as the Military Secretary to the Maharaja of Baroda, breaking a bond of 10 years of service in exchange for a scholarship to study abroad from 1913 to 1917. This displeased both the Baroda Maharaja as well as other powerful persons in Bombay, but Ambedkar was determined to complete his studies overseas, even at his own expense.

From 1918 to 1920 he taught political economy at Sydenham College, and saved money to return to England. He was now racing to complete a doctorate at the London School of Economics — his second PhD after the one he got at Columbia University in New York — as well as a law degree at Gray’s Inn, London, before he ran out of time and funds.

According to his biographer Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar lived a frugal, penurious life in those years, braving hunger, poverty and loneliness to gain extraordinary educational qualifications. He read voraciously from morning to night at the British Museum Library, the India Office Library and the University of London Library. He was forced to borrow money from his Parsi friend Naval Bhathena. After he had earned his American and British degrees, he proceeded to Bonn, in Germany, to study even further. Only when he had exhausted his savings in 1923 did he head back to India, where his double career in law and politics began in earnest.

The thought of the hardship that Ambedkar withstood to equip himself with impressive academic titles brought me back to the very same house again the next morning. It struck me that the house memorialises not just another passage in Ambedkar’s early life, but rather, his profound desire for freedom. He wanted freedom from caste, from humiliation, from racism, from colonialism — from every kind of discrimination whether in India, America or England, that he had experienced throughout his life.

Knowledge sets you free
“Sa vidya ya vimuktaye,” runs an ancient Sanskrit verse fragment that Indian schools and universities sometimes use as their motto – “whatever liberates, that is knowledge”. I have always understood Ambedkar’s revolt against caste as a quest for equality and justice. I perceived his drive to become more educated than his privileged, upper caste, nationalist elite contemporaries as an effort to overcome the stigma of his ‘untouchable’ birth. But for the first time I saw that underlying his crusade to annihilate caste, including through hard-won personal achievements, was a fundamental desire for freedom.

The search for freedom can take many forms that need not be overtly ‘political’. In a piece in The New York Times on September 15, the Arab writer Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee at Guantánamo, describes how prisoners longed to catch a glimpse of the sea all around them, that they were debarred from seeing. Adayfi’s essay is moving in how it conveys the human longing for freedom, which seems to run even deeper than our cultural identities and political circumstances, to be hardwired into our very souls.

After years of denying prisoners the sight of the sea, camp authorities took down the barriers for fear of a hurricane approaching Cuba. For a few precious days, there was an eruption of art, poetry and creative expression among the inmates. On seeing the reactions of his fellow prisoners, many of them Afghans who had never seen the sea, Adayfi understood that “the sea means freedom no one can control or own, freedom for everyone. Each of us found a way to escape to the sea.”

Freedom song
Closer home, the Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan, hounded by right-wing critics for writing about his own Gounder community, has penned a number of poems. Some of these are addressed to the local deity, Madhorubagan (Ardhanaarishwara, a half-male, half-female fusion of Shiva and Parvati). Others are themed on the five elements (pancha-bhuta) as also the landscapes, flora and fauna of his native Kongu Nadu, a part of the broader Tamil region. His use of the dialect of this area heightens the authentic flavour of his poetry. The palm tree (Palmyra or Toddy Palm, panai maram in Tamil) is for him emblematic of home and roots.

In a decision revealing a keen and canny aesthetic imagination, Murugan has gifted his poems to the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, who has been tuning and releasing them of late. The singer gives a voice to his writer friend who has had to endure censorship and intimidation to the extent of committing “authorial suicide” for a period of time.

Together they protest the repeated attack on the freedom of expression — the deadly threat that took the life of Gauri Lankesh. Krishna’s gesture of solidarity beautifully breaks the silence, amplifying Murugan’s call for free speech and his assertion of the right to dissent in a democracy.

In the course of an on-going engagement with Krishna’s music and ideas, I have been following Murugan’s poetry in translation. His viruttams (shlokas in Tamil) express anguish to his beloved deity Madhorubagan, asking for protection and acceptance. His kirtanas to the elements celebrate the very land and language that have inspired and nurtured him. He takes comfort in nature and verse as he experiences alienation and injustice from his fellow caste-members and their bellicose backers in the Hindu Right.

One of Murugan’s most vivid compositions is a kirtana to the wind, “Kaatru”. Krishna has set this to the winged raga Nalinakaanti, conveying the swift, airborne quality of the subject. The poem is about the unbridled force of the wind, that can never be tamed or controlled, that goes where it pleases, touches whom it likes, wipes away boundaries and divisions, tears down walls and obstructions, and sweeps across the earth unimpeded. Murugan’s words, carried aloft on Krishna’s tune, make the wind a metaphor for the freedom that is denied to him as a writer in an illiberal dispensation.

The wind is nothing other than life’s breath – without breath, as without freedom, there is only death. “You are a being of untold freedom,” writes Murugan, sings Krishna. The yearning of the censored and banned artist Perumal Murugan – of every person whose freedom is snatched away, regardless of her story or situation – flows perfectly in Krishna’s voice, imbued with his special note of compassion. You can hear the unmistakable timbre of empathy that Krishna brings to bear on art and politics alike.

Like knowledge for Ambedkar, like the sea for Adayfi, like the wind for Murugan, the longing for freedom is synonymous with our very existence as feeling, thinking human beings. We must seek that freedom, and to survive, we must find it, whatever the impediments in our path. To deny us freedom is to deny us life. At the house on Primrose Hill, I could see through the window a banner hanging inside. It carried Ambedkar’s declaration explaining why he chose Buddhism over Hinduism: “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” Freedom is first on his list.

Ananya Vajpeyi is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University
Copyright© 2017, The Hindu

Attack on students at BHU

 

We the women students of Banaras Hindu University

We are asking for basic freedoms. We demand institutional reform.

Written by Neha Yadav | Updated: October 2, 2017 8:18 am

bhu, bhu students protest, bhu vc, Banaras Hindu University, bhu women safety, bhu sexual harassment, Sir Sunderlal Hospital, bhu vc G C Tripathi, o p upadhyay, BHU news, Latest news, indian expressOutside Banaras Hindu University. (Express Photo by Anand Singh/File)

A century after it was established, Banaras Hindu University is in the midst of a turmoil quite unique to its history. The reason for the current outrage cannot be simply understood through an instance of “eve teasing”. Instead, the ferment is a culmination of decades of festering resentment.

Governments came and went in the past, but the dominant ideology of “manuvaad” was never challenged on a campus where free thought and women’s rights were trampled upon. It was anger against this continued culture of suppression that was transformed into a massive march on the streets of Varanasi.

The idea was simple — students will organise a peaceful march to the office of the vice-chancellor and present their legitimate demands to the concerned authorities. At least that was the intention. The unprovoked and unilateral lathi charge on students and accompanying faculty members took us all by surprise.

The disproportionate response by the university authorities also shows why the outrage on the BHU campus goes much beyond the purported incident of sexual harassment. Authorities recognise that students are out on the streets to undo decades of attempts to stifle new, different, modern ideas. The energy on the streets bears witness to how long these ideas have been held captive at BHU, through intimidation and coercion. Students have been reminded to maintain order and discipline in times of interviews and threatened with summary expulsion. Let us not underestimate the force of the rage that it takes for students to come out and protest in the face of such repression. Any hope that the recent public attention would put an end to such practices in BHU remains yet unfulfilled.

The aakrosh (anger) goes wider. Only days before the incident, news began to trickle in that officials were exercising their discretion — a short-hand for their caste prejudices — in making appointments to the new vacancies that had come up on campus. No due diligence was followed in making such appointments and when students belonging to the depressed classes decided to voice their anguish at such practices, they were slapped with threats of expulsion. Students remained undeterred by such intimidation and continued their protests for two months and not only questioned the unconstitutional methods deployed for campus appointments but also included demands for longer opening hours for the university library.

The list of campus injustices is much longer. Take, for instance, deans of the zoology and arts departments and professors in the medical and geography departments who have been accused of harassment/molestation. O.P. Upadhyay, acting superintendent of Sir Sundarlal Hospital MS has been indicted for sexual assault. These men apparently enjoy impunity. Excesses have been committed over the past year and with no legitimate avenue to voice their concerns, students in these departments were silent up until this point.

Discriminatory practices on gendered lines are routine in BHU. Women students are not allowed to eat non-vegetarian food in their mess. They are not allowed to use mobile phones after 10 pm. Access to the internet in hostels has been strictly prohibited. They are told short dresses are against university customs. But do such customs apply to the male students on campus? Of course not. There are curfews in the main campus which apply only to female students. Women students are told that the campus is unsafe for them after 10 pm — are these looming threats on campus uninterested in male students? When female students complain against the quality of food and hygiene why does the VC ignore such legitimate concerns?

Students unions on causes are supposed to voice our concerns, be our representatives to ensure an environment of mutual cooperation. But what is to be expected from a VC who is more concerned with being noticed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi than with the students whose lives he has been entrusted with? A VC who has no time for a vibrant students’ union for fear of inviting the ire of the powers-that-be.

Students’ unions often get bad press — we are told students should study, not do politics. But what does doing politics really mean? On a campus where research scholars are not awarded their full HRA or there are deliberate delays in sanctioning UGC-mandated hostel facilities to research students, would highlighting such misdeeds be considered “political”? On a campus where the VC denies us our scholarships by charging that this money is funnelled to finance the dowry for women scholars, is it not our responsibility to be political?

The attack on students is yet to be registered by the local police; we have been forced to add another demand — that an immediate FIR is registered against the culprits. But then, what assurance can we expect from an extremely compliant police force. Only recently, a student was dragged out of the lecture hall in the presence of a professor and beaten up mercilessly in his hostel room. The police have refused to file a FIR against the goons who did this. Campus security, indeed!

And what about campus lighting and CCTV? Where does all the money for infrastructural development go? How do campus audits repeatedly fail to register the crumbling facilities in the science labs where students have been working and “trained” in the absence of the most basic apparatus? The discrimination on campus can be ended by acknowledging, first, how these prejudices have been engendered in quotidian practices.

The point is not merely to remove the existing VC, who must be asked to leave, but to undertake an institutional overhaul. We are asking for basic things — that the charter and constitution of the university is implemented in letter and spirit, that women are made safe on campus, not made its captive, and their voices are emboldened through a representative, functional and democratically elected students’ union.

The writer, 23, is an MSc student at Banaras Hindu University. The article was translated from Hindi by Aakash Joshi
Indian Express, October 2, 2017

 

Three films on partition of India

70th Anniversary of Partition Film Screening

SAFES and SANSAD present 3 films on Partition of India

Sunday October 8, 2017

12.00 PM – 5.00 PM

4955 SFU Centre for the Arts

149 West Hastings St, Vancouver

A THIN WALL,  dir. Mara Ahmed, 65 mins

A documentary about memory, reconciliation and the partition of India. Shot in Delhi, Lahore, and New York.

MILANGE BABA RATAN DE MELE TE, dir. Ajay Bhardwaj, 95 mins

A lyrical feature documentary focusing on the Dalit Sufis of Bhatinda that explores the continuities of local cultures and the crossings of religious identities in post-partition Punjab.

“It is a story of how love survived a Holocaust.” Arundhati Roy.

SKY BELOW, dir. Sara Singh, 75 mins

A poetic portrait of the borderlands of Pakistan and India in which the landscape of ruins of past civilizations and the rhythms of local life intersect to question the lines of national borders, while the interviews with those who lived through partition offer reflections on the bordering.

Ajay Bhardwaj will be present for      Q & A. There will be discussion following screening.

Admission is free.

Open doors for Rohingyas

News-release IAPI-SANSAD joint statement September 19, 2017

Open doors for Rohingya refugees

 

Indians Abroad for Plural India (IAPI) and South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD) condemn the Government of India’s endorsement of the Myanmar government’s treatment of the Rohingya minority that has been described by the UN as “ethnic cleansing” and the Hindu nationalist BJP government’s determination to expel the Rohigya refugees already in India as “illegal migrants”. 

Rohingyas are a historically persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar, who have been denied citizenship and recognition as an ethnic minority though they have been settled in the Arakan district for hundreds of years, with the majority of them being settled there by the British after they conquered Arakan in early nineteenth century. They have been denied even the right to call themselves “Rohingyas,” being instead labeled “Bengalis” by the state. They have been subjected to genocidal violence since 2012, which has led to the fleeing of hundreds of thousands and the internment of thousands in camps in abysmal conditions.  Thousands have languished in camps in Bangladesh since 1976. Hundreds have perished at sea and hundreds captured and enslaved by pirates. They are a people without a state.

In the current spate of state violence, triggered as genocide often is by the attack of a group of Rohingya resistance, the military and Buddhist extremists have unleashed a terror that has led to hundreds of deaths and driven more than 400, 000 Rohingyas to already over-burdened Bangladesh. The attack on August 25 by Rohingya militants on a police outpost in northern Rakhine state that triggered this current violence and exodus has given both the Buddhist nationalist Myanmar and the Hindu nationalists of India the justification of framing this genocide/ethnic cleansing as a fight against Muslim terrorism. We deplore this familiar genocidal alibi that falls within the currently popular bogey of Muslim terrorism.

We deplore religious nationalism in Myanmar and India. We demand that the Modi government immediately stop its attempts to deport the Rohingya refugees. We demand that the Government of Canada take the strongest measures to stop the genocidal violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar and strip Aung San Suu Kyi of the honorary citizenship in Canada. We further demand that the Government of Canada use all diplomatic means to persuade India to respect its international commitments and refrain from violating international law by protecting rather than deporting the Rohingya refugees currently resident in India.

—30—

www.sansad.org