Freedom of Speech – Maya indeed.

Akhila PR replies to Devdutt Patnaik’s Op-Ed article – In maya, the killer and the killed – which appeared in The Hindu, 14th January 2015

Mr. Devdutt Patnaik has written in The Hindu that – in essence – if you mock anything, especially a religion, you should be prepared to pay the cost for that decision on any terms suitable to the offended; e.g. being mowed down by Kalakshnikovs. This differs a bit from the usual expectation of someone being responsible for what they produce in a legal or even moral sense. Dialogue and views on the motivation of the creator is out the window and the offended person’s feelings (valid or not) reign supreme, blotting out all else.

Mr. Patnaik, begins by citing an extract from one incident in the Mahabharat which is rather out of context . This is Krishna cutting off Sishupala’s head after Sishupala insults him a 100 times, with the explanation “The limit of forgiveness was up”, implying that ‘God’ as he was, even Krishna had to retaliate after such a barrage of insults. However, the context of the Krishna-Sishupala story is:

It was fore-ordained that Sishupala would die at Krishna’s hands. Sishupala’s mother, Krishna’s aunt, then begged Krishna to spare her son. Krishna promised that he would forgive Sishupala 100 times but would then kill him.

This introduction, then, is particularly poorly chosen, unless the author wishes to imply that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is part of a larger Cosmic plan where the killers and writers had made a pact in a previous birth to kill and be killed in this life and was not only significant of the inability to not be offended.

The Amar Chitra Katha Version

He then goes on to postulate the interesting, but slightly obfuscating point, that it is Neo-Brahminical to expect everyone to employ language in the way the elite writers do, and that to term ‘barbarians’ those who resort to bullets rather than prose is a priggish, ivory-tower world-view.

To state right off the very obvious counter to this: would Mr. Patnaik be as implacable in his demand for the right to ‘equitable rather than  equal response´ if I were to barge into his place of work toting a gun –  or to be culturally sensitive – a pistol, a kukri, an aruvalu or a flaming torch, because words failed me and I saw no other means of response to his writing?

Let’s put Charlie Hebdo in a bit of cultural perspective: I was rather surprised at Charlie’s hard-line mockery of religion and the State. But I realized how much my thinking was conditioned by my growing up in India, a country where religion and state are as hard to separate as several balls of twine knotted together –not impossible, but requiring aeons of work, burnt fingers and perhaps, ultimately, resorting to snipping off bits that just wouldn’t untangle. From my perspective, Charlie really was playing with fire.

But in France, the separation of State and Church is not only a constitutional guarantee, but one that many publications ensure is kept up through the use of free speech to talk out against all institutions that wield power (religion and state prime among them).  Charlie came up in a time of political censorship and vigilance. It was initially shut down for joking about Charles de Gaulle’s death. The paper re-opened as Charlie Hebdo, determined to speak out against the forces that had muzzled it. While much of the humour is, perhaps, in bad taste (that is to say, not to mine), it is a lively instrument for gauging how committed the State remained regarding the freedom of expression.

1969 cover of Hara-Kiri Hebdo making fun of Charles De Gaulle

To reiterate, Charlie was meant for France – a country where this freedom was welcomed and response in letters was traditional. It is not really Charlie’s doing that in the decade following its rebirth, the world changed dramatically through the wider adoption of neoliberal economic policies and the creation and installation of the godhead of the Web. When Charlie went beyond the borders of France as easily accessible material, it was seen as an attack on their religion(s) by those outside France. And people who had and have no conception of the cultural context in which Charlie was created and read, made it their business to shut it down, a desire which then permeated the country of its creation.

While Charlie is a conundrum that many in religion-bound countries like India will find hard to square with their conscience, there is another example of physical coercion triumphing over the written word much, much closer home: Perumal Murugan.

Mr. Murugan is a Tamil writer with several books behind him. Then came the English translation ‘One Part Woman’, which has been burned and bullied out of existence by a group of religious enthusiasts (to be charitable).  The book, whose Tamil version came out four years ago with no protests surrounding it, is about a childless couple and their attempts to have a child. One of these attempts is a consensual sex-rite at the Ardhanareeswarar temple, a rite where a woman has sexual intercourse with a man who is not her husband, in order to get impregnated.

Yes, a consensual sex-rite in a temple, in a country where temple-architecture regularly depicts orgies and, as that beaten-to-death drum gasps out, whose Kamasutra remains an important, perhaps unparalleled, contribution to the world of sexual relations.

But all this is really quite irrelevant. Mr. Murugan has access to a large and rich world of fact and fiction – the world he creates in his head. This world is answerable to no one and as long as he is not shoving his writing down the throats of everyone in this country (which would constitute several violations of Rights) there is no force, moral or legal, that should stop him penning his thoughts down whether we are known for the Kamasutra or the re-installation of Section 377 of the IPC.

Forces have, nonetheless, succeeded in doing this by burning the books and convincing Mr. Murugan that the safest path was complete retreat. He has recalled all the books from his publishers (the English version published by the much-harassed Penguin), promising to compensate them for any copies unsold and, further, has taken on a vow of silence. ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead’, he announced.

When writers are silenced for fear that anything they write will be offensive to someone out there and when the saying ‘the Pen is mightier than the Sword’ is taken as justification for picking up the sword, there lies the death of the author, free speech and human interaction.

Mr. Patnaik states that in today’s world the right to words is being privileged over the right to military action. The self-serving blindness of this statement, penned in a time when there are daily military engagements (state-sponsored and privately-funded) around the world and increasing demands for censorship, should be an indicator of how laughable his basic premise is. Indeed, even the examples he puts forth, citing mental violence, are ridiculous:

So, one has sanction to mock Hinduism intellectually on film (PK by Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan) and in books (The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger), but those who demand the film be banned and the books be pulped are brutes, barbarians, enemies of civic discourse, who resort to violence.”

Laughable though they are, his contentions, which will be taken up by many, are dangerous. His argument that the ‘offended’ can only respond with violence is in itself an offensive polarization of thought and action. Surely somewhere a contradictory point of view can find middle ground between writing and murder? In India itself we have a reasonably vast variety including, of course, burning things (posters, books, effigies – not actual land-property like houses and places of worship). These acts can be seen as a legitimate expression of protest. However, that is where freedom of expression STOPS.

You can protest.  But no legal force on earth should ensure that your choice to be offended trumps someone else’s thoughts’ right to exist.

And this is where his argument about PK and Wendy Doniger runs into a brick wall. Protesting isn’t barbaric. But to demand that your protests be heeded “or else..” is to become an enemy of civic discourse.

And while it is an undeniable fact that language-based hegemonies exist the world-around, stemming from several complex causes, it is fatuous to suggest that because someone cannot write like a Charlie Hebdo or a Murugan, they should promptly take physically coercive measures to silence them.

Writers and ‘artists’ in general tend to stand out because  of the something different they bring to any field of human existence. The sad little fact is that not everyone is a Voltaire or Kalki or Tagore. My inability to respond in Tamil prose is not reason enough for me to ban Kalki being read if something in his writing offends me.

And, interestingly, many of these doers who are so bereft of words that they must needs resort to violence, belong to groups that are led and inspired by immensely articulate individuals who know and milk the power of the Word: Bal and Raj Thackeray, Laden, even Hitler, Gandhi, Obama, Jayalalitha… So the ‘hegemonic power of the Word’, it would seem, is only railed against when it goes counter to one’s beliefs.

Finally, from talking about taking offence and how it can be measured, the author brings up the closing conceit of this article: everything is Maya.  Maya, commonly interpreted as relating to the transient and ephemeral world, which is only a part of the larger, unfathomable universe,  is interpreted here as the world of the measurable and tangible.

Mr. Patnaik’s claim is that physical violence is condemned because it is measurable and emotional abuse (read: offence) is dismissed because it is not measurable; a farcical argument in this case: in a work of art, your engagement with it is your responsibility and your choice.  If something offends you, you do have (among several others) the option of moving away and not engaging further**. Neither of these conditions holds true for the majority of abusive one-on-one relationships in personal life.

Maya is also a leveling concept. One cannot posit that everything is Maya (‘Killer and Killed’, the title states) but go on to imply that some things are more or less worthy of being ‘Maya’ than others, as with the approving tone when talking about the ‘offended’ and the opprobrious tone when talking of the ‘offender’ laughing to the bank.

Everything is subjective, including our experience of the world of Maya, we are told. But if everything is subjective, should everyone remain ensconced in their cozy little construct without engaging outside it for fear of offending someone whose construct might be different? Mr. Patnaik’s article seems to imply that we hold back from ever expressing views which may differ from another’s, since these views fall outside the purview of the other’s person’s experience of reality. An extreme extension of this article would ban education itself as an Other being imposed on my native understanding of the world.

Yet, contradictory schools of thoughts clashed and then became entangled over centuries to create new thoughts and new beings. As seen in Mr. Patnaik’s own popular writings on myth and interpretation, religion itself is in constant recreation and reinterpretation. In the sense of a transient, illusory phenomenon, religion itself is Maya. So if you want to go down that path, what is offence? What is belief? What is sacred?

Large parts of the Mahabharata offend my perhaps Westernized sensibilities and my internalized Indian concept of Guru-sishya reverence. Drona’s warcraft ensured the Kauravas didn’t lose the battle of Kurukshetra, so the Pandava Yudhishtira  (revered as Dharmaraja) lied to his Guru about the death of his son to get him to ‘off himself’. And this was done on the advice and with the able abetting of the ever-present Krishna, whose act of silencing Sishupala is the opening piece of this article. Even in its out-of-context form, isn’t this story, like all stories in all mythologies pertaining to god, just a means of showing that Krishna, an avatar of a God, is not perfection himself? If Krishna were perfection, why the Vishwaroopam++ on the battlefield? Is his conduct (especially as seen in the Mahabharat!) really something to aspire to, especially in this instance?

As if the author himself squirms over this quandary, the closing paragraph of the article goes out of its way to explain Krishna’s act within the framework of the Jay-Vijay myth. But if words are so psychologically damaging and if only actions are allowed to speak, Sishupala’s taunting Krishna is surely more than enough justification for Krishna to lose his head (and ensure Sishupala loses his too)? Why tie yourself into knots to show that Krishna was, really, only part of a larger game? Because, somewhere, Maya or not, there is in inherent recognition of the crude brutality of Krishna’s act and the need to explain it beyond and better than just the desire to avenge offence.


++On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when Arjuna begins to agonise over the pointless bloodshed, Krishna reveals himself in the ‘divine’ form, of which he is just a physical manifestation, to reassure Arjuna that it is all for some greater good that Arjuna’s conception of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ cannot contain.

Islamophilia cannot be an effective answer to Islamophobia

re-posted from Huffington Post, Huffpost Students UK, by Karthick RM, 23 December 2014.

islamophobiaThe recent siege by an Islamist in Sydney has raised all too familiar debates about Islamophobia. The general right-wing argument, of course, is that such acts of terrorism are justified by a hard-core minority of Muslims and that downplaying the role of Islam is potentially harmful. On the other hand, the general liberal-left argument is that expecting all Muslims to condemn such acts is bigoted because a whole community cannot be held accountable for the actions of a few ‘deranged lunatics’.

Central to both arguments is an unstated belief that the Islamic identity is central to all Muslims, and while the former despises it, the latter preaches a patronising tolerance of the same. And both are wrong.

We have to look at Islamophobia as the tendency to blame Muslims as a whole, without any differentiation of nation, culture, class, gender, and political orientation for terrorist acts committed by Islamists.

Likewise, we have to look at Islamophilia as the tendency to exonerate Islam as an ideology from the crimes that are committed in its name, as the belief that the Muslim identity is good in itself and is central to an adherent of the faith.

Reality, if anything, shows the contrary. Proponents of the two sides are unlikely to remember that the first state to declare itself officially atheist in the world happened to be a predominantly ‘Muslim’ country – socialist Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, the state banned religion and religious preaching, shut down mosques, and tried to achieve gender parity in all services. In practice, the ‘Muslim’ Hoxha was the most rabid Islamophobe of the previous century. Incidentally, it was precisely those western governments – who are now accused of harbouring Islamophobia – who railed against Hoxha for curbing religious freedom for Muslims.

Several other examples could be given. The Indonesian Communist Party led insurgency, the Kurdish movement in the middle-east, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (Turkey), the Communist Party of Iran – all militantly secular movements led by ‘Muslims’ – have faced brutal repression from variants of Islamism. It would be a brutal illogic to say that the murder of thousands of individuals from these movements had nothing to do with the Islamic ideology that the states they challenged upheld.

Why is this important? Drawing parallels from other cases, can we say that the Inquisition’s slaughter of tens of thousands of heretics at the stake was just an act committed by a few ‘deranged lunatics’ and that the ideology of the Church had no role to play in it? Can we say that the discrimination against Dalits, the lowest castes in the Hindu hierarchy, owes to a few bad individuals and is not a structural problem in Hinduism? Can we say that war crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamils were just acts of bad soldiers and they can be divorced from the genocidal intent of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism?

Similarly, we cannot excuse the Islamic ideology from the terrorism and violence that is committed in its name. There is a lot in political Islam that justifies violence against non-Muslims, sexism and terroristic acts and those Muslims who have been fighting it for long have written the best testimonials. For liberals in the West to ignore this and to engage in downright immature acts, like wearing a hijab to convey solidarity with Muslim women, is tantamount to mocking those progressives in Muslim communities who resist the cultural diktats of political Islam.

A more critical approach to political Islam is needed. Commenting on the Rotherham child abuse scandal, which saw the sexual abuse of over a thousand white, mostly working class, children by men of Pakistani-Muslim origin, Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that raising questions about inherent sexism and violence in these communities is neither racist nor Islamophobic. Rather, it is this questioning alone that can guarantee an authentic co-existence.

Liberals and leftists in the West are right to condemn the bigotry of the majority community, but the fundamentalism of the minority community cannot be spared from criticism. If those identifying as left and liberal fail to criticise the dangerous trends of Islamism, the right will step up for the task. That is a future no one wants and political correctness can do little to fight it. Maybe one can start by expressing critical solidarity with those progressive movements from within the Muslim communities that are willing to think beyond narrow religious identities and are willing to challenge the bigotries in Islamic ideology.

***

Karthick RM is a PhD student and Graduate teaching assistant at University of Essex. He blogs at Unceasing Waves. Some initial further readings –

+ A Glance in to the Archives of Islam by Slavoj Zizek. Lacan.com – “One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted “between the lines,” through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition…”

+ When does criticism of Islam become Islamophobia? Pandaemonium – “Islamophobia is a problematic term. This is not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly it does. Islamophobia is a problematic term because it can be used by both sides to blur the distinction between criticism and hatred. On the one hand, it enables many to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’.  On the other, it permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. In conflating criticism and bigotry, the very concept of Islamophobia, in other words, makes it more difficult to engage in a rational discussion about where and how to draw the line between the two.”

+ Islamophilia by Douglas Murray – “For the record I don’t think everybody needs to spend their time being offensive about Islam. Not only is there no need to be offensive all the time, but most Muslims just want to get on with their lives as peacefully and successfully as everybody else. But there is an unevenness in our societies that needs to be corrected.”

Experimenting with Gandhi

the thousand children gandhis

Gandhi is a popular symbol and brand like Rajnikanth. It is quite hard to look at such a brand as a human being who breathes, sweats, defecates, ponders, falls in and out love, explores his own body and so on. We almost want to deny him that. As a public collective we expect each other to limit criticism or investigation, and instead encourage ourselves to build a delusional patriotic awe for a diluted version of Gandhi’s value system and historical doings.

Luckily, some people think it is necessary to talk about him in all ways possible. Whether it is Hitler, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Rajnikanth, Modi or Jayalalitha it is counterproductive and dangerous for our own understanding to flatten such public symbols to just a bunch of iconic events and actions remembered in strange costume parties as above.

In a ‘series of dialogues on belief’ LILA Inter-actions, which is like our local Edge, invited Pritham K Chakravarthy and Amitabh Mitra to experiment with Gandhi – the icon, the man, the philosophy and anything else they pleased to understand. Pritham leaves this man in the books and goes in search of Kasturba, whose role is usually limited to wife or a facet of his story – the woman behind his greatness. How much do we know or remember of Kasturba? Amitabh Mitra, on the other hand, finds himself quite confused about Gandhi’s relevance in contemporary South Africa, especially among the Indians and blacks. His article makes us look at the political necessity for violence and trauma in par with Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence in South Africa and India.

Read this dialogue here and participate in the comments section.

samyuktha pc. 

Ride for Gender Freedom meetings with students of Madras Christian College

03:30 p.m. Bharathi Kannan had organised two meetings with students at Madras Christian College. Rakesh said he had a wonderful time interacting with the NSS and Social Work Department students. He even got to chat with some students at the canteen. The rider having finished a very eventful day in the college, has now begun cycling out to interact in two more meetings at Tambaram West and MEPZ SEZ. Thank you Bharathi Kannan and students of Madras Christian College for your enthusiasm and support. Call 08939592991 or 9940220091 to coordinate with the riders.

Voices of the People vs. POSCO

Dhinkia, Orissa. Photograph by Sanjit Das. 2011.

Dhinkia, Orissa. Photograph by Sanjit Das. 2011.

Brief excerpts from the executive summary of the fact-finding report by a team of three from Alternative Law Forum and Delhi Forum, after a visit to the Dhinkia panchayat, consisting of the three villages of Dhinkia, Govindpur and Paatna, in Odisha, between 22nd December 2012 to 24th December 2012.   

[Read, download, and share the complete fact finding report from here – Captive Democracy: Abuse of criminal system to curb dissent against the POSCO steel plant in Odisha. Feb 2013]

The Government of Orissa and Pohang Steel Company (POSCO), Republic of Korea signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on June 22, 2005 for setting up an Integrated Steel Plant in Orissa, in Jagatsinghpur district, affecting 8 villages of three Gram Panchayats of Kujang Tahsil, i.e. Dhinkia, Gadakujanga and Naogaon. The attempts by the district administration to acquire land have been thwarted by strong local opposition starting early 2006, primarily by the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, that spearheads the movement against POSCO. In response to this resistance, the State Government has been using the tactic of the abuse of the criminal system to file numerous false criminal complaints against all persons resisting the project, including members of the PPSS leading to threats of arrest perpetually hanging over them.

The fact-finding report observed that the biased and arbitrary functioning of the police targets the villagers resisting the POSCO steel plant, instead of initiating any criminal action against the goons and other persons perpetrating violence against the villagers. The report outlined the following impacts of police actions –

  • The filing of false cases to curb this fundamental freedom of the people is nothing short of an attack on the democratic process and the values embedded in the Constitution.
  • The filing of cases and warrants against almost 2000 persons has resulted in the targeting of entire villages, who are under constant threat of arrest and have not left the villages in 6-7 years, and whenever they do leave, are constrained to do so surreptitiously. In many cases, entire families have been implicated, resulting in none of them leaving the village for years on end.
  • The inability to leave the village has resulted in a complete lack of access to medicines or any medical treatment to the villagers. A team of doctors who visited these villages found that at least 30 women needed urgent medical intervention, else their condition would deteriorate. Most arrests of persons take took place when villagers were compelled to leave the village to visit the doctor requiring medical assistance.
  • The inability to leave the village and maintain business ties has adversely impacted this trade which is the major source of livelihood for them
  • The Government has taken other forms of coercive action, and terminated government employees for having protested against the POSCO Project, including Shri Babaji Charan Samantara, who worked as postmaster in Dhinkia for 28 years and Shri Kailash Chandra Biswas was employed as a high school peon, at the Government School, Dhinkia, for over 20 years.
Over the last 8 years, the Government has made innumerable attempts to break the struggle against POSCO by employing various arm-twisting tactics. However, what is perhaps the greatest betrayal of the State against its own people, is the use of the criminal system to implicate villagers in a large number of false cases to intimidate them, instill fear in them and break them into submission.These are the days of emergency. A rapidly engulfing emergency where the State is using every underhand trick in the book to counter the legitimate and peaceful voices of dissent.
These are the days where the State does not even batter an eyelid while using water cannons on protestors against violence against women on the streets of Delhi, all under the glare of the media. Far away, where there are no cameras, no soundbites, the suppression is violent, illegal and with impunity. Our visits have revealed one character of the villagers and that is their indomitable spirit and quest for a peaceful and undisturbed life. This is what the struggle against POSCO is. And this is why we have to all join hands and mobilize all democratic means to end this continuing violence to give real meaning to our constitutional ideals.
In the light of the above, we make the following demands:
1. The Government should withdraw all the criminal cases foisted on villagers of POSCO affected villages and other members of PPSS
2. Cases must be immediately registered in regard to the violence perpetrated against the villagers of POSCO affect areas including but not restricted to the following:
a)  Against police officials in regard to the violence ob 15th May, 2010 at Balithut circle.
b)  Against hired goons in regard to the violence on 14th December, 2011during the peaceful protest against the construction of the coastal road connecting Paradip port to the proposed site of the POSCO steel plant.
3. The Government should immediately conduct an enquiry into the abuse of the criminal system to target villagers and take necessary action against all officials who are involved in the filing of false cases against villagers resisting the POSCO steel plant. The Government should respect and protect the constitutional rights of the villagers to protest and conduct itself in a democratic manner

The Unreality of Wasseypur

by Javed Iqbal

‘The ending of the film was shown properly,’ Speak unanimous voices, the well-known folklore of Wasseypur, Dhanbad, ‘Gangster Shafiq Khan was really gunned down at the Topchachi petrol pump like it was shown in the first part of the film.’

‘That’s how it’s done in Dhanbad.’

And there are long lists of assassinations and murders in Dhanbad. MLA Gurdas Chaterjee of the Marxist Co-ordination Committee was gunned down on the highway. Superintendent of Police Randhir Verma was murdered by dacoits during a botched bank robbery. Santosen Gupta of the Forward Bloc was gunned down. Mukul Dev of the RJD was murdered. S K Rai, a union leader is murdered. Samin Khan, a gangster, gets bail and leaves court and is shot to death, while still in the custody of the police. Sakel Dev Singh, of the coal mafia is killed at the bypass, his brother who works with him, is killed at Shakti chowk, gunned down by an AK47. Manoj Singh alias Dabloo from Matkuria village, who allegedly terrorized the muslims of Wasseypur was gunned down. Chottna Khan, 18 years old, the son of Shafiq Khan was gunned down. Mohd Irfan a railway contractor was killed by a gang. Najeer Ahmed, a ward commissioner, is murdered. A woman home guard who once shared a love with a police officer, who would eventually take him on after their affair turned bitter, would find the dead body of her cut-up nephew in a well at the Dhanbad Polytechnic.

These are just a few high profile murder cases, say the locals, who on one level shy away from the violence that represented their city and on another level take pride in the knowledge of who was gunning down who at what point.

Wasseypur, now a part of Dhanbad district in Jharkhand, has grown, over the decades from a culture of violence and gang warfare, parts of which are depicted in the film.

The film tells the story of three generations of a family, starting with a backdrop to mining in Dhanbad, with the murder of Shahid Khan in the hands of coal mafia leader Ramadhir Singh, and the revenge promised by his son Sardar Khan (in reality Shafiq Khan), and his sons Faisal Khan (in reality Faheem Khan).

‘There was never any revenge story,’ Said Iqbal (24), the son of Faheem Khan (50), grandson of (Shafiq), sitting in the very room where a rival gang had attacked late at night, and even fired onto a police check post as shown in the opening sequence of the film, ‘My great grandfather died of natural causes, he was never murdered by any Singh. And there was another thing, a twist. I had a grand uncle Hanif, who had wanted my father Faheem dead and who had hired a man called Sagir.’

‘And it’s for the murder of Sagir that my father is in Hazaribagh jail now.’

‘None of this is in the film.’ Continued Iqbal, who adds that the sequence where Sardar Khan would call for the rescue of an abducted woman, fictitious, as well as one-time affair of Sardar Khan’s wife, or the Romeo-Juliet type inter-gang marriages, or the arbitrariness of names of characters such as ‘Perpendicular’ and ‘Definite’. There are instead, Prince Khans and Goodwin Khans.

‘There are two kinds of laws in Dhanbad. There’s the law to arrest for the Faheem Khan Family and there’s the law to investigate for the Singh Mansion.’ Says Iqbal, himself just released on bail for murder, referring to the fact that the Singh family is still at large.

The Violent Landscape of Dhanbad

Dhanbad is an unreal place. A small mining town with extreme poverty and a rich labour history. A small town with a bustling middle class bursting through the one main road. You can expect to be stuck in an hour long traffic jam in Dhanbad over Wasseypur, you can find shopping complexes, or remnants of a burnt truck where four people were killed in police firing last year on the 27th of April, or you can find the dead body of a lawaris young man in a seedy hotel near the bus stop. It’s a city of myths, half-truths, and blatant lies. A city where a man called Suraj Deo Singh is also Suryadev Singh, or A K Rai, is also A K Roy. Now an old mansion of a private mine owner who owned 85 mines lay in ruin while the police still continues to extort money from the poorest who pick off scraps of coal to sell. A district partially affected by Maoists, two blocks – Topchachi and Tundi, have been sights of arrests and ambushes. It’s a town with massive migration, massive amounts of pollution owing to the coal mines, many left abandoned and unfilled, other’s now open-cast, and massive amounts of exploitation by the mafia that literally sells labour across the district border.

Dhanbad is where the Chasnala mining accident took place in December 1975 that claimed over 380 lives. A lake vanished into the mines. No one survived. Kala Patthar was made and still remembered. And in September of 1995, the Gazlitang mining accident claimed 96 lives.

Yet what also followed the mining, were the mafias.

‘There are many gangs here.’ Says a lawyer, ‘If you want to tell the story of Dhanbad, you’d need to spend three months here.’

A lot of gangs simply fight over scraps of urbanization: ‘Agenty’ the term for extortion from private bus services was apparently a cause of conflict between the son of Sardar/Shafiq Khan and another gangster called Babla (this was all denied by the home of Sardar/Shafiq/Faheem Khan). Eventually, Faheem Khan, the son of Sardar/Shafiq Khan allegedly instigated a conflict with a businessman Shabir who refused to be extorted and Shabir found himself, on common ground with Babla. Faheem, however struck, allegedly murdering Wahid Alam, Shabir’s brother, a while after Wahid had organized an attack on his home that left one dead and another injured. And Shabir was allegedly responsible, convicted and now out on bail for the murders of Faheem Khan’s mother, or Shafiq Khan’s widow, the aged Nazama Khatoon, who at one point was a known leader at Wasseypur.

‘The rivalry of Shafiq Khan and Faheem Khan with the ‘Singh Mansion’ is not so much,’ Said the Superintendent of Police RK Dhan, ‘It’s really them fighting themselves.’

The ‘Singh Mansion’ is really a collection of different Singhs who often share public office, especially standing on BJP tickets in contemporary times. They include Suryadev Singh (apparently Ramadhir Singh in the film), Baccha Singh, Ramadhin Singh, Shashi Singh and Khunti Singh. Suryadev was alleged responsible for the murder of one of the biggest mine owners V P Sinha decades ago and he died of natural causes in 1991. The Mansion had called for the banning of the film due to the negative portrayal they had received. Yet it is commonly known that the Singh Mansion had their own conflict with Suresh Singh who was murdered in December last year. The conflict between the Singhs was over the coal mines while it is generally known in Dhanbad that Shafiq Khan and his sons were never involved in the mines.

‘Shashi Singh murdered Suresh Singh, according to many witnesses’ Continues the Superintendent of Police.

Yet at the home of Faheem Khan, in Wasseypur, antagonism against the Singh Mansion exists, as it had become no secret that they were involved in providing assistance to the enemies of the family. Sultan, who lived close to Naya Bazaar was in open conflict with Shafiq and had the support of the Singh Mansion. Shabir who lived a mere ten seconds from Faheem Khan, had the support of the Singh Mansion. And spoken in whispers, the ambition of the Khans, led them onto a direct conflict course with the Singh Mansion.

A Dissenter Among the Violence

‘When I was young, a man was hacked up in front of us.’ Says W, a family member of one of the gangs of Dhanbad.

‘In front of you?’

‘Not really in front of me, but we saw the body parts in different bags.’

‘And?’

‘After that all of us were called later to talk to uncle. And uncle, was talking to us about something else, we never gave eye contact, and somehow we pretended nothing had happened.  The thing is, Javed Bhai, we really like to keep ourselves different from them, we know how they might use us, for this or that.’

The Man Who Wore Recycled Tires

A frail old man with glasses, sits quietly holding his arms at the ICU in Dhanbad Central Hospital – he can barely speak yet there was a time that his name was synonymous with the name of Dhanbad. A K Rai, was a chemical engineer, turned trade unionist who helped organize a majority of the mine workers on private mines in Dhanbad, who would be elected three times to office – , and would be in open conflict with the state machinery, the coal mafia and the private mine owners who’d dismiss workers on the slightest hint of organizing, or would hire goons to deal violently with the organizers and strikes.

‘We must’ve lost around 25 to 30 comrades in the 70’s.’ Said Comrade Ramlal, once a miner, than an organizer. He sits back to recall a story that started long before liberalization, long before nationalization, long before Naxalbari and the thousands of days of violence.

‘Before 1962, there were two central government collieries that had some wage structure, but there were some 60-65 private collieries where there was no minimum wages system.’

‘Back then, the bosses never even gave money in some of the collieries, they just had booze shops and their own ration shops. The message to the workers was to just work, and take what you get. And the workers were kept in camps, so they won’t run away. And there was no safety, nothing. There were a lot of movements then also, but the workers were often beaten into submission and there were many murders.’

‘It was during this time that A K Rai had come as a chemical engineer in some company. By day he used to work, by night he would teach in a school in one of the nearby villages.’

Strike after strike, beatings after beatings, the workers would even find themselves in a war of attrition with the coal mafia, especially against Suryadev Singh, who had workers killed and would find that the workers could also defend themselves. At one point A K Rai was convinced by the mine workers to stand for election. He would win for the first time in 1967 on an Assembly seat, then in 1969 to the Vidhan Sabha, again in 1972, then in 1977 after being arrested during the Emergency and only started to lose after 1991. The status of the three-time MP and the MLA stayed intact as a minister would be seen around Dhanbad standing in line to pay his electricity bill, or travel by train, standing in general compartment. Even today miners speak of a time in the 1970’s during the apex of the power of the unions and there is a legacy of the work that was done. Just this year, a one-day strike had helped increase the wages for the miners from Rs.17,000 to Rs.21,000 – this from virtual slave labour before unionization. However there are still no signs of health benefits or for pensions.

‘A K Rai, was probably the only minister who said that ministers should not take pensions.’ Said Divan, a colleague, and it was well known that the battle for pensions amongst the miners was never won. Today, an older generation of unionists speak of failures and the inability to combat the cultural hegemony that came with liberalization. Their children work as managers or in the private sector, a growing middle class has controlled elections, and they’ve slowly seen the diminishing of the power of the unions due to mechanization and less prominence of the Bharat Coking Coal Limited, who were the voting bank of A K Rai, who finally lost the elections in a landslide to the widow of a murdered Superintendent of Police in 1991.

There is even a well known story in Dhanbad of the assassins who had gone to kill A K Rai over a decade ago. They found a frail old man, who was elected to office three times, sweeping a party office early in the morning. They saw his shoes, made of recycled tire rubber, his meager demeanor and walked across a shop to confirm who is A K Rai. When they were sure they knew who it was, they entered the office, drank water, turned around and walked away.

‘Something about that man affected them,’ Said Divan, who also says that the board ‘Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union’ on their office, was the only thing about AK Rai and the labour movement visible in the film Gangs of Wasseypur. ‘I think the mind of this filmmaker was also globalized.’ He laughs.

The coal mafia was born the minute the coal started to leave earth with colliery after colliery owned by private individuals with their own private armies who’d all find themselves in conflict with the miners who began to organize themselves, and there seems to be a reason why every man above the age of forty who has lived in Dhanbad all his life seems to know the name of A K Rai, yet his name is even known amongst the youth.

‘There was probably no man who had done so much for the poor in Dhanbad.’ Said 24 year old Iqbal Khan, gangster or student, who would even say: ‘Krantikari.’

Yet the gang war seems to never end, as Shabir who was released from prison on bail still vows for revenge against the family of Faheem Khan, and local newspapers report that Iqbal, who had a ‘supari’ on his name when he was in the 12th, and is now merely 24, promising to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, a quiet old man who shook the earth is living the last of his days at Dhanbad Central Hospital, while the names of the miners who died in Chasnala fade from the memorial built for them.

***

Earlier this year, assigned to do a piece on ‘Gangs of Wasseypur: Reality vs. Movie’ for a magazine who agreed to fund a trip to Jharkand, the author took the chance to ask what the gangsters and mafia were really doing in Dhanbad over the last fifty years. However, the piece was re-written and published late by the magazine and WordPress has been blocked by certain internet connections. So, the author released an unedited version as a note on Facebook. 

Javed Iqbal is a freelance journalist and photographer who blogs at moon chasing.wordpress.com

Other articles by him on chai kadai-

A Short History of Death and Madness in Bastar. 09 July 2012

“Even if they don’t let us settle here…” 04 May 2012

The Last of The Asbestos Miners of Roro 23 January 2012

The War Dogma 19 October 2011.

When Individuality means Waging War Against the State. 11 October 2011