A Selection of Short Reads from 2017

28 December, 2017

To round up our year, here are some of our short stories from 2017, selected by The Caravan’s editors.

Was an IIMC Academic Sacked for Protesting the Dismissal of 25 Dalit Workers?

In October 2016, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication had laid off over 20 Dalit contractual workers. At the time, the institute had said the workers were let go because they were no longer required—a new contractor had been hired, who had brought along his own workers, and had chosen to not retain any old employees. Among the workers who were dismissed was the woman who in October 2015, had alleged that a clerk working for IIMC had raped her.

When I asked KG Suresh, the institution's director general, if the employment of  Narendra Singh Rao, an academic associated with IIMC, was terminated because he had spoken out against the sacking of 25 Dalit workers in October, Suresh said that he had no record of Rao’s objection, and that there was no evidence that he had spoken out against the sacking of the workers. “He didn’t give me anything on this in written,” Suresh said.

Sagar in January.

Troubled Waters

Families look for their lost loved ones at a barrage in Punjab

In Khanauri, which has a population of almost 11,000, a barrage stems the waters of the Bhakra main line canal—a 164-kilometre channel that supplies water to Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Many corpses wash up at the barrage, leading locals to call it “the place of dead bodies.” A hut at the barrage is plastered with missing-person notices of people from all over Punjab. According to Kulwender Singh, a policeman who accounts for the bodies, around 30 turn up each month. On 25 days out of 30, he said, there will be a family waiting near the hut, hoping to find a relative’s body.

Fiona Weber-Steinhaus in February.

The Other Side

An Indian left handers’ club seeks to set prejudice right

Such prejudice, Vishnoi explained, is a way of “labelling anything that shifts even slightly from the conventional—the majority—as wrong.” As he got older, he stopped paying attention to such rebukes, and his left-handedness never hindered his adult life. Still, he felt moved to help his fellow lefties. In 2009, on International Left-Handers’ Day, he started a networking community for lefties in Goa, where he was working. The group, called the Indian Left Hander Club, has since expanded greatly. It now carries out a variety of initiatives in about a dozen regional affiliates across the country, including in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bhopal, Indore, Jalgaon, Raipur and Ujjain, as well as the central Maharashtrian city of Aurangabad, where Vishnoi lives.

Mrunmayi Ainapure in February.

“I Understand the Project of Trans-Feminism to be About the Liberation of All Genders”: An Interview with the Poet and Performance Artist Alok Vaid-Menon

Skye Arundhati Thomas, a writer and critic, met Vaid-Menon before a performance at the Talera Institute of Fine and Applied Arts, in Pune. The two spoke about the legal recognition of the third gender in India, and the perils of seeing people within binaries, such as either cis or trans, or gay or straight. Vaid-Menon also spoke about opposing gender as a concept, as well as the value of kinship to those who don’t conform to a particular gender or sexuality.

Skye Arundhati Thomas in March.

A Violent End

The collapse of a murder trial weakens the fight against Hindu fundamentalism

The significance of the acquittals extended far beyond the case of Joshi’s killing. One of the theories that investigating agencies proposed for the murder was that it was linked to Joshi’s involvement in some of the most heinous acts of mass murder in India’s history: the Malegaon blasts of 2006, and the Samjhauta Express blast, the Ajmer Sharif blast and the Mecca Masjid blast of 2007, which, in all, killed 111 people. One of Joshi’s alleged co-conspirators in these attacks, a Hindutva activist named Pragya Singh Thakur, was among those accused, and then acquitted, of his murder. If Joshi’s killing erased key information about the blasts, the failure of the murder investigation further weakens the possibility that the larger network of conspiracies will be uncovered, and their perpetrators punished.

Leena Gita Reghunath in March.

Contempt in Court: Notes from Jethmalani’s Face-Off with Jaitley

It is fair to imagine that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who has elevated networking in Lutyens’ Delhi to an exalted art, lives in a world where people exist only as props to boost and massage his ego. His hangers-on, many of them well-known lawyers, journalists and politicians, play this role sincerely. Several of them were present, for instance, at the Delhi High Court on Sher Shah Suri Road on 6 and 7 March 2017, when the finance minister had to sit for his cross examination in a Rs 10-crore civil-defamation suit he had filed against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and five others of the Aam Aadmi Party for alleging that he was involved in corruption during his tenure as the president of the Delhi and District Cricket Association, or DDCA. But all the votaries could do little to halt the nonagenarian Ram Jethmalani in his line of questioning—as Kejriwal’s counsel, the maverick lawyer put on display not only his courtroom craft, but also the pleasure he derived from embarrassing the plaintiff, Jaitley.

Praveen Donthi in March.

From Victim to Accused: How a Thane Court Directed the Initiation of Perjury Proceedings Against a 16-Year-Old Who Alleged That Her Father Raped Her

In the summer of 2013, a 16-year-old young woman, who lived with her grandparents in Jaunpur, in Uttar Pradesh, visited her parents in Thane, near Mumbai, for the first time. The young woman had lived in Jaunpur since she was six months old—her mother, pregnant with a second child at the time and unable to take care of her daughter, had handed her over to her grandparents. Through her childhood, the young woman told me, she had dreamt of visiting Mumbai—a big city—where she could play with her siblings and be pampered by her ma and baba. She told me she had seen her father only once before—when she was about six years old, he had visited Jaunpur for a relative’s wedding. “Ma would come for a few days and return to Mumbai. It was never like a mother visiting her daughter, but like a guest visiting you during vacations,” she said. In 2013, she went to Mumbai, excited to meet her parents and siblings. Less than a year later, in April 2014, she filed a complaint at the Rabale police station, in Thane district, accusing her father of raping her five times since she came to stay with her parents. More than two years later, in December 2016, a Special Court established under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) acquitted her father, and directed that perjury proceedings be initiated against her.

Sukanya Shantha in March.

“I Don’t Think That Naxals Go About Business This Way”: On the Ground in Saharanpur, the Bhim Army’s Efforts Continue

“If you think that we are trying to steer our supporters in the direction of violence, you are terribly wrong,” Vinay Rattan, a co-founder of the Bhim Army, whom I met on 23 May, said. “All we want them to do is to understand that they need to respect themselves and demand that same respect from members of other communities as well.” Rattan added that leading up to the assembly elections in UP, the Bhim Army’s members had encouraged people to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party, but that it was now refraining from associating with electoral politics. “Now our only motive is to bring all Dalit communities together and create one consciousness.”

Kedar Nagarajan in May.

Uranium Exploration in Meghalaya’s Villages Continues Unabated Without Local Sanction and Despite Troubling Health and Environmental Concerns

Thongni is among 15 children I met in Nongtynniaw village who appeared to be suffering from congenital medical conditions. Borlin Marthang, Thongni’s father, told me that most children were physically handicapped, stunted and presented symptoms of mental-health issues, but were never officially diagnosed. Nongtynniaw, too, has little access to healthcare. The nearest primary health centre is 60 kilometres from the village. Marthang told me that when he took Thongni to the centre, the government’s health officials told him that Thongni did not suffer from any disability and only suffered from rickets—a bone disorder among children in which bones become soft and weak—and refused to give Thongni a disability certificate. Marthang offered an explanation: if the government gave Thongni a certificate, he said, “then they will have to give the other children [disability certificates] too and everyone will know something bad is happening here.”

Dilnaz Boga in May.

In Saharanpur, the Mass Mobilisation of Thakurs and the One-Sided Nature of Violence Suggests an Organised Attack against Dalits

According to the Dalit villagers, the police accompanied the Thakurs as they broke into Dalit houses and started attacking the occupants with weapons. All the injured Dalit residents I met in the hospital told me that they were attacked in the presence of the police—some also said that the police attacked them. Every Dalit resident I spoke to in the village told me they received no help from the police, but to the contrary, the police raided their homes alongside the Rajputs. “The police were with them,” Urmila told me. She said she heard the police guiding the Thakurs: “Teen ghante ka time de rakha tha unko. Kaha jo karna hai teen ghante mein kar lo’”—They [Thakurs] were given three-hours time. They [the police] said, ‘do what you want within three hours.’ Taravati, a woman in her sixties who lives in the house adjacent to Urmila’s, said she heard the police officers telling the Thakurs the same thing—“Do whatever you want for three hours.”

Sagar in May.

What Happens When a Kashmiri Joins the Indian Army

Many politicians released statements condemning Ummer’s killing, and others paid tributes to him for his service to the nation. Before burial, the army officer’s body was draped in the Indian tricolour. Soldiers offered a gun salute to their slain colleague, and lay wreaths by his body. These were extraordinary sights for villagers of Sarsuna who attended the funeral. The ceremonies at the funeral were a declaration that the young man was an officer of the Indian armed forces-a fact that many of then had, until then, been unaware of. “Nobody in the village knew that he was in the army.” Ummers’s uncle, Manzoor Ahmed Parray, said. “They believed he was studying outside.” “We knew he [had earlier] studied in army school but we did not know he was working with the army,” a villager, who asked not to be named, later told me.

Moazum Mohammad in June.

“Say, Pakistan Murdabad!”: A Reporter Recounts How a Mob in Delhi Assaulted him When They Identified Him as a Muslim

Meanwhile, several people in the mob surrounding me began to take photographs of my voter card with their phones. Since my card was issued in Kashmir, from where I hail, it included some Urdu lettering. This appeared to anger the mob even more. “This has Urdu on it,” someone said, referring to the card. “Yeh yahan ka nahi hai”—it is not from here. A man I didn’t know slapped me again. I attempted to remain calm, and tried to explain that this was the norm in Kashmir, and that the two languages—Urdu and English—are widely used in the state. While I was speaking, the mob kept jostling me around, and several people continued to hit me. I was unable to ascertain the identity of the attackers, and kept reiterating that I was a journalist.

Basit Malik in June.

Unaccounted For

The relentless efforts to get Islamic finance recognised in India

This problem—of Islamic finance being seen as a threat to the country’s secular fabric—has dogged its supporters for years now. If Islamic finance were “presented as an attempt to bring ethics into the existing banking and financial system,” Syed told me, “there would have been more acceptance from majority community leaders.” He said that Economic Initiatives, as well as other Islamic-finance organisations, have lately been avoiding the word “Islamic” to describe their programmes, preferring terms such as “interest-free and equitable financing,” “micro equity” and “mutual insurance.”

Anisha Sircar in July.

Missing Links

New DNA evidence is making the story of India’s past clearer than ever

The DNA results should go some way towards settling the question of the genetic relationship between the people of the Harappan civilisation and the current population of the subcontinent. What the DNA tests reveal—say, if they show that the Harappans had a close genetic affinity to the Indo-European language speakers who composed the Vedas, or to the Dravidian language speakers of the south—will not only shed light on the Harappans. It will also affect almost every question regarding the evolution of Indian civilisation after the decline of the Harappans—including the question of the possible migration of Indo-European speakers from outside the subcontinent into north-west India: the famous Aryan migration or invasion theory.

Hartosh Singh Bal in August.

Curating The Bound: The Public Memory of Partition Remains Woefully Caste-Blind

The domain of memory that Partition history now inhabits—where it is visible and plentiful—increasingly irons out the complexities of Partition politics to narrate moving, simple accounts of human suffering. The “human” subject in this project is often a free-floating agent disconnected from the realm of politics—a word almost invoked with disapproval, and which is understood largely as state- or national-level negotiations by prominent leaders. That personal and collective negotiations, transgressions and compromises underpinning disorderly social relations in everyday life is barely acknowledged. The near-absence of Rehgar Pura from the spatial map of Partition is a result of this: it is a sign of discomfort with the politics of caste, and the fear of politicising a tragedy.

Ravinder Kaur in August.

The Anatomy of a Fake Surrender: A Movement Against Bauxite Mining in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills and the State’s Efforts to Circumvent It

For the Maoists, Niyamgiri’s thick forests—on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—offer strategic cover for cadres on the run from fire up north. Its tactical importance for them has increased since the arrests of Maoist leaders such as Sabyasachi Panda and D Keshav Rao—who goes by the moniker Azad—in the past few years. For the Odisha Mining Corporation, the mining arm of the state government, the value of the hills lies in the region’s Lanjigarh-Niyamgiri deposit, which contains 88 million tonnes of bauxite. The OMC holds a claim over the deposit with a letter of intent towards a mining lease from the state government.  For the Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh communities, who live in the Niyamgiri hills, the hills are tied to their religion, their identity and their survival. They believe that Niyamraja—their god of universal law—rules the mountain.

Aruna Chandrasekhar in August.

Damnation: As Modi Inaugurates the Sardar Sarovar Dam, Villagers Await Rehabilitation Amid Rising Waters

The residents were being evicted as the quarter—comprising about 17 households—fell within the submergence zone of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, on the Narmada river. Like his neighbours, Bhaila demolished his house within a week of the revenue officials’ visit—but he did not demolish the grocery shop and a small room that had been built behind it. The other residents moved out of the area, to either seek refuge at their relatives’ homes in other parts of the village, or build temporary shelters that would not be submerged. But Bhaila and his wife Jili stayed put and stayed in the room behind the grocery shop. On 12 September, when I visited the area, it was surrounded by chest-high water. Bhaila’s room stood on elevated ground and was safe from the rising water at the time. “It does scare me,” Bhaila told me. “The water level rises by over one foot every day.”

Harsha Vadlamani in September.

In Conversation: The Uncharted Territories Covered by “Bheda,” The First Dalit Odia Novel

The book served as an important corrective to Odia literature, which has seen few representations of the Dalit experience. Bheda also brought to fore issues such as corporate loot of natural resources in Odisha, the resultant environmental degradation, and the Brahminisation of Odisha’s culture, among others.

In July 2017, an English translation of Bheda, by Raj Kumar, a professor at Delhi University who belongs to the same Kalahandi community as Naik, was published by Oxford University Press. Martand Kaushik, a senior assistant editor at The Caravan, spoke to Kumar about Bheda and the society it portrays.

Martand Kaushik in September.

This is Not That Dawn

The faux feminism of Bollywood’s new romantic comedy

These new depictions of sex and romance in Bollywood are as compromised as the practices they are based on. As a generation of young Indian men and women flirts with new forms of companionship, the problems with these arrangements are hardly ever addressed. While such relationships are celebrated as being “progressive” in popular cinema, they remain mired in regressive misogynistic webs that often go unquestioned. The films elide the precariousness of these arrangements, and how detrimental they can be to the less powerful participant (in this case, heterosexual women). Women must overcome centuries of indoctrination in order to experience the pleasures men take for granted- the sting of being discarded, too, is rather intense when your self-worth has been tethered to being accepted by a man throughout history. And they must do this in a world where women are still routinely shamed, punished and even killed for so much as expressing desire.

Kamayani Sharma in October.

Stifling the Truth

The government and media’s cover-up after the Goraphpur tragedy

The incident drew wide attention from both local and national media. However, within a few days of the tragedy, the coverage had lost its bearings. The details—what had caused the event and who was responsible for it—were obscured by many media outlets, perhaps deliberately. Since I have been reporting on the incident, I have talked to dozens of people associated with it and accessed several documents related to it. The information I have gathered can help construct a detailed chronology of what preceded the tragedy. This account makes it clear that the deaths happened because of negligence at several levels, including those of the hospital authorities, government officials and politicians. It also proves that not only have sections of the media helped the government in shielding those responsible, they have even aided it in making a scapegoat of a man who, in all likelihood, was innocent.

Manoj Singh in December.