Brahminical faculty and Dalit goondas: Conversations at the distressed Hyderabad University campus

Brahminical faculty and Dalit goondas: Conversations at the distressed Hyderabad University campus
Photo Credit: PTI
Total Views

By the third day, even the mundane started taking on meaning, or at least provoking questions. So it was with the sign that read “Regular Lunch” with a hand-drawn arrow pointing to a dining hall. Innocent no doubt, though occasion for a little head-scratching – what’s an “irregular lunch” then? But was there another way to read it: a subtle sign of discrimination perhaps? You folks of one type this way, you other folks over there?

No matter how far-fetched, in this climate, such trains of thought came easy.

It began with one of the first few people I met on the campus of the University of Hyderabad – G, a member of the staff. (Like some others, he wanted me to say no more to identify him than that much.) Otherwise genial and helpful, he turned serious as he himself brought up the protest that had shut down the campus. “These people, they are all Dalit goondas. What else can we expect from them?”

We discussed that a bit, but desultorily. What was there to say to someone who would so summarily dismiss an entire protest?

The story

Rohith Vemula’s suicide hangs over his sun-baked University like a cloud that won’t burst. His name, visage and lines from his eloquent suicide letter are everywhere. “Justice for Rohith” marks bus-shelters and hostel walls and road surfaces. (One stretch of road had “Resist Saffron Surge” in enormous letters). “Missing” posters feature the absent Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile. Some embellish his image into a rodent-like caricature; others are placed, meaningfully, above a “Ladies Toilet” sign and a “Sports Shooting Range” board. Several students turned up at my writing workshop wearing gags as a statement of protest. Several more wrote and spoke – heartfelt, passionate – about Vemula, what this tragic episode had come to mean to them, their wish that they could have done more, understood more.

Like G, most people I spoke to were eager to recount the episode. They invariably started from months earlier when an ABVP leader posted some less-than-complimentary remarks about campus Dalits on Facebook. Thirty students from the Ambedkar Students’ Association, or ASA – including Vemula – visited him that night. By nobody’s telling was this a friendly pow-wow. But whether it was a shouting match or worse, events then took on a momentum of their own. They went something like this, though not necessarily in this order: the ABVP leader claimed to have been assaulted; he was admitted to a hospital; he (or his mother) complained to local Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Bandaru Dattatreya; Dattatreya wrote a letter to Minister of Human Resource Development Smriti Irani alleging that University of Hyderabad was a hotbed of “casteist” and “anti-national” sentiment; a university inquiry absolved the ASA students; Irani’s office wrote to the University five different times over two months asking what action it had taken against the ASA students; another university inquiry suspended five of them including Vemula; they protested by settling into tents on campus; Vemula took his own life on January 17; the protest then engulfed the entire University, shutting down classes for two weeks; various politicians, including Rahul Gandhi and Akbaruddin Owaisi, arrived on campus.

With some variation, addition and omission, everyone offered up essentially this story.

Divided campus

Yet to this outsider, it seems to have utterly divided the campus. If you agreed with the protests, there were those like G to brand you “lazy” at best and a “Dalit goonda” at worst. If you fretted at the shutdown of classes, there were those who would accuse you of being “elitist” and an “upper caste sympathiser”.

People on both “sides” told me about a team of professors who arrived at the protest site on January 21 to attempt a dialogue, only to be driven away with this chanted slogan: “Brahminical faculty go back”. One side saw this as reprehensible. But R and P (names withheld again), presumably on the other side, told me that these professors had “a record of being Brahminical”, and if the label fits …

If professors deserve that label, do protesters similarly deserve the “Dalit goonda” label?

And all through my few days there, three other currents flowed like a river in spate through the campus.

One, the feverish hand-wringing about the “politicisation” of the tragedy, referring to the arrival on campus of Gandhi and Owaisi and others. Yet somehow that earlier letter written by a politician named Dattatreya occasioned no such hand-wringing. What else was that but politicisation?

Two, the wrangles over Vemula’s caste that disturbed, for example, even some who wanted classes to resume. Rather than address the concerns this sad episode raises, there were strenuous attempts to suggest that Vemula was not a Dalit. That by itself tells a tale of how deeply rooted caste is in us all. As an off-campus Hyderabad friend, Harimohan Paruvu,wrote on his blog, “What does it make us, whom [Vemula] left behind?”

Three, the anguish of the “middle-grounder”, expressed eloquently in a short essay on Facebook by a faculty member, Anjali Lal Gupta. Was it no longer possible to consider nuance, to listen, to attempt dialogue? Where was the space for people who wanted those things – who believed they lived them – and yet were met with scorn for merely speaking about them? M, a student I met, actually wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke of how her good friends from just two weeks earlier now sat apart from her in their classes.

Speaking at the protest site on February 2, the thinker and writer Yogendra Yadav summed up the import of all this. The real impact of this wrenching upheaval on the University of Hyderabad campus, he said, would not be evident in a few days or weeks. Instead, it will be judged by what the campus is like in 20 years.

Indeed. What will we, whom Vemula left behind, be like in 20 years?


They called him ‘AGK Sir’: AG Krishnamurthy (1942-2016), the man behind Mudra and MICA

They called him 'AGK Sir': AG Krishnamurthy (1942-2016), the man behind Mudra and MICA
Total Views

In a lifetime spent in advertising, I have come to know plenty of fascinating personalities. But I must confess that AGK was not one of them. In fact, as he himself would readily admit, he was one of the more colourless people in the industry. And that is what makes his success story so much more interesting.

I first met AGK many years ago, when we were working on the launch of a new brand of textiles that would ultimately be known to the world as Vimal. I was a star kid copywriter, famous for having created award-winning work for Raymond’s. AGK was the Advertising Manager of Reliance, our client. Our relationship at the time was – as such copywriter-client relationships often are – not without friction. So when we were told a couple of years later that Reliance had decided to start its own advertising agency, to be headed by AGK, we didn’t hold out any great hope for it – especially since the agency was going to be headquartered not in Mumbai, but in the advertising backwaters of Ahmedabad. We were wrong.

The agency was named Mudra, inspired by a line my agency had coined for Vimal Saris: “A woman expresses herself in many languages. Vimal is one of them”, with its accompanying graphic of a woman’s hand in a Bharatnatyam mudra. The fact that “mudra” also refers to money, of course, made the name a perfect fit for a communication business.

The Ahmedabad Syndrome

By the mid-1980s one started seeing some rather interesting work coming out of Mudra. It was not the kind of work that would necessarily win awards for creativity, but the kind that built solid brands. One began to realise, then, the wisdom in basing the agency in Ahmedabad.

Thanks to what former P&G honcho Gurcharan Das had famously called “The Ahmedabad Syndrome”, the city was home to a breed of ambitious Gujarati entrepreneurs, who were now looking to move their businesses up the value chain and needed branding support – support that Mudra, of course, was ideally positioned to offer them. And thus were born brands like Rasna, Dhara cooking oil, Moov pain cream, Krack foot cream, Symphony air coolers, Zydus Cadilla pharmaceuticals and Wagh Bakri tea.

Mudra expanded its footprint and by the end of the 1980s, to everybody’s surprise, it suddenly emerged as India’s No 3 ad agency after JWT and Lowe. AGK had proved all the disbelievers wrong, and lived out the agency’s theme line of the time: “If you can dream it, you can do it”.

‘Leave your ego outside’

The success of the dark horse agency surprised a lot of people. I remember asking friends at Mudra what the secret was, and I got some interesting replies. One friend told me that AGK believed that ad agencies tended to foster a culture of prima donnas and indiscipline, and that one of his dicta, therefore, was, “When you come to the office, please leave your ego outside. You can collect it when you’re going home in the evening.”

Someone else told me a story about how AGK treated his staff. He said he had gone into AGK’s office to resign. As soon as he entered, AGK handed him an envelope with a hefty performance bonus inside. My acquaintance was embarrassed, as this made his position more awkward than it already was. Nevertheless, he told AGK he was quitting, and when he finally got up to leave, he left behind the envelope with the bonus. But AGK called after him, “You forgot to take this.” When my acquaintance hesitated, AGK smiled, handed it to him and said, “This is for what you’ve done in the past. The fact that you’re now quitting has nothing to do with it.” How many people, my acquaintance asked, would have been big enough to do that?

Transition to education

Having created India’s third largest ad agency, AGK – or “AGK sir”, as he was sometimes called – went on to set up MICA, India’s first post-graduate advertising and communications school, with a view to increasing India’s talent pool. It was something people had been talking about for a long, long time, but he was the first person to roll up his sleeves and actually do it.

It was a real coup – especially when he got Mani Ayer, who had recently retired as Managing Director of Ogilvy, to be the school’s Director. I happened to be on the visiting faculty, and I remember once bumping into AGK on the premises. To my surprise, he remembered me from the time, many years before, when we had worked on the Vimal launch together. He took me for a walk around the grounds, proudly pointing out, among other things, the line of trees bearing the names of the visiting VIPs who had planted them.

The next time I caught up with AGK was in his subsequent avatar, ten years later, in Hyderabad. By now, he had retired from Mudra and set up his own brand consultancy. He was, therefore, brand consultant to some of my agency’s clients, and sat across the table from us at meetings. He was a tough, demanding client, and whatever might have changed about him over the years, one thing that evidently hadn’t changed was his dictum of, “Please leave your ego outside”.

Dinners at the Ritz

One of the clients we shared was the CARE Hospitals Group, and the two of us had to make trips to Mumbai together to meet the venture capitalists who had taken a stake in the company and wanted to review its branding concerns. And it was over dinners at the Ritz Hotel – AGK’s regular Mumbai haunt – that I got to know something about the person behind the taciturn exterior.

He told me about his life, and the parts chance and risk had played in it. It seemed surprising coming from somebody who appeared to be driven entirely by conviction and drive. He told me how he had started out working in a museum, and then got an offer to work for the well-known Calico textile museum set up by the Sarabhai family.

From there, chance had brought him into advertising, with an opportunity to work in the Sarabhai Group’s house agency, Shilpi (now defunct). Then, once again, chance had gotten him a job offer from Dhirubhai Ambani, who was in the process of setting up Reliance at the time. He thus found himself in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.

He told me stories of Dhirubhai, with whom he had worked closely in those early years, and his remarkable way of thinking and operating. It was such an irony, I remember him saying, that a man with such a remarkable brain should have suffered from – of all things – a cerebral stroke. He also talked of Dr Verghese Kurien, the father of Amul, evidently another person whom he idolised.

His two “children”

He also spoke about his two “children”, Mudra and MICA. But there seemed to be some element of regret as well. When I asked him, for example, what he would do differently if he could live his life all over again, he thought for a moment and said that he should have perhaps left Mudra 10 years earlier and moved on to do other things. He didn’t say more, and I didn’t want to ask.

The last time I met AGK was five years ago. He was brand consultant to an industrial group which was a client of my agency. We were working on a vexing brand strategy project for them and he, typically, pushed us hard. But I will say this: what I discovered about branding while working on that two-month project is what I would have otherwise taken a year to discover. And that is something I think a lot of people would say about the way he had of bringing out the best in them.


The Daily Fix: Rohith Vemula’s death isn’t just because of Hindutva, plus nine other weekend reads

The Daily Fix: Rohith Vemula's death isn't just because of Hindutva, plus nine other weekend reads
Total Views

The Latest: Top stories of the day
1. With Maharashtra chief minister planning to step in, activists and the management of the Shani Shingnapur temple met to discuss the demand of letting women pray in its inner sanctum.
2. An investigative report into the death of a six-year-old in a Delhi school concluded that a “heinous crime” had been committed.
3. Shane Watson emerged as the most expensive player, at Rs 9.5 crore, with Pawan Negi being the priciest Indian player at Rs 8.5 crore, in Saturday’s auction for the indian Premier League.

Weekend Reads
1. Puja Mehra in the Hindu tells of how Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian disagreed with Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan on India’s growth, and how the former made the wrong call.
2. In the aftermath of the Deonar dump fire, the Indian Express took a look at how India’s metros manage waste.
3. Nissim Mannathukkaren in the Hindu reminds us that what happened to Rohith Vemula isn’t only because of Hindutva: all of us are to blame.
4. At 74, Meenakshi Gurrukal is probably the oldest practitioner of Kerala’s ancient martial art, Kalaripayattu, writes Supriya Unni Nair for the News Minute.
5. No one has held Pakistan to account for its hand in the rise of international jihad, writes Carlotta Gall in the New York Times.
6. Aditi Phadnis in the Business Standard tells the story of the Maihar assembly seat in Madhya Pradesh, and why next week’s bypoll will be crucial for the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
7. No other batsman ever turned a dismissal into as much comic relief as Inzamam-ul-Haq, writes Imran Yusuf in the Cricket Monthly.
8. Indian theatre, from Assam to Goa, is attracting youngsters and treading new ground, asBlink covers.
9. A Lord of the Rings-inspired space opera wants to connect you with African mythology, writes Jackie Bischof in Quartz.
10. US President Barack Obama’s candid speech about Islamophobia in America is worth reading, in full.
11. Meet the journalist who is crusading against the Bohra practice of female genital mutilation.

Why the sun is setting on the Boeing 747

Why the sun is setting on the Boeing 747
Photo Credit: pixabay
Total Views
It’s difficult to imagine now, in the age of mass global travel, that building an aeroplane to carry hundreds of people at a time was once seen as a huge risk. But as the world’s first wide-body airliner, the Boeing 747 went on to change not only aviation but the entire tourism industry. Its economic design did much to move international travel within reach of middle-class holiday goers rather than just the privileged few.

However, the venerable Boeing 747 may be nearing the end of its production life – its manufacturing rate is to be halved to six a year. A shift towards newer and more efficient aircraft that can land at smaller (and so more) airports and a tendency to use former passenger planes for freight has reduced the remaining 747 order book to just 20, after building more than 1,500 since 1969.

Boeing’s decision to develop a new, giant airliner bigger than those of its competitors in the mid-1960s was a very bold move. It was a huge commercial risk that required borrowing some $2bn from a banking consortium, the largest amount of money ever borrowed by any corporation at that time. The gamble also involved buying a 780-acre site near Seattle to build a totally new manufacturing site, and promising to deliver its first orders in a shorter time than any normal projection to develop such a large aircraft.


But more than this, the company was throwing its resources into creating the world’s largest, widest, and (bar the much smaller Concorde) most technically advanced airliner, and doing so in a very complex market. Boeing’s competitors were also developing slightly smaller wide-body aircraft – defined as having two aisles or a cabin wider than 200 inches – that launched within two years of the 747’s 1969 debut.

But also, much of the world expected the future of air transport to be supersonic. Even Boeing hedged its bets somewhat by deliberately designing the 747 to be adapted as a freighter, in case supersonic passenger travel became the norm.

Compared to the competing McDonnell Douglas DC10 and Lockheed L1011 Tristar, the 747 was bigger and more expensive, carrying four instead of three engines (the most expensive components). But the fourth engine gave the plane a significant safety advantage in that it would retain much greater propulsion power if one of the engines failed. These engines – the Pratt and Whitney JT9D and the similarly sized Rolls Royce RB211 – also provided much greater power and better fuel economy than was previously available.

Two engines too many

The nose of the Boeing 747.
The nose of the Boeing 747.

Today, the industry has moved towards twin-engine aeroplanes such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330, with three-engine aeroplanes being relatively unpopular because of the high labour costs of working on an engine bedded into the aeroplane fin. The four-engine 747 retained a clear place in the market because twin-engine planes must stay within a certain distance from an airport in case of engine failure. This allowed the 747 to achieve shorter journey times on the longest routes because it can use more direct flight paths.

However, improving engine reliability means authorities have slowly increased the distance a twin-engine airliner can fly from a runway, gradually reducing the advantage of having four engines. And of course, those newer, more reliable engines have also been bigger and more efficient.

Of course, the slowdown in 747 production doesn’t mean the original jumbo jet will disappear from our skies just yet. The latest models are much longer, bigger and operate with more modern engines and instruments than the earlier 747-100s (no longer do the crew have to take sextant readings through the cockpit roof), and the newer aircraft are likely to stay in service for at least another 20 years.

The size and flexibility of the design also mean the 747 provides some very specialist functions. For example, a joint US/German project has built a giant infrared space telescopeinto one. The US Air Force has installed a chemical laser into another as part of its Star Wars programme, and has successfully used it in tests to shoot down ballistic missiles.

However, the 747 has probably been improved as much as it can be. The four-engine wide-body aircraft may not be dead yet, but the 747’s nearest competitor the Airbus A380 has also suffered from the shift to smaller and more flexible aircraft and took no new orders last year. Boeing itself has moved on to other models, most recently the lightweight 787.

Still, the original jumbo jet will always be the aircraft that made Boeing into the global leader it is today, helping bring long-distance air travel to many of us who previously could never have dreamed of it.


Why no book-buying expedition can still match a visit to the Kolkata Book Fair

Why no book-buying expedition can still match a visit to the Kolkata Book Fair
Photo Credit: IANS
Total Views

I had been warned about the dust time and again. Magazine articles, friends, all warned, bhishon dhulo (awfully dusty)! So I was prepared for the 2016 Kolkata Book Fair to be something akin to the Thar Desert. What I had not expected, however, was the music. And the public announcements. But more on that later. First, a few necessary facts about the Kolkata Book Fair, or Boi Mela, as everyone knows it.

An annual affair, the Kolkata Book Fair runs for 12 days from the end of January to the second Sunday of February. Now in its 40th year, it has seen various ups and downs, including a devastating fire (the fair was back and running in three days though one person died of a heart attack and over 100,000 books were destroyed), a major shift in venue, rains and such cataclysms. It’s one of the largest retail book fairs in the world (as opposed to trade fairs like Frankfurt and London). Such facts aside, it has remained an important part of the city’s social and cultural calendar because, well, Bengalis and books and kaalchar, and the fact that it melds “books” and “fair” spectacularly.

Ghosts of Boi Mela past

I had last been to the fair more than a decade ago, when it was still held at the Maidan – that massive patch of green in the heart of the city. From that era I held an abiding memory of long queues, where people waited patiently (maybe not so patiently sometimes) to enter the stalls of major English and Bengali publishers.

I had felt privileged and very relieved since I worked in a publishing house that was one of these hot destinations and so I could safely enter the stall as and when I pleased without a thirty-minute wait. I had even manned a few counters and convinced buyers to pick up books of my choice.

This time I was there purely as a visitor and I intended to make the best use of the one day I would get for this. That brings me back to the music. Soon after entering the Milan Mela ground, and while I was just about getting my bearings on which way to head, the Boi Mela Song started playing.

Yes, those capital letters are deliberate. It’s a song exhorting every Calcuttan worth their salt to visit the fair. The rest of the lyrics have now buried themselves somewhere in my brain under all the other noise, and all I remember is a cheerful warbling of “boi mela boi mela”. Doesn’t sound so bad, but as it accompanies you to every stall you visit, or when you sit awhile to rest the feet and tired shoulders, or when you are buying a much needed cup of tea or some ice cream, then there comes upon oneself a great desire to swat the song away like a pesky fly.

Sometimes it would stop. To be replaced by other songs – Tagore’s songs, aka Rabindrasangeet, and The Beatles – or poetry recitations. And when those stopped there would be a kindly voice telling you not to litter, that the fair had participants from all over the country and that there was a free shuttle service from Park Circus to the mela venue if you wanted it. I later noticed that this song was being played at many traffic signals too, so it basically accompanied you wherever you went in the city.

Song notwithstanding, I plunged into the maze of halls, each named after a famous litterateur and then on to the stalls which were out in the open. Discounted books, used books, brand new books, books in Hindi, they all started popping up on my path. I asked the Hindi stall person what kind of business he was hoping for. He shrugged, it was early days yet, the number of people reading in Hindi wasn’t that many, but there was enough for his company to set up shop and he hoped to do good enough business. He refused to be more specific.

I soon made my first buys at Bookline. It had books at huge discounts as well as those selling at almost the printed price. As I browsed, I heard someone yelling “Madam, madam!” I looked up to see an ex-colleague waving frantically. Cut to ten minutes of exchanging news and gossip and discussion about the state of the book industry and where does one go next in one’s career. We agreed we were going to live and die among books and in the publishing business.

With that cheerful thought, I moved on from hall to hall. Taking up a large space, Patra Bharati had a big range of books for children too. I gravitated towards those and spent time leafing through many collections of comics. There were the old Bengalu favourites like Handa Bhonda, Nante Fante (also in English, which I bought) and a detective series named Black Diamond whom I had not encountered earlier. The cover was dramatic enough with a man standing in front of an onrushing train and held much promise of action and adventure.

Brewing something else

By now the buys were enough to start weighing the shoulders down so I wandered over to the tea stall. There my friend and I were greeted with great enthusiasm by a bevy of people. They had a new variety of a paper tea cup that held the tea bag within it. You can buy one cup for twenty rupees – and get two more cups FREE using that same cup, we were informed by all those standing around and whom I had taken to be customers like us.

There was much questioning and answering on how we wanted our teas and finally with the nicely warm cups in hand we sat down to refuel for a bit. Appropriately, a stall selling jute bags had a very ugly bag with this wonderful quote from Tagore printed on it: “Come oh come, ye tea-thirsty restless ones, the kettle boils, bubbles and sings musically.”

A largish Bangladesh pavilion appeared soon in front of me. It had a number of small stalls and I could only marvel at my ignorance about Bangladeshi writing. There were some interesting and good looking books for children by contemporary writers here, including the ubiquitous Humayun Ahmed. I, however, had a fit of nostalgia and picked up a slim hardbound edition of Leo Tolstoy’s stories for children translated into Bengali with their original black and white drawings. It reminded me of the Russian books we read as children and the drawings themselves were beautiful. It cost a princely sum of seventy-five rupees.

More wandering and an ice cream later I panicked realising I was yet to visit the big stalls of Ananda Publishers, Dey’s Publishing and a few more. I hotfooted into those. Deys was already full enough to have just some elbow room. I browsed a book on Banglar Pakhi (The Birds of Bengal), recoiled at large stacks of the writings of such luminaries as Tagore and JC Bose and Upendrakishore Ray arranged into worthy topics like science and social studies. My buy here – Dadabhaier Deyala (Dadabhai’s Mischief) by Gaganendranath Tagore, and illustrated by him.

At Dey’s, while moving from one section to the next, I stopped at the section on books on cinema. Near me, stood an old gentleman in a dhoti and shawl and carrying a jhola. He waited patiently till the person at the counter was free to attend to him and asked for (what seemed to me) an obscure book on the zamindari system and land rights in Bengal. The boys needed only a few minutes to locate it (perhaps it wasn’t so obscure after all). Their buyer stood and leisurely turned the pages of the thick book for a while before telling them to bill it.

Start-ups at play

Outside, every semblance of winter had disappeared, the sun was hammering in. As I stood wondering which way to head next and tried to make sense of the Fair directory and map (the stalls don’t always follow each other numerically) I found a boy of about 10 at my side holding a sheaf of newsletters. The small publications and newsletters are all over the place, each being offered by someone with an accompanying explanation of why it was produced and by whom. I had already paid five rupees for one by a LGBT rights organisation.

This boy, part of a children’s drama troupe in north Kolkata was offering the newsletter called Boi Melar Diary that consisted of short pieces by him and his friends on their experiences at the book fair. As I stopped to talk to him, immediately 3-4 others gathered around. He handed out the newsletter to all and when one started to walk off with it, called after him saying, Eta free na! (It’s not for free!)

Priced at ten rupees each, he and a few more of his friends were selling these to raise funds for their troupe. What plays have you performed? Dakghar, Obak Jolpaan, Lokkhoner Shaktishel he reeled off a list of names. And are people buying the newsletter? Yes, he said proudly, he had sold twenty already, this was their first day and the weekend would see lots of visitors. I hoped they would cover the printing cost of the newsletter and make some more, as I bought a copy.

The smell of popcorn and the calls to come taste some chaat were building up, clashing with my old friend the boi mela song. My shoulder was telling me to call it a day, as was the call for some water and food from the stomach. I headed back to the gate making my way past the artists who had set up their tables and tarps on the ground. A man waylaid me to try out churans and to buy greeting cards from his “NGO”. What does your NGO do, I asked.Lokeder shahajjo (helping people) was the supremely vague reply.

With that ended my one day at the boi mela after a decade. I learnt later that on the Sunday of the following weekend 10 lakh people had visited the Fair. I am hundreds of miles away in another part of the country now, and I wish the many lakhs who will visit till the last day on February 7 a suitably intellectual, bodily wearying and aurally challenging time. And no, there wasn’t that much of dhulo.


‘Bad elements’ or ‘no orders to control’: Who was responsible for Andhra train burning?

'Bad elements' or 'no orders to control': Who was responsible for Andhra train burning?Photo Credit: Mridula Chari
Total Views

On Sunday afternoon, Y Jaswanth boarded the Ratnachal Express from Visakhapatnam to Vijayawada at Tuni, a small town of 53,000 people in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. Jaswanth, his wife and son hoped to reach Vijayawada by 6.30 that evening. Instead, their journey ended a few kilometres beyond Tuni.

Late that evening, reports began to trickle in that protestors at a massive rally calling for reservations for the Kapu caste had set a train on fire and attacked government property. That was the train Jaswanth was on.

The rally was at a field in Velama Kothuru, a small village off the Howrah-Chennai national highway, where a few signs of the protest that shook the state are still visible. Hundreds of watermelon rinds were scattered at the site of the protest, as were remnants of water packets. While there did not seem to be any attempts to clear the grounds, the railway did not have the same luxury.

A group of around 30 employees were hard at work replacing elastic rail clips, heavy steel clips that hold railway sleepers in place.

“The people had removed the clips and thrown them far out into the fields,” said S Padanna, a senior section engineer of the railways at the site. “They also moved the sleepers 200 metres to one side to stop the train. All this took a long time to put back into place.”

Workers get the tracks ready for traffic again.
Workers get the tracks ready for traffic again.

Velama Kothuru might seem an unlikely spot for a protest of the scale witnessed on Sunday. It is, in fact, a regular venue for political rallies, with its uncultivated fields of almost 100 acres along the highway being regularly rented out for events. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has campaigned here.

On Sunday evening, the village that had absorbed so many political events before, was stirred by unprecedented violence, when protestors at the Kapu rally stopped a train and set it alight.

What happened?

Protestors at the rally stopped the train at 3.20 pm on Sunday. At around five, they asked passengers to leave the train, saying that there would be a fire.

“I didn’t believe them at first,” said Jaswanth. “I thought they only wanted us to get off the train for their own purposes.”

Before the train burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth
Before the train burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth

However, unidentified people set two coaches ablaze. When he saw the flames, Jaswanth was no longer in doubt. He, his wife and son left the train with their belongings and began the five-kilometre trek back to Tuni. It took them two hours.

Back at Velama Kothuru, the fire rapidly spread from the first two coaches to the rest of the train. All but one of its 24 coaches were gutted. The most expensive component of a train – its engine worth Rs 25 crore – was also damaged beyond repair.

The train stands now at Tuni station, where it was brought at 2 am, once the fire brigade finally managed to douse its flames.

“We have put it on a loop line [which bypasses the main one] so now the schedule is not affected,” said MD Srinivas, station superintendent at the small town’s railway station. “But the train cannot be salvaged. After the police finish their investigation, it will have to go for scrap.”

The police has formed seven teams to investigate the incident, with officials drawn from across the district and state. The station itself now bristles with representatives from the Railway Protection Force and local police. A car with the helpful sign “Clues” is parked at the station entrance. Its occupants had gone for an extended tea break.

The scene at Tuni station, where the remnants of the gutted Ratnachal Express now stand.
The scene at Tuni station, where the remnants of the gutted Ratnachal Express now stand.

Railway authorities estimate the damage to be around Rs 13 crores, but their loss goes beyond one train, Padanna said. Sixteen trains were cancelled because of the blocked line, which meant that the fares of disgruntled passengers had to be refunded. In the initial confusion following the return of passengers who had left their station only a few hours ago, railway authorities also denied them any refund. They insisted instead on retaining Rs 30 as cancellation charges, as per existing railway rules. Only passenger outrage, said Jaswanth, forced them to relent and return the full amount of Rs 700.

Kapus allege conspiracy

Reports of the size of the rally vary, pegging the crowd at anything between five lakh to eight lakh attendees.

Mudragada Padmanabhan, the Kapu leader who had announced the rally two months ago, said that Kapus had nothing at all to do with the violence. Instead, it was “bad elements” in the crowd, allegedly planted by the government, who caused the entire violence.

“We got the approval for the rally in advance,” Padmanabhan said. “There was no lathi-charge there. Our people were cool and the police were cool. We faced no aggression. So how could this have suddenly occurred then?”

Padmanabhan also alleged that these “bad elements” were at work even before they stopped the train – his generator was unplugged and his microphone switched off mid-speech.

“This is a conspiracy to dilute our agitation,” he said. “Why else would the police go away during the meeting?”

Protestors perch on the engine of the train before it is burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth
Protestors perch on the engine of the train before it is burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth

The police version

Why indeed did the police abandon their post? Some answers might be had at the Velama Kothuru police station, which is not inside the village, but a few hundred metres away, adjacent to the meeting ground.

Padmanabhan had informed the police about the rally, permission for which, said head constable at the station, T Prasada Rao, came from the chief minister himself. Although there were 2,800 police officials on duty that day, drawn from all neighbouring villages, they were unable to withstand the crowd, Rao added.

“First they burnt the train and when we tried to stop them, they attacked us instead,” he said. “We had to run away.”

The mob burnt 26 four-wheel vehicles, including new Boleros belonging to the superintendent of police and the deputy superintendent. They also set fire to 40 two-wheelers and the records rooms of the Velama Kothuru police station. Rao’s own car, a privately owned Indica, parked at the police living quarters a few hundred metres away, was also burnt, he said.

“We got no order for lathi-charge from above,” Rao said. “If we had, we could have done something. They told us to wait, which is why we could not control the crowd.”

Burnt vehicles at Velama Kothuru police station. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth
Burnt vehicles at Velama Kothuru police station. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth

By nine that night, the crowd had moved ahead to Tuni, where the police station bears signs of their vandalism, including a soot-blackened porch and windows with holes the size of stones in them.

Up to 33 cases have been registered so far, but there have as yet been no arrests.


Remembering the legacy of Bhupen Khakhar, India’s first openly gay artist

Remembering the legacy of Bhupen Khakhar, India’s first openly gay artist12.7K
Total Views

This is the full text of a presentation prepared by Ranjit Hoskote for the symposium, ‘Remembering Bhupen’, held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi on January 27.


It seems faintly absurd to discuss the question of Bhupen Khakhar’s legacy in a country that legally regards one of the most defining aspects of his life and art as criminal behaviour.

Bhupen Khakhar was India’s first openly gay artist. From the 1980s onwards, he asserted a defiantly adversarial stance both as artist and as social subjectivity: he began to take the intimate and social fact of alternative sexuality as his dominant subject, articulating the everyday life, emotional states, fantasies, anxieties and aspirations of the homoerotic self.

Article 377 of Chapter XVI of the Indian Penal Code (1860) is unambiguous: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to [a] fine.” Although convictions under this colonial-era provision are admittedly rare, its continued existence as law condemns a large number of Indian citizens to the shadowlands, their life choices stigmatized as being – in a singularly sweeping and theological phrase, for a secular nation-state – “against the order of nature”.

Bhupen was adept at camouflaging the radical and transgressive nature of his art in the guise of ludic eccentricity or the stylised whimsicality of the everyday. Nonetheless, he very legibly asserted the liberty of the individual to fashion his or her own life in defiance of prevailing norms, and also actively challenged the stability and validity of such norms through his work.

Can such an artist really find accommodation in the public sphere of early 21st century India, which has been held hostage by a violent and expansive politics that has invaded every aspect of human consciousness, behaviour, interaction and congregation? Assuming the form of an aggressive, illiberal, demagogic populism, this form of politics has exceeded the parameters of the State allotted to it by Enlightenment political theory, and overrun civil society and the market as well. Whether through mob action or through sanction from those in authority, it has menaced and placed in question the right of artists and writers to explore reality in an idiosyncratic or critical manner, to enter a discussion at an oblique angle or exit it at a tangent, to propose a dissenting view or a dissident perspective.

My fear is that, if India’s public sphere continues to be held hostage by such a politics of illiberalism, it is extremely unlikely that Bhupen’s art, thought and life will leave any mark on Indian culture at large. He will, of course, live on in the hearts, minds and books of his friends and admirers – this gathering offers eloquent testimony to the fact – but this will be strictly the special interest of the arts community.

Given these circumstances, I would congratulate the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, and its Director, Professor Rajeev Lochan, on the courageous decision to present a substantial exhibition of Bhupen’s work. This decision clearly springs from a desire to keep the gates of discussion and understanding open.



We on this panel have been invited to address the question of Bhupen’s legacy – a word that carries with it an aura of unbroken continuity, suggesting a productive relationship between a past that offers the gift of its achievements to a future that receives them appreciatively, as part of its memory and self-understanding. Unfortunately, the historical record is not uniformly encouraging on this subject. Amnesia, erasure and rupture have more often been the fate that great art has met.

There is no assurance whatever that the memory of great art will be preserved for posterity. The Old Stone Age caves of Lascaux would have remained buried forever, had a dog bearing the remarkable name of Robot not fallen down a hole made by the rain in 1940, obliging his owners to dig down into the earth. The Buddhist painted caves of Ajanta, executed between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD, had been reclaimed by the jungle and were lost to public consciousness for more than a millennium, until they were quite fortuitously discovered in 1819 by a British hunting party.

There is no guarantee whatever that the work of a great artist will turn into a benchmark for the future by itself, or by some fictional general consensus. Without the apparatus of museum retrospectives, mid-career surveys, monographic exhibitions and critical writing, many 20th-century artists would be destined to remain last among equals, or be consigned to the unexplored corners of the reserve collections of the world’s great institutions.

In brief, there is no such eternal and stable fact as collective memory, on which we may safely rely for the transmission of a legacy from the past to the future. The collective memory of a society is a fluid construct: the outcome of discussions and negotiations, the hybrid fruit of belief, ideological dogma and historical inquiry.


For myself, I respond most strongly to what I have elsewhere described as Bhupen’s ‘religious imagination’. I have spoken of Bhupen as an “icon-maker in an age without religious certitudes” – as an artist who found himself in a world of anomie, a world alienated and disenchanted by instrumental reason, routinisation and the fetishisation of cultural objects, and sought to re-enchant the depleted experience of being by transforming it into an utsav, a ceaseless and unpredictable festivity. He returned constantly to the rich, splendid and playful iconography of Krishna-as-Shrinathji, central to the Pushti-marga, and offered us his translations and adaptations of it.

Did Bhupen hope, perhaps, to retrieve the sacred from the monopoly of politicised religiosity, reclaim it from those who would fetishise and ossify it? Did he hope to bring the sacred back into public circulation as a lavish energy of redemption, which resists the names and forms in which the orthodox trap it? And what future might such a project have in a society where hard-edged, politicised versions of religious belief are rapidly gaining ascendancy in a demographic and territorial struggle that has nothing to do with spiritual experience? The erotic body of the voluptuary and the austere body of the renunciate, so often melded in Bhupen’s art, will perhaps always be held apart in such a society; we will measure the loss in a narrowing of our imaginative capacities, our human potentialities.



Intizar Husain (1923-2016): The Pakistani writer who mourned what the Partition did not bring

Intizar Husain (1923-2016): The Pakistani writer who mourned what the Partition did not bringPhoto Credit: Tanveer Shehzad / Dawn
Total Views

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for 2013, Intizar Husain (1923-2016) has chronicled the changes that unspooled from the Partition of 1947 possibly like no other writer from the Indian subcontinent. Starting his literary career close on the heels of Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), he too has viewed the events of 1947 as an immense human tragedy; however, unlike Manto and the other writers associated with the powerful literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Intizar Husain has shown no predilection for depicting the communal violence that spiralled out of Independence.

If Manto probed the horrors of Partition with all the delicacy of a camp surgeon, laying bare a sick, ailing society like “a patient etherised upon a table”, Intizar sahib has chosen to view Partition as hijrat or migration; the greatest cross-border migration in recent history, which he repeatedly likens to a recurrent historical partition, is for him brimful with the possibility of exploring the past while unravelling the present.

And so, instead of a compulsive scraping of wounds, a cataloguing of unimaginable horrors and a depiction of a sick, momentarily depraved society that his contemporaries found fit to do as a way of exorcising the evil within, Intizar sahib has chosen, in story after story, to imaginatively revisit a syncretic, tolerant pluralistic past in a search for meaning, to find out why the tide turned so irreversibly, and why a revisit in real terms often becomes so difficult.

It has only been recently – close to over thirty years since his first novel Bastiappeared in 1979 – that the literary world in India has taken stock of his immense contribution not merely to Urdu prose but to a subaltern history.

What is more, the Man Booker shortlist has at long last brought attention to the one overriding concern articulated by Intizar Husain throughout his literary career: namely, the persistent refusal among human beings to learn from past mistakes.

For, if there is one overarching theme that strings together Intizar sahib’s career as a novelist, short story writer and journalist, it is not merely the haunting sense of loss for a way of life that is irrevocably gone but also a lingering regret. He seems to rue the possibilities that Partition presented but were lost or frittered away. He talks of how, suddenly, almost by accident, Partition allowed writers like him to “regain” a great experience namely hijrat that has a unique place in the history of Muslims.

He even finds a religious sanction for the choice some are forced to make when they leave their homes in search of newer, safer havens. In the story Dream and Reality (Khwaab aur Haqeeqat), one of the characters says, “Friends, remember the hadith of the Prophet: When your city becomes narrow and small for you, you must leave it and go away.” Yet, this unique opportunity too is squandered and the loss makes him sad.

As he once said in an interview: “And the great expectation we had of making something out of it at a creative level and of exploiting it to develop a new consciousness and sensibility – that bright expectation has now faded and gone.”

His epochal novel, Basti, is set in 1971 when war clouds are gathering over the subcontinent, the new country of Pakistan is no longer fresh and pure and hopeful but soiled and weary and entirely without hope, and news from distant East Pakistan is ominous.

Its protagonist, Zakir, has already faced one tumult, that of 1947, when he left India and migrated to the Land of the Pure. After the first “luminous” day spent walking the streets of the new city (Lahore) that is to be his home, savouring the delight of walking about freely without the fear that someone will slip a knife into his ribs, soaking in the new sights, sounds and smells, Zakir stays awake all night, weeping and remembering the city, streets, sounds and people he has left behind. “That day seemed very pure to him, with its night, with the tears of its night.”

But those days of innocence and goodness and large-heartedness of the new people in the new land united not so much by one religion but by a common loss and the feeling of homelessness slip away. “After that, the days gradually grew soiled and dirty. Perhaps it’s always like this.”

Gradually the goodness and sincerity leach out and in its place there is greed, corruption and intolerance.

Looking back, Zakir reflects, “Those were good days, good and sincere. I ought to remember those days, or in fact I ought to write them down, for fear I should forget them again. And the days afterward? Them too, so I can know how the goodness and sincerity gradually died out from the days, how the days came to be filled with misfortune and nights with ill omen.”

Slowly the vim and vigour of building a new nation begin to sap. Gradually, the cities on both sides of the new border get filled with new people: “People have come from all kinds of places. Like kites with their strings cut, that go flying and come down on a roof somewhere.” So these people, each with their own stories, alight on strange roofs. And speaking through them, in the course of everyday inconsequential conversations, Intizar Husain slips in statements of great import and consequence, and says many things that his own oblique style of storytelling does not allow.

For instance, in answer to a question that haunts an entire weary generation of post-1947 Pakistanis: “Was it good that Pakistan was created?”, Intizar Husain makes a wise old Maulvi sahib in Basti reply: “In the hands of the wrong people, even right becomes wrong.” And elsewhere in the novel, there are many seemingly random comments that stay for a long time in the readers’ memory: “When the masters are cruel and the sons rebellious, any disaster at all can befall the Lord’s creatures.” Or “When shoelaces speak, those who can speak stay silent.” Or “In times such as this, throats become strong and minds weak.” Or, “Tomorrow might be even worse than today.”


This year, Goans are being urged to hug a new Valentine – coconut trees

This year, Goans are being urged to hug a new Valentine – coconut trees
Total Views

Last month, the Goa government declared that the state’s iconic coconut palm was not actually a tree. It removed the species from the purview of the Goa Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, thus allowing palms to be felled without a permit. In a state where the palm is highly valued and never cut unless absolutely necessary, the decision caused widespread anger. Now, two organisations have devised a unique way to express their unhappiness.

On February 14, they aim to stage a festival-protest titled “Coconut Love, Coconut Valentine”, at which residents of the palm-fringed state can express their love for the “kalpavriksha” (tree of heaven) and register their opposition to the government’s decision to declassify it as a tree.

“Every true Goan who loves our heritage is angry with this government,” said historian Prajal Sakhardande of Goa Heritage Action Group, which has organised the event along with Goa for Giving.

On January 14, the amendment to the Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984, dropped the tree status granted to coconut palms ostensibly to help farmers to cull old and ailing trees without going through lengthy bureaucratic procedures. But citizens groups spearheading protests against the decision did not buy this claim: they believe it is a ploy to make construction easier for apartments, factories and resorts.

“We feel they [the government] is out to destroy the natural heritage of this place, to aid certain lobbies,” alleged Sakhardande.

Event organiser Armando Gonslaves said that Valentine’s Day was the perfect day on which to demonstrate love for the initiative was an ideal way to make their feelings known. “We thought of using the day to show our love for this tree, which has sustained us for so long,” he said.

As part of the programme, several events related to the coconut tree will be held across the state from February 6-14. A photography competition will encourage Goans to pose with a palm tree and post their pictures on social media. “Make the coconut tree your Valentine” is one theme.

Fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, photographer Prasad Pankar, and cartoonist Alexyz will inaugurate the festival by symbolically pinning hearts on a coconut tree.

Gonsalves said the finale is a planned Coconut Valentine festival of sorts at the South Goa seaside venue Zeepop-by-the Sea, which locals will demonstrate a variety of crafts, products, sweets and foods that use the coconut, along with poetry, music and art related to the palm. He has also planned smaller festivals across Goa, including cooking competitions and art competitions for children.

“Already, people have posted song, satire, art and cartoons on social media to express their dismay,” said Gonsalves, who led a delegation last week to the Goa governor on the issue. “And this will continue till the government realises it is wrong and rescinds the amendment.


Disease may wipe out world’s bananas – but here’s how we might just save them

Disease may wipe out world’s bananas – but here’s how we might just save themPhoto Credit: pixabay
Total Views
Catastrophe is looming for the banana industry. A new strain has emerged of a soil-borne fungus known as “Panama disease” which can wipe out entire plantations – and it is rapidly spreading around the world. Farmers in Australia, Latin America and across Asiaand Africa all fear the worst.

The fungus is almost impossible to stop or eradicate. It moves through soil, so contamination can be as simple as infected dirt travelling from one farm to another on the sole of a shoe, or as complex as soil particles blowing on the wind across long distances – even across oceans, in theory.

Faced with huge losses to a global industry, many have called for a new strain of disease-resistant “superbanana”. However, this would be just another temporary fix. After all, the world’s most popular banana, the Cavendish, was itself the wonder fruit of its day, being introduced in the 1950s after an earlier strain of Panama disease destroyed its predecessor.

The fungi simply adapted and fought back, though, until the Cavendish also became susceptible. Panama and other diseases will continue to do so until we seriously reform how we grow and market bananas.

The banana industry is its own worst enemy. The huge farms where most exported bananas are grown are ideal for pests. These plantations are monocultures, which means they grow only bananas and nothing else. With very few shifts between crops over the years, and lots of tropical sunshine, there is an abundant and year-round supply of food for pests without any breaks, in time or space, to disrupt the supply and lower the disease pressure.

Banana producers spend a third of their income on controlling these pests, according to a study I published in 2013. Chemicals to control microscopic but deadly worms are applied several times a year. Herbicides that control weeds are applied up to eight times a year, while bananas may be sprayed with fungicides from a plane more than 50 times per year in order to control Black Sigatoka, an airborne fungus.

And those bags that are wrapped around each individual banana bunch? They’re lined with insecticides to serve as both a physical and chemical barrier to insects feeding on and damaging the skins.

All of this amounts to approximately one litre of active ingredients for every 18.6 kg box of bananas that is exported to consumers in the global north. It’s a huge, long-running problem for the industry and the new strain of Panama disease may just be the nail in its coffin.

Or maybe this is the wake-up call the export banana industry so desperately needs.

Searching for the superbanana

Given the way the fungus spreads, containment and quarantine are hardly long-term solutions. Some experts, especially those entrenched in the business of growing export bananas, argue that we need to breed or genetically modify a new type of banana that is resistant to the latest strain of Panama disease.

But this is harder than it sounds. Modern bananas – the tasty yellow ones – don’t exist in nature; they were bred into existence around 10,000 years ago. They reproduce asexually, which means they don’t have seeds and every banana is a genetic clone of the previous generation.

This lack of genetic variation makes breeding a new banana particularly challenging. If one Cavendish is susceptible to a disease, all others will be too. When all bananas are clones, how do you create the genetic variation from which traits for better disease resistance can be identified and nurtured?

A new banana would also have to be tasty, durable enough to withstand long voyages without bruising, and bright yellow. Looks really do trump pest-resistance. A new type of banana introduced during a previous Panama disease panic back in the 1920s was rejected by consumers for going black on the outside, even when it was ripe and sweet inside.

Saving the banana

Today, banana growers are in a fight for survival, continuously applying newly-formulated fungicides in an effort to keep ahead of the diseases. But they are acutely aware that they are losing ground. While breeding a new banana staves off the current problem, history has already shown that this doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is the design of the production system.

We need to ditch the massive farms. Around the world, millions of small-scale farmers already grow bananas in a more organic and sustainable way. Alongside bananas are cacao, avocado, mango, corn, orange, lemon and more. A mix of crops creates more stable production systems which rely on fewer, if any, pesticides and generates diverse income sources, handing local people greater food sovereignty. Farms where bananas are mixed in with other crops are also more resilient to climate change which is likely to hit banana-producing regions – developing countries – harder than most.

Yes, this would mean fewer bananas are grown. Sustainable agriculture simply can’t keep up with the megafarms. But if we learned to ignore the odd blemished or undersized banana, then the actual amount sent to market need not drop at all.

The farmers themselves should be okay as they’ll make up their income by producing different crops. Breaking the dominance of the banana multinationals should also distribute wealth among more farmers and empower the regions where they’re grown. As a consumer, ask yourself this: isn’t that a far better way to spend your money?