& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Emergence of Regionalism in Mumbai – History of the Shiv Sena

Inevitably, a visit home brings to surface the latent unease over the Shiv Sena.

The political, social and cultural behemoth that controls Bombay (which it renamed Mumbai in the 1990s) continues to flourish, and grow, apparently despite the dwindling Maharashtrian population in the capital of Maharashtra.

Today, in fact, the organization’s base has seemingly widened to encompass other (non-Maharashtrian) communities as well, and it could well be ruling the state in coalition with its partner the Bharatiya Janata Party later this year after elections to the state assembly conclude.

Thriving on a combination of cultural nationalism, regional chauvinism, and xenophobia, the Shiv Sena has completely changed Bombay's character. The party’s formation lay in the slogan ‘Mumbai is in Maharashtra but there is no Maharashtra in Mumbai’. The party has never really veered away from its core demand to give better representation to the local Marathi population in Mumbai.

I picked up The Emergence of Regionalism in Mumbai – Historyof the Shiv Sena by Sudha P. Gogate (1932-1987). The book – published by Popular Prakashan – is a doctoral thesis produced in 1978. The author had plans to edit and publish it but passed away suddenly in 1987.

The book provides amazing details of the years prior to and immediately after the formation of the Shiv Sena, and the author has through research successfully been able to weave a story that makes for compelling reading, especially for those interested in the history and the development of Bombay.

Eschewing the flourishes of a journalist, Dr. Gogate has focussed on facts and unearthed details that are a revelation. Many of the facts would be known to a veteran journalist or someone who has lived through the era, and has followed the fortunes of the Shiv Sena over the last five decades.

Describing the groundswell of support for Marathi aspirations, Dr. Gogate says, “As early as 26 January 1964, the Indian Republic day, the editor of the Maratha [the colourful Pralhad Keshav (Acharya) Atre] declared at a private meeting at Shiv Shakti, from where the Maratha was published, his resolve to found a youth organization of 100,000 youths from Maharashtra, which was to devote itself to the interests and the services of Maharashtra. On 27 January 1964, the Maratha carried a front-page banner Acharya Atre to found Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

Atre’s Shiv Sena, according to the report, was to be a revolutionary organization of young men below the age of 21. A quotation by Samarth Ramadas, the 17th-century poet saint ‘Let the Marathas unite!’ May the Marathi spirit grow!’ formed the motto of the proposed Shiv Sena of Atre.”

Of course, Atre’s Shiv Sena didn’t materialize, and two years later, on June 19 1966, Bal Thackeray formed the Shiv Sena, and forever changed Bombay.   

Me and My Plays - Mahesh Dattani

Mahesh Dattani has appeared quite frequently on this blog. It’s no more than a coincidence. 

Mahesh was a guest at the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts in 2011, where he first narrated the genesis of his interest in theatre. Girish Karnad was the other eminent playwright at the festival, and along with University of Toronto’s Dalbir Singh, they had a scintillating exchange of ideas of contemporary theatre in India.

Then, last year, he was in Toronto for a series of speaking engagements, and during that visit, the SawitriTheatre Group staged Seven Steps around the Fire, and the University of Toronto’s the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, in collaboration with the Centre for South Asian Studies and the Centre for Comparative Literature organized a staged reading of Mahesh’s The Big Fat City.

On a recent visit to Bombay, I visited the highly-recommended Kitab khana, the bookshop in the heart of Bombay (Flora Fountain), and among the books that I picked up was Mahesh’s Me and My Plays (Penguin, 2013).

The book comprises an essay – Me and My Plays, and two of his latest plays – Where Did I Leave My Purdah? and The Big Fat City.

Actor, director, and Mahesh’s collaborator in transforming Dance Like a Man into a phenomenon that it has become, Lillete Dubey has written a foreword to Purdah. Actor Achint Kaur has written the foreword to Big Fat City.

I’ve written about Me and My Plays based on Mahesh’s talk in Toronto last year (see here: Mahesh Dattani Festival in Toronto), so I don’t want to repeat it. But I must emphasize that it's a crisp and lucid narration of the last 25 years of his journey as a playwright.

After reading the essay, it does strike me as plausible that Mahesh may have thought of penning his memoirs after his narration in Toronto during our 2011 festival.

Reproduced below is an extract from the essay:

By the time the 1990s rolled in, my theatre group, Playpen, was established and recognized in Bangalore. It was possible for me to move from one production to the next, confident that I would somehow manage to get a sponsor. I had begun to work on my new play Bravely Fought the Queen and was putting the finishing touches to it when I got a call from Alyque (Padamsee). He asked me if I was aware of the motion in Parliament by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) about building a temple in Ayodhya in place of the existing mosque. I was in my early thirties then, but as na├»ve about politics as today’s seventeen-year-old. This wasn’t even headline news at that time and so had slipped my attention. Alyque was most concerned with the rise of religious fundamentalism and was certain of a program brewing that would destroy the cultural harmony of the country yet again. I wasn’t too sure of doing a play on the Hindu-Muslim divide. Sensing my hesitation he invited me to Mumbai and arranged an improvisation with Pearl Padamsee’s students at the JB Petit school. The improvisation had two Muslim boys who, running away from a mob that is out to kill them, seek shelter in a Hindu household. The improvisation was riveting and I could see the dramatic possibilities.

It took me almost two years to write it (Final Solutions). Again I was keen to do my own production in Bangalore first. But a week before the scheduled performance at the theatre festival, the Babri Masjid was destroyed. Although I had based my play on the Tazia riots in Ahmedabad in the 1980s, the play now took on a different shade. The festival organizers pulled the play out of the festival at the last minute.

It took another two years before it could be staged. An NGO in Bangalore offered to stage it. The tag line read ‘A plea for tolerance’. But due to its initial ban, word had gotten around that the play was controversial. I was advised by friends not to do it, especially in the light of the Bombay riots. I remember, a whole section of the auditorium was filled with practising Muslims who were keen to see the play, and later I came to know that most of them had never been to a play before. The performance was met with silence. But the actors found themselves surrounded by new fans after the performance. Many of the Muslim members in the audience came backstage and congratulated the actors. They could not believe that the actor who had played Javed was not, in fact, a Muslim. Clearly, the actor was the hero. And I vicariously reveled in that heroism. When the actor politely introduced me to them, they showered me with gratitude for putting up the play. I even made a new friend, who, till this day, continues to call me on and off just to inquire after my health and well-being.

I was deeply moved by the heartfelt response to my play. Perhaps it was this kind of unconditional acceptance that I carved for as a human being. Now I was ready to take on the world.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hunkered down by the past

After some tenuous moves to bring about normalcy between India and Pakistan, relations have gone back to where they usually are – in a quagmire of suspicion and mistrust.

The hawks in the establishment, and political parties in both countries, usually ensure that no real gain is ever made in improving ties. And that for every step forward, there are several steps backwards.

The most recent setback is India’s decision to cancel the foreign secretaries meeting in retaliation to Pakistan High Commission’s invitation to the Kashmiri separatists for a meeting.

India-Pakistan relations follow a familiar, cyclical trajectory: a slow build up towards normalcy, encouraged by a genuine interest amongst some sections of the society in both countries to expedite the process, and then the inevitable swift decline following some innocuous incident.

There are many organizations that are working for normalcy in relations, such as Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, but there is little evidence of mass support in both countries for improving relations.

One of the reasons for this is that the subcontinent continues to live in the past. There is little effort to move into the 21st century. It’s important to analyse the past, but it becomes an exercise in futility when it turns into an obsession, as is seemingly the case in the subcontinent.

The intelligentsia in both the countries and in the West continues to engage in analyzing the Partition and the post-partition period, and comfortably predict that normalization is virtually impossible.

Last year, Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution, predicted in his book Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum that the relations between the neighbours will not see any substantial change even a century after the Partition.

While in Bombay (mid-July to mid-August), I attended a scintillating discussion on the book organized by the American Centre Library and the University of Bombay, and moderated by Sudheendra Kulkarni, the chair of Observer Research Foundation, and aide to the former Prime Minister of India, AB Vajpayee. 

One of the participants in the discussion pithily observed that Muslims in India have changed their perceptions about Pakistan periodically. 

1947: dream
1965: disappointment
1971: disillusionment
2008: derision.

Kulkarni also organized another panel discussion on SAARC (the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) – India and Pakistan Why they should – and how they can – make the SAARC vision come true.

The panelists included RD Pradhan, former home secretary, and the author of the My Years with Rajiv and Sonia; Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States and now Senior Fellow and Director, South & Central Asia at the Hudson Institute; Manjeet Kriplani, Executive Director of the Indian-American think tank The Gateway House; Chaitanya Pande, founder and president of Polymath Financial Advisor; and Kulkarni himself.

These discussions explored the many possibilities and the options that are (and may become) available to both the countries for speedier resolutions of their differences. The latter discussion touch upon trade and the possible role of Indians and Pakistanis settled outside the subcontinent in improving relations.

A great example of good neighbourly relations is offered by the United States and Canada. The two countries trade over $1.8b worth of merchandise every day (approximately $1.2m every minute). 

Trade can be the pivot for improving and enhancing India-Pakistan relations.

The implementation of the policy of non-discriminatory market access (as opposed to the Most Favoured Nation) by Pakistan to India will pave the way for enhanced trade, bulk of which today is routed through Dubai.

A heartening aspect of the panel discussion was the participants of young people, and Haqqani emphasized that they don't need to carry the burden of the past into the future. 

Watch a brief video of Haqqani's intervention during the panel discussion:

In this context, I want to quote a passage from Alex Von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer The Secret History of The End of An Empire (and I apologize for forgetting my own complaint that we focus too much on the past) that describes Jinnah's last moment, and his regret.

The circumstances changed quickly for, on 11 September 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah finally succumbed to his illness. He had been on his way to Karachi, Fatima (his sister) remembered him speaking in delirium: 'Kashmir...Give them...the right...to decide...Constitution...I will complete it...soon...Refugees...give them...all assistance...Pakistan. According to his doctor, Jinnah saw Liquat and told him that Pakistan was 'the biggest blunder of my life'. Further yet, he declared: 'If now I get an opportunity I will go to Delhi and tell Jawaharlal to forget about the follies of the past and become friends again.' It is impossible to prove whether Jinnah actually said these words or not; either way he was to have no further opportunity for a rapprochement. He was taken from the airport to the Governor General's house in an ambulance, which broke down after four miles on a main road in the middle of a refugee settlement with traffic honking by. The heat sizzled, flies buzzing around the Quaid-e-Azam's ashen face as Fatima attempted to fan them away. It was an hour before another ambulance could be found. Jinnah was taken back to Government House, where Fatima watched him sleep for about two hours. 'Oh, Jin,' she remembered thinking, 'if they could pump out all my blood, and put it in you, so that you may live.' He woke one final time and whispered to her 'Fati, khuda hafiz...la ilaha il Allah...Mohammad...rasul...Allah.' His head slumped to the right. He had died with the confession of faith just past his lips.

Striving for Peace and Harmony Tribute Volume for Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer
At a time when secularism is being sought to be redefined in India, in the wake of Narendra Modi’s unprecedented electoral victory, it’s perhaps pertinent to recall the life and struggle of someone like Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013).

Dr. Engineer dedicated his life to ensuring minority human rights are acknowledged, respected and ensured in a state that while it pledged secularism publicly was not always fully committed to its implementation.

A social reformer who waged a war on theocracy within his Dawoodi Bohra community, Dr. Engineer’s work encompasses diverse areas and includes, among other subjects, the understanding religious violence in India, the role of religion in democratic societies, the role and place of women in Islam, the study of Indian history from a secular, non-sectarian perspective.

(Dawoodi Bohras are Shia Muslims, spread across India. Read about the community here: Dawoodi Bohra)

A prolific writer, Dr. Engineer has authored over 70 books, and has been the recipient of the alternate Nobel Prize in 2004. He started the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, which has emerged as a premier institution for spreading awareness on secular issues. After his demise last year, the centre is run by Dr. Ram Punyani and Advocate Irfan Engineer.

Last year, the centre published a tribute volume – Striving for Peace and Harmony Tribute Volume for Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer. It contains short tributes by Dr. Engineer’s many associates, friends and admirers. 

The volume is edited by Ram Puniyani and Irfan Engineer. Pickering, Ontario, based artist Farida Ali has done the cover portrait of the book (see image).  

The contributors to the volume include: Ram Puniyani, Irfan Engineer, Vinod Mubayi, Harsh Mander, Hilal Ahmed, Uday Mehta, Shaukat Ajmeri, Javed Anand, Dr. Ranu Jain, Prof. M Hasan, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, Zakia Soman, LS Herdenia, Anand Patwardhan, Sumanto Al Qurtuby, Jyoti Punwani, Swami Agnivesh, Mazher Hussain, Meena Menon, Qutub Jahan, Syed Ali Mujtaba, Pritam K. Rohila, Zahir Janmohammed, Maqbool Ahmed Siraj, Seema Chisti, Zarina Patel, Asad Bin Saif, Farzane Versey, Ramu Ramanathan and Neha Dabhade.

Here’s an extract from the book – a piece by veteran journalist and activist Jyoti Punwani, which encapsulates the sentiments of many who knew the man.

There will never be another Asghar Ali

The political establishment, all the way up to Indira Gandhi and Vajpayee, stood solidly behind the Syedna. Yet, Engineer remained a Reformist throughout, and not just in his personal life. Under his guidance, the Reformists became a force to reckon with, with women at the forefront of the movement. He showed the same courage in openly organizing support for the Shahbano judgement when the Muslim establishment mounted a campaign against it.

For me, Ashgar Ali Engineer was many things – a fount of knowledge and a guru, yet one so devoid of arrogance that I was able to, over the past 20 years, interact with him as a friend. I first met him as a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, of which he was both founder and vice-president. In the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, CPDR members used to demonstrate holding placards in a narrow lane across the road from Badri Mahal, Fort – that was as close to the Bohra headquarters as the police would allow us to get, Yes this insignificant bunch of youngsters, led by Engineer and a few other Reformists, would be considered enough of a threat to be stoned by orthodox Bohras. I used to be terrified, but not the much older Engineer.

As a novice in journalism, I turned to Engineer for everything concerning Muslims – be it history, the freedom movement, communal politics. Always ready to share his immense knowledge, he never grew impatient at my endless questions. I would interview others too, but no one had his rounded, secular, yet scholarly perspective.

In 1984, after seeing the partisan conduct of the police towards the Shiv Sena, during the riots that broke out in Bhiwandi, Thane and Mumbai, I told him I supported those young Muslims who felt revenge was the only solution. “No, never,” was his immediate response. “Revenge will only set off an endless cycle of violence, which will help no one, Muslims least of all.”

His way was to change minds. But that will take forever, I replied. Yes that’s what he never stopped trying to do through his writings and interactions with youngsters, policemen and IAS trainees. Every communal riot was investigated by him personally, or by his team, to trace the root causes, for as he said, religion was not the cause of conflict, its political use was.