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Archives for : June2018

Two former IPS officers pick holes in the #PlotToKillPM theory of Pune Police

One of the accused arrested by Pune police in the Bheema-Koregaon violence case being taken to the court in Pune on Thursday. (PTI)

New Delhi: Maharashtra police, who have arrested five “suspected Maoists” in connection with the Koregaon violence, have cited purported letters seized from the house of one of them to claim a rebel plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The letters mention “another Rajiv Gandhi-type incident” and pledge to “end Modi-raj”

Two former IPS officers, however, have picked holes in the police’s claim.

The BJP has alleged that the Congress is working in tandem with Maoists to provoke Dalits, who had gathered in Bhima-Koregaon to commemorate the bicentenary of the battle that ended the rule of the Peshwas in Pune.

Special public prosecutor Ujjwala Pawar had, during a hearing in a Pune court on Thursday, claimed that a letter had been seized from the Delhi house of Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners spokesperson Rona Wilson, arrested along with four others in connection with the January 1 Bhima-Koregaon violence in which one person was killed.

Appearing for Maharashtra police, Pawar quoted from the letter, according to news agency ANI: “We are thinking along the lines of another Rajiv Gandhi-type incident. It sounds suicidal and there is a good chance that we might fail, but we feel that the party PB/CC (politburo/central committee) must deliberate over our proposal. Targeting his road shows could be an effective strategy.”

According to Pawar, the letter, signed “R”, was addressed to one “comrade Prakash”.

The letter says, according to news agency PTI: “Defeating Hindu fascism has been our core agenda and a major concern for the party. Several leaders from secret cells as well as open organisations have raised this issue very strongly.

“Modi-led Hindu fascist regime is bulldozing its way into the lives of indigenous adivasis. In spite of big defeats like Bihar and West Bengal, Modi has successful established BJP government in more than 15 states.

“If this pace continues, then it would mean immense trouble for the party on all the fronts.

“Comrade Kisan and few other senior comrades have proposed concrete steps to end Modi-Raj.”

In another letter submitted in court, also allegedly found in Wilson’s home during the raid on April 17, PTI quoted Pawar as saying: “The higher committee has appreciated the endearing efforts of all urban comrades for the specific tasks given to them… there is a lot of ground to be covered. Comrade Mangalu and Deepu have been coordinating the Koregaon programme (for the) last two months with Comrade Sudhir.”

According to the police, this letter was sent by Milind Teltumbde, suspected to be the Maharashtra CPI (Maoist) secretary, to Wilson.

Two former IPS officers with experience in probing cases related to anti-insurgency operations and extra-judicial killings have contested the police’s claims of a Maoist plot.

Former Jharkhand director-general of police G.S. Rath, who dealt mainly with intelligence on Maoists from 2000 to 2013, told The Telegraph: “In my career, I never came across Maoists using original names in communications. They stuck to aliases.

“Central committee, central military commission and zonal military commission members used to use the Internet and email for communication, but switched to coded language after we started intercepting emails.

“They use hand-written notes only for political propaganda…. The threat of killing the PM may be an individual opinion of a member but it would have to be cleared by the politburo.”

Former Gujarat additional DGP (intelligence), R.B. Sreekumar, who had testified before several probes into extra-judicial killings and the Gujarat riots, said: “These letters seem to be planted. Maoists never use real names. In Gujarat some 22 alleged terrorists, including Ishrat Jahan, were killed in fake encounters that were investigated by the Justice Bedi Commission.

“In every other case the police would say that they (the accused) were Lashkar-e-Toiba or Hizbul Mujahideen (operatives) and that they were trying to kill then CM (Narendra) Modi. After former DIG Vanzara was arrested, these killings stopped.”

BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra had on Thursday read out from the same letter that lawyer Pawar cited in court. According to Patra, the letter also mentioned “Jignesh” and “Umar” as “young fighters” and “Prakash Ambedkar” as a strong supporter of Maoists. All the names appear with the prefix “Com” or comrade.

Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and JNU student leader Umar Khalid have been BJP bugbears. They had participated in the Bhima-Koregaon event. B.R. Ambedkar has a grandson named Prakash Ambedkar, who organised the Koregaon event.

Patra demanded an explanation from Congress president Rahul Gandhi, claiming that the letter had mentioned that senior Maoist leaders were in touch with the party.

In Jammu and Kashmir, Union home minister Rajnath Singh said on Friday that the government was serious about the security of Prime Minister Modi, responding to reports of an alleged Maoist assassination plot.

“We are always serious about the Prime Minister’s security. The Maoists are fighting a losing battle,” he told a news conference in Jammu.

The Congress countered the BJP’s allegations.

Party communications chief Randeep Surjewala tweeted: “Terrorism, Naxalism & extremism are unacceptable. No one knows it better than the Congress, which sacrificed Mahatma Gandhi, Indiraji & Rajivji besides S. Beant Singh, Shuklaji and Nand Kumar Patel among others. A fair investigation, bereft of politics, is the need of the hour.”

BJP veteran Arun Jaitley claimed there were four types of Maoists, the last category being what he called “half Maoists”.

“Willingly or otherwise, they become over-ground face of the underground. They are a part of the democratic system. They masquerade as activist; they speak the language of democracy; they have captured the human rights movement in several parts of the country but always lend support to the Maoist cause. They are unwilling to condemn. Unfortunately some political parties see the Maoist as their instrument in the anti-NDA cause,” Jaitley said of the “half-Maoists”.

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Pakistani journalist abduction sparks fear of crackdown on dissent

Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari, who has openly criticised the military, was briefly abducted by masked men in Lahore.

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Pakistani activist abduction sparks fear of crackdown on dissent
Gul Bukhari was abducted by several unidentified men while she was on her way to a news television [LinKedin]

The brief abduction of a prominent Pakistani social activist and newspaper columnist known for her strident criticism of the country’s powerful military has raised fears of a renewed crackdown on dissent in the South Asian country.

Gul Bukhari, 52, was abducted by several unidentified men while she was on her way to a television news studio in the eastern city of Lahore on Tuesday night, a family member told Al Jazeera.

Several hours later, she was released, they confirmed, although they did not provide any details regarding the attack.

The abduction has heightened fears among activists and journalists, coming as it does in the wake of widespread censorship of news considered critical of the military and certain political parties, and prompted concern that a new wave of intimidation is imminent.

Bukhari, who is a vocal critic of the military and its alleged role in censoring Pakistan’s media and involving itself in political processes, was abducted a day after the military warned that it was monitoring social media activity for “anti-state, anti-Pakistan and anti-army” material.

“We do have the capability to monitor social media, to see who is doing what,” said Major-General Asif Ghafoor, the military’s spokesperson, on Monday.

In a separate incident on Tuesday, journalist Asad Kharal was also assaulted in Lahore by “some persons wearing masks,” he said.

Pakistan ranks 139 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and attacks against journalists and other media professionals – particularly those deemed critical of the state – are common.

Since last year, the state has carried out a sustained campaign targeting those critical of the military – which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 70-year history – on social media, an Al Jazeera investigation found.

‘There is no stopping them’

The attack on Bukhari comes as the distribution of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and most respected daily newspaper, was disrupted in several areas across the country, a source told Al Jazeera, allegedly over its publication of an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that implied military complicity in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

In April, the Geo News television station, one of the country’s most popular news networks, came back on air after weeks of being blocked by cable operators, also allegedly at the behest of the military.

Geo was allowed to resume transmissions only after it agreed to a deal with the military to change its editorial stance on certain political issues, two officials at the channel told the Reuters news agency.

Earlier this year, several newspaper columnists were told that their regular op-ed columns, most on the subject of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) rights group, would not be published. The PTM has held countrywide rallies against alleged rights abuses by the military in the country’s northwest since January.

“It appears that those behind this abduction want to send a message to the rest of Pakistan and the world that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, to dissenters, and that there is no stopping them,” said Taha Siddiqui, a journalist who was forced to flee the country after a similar abduction attempt in January

“The Pakistan army cannot tolerate dissent, and they have managed to control the mainstream Pakistani media. Now they are desperately trying to do the same with social media.”

Siddiqui now runs SAFE Newsrooms a whistleblowing website that encourages South Asian journalists to report censorship within their newsrooms anonymously. The site was blocked by the Pakistani government within weeks of being launched.

Pakistan’s military denies that it has issued any directives to media organisations to control their coverage, inviting news organisations to report on the alleged censorship if it has taken place.

“Whenever I have spoken to [media owners and journalists], I have said the same thing: right now Pakistan needs to unite, to present its successes and build on them,” said General Ghafoor on Monday. “That is what I told them we need to do, and that is what they have done.”

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Grass-roots Palestinians take the lead


Israel’s wanton attacks on unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza during the Great March of Return have incited international denunciation. Israeli snipers are picking off targets as if in a video game, including journalists and children. Israel also rained bullets on impassioned protesters against the May 14 U.S. Embassy’s opening in Jerusalem, and raised the count to 109 Palestinians killed and more than 12,000 injured. An Israeli Brigadier-General has confirmed that soldiers shooting at children and others on Gaza’s side of Israel’s border fence were under specific orders. The U.S., Israel’s major funder and supporter, and the European Union’s Tel Aviv embassy have denounced the protesters, but South Africa cut diplomatic ties, and British trade unionists and Members of Parliament decried Israeli crimes.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip traveled to Israel’s border on Friday March 30 for the first day of protests in a six weeks-long action, called by Palestinians The Great March of Return. The March was originally scheduled to end May 15, the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, when more than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their lands to create the state of Israel. Savage attacks have not turned back the Palestinian Davids who used slingshots to fell two surveillance drones from Goliath Israel. The fierce and fearless protesters inspired the March of Return leaders to call on Palestinians throughout Gaza, the West Bank and Israel to make May 14 “a date to prepare” for a Million Person March of Return to extend through the month of Ramadan, ending in mid-June.

Hamas the loser. “This march is the embodiment of popular action involving children, women, and all the Palestinians who refuse to accept the occupation of our land,” said Nabeel Diab of the National Commission to Break the Siege of Gaza. He is part of a grassroots activist organization, with women at the forefront, who helped plan it. A tent city houses the border protesters. Traditional weddings have been performed at the camps. The whole effort celebrates the 1987 intifada, a genuine grass-roots, secular uprising which was led by Palestinian leftists, women, unionists and students.

Israel attempted to portray Hamas as the leading force of the Great March, in order to justify its sharp-shooting unarmed protesters. But Gaza’s Hamas leadership neither inspired nor led it. The group has jumped on the bandwagon to shore up its growing unpopularity, and the West Bank heads of Fatah followed suit. Each fears an independent movement that challenges their faded control.

Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist party, rules Gaza, and Fatah governs the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Neither has improved the lives of Palestinians. They have failed to unite, despite urgent Palestinian demands for a joint leadership. Fatah heads the doomed U.S.-Israeli brokered peace process and has lost the trust of disillusioned Palestinian youth.

For decades, Hamas’ willingness to fight Israel got popular support. Today, most Gazans reject Hamas, because of its failure to improve their lives, and its undemocratic, bullying regime that represses free speech and tortures and imprisons critics. Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the 1930s and ’40s. One of its defining slogans was “communism = atheism = liberation of women.” Hamas was formed to co-opt the popular first intifada revolt. During that protest, it condemned women militants for “un-Islamic” behavior and attacked those who were unveiled.

New times, new hope. International outrage is growing. The usual Democratic Party cheerleaders for Israel are unusually silent. But British writer and former Zionist Robert Cohen writes, “We must ditch Zionism now.” And celebrity Natalie Portman who holds dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship, has refused to visit Israel for an award. There has also been protest at the border supporting the Great March by Israelis and Palestinians of the Coalition of Women for Peace.

“The Palestinian people are eager to achieve their freedom, their independence, and their right to return to the villages they were forced out of 70 years ago,” said activist Nabeel Diab. Hopefully, worldwide movement solidarity and regional organizing from the bottom up can create a secular and socialist state in which women and men, Palestinians and Jews, can live in harmony with equal economic and civil rights.

  • Immediate humanitarian aid to Gaza!
  • End U.S. funds to Israel!
  • Hold Israel accountable for murdering protesters and journalists!


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The tragedy of Thoothukudi lies in its polluting industries

Sense of betrayal

Dead fish washed ashore at Kovalam beach near Thoothukudi on April 10.

The marginalised fishing community of Thoothukudi is in conflict with land today. As the sea and beaches are inextricably linked to their lives, any move detrimental to the fragile marine ecology on which they have been sustaining for generations also disturbs their lives.

When industrialisation began in earnest in the late 1970s, and later with the neoliberal policies of the 1990s across the country, the 1,076-kilometre coastline of Tamil Nadu, of which Thoothukudi accounts for 121 km, was not spared. Tamil Nadu’s fishermen live in 573 fishing hamlets in 13 coastal districts from Chennai down to Kanyakumari.

Heavy industries and development activities on the shores began pushing the indigenous people away from the beaches, leading to frequent public disorder. The coastline became a dumping yard for poisonous waste that has transformed the landscape for the worse, besides polluting the air and groundwater. Even beach sands are scooped out and looted for minerals, making the community virtual “environment refugees” in their own habitats.

“The tragedy of Thoothukudi lies in its polluting industries. They dumped all hazardous units on us. Now it is a nightmare,” said a fisherman’s representative who is also a stevedore.

The ships that bring in raw materials for a few industries fetch a lot of money, but he regrets the effects of pollution that have destroyed the pristine beaches of Thoothukudi, which lies in a bay in the Gulf of Mannar. Once rich in marine life, Thoothukudi is now left with no natural pearl oysters or exotic varieties of fish. Apprehensive about its fragile marine ecosystem, the Government of India declared it a National Marine Park in 1986 and prohibited any detrimental activity within a 25-km radius.

“It is a major breeding centre as the sea here remains calm all through the year,” said Mathias, a fisherman. Thoothukudi has a fisherfolk population of nearly 80,000. It handled an annual landing of 38,000 tonnes in 2010-11, a marginal increase from 33,000 tonnes recorded in 1996. “The sea is increasingly becoming barren. Industrialisation and pollution have done more harm to us and our sea than anything,” Mathias said.

A marine scientist toldFrontlinethat although pollution played a major role in disturbing the marine ecology, it was the messy and half-hearted modernisation of the fishing industry during the Blue Revolution in 1970 that had brought more woes to fishing and fishermen’s lives. The competitive environment forced traditional fishers out and made them mere labourers in the giant fishing vessels manned by multinationals. At a time when the fishermen at Thoothukudi are struggling to come to terms with the falling catches, they are also forced to face the ill-effects of a rise in polluting industrial activity.

A brief report from the Ministry of Medium and Small Scale Enterprises, Government of India (2012-13), points to the presence of many chemical industries, 854 small and medium, besides a few giants in Thoothukudi.

Most of these units are located within a 20-km radius of the Gulf of Mannar. Thus, living has become perilous for the people of Thoothukudi, especially the fishermen. When a sulphur dioxide gas leak, allegedly from the Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter, occurred on the night of May 23-24, 2013, it triggered a panic. The movement against the copper smelter had started building up with spontaneous participation from all sections of society after the leak, although the fishermen have been fighting against it since its inception.

The fishermen first prevented the plant from laying a pipeline to carry its effluents to the sea. They then staged sea blockades twice on ships that brought in raw materials. A few youths were killed in an earlier incident of violence in 1996 that rocked the city. During the firing on May 22 this year, three members of the fishing community were killed. Yet they have decided to continue their agitation against the industry although the State government ordered its permanent closure.

“The state stands for corporate welfare today. It intimidates and coerces people to accept even if the industry or a development activity makes them sacrifice their lands and waterbodies,” said V. Arasu, former head of the Tamil Department of the University of Madras and a social analyst.

“We will fight and we know that we are not invincible. The repression could weaken our resolve only temporarily. We feel betrayed. We urge the state to ensure us clean air and water to live,” said Jesu, a young fisherman.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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‘Plot to kill Modi’ or state propaganda? Here are 5 questions on the probe

'Plot to kill Modi' or state propaganda? Here are 5 questions on the probe
CHARU KARTIKEYA 9 June 2018, 18:05 IST

‘Plot to kill Modi’ or state propaganda? Here are 5 questions on the probe

Even as twitter is roasting the PM-assassination-plot theory and its proponents, it is important to note that the way this narrative is being built is exactly how state propaganda works.

At first, the state turns a blind eye to allegations leveled against its agents. When the heat begins to rise, a campaign is unleashed to reverse the narrative. Opponents of the regime are hunted, barely-provable evidence is produced from thin air and is labeled incriminating.

The state and its agencies do not wait for public acceptance of the narrative which is swiftly moving from one conclusion to the next. The complainants are eventually branded as enemies of the state, making it easy for the law to swoop down on them and for the state to manufacture public disapproval.

Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, leaders of radical Hindutva outfits, are accused of instigating large-scale violence during a Dalit congregation in Pune’s Bhima-Koregaon on January 1 and 2 this year. The violence killed one man, besides injuring several others.

While Ekbote was arrested but is now out on bail, Bhide continues to be unreachable for the fabled long arm of the law. Meanwhile, an entire bunch of activists dedicated to fighting battles for Dalits and tribals is arrested.

A letter is produced, purportedly recovered from the laptop of the one of the accused. The prosecution lawyer reads out the letter in court after which, only the ruling party’s spokespersons get access to it. They read it out on TV and publish excerpts on social media.

The letter talks about Maoists and openly mentions information about their plans, meetings, funding as well as criminal projects. Those arrested are also promptly labeled Maoists.

Even before you can come to terms with that, the narrative changes once again. The alleged Maoists, it is explained, could have been out to kill the prime minister! Boom, everything changes.

Because the narrative is moving very fast, it is hard for people to pause and reflect. Questions fade into oblivion and propaganda takes over.

Behind the arrests by Pune Police and the facts that have been put forth since then are a series of questions that have not been satisfactorily addressed. Take a look at these –

FIR in January, raids in April, arrests in June – None of the five arrested so far were named in the original FIR, lodged in January 2018. Firstly, Police is yet to explain what led to the probe zeroing down on them. Secondly, what explains the three-month delay in the raids and then again the two-month delay in arrests?

The mysterious letters – The only ‘incriminating’ evidence that the police and prosecution team have furnished so far are two letters which they claim are Maoist communication. While the contents of the letters have been made public, police is yet to reveal even details like what has been done to establish their authenticity? Are unauthenticated letters incriminating enough to allow police to make arrests?

Flimsy content – The contents of these letters coupled with the manner in which they are being bandied about have created an air of incredulity about them. Does one expect underground organisations to be so casual about using open letters and entirely un-coded language to talk about things like funds, weapons, meetings, strategy and a plot as dark as assassination of the prime minister?

Access of BJP leaders to letters – BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra had been able to access the first of these letters on just the day after the arrests were made. Waving the letter during his press conference, he arrived at convenient political conclusions, making wild allegations. Even as hearings on the case were going on, Patra had given his and his party’s judgment. If this doesn’t smack of conspiracy, what does?

Swift transition of the narrative to the Modi assassination plot – The genesis of the entire episode has now receded to the background. The violence in Bhima-Koregaon is not being talked about now. The focus of discourse is a purported plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the objective being to help his government and his party gain public sympathy. Why are no questions being asked about this strange course the police probe has taken?

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Rag Pickers To Entrepreneurs: How Women In This Maharashtra Village Are Empowering Themselves

The original founder members-Zaibun,Minakshi and Shashikala

I vividly remember my moment of epiphany. It was a balmy afternoon in early 1996 in Warora, a small township in northern Maharashtra. I was posted as a manager of my bank’s branch, dealing mostly with rural clients. I was busy trawling through the day’s mail and going about my tasks.Although transactions had not commenced, there was, as usual, an undisciplined crowd of customers waiting for the main door to swing open.

I was distracted by the yells of customers and the clumping of heavy boots of clients from the military barracks when my assistant interrupted me, saying that a group of women wanted to meet me. At first, I hesitated, but my instincts suggested otherwise. I agreed. I beckoned them to sit. Their leader didn’t waste much time and said they had come to seek a loan to set up a business.

I lobbed a few soft questions at them .They answered them confidently. Finally, I fired a fast one, “How will you repay the money? It is not a government dole. Every pie has to be returned. What can you offer as security in lieu of this loan?” The women turned to each other, for answers. The chirpiest in the group was the demure and petite Veena Raut, a commerce graduate, who later assumed the stewardship of the group.

The content of their pitch was that if I trusted them and gave them a chance, they would live up to my expectations. These women represented the aspiring generation that was trying its luck with innovative development strategies that were being aggressively promoted, both by the government and the banking sector.

This was also the time when, if you asked somebody about the most promising innovation for women’s development, the answer would invariably be ‘microcredit’.

Microcredit had emerged as a powerful tool for shaping the entrepreneurial impulses of the impoverished–particularly women. It was based on the extension of small loans (microloans) to a group of people, who typically lacked collateral, steady employment and verifiable credit history; yet they could ensure hundred percent repayment by using peer pressure.

Group loans to women were highly popular, and we had received good results in rural areas. They had already given us a hint of their potential. The idea had excited me a great deal, and I was thus keen to try it with the women in Warora.I visited these women in their homes and was impressed by their determination and solidarity. Their cautious approach could be mistaken as a lack of confidence, but with time, I understood them better.

After a few meetings, in which I addressed all their queries, the group was formally launched.

With the help of the district administration, I secured a grant for a two-week Entrepreneurship Development Programme (EDP) for development of relevant business and managerial skills; business planning; technical training related to the production of goods; book-keeping and inventory management; preparation of business plans for loans; and storage and warehousing. This incubation helped them refine their overall confidence and interaction skills.

The group was christened Priyadarshini Mahila Udyog. I decided to devote each Sunday for a month, to help the group establish its business.

The nearest industrial township was in Nagpur and the manufacturers helped us in designing gadgets and machinery. We would travel to Nagpur by jeep in the morning and return to Warora in the evening. A few visits helped crystallise our plans.

We decided to purchase scaled-down versions of the equipment used for manufacturing food items for schoolchildren.One of the industrial units supplied a modified popcorn-manufacturing machine suitable for local needs. It could be operated on petroleum gas. The unit owner also introduced us to a local printer who agreed to supply polythene packets in bulk with the group’s logo branded on them. A candle manufacturer had one standard mould. He later helped us acquire several moulds from Mumbai, for fancy candles which won the unit a strong brand in the district. The Municipal Council of Warora solved the marketing issue with bulk orders for chalk sticks, candles and broomsticks. The local grocers offered to serve as retail outlets for the unit.

The Hindustan Petroleum Corporation provided priority connection for LPG, and the Municipal Council provided a shop in its commercial complex at a fair discount. The State Electricity Board provided a priority electric connection.

Veena later graduated to become an assistant in the government’s development administration and is now a Village Officer heading the administration of a large village in Yavatmal district.

The group has since been shepherded by Minakshi Wankhede, who also doubles as a home guard with the local police authorities. Her association with the local police has boosted the business in various ways. Minakshi’s leadership augured well for the group. She lacked Veena’s capabilities, but the consolidation of business took place during her leadership.

As the group’s capital increased, it decided to diversify, acquiring a machine for making vermicelli and another for camphor balls. In their spare time, the women would engage in tailoring work, the most popular being the stitching of pico falls.

Shashikala Narole receives the awrd from the Prime Minsister

Soon, a flood of accolades followed, with Priyadarshini Mahila Udyog even being facilitated by the prime minister.The group also bid and won the tender for supplying mid-day meals to school children.Earlier these contracts were being cornered by underlings of local political leaders. The unit now supplies mid-day meals to over thousand children, ensuring dignified employment for a dozen women.

Cooking begins at 9 am in the industrial kitchen, which is a tarp hung on four posts, jabbed into an empty patch. An all-female crew prepares giant vats of savoury rice and lentil porridge. Workers cook several kilograms of rice, curry and vegetables in giant steel pots. They stir curry with paddles the size of oars. Amidst the sounds of clanging metal, I often found the women hard at work.

During one of my visits to the schools where these ladies served the meals, the teachers complimented me for the excellent quality of food. Earlier, they had to throw away half the supply on account of its insipid taste, I was told. Now, there were no leftovers. Children also brought tiffins to take some food to their homes. When they ate nutritious food, their attendance also improved.

The group’s latest success is the sanction of an outlet of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the government programme that supplies subsidised food grains to the poor.

The honesty of the group members is reflected in the happiness of consumers; they get the full eligible ration on time and at fair rates. This has helped customers of other PDS outlets too. As in all spheres, benchmarking improves ethical practices.

Fast forward to 2018

Twenty years has been a long period for women from varying religious, linguistic and caste hues to remain under a common umbrella. Life for them has changed in other ways too. They recall those days when they were rag-pickers and made a scant living by segregating and selling papers, plastics, metal and other scraps. They suffered scorn for being in a contemptible profession, but even in today’s better times, they face displeasure, the reason now is more modern–economic envy.

The younger members left the town after getting married, while some retired. Of the original group, only three members remain–Minakshi Wankhede, Shashi Narole and Zaibun. Though age has mellowed them, the youthful glint is palpable. They now have improved dwellings; their children lead better and healthier lives, and they have investments in the form of bank deposits and plots of land.

The group’s journey has great lessons for me, as for the larger society. By tenaciously plotting the contours through the vicissitudes of time and negotiating rigid social norms, the group has shaped a heroic trajectory. It is a compelling and inspiring story of resolute perseverance and dignity inspired by the struggle to escape the enduring grasp of poverty.

Putting the right supporting structures in place can make the ecosystem for female entrepreneurs more congenial, fostering a culture of equality. Entrepreneurship is a powerful path to reducing poverty and empowering women. It creates financial independence which is modern society’s strongest currency.

In the words of Nobel Laureate Prof Mohammad Yunus, “Credit is one door through which people can escape poverty. Many more doors and windows can be created to facilitate an easy exit. It involves conceptualising about people differently; it involves designing a new institutional framework, consistent with this new conceptualisation.”

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at

Rag Pickers To Entrepreneurs: How Women In This Maharashtra Village Are Empowering Themselves

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India – Who are the Five arrested for Bhima Koregaon Violence and alleged #PlotToKillPM ?

For all five, who are facing charges under stringent sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, interactions with the police and the state are not new.

Mumbai: On June 6, the Pune police, in a “joint operation” closely coordinated with the police of Nagpur, Mumbai and Delhi, arrested five persons. Since the arrest, the police have come up with several versions of  – from claiming that the five persons were behind the violence that disrupted this years’ annual celebrations at Bhima Koregoan memorial, to saying they were supporting Naxal activities to finally the most recent story – that they were plotting a “Rajiv Gandhi style” assassination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The initial FIR has been modulated and stringent sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act have been applied against them.

For each of the five, hostility from the police and the state is not new experience. The five include Sudhir Dhawale, writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist, lawyer Surendra Gadling from Nagpur, Mahesh Raut, a young activist on displacement issues who is also a former Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow from Gadchiroli, Shoma Sen, a university professor and head of the English literature department at Nagpur University and Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based social activist who is a core committee member of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP).

A more detailed profile of each one of them provides a better picture of their background and their work.

Sudhir Dhawale: A silent organiser 

Born to a Dalit family in the slums of Indora, an Ambedkarite hub in Nagpur, 54-year-old Sudhir Dhawale has always preferred being a “foot soldier” in any movement. Best known for his coordination rather than his leadership skills, Dhawale is a well-known name in protests and fact-finding exercises post any human- rights violation in Maharashtra.

While the 2002 Gujarat riots led to him launching his radical bi-monthly magazine Vidrohi, he started a cultural-political organisation called ‘Ramabai Nagar-Khairlanji Hatyaakand Virodhi Sangarsh Samiti’ in 2006 following the murder of four persons from a family in Khairlanji in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

Sudhir Dhawale

The organisation, however, disintegrated soon after and another organisation, the Republican Panthers Jaatiya Antachi Chalwal (Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement) was born on December 6, 2007, at the Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar memorial in Chaityabhoomi, Mumbai.

His friends and colleagues say Dhawale – a man of a very few words – took to political thinking at a very young age. In his younger days, he was actively involved in activities of CPI (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War, which was not a banned organisation then. Until 1994, he was active in the movement in Nagpur, and moved to Mumbai in search of a job.

His long-time friend, activist, Vira Satidhar, the lead actor of Marathi film Court recalls Dhawale’s early days in politics, calling them a time of as that of “trial and error”. Dhawale began with the left movement, stayed through his college life with different left-leaning cultural and political organisations. But he soon realised there was nothing for a Dalit in it.

“He was acutely aware of his Dalit identity and of the issues that a Dalit faces in our caste-ridden society. He moved away from the Left and developed his own political understanding over years,” Satidhar says.

Vidrohi started as four-page magazine and soon it became eight pages. “In a few years, it took the shape of a full-fledged magazine which was published twice every month and spoke of pertinent issues concerning the country. He is a sharp, perceptive and an independent thinker. His writings reflected that,” Satidhar adds. 

Having spent his life being a part of social movements, Dhawale’s interactions with the state and police have been routine. His magazine, though produced on a small scale, was potent enough to rouse the ire of the establishment. On January 2, 2011, he was arrested for his purported links with the Naxal movement. The shoddy investigations and the flimsy evidence gathered in the investigations were rejected by the trial court and he was released after spending 40 months in Gondia prison.

Dhawale returned in May 2014, this time more determined and resolved to take his magazine to a larger audience. His wife, the younger sister of Gadling, another person arrested with Dhawale, decided to part ways and move back to to Nagpur with their two children.

In June 2017, Dhawale floated an ambitious plan – of bringing Dalit leaders from across spectrum together on one platform to speak against the present regime. That’s when Elgar Parishad, a large-scale event with over 200 organisations participating in it was planned. “Unlike the leaders, who only participate in an ongoing movement momentarily and move on soon, Dhawale was a full timer, “ says his friend Satidhar.

At the Elgar Parishad too, Dhawale was involved in the planning and execution. “He meticulously planned everything. He had decided only Dalits and Bahujans would occupy the centre stage. He wanted to show the Bahujan strength to the state. He succeeded in it.” It was the success of the event, Sathidar feels, that led to his arrest.

Surendra Gadling: A people’s pro bono lawyer

Born in a same neighbourhood as Dhawale, every choice in 47- year old Surendra Gadling’s life has been “political”. Starting as an apprentice in the railways soon after finishing college, Gadling participated in many socio-cultural movements in Nagpur. Soon, he along his friends – Sambhaji Bhagat an activist, a people’s poet and balladeer and Vilas Ghogre, also a prominent poet and activist from Mumbai who committed suicide to protest against the 1997 Ramabai killings – started an organisation called Awhan Natya Manch. This group would organise cultural evenings in the bastis of Nagpur and engage in conversations around rights and oppressions.

Surendra Gadling

Very soon, the group realised it should do more. “They branched out into law. Since Gadling had a keen interest in labour rights and people’s issues, he considered studying law was an obvious choice,” says his partner, advocate Nihalsing Rathod.

Over the years, Gadling became a formidable force and a point person for cases of illegal killings, police excesses, fakes cases, and atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis in the region. He soon became an expert in special laws like UAPA, the Forest Rights Act, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He also specialises in the cases of those who identify themselves as “political prisoners”. He was, until his arrest, handling the case of G.N. Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor jailed for alleged Naxal links. He handled most of these cases pro bono.

His cases grew, but barely any money came, Rathod says. “In fact, when the police raided his residence early this year, they were surprised seeing his humble house in Bhim Chowk. In the raid, the police only got Rs 5,000 with his wife,” Rathod adds. Gadling lives with his two children, who are both still studying, and his wife and his mother in Bhim Chowk.

All five who have been arrested know Gadling as he has, at some point or the other, either represented them or some PIL they had filed in the high court. Along with working with the law, Gadling was an active member of Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) and CRPP.

While Gadling’s family and lawyers are busy preparing for the legal battle that lies ahead, his colleagues are looking at those several hundred cases he has been handling and finding appropriate lawyers to appear in them. Advocate Mihir Desai will be now handling Saibaba’s bail application.

Over the past few years, Gadling has developed acute arthritis and has a severe blood pressure problem. Since the arrest, Gadling’s health has deteriorated drastically and he was moved to Pune’s Sasoon hospital on June 7. “He has been shifted to an ICU now and had to urgently undergo an angiography procedure,” his lawyer Susan Gonsalves told The Wire. She further confirmed that Gadling was moved to judicial custody from police remand on June 8 due to his deteriorating health condition.

Mahesh Raut: A champion of Adivasi rights

Born in Lakhapur village in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, 30-year-old Mahesh Raut has lived with different relatives all his life. His father, a police Patil of the village, died when Raut was still in the school, and the family moved to nearby Wadsa village in Gadchiroli. Soon after, Raut and his two sisters were sent off to different relatives to pursue their studies. “I stayed with my mother’s elder sister, and Dada with my mother’s brother,” says his younger sister, who works in Mumbai. Raut’s grandfather was a local political leader and according to his family he was deeply influenced by his grandfather’s thoughts.

Mahesh Raut

Raut pursued his studies at a Navodaya school in Gadchiroli, and then moved to Nagpur to pursue higher education. In 2009, he joined the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai to study social work. This is where Raut’s perspective changed, his sister says. “Until then he was very serious about earning money and leading a comfortable life,” says the sister, who has been shuttling between Pune and Nagpur trying to arrange for lawyers and resources for Mahesh’s release. Before TISS, he also taught at a local school for a brief period and was also selected for a teaching post in Goa.

Raut was one of the youngest students of TISS to be selected for the most coveted Prime Minister Rural Development (PMRD) fellowship. Other fellows have now released a letter in his support and signature campaigns have been shown in support of the work he did in the tribal regions of Gadchiroli since 2011.

On the completion of his fellowship, Raut decided to work with the Adivasi community in the state. “He would be invited for guest lectures at different colleges. He would make some money out of it. Mostly, he was dependent on us for monetary support. We are proud of the path he chose,” the sister tells The Wire, talking over the phone from Gadchiroli. 

Activist Lalsu Nogoti, a Zilla Parishad member and an Indian Law Society’s Law College (ILS) alumni lawyer has worked with Raut very closely. Nogoti told The Wire that Raut has led and organised several protests in the region, especially against the Surjagarh mining project. “He only followed the constitutional path and ensured he chose only legal options in his fight for rights. He belongs to a backward community and is aware of the problems that his community and the Adivasis face. That made him a mass leader,” Nogoti says.

Raut, a central convener and committee member of the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan (VVJVA) had been actively campaigned along with Adivasi communities of the region to sell Tendu leaves directly into the market without the involvement of the middlemen.

His work in the region and constant confrontations with the police and state administration led to several cases being filed against him. “But this one is shocking. A man who has been busy working with the community is booked in such a serious crime. It is just absurd,” his sister says.

For past six months, Raut has been undergoing treatment for acute ‘ulcerative colitis’, a condition that causes the colon to enlarge. “He lost over seven kilos in a matter of a month. He was mostly home bound and was undergoing intensive treatment,” she says.

Rona Wilson: A perpetual campaigner for the release of ‘political prisoners’

Rona Wilson, a 47-year-old activist from Kolam district in Kerala, had made Delhi his second home since the late ’90s. Having come to the capital during his post-graduation days, Wilson almost immediately took to activism. “He was studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at that time, I was at Delhi University (DU). We already had a vibrant students’ activism circle. Wilson became one among us soon,” recalls S.A.R. Geelani, a well- known human rights activist and Wilson’s friend for last two- decades.

Rona Wilson

Geelani is the founder of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), a committee he formed soon after his release from prisons in the 2001 Parliament attack case. “Rona was at the forefront of demanding my release. When I was released, he insisted we formed a group to help other such political prisoners who were incarcerated like me. He took up the responsibility of handling public relations,” Geelani adds. CRPP has been operating across every state and is closely looking into cases of those booked for agitating and questioning the state. Jagmohan Singh, the nephew of Bhagat Singh is also a part of the core committee of the organisation.

Geelani says that although Wilson’s arrest came as a surprise to many, the raid that was conducted at his house in April made it amply clear that Wilson would soon land in trouble. “He had nothing to do with the Elgar Parishar organised in Maharashtra. In fact, for the past few months he has been inactive and was only focussing on his research proposal which he recently sent to a university in England. After many years, he wanted to join a university and he had plans to pursue a Ph.D somewhere in London,” Geelani tells The Wire in a telephonic conversation.

Since his arrest, Wilson’s family has been inundated with calls and visits by local political leaders. Geelani says even BJP workers have been visiting them and that the family is terrified by the sudden attention. “Even though he has been active for so many years, this is the first ever case registered against him. He was not prepared for this sudden whisking away by the police. The charges he and others are booked under are all false and the state is up to some very sinister plans,” Geelani adds.

Shoma Sen: A passionate feminist and academic

For the past one month, 31-year-old Koel Sen had been busy planning for her mother Shoma Sen’s retirement and 60th birthday. “My mother would have finally taken a break from her routine after almost three decades. We were all very excited.” But after Shoma’s arrest on June 6, the celebratory mood has turned sombre and the family is now caught in a flurry of visits to lawyers.

Koel Sen and Shoma Sen (left).

Sen, an assistant professor and head of the English literature department at Nagpur University, has been associated with several women’s rights movement since her college days. A Mumbai girl, born to a Bengali Kayastha family, Sen moved to Nagpur soon after she completed her masters degree in Mumbai’s Elphinstone college. She pursued her M.Phil and Ph.D in Nagpur.

Koel recalls growing up at their Nagpur home, and says it was a very vibrant space where several meetings would be conducted. “But in 2007, with my father Tusharkant Bhattacharya’s arrest, things changed,” Koel says. Since then, both her parents have been less active in the outside world and mostly focus on their teaching and translation work, Koel tells The Wire.

On June 6, when her mother was arrested, Koel was in Mumbai. “I work in Mumbai as an independent filmmaker. I woke up to the news of these arrests. I did not know my mother was also one of them. When I found out, I left for Pune, where she was supposed to be produced,” says Koel.

Court and jail visits are not new for Koel. When her father was arrested in 2007, she recalls of having visited him in the prison several times. “My 20s were quite intense with lot of these happening in the family. My father was in the underground (naxal) movement some 30 years ago. But once he was released in 2011, he shifted his focus in writing and translation work,” she says. 

Koel says her mother, who was otherwise very active in her heyday while participating in human rights meetings and conferences, has slowed down over the years. “Over the past few years, she had been leading almost a bourgeois life, with two domestic workers and a driver at her disposal. She was really looking forward to a peaceful, comfortable life post retirement,” she says.

Like most of the others arrested, Sen too had no connection with the Bhima Koregaon event. “My parents are in solidarity with the movement. But that is all,” Koel says.

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India – Modi Sarkar and Four years of Achhe Din

Four years of Achhe Din

Our Prime Minister had only one request for us. We have let him down miserably

My dear friends and loyal readers, please join me in congratulating ourselves on four fantastic years of Achhe Din. I hope that is the correct spelling of ‘achhe’ and it’s not ‘achhoo’ as my autocorrect is suggesting. My father says the right spelling is ‘chee’ but I think he is editorialising.

So wherever you are, whoever you are, extend both your arms — don’t feel shy, this is a time to celebrate — and pat yourselves on the back. If you can’t reach your own back because you are too fat, do it using your social media handle, or the handle of your trishul. But do it for sure — because you deserve it.

A ridiculous notion

You silly goose! Deserve it my foot! I was just joking, to see how seriously you take me. And you all are really patting yourselves on the back?! This has to be the height of self-delusion. Do you people really believe the credit for all that India has achieved in the last four years goes to each one of you? I am asking a genuine question here and I want a genuine answer: are all of you megalomaniacs? Did you really think each of you is collectively responsible for the progress of this great nation? I am shocked to hear that you would entertain even for one second such a ridiculous, blasphemous notion. Never forget that all the good things happening in our country right now is because of one man — and we all know who that is.

What makes me really sad is that all of you got four years — four entire years — to fulfil every one of our beloved Prime Minister’s dreams. And yet, you have let him down so badly. Each one of you. True, the Indian economy is still growing at 12.7% per annum, we are still creating 4.2 crore jobs every year, and farmers are so happy that they are giving away milk and tomatoes for free. It is also true that we have eliminated corruption through demonetisation, achieved 200% tax compliance through GST, and deposited ₹15 lakh in the bank account of every Indian who worked in the IT Cell for a minimum of 56 days.

Nor can anyone deny that today, white people in different parts of the world look at brown Indians with more respect than ever before. Foreigners are so much in awe of our Prime Minister that when they translate his speeches they add five extra paragraphs free of charge. After 60 years of Dark Ages under the Congress, today every Indian village has woken up to light and Paytm.

Four great feats

In fact, Modiji routinely achieves in any given week 100 times more than what Nehru accomplished from 1947 to 2014. But the pseudo-sickular Indian media that has sold out to the hate-Modi industry simply won’t show them to the Indian public. If you think I am being too harsh, I’ll give you just four examples of Modiji’s historic achievements, all from the last one week, which have been completely blacked out by the paid-cum-stung media.

I’m betting you didn’t know, for instance, that for the first time in India’s 30,000-year-history, an orchid was named after an Indian Prime Minister when the Singapore government decided to name a beautiful Indic orchid that produces upright inflorescences up to 56 inches long, ‘Dendrobrium Narendra Modi’. Or that Modiji became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit a Mariamman temple in Singapore. Were you aware that the IAEA has hailed the achievement of electrifying all Indian villages as the greatest event in the history of every energy, including physical, kinetic, potential, sexual, and weed energy? Or that for the first time in India’s history, an Indian Prime Minister purchased a Madhubani painting in Singapore using a RuPay card? Do you know how many Madhubani paintings Nehru bought using a RuPay card, either in India or in Singapore? Zero. That’s right. If Modiji and Nehru were to settle things between them through a tennis match, Modiji would win by an innings and 545 runs.

The one thing we couldn’t do

That’s the kind of Prime Minister we’ve been blessed with the last four years — someone who not only works 23 hours a day but never boasts about it in his own words. In return, he had only one small request for all of us: a Congress-mukt Bharat. And I’m sorry to say, as a nation, we have failed miserably in this.

As the Karnataka elections and the recent bypoll results showed, not only is India far from being Congress-mukt, the entire Opposition is ganging up against one man. And you all are sitting quietly and watching like Gandhiji’s monkeys? After all that he has done for you, if you can’t even ensure another five years of Achhe Din in 2019, I must say you are not fit to remain in this country. I suggest you pack off to Pakistan and while you are there, don’t forget to watch ‘Veeradi Veera Wedding’ with your jihadi grandmother.

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When Dalit filmmakers embrace their identity and reclaim their stories

“Our world is shown as colourless and poverty-stricken. Yes, we are economically poor but not culturally so. Where is the depiction of our vibrant culture, music and food? Why is our world shown bereft of it all?” asks Kaala director Pa Ranjith.

As Kaala, Rajinikanth plays a leader of slum-dwellers, who challenges the relentless displacement of the poor in a metropolis.

For his directorial debut, the 2012 film Attakathi, Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith shot a track, Adi en gaana mayil. He had grown up listening and dancing to the folk song, which was sung at funerals to the beats of the parai melam, a percussion instrument made of leather, and thus considered inauspicious. The song made it to the top of the charts and playlists of parties and temple festivals across Tamil Nadu. “I grew up on such songs but this tradition had never been reflected in our cinema. So, when people took to the song, it felt like an acknowledgement of the Dalit culture that is otherwise missing from the mainstream,” says the 35-year-old filmmaker.

Since then, Ranjith has honed his politics to assert his Dalit identity through the cinema he makes. His last, Kabali (2016), for instance, had Rajinikanth play the leader of a gang of Tamilians in Malaysia. It tells the story of Tamil Dalits who were taken to Malaysia by the Britishers as indentured labour. His next, Kaala, which released this Friday, is set in Dharavi, a settlement once dominated by Tamil Dalits. As Kaala, Rajinikanth plays a leader of slum-dwellers, who challenges the relentless displacement of the poor in a metropolis. The promos suggest a generous use of Dalit symbolism. Take, for instance, Kaala’s jeep number, MH 01 BR 1956, a reference to the year BR Ambedkar led the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism; or the blue that dominates the slums in the form of cloth, drums, tarpaulin sheets. The film’s teaser begins with the chant of “Poraduvom (We will fight)” and ends with the Ambedkarite exhortation, “Kattravai, pattravai (educate, agitate)”.

To the filmmaker, the symbolism is secondary; it’s the assertion that forms a crucial part of his cinema. “There have been films in the past that depict Dalit characters and lives. They were made by non-Dalits, who view us through a lens of pity. Our world is shown as colourless and poverty-stricken. Yes, we are economically poor but not culturally so. Where is the depiction of our vibrant culture, music and food? Why is our world shown bereft of it all?” he says.

Most films that address caste confirm Ranjith’s analysis. They depict Dalits in minor roles of poverty and helplessness. One of the Hindi film industry’s biggest commercial successes, Lagaan (2001), for example, celebrates this kind of token “inclusion”. While the rest of the village’s makeshift cricket team shuns the “untouchable” Kachra, Aamir Khan’s Bhuvan embraces the crippled man and deigns to include him in the team as a spinner.

“I understand that films such as Jabbar Patel’s Mukta (1994, about an upper-caste woman who falls in love with a Dalit activist) are well-intentioned. But why do these films have to adopt a patronising tone?” asks Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule, whose films Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016) broke new ground in the depiction of caste relations. Sairat, a love story with Dalit actors in the lead, broke several box-office records to enter the elite Rs 100-crore club usually reserved for films by the Khans.

Nagraj ManjuleNagraj Manjule’s films Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016) broke new ground in the depiction of caste relations.With films like Newton (2017) and Mukkabaaz (2017), Hindi cinema, too, appears to be have embarked on a tentative exploration of caste. Newton signals this tacitly, with a blink-and-miss glimpse of Ambedkar’s portrait in Newton’s house or a discussion of Adivasi food preferences (Anjali Patil’s Malko telling Newton why red ants make for great chutney). Mukkabaaz is more overt, with a lower-caste protagonist who works for a Brahmin, but the film never dives too deep.

But, in the film, every character is vocal about their caste. The reason caste has been able to survive is precisely because it isn’t spoken of openly. People don’t talk about it the way characters in Mukkabaaz do,” says Somnath Waghmare, a Dalit documentary filmmaker and research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Waghmare is working on a thesis that maps Dalit voices in Indian cinema.

When filmmakers from the so-called “lower” castes tell their stories, they not only aim to correct the near-erasure of their history and existence from popular culture; but they also wish to tell stories from the inside, which humanise the life of Dalits and depict it in all its complexity. Take, for instance, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, where one of the six principal characters belonged to the Dom community of Varanasi that is designated to handle and burn corpses. Played by Vicky Kaushal, Deepak’s is essentially a love story. “But one is able to sense Deepak’s aspiration, a thread that is common in the depiction of all low-caste characters in movies by Dalit filmmakers,” says Waghmare. “One can see it in Manjule’s films. Be it little Jabya of Fandry or Parshya in Sairat,” he says.

If such representations have rarely made it to the big screen, it is a reflection of the casteism inherent in the Indian film industry, and the tiny number of Dalits who work in it. Manjule recounts that in 2013, during Fandry’s promotion, a journalist pointed out that he was the first Dalit filmmaker to talk about caste in his movie. “That was the 100th year of Indian cinema and I told the journalist that if that is the case, it has taken a hundred years for a Dalit to make a film in India,” says Manjule, who believes that few Dalits are empowered enough to identify as Dalit. Fandry went on to win international acclaim, but, more importantly, it pushed the discussion about caste into the mainstream.

neeraj ghaywanNeeraj Ghaywan “came out” as a Dalit on Twitter, following an unsavoury comment by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri.Earlier this year, following the Bhima Koregaon protests in Maharashtra, Ghaywan “came out” as a Dalit on Twitter, following an unsavoury comment by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri. Not everyone has the courage Ghaywan displayed under the circumstances, only to face a torrent of abuse on social media for using the “Dalit card”. Many in the film industry choose to conceal their Dalit identity. “So many prominent names have reached out to me after watching my films. They call or meet me with a ‘Jai Bhim’, choosing to reveal themselves to me but not to others,” says Manjule, adding that he had not been aware that so many actors and technicians in the Marathi and Hindi film industries are Dalits.

Two years ago, the son of the late lyricist, Shailendra, who wrote some of Hindi cinema’s most memorable songs — from Piya tose naina laage re in Guide to Pyar hua iqrar hua in Shree 420 — announced at a public event that his father had belonged to the Dhursia caste, a cobbler community from Bihar. “Growing up, my parents did tell us that we were from a low caste but I never understood what that meant until my late 20s, when I started to research my father’s life,” says Dinesh Shankar Shailendra. Unable to understand why his father, a successful lyricist and poet of his time, did not receive any national or state awards, Dinesh went to a village in Arrah district, where his grandfather was born and found that he had managed to break the cycle of oppression. “I learnt that he chose to educate himself despite the discrimination, sitting five rows behind others in the classroom. He found a job as a contractor in the British army and eventually got posted to Rawalpindi, where my father was born.” While Shailendra didn’t experience caste discrimination, he was acutely aware of it, perhaps because he had seen his father suffer. “Except one incident that he wrote of in his diary: Once, while playing hockey, some upper-caste boys had sniggered, ‘Now, we will have to play with these kind of people’. That strengthened my father’s resolve to move to Bombay,” says Dinesh, who is writing a script on his father’s life.

In Bombay, Shailendra was drawn to the Communist movement, and became one of Indian People’s Theatre Association’s founders. Collaborating extensively with Raj Kapoor, who gave him his first break, Shailendra wrote lyrics that often spoke of the socialistic ideals of independent India. “But he was aware of the ways in which caste operates and oppresses. Take, for example, the song sung by a cobbler, Thahar zara o jaane wale, in Boot Polish (1954), where he says: Pandit ji mantar padhate hain, woh Ganga ji nahlaate hain/Hum pet ka mantar padhate hai, jute ka muh chamkaate hai. Pandit ko panch chavannee hai, humko toh ek ikannee hai/ Phir bhed bhav yeh kaisa hai, jab sab kaa pyara paisa hai,” says Dinesh about the song which mocks the priest’s superiority.

Many film professionals would understand why Shailendra chose to keep his identity a secret. “In today’s politically correct world, caste discrimination doesn’t exist in the conventional way. But the fear of being outed is deep-seated,” says a respected filmmaker, who did not wish to reveal his identity. “Our ‘place in the society’ has been grilled into us from a very age. There is a constant fear of being seen as lowly by one’s friends and colleagues. The fear is so real and raw that, sometimes, I wonder what my upper-caste house help will think of me if she found out that I am a Dalit,” he says, the vulnerability visible in his eyes.

shailendeaShailendra (in black) with Dilip Kumar.Manjule seconds this. “When I came in the industry, I used to be scared of who I am, of how I look, of my last name, of my choices that would give away my caste identity. The language I speak is a raw version of Marathi that the upper caste speak. It’s considered ‘impure’. It took me a while to understand that any language is kept alive by the working class. Language’s purpose is expression and if whatever dialect I speak can help me express and communicate, it cannot be dismissed,” says the director, who used his local dialect in both his films. Fandry’s producer had initially asked him to avoid it but Manjule stood his ground. Sairat’s success, ironically, made the rural argot fashionable, triggering a trend in Marathi television shows and films.

But the filmmaker, who chooses to be anonymous, also worries about being seen only as a Dalit filmmaker, or being dismissed as a product of reservation. “Reservation has helped me but the chances are high that my capabilities will be questioned (because of it). Nor do I want my work to get any sympathy just because I am a Dalit.”

Ranjith argues that the first step in liberating oneself of these complexes is to take a stand and talk about one’s Dalit identity. “The inferiority complex is a part of every Dalit’s life. Growing up, there was a toy store near my house that would stock every toy except the spinning top, which was available at the store in the upper caste settlement. I would tell myself I shouldn’t want that top because if I do, I will have to go across the store and be subject to humiliation. Over time, I realised I have no reason to feel inferior. If my poverty and my ways bother people, the problem lies with them and the society they have created,” he says.

More importantly, caste is almost impossible to disown. “It’s in people’s nature, their choices, their expression. One can tell your caste based on what they like, what music they listen to or even how they name their film. You will never hear of a Gulabjaam made by Nagraj Manjule,” says Manjule, referring to Sachin Kundalkar’s recent release, which was criticised for passing off upper-caste vegetarian dishes as Marathi cuisine.

Nishant Roy Bombarde, who has worked in the media industry for a few years, recounts the everyday casteism of the film world. “A badly dressed person is called bhangi. Anything that was disgusting is dismissed as chuda-chamar. When looking for ‘good-looking’ lead actors, people would look for Brahmin girls and boys or casually confirm if a certain surname was upper caste,” says the 35-year-old whose 2015 Marathi short film, Daaravtha, won the National Award. In the short, Bombarde tells the story of a young boy confused about his sexuality. A tiny thread in the film also touches upon caste, which he feels has been an integral part of his identity.

Waghmare’s research reveals that characters in Marathi films who share his last name are usually peons, criminals or in other petty jobs. “This comes from conditioning and adds to it as well. It manifests in interesting ways. Last year, at a screening of my documentary film on Bhima Koregaon, a woman stood up to confirm if the ‘fair-complexioned’ professor in my film was indeed a Dalit,” he recounts.

Bollywood’s power politics, on the other hand, rests in denial. Rumour is that Sairat’s remake in Hindi has done away with the caste angle. Director Abhishek Chaubey agrees that caste isn’t blatant in Bollywood. “No one will ask, ‘Tumhari jaat kya hai?’ But I look around me and all I find are Chaubeys and Bhardwajes. That’s as in-your-face as caste can get… I grew up in Ranchi, being able to afford a missionary school education that a lower caste person may not be able to. When I come to Bollywood, the chances are higher that I will be given an opportunity for the English I speak and the way I present myself,” he says. Chaubey recently finished shooting for Sonchiriya, an action film set in Chambal of the 1970s. The director says most of his protaginists are upper caste, except one, and he tells the story of caste oppression but from the oppressor’s point-of-view.

As more Dalits tell their own stories, however, they also find more challenges. “Being vocal about one’s caste identity may mean that the villains in your film will be from the upper castes, which doesn’t go down very well,” says G Murali Vardhan, a cinematographer and FTII graduate whose filmography is limited to Ranjith’s Madras, Kabali and Kaala. “It comes through in how people forget your work or how they miss inviting you to functions, or the sheer lack of work offers despite having proved your calibre.”

Manjule agrees but adds that one of the crucial ways to escape such hurdles is by making sure the film isn’t lacking in craft. “If you overlook the caste angle in Sairat and Fandry, the films are still entertaining. They manage to move the audience. This makes it easier for me to tackle production roadblocks and reach a wider audience,” he says.

There is also, however, a simmering anger against fellow Dalit-Bahujans, who not only chose to conceal their caste but also adopted Brahmanical symbols. For instance, a young filmmaker who made a successful film using a Brahmin protagonist. Or Marathi actor Bhau Kadam, who was at the receiving end of fellow Buddhist-Dalits’ ire in 2017 after he installed a Ganesha idol during a festival. Bombarde feels that the anger isn’t unfounded but he also empathises with them. “It’s an inner battle for acceptance,” he says.

Each one fights that battle in their own, contradictory ways. “He may never have spoken about his Dalit identity but it took an Ilayaraja to transform film music, mixing folk with holy ragas and serve it to the upper castes in a way that they lapped it up,” says Vardhan. “You can disagree with his politics but cannot take away from him what he did for music.”

Vardhan’s colleague T Ramalingam, the art director on Kaala, says that the fight is about claiming ownership of the story of their lives. “You may find the slum I grew up in filthy but it was home to me, I will see beauty in it.” He cites the example of the 2015 National Award-winning Tamil film Kaaka Muttai, pointing out that it has the same setting as Ranjith’s Madras. “But it lacks the colour and vibrancy that we grew up seeing. In our houses, there was a separate spot to keep pots where sometimes rats would sneak in. While an outsider would view them with revulsion, as pests, we used to play with them.” Which story is less valid? Which narrative will win? The answer, says Manjule, is in assertion.

“Ranjith has been doing what I did it with Sairat — enlarging the canvas to fit into the mainstream. The idea is to take our world to a larger audience, so they can see we are as human as they are.”

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