Jatiindia: A Flag of Atrocities Caste, Present and Future

See also at CounterPunch

RohithRohith Vemula, acrylic on paper, 2016

We are so cutoff from those targeted by our governments and their corporate bedfellows, and our histories are so saturated with unspoken atrocities, that there are not enough elite hands in this world to participate in this vision I describe below. And it would also mean discarding monocrop patriotism with a more diverse one because there is no one symbolic flag in which to pack it in.

But nevertheless, imagine a scene with thousands of protestors in today’s caste-and-capitalist India, taking to the street and chanting slogans of accountability, both from their own government—past and present—and more importantly their own citizen hearts, waving not one symbolic, patriotic flag, but many, each with a different face of exclusion at the heart of it.

A citizen-sea of twice-born faces waving faces of citizen-exclusion. Faces of those who have paid and are continuing to pay the ultimate price for confronting power with truth at various times in the country’s history. Resisting religious and economic fundamentalism and asserting their human right to dignity, inclusion, equality and justice—the stuff we take so much for granted. The only difference between them is that the hand that waves the flag is a beneficiary of the world’s largest democracy….I mean, the world’s largest hypocrisy (i.e., JatiIndia, my name for our nation of jatis/castes.)

The faces on the flags waving in this hypocritical Delhi breeze would belong to the oppressed, the excluded, the other—Dalits, Adivasis, occupied Kashmiris, india’s northeasterners, and others. Their exclusion is squeezed between the old and the new, between the dogmas of religious scriptures and state sponsored terrorism. Anyone who questions and resists these dogmas is speedily labeled with a T word, as a “terrorist” or a “traitor.” Despite that, today people are taking to the streets and questioning the irrational hand of authority.

“My birth is my fatal accident,” wrote Rohith Vemula. He was the 26-year-old son of a landless Dalit mother, who hanged himself in a student hostel room on January 17th, 2016. A research scholar at the University of Hyderabad (HCU) and a student activist of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), he dreamed of one day becoming “a writer of science, like Carl Sagan.” That dream is gone now, but the suicide letter he wrote and left behind for us will not only send chills up your spine and make you weep; it might well change the course of Indian caste history, because it exposes the plight of those born Dalits in India like nothing that came before it.

Suicides among bright Dalit scholars are not a new phenomenon. National Crime Research Bureau surveys from the 1950s up until last year reveal that caste atrocities that drive these suicides have risen from 33,507 in 2001 to 47,064 in 2014. According to writer and democratic rights activist Anand Teltumbde, “The reason can be traced to the social Darwinist ethos of neoliberalism which reversed the welfarist paradigm created by Keynesian economics. Its social implications contra-intuitively resonate with the upsurge of Hindutva forces in the country, evidenced by the BJP’s rise from a marginal position in the 1980s to be the contender for political power at the center….The strategy of the hindutva camp is to brahmanize common folks of the dalits and to demonize the radical dalits. As dissenting Muslim youth are branded terrorist, dalit-adivasi youth are being stamped as extremists, casteist and anti-nationals.” To read more about the background of Rohit’s suicide please read Teltumbde’s article.

Now below is the full text of Rohit’s suicide letter:

Good morning,

I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.

I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense.

May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.

People may dub me as a coward. And selfish, or stupid once I am gone. I am not bothered about what I am called. I don’t believe in after-death stories, ghosts, or spirits. If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds.

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that. I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji. He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that.

Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than being alive.

“From shadows to the stars.”

Uma anna, sorry for using your room for this thing.

To ASA family, sorry for disappointing all of you. You loved me very much. I wish all the very best for the future.

For one last time,

Jai Bheem

I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this. Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.

I have chosen Rohit’s story as the first of this series of painted flags, JatiIndia: A Flag of Atrocities Caste, Present and Future. And for all of them, I have chosen saffron as the color of the top bar, to symbolize long-existing casteism, now more open and feverish with resurgent hindutva politics. I have chosen blue for the middle bar, because it is the color historically adopted by the Dalit movement; however, in my flags it will signify all of India’s oppressed people. I have chosen green for the bottom bar, to symbolize India’s ecological foundations, which are endangered by the ideology of neoliberalism and defended by our Adivasis and other oppressed people.

The circular image in the center of each flag will signify a target viewed through a weapon’s saffron (indicating right-wing nationalism) crosshairs. Between the past and present this serieswill go back and forth in no particular order bringing forward some of the targeted faces of resistance that have challenged the stagnant ideology of exclusion of the world’s largest hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, the next in this series is the story of Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher….

Spontaneous Histories, Bungled Borders and Perennial Victims

See also at CounterPunch

India and Bangladesh share a 2,500-mile border. Ending a dispute that has lasted almost 70 years, at midnight Friday, July 31, 2015, Bangladesh and India finally closed a deal to swap border territories and thereby untangle their wildly convoluted border. To do this, the two countries initiated the exchange of more than 160 enclaves (including the world’s only third-order enclave – a portion of India surrounded by Bangladesh, surrounded by India, surrounded by Bangladesh). This move will dramatically affect the lives of more than 50,000 people living in the region. Residents of the now-erased enclaves, who have been living in an effectively stateless limbo for all these years, will get to decide whether they want to stay where they are and accept new citizenship or whether they want to relocate (from what is now India to Bangladesh or from Bangladesh to India) and keep their original citizenship.

How did the border ever come to look like a 3-D slice of Swiss cheese in the first place? There are a couple of legends floating around, one involving chess games between maharajas, and another featuring a drunk British officer spilling ink on the 1947 India-Pakistan map. But contemporary scholars believe that they were a result of an 18th century deal signed between the Mughal Emperor in Delhi and the maharaja of Cooch Berar, ending a series of small wars.

After the partition of India in 1947, this situation has made it virtually impossible for folks living in these areas to gain access to state amenities like hospitals, schools, markets, etc. Technically, the exchange will end one of the world’s craziest border disputes, but on the ground it will make things very complicated. For instance, it will rip families apart, leaving some stranded on one side of the border while their relatives choose to relocate to the other.

Our colonial histories, it seems, are replete with drunken, flamboyant and careless spontaneity, legendary or real. Take the case of Kashmir, where the colonized have turned 360 degrees and donned the colonizers’ garb; their military presence is almost 700,000 strong in that state. According to Angana P. Chatterji in the book Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, “70,000 [Kashmiris] are dead and over 8,000 have been disappeared. More than 250,000 have been displaced (1989-2010).” All this is the fallout from the failure of a Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority princely state to make up his mind whether to accede to India or Pakistan at the time of India’s independence from the British almost 70 years ago.

This border dispute has continued boiling at a time when the current right-wing nationalist government in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is putting in place Hindutva fundamentalist policies affecting hundreds of thousands of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) and other minority communities, including Muslims and Christians including their dietary habits like eating beef. India, a country in which Hindus considered the cow to be sacred, is home to 300 million cattle and also the world’s #1 beef exporter. This beef frenzy has already claimed three lives. On September 28, Mohammed Akhlaq of Bisara village in western Uttar Pradesh was lynched to death and his son Danish assaulted by a mob. On October 10th in Himachal Pradesh in the presence of police, Noman, a 28 year old truck driver was lynched to death by a mob. And on October 9, 18-year-old trucker Zahid Rasool Bhat, succumbed to burn injuries in Delhi’s Safdarjang hospital from a petrol bomb attack in Udhampur district in Kashmir.

Against this hypocritical backdrop, India has been cracking down on cattle smuggling (which drives the local economy in Bangladesh – 2 million cattle are smuggled to Bangladesh from India every year) claiming killing a cow is “equivalent to raping a Hindu girl.” India has a shoot-to-kill policy along the Bangladesh border. According to a January 2011 Guardian article, “Over the past 10 years Indian security forces have killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, turning the border area into a south Asian killing fields. No one has been prosecuted for any of these killings….against unarmed and defenceless local residents.”

And the latest news about the fascist RSS (India’s leading Hindu nationalist organization and the driving force for today’s policies in Modi’s India) is that they “are going to shed their [decidedly unstylish khaki] shorts once and for all in a bid to attract more young people,” while simultaneously luring the government to adopt western-style immigration policies because they are concerned with the Muslims migrating to India from Bangladesh into the border states of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar. A resolution titled “Challenges of Imbalance in the Population Growth” was discussed during a recently held meeting of the RSS. I suppose their wearing of stylish long pants gives their Muslim-bashing agenda a more American-style “Hinduland Security” edge, no?

The same Narendra Modi who was denied a visa by the US after he encouraged Hindu-on-Muslim violence when he was chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 was warmly welcomed into this country in September, 2015 by many, including Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. “There is tremendous excitement for your visit amongst all Googlers,” he said. Modi got a 30-foot-long red-carpet welcome when he landed in the Bay Area on September 26, along with thousands of cheering Indian-Americans and a hug from Mark Zuckerberg.

About 1,700 miles east and 40 days after this greasy Silicon Valley spectacle, artist Shubho Saha, from Bangladesh, and I staged a short collaborative performance titled No Man’s Land in front of a Kansas audience, where Shubho was the visiting artist-in-residence at the Salina Art Center.

In No Man’s Land, itself a spontaneous performance using our voices and gestures, Shubho and I exchanged between us the colors, smells and textures of raw food: rice, spices, and a chunk of oximoronically Hindu beef, while simultaneously erasing the dead colors of our imposed synthetic identities. We performed our gestures not on a long red carpet but within a tight, eight-foot diameter double spiral labyrinth (to evoke that third-order enclave). While enclaves now cease to exist, crores are slated to be spent by India, Trump-style, on building new walls to keep Bangladeshi nationals from crossing over. So yes, while our countries’ borders are becoming more linear, our Hindutva-centric policies are continuing to spin round and round, making everyone dizzy by design.

Let us shake our minds free from staccato, elite, patriotic cries and take a look at what’s really happening to the people and the very mountains, rivers, and lands mentioned in our beloved national anthem, in Gujarat, Maratha, to our Vindhyas — the very song to which we stand at attention and sing before every Bollywood movie in India’s picture halls these days. Jaya he.

 

Maansik Sampatti (Intellectual Property)

a performance/installation using commercial soil, sand, cotton seeds and broken green glass bangles, 2011

Between 1995 and 2014, over 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Toward the end of the performance/installation slides featured above you see broken green bangles-a sign of widowhood-sprouting from the soil. Green bangles are traditionally worn by a married woman, and when her husband dies she will often break them in mourning.