Sunday, 17 January 2016

Nagaland: Quest for Identity – 1

Wise words in Wokha

J: You will reach Kohima at around two in the morning. Don’t worry, its safe here. There are Army guys everywhere.
Me: Are you mad? I am not going anywhere near the Army.
J: You are an upper class Brahmin and you don’t look like a Naga, so they dare not touch you.
Me: I am not ‘upper class Brahmin’.
J: Oh. Then God help you.

The conversation with J, my friend who is studying Peace and Conflict, bordered on being a joke, yet somewhere it wasn’t. The media with its sporadic reports on ‘insurgency’ in the state, has successfully managed to create an image of an unsafe volatile state with people up in arms against the Army. Travelers who visit the state do so mostly during the Hornbill Festival, which quite many Nagas would agree, is just a performance put up to boost tourism. The loss however is ours, the rest of India, for not making efforts to go beyond the Hornbill Festival and media reports to understand these resilient and amazing hill people who have throughout generations experienced so much, yet come so far in their collective journey.

My arrival in Kohima at 2am was not as dramatic as J had joked. He along with his friend M were there to pick me up at Learie Point, a CRPF Camp area but with no army personnel around at that time. On the eve of Christmas, when we were exploring the town, eat Naga food and understand a bit of its history, a usually unruffled J suddenly spat out, “Its one of the most disgusting line I have ever read anywhere”. Written on the wall in huge letters was the Indian Army’s tagline for Nagaland – Friends of the Hill People.

Nagaland, it might seem, have always been a ‘conflict’ zone. The tribes, before adopting Christianity, practiced head-hunting as each village/clan functioned as an autonomous unit and therefore the need to guard against its ‘enemies’ and/or forge friendship treaties with other villages. Then came the invasion of Japan into their territory in 1943. Just as they were picking up pieces of their lives, the Indian Army moved in after India’s independence to quell the movement for Naga independence or ‘insurgency’. The Indian Army ended up committing more atrocities on Naga people than even the Japanese who were known for their horrific war crimes. Some of these stories though reported in mainline dailies were lost in the inside pages. More than fifty years of Army presence and a deeply corrupt state government has led to issues or crimes which were unheard of in the state once – drugs, HIV, rapes, migration. Perhaps it’s the strength of the Naga women, who like other women in conflict zones, bore the brunt of it, the resilience of the village structures, and/or their faith in Christianity that have helped the Nagas overlook all this and continue with normal life.

“They are all chasing after the wind.” C, my guide in Khonoma for the day, replied to my queries on the Nationalist Movement. C studied in Kohima and was home for the holidays. While the entire village was engaged in church work on the 1st of Jan, C agreed to take me to the adjoining forest because he thought churches are ‘just man-made structures’.

“What freedom are they talking about? We are free, we have our Naga identity and we have a state to our own. What they want is not politically feasible now. And we are Nagas; once we get our ‘freedom’, we will start bickering and fighting with each other again”, C continued, stating largely what the current generation felt about the ‘Nationalist’ movement. They wanted to move on, forget the past and build a better future for themselves in Nagaland.

The Nationalist Movement had started with the idea of a larger Naga identity – a free country for all Naga tribes, including those living in Burma (Myanmar) and parts of Manipur. The movement like many others, now seem to have lost its key focus, spilt into sub-groups on tribe/clan lines and now perceived mostly as extortionists who do not want the state or its people to progress. There have been incidences of them killing their own members who had tried to find a common ground for all and/or advocate a different path.

On the way to Pfutsero, relatively better roads than anywhere in Nagaland

CY, another student from Wokha who has a keen interest in the movement’s history, said that it’s difficult to support any of the groups because all of them are just as corrupt as the government. The sense of restlessness seemed strong in the youth who wants to do so much but are not able to do so, not even voice their opinions openly. They want to leave their past behind and forge a new identity in the future. For the older generation who once strongly believed in the ideology, suffered the impact of the conflict and faced so much hardships over decades, their identity is deeply tied with the past. They are unable to forget and simply let go.

Socio-politically, Nagaland is in a state of flux where the problems are not as simple as stated above but layered with complexities. In its heart lies the quest for an identity, the definition of which have been shifting and evolving over the years. As my friend K, who is deeply involved in church and community work said, perhaps the first step is not to forget but forgive.

Between the Indian government, the Army, the state government, the nationalist movement, the ideologies of the older and younger generation and Christianity and tribal roots, the past continues to weigh heavily while the future is itching to unfold.  

Friday, 4 December 2015

Time Travelling in Bihar:

A village in Madhubani district
(all conversations took place in Hindi)

Case 1: (Kishanganj)
Me: Will you work after you are married?
Girl: In Rajput families, women are not allowed to work. Except as a teacher.
Me: So what happens to all the education that you have had?
Girl: Doesn’t matter. My dad will still have to pay that much dowry. 

Case 2: (Patna)
Me: How many children do you have?
Domestic Help: Six, four sons and two daughters
Me: How old are they? Are they studying?
DH: The oldest two are working. They are old enough to earn.
Me: Did they finish their education?
DH: No
Me: Who goes to school?
DH: Silence
Me: Are you planning to send them to school?
DH: No
(A six or seven years old daughter helps her with jhadu-pocha twice a day in five homes)

Case 3: (Kishanganj)
Young guy: That uncle of mine is very good. He makes a profit of minimum Rs.20 lakhs whenever he gets a project.
Me: How?
YG: He gets tender from the government for maintenance of all health centres and hospitals in Bihar. He has to give a bribe of Rs.10-20 lakhs to government officials, then increases the tender amount. So, when he gets the tender, he finishes his work within the original tender amount and rest is his as ‘profit’.

It felt surreal. Things had changed visibly, physically yet nothing had changed. The part which had not changed – mostly attitude, socio-cultural norms, social structures and values – infact seemed so deeply ingrained that I felt truly hopeless. I had returned to the state of my Alma Mater after a gap of two decades, and I came back with a sense of great agitation which I have not been able to shake off even now. Physically I could recognize nothing, except my much loved school and the space where my childhood home once stood. Building, apartments, malls, hotels, flyovers, millions of SUVs (mostly given as dowry or political favour), girls in jeans (wearing jeans then often led to eve-teasing), roads which had no potholes, smooth highways, electricity in far-flung areas – one would feel that Bihar definitely was progressing.

Just beneath that surface however, lies a story which is perhaps as old or even older than me. Caste hierarchies, institutionalized dowry system (an informal rate list existed then and new vocations have been added now such as drivers who get a minimum of Rs.6 lakhs), violence against women especially dowry related deaths, not much interest in education, underhand or shady ways of working, financial manipulations (I was charged Rs.472 for a courier which actually costed Rs.272), patriarchy, poverty – all seem to have taken much deep roots. One of the activists/NGO founder and last of the revolutionaries I met there, said that the situation of women has infact worsened. During my school days there was no sex-selective abortion, now it’s prevalent in many areas.

One might argue that all these are present everywhere in India in varying degree. But what bothers me is its on-the-face presence here. A college student who is working now, readily accepts that she will not work after marriage, a domestic help in the capital city is not interested in providing education to her children even though there are many opportunities, a young guy does not understand that a corrupt way of doing business is not the ‘right’ way of working.

It hurts. Because when we were young, we understood that most of the problems, social and economic, existed because the state was extremely poor and people extremely orthodox. We had hope then that thing would improve in future, with education and livelihood opportunities. Twenty years ago, there was a genuine excuse for similar cases as above.

Now, with the rest of India galloping ahead, there simply are no excuses.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Living Responsibly:

If the theatre of the absurd continues, then we are on the verge of losing the last opportunity to come together and set things right for our Earth. Going by the sneak previews of the upcoming Paris Conference on Climate Change, the finger-pointing, blame game and one-upmanship have already started while the Earth continues to burn.

As ordinary people, we might continue to look at the Paris Conference askance and vaguely blame our governments and world politics for the current environmental situation, but the fact remains that we have happily lapped up all that have been dished out to us so far. Without even a question. This makes us just as blameworthy for the situation we are in now.  While the world leaders ‘decide’ the fate of our future, we can also help in slowing down environmental degradation by living responsibly.

Being Aware: Once I was talking to an acquaintance on environmental issues when he opened a cigarette packet and dropped the plastic wrap right there on the road. My friend N loves wildlife but she cannot stop bringing plastic bags home.

Each one of us are adding to the environmental chaos by the choices we make in life. Understand and be aware of how you are impacting the Earth. We might not have much environmentally-friendly options, but we can still chose ways to lessen our footprints on Earth. You can chose to buy products which are green/natural, or from companies who follow sustainable business practices, you can carry a cloth bag and insist on not using plastic bags, you can share an auto, or carry a water bottle instead of buying water from outside all the time, not use styrofoam glasses during house parties, take quick showers, not keep the tap running while you clean your kitchen, or tell your maids to stop doing that, switch off lights in rooms you are not using, walk or cycle short distances, stop using the lift if you live on the first few floors, or use brands which source sustainably produced palm oil (HUL, J&J, L’Oreal etc.).

Choices are many, if only we chose to be more aware.

Reduce, Reduce, Reduce: In the narrow roads of Bihar, when you mostly see SUVs and MUVs jostling for space, you know that these were given to others either as political favours, dowry or are simply stolen. In cities like Mumbai and Delhi, when couples or families with one kid buy such fuel guzzling polluting diesel cars, you know that it’s mostly for show value. Remember that just 10 years back, larger families could happily fit into and travel in Maruti Altos. If its luxury that you want, why not a relatively fuel efficient sedan instead? (or a hatchback. oh, I don't know the difference but you get my point anyway)

It also amazes me no extent when I see people lined up at these Hypercitys and Big Bazaars (I will never visit a Reliance shop) with cartloads of stuff which take more than 15 minutes to just empty at the counter. Do they buy all the stuff because they can simply afford to do so or do they really really need them?

What about that kindle with some 400 ebooks which you will never use or read?
Think before you buy. Reduce your consumption. You have no idea how freeing it is to live minimalistically.  

Recycle, Distribute, Reuse: Can you even imagine the kind of waste 1.2 billion people can generate every day? It’s a good thing that a lot of stuff in India get recycled before they hit landfill like plastic or glass materials, paper, electronic goods, clothes etc. However, we only tend to recycle when we get money out of recycling or simply throw things in the dustbin without thinking.

Even though my housing society does not have the provision for collecting dry and wet waste separately, I still segregate my waste. A friend hearing this had laughed and asked how it helped if all went into the landfill anyway. The waste that you throw out is segregated by your housing society kachra walas/walis who have to wade through piles of garbage. By segregating your waste at home, you are atleast easing their process a bit.

But if you want to ensure that some of the stuff is sustainably and meaningfully recycled, then there are other options too.
-        Old clothes (clean): donate to NGOs like Goonj who recycles or upcycles them
-        Bedsheets, rugs, towels, buckets, mugs etc. (again clean): donate to animal shelters or old age homes.  
-        Books: There are many community libraries, educational institutes which take donated books. All you have to do is google.
-        Tetrapacks: In Mumbai, Sahakari Bhandars collects tetrapacks, for other cities you can check
-        Electronic goods: to sell or dispose off your electronic goods responsibly, you can visit sites such as,,, etc. which offers such services across cities in India. You can also buy refurbished electronic goods from,,

Go Local, Go Natural, Go Organic: Do you know that in the scalding summer heat, nothing can be cooler than wearing Khadi? Have you heard about the freedom fabric called Malkha? Or about western outfits made of Ikat which can turn more heads than when you wear Zara? Have you tried products or groceries from Khadi or our decades old company Vicco? There is an amazing variety of home-grown products which are simply great for Indian climate and needs.  All you have to do is explore a bit.  
Start using organic vegetables or groceries. You don’t have to convert to being 100% organic but you can start by including atleast one such item in your monthly list.

Take an Ideological Stand: My friend S volunteers with wildlife NGOs every year. He says he does so because he wants to live guilt-free. Pick up a cause or an ideology for living one’s life and stick with it. It can be as simple as donating Rs.100 per month to your favourite charity or saying thank you to others or as involving as taking a month off from work to volunteer for a cause or protesting against mining in virgin forests.

Remember, your actions now can leave an indelible impact later….either good or bad. Only you can chose how you want to live your life and influence our collective future.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Metro Middle Class Melodrama:

‘SEC A’ was a term often used in marketing and advertising to describe a section of population belonging to the ‘socio-economic’ category of ‘well-educated in established professions’ with income level that of middle middle class and the upper middle class. There was also a category, SEC A1, which as the name suggests was the ‘well to do’ or ‘rich’ category.

A few years ago, I happened to visit one such family in Delhi who can be described as SEC A1 or ‘Professionally well qualified, both partners working in well-known corporates at senior managerial level, young kids going to an ‘elite’ school, owning a house and two cars, having domestic helps, a cook and drivers, foreign travels etc.’ However while talking, the lady of the house pointed to an area close by and said – that’s where the ‘rich’ lives!

This one comment set me thinking – do ‘rich’ people in the metros know they are ‘rich’ or are they perpetually looking at the next guy/ girl as The quintessential rich person?

I ended up harassing a few friends, both from corporate background and social sector with many questions on being middle class and being rich etc. The answers that I got were quite interesting especially from people with corporate/ private sector jobs. Sample these:

·         If money can multiply on its own, its being rich. Eg: property, gold, business etc. All salaried people including a CEO would fall into middle class
·         It’s not just money but money versus responsibilities. If responsibilities are less, you save more and can be rich. We need to keep working towards savings. Rich are those whose savings take care of responsibilities and allow to spend on luxury
·         The difference is between wanting a Nano and a BMW X series
·         If you have family money, then you are rich with an earning of Rs.50 lakhs because you are not paying EMIs and loans. If you pay for all your expenses, then you are upper middle class
·         Middle class can be defined by income status along with socio-cultural behavior; lifestyle might have changed but not so much change in thoughts and attitudes
·         Middle class people are always bogged down by EMIs, credits, loans etc.
·         Living in a metro makes you middle class even if you are earning a ‘good’ salary because of the expenses
·         I have never been comfortable with the concept of wealth, but yes my salary makes me fall into the ‘rich’ category

So if all of them are still middle class, who then are the rich? A TOI Calculator puts a person earning Rs.50,000 per month as belonging to only 0.33% of India’s population. Many researches (some links given below) indicates that in India, people having disposable income higher than Rs.10 lakhs per annum (NCAER) or people spending more than Rs.20,000 per month are RICH!

And, who are the middle class?

It seems, the actual definition of middle class has undergone a vast change since the days of our parents, whose generation gave the middle class a definitive character. Families with fixed income most of which went into paying income tax, the rest was tightly controlled between monthly expenses, children’s education which had to be good, and lots of savings for future. Travel for leisure would happen once in four years after calculated savings and meticulous planning and even buying Amar Chitra Kathas would be considered once in a while ‘affordable’ luxury. Socio-cultural behavior would be defined by the community that one stayed in, not venturing too far away from traditions. There were even aspirational middle class careers such as doctors, engineers, banking, civil services, lawyers etc.


With material aspirations, access to credit and loans, multiple and different career options, much higher incomes, ‘I am worth it’ marketing gimmicks and high peer pressure to maintain ‘standards’, the current middle class is undergoing an identity crisis. An interesting article by Prathap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express points to the deepening crisis in such ‘middle class’ careers and why it reflects the ambiguous position of the current middle class. As he mentions, careers are now mostly driven by aspirations of consumption rather than identity or meaning which once the middle class strived for.

Sadly, none of us belong to our parents’ generation of middle class ideology anymore.

As for my friends living in metros and people belonging to similar income category, I have a hypothesis – that even though they have moved into the ‘rich’ category long back, their middle class upbringing makes them feel very guilty of acknowledging their financial status even to themselves.   

Intersting links on middle class definitions:

Hilarious post on middle class hypocrisy:

Saturday, 1 August 2015

There is Something About the North-East:

This is a region where men do not feel the need to be macho or are bridling with ‘male pride’ and women are not overly coy, feminine or just trying to be sexy. Here, men work alongside women in farms and help with household work. Here, there is no strict division of labour, a men’s work versus women’s work kind of world. Here, if a man beats up his wife, his wife is just as capable of beating up the man. This is a place where men and women are not strictly ‘men and women’, but two sides of being human. 

Well its true, the North East – from Darjeeling Hills in the north to Arunachal in the extreme east – is a place which is definitely not like the rest of India. For a deeply patriarchal society that defines the rest of India, the NE can feel like a foreign land. But if one stays in any place in this vast region and experience daily life here, he/she will truly understand just how horribly wrong things are on the other side of the country and probably other parts of the world.

Many feminists may still argue that a society can’t be so perfect. But for me, this is as perfect as it can get. For this is where I feel like a human; this is where I am able to breathe freely.

Darjeeling Hills

If on one side, the rest of India seems to have become almost homogenous, the NE on the other side is a kaleidoscope of socio-cultural identities, traditions and stunning biodiversity. I still do not understand the political intricacies of this region well and you can call me selfish, but I want this region to remain as secluded as it is right now from the rest of the country. As a country, we are governed by the same laws and policies, strategy and vision across all states, which at some level do not take into cognizance or acknowledge the huge diversity that once existed and still exists in pockets. For example: the rich anthropological sites of Bastar and Araku Valley will cease to exist in a few years with the thrust on mainstream ways of governance and exposure to mass media. In Ladakh, the ‘Hindu’ law of monogamous marriages did away with the tradition of polyandry which helped to keep the population in check as is required in a limited-resources region. Or the culture and traditions of small tribes of Arunachal Pradesh threatened by exposure to labourers from outside outnumbering these tribes, when dams get built on their rivers and valleys.

Take another example of Gorkhaland. It’s a region which is socio-culturally much closer to Sikkim yet it’s a part of West Bengal. In all aspects, Gorkhaland is as different from the rest of WB as potatoes are to fish. And all the successive governments have not done much to recognise the different identity and culture. My project colleague narrated how the current government sent dhotis and sarees during the HudHud disaster which seemed like a complete disregard and affront to the community’s way of life. During my stay in Gorkhaland also, I saw signages and cultural functions being staged in Bengali. I am told that when Mamta didi comes, she gives speeches in Bangla in her effort to create a larger Bengali identity.

I do not like the idea of a separate state as one can see the devastation caused in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand in the name of development after they became separate states. Perhaps an autonomous hill council like the one that exists or that of Ladakh might work. Or a union territory. Or perhaps we can let these regions and states develop like Bhutan and help preserve their unique identities. I don’t know what the perfect solution is which can work politically, socio-culturally and environmentally too.     

As my project colleague mentioned, urbanization, environmental destruction and dilution of culture will probably happen as part of the ongoing process. The question now is who does it and who gains from it – a government who is keen on alienating them or their own people.

This prediction might just be right, but it’s a future which I refuse to acknowledge.

Not for the North East atleast.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Aruna Shanbaug Case: On a Philosophical Note

The Aruna Shanbaug case grew old with me. Literally.

Perhaps the people of India were deeply shocked when this made news in 1973. I would never know. While she lived in a world which we will never understand and ‘justice’ dragged on for years, I grew up living a happy and carefree life. Far far away from a world of discriminations, violence or notions of good touch and bad touch.   

My first association with the case came with the word ‘euthanasia’. Not with Rape. The gruesomeness of the case did not suddenly dawn on me one fine day but slowly made its presence felt over the years as I grew up. Because rape was not a socially acknowledged or acceptable word then, and people would do anything to sweep it under the carpet and keep it tightly there. Even the doctors at KEM Hospital did not report the sodomy for fear that Aruna would face social ostracism when she recovered and that it could damage her reputation.  It took another 40 years and yet another horrific case, this time in Delhi, for society and lawmakers to acknowledge and accept that rape could be much more than just vaginal. And it took Aruna’s death (finally) for society and media to talk about her story openly.

Which makes me wonder. Like Jesus did in the past, how many women or people would have to bear the cross of society and lawmakers’ ignorance and apathy before an iota of justice is delivered to them and to others. Why is that it takes only a heinous crime for people to take notice of the lacunae in our laws or just as heinous societal norms?  

Perhaps that is why as a society, we have not yet been able to evaluate justice objectively. But only emotionally.

I, being a part of this very society, am also struggling to understand. Many questions come to mind. Sohanlal completed his sentences as per the charges and laws of that time. The fact that he was wrongly charged was not his fault but the fault of the law (anal rape was not acknowledged as rape) as well as societal outlook (doctors didn’t file a case of rape) of that time. So, is the society justified in taking out its ire against him after all these years? If a person has served his/her sentence as per law and is truly repentant about the crime, is he/she not allowed to live the rest of his/her life with a bit of dignity? What about his family who are innocent except for the fact that they accepted him back in their lives; should they also suffer for his crime? Sohanlal comes from a poor Dalit community, perhaps that’s why he worked as a sweeper in the Hospital and was also treated badly (if we believe his side of the story though it will never justify the crime). So, by hounding him now after so many years, are we not again perpetuating the same discrimination that was meted out to him years ago? If Sohanlal was a businessman from an upper caste, would we have hounded him just as badly?

I don’t have any answers, only questions. All I can see is that actions have had retaliatory reactions and there’s a chain of hate everywhere. As a friend said, it’s this chain of actions/reactions that one should seek to deal with (as per Buddhist philosophy).  And this can come only with Forgiveness.

But then who does one forgive? My women friends can’t forgive Sohanlal. I can’t forgive the society and system of justice. If we could have asked Aruna whose life was a series of injustice, would she be able to forgive anybody? Even though he is repentant, will Sohanlal ever be able to forgive himself? Should he be allowed to forgive himself? Should society ever forgive such people?

This is not the end to the Aruna Shanbaug case. There is still much more left in it as it continues to grow older with me.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Un-Virgin Forests of Bastar:

Wooden totem in a village in Bastar - where religion is creeping into their traditional Animism form of worship

We were sipping tea at a small tea stall next to a small bus stand in one of the forest fringe villages of Bastar. A motley crowd of rather well informed and opinionated men had gathered around us. The discussion typically veered towards everybody’s favourite topic these days.

Vikas (Development).

The chitchats ranged from Obama and America, Narendra Modi and Obama, life in a metro versus life in a village etc. In between all these talks, one rotund man proclaimed. Much to my chagrin.

“Vikas ka matlab jungle nahin. Jungle hoga toh vikas kaise hoga. Mumbai bhi toh jungle kaat ke bana hain na.” (Development means no forest. If there is forest, how can development happen? Mumbai was also built by cutting down forests.)

My vexation was due to the fact that he was right in his thinking, especially about the Mumbai or the current spate of urbanization part.

And therein lay my predicament. About the last standing virgin (supposedly) forests of Bastar. These forests are home to Naxals, and not animals. One can only find a few stray deer in a largely empty forest. Empty because animals serve as food for the people living inside. Same is the case in most forest regions affected by Naxalism. The forest of Simlipal has been almost stripped bare, something my mother can’t fathom because she remembers a dense jungle of long ago. Well, considering my affection for wildlife, I should have been raving mad but I am not. Mainly because for now these lovely forests are still standing.

I am not a big fan of the romantic opinions of Arundhati Roy about Naxalism. It was perhaps ideologically apt as well as romantic when the movement had started in the 70s. Not now. Now the ideology has disintegrated into some other unknown form. What I have seen is that village communities in the affected zones are squeezed in by both the Naxals and the government resulting in terrible conditions. The Naxals do not want any sort of interaction with the outside world and hence the villages are in extremely poor conditions. On the other hand, the government looks at these villages with suspicion and round up innocent people often. A case in point is Jharkhand, where a lack of stable government has resulted in a kind of ‘free for all’ situation. Here village people complain that Naxals take money from private companies to allow them to take land from the village people. Mind you, I have not used the word ‘acquire’ since there is no such implementable legal process here. Atleast not to my knowledge.

On the other hand, all governments - past or the development-at-any-cost current one – are eyeing these forests for the minerals and the other natural resources it contains. Infact, a part of the Bastar forests has already been ear-marked for providing water to an upcoming power plant in the region. In other words, damming of yet another pristine river. As one of my ex-colleague mentioned, the region is an anthropological goldmine and it could have been applied to better the region’s prospects. Yet successive governments choose to look at destructive ways. And it’s just the presence of the Naxals that is acting as the only deterrent for the government to sell it all off.

So, between all this and vikas and a dream of a Mumbai in the (erstwhile) forests of Bastar, I have only one choice.

An empty but a still standing forest.