From the Introduction
Here are some people, quite a few of them actually, that you and I should meet. Alivelamma, a woman farmer. Huchangi, Rohith, Ravan, all dalit. Sukalo, Rajkishor, Leelabati: adivasis. Salima and Jaffruddin, who happen to be Muslim. Two workers; one a union member, the other home-based.
And there, not too far away, are journalists, writers, artists, teachers and many young people—some of them students, many of them looking for work.
What do all these people have in common? First, the crowded country where they all live, the nation called India. This nation is an idea too. Out of this idea grew a rights-based Constitution that steers the nation so all its people can live as equal citizens. But over the last few years, there has been a battle going on in this country. The battle began a while back, perhaps more than a decade back. But since 2014, it has reached a feverish pitch. We can now see two signposts as we enter the Indian nation. One reads: Battling India, and it knows only one language, of coercion and plunder. The other says, boldly, and in many voices that speak many languages: Battling for India; and this is the second thing the people we should meet have in common.
The Battling India Parivar, a many-headed beast, has both official and unofficial guides to take us around its dominion. It has its own police who shoot, lynch, bomb. It seeks to regulate what we think, write, sing; what we eat and wear; how we pray or whom we love. A versatile and busy force, this lot. The official guides (official because they are, for now, the government), smother us with cooked-up data and harangue us endlessly about development. They boast of making the GDP soar, crushing black money, and our eyes glaze over. To get our attention back, they try to scare us: there are enemies everywhere, across the border and within our borders. This is why they are building a sanctuary. Seeing this work in progress, we can tell that the inhabitants of the sanctuary will be mostly Hindu, preferably upper caste, ideally male and heterosexual. They will, of course, make room for their best friends, all of whom belong to a rich and exclusive gang of barons, company sharks and godmen.
Tired of all this exclusiveness, depleted by it, we seek some regular people so we can still recognise the India we used to call home. And we meet the Battling for India Republic.
Alivelamma, the farmer.
She is a 35-year-old widow. In 2013, her husband, also a farmer, committed suicide. The groundnuts he had sowed were not giving him returns; the debt was mounting; the moneylenders were chasing him. Alivelamma now works as a tenant farmer and takes care of her son who is studying at an industrial training institute. She wants a better life for her son and herself; but she also wants justice for her husband and others like him.[i]
The Parivar pretends to be deaf to her. It has more pressing (and more lucrative) matters to attend to than loan waivers, minimum support price, water as a fundamental right, piles of reports from commissions on farmers. It does have an accidental gift for farmers though: the cows it is supposedly protecting in its gaushalas stray into fields and destroy the crop.
Huchangi, Rohith, Ravan.
Huchangi is the son of a devadasi. He shows us the place he comes from and how his people live. They are forced to live outside the village in houses as small as ten square feet. They are landless. Many of the dalit women are dedicated to temples as devadasis and they survive “by begging during the day and doing sex work in the nights”. Rohith is—was—a university student on a scholarship; bright, political, full of dreams. His fellowship is suspended; in a caste-ridden society, his birth is his “fatal accident”. Ravan, or Chandrasekhar Azad, brings together a social movement, a Bhim Army to fight for bahujan rights.
The Parivar threatens Huchangi for writing poems about caste; it insists Rohith was not dalit; it charges Ravan under the National Security Act and keeps him imprisoned for a year. It garlands a portrait of Ambedkar, then sets loose its second and third cousins to flog dalits in Una, cut funds and scholarships, unleash cow vigilantes and destroy livelihood by banning cattle trade. As a postscript, it suggests the word dalit should not be used by officials or the media.
Sukalo, Rajkishor, Leelabati.
Sukalo is worried, like many adivasis, about being displaced if a dam is built on the Kanhar river, and about their water source being polluted. She joins protests against the Kanhar irrigation project. Rajkishor and his wife Leelabati can see what mining is doing to their ancestral lands in the Niyamgiri hills. But the authorities are not concerned; a multinational wants to mine the sacred hills for bauxite, used to make aluminium, and the government backs the multinational, not the people who live there. Rajkishor and Leelabati write songs about the injustice.
The police fire into the crowd and arrest Sukalo. Rajkishor and Leelabati also spend time in prison. The Parivar only talks about the fatherland and the motherland, not about the people’s land. Like those who ruled before it, the Parivar too brings in many “development projects” with big companies, big miners, big dams, and bigger statues.
Salima and Jaffruddin.
Salima had a husband, Fazruddin. He was killed in a fake encounter; Salima was threatened and her home raided. Jaffruddin had a son, Salim. A mob of “cow vigilantes” killed him. The police exhumed his body—which traumatised the family further—but, strangely enough, they did not hand over a post mortem report.
The Parivar leaders are busy protecting and worshipping cows. They don’t see Salima or Jaffruddin. But their ardent fans do. They spew venomous words; they pull out fists, knives, guns. They raise an axe. They are such specialists in hatred that some of them even record their words and acts of violence. The videos circulate freely. There is no fear they might be used as evidence.
Two workers; one a union member, the other home-based.
They have perfectly understandable demands, such as fair wages and good working conditions. How long will they work to fill the already bulging bags of the rich?
The Parivar responds by rolling out a plan of less and less rights. Then to ensure complete misery, its chosen leader demonetises every single worker, organised or unorganised; and for good measure, every ordinary man and woman in sight.
Journalists, writers, artists, teachers and many young people.
Some of the youth are looking for work. Others are students, and they ask sharp questions; the teachers encourage them because how else will anyone learn? The journalists, writers and artists are simply doing what they must: chasing truth in their different ways.
The Parivar deals with the journalists, writers and artists quickly; they can be fired, trolled, hounded, their families threatened. As for the fearless, they can be taken care of by the unofficial side of the extended family—a network of assassins. The teachers and students can be branded seditious, anti-national, urban Naxal, and their universities starved of funds, even shut down. The unemployed youth can be taught to fry pakodas or join camps where they learn to be sevaks of a Hindu Rashtra. Women, whether young or old, student or farmer, can be reduced to bodies that can be shamed, threatened, stripped, raped. It helps of course if they are dalit or Muslim or adivasi or poor. Or politically awake.
We feel despair at the sight of this India, so shrunken that there’s no room for most of its people. Is there something we are missing?
We look again. And we see that the people the Parivar and its associates have excluded from India do not suffer in silence or fade away. They get together to demand their share of dignity—of equality. They include themselves in India and lay claim to citizenship.
Alivelamma is in Delhi, at the Ramlila Maidan. Carrying a photo of her dead husband, she says: “We came here for justice, so that farmers don’t commit suicide.”[ii] She is not alone. There are 180 farmer organisations that have given a call for farmers to march to Delhi. Earlier, 40,000 adivasi farmers, the poorest of farmers, walked a long march from Nashik to Mumbai with their demands.
Huchangi fights back; so does Ravan. There are Rohiths reborn with new names, to dream, and to fight to annihilate caste. In Una, after four cattle skinners are whipped by cow vigilantes, dalit protesters leave carcasses of cows outside a government office. It is as if they are saying, “If the cows are sacred, if they are your mothers, you deal with their corpses.” Dalit organisations call for a Bharat Bandh. And there are brave new armies. There’s a Bhim Army marching; there’s a Safai Karmachari Andolan to insist that no woman or man should be a manual scavenger.
Sukalo, too, will not give up. She can continue to fight because it is not her fight alone, she is part of the union of forest-working people. Rajkishor and Leelabati travel from village to village, singing songs that spread the message of the movement against the destruction of the Niyamgiri hills. The poor people in the villages invite the couple into their homes and give them food and shelter.
Salima pursues justice for Fazruddin, supported by the Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM). Her fight is part of a larger campaign to confront the impunity of security forces and assert the rights and dignity of the people of Manipur. There are citizens from other parts of the country who travel to where she is, express their mohabbat and solidarity.
Workers across the country get together and strike in tea gardens, in the railways, in the states and the national capital. They raise powerful slogans. They declare a two-day industrial strike to protest job loss and demand better wages.
And students and teachers, writers and scientists, insist on their right to speak, to dissent. They strike a blow for everyone’s freedom. Punjabi fiction writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returns her Padma Shri in protest against intolerance in 2015, saying, “In this land of Gautama Buddha and Guru Nanak Dev, the atrocities committed on the Sikhs in 1984 and on the Muslims recurrently because of communalism are an utter disgrace to our state and society. And to kill those who stand for truth and justice puts us to shame in the eyes of the world and God.” A Class 11 student, Muddu Thirthahalli of Sahyadri High School, returns her Karnataka Sahitya Akademi award to protest the killing of scholar M.M. Kalburgi, saying, “There should be no curbs on free speech and writing.” A veteran scientist, Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, returns his Padma Bhushan award to protest “the government’s attack on rationalism, reasoning and science”.
All these people who confront so many ways of being excluded from India, and who insist on being included—what are they saying, what are they showing us? That they are participating members of a political community. That they are citizens. The Constitution, which came out of a struggle for an independent country, belongs to them. When every institution, from the RBI to the mainstream media, appears to have buckled under pressure, they have held their ground. Their scattered groups look both vulnerable and mighty, exposed to the wrath of the state but also aware that they remain the final arbiters of political destiny. We need to hear them, take heart from them, and be one with them, especially now, when the right-wing is tearing apart the diverse fabric of our collective home. In a time when the state and extra-state forces work hard to exclude more and more citizens from India, it is imperative that we battle for an inclusive India. That time is now.
From Battling for India: A Citizen’s Reader