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Issue 8

Why making money isn’t the Recipe for Social Change: A response to Manu Joseph’s suggestion for youngsters

On the 14th of February, 2021, environmental activist Disha Ravi was arrested on charges of sedition for sharing a ‘toolkit’ and supporting farmers’ protests online. She was charged for being part of a ‘global conspiracy’ because she was associated with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. Following her arrest, Manu Joseph, a recognised journalist, and columnist for live mint magazine wrote an opinion piece, suggesting a plan of action for the ‘sound minded’ Indian youth, to truly bring about social change. Joseph not only critiqued various young Indians’ choices to be activists but also suggested they would serve the country better if they found jobs, started on a ‘doomed business’ and aided the economy instead of “fighting battles they do not understand”. 

While the opening lines of his piece truly baffle me as part of the generation he is addressing, I cannot overlook how these ideas resonate with the larger Indian public his age. The assumption that the only correct way to bring change in society is by becoming a part of the system which the youth believes needs to change is one of the primary differences between Manu Joseph’s generation and ours. Equating young protestors and activists to misguided and unemployed individuals with nothing better to do is an easy narrative most of us have heard over dining table conversations with our parents. However, the question we all must ask is why the ‘privileged youth’ of ‘sound mind’ choose to protest if the avenues for economic and political upheaval were an easy alternative. Manu Joseph, in his piece, writes that contemporary activism in India is influenced by the West, if not an extension of it and fails because it does not have the same humanitarian networks backing it as the United States does. But what this ‘practical’ advice and observation seems to ignore is that young activists in India choose to speak up despite the system and its flaws, and not because they are unaware of the lack of protection from non-state organisations and the consequences of their actions but to get rid of the pattern itself. 

Joseph argues that the most effective way for the youth to ‘serve their nation’ and ‘take care of the unlucky ones’ is through encashing on the for-profit world, rather than ‘choosing the easy option of festive grandstanding and do-gooding, which is often harmful, at best useless or an inefficient way to make the world a better place.’ When Joseph states that choosing activism is the ‘easy option,’ he contradicts himself and his point about state scrutiny for activists and the lack of a humanitarian organisational mechanism for the protection of these individuals. If protests and sharing a ‘toolkit’ was in fact ‘inefficient and useless’, and ‘an easy option of festive grandstanding’, a 22-year-old, unemployed youth would not have been scrutinised and subjected to charges of sedition by the government, and young protestors would not need a mechanism to protect themselves from state action. 

Another argument that Joseph makes, which is also commonly used against the youth in this country is that they do not understand their battles and are influenced by Western ideas and aspirations which often only work in the West. A response from the ‘young’ to these arguments would be to ask questions about their assumed naivety, address how the State, since its inception has borrowed several ideas from the West and continues to do so. Western ideas and aspirations are not merely being used by the youth today, but have been part of discourse across the country since its inception. Further, protest and activism are not merely borrowed Western concepts but have been part of the country’s political culture throughout history, be it Gandhi’s call to protest for Independence, or the ‘Jungle Bachao Andolan’ by tribals in Singhbhum. Joseph says that, “The young who hope to be “good trouble” can be ruined by the state, and their handlers, who use them to achieve political and ideological ends, cannot always save them”. The understanding that the young will be, and can be ruined by the state, and their ‘handlers’ will not be able to save them is premised on the belief that these activists have ‘handlers’ and are being influenced by people who will not be able to support them in the long run, completely negating the youth’s ability to think, reason, form opinions and then act.

The Court granted bail to Disha Ravi on the account of the contents of the toolkit being ‘innocuous’ and denied any account of her being part of a larger conspiracy to harm either the state or any particular community. However, the action taken by the government, and the article written by Joseph represent sentiments against the young and their actions, often misunderstood, simply because they are forms of direct dissent and expressions of freedom instead of the path that the youth has always been expected to follow. Maybe, the problem is not that activists are misinformed, unaware, gloomy individuals seeking a moral advantage as saviours for the ‘unlucky’ but that, the way they choose to bring about change is different, more spontaneous than the generations before them. Maybe, all of us truly believe that, ‘We have only one job: if we are lucky, we must take care of the unlucky; everything else is merely an argument about the best way’, as Manu Joseph puts it, and our generation’s way is different from his, possibly because of avenues like social media that connects us globally. Maybe we are not after the drug of ‘do-gooding’ alone but are only seeking different means to make the world a better place. 

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University, who is often found sketching or reading for leisure when not immersing herself in mandatory class assignments. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 8

Leading up to the Historic Mahapanchayat: Hindu-Muslim Relationship Since 2013 in West UP

Social media is fuelled with people expressing apprehensions and even anger over all the excitement around Rakesh Tikait who recently extended his support to the protesting farmers at Ghazipur border. Rakesh Tikait is the farmer leader and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). Most of the public anger stems from BKU’s role in the 2013 sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. 

Source: https://youtu.be/E4l2wCeRXtk

What Followed Was Regret & A Call For Unity

It has been over seven and a half years since that madness engulfed West UP. We saw BKU split while many new factions emerged. The noticeable split was the breaking away of Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, the biggest Muslim leader of BKU, often considered as late Baba Tikait’s right-hand-man. 

Interestingly, once when Ajit Singh (founder and Chief of Rashtriya Lok Dal, political party in West UP), and son Jayant Chaudhry (RLD leader) lost elections in 2014, many older Jats in the region were crestfallen. Many of them sobbed, “humne chaudhary sahab ko kaise hara diya.” Many Jats were always upset with their younger generation for indulging in violence that occurred in 2013. Secretly between those sobs, they’d often say, “hope it’s not too late before our youngsters realize where they’ve gone wrong.” This is not to insinuate that elders from the community were not involved in the violence. But those who had seen the heydays of BKU and RLD understood the futility of the madness. They understood that Muslims of the region were an inseparable part of their existence (within which there are contradictions of caste among Muslims in the region – but that’s another topic of discussion).

Some local level Jat leaders such as Vipin Singh Baliyan among others, have put in their share of effort to undo the Hindu-Muslim rift. Those efforts, while commendable, were small and acted as only a small drop in an ocean of hatred and bitterness that West UP had become. Around five years after the riots, there were, finally joint Hindu-Muslim Kisan Panchayats which were led by people like Thakur Puran Singh, Ghulam Mohammad Jaula etc.

Finally, there was a massive rally led by Rakesh Tikait that came to Delhi with a set of ten demands, just before the 2019 elections. Both Hindu and Muslim farmers particpated in that rally. Many other Unions extended support to the movement. Delhi was again under siege. Even though all the demands had not been met, the rally was called off. Many were upset, and felt that he had been bought over by BJP. After 2019, there were many protests in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts led by BKU. What was interesting – the presence of many Muslim farmers in at protest demonstrations. Many were post-holders of BKU as well. It was evident that Rakesh Tikait was trying hard to revive BKU while Naresh Tikait (the current President of BKU and elder brother to Rakesh Tikait) had evidently been sidelined. 

The Trust Deficit

In the 2013 Mahapanchayat where BJP had completely hijacked the BKU stage, it was Nresh Tikait who was seen on that stage with BJP leaders. He continued to make inflammatory statements even after the 2013 violence in the districts. Over the last two-three years, it seems that Rakesh has taken over the reins of the Union and sidelined Naresh because of the communal politics that one has begun to associate him with. Whether this is an ideological clash between the two brothers or a tactical move, only they know. 

Once the anti-farm bills reached the borders of Delhi, eyes were set on borders lining Ghazipur as well. Why wasn’t West UP joining the protests with the same intensity and fervour that their farm movements have been known for in the past? Truth be told, while many farmers were very keen to join the movement, there laid a massive trust deficit with Rakesh Tikait. Many suspected that he was a BJP agent who could flip any minute.

Towards Bridging the Divide

However, the events on the night of 27th January at Ghazipur border changed that perception. A large police contingent was out to remove the protesting farmers from the border. The very emotional appeal by Rakesh Tikait in a video message where he was seen crying has stirred West UP farmers in action. Among the most prominent words he said was the admission of guilt of once having supported BJP, a decision he said will always regret. That night saw thousands of people gathering outside Tikait’s house in Sisauli village in Muzaffarnagar district. Two days later, on 29th January, a historic Mahapanchayat attended by several thousands, took place in the district. 

Among the key speakers at the Panchayat was Ghulam Mohammad Jaula. He minced no words. “The two biggest mistakes you’ve made so far,” he said, “one, you got Ajit Singh defeated, and two, you killed Muslims.” Interestingly, there was no booing, no attempts at shutting him up. A pin-drop silence. Introspection. Other speakers added, “we will never get carried away by BJP again.” A very rare decision taken at the historic Mahapanchayat – to boycott the BJP. Rare for maha-panchayats to publicly disown a political party.

Even today as the groundswell of support from farmers continues to increase at the Ghazipur border from districts like Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut etc., similar views are echoed. “2013 was a big mistake.” “BJP abused our anger, and we got carried away.” “BJP and SP are responsible for the 2013 situation.” And most importantly, “BJP grew in West UP in 2013 because of Muzaffarnagar riots, it’s downfall will also begin in the same Muzaffaranagar.” The most prominent slogans of BKU, “Har Har Mahadev, Allahu-Akbar,” which echoed through the boat club in 1988 may soon be back.  

The Unanswerable Questions, and Small Steps

Does this easily erase the past? Does this heal wounds of 2013? 

As someone who made a film on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and having witnessed the trauma, destruction and polarisation they had caused, I don’t have an answer. Maybe. Maybe not. Those 60,000 people, essentially Muslims, who were displaced and will never go back to their native villages. Should many, who were responsible for the violence, but today regret the past be given a clean chit? Is this genuine redressal? We don’t have any answers. What we do know is that West UP has suffered enormously in the past. The spiralling effects have been grave. Many continue to suffer.Yogi as the CM wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for 2013, and perhaps Modi as PM as well. What we do know is that the recent events at West UP will go a long way in healing and bringing back some peace in the troubled parts of West UP. Even personal relations between Hindus and Muslims will witness renegotiations. This is not to suggest that this changes everything. But each of these steps count for something. 

While many raise apprehensions about Rakesh Tikait even now, and perhaps rightly so, one needs to approach the situation with patience in these difficult times as such churnings are crucial. The damage that the ruling government has done to India will take long to be amended. Sometimes even fraught with contradictions. Impulsive reactions won’t help anyone. Many fault lines still exist in West UP. Unlike Punjab where militant Farmers’ Unions have been active for many decades, Haryana and even West UP (including BKU) rely on Khaps to mobilize farmers. Feudal attitudes will take time to break down. But the Mahapanchayat on the 29th was a sure, small but significant step towards democratization of that society.  

Image Credits: National Herald

Nakul Singh Sawhney is an independent documentary filmmaker. His notable feature length documentary films include, ‘Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyaan’ and ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai…’. He is the founder of a film media collective in West UP, called ChalChitra Abhiyaan. ChalChitra Abhiyaan trains youth from marginalised communities in West UP to make their own videos on relevant issues in the area. These videos have often brought out grassroots news to the public domain on contentious issues when the mainstream media has looked away. The collective also screens their videos and other films (both Indian and international) in various villages and townships of West UP.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

The Violence We Inherit

This year, the morning of 26th January held two instead of just one Republic Day parade. At Rajpath, celebrations for the 72nd year of the adoption of the Indian Constitution took place, whereas, in another part of Delhi, the farmers were exercising their right promised by this prestigious document, to highlight their demand to revoke the three controversial farm bills through a tractor rally. While at one end, the sound of the 21-Gun salute echoed in the air, in another part, chants of ‘kisaan kanoon wapas lo’ and clashes between the police and farmers were observed. 

Soon, videos surfaced on social media platforms of farmers driving tractors recklessly, bringing down barricades as policemen scrambled out of their way. Instances of police indulging in lathi-charge and tear-gas at protestors were also recorded. Events escalated to a level where certain protestors derailed from their march to hang the Nishaan Sahib, a saffron flag of great relevance to Sikh religion, at the Red Fort. The aftermath resulted in over 80 police personnel injured. 

In the past, having been known as the land of satyagraha, we have developed a certain identity rooted in non-violence. Does this notion influence the different ways we view violence in a protest today? While violence has been excused in certain contexts, it has been condemned in others. Moreover, there is a culture of blaming the violence on a ‘foreigner’ as a means to separate oneself from the narrative as it hinders the ‘non-violent’ reputation of India.  

With regards to R-Day, various conflicting views have surfaced regarding who holds the baton of responsibility for instigating the derailment of events. While Delhi Police Commissioner, SN Srivastava claims that the farmers were responsible for inciting violence and should be held accountable for their condemnable actions, various farmer leaders have explicitly separated themselves from those who chose to deviate. In an interview with the Hindu, Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union claimed that “it was a historic parade by lakhs of farmers with over 2 lakh tractors and 99.9% of the farmers stayed peaceful”. Along with this, certain farmer union leaders, as well as the opposition, have been propagating the view that the farmers were not responsible for the mayhem, and violence was instead enforced by individuals who were ‘foreign’ to the community and aimed at wanting to defame the peaceful farmer protests.

As simply consumers of news content, judgement about ‘who is responsible’ cannot be passed without proper investigation. However, it is interesting to note the emergence of different narratives surrounding the violence witnessed on R-Day. Certain sections that support the farmers argue that the violence showcased was ‘minimal’ and justified, considering that the government was choosing to ignore their citizens’ demands. Some even claim that it was anyone but the farmer responsible for the upheaval. However, those who do not believe in the farmers’ cause broadly argue that engaging in violence is condemnable and therefore warrants severe repercussions.

This manner of justifying violence in certain instances, and condemning it in others is not new to Indian culture. Ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata have justified use of violence, where dharma (duty) to the caste system supersedes the value of kinship bonds. Romila Thapar, in her paper ‘War in Mahabharata’, highlights the moral-ethical dilemma that surrounded the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, where the latter encouraged the former to kill his maternal uncle as he was an ally of the Kauravas. So, social obligations towards one’s caste became a valid explanation for killing a kinsman. Despite the description of “arrows tearing apart chests of warriors and free flow of blood creating a pandemonium”, the epic is still passed on in the form of tales to future generations, with gruesome violence deemed acceptable in the name of acquiring a kingdom and protecting its people. While the aim may be universal peace, it is reached through violent means.

Furthermore, ancient India has often been deemed as ‘peaceful’ and the reign of terror and violence has often been blamed on the ‘foreigner’ or ‘intruder’, like the Mughals and the British. This association of non-violence with ancient India exists  because we predominantly identify ancient India with Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty who chose the path of non-violence and Buddhism after witnessing the repercussions of the Kalinga war. However, historian and author of ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’, Upinder Singh, in an interview with theWire, highlights how even “Jain and Buddhism texts use the vocabulary and imagery of war. Mahavira is a jina (victor); the Buddha fights a battle against the god Mara before attaining enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.” Historian DN Jha, in his book ‘Against the Grain’ also challenges this rhetoric of ancient India being devoid of any religious violence. Jha traces the Buddhist Sanskrit work, Divyavadana that describes Pushyamitra Shunga, a Hindu ruler and founder of the Shunga dynasty in 185 BCE, as the “great persecutor of Buddhists”. Jha claims that the ruler was responsible for the vandalising of the Sanchi Stupa and burning of the Ghositaram monastery in Kaushami that killed Buddhist monks. 

While these are just a few of the various instances of violence in India’s past, they have either not been emphasised enough or have been consciously ignored. The question to raise then is, when is violence excused and when is it not? 

The glorification of non-violence can be credited to satyagraha for freedom from British colonialism in modern Indian history. As Indians, we identify as the land of ahimsa and, therefore, choose to ignore the other side of the story. In fact, school history textbooks, sidelined those who engaged in violence for the freedom struggle and labelled them as ‘radicals’. However, movements like the 1857 revolt, showcased extreme violence that shook the stability of the East India Company within the country. The violence, while aimed towards a ‘foreigner’ was instigated and chosen by us as a path to rebel. If it weren’t for the widespread killing and burning of bungalows as well as chants of “maro firangi ko” (kill the white man) that filled the streets, would the British have left when they did?

Coming back to the opinions concerning the farmers’ protests—it can be observed that both the views justifying the violence and the ones condemning it and blaming it on an ‘intruder’, are views that are not new to Indian history. These biases can be observed in the ways we judge violence in current times.

Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Regional Rap for a National Cause

“Rap is basically poetry with rhythm”, Imbachi reveals, in an attempt to explain what rap/hip-hop is to a middle-aged man who is curious about this newly emerging music genre in India’s regional music scene. In an excerpt posted on Instagram from one of his interviews, the Kerala-based rapper is seen opening up about his knowledge of the genre and his approach towards his rap.

“I don’t see myself being too politically associated, but my politics is whatever I see in front of me, and if I think it is wrong, I talk about it”, Imbachi asserts, when asked about hip-hop’s emergence as a genre that speaks up about socio-political issues. It’s just that simple.

As self-assigned torch-bearers of the movement, these rappers will rise up against injustice, write verses that reflect the struggles of the people, and bring the revolution home through music we can stream from our devices. Human struggles have always shared an innate relationship with the representation that they seek in forms of art, and poetry placed over hip-hop beats has become synonymous with the voices of protests in India lately.

 At the start of 2020, the women-led anti-CAA-NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh were invigorated by popular hip-hop acts from India’s independent music scene, such as Prabh Deep and Ahmer. They performed in solidarity with the movement on a stage at the protest site. The distinguishing trait about rappers such as Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi is that they can rap in their regional languages, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Malayali. While the growth of hip hop culture in India is similar to how it originated in 1970’s New York, these Indian rappers are pushing boundaries with regional and often multilingual rap. By rapping in the vernacular, these artists build a platform for oppressed, marginalised communities to be heard, stepping outside the more common English or Hindi rap which has been popularised by Bollywood. Turning a Western import into something of their own, these rappers have begun to embrace the expressive medium that rap originated as. Gradually, an entire nation is now waking up to the stories that are usually not covered on mainstream media through independent rap music.

Elaan, a multilingual track from Ahmer’s debut record, is a compelling collection of verses that reveal the harsh realities of growing up in the Kashmir valley. These verses placed over a gripping beat will leave you terrified, as Ahmer raps:

Kahan se aata mein?

 sab se darrawni jagah se

Insaaf hi mana hai, gunegaari mein mazza hai yahan

Tu talve chaate toh bada hai, sach paale toh saza hai

(You wanna know where I come from?)

(The most dangerous place on the planet)

(Justice, they deny it, violations bring them joy here)

(If you lick their boots, you stay relevant, otherwise you’re a criminal)

         Straightforward, without filters or fear is the style with which Ahmer fiercely delivers his verses. Making the listener aware about the grave, repressive conditions he grew up in, he portrays what life in Kashmir is like. The central government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A gave this song more relevance. Ahmer became Kashmir’s new, rising spokesperson in the independent music scene. Even though Ahmer raps in Hindi here, ad-libs such as “Asli Koshur Hip-Hop”, which translates to “Real Kashmiri Hip Hop”, are intended to create a regional imprint.

Prabh Deep, who features on the same track, delivers a bold verse in his quintessential, casually outspoken Punjabi style. The verse culminates at the hook,

“Jedde border ni tappe

Karan jung da Elaan.”

(those who have never crossed the border)

 (are the ones declaring war),

proving to be highly relevant since most of the opinions being circulated across India after Kashmir’s special status was revoked, were coming from self-proclaimed experts who have never actually witnessed the situation in Kashmir. Prabh Deep highlights the irony in this case, claiming that the decision-makers are always the least affected. As a consequence they fail to take into consideration what is actually being demanded by the people.

         Not only do Prabh Deep and Ahmer raise awareness about what they have personally witnessed, they provide an anthem that resonates with every affected individual who is part of the movement. They help a crowd mobilise and rise together, and provide a universal symbol of unity through their music. Ahmer’s narration of his personal experiences, and Prabh Deep’s call for action complement each other perfectly, validating the views of the protesters and the need to voice their neglected opinions.

This growing independent hip hop culture in India is incredibly encouraging in the sense that the movement is not restricted to individuals who have personally experienced gruesome circumstances. Multiple rappers have taken the initiative to raise awareness about socio-political issues that do not directly affect them. In a song titled Atithi Devo Bhava, Imbachi speaks up against the Modi government’s ideologies and attempts to expose the general demeanour with which they conduct themselves. In reaction to the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, he raps,

Hindu rashtriya malla yilla mulkul

onna bharathanadada

atithi devo bhava

(Not a Hindu State)

(But one that includes everyone our India)

(Atithi Devo Bhava)

Nammal kanda Bharatham maani pogumo kanmunbilnilna

Secularism ennula vakyala veendam beleyilla inna

atithi devo bhava

(Will we see our India fade away right in front of our eyes)

(There’s no value for the word secularism anymore)

(Atithi Devo Bhava)

By constantly invoking India’s supposedly core value of “Atithi Devo Bhava”, Imbachi brings out the bigoted manner in which the government is acting on their agenda to turn a secular state into a Hindu rashtra.

With independent hip-hop gradually cutting across India’s regional and linguistic lines and finding its comfort zone at the heart of the revolution, the movement only promises to grow bigger. While the government can censor the narratives being broadcasted or published in mainstream media, the growth of the independent hip hop movement shows how the people’s voices can never be silenced. With Indian rappers carving out their own niches by choosing to represent and reach out to their people with regional vernacular, they provide a voice to the communities that were never heard before, while also instilling a sense of belonging to the larger community of India. It is not long before the movement spreads across the entire country, and gives birth to newer voices who take inspiration from the likes of Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi.

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

Picture Credits: Jamun, YouTube

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).