Saturday, March 22, 2003

a cynical, idealistic melange

Out of God's Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land, by Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in March 2003).

Honesty, they say, is its own reward. And it's a good thing, too, because it rarely wins many friends. In his latest book on India, Out of God's Oven, poet and journalist Dom Moraes wields candor like a bludgeon, confessing at the outset: "In 1980, [my return to India] had sounded like a prison sentence ... I sympathized with the poor, but too many of them existed. India had the most brutally stupid middle class in the world."

Critics from that disparaged group have responded in kind, taking Moraes to task for his pessimism, his anglophilia and, generally, for writing like a foreigner. The small praise given Out of God's Oven has been parceled out to his co-writer Sarayu Srivatsa, a woman whose relationship with "home" is less ambivalent. But it is a mistake to accept either writer's pose - charitable ingenue or cantankerous snob - too readily. These are devices, and terrific ones, for examining what the writers refer to as "terrible landmarks in Indian history". The pairing of the cynic and the optimist gives these "travels in a fractured land" a dramatic urgency, as grim event after grim event threatens, by education, to make the lark more and more like the owl.

The book's title, which derives from a story Srivatsa's grandmother told her to explain India's oppressive caste system, captures the essence of that struggle between innocence and experience. The first men the gods made were burned dark brown in the gods' hot clay oven, grandmother says. They became the Shudra, the pariah. Once the gods perfected the recipe, they made the beautiful, fair Brahmin. If I am a Brahmin, the young Srivatsa asks her grandmother, then why am I so dark? Just as Moraes' brutal sincerity is a mask for a great love, as emerges in his portraits of his many friends, Srivatsa's sunny optimism is a terrific foil, also, for cutting sarcasm.

Based on six years of nearly constant travel, Out of God's Oven captures the issues gripping contemporary India more completely than recent books with comparable agendas (Mark Tully's India in Slow Motion and William Dalrymple's Age of Kali come to mind). The book neither panders to the foreigner's obsessions nor caters to his ignorance. At the same time, Moraes and Srivatsa both "write like foreigners" to the extent that - unlike too many Indian journalists - they never neglect to provide the background necessary to understand the events they describe. But where a foreign correspondent like myself might be content muckraking (India is corrupt! Hindus kill Muslims!), they have the luxury of being able to go beyond sanctimonious outrage to more complex analysis.

In a book of remarkable scope, the two writers address many of the seminal events of Indian history of the past three decades, ranging from riots by Dalits (formerly untouchables) in Bombay, to the cooperative movement that empowered village women by granting them control over the marketing of the fruit of their labors, to the battle of communist Naxalites with Bihar's upper-caste landlords, to the various tragedies caused by an enduring religious mania. Though the timing of its release prompted publishers to market Out of God's Oven as a prelude to the deadly Gujarat riots, it is far more than an investigation of the persecution of Indian Muslims or Hindu fundamentalism.

Despite those numerous strengths, however, the book suffers from an over-reliance on informants who share the sensibilities and background of the authors. These interviews - spirited exchanges between the like-minded, to be sure - generate some terrific lines: "An Indian was not part of a team; he was part of a mob"; "The greatest freedom we have received from Independence [was the] freedom to talk"; "Corruption is an offshoot of hypocrisy, the habit of lying to oneself"; "Politics is the only profession where you do not need any qualifications." But the eloquent expression of consensus does not result in many new insights about the others: the fundamentalist thugs, the devoutly religious, the desperately poor.

Nevertheless, though it's peopled with too many talkers and not enough actors, Out of God's Oven is not completely without heroes: a teacher at a convent school combating the messages of religious hatred her students absorb from their parents; a 72-year-old writer who has lived among the poorest villagers of North Bengal, fighting their causes for 25 years; a man who takes in illegitimate children, mad and destitute women. But the overall feeling is that India has just too many tragedies. "I am tired, so tired," says one of these good souls. "If I had an alternative, do you think I would be doing this? Can I just leave everything and run away? They have no one else. So I continue. I have no choice. And I am so tired."

This is not the familiar quirky, mystical India that churns along, in chaos, yes, but never in collapse. It's a vision of a lighted bomb, the fuse sputtering fast. And the writers offer no solution, which means that in its darkest moments, the book seems to echo the novelist who tells Moraes: "I couldn't help you much. I think as you ask questions about India, you will find many people like me, who will point out what is wrong. That is, of course, glaringly clear. But I don't think anybody will be able to point out a way to make it right. If he could, he would be a leader, and India's tragedy is that it has none."

the untouchables

Last October, police in India's most-populous state arrested legislator Raghuraj Pratap Singh. Was it justice at last, or just politics Uttar Pradesh-style?

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2003).

"HE SHOULD BE HANGED," says Vanita Mishra. She's talking about the man she believes murdered her husband. Eighteen months ago, the 24-year-old widow first approached the police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and told them she knew a witness who had seen the man she suspected brutally beating her husband on the day he disappeared. Not only that, the alleged killer had 30 previous criminal charges against him.

The only problem was that the man she suspected was not only an alleged gangster, but also a state legislator: Raghuraj Pratap Singh, better known as "Raja Bhaiya," or Big Brother Raja. The police refused to register a case against him, Mishra believes, because they were too frightened.

For years, the handsome young legislator and his father, Udai Pratap Singh, ruled their rural district of Kunda with absolute authority. Members of the high Rajput caste, they behaved as though they still owned the land and as if the people were still their feudal subjects. Raja Bhaiya made no apologies for his ancestry, once explaining his supposed popularity by saying simply: "I am their raja." And when he drew fire from the press for holding a weekly meeting to settle the disputes of villagers, he said the people came to him because they couldn't afford to go to court.

But in October, Raja Bhaiya's freedom to rule over Kunda came to a sudden end. He was arrested on a relatively minor charge--allegedly threatening a one-time political crony--and then, some months later, amid a spiralling list of fresh police accusations, charged under India's toughest law, the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act. So why, after failing for years to arrest Raja Bhaiya, did the police suddenly move?

Many believe it's because Raja Bhaiya made the mistake of tangling with an iron-willed woman: Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state. A former schoolteacher born into the shoemaker caste--one of the Dalit, or "untouchables"--Mayawati made her political career by showing her low-caste supporters that she could bring their erstwhile Rajput rulers and the high-caste Brahmins alike to heel.

The clash between the high-caste legislator and the low-caste chief minister is symptomatic of politics and power in India's most populous state, whose voters play a key role in deciding the make-up of the national government.

"When this nasty game of politics is played, all the social and moral norms are kept aside," says Shriv Narayan Singh, a senior lawyer in the state and long-time political observer. Those entering politics have two objectives, he says: Either they want to do something for the country, or they want to do something for themselves. "The majority," he adds, "is interested in the game of power."

When Raja Bhaiya was on the election trail, his chosen symbol was a chair. According to local journalists, the chair implied that he would back whoever occupied the chief minister's seat. But when Mayawati became chief minister for the third time last year, Raja Bhaiya eschewed that pragmatism. Denied a ministerial position, in October 2002 he led a group of assembly members in a revolt intended to bring down Mayawati. Less than a week later, he was in jail.

That was just the beginning. In a raid on January 25, police claimed to have discovered Raja Bhaiya's father in possession of a high-powered rifle, making him liable to prosecution under the tough new Prevention of Terrorism Act. Conveniently for the police, Udai Pratap then "hinted" that he and his son had conspired to assassinate Mayawati, according to District Magistrate Mohammed Mustafa. (Both father and son are being held incommunicado and have not been able to comment publicly.) After a brief search, the police say they also discovered a skull and partial skeleton that they suspect are the remains of Vanita Mishra's missing husband in a 400-hectare lake next to Raja Bhaiya's estate. Before long, father and son were jailed under the anti-terrorism law, which shifts the burden of proof onto the accused and denies defendants bail for at least a year.

It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes. Despite the list of charges against him, Raja Bhaiya has never been convicted of a crime. And for nearly 10 years, he maintained an unshakeable hold on his state-assembly seat. In 1993, he defeated his nearest opponent by the largest margin ever. Three years later, in 1996, he did even better. Critics say he forced his constituents to vote for him with an army of thugs known as the Raja Bhaiya Youth Brigade. During elections, not a single opposing campaign poster could be found in Kunda. "It could be because the other parties realize it is a lost cause, campaigning against me here," Raja Bhaiya suggested at the time.

In the 2002 assembly elections, when the Election Commission halted the counting of votes because of alleged irregularities and ordered the poll to be repeated--this time with extra security--Raja Bhaiya took an even greater share, 85%, of the vote.

Police claim Raja Bhaiya also used his youth brigade to frighten other traders out of the local liquor trade--which the government estimates is worth about 50 million rupees ($1 million) a year. And, police add, by taking over government land and flooding it to form the lake by his estate, he built a fisheries business that generated as much as 100,000 rupees a day, tax-free.

The charges registered with the police against the legislator over the years comprise a litany of heinous crimes: rioting, extortion, robbery, assault, kidnapping, attempted murder and murder. But according to a lawyer who represents the family, in 12 of the 20 cases registered before he alienated Mayawati, Raja Bhaiya was either acquitted or the charges were dropped. In the eight others, as well as the dozen or so brought against him since he squared off with Mayawati, Raja Bhaiya's family maintains he is innocent, slandered by his political opponents. The new district magistrate of Kunda has another explanation. "People have been frightened to testify against him," says Mustafa. "He terrorized the people."

Few claim Raja Bhaiya and his father are choirboys. But, equally, few believe his arrest represents a sincere effort to rid the government of known criminals. A number of high-caste politicians--most from Mayawati's coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)--vocally opposed his arrest under the anti-terrorism act, accusing Mayawati of misusing the law to dispose of her enemies. Not only was the timing of the most serious charge against Raja Bhaiya suspect, but some of Mayawati's own ministers have long charge sheets of their own, her critics say.

Crime and politics have long been locked in an unhealthy embrace in Uttar Pradesh. Criminals once relied on political patrons, says Ashish Nandi of New Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "Now they themselves have entered politics." Criminals can help politicians gain and retain power, Nandi explains, by capturing poll booths, organizing demonstrations or stirring up violence. In exchange, politicians can help them avoid prosecution. Criminals became even more involved in politics when they began to realize the nature of the immunity that political power granted them. In the 2002 state assembly elections, more than a sixth of the 5,539 candidates had police records.

Despite the attacks on her cabinet colleagues, Mayawati has turned the row over Raja Bhaiya's arrest to her advantage. In an official statement, she denied it had been motivated by political expediency or by caste conflict. But her more spirited remarks to the press were couched in the rhetoric of a champion of the oppressed against the oppressor. "These people have been spreading terror since ages," she told reporters. "The people of Kunda were leading a life of slavery. They did not feel they were living in a free country."

She called on the central leadership of the BJP to rein in their local representatives, whose opposition to Raja Bhaiya's arrest threatened the state's coalition government. Recognizing the importance of the Dalit chief minister as an ally in next year's general elections, the BJP's national leaders ordered their local representatives to toe the line. That made Mayawati even more popular with her supporters. Even when a video surfaced allegedly showing Mayawati exhorting party members to divert money intended for development projects to party coffers, she weathered the storm.

Vanita Mishra, a Brahmin, might be the chief minister's biggest fan. In December, she finally persuaded the police to lodge her case. "Only when I read in the paper that Mayawati was going after him did I go back to the police," she says, fighting back tears. "I only want justice for myself and my two children for what we have suffered on account of this man."

But justice is not easy to find in India's courts. A few weeks after police found the skull they say is that of Vanita Mishra's husband, the man who allegedly led them to it, their chief witness in the case, was killed. The police say the killers must have wanted to keep him from testifying; others says the police killed him to stop him from changing his story in court. The skull isn't talking.