January 26, 2019

Taru Bala Das and Mahesh Chandra Das

Two years ago, after her mother's death, my own mum, Korobi, told her childhood friends of how her parents' marriage came to be. I was fascinated, and have shared an extract here:

Taru Bala Das and Korobi Saikia
Taru Bala Das and Korobi Saikia, 1990s
"One has to delve into the family history a bit...

My paternal grandfather, Dr Praneshwar Das' entire family was wiped out by kala azar, black fever, and he was brought up by his maternal uncle where he grew up in an atmosphere of learning and scholarship amongst seven cousins. He trained to be a doctor, and worked in several places in Assam.

My father's schooling up to class 3 was in Nowgaon after which the family moved to Goalpara where my paternal grandfather was originally from. It was there that my father continued his schooling although, in his last year, he was imprisoned in Gauhati jail for his active participation in the Independence movement. He was released just two months before the matriculation exams and came out with flying colours. He then joined Cotton College where he became friends with Suni mama who was my mother's cousin, and with Mohan Dowerah, the son of Komol Dowerah — this was Komol Dowerah of Komol Dowerah College in Dergaon, Assam, who also happened to be my maternal grandfather's cousin. It was these cousins who were instrumental in bringing about the marriage between my parents.

My maternal grandfather was Sarbananda Dowerah of Golaghat. He was a tea planter, and was associated with various civic bodies in the town as well as with the chamber of commerce. He had eleven children, seven sons and four daughters. My mother was the sixth child; she studied in a school run by American missionaries and was closest in age to Nalin mama who later went on to become very well known in the Assamese film industry.

At the time when my parents' marriage was being arranged, my father was living in Sunbeam, a cottage in Lumaurie, Shillong, where he was working as a civil servant; before moving to Sunbeam, he'd lived in Chitrakoot, his sister's house in Laban, Shillong, where the room he occupied is still, close to half a century after his demise, referred to as 'mama's room' in recognition of the time he spent there.

Although by the standards of those days, Goalpara and Golaghat seemed far, by the time my parents married in 1949, marriage alliances had already been forged at distances as large if not farther.

After my parents married, they acquired a plot in Motinagar, Shillong. My father seems to have initially been quite laidback about the acquisition although plots were being allocated to servants of the state. Nonetheless, with a little prodding from some neighbours, he applied for and was granted a plot where he built the house we grew up in.

My father was particularly enthusiastic about fish; I still remember the bhags for various families nearby which he distributed along with huge khili paans which he bought from Bara Bazaar. In the afternoons, ladies from the neighbourhood would gather in a garden to prepare marinated robab tenga and oranges. My mouth begins to water as I write this...

The camaraderie that we shared as kids can't really be replicated, can it?"

November 04, 2018

[Link] The Rule of Law

I critique the rule of law with reference to violence and its own history, pointing out that it has often been 'the voice of the immensely privileged codified in statute and subordinate legislation' in a piece that was published by Smashboard and later by Firstpost.


"...the rule of law is not an egalitarian concept and its history demonstrates that it not underlain by gender neutrality. It may be possible to force it into another, less discriminatory mould more mindful of equality and individual rights but that would require recognising our current understanding of the rule of law for what it often is: an idea perpetuated by white men living in sexist societies themselves and forming the theoretical basis for the racial hierarchies which plague all of us today, often with their ideas being used to support economic drain and worse of countries primarily populated by non-white peoples.


The Constitution of India promises individuals equality and dignity. However, that promise may well be betrayed by the rule of law if it is not structured to avert violence induced by such facets of one’s identity as gender, sex, and sexual orientation.


Violence is unlikely to be eradicated in our own time but it can be contained, and it is legitimate to ask that the rule of law be structured to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. The most vulnerable are not just those who are poor but anyone who lacks the privilege of power which is, of course, most of us and women, upper class or not, in particular. After all, privilege is always relative, and persons who are abused invariably have less privilege than their abusers. If the rule of law is not structured to address the concerns of those with comparatively less privilege, its adoption would too often merely result in access to law and not in access to justice."

October 26, 2018

[Links] State Policy, Citizenship, and Patriarchy

In a two-part series, I explore the human rights implications of processes like the formation of the NRC with reference to my own story, the problems of patriarchy, and the burdens of history. 

Excerpts below:

Issues of citizenship and belonging have always been fraught in India. We are a plural society that was irrevocably torn apart in 1947. As a legal construct, the Indian republic is a federation of states. As a social reality, we know affiliations to various sub-nationalisms, subsumed within a greater pan-Indian nationalism, to be a source of individual pride.
We are not, however, a society that has consistently seen communal harmony. In recent history, British colonizers used a divide-and-rule policy to help cement their control over vast swaths of the Indian subcontinent.
American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White saw vast areas of Calcutta “dark with ruins and black with the wings of vultures that hovered impartially over the Hindu and Muslim dead” in 1946. The image of death approaching under the waiting, watchful eye of vultures was not new to Bengal, which had, at the time, barely recovered from a devastating famine, exacerbated by British policies, that took about 4 million lives. This was the same famine that prompted Leo Amery, then secretary of state for India and Burma, to compare Winston Churchill’sattitudes to those of Hitler.
Photographs taken in the 1940s in the fenced hunger-cum-labor camps of Europe and in the fence-less hunger-cum-labor geography of Bengal are not always easy to tell apart. Ravaged bodies with ashen skin, regardless of their color, can look much the same in black and white.
We may only now be beginning to call the famine genocide, and recognize the lingering effects of Partition, but we know what to expect of concentration camps. And we know that their effects can be achieved simply with incendiary rhetoric and administrative action. They do not need fences or a fenced-off vocabulary.

Evading the past not only allows us to evade our shared histories but also the memory of the traumas we have all suffered in the process of the fragmentation of our identities and our lands. It erases tales of migration and assimilation, and it enables the development of constructs that alienate and perhaps even corral in forced-labor camps, if only in imagination, those whom we now consider “outsiders” who do not belong within our borders.
In our own time, borders are often closed by documenting the people within them and recognizing them as citizens. The smallest unit of documentation is often not the individual but the household, particularly in relation to rations and fuel, which may keep women in the control of men who are listed as being the heads of households. Instances of women subverting the system to establish their own independent identities are the exception.
As a result, closed borders tend to reinforce often-violent patriarchy and disadvantage those not ensconced in privileged, socially approved familial structures.
Leaving aside concerns about the “them vs us” narrative, experience has taught us that we have difficulty recognizing our own because of documentation issues, shared histories, close cultural ties, and common vocabularies.
Given that the identification of those who qualify as citizens is no easy matter, there exists a constitutional imperative to ensure that laws deriving legitimacy from it do not flout the implicit guarantees it accords to individuals. That requires the development of legal processes that ensure that the most vulnerable among us are not sidelined. People cannot legitimately have their citizenship called into question simply because they find themselves without familial support. The cost of not submitting to violent patriarchy cannot legitimately be statelessness.

August 17, 2018

On Partition and Remembrance

So many of us have grown up hearing of crimson harvests resulting from the forced poppy cultivation which destroyed both China and vast tracts of India, and of the millions who died, often begging for rice starch, in the Bengal Famine. This is, of course, the famine which prompted Leo Amery, once Secretary of State for India and Burma, to compare Churchill to Hitler given that it was, in no small measure, the result of British policies that were implemented in India while he was Prime Minister. Bhaator maar, the Assamese called starch water. Kani khai bohi ase: he's sitting around having eaten opium.

The abiding image of the famine, to so many, is one of children dying under the watchful, waiting eye of vultures. That image didn't fade by the time of Partition. In her autobiography, Margaret Bourke White, the American photojournalist, wrote:

"For years, Hindus and Muslims had struggled side by side for independence from the British Raj. With freedom finally on the horizon, Jinnah masterminded the game so adroitly that within months he was to win his Pakistan. Jinnah announced what he called Direct Action Day: a We will have," he insisted, "either a divided India or a destroyed India."
On the heels of this announcement, violence broke out in Calcutta. I flew there from Bombay and found a scene that looked like Buchenwald. The streets were literally strewn with dead bodies, an officially estimated six thousand, but I myself saw many more. Scattered between bodies of men were the bodies of their animals. Countless cows, swollen with the heat, were as dead as their masters. In Calcutta, a city larger than Detroit, vast areas were dark with ruins and black with the wings of vultures that hovered impartially over the Hindu and Muslim dead. Like Germany's concentration camps, this was the ultimate result of racial and religious prejudice.
I did my job of recording the horror and brought the pictures out for Life, but the task was hard to bear. The terror in Calcutta set off a chain reaction which spread through the country and was equally devastating to both religious groups. Months of violence sharpened the division, highlighted Jinnah's arguments. On August 15, 1947, one year after the riots in Calcutta, a bleeding Pakistan was carved out of the body of a bleeding India."

The friction between Hindus and Muslims had been nurtured by the British through the divide-and-rule policy which they instituted for their own benefit. Unsurprisingly, it contributed to the August 1947 Partition which saw the country literally being divided along lines drawn on a map by an English lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, who had stepped on to Indian shores a month earlier and appeared to know nothing worth mentioning about the country.

The comparisons between concentration camps and Indian traumas are well worn. Unlike Germany though, we do not deal in remembrance half a much as we should. We have no Erinnerungskultur, a Culture of Remembrance, to our own disadvantage. Those who do not remember the past are always at risk of allowing it to be repeated, after all.

The Partition of India still affects our national and nationalist ethos. It marks those whom we now consider foreigners. Forgetting the trauma of Partition also allows us to forget that we were once one people. It allows us to dehumanise those whom we now consider outsiders. It allows us to create constructs which facilitate separation.

We now live in a world where some spend their time looking for the least offensive ways to describe children in cages. Where almost every migration ‘crisis’ is invariably caused by an uninviting government supported by a xenophobic people. Ecuador, for the time being, seems to be an exception to the rule: it recently declared an emergency due to mass migration from Venezuela. Its crisis, however, wasn't declared to keep migrants out but to help them as they come in.

Inhumane xenophobia doesn't have to be anyone's default state of being. There are other options which we could follow especially given that our own history, in living memory, tells us that xenophobia and communalism can be catastrophic for everyone in their vicinity. The Partition is proof of that.

August 15, 2018

Where the Mind is Without Fear

On Independence Day, thinking of my mother's father who had been jailed during the Independence struggle and later became a civil servant. He died before I was born though he seems to have enjoyed poetry, and the first poem my mum ever paraphrased with me was one which her father had worked on with her: Where the Mind is Without Fear, by the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, still as relevant today as ever it was.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments;
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way;
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee;
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, My Father, let my country awake.
Tagore, of course, had returned his knighthood after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. He died just as the British were beginning to implement policies in the Bengal that would, by the end of WWII, contribute to the deaths of millions of Indians even as, in Europe, they did what in later decades they would come to ceaselessly advertise as a demonstration of their commitment to human rights and  justice which, it has to be said, many Indians saw no evidence of either then or earlier.

“In the case O’Dwyer vs Nair 1924 before the King’s Bench Division in London, the jury decided by a majority of 11 to 1 that General Dyer had not committed an atrocity at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, and Sankaran Nair, the defendant, was accordingly held guilty of libel,” Nandini Nair wrote in a profile of the man who had resigned from the Viceroy’s Executive Council after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. “The sole dissenting juryman was none other than Harold Laski, the well-known political economist. Since the verdict of the jury was not unanimous, it was open to Nair not to accept it and seek a fresh trial. He chose not to do so, saying, “Who knows what another 12 English shopkeepers would think.” O’Dwyer offered to forgo the damages of £7,000 if Nair tendered an apology. He refused point-blank, even though it was a large sum.”

The Quit India movement began Around the time of Tagore’s death too; Naresh Fernandes describes how it was named in his book on Bombay: “In August 1942, as the Japanese seemed poised to invade India, Gandhi arrived in Bombay to address a meeting of the All India Congress Committee in Gowalia Maidan. The day before, he and his colleagues held a meeting to decide on an appropriate slogan to express their opposition to British rule. ‘Get out’, one suggested. Gandhi thought that too impolite. Another suggested ‘Retreat’ or ‘Withdraw’ but those didn’t find approval either. Finally, Yusuf Meherally turned to Gandhi with a bow and said, ‘Quit India’. Said Gandhi, ‘Amen’.”