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The business of caste in India

Priyanka P. Narain and Pallavi SIngh

Mumbai/New Delhi: Images of adventure reside in their collective memory—journeys into the cobbled streets of Antwerp to compete with powerful Hasidic Jew merchants for grubby stones, which, when polished and cut, would sparkle and dazzle. The journey that transformed the Palanpuri Jains from cloth and perfume traders into moguls of the diamond empire was challenging: The language of Antwerp was strange to their ears and its exotic meats forbidden to their vegetarian palates. But during those days of mercantile entrepreneurship, this community coped with challenges together and forged ties of kinship that “have survived till today and have provided the basis on which we have built this industry in India,” says Rajiv Mehta, chief executive officer of Dimexon Diamonds Ltd.

But to the Bunts of Karnataka—former warriors and landowners who created the famous Udipi restaurant chains, established restaurants, hotels and resorts—globalization has not been so kind. Raghu Shetty, who set up the first catering business in Mumbai in the late 1970s, says the community is unable to keep up with new Indian tastes. “The culture of five-star weddings, glamorous family and business events…and our job is not very rewarding. The children don’t want to run restaurants at street corners…you see all our old Udipis shutting down. No one needs them any more.”

These stories reflect the fact that there is no clear answer to the question: How have community businesses adapted to India’s growth in a globalized world? There is little data to go by and anecdotal evidence meanders in all directions.

Business legacy: Diamond merchant Pankaj Shah (wearing a garland) leaving for his first trip to Antwerp in 1972. He had relatives in Antwerp who ran brokerage firms through which he could buy the rough diamonds he would select. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Claiming that economic cooperation was the basis of defining caste, Roy says that “these (caste-based) groups are protecting access of outsiders to assets—be it skills, people, capital…sometimes successfully, sometimes not. They are guilds, rooted in blood, rather than rules. The ties run so deep that if anyone breaks a business rule, they can be excommunicated from the community.”

And because of the efficiency of this economic model, many communities have drawn inspiration from this idea over the ages, “and that is unlikely to change. I see no reason why world markets would not help caste-based community business to expand their business and strengthen their ties. Of course, some communities will prosper, others may not. For instance, the Marwaris—who had prospered in the last century as the manufacturing community—did not do so well after. But I believe the idea will endure,” said Roy.

Also Read previous stories in the series

Diamonds are forever

Among the Palanpuris, diamonds have created a mutual dependence that has not only endured but also thrived in a globalized world.

“Thirty years ago, when I was growing up, we were trained to think that one day, we will also play with these shiny stones,” says Mehta, splaying imaginary diamonds on the table as he speaks. “You cannot underestimate how much power that knowledge gives—you become a risk taker, you are willing to put yourself out on a limb if it will expand the business for your sons who are there with you. That kind of quick, risky, urgent decision making can never happen in a corporate setup,” explains Mehta.

Over the last 50 years, they have trained their sons in the art of identifying diamonds among stones in the diamond bazaars of Antwerp. Pankaj Shah, a diamond merchant, remembers his Antwerp trip of 1972—the time he began to choose rough diamonds that held most promise of dazzling when polished.

“I was 20. My family thought it was time for me to learn. At that time, relatives used to live in Antwerp and run brokerage firms. We could select diamonds ourselves, but we could buy diamonds only through a brokerage firm. So we stayed in homes of relatives. Since we were Jains—there were no vegetarian restaurants in Antwerp at that time—we ate in their homes. We simply selected the rough diamonds we wanted to buy and the brokerage firm would complete the formalities and export them to us.” Those with no family lived in cheap, hovel-like hotels, ate at common Jain kitchens and practised their trade.

In an open world economy, Palanpuris have taken their business to far-flung countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas and while “it’s hard to give exact figures in this industry, the Palanpuris have retained 60-70% of the market…as long as the world needs diamonds and succession remains intact, I think we will stay in the game,” says Mehta.

New opportunities

For the Oriyas, the last two decades have meant opportunity—to get a job, to live in a city, to educate their children, to give them a better life. Opportunities that they grabbed together, helping each other along the way, each man pulling a few kinsmen out of a bleak hole.

Like Niranjan Parida did.

On a January morning of 1993, a?teenaged Parida boarded a Delhi-bound train with a thousand rupees, without informing his family. He says he ran away from his home to escape the purposelessness that had seeped into his village, Ratnapur in Kendrapada district in Orissa, where the only opportunity available was for daily wages. “That is not (what) I wanted to do,” says Parida.

His impulsive journey to the national Capital is not a lone migrant story, but a chain of migrations of scheduled caste Oriyas who have escaped the bleakness of Orissa’s villages, curiously enough, for plumbing jobs.

When Parida arrived, he knew no one and spoke little Hindi. He pounded the streets for a job, slept on footpaths—till he happened to meet a woman from his village. “Her husband was a contractor for plumbing jobs in Delhi. She took me home and he trained me in plumbing,” he says.

Within months, he began to land contracts. Seventeen years later, thin and blackened from working in the unforgiving Delhi sun, he makes Rs10,000-12,000 per month. He also does what he insists people of his community have traditionally done—bring people from the village for plumbing jobs. “I brought almost a dozen people from my village here. I train them and get them employed,” he says.

But plumbing is not the only job that the community does. Chandrakant Sahu, who speaks better Hindi than Parida, explains how the community also helps Oriya kinsmen become electricians. When Sahu migrated to Delhi from Orissa’s Betali village, a relative got him a job at an electrical shop. Now, “Parida suggests my name for electrical fittings in the house where he is working. His good at his work, his recommendation matters,” he says, referring to a system where they try to secure contracts for kinsmen. “We have a human network (that) helps each other since we are emotional about our roots,” he says.

Changing with the times

And yet, for the Bunts—who created the chain of Udipi restaurants, took over the Irani tea houses, bought hotels, established catering businesses, highway eateries and dhabas in the city to escape the bleak poverty of their villages—the changing world has not heralded similar good news, but nor has it broken the spirit of collaboration among kinsmen.

For many reasons, the Shettys are finding it hard to stay afloat. Jairam Shetty explains, “First, so many other communities—Gujaratis, Marwaris and Punjabis—have come in and taken away our market. We could not cater to all those tastes nor compete with the money they brought in. Secondly, in the last few years, international hotels have come to India. They serve international cuisines and tastes have changed. Also, marriages have become very fancy. Finally, succession is a problem since business isn’t glamorous and the children do not want to take over. We are just waiting until they are settled.”

For those who built the business from the ground up, the change is bitter-sweet. “We are happy that our children have more opportunity than we did. That is what we wanted when we came to Mumbai. Our community is still very strongly interconnected, only now we are focusing on education and social issues. This business has brought us so far—now it might be time to slowly move to better things as a community together, supporting each other,” says Raghu Shetty, owner of Santosh Catering, and the uncrowned grandfather of the Bunts in Mumbai.

Like many others, Shetty was a teenager when he left his ancestral village near Mangalore for a better life in Mumbai. For 20 long years, he worked in a little restaurant in Worli— washing dishes, cleaning tables, then waiting at them and gradually, becoming a manager. “All the while, I watched the chef. I learnt cooking, everything about it, and when the time came, I started my own catering business in the city,” he says. Jairam Shetty, owner of Ajanta Caterers in Mumbai, says: “This business is not very capital-intensive. We just needed a supportive human network, and that we had.”

That collaboration still exists, says 67-year-old Raghu Shetty. “We want families of the community to do better with every generation. If the catering work will not take us further, then it is time for us to leave it behind and find another opportunity that will give our children a better life,” he smiles. “As long as the community supports each other and stands as one, it will all be okay…”

This is the second of a five-part series on the changing role of caste in a globalized India.

This story was first published in Mint:

Bihar’s IIT dream

Patna: Along the busy Rajendra Nagar flyover in Patna, the skyline is dotted with huge, irregularly placed hoardings. More than a hundred in number, they congregate with a purpose: to help every child in the city enter the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), the country’s premier technical institutes.

This dream caught Navneet Rajan’s fancy when he was struggling to balance his aspirations and limited means at the Patna Muslim High School. He enjoyed chemistry and mathematics; and the slogan in the neighbourhood only helped concretize an idea: “Do not be a chemist; become an IITian.”

To make things easier, he, like thousands in previous years, did not have to set out for Kota, the city in Rajasthan which has become synonymous with the IITs for the sheer number of coaching institutes. All of them train students for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), conducted for admission to the IITs.

Rajan signed up with JEE Classes, a newly launched coaching institute that caters to Patna’s IIT aspirants. The coaching institute says it delivers on Kota’s promise—but with cheaper fees that can range from Rs25,000 to Rs60,000 a year. Coaching in Kota can cost a student on an average Rs15,000-20,000 more, excluding travel and accommodation expenses.

Rajan is one of 700 in his batch, where several batches add up to a student strength of 1,500. In a class resembling a downtown garage, the students make several rows of intent listeners as their teacher writes equations on the blackboard and addresses the class through a microphone. In a peculiar gender divide, girls occupy the front benches; boys sit in the back rows. Yet, as ambitions go, they all think equal. Everyone here hopes to get into the IITs; an average one of 5,000 aspirants qualifies for the JEE every year.

Elsewhere, too, this dream has triggered a deluge. The city of the working class and small-time traders is now waking to a smart new set of coaching institutes that promise a seat in the IITs. Coaching class owners recall that about a decade ago, there were around 300 such institutes, that helped students get admission to both medical and engineering colleges. Today, an estimated 1,000 such coaching institutes are run here, positioning IITs as tickets to a dream job and promising to make Patna “the next Kota”.

More than a hundred new classes have been set up in the last couple of years, thanks to several coaching institutes from Delhi and Kota setting up branches.

Here, success stories from the big cities are seeping into the psyche of the middle class and fuelling ambitions. Just last year, Shitikanth, who uses his first name only, from a school in Patna secured the top spot in the JEE. That was 27 years after another student from the state hit the merit list with a second position in 1981.

In recent years, at least a thousand students from the state have made it to the IITs, with more than half the number coached at the home-grown training institutes. Super 30, a tent house coaching institute for the state’s underprivileged, is now the best fable in town.

As local tales go, one doesn’t just need to make way through littered alleys and roughshod roads to reach the institute, also known as the Ramanujan Mathematical Academy. There is a stringent entrance test to qualify for admission and for 30 seats, about 5,000 apply every year.

For the deserving, boarding and food are provided at two small student lodges in the midst of the cacophonous town, at a meagre Rs6,000 a year.

Poring over a thick book in one of the barely furnished lodges, Kumod Ranjan, 18, is unconcerned about the lack of a ceiling fan in his room. “Sweat keeps us burning. What if we sleep during study hours?’’ he says.

In less than three months, he along with 29 other promising mathematicians, picked from economically weaker sections, will appear for the JEE.

According to house tradition, each one of them has to qualify because they are what make the Super 30, an initiative launched by founder Anand Kumar along with top cop Abhyanand.

Six years ago, 18 of the Super 30 students cracked the IIT entrance. The number rose to 22 in 2004 and 26 in 2005. Last year, it recorded 100% success.

Then, for the lesser equals, there are various options: Genius Forty, Fantastic Fifty and Stupendous Sixty, styled after Anand’s Super 30.

Bhupesh Kumar, founder of Genius Forty, says it’s not about aping anyone, however. “We are into welfare initiatives. We are doing some good work,” he says, adding that his institute picks up 40 students to coach for the IITs every year at heavily subsidized fees.

At Vision Classes, however, ex-IITian and founder K. Singh’s slogan for the institute—“Let’s make Patna the next hub for IIT coaching”—also makes profound business sense. After 11 years at a coaching institute in Kota, Singh returned to his hometown last year to arrest the flow of students to the Rajasthan town.

“Our dream is to set up a system which stops the brain drain from here. Bihar loses approximately 30,000-40,000 students to coaching centres in Delhi and Kota every year,” he says.

Singh’s vision is already seeing results. Sujata Kumari, 18, who coached for a year at Kota’s famed Bansal classes, along with two others, joined his institute as soon as it was set up. “My parents didn’t have enough money to pay for another year. Here, teachers have experience from Kota and the classes match that quality,” she says.

But competition for the likes of Vision Classes has grown tougher. While institutes such as Delhi-based FIIT-JEE and Kota-based Daswani Classes and Resonance have already made deep inroads in the flourishing business, several others like Sahil Study Circle and Vidhyamandir Classes have also stepped in with glossy brochures and air-conditioned classrooms over the last couple of years and are offering attractive discounts. “We have kept our fees 30% lower than the fees being charged at our Delhi centres. This offer is open only to students from Bihar,” says Amit Singh, administrator at Sahil Study Centre in Patna, which is headquartered in Delhi.

Many of the locally set up institutes, therefore, including Singh’s, have aggressive marketing strategies in place to meet the competition including launch of websites to attract outstation students also, free T-shirts with the institute’s slogans and coffee mugs and tie-ups with local schools to tap the IITs aspirants at a young age.

At JEE Classes, administration head Balaji, 30, with an engineering degree from IIT Bombay and a management course from Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, is using his four-year stint in the corporate sector to hard sell JEE as the city’s premier coaching institute. “The education sector in Patna is booming and this is the time to erect good infrastructure and teaching facilities for students here,” he points out, adding that in the last one year, JEE Classes has grown to four centres in the city. “We hope to enrol 4,000 students this year.”

But as with any thriving business in Bihar, there are challenges too. Kumar, whose Super 30 now holds a near-iconic status and has featured in international media regularly, has survived two fatal attacks in the last five years. He blames it on bitter professional rivalry. “There are coaching institutes who do not want us to grow,” he says.

Today, most prominent coaching centres in the city have hired private security guards, from Vision Classes to JEE Classes, though few admit that deepening rivalry is now posing grave dangers.

In Kumar’s case, this perhaps means living life dangerously. He has a posse of security guards provided by the state police to accompany him each time he steps out of home.

This story was first published in Mint:

Patna’s Brave New Nights

Pallavi Singh

That hot June afternoon in 1992 left an indelible imprint on Shanker Dutt’s memory. “June 5, in fact, let me tell you,” he says matter-of-factly.

The professor of English was at Patna University’s Darbhanga House, the heritage precinct where postgraduate classes for literature students are held, attending a farewell function for one of his colleagues. “Some of the students wanted to gatecrash. They were prevented from doing so but one of the students broke the glass of one of the doors and fired a shot,” he recalls.

The bullet hit Dutt, who was on the dais, in the wrist, “shattering all the bones”. Yet, when they took him to the doctor, he was reluctant to disclose how he had been injured. “A bullet wound meant a medico-legal case. One of my colleagues told the doctor I had tripped but the doctor, of course, figured it out,” he says.

It was Dutt’s first experience of fear in the city of his birth. By the 1990s, the historical capital was a hub of notoriety and lawlessness, a classic case of cow-belt indiscipline, perversity and despair.

Party zone: (Top to bottom) Dak Bungalow Road, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is lined with new hotels and restaurants; and a group of teenagers celebrate Nishant Kumar’s (in black) 13th birthday at Yo! China in Bandar Bagicha; Kapil’s Eleven restaurant does brisk business on weekday evenings; the Saturday night show at Mona cinema is sold out; Maurya Lok complex is crowded despite the late hour; and the renovated precincts of Chhaju Bagh police station
In the four years since chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar took over, 317 criminal cases have been reported, against 1,393 such cases in 2000-04. Speedy trials ensured a total of 38,824 convictions—in mostly theft, murder, extortion and kidnapping cases—between 2006 and 2009. Most of Bihar’s infamous dons are in jail, including Shahabuddin, the former Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) politician who once went live on television, daring the state police to arrest him.

As evening approaches, police vehicles zip down the streets; dozens of policemen are stationed at corners. At newly renovated police stations (the state’s recent move to improve these battered posts has added to police confidence), officials actively attend to routine complaints.

Emboldened by the improvement in law and order, people in Patna have now embarked on a nightlife that assiduously chronicles middle-class ambitions, its appetite for change and hunger for recreational options.

Prabhat Kaushal, a garment shop owner, didn’t think it was risky to allow his 13-year-old son Riddiman a night out with friends—unlike earlier, when businessmen were hesitant to venture out late at night for fear of extortion and kidnapping. Kaushal dropped his son at casual dining restaurant Yo! China where bright lights from the wood-crafted ceiling illuminated the faces of 10 teenagers.

Outside, the evening is just getting started. Mobile vans and food stalls at the Maurya Lok Complex, Patna’s answer to Connaught Place, are busy rustling up freshly cooked Chinese and south Indian food, as people saunter in.

Yet, for Riddiman and his friend Nishant Kumar, Yo! China in Bandar Bagicha was just the right place for Kumar’s birthday bash. His voice brims with excitement as he explains: “Here, it’s air conditioned and we can order till midnight.” It was the 13-year-old’s first birthday celebration outside his home—but then this year is different, he remarks. “Now, all my friends hang out till late in the restaurants and so my father eventually agreed for me to treat my friends at a hotel,” the class VIII student at the city’s DAV Public School says. The online call registry Just Dial now has more than 150 restaurants on its Patna list, most of them less than five years old.

At Mona, one of the city’s oldest cinema halls and now converted into a multiplex, all weekend shows for the 9pm to midnight slots are “house full”, says manager Ajay Kumar Kataruka. “There was a time when we had to cancel late-night shows. Now, we don’t have tickets for people coming in late,” he says.

Different service sector players have reached the state, almost a decade after most metros saw the first wave, and consumers have lots of options. Yo! China’s many competitors include local entrepreneurs and national restaurant chains such as Kapil’s Eleven, owned by cricketer Kapil Dev; for leisurely evenings, there’s the Patna Golf Club or the Country Club International.

At the Bankipore Club, Kavindra, a businessman who uses only his first name, has been a member for more than 40 years. He recalls, “People would try to get out early and move together in groups to any specified destination so that numbers give them a sense of strength.” Now, of course, the club—like several others—has been revamped and is packed to capacity till midnight. The world where RJD’s Lalu Prasad threatened to cancel the lease of the Patna Golf Club seems very distant.

While Patna welcomes the new, significant attention is being paid to the old, neglected cultural centres. Kalidas Rangalaya, one of Patna’s oldest theatres, rescued from decay, stages plays round the week; BSNA, a state-run organization for the promotion of art and culture, hosts regular cultural programmes at the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir auditorium. This is where weekend cultural events—Shukr Gulzar (Friday Bloom) and Shani Bahaar (Saturday Spring)— have also come up in the last two years.

“Art and culture follow only in a secure environment,” says Kavindra.

At the Cine Society, often fabled to be “as ancient as Patna”, its 50-odd members try to revive “the old days” twice a month—harking back to the time when they would screen rare classics. In the 1960s, the club used to import cinema reels from Europe for film screenings.

Bereft of an auditorium, society members now convert the patients’ waiting room at the Sen Laboratory diagnostic centre into an auditorium for screening movies—the Laboratory owner is a Cine Society member.

“In the 1970s, there were more than 300 members and films would be screened at the very spacious hall of the Indian Medical Academy. There are never too many people now since more entertainment avenues have opened in the city, but we haven’t stopped,” says Dutt, who is a member of the Cine Society.

At the historic bridge over the Ganga on the outskirts of the city, the youth have found their new pulse. Mahatma Gandhi Setu, one of the longest river bridges in Asia, weighed down by years of decay and traffic, now gets a fresh set of visitors after dusk—restless, and often in love.

This story was first published in Mint:

Rise of India’s caste warrior

Pallavi Singh
Duhai, Ghaziabad: Caste is most often seen through the prism of conflict—the heated national debates about reservations, the political polarization on the census and the attacks on young couples that have been blessed by caste panchayats.

But far away from the spotlight, there is the more benign world of organizations and activists who continue to nurture informal networks based on caste, to help fledgeling businesses, build educational institutions and promote philanthropy.

Consider the case of Avneesh Dahiya.

Dahiya owes his three-year journey from Bhojpur, a small village about 187km from New Delhi, to the National Capital Region (NCR), to the commitment of one man to use personal success to help other members of his caste.

Help at hand: Choudhary Chhotu Ram Girls’ Inter College manager Sunil Chowdhry. Pradeep Gaur / Mint

Malik, also national president of All India Jat Arakshan Samiti (AIJAS), a caste-based outfit demanding recognition of Jats as Other Backward Castes (OBC) at the national level, met Dahiya in 2007.

“What do you do?” he asked Dahiya, who had already spent more than three decades in the village, landless and jobless. With Jats rallying to demand reservations for their community, AIJAS had just been formed, and Malik invited Dahiya to join.

In order to help a fellow Jat, Malik also helped Dahiya procure a licence to run the dairy outlet and waived the rent for the shop. The dairy helped Dahiya meet two fond aspirations: to earn a livelihood and send his children to college.

Caste continues to puzzle and infuriate many modernizers, but the institution has survived and changed in the six decades after independence even as it continues to whip up passions that can split most political parties down the middle.

But away from the heated arguments whether the government should ask citizens details about their caste, the institution itself has shown remarkable resilience and acts as a magnet for identity and philanthropy.

Malik’s focus, for example, is not just Masscon India Pvt. Ltd, the real estate firm of which he is the managing director. As a leader of AIJAS, Malik says he finds his true calling. “The business is important because it helps you make money, but AIJAS is what takes the money where it truly belongs—back to the community.”

Malik is a caste leader, of sorts. His caste outfit and business firm collectively serve the community in two ways: while AIJAS helps needy people from his community who approach him, Masscon becomes the employment generator.

Since the company was set up in 2000, it has recruited around 40 people from the Jat community as office staff alone.

Sociologists view the rise of caste-based organizations as an after-effect of post-Mandal politics in India, the period after 1989 when the Indian government introduced 27% reservation for OBCs in government jobs. “Caste remained unattended before that. Prior to Mandal, there was no reason for individual backward castes to be assertive at the national level. Post-Mandal, caste-based organizations are using caste as an effective instrument of community building and its social and financial upliftment,” Anand Kumar, professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says.

While there are no hard numbers to measure the spread and appeal of such caste organizations, a search on the Internet throws hundreds of names of such outfits with regularly updated websites. While most of them claim extensive membership, many admit that finding issues relevant to the youth of their communities is a big challenge these days.

The Chitragupta Kalyan Sangathan, an organization for Kayasthas, who are traditionally known as the caste of the account keepers, in Delhi’s Shahdara, has a helpline for jobs and marriages. The small office tucked away in an old dilapidated building is remarkable because it has no staff, except a peon and a typist to answer the telephone, no photocopier and no conference room. “We do most of the work in the field,” its convenor Santok Saxena says. “We have a large community pool of lawyers, financial planners and bankers. Whenever someone needs us, we offer guidance and relevant contacts.”

The Kayastha Mahasabha in Mumbai helps entrepreneurs start their own ventures. “We help them in securing bank loans from our contacts, because it is very difficult for a new entrepreneur to get loans. Sometimes we act as guarantors as well,” says Pramod Srivastava, convenor of the organization.

Over the years though, organizations admit much of their appeal has waned.

“What we do is very traditional, such as organize mass marriages and religious festivals, which don’t attract the youth of our community. While forward castes are capable of financial means to dispense with, there is lack of unity,” says Praveen Sharma, secretary of the Brahman Samaj Sanstha in Delhi.

Sociologist Anand Kumar says unlike the backward caste organizations, associations of forward castes today are on the defensive owing to the rise of OBCs. “They are suffering downward mobility. In the 1950s, they were 70% in elected positions. Now, it is down to 30%. In the changed situation of coalition politics, they are adjusting and have no individual identity,” he points out.

At the same time, analysts feel that the caste organizations’ co-option into politics and vice-versa has led to trivialization of the groups’ roles such as their activities remaining limited to distributing medals and organizing dinners to community members.

Some of the examples of this co-option, where caste groups made way for political voices, are the Bharatiya Lok Dal, which was led by Jat leader Chaudhary Charan Singh in Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Lalu Prasad in Bihar, which acted as growth engines of caste-based politics in India.

Avneesh Dahiya at his outlet in Ghaziabad.Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Ajay Navariya, Dalit writer and assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi says caste organizations got politicized after independence and expected the government to provide for everything. “They have lost sight of more pertinent issues at hand and have become victims of casteist politics,” he adds.

About 40km away from Delhi on National Highway 58, Choudhary Chhotu Ram Girls’ Inter College (CCRGC) in Duhai is perhaps a near-perfect example of what may have gone wrong with social work centred around caste and community welfare in the last six decades.

Since 1946 when Jat leader Chaudhary Mukhtiar Singh set up the school for girls’ education, the village of Duhai hasn’t seen the establishment of any other institution of higher education by a member of the community. Around the time the college was founded, the western Uttar Pradesh belt, particularly Muzaffarnagar, saw a spurt in schools and colleges set up by Jat businessmen and leaders.

Since then, the pace of educational work slowed only to stop completely in the 1980s, say educationists.

In his rhetoric on the diminishing role of caste-based organizations in social welfare, Sunil Chowdhary, manager of CCRGC, is quick to lash out at caste-based politics, especially by parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in north India. “Earlier, caste-based organizations were set up to work for social uplift. After the 1980s, almost each one of them rallied with a political outfit to assert themselves politically,” Chowdhary says. “There was a time when even Jat leaders like Choudhary Charan Singh laid foundation of a degree college by Gujjars. Is it possible today?”

Listening intently to the entire debate, Balbir Singh, manager of BR Ambedkar Primary School in Duhai, where he has been providing free education to children of the scheduled castes, differs. “They (caste groups) at least organize our struggle through a forum and raise a collective voice for our causes,” he argues.

Inside Chowdhary’s office, dark and humid without electricity, Singh—with his greying hair and tense forehead—is suddenly agitated by the debate. Slowly, the gathering grows to half a dozen people in the room. Someone quotes example of caste groups in Gujarat, which set up orphanages, rest houses, old-age homes and colleges for the community.

Kantaben Kamdar Charitable Trust and Jhaverchand Manekchand Trust of the Saurashtra Khadayta caste, or the trader caste, for example, contributes around Rs30,000 every month to support 42 families in the villages of Junagadh in Gujarat.

For what little Singh has known, this doesn’t happen in his world. “There are hardly any such groups which work for lower rungs of their communities,” he says.

His concerns are not entirely unfounded. The Ambedkar Samaj Sudhar Samiti (or Ambedkar Social Reform Committee), founded by him, often ends up facing resistance from upper caste groups for the work they do: opposing child marriages, untouchability and manual scavenging.

Eleven years ago, he, then unmarried, even picked up a girl child from the streets and brought her home after police refused to find a shelter despite his repeated reports. “Well, what would you have done?” he asks.

This story was first published here: [ ]

Islamic students body on a mission for peace

Pallavi Singh
New Delhi: Hashmatullah Khan says the combination invites scrutiny: students, computers and Islam. In his case, it gets worse. He is general secretary of the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO).

No, not the Students Islamic Movement of India, better known as SIMI, and effectively banned for alleged extremist activities. But Khan can’t avoid the connotation.

Besides both having educated, young Muslims as members, the groups have the same founding father: the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), a semi-political, religious organization, which founded SIO in 1982 after SIMI, that emerged as its offshoot in 1977, broke away from it in 1981.

And so, SIMI and SIO are like estranged family who “shall never meet”, says Bishruddin Sharqi, national president of the latter. “It is like two separate groups who do not agree with each other—one that chose peace and another that chose violence,” he says.

Blood brothers they may be, but the groups have charted conflicting courses, both in principle and actions. While SIMI is largely underground after the government crackdown, SIO is a gradually swelling student revolution in the making, taking Islam beyond the parodied stereotypes of fundamentalism and violence. Its mission: to prepare students, Muslims and non-Muslims, for reconstruction of a peaceful India on the basis of Islamic principles.

All for education: Subair Ahmad, a student of bachelor’s in philosophy and an SIO member, at Jamia Millia Islamia. He travelled to New Delhi from Coimbatore three years ago after qualifying for a scholarship. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

In one of such rooms on the first floor, Khan, 28, single and soft-spoken, serves as office functionary during the day, and studies at night for a PhD in psychology he hopes to pursue after his two-year term at SIO is over. He studied engineering at Karnataka’s Gulbarga University and did postgraduate work in psychology at Madras University before heading to Delhi to serve at the SIO headquarters in 2006. “They elected me to this post and such responsibility is an honour to carry. We all have to live our lives but running a struggle is a noble task,” he says.

Khan is not alone. There are many others, all below 30 and studying to be engineers, doctors and professors. But career advancement for monetary gains is not on SIO’s agenda; the larger goal is to find the roots of culture. “It’s important to know who we are and where we come from. We need an education system that doesn’t just create jobs but makes better human beings out of young people. This is the only solution to corruption and violence,” Khan says.

So, along with weekly meetings to discuss the Quran’s teachings, SIO amply harps on the same teachings to help its members introspect and regain the “lost struggle”. “There is so much materialism around. Everyone is racing to make money. Families are breaking down and women are being objectified. We are aping the West. We have to struggle for indigenous ideas of development,” Nazeer Ahmad Bagdali, office secretary of SIO, explains.

Practically applied, the organization is comfortable with sex education in schools but not for children below puberty. It welcomes reservation for other backward classes (OBCs), but seeks more Central universities for education of minorities.

It launched campaigns for peaceful campuses after the reported incidents of violence at Aligarh Muslim University. Technology as a tool of development and campaign is more than a mere buzzword. Ten years ago, SIO was one of the earliest student groups to have launched its website. Recent addition has been a text messaging service aimed at delivering updates on its activities to its members and associates.

“With India emerging as an IT power, it’s a great opportunity for us to discover cheaper and more effective ways of spreading education. SIO has kept ahead with the changing times and focused on students’ issues more than politics,” says S.Q.R. Ilyas, former SIO member who now edits Afkar-e-Milli, an Urdu journal and is also a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Like Ilyas, a large number of SIO members graduate to JIH, which works for communal harmony with other religious groups, such as Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. JIH’s leadership includes both Muslim clerics, known as the ulema, and educated professionals and academicians, many of whom were once SIO members. JIH has also worked to influence India’s foreign policy to favour Muslim nations and condemn the policies of Israel and the US.

But SIMI is a past neither JIH nor SIO wants to visit. “We have nothing to do with SIMI and, therefore, we wouldn’t like to talk about it,” says Khan in response to persistent queries and veers to SIO’s growing spread across the country, and even in Nagaland and Tripura.

In the years since its inception, the organization has grown to a membership strength of 4,110, in addition to 94,504 associates and 34,358 junior associates. Total units of SIO count up to 621, with more than 3,000 campus branches in universities and 65 branches in religious institutions across the country.

From these institutions, the organization has found its national-level leaders—from states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, with degrees in languages—from Arabic to Bangla, history and commerce, among others.

Twenty-year-old Bagdali is one such aspirant from Bidar in Karnataka. Son of an auto-rickshaw driver and eldest among nine siblings, Bagdali’s early days with SIO at his hometown lead him to grow within the organization’s rank and files. Today, he manages office affairs of SIO and pursues his bachelor’s in Urdu literature from Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad through distance education mode. “If not for SIO, I wouldn’t have dreamt of education,” he says in a rush.

While educational awareness programmes are on SIO’s agenda with special focus on enrolment in schools, educational assistance in the form of scholarships, book banks, libraries, reading rooms, study circles, career guidance, hostels and coaching classes are also arranged for the students.

For women, they have a separate wing—Girls Islamic Organisation, with the same goals and organizational set-up.

One of the scholarship programmes launched by the SIO has helped more than 12,000 students across the country, including Bagdali, attain higher education. Subair Ahmad, a bachelor’s student of philosophy at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, travelled to Delhi from Coimbatore three years ago after qualifying for a scholarship. “My parents couldn’t have funded my education here. SIO pays my fees and accommodation expenses,” Ahmad says.

But the Jamia student is more excited about the fact that he can now speak fluent English. This is part of SIO’s efforts towards education in the English medium, in a break from the traditional madrasa education. The organization is even mulling a universal education programme along the lines of the government-funded Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and opening of centres funded by the government under the National Institute of Open Schooling in madrasas and Muslim schools for basic education in science and English.

“This is where the future lies. We can’t live in the past and let our youth suffer and feel suffocated. SIO will continue to give them a positive direction and means of peaceful struggle for a better nation,” SIO’s national president Sharqi says.

But beneath the robust purpose lurk muted fears. After aggressive campaigns in line with Jamaat’s call for activism on issues such as the contentious Shah Bano judgement of 1985, which called for lifelong alimony for Muslim women after divorce, and the Babri mosque demolition in 1992, SIO’s theme shifted from active struggle to educational goals.

“We as an organization realized that till the time we are educationally backward, no change can be brought about,” Ilyas, who is also member of Jamaat’s Babri Mosque Movement Coordination Committee, says. At a convention to celebrate 25 years of the organization last year, SIO members spoke on the threats Islam faced: extremism and misinterpretations of Quran. They also found compelling themes to address in the future: education and dialogue.

This story was first published in Mint – [ ]

Government’s madrasa reform plan hits theological hurdle

New Delhi: The impasse over a government proposal to modernize madrasas, or traditional Islamic schools, illustrates how a “minority mindset” imposed by the ulema, or clergy, and politicians could draw Muslims deeper into the morass of conservatism, poverty and unemployment.

Fostering education: (from left) Shafiqur Rahman, Abdul Khan, Afaque Rahmani and Salim Akhtar Bellali at a New Delhi hotel in September after receiving the national award for best Urdu teachers. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Since taking over as the human resource development minister in May, Kapil Sibal has been driving reforms in all areas of education. Among his initiatives is a renewed push for the 2004 Madrasa Modernisation Scheme, which aims to include the teaching of modern subjects in the largely theological curriculum and centralize the management of the thousands of Islamic seminaries spread all across India.

“It’s a big step for Muslim education,” says Firoz Bakht Ahmed, the grandnephew of one of independent India’s founders, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and a writer on minority issues and madrasa education. The scheme will enable students from various parts of the country to seek jobs of their choice, he says.

Changes are urgently needed to improve the state of the community. A committee under former Delhi high court chief justice Rajinder Sachar, which conducted independent India’s first exhaustive study on how Muslims fare in education and employment compared with others, established that the community was lagging behind in education and government jobs.

Some 25% of Muslim children in the age group 6-14 have never been to school, though the national average primary enrolment rates are above 95%, the committee found. The Sachar committee also found that only 3% of Muslim children went to madrasas, denting the government’s argument for using the modernization of religious schools as a means to improve the community’s primary education.

Sibal promised a consensus within 100 days on the scheme, which the government views as crucial for the long-term uplift of the community. Modern education will provide Muslim youth from these seminaries a progressive socio-political outlook as well as help them find jobs and assimilate into the Indian success story. But the consensus deadline passed in August, and there is still no agreement on reforming madrasa education.

The reason? Many madrasas find the teaching of modern subjects such as science and mathematics alongside the Quran too much of a dichotomy. Sections of the ulema and politicians belonging to the community also view the move as government intervention that will dilute the essentially theological nature of the madrasas.

Elusive consensus

The Madrasa Modernisation Scheme was proposed in 2004 by the newly set-up national monitoring committee for minorities education, effectively formalizing a 1986 government initiative to improve the quality of education at the schools.

It provides for setting up an All-India Madrasa Board to monitor the implementation of the modernization programme as well as help them upgrade infrastructure and facilities.

The Central Madrasa Board Bill 2009, which is yet to be moved in Parliament due to a lack of consensus, empowers the board to take steps for the standardization of the non-theological aspects of seminary education and its comprehensive, systematic and integrated development.

The board can promote education in non-theological subjects such as science, social science, mathematics, English and Hindi without interfering in any manner with the theological content and evaluation of madrasa education. The scheme will also devise ways to promote education of Muslim girls to eradicate gender-based educational disparities.

About 6,000 madrasas, 1,800 teachers and 700,000 children will be covered under the scheme for qualitative improvement, which would enable the children to attain standards prescribed by the national education system in formal subjects.

During 2008-2009, Rs27 crore was released for 4,597 madrasas in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The scheme will also provide augmented infrastructure in private aided/unaided minority schools/institutions, estimated at around 400 across India, in order to enhance the quality of education.

But most of the 18 members of Parliament (MPs) from the Muslim community, who met ministry officials to discuss the issue in October, opposed the terms for the constitution of the national madrasa board. The MPs said the proposal, which stipulates certain appointment norms, may lead to interference by the government in the functioning of madrasas and not adequately represent the Muslim community.

Caught in the middle

The impasse has disappointed people such as Afaque Rahmani, who operates from the ill-equipped Madrasa Ahmadia in Bihar’s Madhubani district. Rahmani, a 54-year-old postgraduate in botany, is pro-reform and looks at modernization as crucial to the progress of the community at large. He already teaches science at the madrasa of his own accord, but was banking on the policy change to get state-of-the-art infrastructure and faculty for his students.

For 23 years, Rahmani has managed to cope with the challenge of teaching science along with the religious teaching of the Quran with rudimentary facilities. But in September, when the human resources development ministry proposed Rahmani’s name with three others as the country’s best Urdu teachers for the President’s medal, he joined the emerging chorus from the seminaries to be heard. The discontent is not just due to the dilemma over integrating modern subjects with religious texts; it pertains to the very rudimentary, day-to-day needs of the madrasas.

One computer has been procured to impart vocational training to children. But apart from that, Rahmani has just a few pieces of chalk and a blackboard. Typically, he says, the hurdles are basic—such as how to show his students chemical reactions or the dynamics of a spring balance as listed in textbooks. “Unless your students see the chemicals turning yellow, blue or red in a beaker, how much fun can they have studying science?”

Rahmani’s love for science and the joy of teaching, despite the resource crunch, keep him going. Back in 1976, when Rahmani had just joined the madrasa after his postgraduation at a local college in Madhubani, he had gone on a door-to-door campaign to get children to attend the school. “There was much resistance and disbelief,” he recalls.

Enrolment has risen to 500 over the years, he says. Since 2003, the pass percentage has also gone up steadily. “In the beginning, it was a dismal 20-30%. Now, 80-90% of children pass out with good marks,” he adds.

Pay, faculty problems

With enhanced enrolment, what remains dismal is the salaries paid to madrasa teachers, says Maulana Shafiqur Rahman, superintendent of the Deorail Madrasa in Assam, who was recognized as the best Urdu teacher of the year last month along with Rahmani. “Worse, the salaries never come on time.”

In Bihar, madrasa teachers get Rs2,000-3,800, while a recent hike in dearness allowance raised the salary of principals in seminaries aided by or affiliated to the state madrasa board to about Rs11,000 a month.

In Assam, apart from the meagre pay, there is an acute shortage of teachers, especially for science. The last appointment of teachers happened in 1999. “Thousands of teaching posts have been lying vacant since then. The government is neglecting minority education in the state, even as education standards keep falling,” says Rahman.

Vacant faculty positions have now become a challenge for these seminaries, says Rahmani, who has been aggressively trying to hire teachers for science and mathematics for the last two years. “For years, we have not taught modern subjects at the seminaries. Hence, there are no teachers good enough to be hired,” he says.

Much of this could be taken care of by the setting up of the national board under the Madrasa Modernisation Scheme.

Question marks

But questions about the scheme have been raised even by those who don’t necessarily fear its secular impact.

A section of detractors fears the introduction of a separate board for madrasas would alienate the Muslim community. “Ideally, there should be some provision in the existing education boards,” says Salim Akhtar Bellali, principal of Faazil Madrasa in Darbhanga, Bihar.

The agenda for reforming madrasas is also being linked with the question of countering “terrorism”, says Rahman.

In Assam, where his seminary imparts education to 350 Muslim children from economically backward sections, classes are often interrupted by police carrying out security checks. “We have computers, we have books in English, we have students who can converse in English—but no militants. The allegation that madrasas breed militants is completely baseless,” he says.

The government reserves the power to appoint the panel that would run the board, remove any member, and monitor the way funds are used. This provision has also caused the Muslim community to accuse the government of trying to control madrasas.

“The hurry with which the government is trying to implement things, it appears that it wants to regulate madrasas,” says Khalid Hamidi, professor of Arabic at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. “A madrasa means Islamic school. Universities like Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia recognize madrasa certificates. Then, what is the need for such modernization programmes?’’

Hamidi’s question relates partly to the concern that reforms may alter the “Islamic nature” of the madrasas, with some Muslims viewing the schools as an expression of identity rather than as seminaries where a young generation can be trained to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

This was first published in Mint [].

In the job market, Caste role reversal

I am absolutely thrilled to share another story on caste. This one again has gone missing from Mint’s website. I found this story’s draft on my drive and googled with the first four lines. Guess what, this blog had shared the story with the Mint link that does not work anymore. Thanks to the blog, I now have a full version of my published article. This article talks about the reversal of caste in the labour market with globalization.

Here you go:

In job market, caste role reversal Wed, Nov 10 2010. 1:00 AM IST

Rapid globalization has altered the historical structure that allotted
well-paying jobs to the upper castes

Pallavi Singh

Anil Kumar Mishra wears a sacred yellow thread around his torso,
effectively covered by his ash-blue uniform. While ushering in
visitors’ vehicles in the basement parking of V3S shopping mall in New
Delhi’s Nirman Vihar, he always hopes not to run into any acquaintance
from his village Shahabad in Bihar.

The yellow thread, he insists, can embarrassingly give him away.

Back home, this relic of religiosity is what shapes his identity—he is
the privileged Brahmin, the upper-caste Hindu whose primary role in
the Varna system is to worship the gods. In fact, this is what his
father Badrinarayan Mishra did all his life and survived on regular
doles from Hindu devotees during festivals.

Two of his younger brothers in Shahabad continue the family tradition,
but Anil says the vocation assigned to him by virtue of his caste
brought his family little money.

At 45, the college dropout is in a line of work which is considered a
lowly occupation for Maithil Brahmins—one of the highest ranking
Brahmins—in his village. He is a parking attendant, and by his own
admission, if he had enough education, he would be doing something
else. “Respect is very important in a job and everyone respects
priests. Position of a parking attendant is still better than that of
a security guard. No one gives him any respect, you know, and people
often address him lousily. I would never tolerate that. After all, I
am a Brahmin,” he says, adding that people seldom violate his
instructions in the parking lot, which is at least not disrespectful
for his upper-caste lineage.

For thousands of years, caste has remained a superior marker and an
important identity in India for upper-caste Hindus such as Anil, but
rapid globalization and economic reforms in its wake may now be
reversing the historical structure that allotted the well-paying jobs
only to the upper castes and forbade them from taking up menial jobs.
“In India, one doesn’t have a caste without any occupational identity.
But in a globalized world, much of the caste order has begun to
reverse itself primarily because of movement of low-caste Dalits from
farm to non-farm sectors such as industry, entry of multinational
firms with caste-neutral jobs and the subsequent race for money,
clearing the space for unemployed upper castes to step in,” says
Chandra Bhan Prasad, Dalit writer, activist and author of Dalit
Phobia: Why do they hate us? Prasad is currently researching the
emerging trend of this role reversal in collaboration with the
University of Pennsylvania in the US.

A recent study by Prasad, Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett and Shyam Babu,
excerpted last month in the Economic and Political Weekly and reported
by Mint, reflected two significant changes in economic activity of low
caste community in Uttar Pradesh: More and more Dalits are working as
sharecroppers on farm land rather than as labourers, and fewer among
them are handling animal corpses, traditionally an occupation limited
to the community.

Prasad argues that such changes, reflective of a higher social status
for Dalits, have diluted the upper caste arrogance of Hindus
significantly. “Upper-caste Hindus are going through a great amount of
distress. For centuries, they have owned land, but in the post-reform
period, they suddenly realize that owning a television set or a mobile
phone is a much bigger social status than their caste superiority.
They feel threatened when they can’t achieve them,” he adds.

The growing importance of money in a free-market era is also
undermining the importance of caste by allotting more value to
material possessions instead of social status, Prasad says. “This
money-making phase is very similar to the wave of materialism in the
US in 1960s when the growing importance of money resulted in more
democratic relations between the whites and blacks. Even the upper
caste Hindus such as Brahmins and Rajputs are willingly taking up jobs
that they vehemently detest,” argues Prasad.

Saroj Kumar Chaudhary, 18, perfectly understands the situation. He was
brought to Delhi from Madhubani in Bihar a year ago by a relative
after his father, a small-time farmer, began chiding him for his
constant demands for a mobile. A high-school dropout, Saroj landed a
scavenging job with the Centrestage Mall in Noida.

During the ten-hour shift at the mall, Chaudhary’s primary task is to
keep its toilets clean for which he is paid Rs.4,800 a month. However,
in the slums of Loni in Ghaziabad where he now lives, he is known as
an attendant in a television showroom, a lie he deliberately sells.
“Everyone knows I am a Bhumihar Brahmin and no one expects me to do
such a dirty job,” he says, admitting to his upper-caste identity
after repeated queries.

To Saroj’s rescue are the modern tools of scavenging—a steel wiper,
toilet cleaning solutions and tissue papers—and for the “new-age
look”, he also has a dark blue uniform with a cap similar to that of
his colleagues; even the work he does has what Chandra Bhan Prasad
calls a “caste-neutral name for a caste-loaded occupation”:
housekeeping. “Multinationals have been instruments of change in this
regard; they have made scavenging appear caste-neutral. Brooms have
vanished and these men in the toilets look like professionals,” Prasad

But it was neither the euphemistic name nor the modern tools for
scavenging that led Asha Devi to join the housekeeping staff at
Pacific Mall in Ghaziabad. Since migrating to Delhi from Etah district
in Uttar Pradesh seven years ago, Asha who is a Rajput, the warrior
caste, took up the housekeeping job a month ago, without telling her
husband, for the sheer shield of anonymity it offers. “I was working
as a maid in the bungalows of Noida before this. I would earn about
the same amount of money then too, but then, everyone around us would
know that I was washing utensils and sweeping floors in bungalows. My
husband wouldn’t like that either, so how could I tell him I am
cleaning toilets now?” she says.

Asha’s husband, who is an autorickshaw driver, picks her up after work
and she says she takes special care about what she wears after her
10-hour shift is over. “I take a bath and use a deodorant. Even
make-up. And, I almost every day remind my supervisor that he should
not tell my husband anything except that I dust off files in an
office,” she says.

Alak N. Sharma, director of Institute of Human Development in New
Delhi, says the upper-caste migration from villages to bigger cities
and metros is growing at an exponential rate, especially in states
such as Bihar where individual landholding has shrunk over the years.

“Upper-castes who have traditionally held land over the years are now
finding it difficult to feed themselves. Earnings from agriculture
aren’t enough anymore even as property partition in families keeps
reducing individual landholding. In fact, upper castes are migrating
more now than the lower castes are,” Sharma says.

Many Dalits and even upper-caste Brahmins, especially in rural areas,
don’t have a shot at a decent education—a must for the fastest-growing
areas of India’s economy such as software development, medicine and
engineering. India’s reservation policy, which reserves seats for the
scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes in
institutions of higher education, haven’t benefited the community
much, argues its critics.

Yet, reservations helped OBCs such as Naresh Yadav, who runs an auto
agency in Haryana’s Faridabad, get college education and employment.
“After graduation, I worked in a call centre and saved money to start
this agency. Without education, would you expect me to come this far?”

Yadav’s small-scale Yadu Auto today employs six drivers, out of which
two are Kayasthas, the merchant caste several ranks higher than the
Yadavs in Hindu caste order.

For a number of migrants, moving outside the state for work also works
as a symbol of upward social mobility and freedom from the repressive
caste hierarchy in the state. Only 42% of migrants working in rural
areas of Bihar would appreciate having a job in their native state,
notes a recent study on migration from the state by the Delhi-based
Indian Institute of Public Administration. “Out-migration for
employment sake has now become a craze. So much so that now staying at
village is equated with laziness among fellow villagers,” says Girish
Kumar, co-author of the study.

Gore Lal Singh, a Rajput, owns five bighas of land (two hectares) in
his village in Allahabad district, dominated by members of his caste,
but he would continue with his job as a security guard at the Pacific
Mall in Ghaziabad than go back and till his land.

“I can’t afford hiring (agricultural) labour for my land and if I work
myself, it will be looked down upon. So, I had to come here… But there
are many here who do even worse, you see, many who work as servants,
many who sell newspapers, many who do work they wouldn’t go back home
and talk about,” he says.

Many, like him.

Dalit Capitalism

I covered Dalit capitalism for Mint in its early days when DICCI as a chamber of commerce for the Dalit community had just come up. My boss at Mint, who is an economist, always felt proud of my work, especially on Dalit capitalism. Today, I spoke to Milind Kamble, founder and chairman of DICCI, in a decade and learned of the advances made by the community. This also prompted me to search for my stories on Dalit capitalism on the Mint website but a majority of them are missing! I am told that Mint had a website revamp which might have interfered with the articles. However, I found my report on a blog.

Anyway, I found this one (unedited) on my drive today. This report is a minefield for researchers (so proud to have written this story):

The rise of Dalit Entrepreneurship
Posted: Mon, Dec 27 2010. 1:00 AM IST

The community has found an escape both from the demeaning tasks
assigned to them by the caste system and the stigma of being branded
as non-meritorious beneficiaries of reservations in India
Pallavi Singh,

Around 40 years ago, huddled among a group of hungry children in his
native village of Vadgaon Budruk in Maharashtra, Rajendra Gaikwad had
an epiphany about how there was discrimination in a simple seating

It was a mass lunch thrown by upper-caste Marathas and the
nine-year-old was seated along with his mother in a corner of the
temple where Dalits of the village ate. “We were segregated from the
upper-caste Hindus, which was very humiliating. Even as a child, I
felt insulted and would cry each time my parents would talk of
visiting the village. I didn’t return after that,” he says.

Gaikwad is today based in Pune and runs a pest-control firm with
operations in India and Singapore. He is also a member of a growing
band of Dalit entrepreneurs who have eagerly grabbed the opportunities
offered by a booming Indian economy to break the occupational shackles
imposed on their community for centuries.

Atin Kamble is a third-generation Dalit entrepreneur from Mumbai who
has none of Gaikwad’s bitter childhood tales to tell. After eight
years in the business of marketing edible goods in Mumbai shops
through his venture Arti Enterprises, 36-year-old Kamble is
ambitiously pitching for two power-generation projects in Arunanchal
Pradesh, which would need an investment of a minimum of Rs.15 crore

His grandfather began with a modest business of leather goods, a
vocation traditionally allocated to Dalits, in Mumbai’s crowded Dadar
area; his father expanded the family business but Kamble chose to
strike out on his own.

“I somehow found sitting in my grandfather’s leather business shop
infra dig. I mean, it’s a peon’s job, if you are ambitious. I wanted
to do something that would give our business the status of industry,”
he says. And adds: “Today I am dealing with distributors and local
shopkeepers in the food business. When my children take over, they
will be dealing with super stockists.”

As opposed to Kamble’s pedigree and Gaikwad’s fortunes, Dashrath
Singh, who uses a surname mostly used by upper-caste Rajputs in India,
is still struggling in the garments business he runs from a rundown
garage in the congested Om Nagar slum in Delhi. Yet, from where he
stands today, it isn’t just a matter of miles covered, but it’s a
significant leap from his native village of Vari in Uttar Pradesh’s
Bulandshahar district to Delhi.

Singh’s work over a decade has included a series of humble vocations,
among them a helper at a grocery shop, an autorickshaw driver, a
door-to-door salesman of clothes, and a conductor in private buses,
before the idea of entrepreneurship struck him. Three years into his
business, he sometimes “earns lakhs in a month and sometimes just a
paltry sum”. But he insists things couldn’t get better. “Whatever it
is, I am on my own. I seek no favours,” he explains.

Gaikwad, Kamble and Singh are three faces of an emerging Dalit
capitalism that allows them an escape both from the demeaning tasks
assigned to them by the caste system and the stigma of being branded
as non-meritorious beneficiaries of reservations in education and

D. Shyam Babu, a fellow of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary
Studies (RGICS) in New Delhi, says Dalit capitalism is still at a
nascent stage, but adds that it will help create a Dalit bourgeoisie.
“It has the seeds of transformation for Dalits—from the lower class to
the middle class and beyond,” says Babu, whose research on Dalits and
the new economic order has highlighted the social advance of the
community in the wake of globalization.

“I know Dalit entrepreneurs who manufacture copper wires and cables
for use by the Indian Railways and the Delhi Metro, which proves that
these businesses are competitive, quality-oriented and efficient. This
is what Dalits in business want to prove today: they are good as
everyone else,” says author and activist Chandra Bhan Prasad, who is
currently compiling a database of entrepreneurs in the community.

Though the rise of the market economy has helped break many old social
barriers, Dalit businessmen still have to deal with several hurdles on
their chosen road.

“Most Dalit entrepreneurs face problems varying from difficulty in
getting enough supplies on credit, lack of social networks, absence of
kin groups in the business, and control of traditionally dominant
business-caste groups. These, along with other social variables such
as lack of social capital, make the Dalit situation in India more
complicated and vulnerable to homogeneous categorization,” says
Surinder S. Jodhka, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social
Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Jodhka’s paper, ‘Dalits in Business: Self-Employed Scheduled Castes in
Northwest India’, drew insight on the expansion of private capital in
India during the post-1991 period and highlighted the discrimination
faced by Dalit businesses. The marginal status of Dalits and their
continued discrimination in the urban labour market also find
recognition in the 11th Five Year Plan released in October 2008. The
paper notes that “in urban areas, too, there is prevalence of
discrimination by caste, particularly discrimination in employment,
which operates at least in part through traditional mechanisms; SCs
(scheduled castes) are disproportionately represented in poorly paid,
dead-end jobs. Further, there is a flawed preconceived notion that
they lack merit and are unsuitable for formal employment”.

A poor economic and social background thus makes the beginning
difficult—only to be eased by outside help, mostly from the community
or well-off upper-caste individuals. “Forty years ago, when I began, I
would go on a cycle in rain and sun to various places—from a poultry
farm to an army cantonment, to kill rats and do odd jobs. I slowly
learnt that businesses need hard work and professionalism,” Gaikwad
says. In almost an afterthought, he adds: “A gentlemen called Mr.
Deshpande helped me get a loan from a bank by agreeing to be a
guarantor. The fact that he was an upper-caste man did help in making
my application appear serious.”

S. Galab, a professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies in
Hyderabad, who carried out research on the role and effectiveness of
self-help groups run by Dalit women in Andhra Pradesh, says most Dalit
enterprises suffer because of social isolation and the lack of
cooperation, and get over the initial hiccups only with help from
upper-caste individuals, since Dalits haven’t had a strong footing in
the social and economic sphere for centuries. “However, the upper
caste help also, kind of, co-opts the Dalits into the overall existing
structures, which is why they find it difficult to think about giving
back to their community later,” he cautions.

Various economic fora have also emerged over the years to help Dalits
overcome initial hurdles in setting up businesses. At the Pune-based
Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, formed three years ago,
its chairman Milind Kamble not just works on a database of Dalit
businessmen, but also helps them find linkages in industry.

And yet, argues author and activist Prasad, the emerging
entrepreneurship will need government help to thrive. “The government
ought to constitute a body, say, the ‘National Scheduled Caste and
Scheduled Tribes Supplier Development Council’, which should identify
Dalit/tribal entrepreneurs who are already supplying goods and
services to the government through middlemen, and connecting them
directly to procurement departments,” he says, citing examples from
the US, where a national body connects minority entrepreneurs with
large American firms.

To those who say that such a practice goes against the spirit of a
free market, Prasad argues that the Indian bourgeoisie itself would
not have thrived without state support and protection till 1991.
“Dalit businesses particularly need help since most of these are
small-scale operations,” he adds.

Explaining that economic standing is the only way Dalits can redefine
themselves, RGICS’ Babu likens the trend to the wave of Black
Capitalism in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. “There are strong
similarities. Like the black capitalists of America, most of the Dalit
entrepreneurs are first-generation entrepreneurs, people who were
never into businesses but mostly relying on agricultural labour. To
get into serious business from agriculture is a paradigm shift. And,
in both cases, here as in the United States, even though there have
been state interventions to promote entrepreneurship, individual
motivation and community help have come first,” Babu says.

Photo credit:


Changing approach to dealing with rape

The young girl, visibly bruised and shaken, was brought for questioning amid blaring sirens and numerous cops stirred by her sudden appearance. She was reporting rape on a summer day in 2001 in a police station in central Delhi, where the policemen struggled to make sense of her distress.

In an instant, they went hurling questions at the girl; but she wouldn’t stop sobbing. Their questions to her were intimate and rattling—details on the rape, reconstruction of events leading to the crime, finding witnesses and identifying the accused.

Rajat Mitra watched the proceedings with unease. A trained clinical psychologist, he was at the police station in connection with a case at Sanjeevani, a non-governmental organization (NGO) for mentally disturbed people, where he worked; but what he saw that day was to lead him to an unusual career.

“The whole attitude (of the police) affected me deeply. The family needed emotional support and not someone yelling at them. I came back home and talked to my family about it. I began thinking very deeply about the lack of counselling services for rape victims,” Mitra recalls.

There, according to Mitra, the police’s method of questioning was weakening the case. “A rape affects the victim’s memory and perception, and when dealt with roughly, it can just emotionally wreck her. That’s where a psychologist is needed,” he reasons.

Mitra hadn’t imagined a life dedicated to picking threads of crime from psychological enquiries into pain, but what he proposed to the commissioner meant the same: his services as a dedicated rape counsellor for the Delhi Police.

His proposal that police refer rape cases to him for counselling, the first such initiative ever considered by the police in India, was approved the same year, though on an experimental basis.

In the years since, Mitra, a trained clinical psychologist from Delhi University and who has a doctorate from the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, has counselled nearly 7,000 rape victims; but, unlike before, he is no more alone in this endeavour.


While the Delhi police engages with Swanchetan to counsel rape victims, the Mumbai police has been engaging with Sehat, an NGO, and a few hospitals in recent years.

In Chennai, the city police has formed a separate cell to deal with rape cases and also work closely with NGO Tulir, which works exclusively for child victims of sexual abuse. In smaller cities, rape activists say the word on counselling is still to reach the local police, though rape continues to be a prominent crime with cities such as Bhopal, Jabalpur, Jaipur and Pune reporting the crime in large numbers (see box).

Typically, when they begin, no one is allowed in the counselling room, not even the police, and sessions run into hours. “There are certain strict no’s during counselling: don’t probe, don’t go deep without permission, don’t ask deeply personal and leading questions,” says Pubalin Dash, a 31-year-old counsellor based in Delhi, adding that the victim’s version, as gathered after hours of patient counselling, requires a confident submission in court to be accepted.

While the provision of counselling is yet to go a long way in India’s criminal justice system, it’s already making substantial contributions in helping victims report the crime and get over the emotional trauma.

Dash recalls an incident where the lawyer defending the offender argued that the rape was consensual since the woman who claimed to have been raped had undressed as the rapist so desired. “Rape victims don’t shout. They freeze. Research shows 80% of rape victims freeze during rape. During rape, a woman shows passive resistance, and only a counsellor can convince the court about it,” says Dash.

In another case, Vidya Reddy, a health professional with Chennai-based Tulir, recalls a gangrape victim breaking into a giggle in court as the defence lawyer asked a range of embarrassing questions. “The lawyer argued that because she giggled, she must have consented. Rape trauma may shock or make one hysterical, but this aspect is often overlooked by the police,” she says.

Mitra, so far, has testified in a hundred rape cases in Delhi, a far cry from the days when the courts would simply treat counsellors to cross-examination. Justice V.S. Malimath, who recommended counselling for rape victims in his report on reforms for the Indian criminal justice system, says that while testimony is viewed with great care and caution, “courts do accept it provided the counsellor is experienced and certified”.

In a first where a Delhi court accepted the testimony of a rape counsellor, Swanchetan’s counsellors helped the police corroborate evidence against an offender.

In another rape case—of a mute girl—the rape counsellors helped police nab the offender by interpreting the gestures made by the victim.

The involvement of counsellors, already an established norm in rape cases in the West, is more evident in India’s metros such as New Delhi and Mumbai, where rape continues to be perpetrated with impunity. In 2010, Delhi accounted for nearly one-fourth of the total rape cases in India. “I have seen the largest number of sexual assault cases in Delhi in the last 10 years without exception,” Mitra says.

The victims are mostly young, apparently vulnerable, from lower income groups, and, in many cases, known to offenders. In 2009, for example, 94.9% involved offenders were known to the victims, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

And while a vast majority of rapes still go unreported due to the stigma attached with the crime, rape counsellors have also helped survivors report it with the police. “A girl from a Muslim family was brought to New Friends’ Colony police station bleeding. We saw signs of sexual abuse, but the child was afraid to testify against her father. She finally opened up; and for four years, our counsellors fought the case,” says Nidhi Mitra, another rape counsellor at Swanchetan.

For the first six months, he got no cases to handle as the cops didn’t refer any. “When the cases slowly started coming in and we began appearing in courts, defence lawyers would often question why we (counsellors) were included when there was no provision for the same in the criminal laws of the country. One defence lawyer once told me: ‘Why do you come in courts? You should stay in hospitals’,” recalls Mitra, adding that the response from lawyers still needs improvement.


Then there are other challenges, such as the lack of evidence in rape since it’s a private crime, and, often, weird responses from victims. “One victim once said about the offender: ‘He loves me enough to rape me.’ Now, how do you explain that?” asks Dash, citing examples from the West, where rape survivors would talk of violation during counselling as opposed to women in India who would talk about the way in which rape has lowered their worth.


This was first published in Mint.

From Bhopal to London, quest for justice travels in a bottle

Bhopal: It was probably the label that deterred shoppers in London from grabbing a free bottle of water being distributed one summer afternoon this year. B’eau Pal’s water was deceptively clear even though it came from a slum colony hand pump in Atal Ayub Nagar, Bhopal. Its bold red label told the real story, the fine print that shocked people: “The unique qualities of our water come from 25 years of slow-leaching toxins at the site of the world’s largest industrial accident.”

Toxic contents: Sarangi of Sambhavna Trust with a bottle of B’eau Pal. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

The struggle for justice for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, which happened at the city’s Union Carbide factory, is now no longer limited to sit-in protests, black flags or burning effigies on the streets of New Delhi or Bhopal. It’s now moving out of Indian shores.

B’eau Pal is the wacky product of two anti-globalization activists’ imagination. Performance artists from the UK—Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, popularly known as The Yes Men—launched B’eau Pal to highlight what they said was the continued refusal of Dow Chemical Co., which bought Union Carbide Corp. in 2001, to take responsibility for the disaster. At least 25,000 people died as a result of the leak on the night of 3 December 1984.

Also Read our previous stories in this series

Dow has always maintained that it has nothing to do with the accident and that the defunct Union Carbide factory in Bhopal is now the property of the Indian government.

The company said in an emailed statement: “Although Dow never owned nor operated the plant, we—along with the rest of industry—have learned from this tragic event, and we have tried to do all we can to assure that similar incidents never happen again.”

The statement also pointed out that “the former Bhopal plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide India Ltd, an Indian company with shared ownership by Union Carbide Corp., the Indian government and private investors. Union Carbide sold its shares in UCIL in 1994, and UCIL was renamed Eveready Industries India Ltd, which remains a significant Indian company today.”

Responses such as those haven’t satisfied activists such as Bonanno and Bichlbaum.

Their satire has extended to a movie, The Yes Men Fix the World (TYMFTW), and will soon extend to a comic strip. Released in the US last month, TYMFTW also had a select screening in Bhopal. The film premiered in the UK on 11 August, soon after the B’eau Pal launch in London, and won an award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Struggle continues: Activists and survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy protest outside Dow Chemical’s office in Noida on Thursday. Manish Swarup / AP

“B’eau Pal communicated the tragic effects of the gas leak 25 years ago that continues to wreak havoc in areas close to the disaster site in Bhopal, and it symbolized everything bad that’s happening in the world right now. It’s essentially about putting profit over everything else,” Bonanno said over the telephone from London.

The launch also coincided with the release of a report by the Sambhavna Clinic, a charitable organization working for relief and rehabilitation of at least 100,000 survivors of the tragedy. The report showed that the local groundwater, vegetables and breast milk in Bhopal are contaminated by toxic quantities of nickel, chromium, mercury, lead and other volatile organic substances. The report added that several babies in nearby localities were born with serious medical problems.

When Sathyu Sarangi of Sambhavna planned a Scotland trip earlier this year, Bonanno, along with the Bhopal Medical Appeal, another non-governmental organization based in London, got in touch with him for the spoof. Bonanno said they even took B’eau Pal to the Dow office in London.

Sarangi, a trained metallurgical engineer, quit his corporate job in the US to support the Bhopal cause. Kennedy and Monk, a London-based firm, designed the B’eau Pal’s label free of cost.

“We want to keep it alive as an issue. Satire and serious agitation are two sides of the same coin; they don’t exist without each other. In Bhopal, humour probably hasn’t been appropriate for many years, but it is now more relevant than ever before,” Bonanno said.

Five years ago, Bonnano impersonated an executive of Dow Chemical live on BBC World Television to announce that the company was going to clean up the disaster site in Bhopal. The hoax had then brought Dow’s shares down by $2 billion (Rs9,320 crore now) until it was identified, and now, features in TYMFTW.

The Yes Men’s other famed hoaxes include a collaboratively produced fake New York Times edition announcing the end of the Iraq war, a phoney George W. Bush website and the false announcement of the World Trade Organization’s dissolution in order to shift focus to helping the poor.

The stir has brought support and attention for The Yes Men and for Bhopal. However, the film has not been released yet in India. In the disaster-affected colonies of Bhopal, where Sarangi’s organization carries out relief and rehabilitation work, almost no one knows about the latest addition.

Critics also question the long-term impact of such forms of protest. Television commentators in the West denounced Bonanno and Bichlbaum’s stunt (of impersonating a Dow executive) as a cruel joke that gave the victims of the disaster false hope.

Bonanno, who served in corporate America, like Bichlbaum, before settling with a teaching job at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, disagreed. “When we did this, Dow’s shares came down. We got some 600 articles on Bhopal in the US press, which wouldn’t have happened without the spoof. We may not protest but what we have been doing brings the disaster back in public discourse.”

This first appeared in Mint.

Bharti’s cellular theory of growth

Olhanpur, Bihar: Until about three years ago, Nizamuddin Ansari, 65, a retired head clerk from the Indian Railways mail service, spent most of his days on the verandah at home. The monotony of watching over his courtyard as the women of his family went about their household chores would be broken by the occasional visitor or a money order from his sons employed in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Then, the small plot of unused land he owned next to his house got a celebrity tenant: Bharti Airtel Ltd.

The company wanted to set up a phone tower on the plot before it made a debut at Olhanpur, Ansari’s village of some 25,000 people, in Bihar’s Chapra district.

(Left) A one-stop Airtel shop in Olhanpur. Recharge coupons of between Rs10 and Rs50 sell the most here ;and the Airtel tower in Olhanpur (in the background). Bharti Airtel was the first telecom company to enter the village. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

The Ansari household then had two men employed in West Asia (the number has since grown to six), who would be lucky to see their wives and children once a year. Phone conversations were the only way to stay in touch.

Also See Olhanpur(Map)

The land would bring a monthly rent of Rs10,000, adding to the family’s income of around Rs50,000 sent home by family members overseas and from farming.

Within a year of Bharti Airtel entering Olhanpur in 2006, Ansari gave up his landline connection provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, a state-owned phone services provider, and bought five mobile phones for his family of 11, mostly women.

(Left) Parashar Telecom, a distributor for Airtel in Chapra, struggles with power cuts. Outages can sometimes last around 12 hours a day here; and Khushboo Paan Bhandar at Pathera village makes a busy picture of an Airtel retail store. Here, and mobile phone coupons sell like hot cakes. Its 14-year-old proprietor, Mukesh Chaudhary (behind the counter), says he makes an additional Rs45 a day selling phone recharge coupons. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

The phone firm launched its services in Bihar early in 2005, and in the four years since, has built a coverage presence in all of the state’s 38 districts. Of at least 18.67 million customers in Bihar, according to end-February data with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or Trai, the company has 7.15 million customers.

One out of four of Olhanpur’s residents have a phone, say Bharti Airtel executives—double the 12.6% phone penetration in the country’s villages and small towns.

Village voice

Also Read earlier stories in Bharat Shining series

Indians are second only to the US when it comes to using phone minutes. Mobile phone customers in India record almost 500 minutes of use a month, ahead of the 423 minutes the Chinese record, according to data collated by consultancy BDA Connect Pvt. Ltd.

Such is the pace of expansion and growth in demand for phone minutes that the load on the Bharti Airtel network—and indeed other networks—keeps mounting daily. “We set up more towers…(but) the demand for fresh connections keeps rising,” says Manish Kumar, a territory manager for the firm in Chapra.

Elsewhere, his company sets up 100 towers every day, a task shared by Indus Towers Ltd, a 42%-owned unit, says Sudhir Gupta, vice-president of marketing at the tower firm.

Phone services are perhaps what comes closest to perfect competition in India. Sure, there are instances of collusive price changes, but when it comes to earning that extra rupee of profit, those in the business can be cut-throat. Almost.

So, within 12 months of Bharti Airtel building its tower at Olhanpur, Reliance Communications entered the market—it is now ranked second by customers, behind Bharti Airtel. In January, work got tougher for the likes of territory manager Kumar when two more competitors, Vodafone Essar and Idea Cellular Ltd, reached the village. “We haven’t seen the demand for Airtel declining but, certainly, people now have more choices,” he says.

The Ansari household has let out another piece of land to the latest two entrants to set up towers. Its income from rent has gone up to Rs30,000 a month and Naimuddin Ansari, 32, Ansari’s youngest son, has quit his accountant’s job at a New Delhi firm to return and help manage his father’s newfound occupation.

Hyper-local logistics

On days when networks fail in Olhanpur, there is much angst. “Poor connectivity is something the people here can’t stand even for 10 minutes,” says Sanjay Kumar, guard at the Bharti Airtel tower here, who doubles up as one of the two distributors in the village.

That happens often. Frequent power cuts mean that the towers rely on diesel-run generators for electricity backup—power cuts can sometimes last around 12 hours a day here. “The tanker comes every Monday, and if we run short of fuel during the week, we have to wait until Monday,” says Kumar.

The last time Bharti Airtel’s network failed for two days about eight months ago, villagers stormed the tower complex and protested till a tanker carrying diesel was called in from Chapra.

On a busy street at Pathera, a village neighbouring Olhanpur, Bharti Airtel’s distribution march—what chief executive and joint managing director Manoj Kohli calls his “matchbox strategy” to benchmark phone card availability to matchboxes in every village of India—is at work.

At a small paan (betel leaf) shop, its 14-year-old proprietor Mukesh Chaudhary makes an additional Rs45 a day selling phone recharge coupons. “Earlier, every passer-by would run into my shop asking for Airtel recharges. I figured this was also a product I could sell,” he says.

In neighbouring Khaira village, Bharti Airtel distributor Rajesh Pandey makes hundreds of photocopies of an emailed leaflet of the company’s latest tariffs to distribute in local markets. “We have no time to lose when a new offer comes. Photocopies of the schemes reach faster and are more economical,” says Pandey, who distributes Airtel coupons in six villages in Chapra, including Olhanpur. Recharge coupons of between Rs10 and Rs50 on prepaid phone connections sell the most, he adds.

Bharti Airtel also has a drive it calls FoS (feet on street) in rural areas, where distributors travel to sell prepaid phone cards, recharge coupons and related company offers to consumers.

To effectively serve rural customers and save on costs, Bharti Airtel has launched a programme called I-Serve, under which the company trains village shopkeepers to become a one-stop Bharti Airtel store—where customers can not just buy recharge cards but get their queries answered.

Azimullah Khan, who owns an electrical products store, is one such I-Serve shopkeeper. Last fortnight, a bunch of youngsters came with a question to Khan, who in his previous job drove a truck in Saudi Arabia for 16 years. They alleged the network provider was overcharging. “They had accidentally activated several alerts on their mobiles for which they were being charged. The problem is that they still do not know how to use their mobile phones,” he says.

Khan, whose shop also repairs cellphones with a locally trained hand, fixed their problem and sold them more recharge coupons. Bharti Airtel expects such on-the-ground distributors to save on customer service costs—but for Khan, the youngsters would have called up at the firm’s customer helpline using expensive call centre services.

Changing lives

As phone services spread in rural India—according to latest data from Trai, some 27.6% of India’s nearly 400 million phones (including around 38 million fixed-line phones) were in its villages and small towns—slow but potentially big changes are taking place.

In Olhanpur resident Gaffar Khan’s days in West Asia in the late 1970s, his wife Nazma Khan would travel to the district headquarters 20km away to make a phone call, or post a letter that would reach Khan weeks later. “There was not even one phone booth then in the nearest Khodaibagh market,” Khan says.

Three decades later, no household in Olhanpur faces that problem.

Local phone access can ease trauma, as Sushila Devi found out. The 32-year-old housewife’s husband, Surendra Prasad, works at a Chapra factory and visits home once a month. Cradling her newborn, Devi recalls how last month she called him as labour pains mounted. “Just after my call, he was by my side with the doctor when I delivered my child,” she says.

At a broader level, economists say the spread of mobile phone usage is cranking up economic growth through enhanced productivity.

A January study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, or Icrier, a New Delhi-based think tank, says increased penetration of cellular technology has contributed to higher and more inclusive economic growth. States with 10% higher mobile phone penetration than others, it concludes, have grown 1.2% faster.

The economic benefits are yet to reach states such as Bihar, which has to boost its state-wide teledensity of 16% by at least half to reach the ideal benchmark—the study found benefits begin to accrue once penetration crosses 25%. “If Bihar were to enjoy the same mobile penetration rate as Punjab, then, according to our results, it would enjoy a growth rate that is about 4% higher,” the Icrier report says.

For now, new businesses are mushrooming around phone services at Olhanpur.

At Khodaibagh market, Ragini Kumari, 6, is perhaps the youngest customer at Mehta PCO, a public phone booth that uses a battery-powered inverter to charge up to five mobile phones at a time for Rs5 each. Kumari, a class I student, visits Mehta PCO at least twice a week to charge her father’s handset since the generator connection at her home runs for just 2 hours in the evening, she says, before sprinting back home.


Published in Mint.

Reading Hindustan in Bihar

Raghopur, Bihar: At 3am, a newspaper van from Searchlite Printing Press in Patna sets out in the dark with bundles of Hindustan, the best-selling Hindi daily in Bihar (Hindustan is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint). It makes its way through a narrow, straight road to Khushrupur, around 40km away, every day.

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214b91b0-1a20-11de-99ef-000b5dabf613.flvBy 4am, when a nondescript roadside tea stall in Khushrupur wakes up to business, the van has already dropped 100 copies of the newspaper on the steps of a deserted temple next to it.

The copies of the newspaper, wrapped in two neat bundles, make a curiously small package waiting to be delivered to readers in neighbouring Raghopur, in Vaishali district, a predominantly rural district of 2.1 million people.

At least 3 hours after the bundles have been delivered, Munshi Rai rides in, empty milk cans straddling his bicycle.

Also Read Earlier Bharat Shining Series

Also See Raghopur (Map)

The nimble-footed milkman from Khushrupur, perhaps, has the most important job in the diyara, a term used to describe regions surrounded by rivers. Raghopur, sandwiched by the river Ganga, falls in the diyara area. It sustains its economy on a thriving business of dairy products and farming.

Here, Rai is the lone carrier for Hindustan, which has an 86% market share of the total Hindi readership in the state, with six million readers and 29 sub-editions, as per the Indian Readership Survey of 2008; it is a key market for the newspaper and part of its aggressive plan to access places in difficult terrain.

There are just 100 copies to be sold, but in the seven years since the newspaper entered Raghopur, it has been more about accessibility than volumes.

When Raghopur, known mostly for being the assembly constituency of former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, struggles with heavy rains and sees its only pontoon bridge over the river collapse year after year, the milkman takes the route less travelled to carry the area’s only newspaper to its agents there.

Ashok Singh, distribution agent for Hindustan in Raghopur, likens the place to the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, which was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and literally means “land between two rivers”. “Raghopur is Bihar’s Mesopotamia. This is not the kind of place where one can send a newspaper. The real issue here is of access, and we have addressed it,” Singh explains.

Arduous journey

It’s a rough 7km journey to Raghopur, located just across the Ganga river from Khushrupur. There are no pukka roads, and after a 4km trek through fields of arhar—the most commonly consumed pulse in India—one must walk through a sandy riverbed. During the monsoon, when the river fills up, one takes a boat.

Rai has been taking this route every day, as an all-weather alternative to the pontoon bridge, since 2002, when Hindustan’s first 20 copies entered Raghopur on his bicycle.

This also means thatHindustan’s readers depend a lot on the way Rai prioritizes his day. Besides the speedy delivery of the newspaper across the river, Rai also frets about the timely departure of Patna-bound trains from the Khushrupur railway station. These trains carry his home-made paneer (cottage cheese) for sale to hotels in the state capital.

On days when they run late, Rai picks up the newspaper bundles late. “I am first a milkman. After this comes everything else,” he says matter-of-factly.

The daily trip to Raghopur is part of his dairy business; picking up the bundle of newspapers and delivering them happens alongside, for a monthly payment of Rs500 from the Hindustan agent in Khushrupur.

On days when he is delayed, the newspaper’s business faces two obvious risks: a delay in distribution and pilfering of a few copies before the bunch is picked up. As happened on 16 March, when a combination of fever and delayed local trains caused Rai to reach Raghopur shortly before noon.

For the newspaper’s sales strategists, penetration of rural markets involves a two-pronged approach: build a varied network of information providers from the regions, such as the postman, milkman, bus conductors and drivers, and encourage local vendors to sell the newspaper.

“Earlier, the information providers were paid a fixed monthly remuneration and after the growth of market, we have also introduced vendors on a commission basis,” says Vijay Singh, area manager (sales), Hindustan, Bihar.

An addiction

The efforts towards providing Raghopur with a daily newspaper, which included identifying Rai as the most viable carrier throughout the year, have led to the making of a powerful brand in rural markets. For most readers in Raghopur, it is more than just a bunch of papers carrying news; it is an addiction.

At the hardware shop of high school graduate Rukkha Singh, where the first copy is handed out every morning, shopkeepers from the neighbouring markets and prospective buyers gather to read the headlines. Depending on the subscriber’s generosity and patience, they might even be able to go through all the pages.

Hence, within a flexible congregation of merchants, buyers and passers-by, one newspaper copy translates into hundreds of readers.

Nearby, at the village choupal (gathering place), youngsters assemble around a circular cement bench and take turns reading it. Some flip through the sports pages; some pore over the political news and the conversation slowly escalates into a heated debate.

One strong USP, or unique selling proposition, is the newspaper’s emphasis on localized content and regional dialects that its readers can connect with.

“In Bihar, the local dialects change every 40km. The Hindi daily has consciously moved away from puritanical notions of Hindi to incorporate popular terms from local dialects in its reports, which appeals to a large number of people,” says Mammen Matthew, resident editor of the Hindustan Times, the English daily published by HT Media, in Patna.

Developing a grapevine

Hindustan in Bihar has developed a local news network in districts, blocks and villages, the three levels at which local administrative bodies in India function, to tap local news and issues that have a bearing on people’s lives, which, in turn, has improved its reach.

Shailesh Kumar, a stringer for Hindustan in Raghopur, concentrates on crime and development issues in the region and believes that while newspapers the world over are dying, rural markets in India would continue to read them for decades ahead. “Here, literacy is also just about the level people can read newspapers. People have time for newspapers,” he says.

Prior to Hindustan’s launch in Raghopur, the newspaper agent, who is also a lawyer, surveyed the villagers to arrive at a prospective readership figure.

In a place mostly sustained by the dairy business and farming, 20 copies is all he could arrive at. The money here, he says, is ample, with each household making an average of Rs250-300 a day, and several families living off the money made from the hemp trade dismantled in the early 1970s by the state government.

Literacy levels in the midst of this prosperity are dismal. “If you talk about education here, it’s considered a joke,” Ashok Singh says.

But news generates enough heat in Raghopur, where political awareness is at an all-time high after railway minister Lalu Prasad contested state polls from the assembly constituency in 1983 and later fielded his wife Rabri Devi.

Reflecting rural shift

The newspaper’s advertisement spaces also reflect a rural shift: In excess of 90% of advertisements come from either local sources or government departments. Whether it is advertisements for locally made tobacco products, jewellery stores or motorcycles, advertisements in Hindustan reflect the tastes and aspirations of its readers.

Hindustan’s first day at Raghopur was eventful. On the day copies of Hindustan reached Raghopur, a group of youngsters from the village chaupal rushed with a copy to former panchayat (village council) member Lallan Singh’s house. As it turned out, the newspaper had carried the examination schedule for the first-year undergraduate exams of a local university where Singh’s granddaughter Pushpa studied. “The exams were to commence in the next few hours and because the newspaper had carried the schedule, we rushed her to the examination centre in Jiddupur village, around 10km away,” Singh says.

In the years that followed, Hindustan has captured local news in the region effectively—from the blast in a firecracker factory in Khushrupur in 2005 to the corporeal punishment meted out to students in the region’s Navodaya Vidyalayas.

It has also served as an information provider on job vacancies, Kisan Credit Card camps in villages and newer, fuel-efficient motorcycles.

Ashok Yadav, 28, who owns a paan shop just at the turn of a busy alley in Raghopur, has been reading the newspaper since the year it made its debut here. He sports long hair, put in currency by the captain of the Indian cricket team, M.S. Dhoni, and reads the sports pages first.

Yadav, who has passed high school, considers the newspaper to be more than just a source of news. Each time he sees the manager of a local bank who once charged him money to open a savings account, he thinks about writing to the newspaper for action. “If I write, will they not help?” he asks.

Published in Mint.

Kamla Balan bridge: it’s a disaster waiting to happen

Jhanjharpur, Bihar: On an apology of a road leading to this small town in Madhubani district, thick and diverse traffic—from trains to four-wheelers—chugs along on a century-old bridge over the Kamla Balan river.

Lifeline: The century-old bridge facilitates the movement of 14 trains and 500 vehicles every day to and from Jhanjharpur. Ashish Gupta / Hindustan

One by one, the vehicles cross the “sorrow of north Bihar”. As the sorrowful Kamla Balan—known for its copious floods—flows precariously underneath, the 10ft-wide bridge wilts under an uneasy distinction.

In a state that has brimmed with tragedy and sorrow, it is another disaster waiting to happen.

By an unchallenged act of political wisdom exercised in the early 1970s, this has been a rail-cum-road bridge for more than 30 years, facilitating the movement of 14 trains and 500 vehicles every day to and from Jhanjharpur. It serves as the state’s sole link to its northernmost regions.

As rickshaws, trucks and cars jostle for space on the bridge, everything comes to a halt at the railway gates when trains arrive, only to trail them in close proximity.

But with last month’s epic floods washing away villages in neighbouring districts, the bridge now battles pressing concerns, raised year after year when the river swells to life-threatening proportions.

“The bridge has already outlived its life. When floods come raging, no one knows what will happen,” says Sushil Kamat, a lineman at the railway checkpoint that guards both ends of the bridge.

The Kamla Balan, marking an exception to its yearly ritual, has not flooded Jhanjharpur this year—but it flowed above the danger mark eight times in the last month. At 50m, the river starts flowing over the bridge, submerging the rail tracks.

“Road and rail transport then is closed for days. Transportation costs for us increase and we suffer huge losses,” says Ajay Tidrewal, who owns a petrol pump in Jhanjharpur.

From people trying to get to the district headquarters in Madhubani to vehicles carrying food and vegetables to local markets, work and business come to a standstill with the northernmost regions of Lokha, Phulpras and Nirmali, and even Birpur Barrage on the Nepal border, cut off from the rest of the state.

In a year when the river doesn’t bring floods, travel is easier—by a fraction. Naresh Jha, who takes the 220ft bridge—built by the British in the early 1900s primarily for rail services—every day to reach the district headquarters in Madhubani with cargo on his truck, says it is often an hour-long ordeal to get to the other side.

“One vehicle in the way, even if (it is) a motorcycle, means my truck has to wait till it crosses the bridge and one is lucky if another vehicle doesn’t follow soon after that,” he says.

Accidents are another risk many travel with, with several instances in the past when vehicles were rammed by trains owing to technical errors at rail signal posts. “There is hardly any place you can escape to if you are caught in the tracks. You either jump into the river or get crushed,” Jha says.

Since 1972, not much has changed, except that thick wooden slabs were put on the bridge to pave way for road transport, in a constituency that elected the Congress party’s Jagannath Mishra five times between 1972 and 1994—he was the state’s chief minister thrice in this period.

Earlier, people either took small boats or trains to cross the river. Even today, records at the Jhanjharpur railway station show the metre gauge track on the bridge to be a fairly busy one, with an average of 400 ticket reservations a day and about 1,300 people taking the local trains from the town to neighbouring towns.

But in Jhanjharpur, where the bridge serves as an example of adversity turned into opportunity by politicians, the sole transport link for the region continues to be more lifeline for its people than burden.

Last year, and for each alternate year before that, the Kamla Balan raged with such ferocity that its embankments were destroyed and the bridge suffered serious damage.

“When rivers carrying heavy silt are contained between embankments, it leads to a rise in the level of the riverbed. The rising bed level leads to construction of higher embankments and in many areas, rivers as a result flow above the surrounding ground level, as in the case of the Kamla Balan. Now, floods here come roaring like lions,” says Dinesh Kumar Mishra of Barh Mukti Abhiyan, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, engineer-turned-activist, who has been trying to re-establish cultural and political ownership of rivers since 1991, when the movement took shape.

Officials at Jhanjharpur’s flood control division say six of the bridge’s 11 pillars are now clogged with the river’s silt, allowing little or no water to flow over to the other side, putting the bridge under tremendous pressure each time the river swells.

For desilting work, the division has written to the state government thrice, between 1995 and 2005, but got no response. “This is unfortunate for a place that has remained the constituency of the chief minister,” says 62-year-old Mishra.

It was more than three decades ago that the rail bridge, with approval from then railway minister Lalit Narayan Mishra—a member of Parliament from the constituency in 1972—was converted into a rail-cum-road bridge.

Link road: The 220ft bridge, built by the British in early 1900s, may have outlived its life, but there is still no alternative to it in sight.

Nitish now continues his father Jagannath Mishra’s legacy in Jhanjharpur, and admits that the region needs separate bridges for rail and road transport. “I have sent a proposal to the state government to this effect. The old bridge has outlived its utility and a new bridge needs to be constructed urgently.”

But even as the national highway network being built in the region envisages another road bridge on the river, Nitish says there’s no alternative to the Kamla Balan bridge site.

“This bridge is the short-cut route to many parts in the region. If this crumbles, we (will) need to build another adjacent to it. No other bridge anywhere on the river can match it,” Nitish adds.

For the people of the region, the bridge, seen by many as a construct of political opportunism, continues to symbolize at once a benefit and a bane.

Sheela Devi—who has been living on the river’s embankments for 40 years now and grows vegetables—lost a daughter to the floods years ago. But each year the floods come, she returns to the bridge to celebrate and sing songs.

“I need no boats like before. I can walk to cross over to the other side, even when water flows,” she says. “We celebrate the floods as they make the banks fertile with silt. This is our tradition.”


Published in Mint.

Indian campuses get a foreign flavour

Opportunity brought Tatiana Alejandra Cardona to Phagwara, 335km north of New Delhi. This past summer, during her arduous search for a job, Cardona, who hails from Colombia, stumbled upon an online advertisement for faculty positions at Lovely Professional University (LPU), a private institution.

Cardona, who is 23, recalls that “the university appeared very big”, and since it was new, she thought, it might offer teaching opportunities. Teaching excited her, but so did the prospect of travelling to India. “Its job openings were so, so, so important to me,” she says. A year after she graduated in industrial engineering from Universidad Tecnologica de Pereira in Colombia, she joined LPU in July to teach microeconomics and quantitative techniques to management students.

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At LPU, in this small Punjab town, Cardona met somebody unlikely—a fellow Colombian. Diego Armando Hernandez had joined the previous month; he too, had been looking for a job back home, but couldn’t find one that allowed him to teach.

Adding diversity: Sharda University faculty member Peter Waugh (right). He arrived in India earlier this month from Britain to pursue his interest in silicon photonics. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“We realized there were two issues which were causing institutions, especially business schools, to hire white faculty on campus: lack of credibility and a limited faculty pool, since 10% of institutes in India have 90% of the best faculty available,” says Jagmohan Bhanver, chief executive officer of the Indian Institute of Financial Management (IIFM), a business school with seven campuses in India. IIFM hired five foreign teachers this year.

At the year-old Manav Rachna International University (MRIU) in Faridabad, the import of foreign teachers has been institutionalized. Yulia Doctor of Russia, who dresses in smart business suits, is MRIU’s window to its “international” appeal. A 23-year-old graduate in linguistics and languages from Moscow—and the first and only foreign faculty member at MRIU—Doctor teaches German and Russian to students. But that’s not her only brief.

As manager (protocol), Doctor, barely into a month of employment at MRIU, was also asked to receive delegates from Germany. She knows the importance of this work all too well. “I speak German, and when people from the West visit the university, I make them feel at home. My being here makes the university international.”

Similarly, many universities have hired consultants to help bring foreigners into the institution. Sharda University, in Greater Noida, has a team of consultants to help attract foreigners; at LPU, a “Division of International Affairs” formulates the university’s strategy, which includes collaborations with foreign universities, international student exchanges and faculty recruitments.

International edge: Mansi El Mansi taking a class at Sharda University in Greater Noida.

“The fact is, they are quite excited about teaching in India, and we are very serious about faculty acquisition,” says Aman Mittal, chief executive of LPU. “In fact, last year we were very aggressive about it. I myself have studied in the United Kingdom and we want to give our students a different classroom experience.”

There are some who criticize this new trend, and who read into it an exploitation of a certain colonial mindset. “According to the Indian common psychology, the words ‘white’ (or) ‘foreign’…represent intellectual superiority,” says Srinivasa Rao, assistant professor in history at Tiruchirapalli’s Bharathidasan University. “Secondly, it (the import of foreign faculty) could also amount to the arresting of the brain drain, money drain and removing the colonial ‘brand’ over the colonized.”

Rao thinks that foreign teachers now find India to be “a good destination for exploiting the colonial cultural construct… Getting a job in higher educational institutions is a time-consuming process in Europe and America. Here, if they are willing and if the government allows, they could stay forever, get respect for being foreigners, and also get higher salaries compared to Indians.”

The employment of white professionals is not singular to India, though. In 2004, a study on race in the US labour market by Harvard University professors Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan concluded that white-sounding names receive 50% more callbacks for interviews than African-American ones. This gap was found to be uniform across occupation, industry and employer size.

To explain his choices, Prem Kumar Gupta, chancellor of Sharda University, refers to an in-house study conducted to find out why India hadn’t yet emerged as a global education hub. “One of the reasons we found was that we didn’t have ethnic diversity on our campuses. We don’t promote colours and cultures,” he says. “Second, we realized we hadn’t yet graduated from our fixed, rigid academic curricula.”

Thus, when Sharda University opened last year, one of its priorities was hiring foreigners to teach and also to train Indian faculty in international classroom practices. “Foreign faculty today are not just setting the quality benchmark for us; they are also helping us collaborate with foreign universities abroad,” Gupta says, explaining how pedagogy at the university is now more interactive than passive spoon feeding.

One Sharda University faculty member from overseas is Peter Waugh, who arrived earlier this month from Britain to pursue his interest in silicon photonics. Waugh jokes that he landed in India because he “didn’t fit into the UK education system”. He received his PhD only in 2008, after 11 years in the electronics trade, and is at pains to explain how there were few teaching positions in British universities.

At Sharda, though, Waugh is looking forward to setting up a photonics lab. His colleague Mansi El Mansi, with 17 years of teaching experience in Britain, joined Sharda University last year and has now decided to extend his contract with the university by another year.

Anshuman Singh, a first-year B.Tech student at Sharda, admits that he was attracted to the presence of foreign faculty, but he also bears testimony to the quality of classroom experience. “They ask many questions in class and encourage you to speak,” he says. “They make you feel that you are not at just any other university.”

Gupta admits that roughly a dozen foreign faculty members last year were sent back because they didn’t meet the teaching quality expected of them. “One can’t come here thinking that one is British or American and it will work for him,” he says. “(C)olour of skin won’t ensure quality. Last year, we hired 25 people; this year, we could hire only 10.”

The argument finds an echo in the general faculty crisis in India, which has deepened with the growth of the education sector. While the 472 universities, 22,000 colleges and thousands of other technical institutions in India represent a growth of 25% over the last five years, the country needs 803 more universities and 31,830 more college-level institutions in the next 10 years. The number of students is expected to rise to 42 million by 2020, which would require 4.2 million teachers, according to estimates available with the ministry of human resource development.

At IIFM, Bhanver says what is more challenging, after the recruitment of good faculty, is retaining them. “We provide time for quality research” and “a curriculum that constantly evolves,” he says, while admitting that most foreigners like to come as part-time faculty to deliver a course module or two.

William Byrnes, one of the five foreign faculty members hired by IIFM this year, is in demand not just in India but also in his home country. Taking time out of his work as associate dean of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in California, Byrnes teaches compliance and ethics at IIFM. “The advantages we bring to the table for students is cross-disciplinary studies, and they also have the option of an American experience,” Byrnes says. “For students who can’t go to America for a year, we create opportunities here.”


Earlier published in Mint.

Jamia Millia fights to preserve secular spirit

In just a fortnight, Jamia Nagar, best known as the host of the historic Jamia Millia Islamia, has become a world of fear.

The realization hit A.K. Ramakrishnan, a professor at the university’s Centre for West Asian studies, after 19 September. That’s when bullets fired by the police at Batla House, one of the several closely nestled buildings in the area, killed one student, and also shattered a sense of security for others, creating shrouds of suspicion overall.

Seeking redressal: Students of Jamia Millia Islamia during a peace march against terrorism in New Delhi on 25 September. Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times

Instantly, effortlessly, Jamia Nagar transformed into an alleged haven for terror merchants.

A “laptop became a stronger weapon than an AK-47 and the terrorist emerged as the educated, Internet-savvy Muslim, and most possibly, a Jamia student”, says Ramakrishnan.

Now, a coalition of faculty, students and legal experts are fighting back, saying the scrutiny on the university is unconstitutional, and are offering legal aid to the detained. In the process, they contend with duelling definitions of Jamia Millia Islamia, better known as JMU, from its desire to be a minority institution while also remaining true to its secular founding.

Already, several students living in rented accommodations in Jamia Nagar were asked to move out by their landlords, and two—Ziaur Rehman and Zeeshan Ahmad—were picked up by the police for interrogation.

Even before the shootout, an Urdu scholar at the university was picked up by the police and later released. Countless others are moving to pre-empt such moves. One Muslim student at the university from Araria, Bihar, met Ramakrishnan with profound doubts.

“My parents called me up and asked me to return home. They even went to the extent of asking me to deregister myself from the university. I don’t know when or whether I would be coming back,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lecturer Manisha Sethi, like Ramakrishnan, was also flooded by an anxious stream of students, mostly Muslims, all waiting to return home.

“They were all scared by the brazen witch-hunting by the police. That was time for us to act. We keep hearing of blasts in Ahmedabad and Mumbai, but this was too close for comfort. This was right at our doorsteps and we couldn’t just ignore it,” says Sethi, lecturer at the varsity’s centre for comparative religions and civilization since December 2005, who visited the area several times after the encounter.

She and 40 other colleagues, mostly non-Muslims, then did what is often unheard of in university circles. They moved quickly to form Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Group, a counter-response to the “ugly stereotypes of Muslim students and the university at large”, hoping to allay fears of their students and also bridge the quickly widening gap between the neighbourhood and the university.

This was in addition to the unprecedented offer of legal aid tendered by the university administration to the detained students.

Over the last 15 days, the group’s members have made frantic visits to the neighbourhood where about 200 students from the university stay, and demanded that the detained students be considered innocent until proven guilty. The university administration has even announced construction of new hostels to house more students. Currently, the hostels at Jamia accommodates 1,000 students.

To all the initiatives, they say, the idea of the neighbourhood is central.

“This is because this is where a large number of our students and teachers come from. We can’t abandon them and if they feel alienated, this does no good to anyone,” Sethi says.

But beneath the immediate and aggressively articulated response to the turn of events is a deeper concern. The overwhelming and perhaps unwarranted attention for the 88-year-old university—founded in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call in the 1920s to boycott all educational institutions supported or run by the colonial regime—endangers its secular spirit, insists Tabrej Alam, secretary of the Jamia Teachers’ Association that unanimously supported vice-chancellor Mushirul Hasan’s controversial decision to provide legal aid to detained students, rattling off names of monuments on its campus and historic events that shaped the university.

“Secularists like Dr Zakir Husain was our vice-chancellor from 1926 to 1948, and the President of the nation. We are disturbed and distressed by the misperceptions about our institution. Surely, this is not what we deserve considering our liberal and progressive record,” Alam points out.

For the most part, the university does live up to Alam’s feverish secular pitch. From the Bagh-i-Nanak, named after Sikh religious leader Guru Nanak to the majestic Dabistan-i-Gandhi, one of the academic complexes named after Mahatma Gandhi, buildings on the Jamia campus reflect its Weltanschauung, robust reminders of its tryst with the freedom struggle and secular thought.

While the past is cherished, Anuradha Ghosh, professor at the university’s English department, also lists the successes of the present and argues that it does “embody the idea of India”.

“Jamia as a university has expanded like never before. With the expansion, we have various new centres and courses on a variety of subjects. We are no more an introvert university. We are asking questions and debating issues,” she explains.

Ghosh’s enthusiasm is palpable. From modern architecture on the campus to newly opened centres, the university wears an open look. More than 20 centres that have opened at the university in the last four years offer courses in subjects such as Gandhian studies, culture, media and governance, comparative religion and civilization, theoretical physics, interdisciplinary research in basic sciences, physiotherapy and rehabilitation sciences and West Asian studies.

To most academic discourses, the theme of partition has become central, and not an untouchable topic.

“Jamia as a university opposed the pernicious two-nation theory and has not wavered from the principles of pluralism and secularism. The expansion has attracted more students from various parts of the country and made it more secular and inclusive,” Alam says.

And, while Jamia’s tryst with terror may be new, the past few years did bring the reputation of violence to the university with administration sparring with the student union over admissions and fee hikes, and its teachers’ union demanding a “minority status” for the university.

While the Jamia students’ union was later dissolved, a petition on the status is still pending before the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, seeking to reserve half the seats for Muslim students.

Currently, the university has no religion-based reservations, though it does reserve 25% of its seats for students of Jamia wishing to continue further studies.

Ramakrishnan says the petition is more relevant now than ever before.

“With the stereotypes being propagated about the Muslims, it’s even more important to make space for them in institutions of higher learning. If you don’t allow them to move up the social ladder and have a future, what option do they have?”

Alam, who is also general secretary of the Federation of Central Universities Teachers’ Association, cites the example of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which has often been in the news for unrest on campus.

“If universities like AMU and ours do not welcome students from the minority community, where will they go? It’s important more than ever that we protect our nationalist legacy while bringing Muslims into mainstream education.”

AMU teachers’ association notably extended support to Jamia in offering help to its students. But amid the earnestness of dispelling the stereotypes, questions about the implications of the university’s move to provide legal aid to the accused students once the investigations prove them guilty have become a forbidden territory. “We are just giving them a fair chance to present their case. This is just to instill confidence in our student community that their alma mater hasn’t abandoned them,” Alam says.

The 12,000-strong student community at Jamia would perhaps agree. But for Jamia’s many-coloured histories—with Gandhi’s begging bowl for its stumbling finances and Tagore’s welcome for its progressive school of thought— the present is an uneasy liability: an ironic picture of violence tugging at the heart of its secularism.


Earlier published in Mint.

25 years on, what’s next for Mayawati?

Kairana, Muzaffarnagar: The young lady was dark, dressed in a salwar-suit, and had been through college —a rarity for a Dalit woman 25 years ago (as was the dress itself). Khem Chand remembers the day in December the lady, a candidate in the parliamentary elections, came campaigning in the Al Darmiyan area of Kairana where he lives.

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She spoke of Dalit and Muslim causes and struck a chord with people such as Chand, a worker at a brick kiln, but she lost.

She was already a member of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), founded by the late Dalit leader Kanshi Ram, but the Election Commission registered her as an Independent because the party was still in its formative stages (it was formed in April 1984).

Guiding hand: A 1995 photo of Mayawati with mentor Kanshi Ram. Hindustan Times

Almost 25 years on, the lady, Mayawati, now 53 years old and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is still going strong. Temporarily touted as the prime ministerial candidate of an alternative coalition to those headed by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), her party contested at least 500 seats in April’s parliamentary elections but won just 21. However, the party, and Mayawati, bounced back in 7 November’s by-elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly, where the BSP won seven of the 11 seats on offer, many in areas considered strongholds of the rival Samajwadi Party (SP).

Her appeal remains strong among Dalits.

“No one talked about Dalits then. She spoke really forcefully,” remembers Chand.

December 1984 marked Mayawati’s political debut. Parliamentary elections were held in December that year (except in two states where they were held in January 1985) in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in late October. The Mayawati of today bears little resemblance to the young lady Chand saw campaigning. Her attire has become smarter, her hair shorter, and her lavish birthday parties have become the talk of the country.

Also See The Political Journey

Yet, she remains the X-factor in every political party’s calculations, a variable that could exert its influence strongly, like it did in the last state assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh or fade into insignificance as it did during the last parliamentary elections. And so, everyone is wary of Mayawati. And the lady herself, of nothing and nobody.

“It’s her ability to fight which leads her to success. She is not afraid of anything,” says Ram Kumar, a Dalit activist and head of Dynamic Action Group, a Lucknow-based activist group.

Mayawati couldn’t be reached for comment despite several calls to her office.

The early years

Mayawati didn’t win her first election. The Congress swept to power on the back of a sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s killing. The Kairana Lok Sabha seat was won that year by Congressman Akhtar Hasan, but Mayawati came third, and polled around 40,000 votes, roughly one-sixth the number Hasan did.

Hasan, now 75 years old and retired from active politics, says that back then, “there was no election issue powerful enough as Indira (Gandhi’s assassination)”.

Her performance, “for a first timer from a party which was in its nascent stages, was quite something”, says Gaje Singh, a retired schoolteacher from Kairana and a campaigner for the party in Mayawati’s early days. “A large number of Dalits voted for her.”

And some of them were taken up enough by Mayawati’s fiery speeches and repeated assertion that she was one of them to start working for her. Chand was one such. He acquired a poster of B.R. Ambedkar, the icon of India’s Dalit movement and the man who drafted the country’s Constitution. But even he, like her other diehard supporters, didn’t foresee that Mayawati would rise as far as she has done.

In Kairana, Mayawati campaigned on bicycles and gave speeches at street corners.

In Al Darmiyan, she set up an office in three rooms of an old building and moved in with some of her supporters. “We took her on bicycles to neighbouring villages for her campaign,’’ says Gaje Singh.

“We often joked about her ways. Her appeal rested with young men and women. I don’t think anyone beyond the Dalit community even took her seriously then,” says Hasan.

For five years, Mayawati and her mentor Kanshi Ram worked with Dalits, trying to unite them into an electoral force. During the period, she fought and lost two elections. In 1989, she won her first election, a bypoll to the Lok Sabha from Bijnaur.

“She gained the most from the Dalit movement. In 1983, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati were fighting to unite Dalits. Before them, Dalits were divided in several camps. They became the hope for Dalits and they started thinking for them,” says Indra Bhushan Singh, a Lucknow-based political analyst.

A growing presence

By the time of Mayawati’s first electoral victory, her party had subtly changed its political platform. No longer was it merely Dalit-centric; Kanshi Ram and Mayawati started talking of the so-called other backward classes or OBCs, other minority communities that have typically existed at the fringes of the economic and electoral mainstream.

“Though Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote the Indian Constitution and gave people the right to vote, he could never win an election himself. Mayawati’s party established BSP model on Ambedkar’s theory of equality and empowerment,” says activist Ram Kumar.

And the party translated these into practice—no matter how hard it was.

“It is for the sacrifices Mayawati made that she became popular,” says Ram Kumar. She would make day trips to villages (she couldn’t spend the night in most villages because there was nowhere to stay, especially for a woman). “Her struggle was closely watched by the Dalits,” Kumar adds.

And it paid off.

In the 1989 parliamentary elections, the BSP won three Lok Sabha seats and 9.3% of the popular vote, ahead of the BJP’s 7.4% (the party, however, won 85 seats). The BSP had also expanded its presence from its base in Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. In 1993, it entered into a pre-poll alliance with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP, consolidating the anti-upper caste opposition ahead of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The SP won 109 seats in the 425-member assembly, and the BSP won 67. “Those were the days when she used the anti-upper caste slogans most extensively. Tilak, taraju aur talwar, inko maaro joote chaar (Hurl shoes at Brahmins, traders, and Rajputs), was often uttered in her political discourse,” says Hasan.

In 1995, Mayawati became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for five months with the support of the BJP, a national party with a pro-upper caste agenda. The alliance marked the intersection of Dalit and upper caste votes that Mayawati would later leverage to good effect.

Still, she didn’t lose sight of the fact that her original and enduring electoral base was the Dalits. In 1995, she organized a Periyar Mela in Uttar Pradesh, in honour of Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, a Tamil leader who was Ambedkar’s alter-ego in south India.

“The essence of the symbolism used by the party is the propagation and prominence given to Dalit and social reform leaders of the past and present—from Jyotiba Phule to Ambedkar to E.V. “Periyar” Ramaswamy to Kanshi Ram by constructing murals, statues and other media. However, the scale of this has blurred the thin line between symbolism and personality cult,” says Kumar.

Some of this has come to haunt Mayawati in recent months.

But Mayawati’s finest moment was in the Uttar Pradesh polls in 2007 when she successfully wooed upper-caste Hindus, who had traditionally supported the BJP, to the BSP fold and won an absolute majority. It marked the first time a Dalit party had come to power on its own.

The perils of symbolism

Mayawati and the BSP may have bounced back from their drubbing in the recent parliamentary polls with the victory in the assembly by-elections.

However, her tendency to build parks and statues dedicated to Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and herself has come in for criticism from various quarters. In October, the Supreme Court restrained installation of her statues at a park in Noida, a satellite of Delhi. The apex court order came rapidly in the wake of a similar order by it stopping similar statue projects in Lucknow in September. In the second case, the court initiated contempt proceedings against the Uttar Pradesh government for violation of its directions.

Mayawati herself is under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for allegedly amassing wealth disproportionate to her known sources of income. In 2008, CBI asked Mayawati how her declared assets of Rs1 crore had increased to around Rs50 crore between 2003 and 2007. Mayawati claimed she had received the money as donations from party workers.

Still, some analysts say the cases against her are politically motivated.

Mayawati isn’t a stranger to controversy.

In 2003, she was accused of corruption by the SP in 140 cases filed against her by SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.

She was at the centre of the so-called Taj corridor case in which CBI questioned certain permissions granted by her government for construction of a massive shopping mall and recreational centres near the Taj Mahal in Agra; the plan was later dropped as was the case. In September this year, a public interest litigation (PIL) filed against her revived the case and on 16 November, the Supreme Court rejected her plea for quashing the PIL.

Mayawati’s biggest problem, however, could be the criticism that she is beginning to ignore Dalits. “She has stopped mixing with common people. She is not aware of their problems any more. While she has become a symbol of Dalit movement, she doesn’t think about Dalits in remote villages any more,” says political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh.

That criticism finds an echo in Kairana.

“We have no BPL (below the poverty line) cards, land or jobs. How does she care?” says Chand.

“She is only building statues.”


Published in Mint.