DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Roma - "Children of India"

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A gypsy woman and child
While reading a review of a film I was surprised to learn that it was made by a Roma about a large Roma family. The film is about a sunny day when the family with about 15 kids in tow goes out on a sunny day with tp celebrate their fresh start in Berlin. The name of the film is “And-Ek Ghes” in Romani (“One fine day” in English) which the reviewer found “visually chaotic” but telling an intimate tale of their “tumultuous uprooting” and yet of “strong hope, often contrived and staged”. It also gives glimpses of their private joys and sorrows. In telling the tale the camera
Gypsies with their wagons
travels to a whole lot of places in Europe as the family gets split in search of employment signifying their rootless existence. The celebration in Berlin itself is indicative of a fresh start for a family that has been on the move. In that kind of confusion and turmoil in constant itinerancy what the Roma hold on to is a vestige of their home country in the shape of “Bollywood” wherein India sneaks in every now and then. The other name of Hindi Cinema largely made in Bombay (now Mumbai) is Bollywood. It is also sometimes used pejoratively for Hindi Cinema.

Gypsies of Romania (1930)
“Bollywood” is what ties them down to India, providing the thread that tenuously links them to a country which they left centuries ago. Having migrated around 1500 years ago from India, they marched west through West Asia to North Africa as also to the continent of Europe. They are widely dispersed in East Europe, Central Europe, Western Europe, Russia and some parts of North Africa. A sizable number has since crossed the Atlantic and has settled down in the United States and even Brazil.

The Roma are believed to have migrated from Rajasthan and what was once old composite Punjab. Genetically, they belong to north-
Gypsies in America
western India and are likely to have belonged to several castes including Dom, Banjara, Gujjar etc., now known as Other Backward Classes. But then there are Dom in Northern Pakistan, Baltistan, too who are traditionally dancers and musicians. It is also believed that the Dom of the Middle East and the Roma of Europe are descendants of Dom, who travelled to Persia as servants and musicians for returning armies, some say, including those of Alexander. No reason for this migration which appears to have taken place in waves is forthcoming. Were they subjected to acute atrocities or torture propelling them to flee their own country? No one really knows.
A gypsy by Renoir
But they constitute the oldest diaspora that this country has. They speak a language which is closer to Marwari and Lambadi that is generally known as an Indo-Aryan language with heavy Balkan influences

I did not know that “gypsy” was a pejorative term for the Roma but the term is even now used in England. Long years ago I remember to have seen a feature on gypsies – yes gypsies, not on Roma – of England in the only English language periodical that used to be published then, The Illustrated Weekly of India. It was accompanied by a hand-drawn sketch, more like a caricature of gypsies, significantly showing their broken-down donkey-pulled cart with tattered cloth-covered top with their pots and pans spilling over and overflowing with other shabby belongings, Filth and squalor all round and
Socialising American gypsies
numerous children in dirty, torn clothes were shown playing on the dusty road. The sketch effectively conveyed the poverty of gypsies and their nomadic life. The write-up described their travail and travels across the country, from moor to moor and from meadows to meadows, teased, mocked, laughed at and tormented right through their way by white children who spewed contempt at them.

The gypsies always had a troubled life. They were despised for their way of life and were considered as pests – thieves and drunkards – and, hence, they were always compelled to stay out of town like outcasts. Although, their skills in black-smithy, minding
Gypsies of  Rajasthan
of horses, handicraft and other trades were availed of yet they seldom were allowed into the mainstream of western society. Yet their dance-form was integrated into Spanish flamenco. During our travels in Europe we came across gypsies both in Buda and Pest. At the Hero’s Square in Pest an elderly gypsy woman was quietly following the tourists and trying to push her wares which were nothing but knitted woollen women’s garments. Up on the ramparts of Buda we met another who was hawking beautiful crocheted items of tableware. From their faces
Gypsy mother and daughters
they seemed tired and drawn which was later explained by the guide. She said that before nightfall they would have to clear out and get back to Romania across the border. The women of gypsy families on Romanian borders would shuttle back and forth every day for custom as there were hardly any tourists in Romania.

A headline in one of our national dailies screamed last year about
Dead gypsies during holocaust
“unspeakable assault on a Roma teen” near Paris that sparked an outrage to move even President Hollande. The teen, belonging to a Roma camp near an abandoned house, was accused of robbery and beaten so badly by a group of men that he was reported to be fighting for life in a hospital. The French, of course, have been anti-Roma and President Sarkozy had initiated a plan to repatriate them living in around 350-odd camps in France back to Romania and Bulgaria. He didn’t want “wild squatting and camping of the
A gypsy model
Roma” in squalid conditions in France. The French government put thousands of them on planes putting 300 Euros in their pockets and sent them off to Romania. Ironically, some French pay to see the very same gypsies perform in Pushkar or Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. 

America seems to have about a million gypsies fairly well distributed in the entire country. Though they have not been able to avoid persecution yet some have done well – better than what they have been able to do in Europe. Believe it or not, Bill Clinton, Elvis
Pablo Picasso
Presley, Cher, the famous contralto, are supposed to be of gypsy/Roma stock – just as Europeans Pablo Picasso and Charles Chaplin. The US got them in waves over the centuries. It is claimed Columbus had a few in his ship. But there has been even flow from Eastern Europe after their slavery was discontinued in Romania and other Balkan countries. Napoleon too chipped in with a few thousand, shipping them to Louisiana, a territory held by France in early 19th Century. The Nazis liquidated a million of them, giving them a big push to flee across the
A gypsy horse
Atlantic. They have very significantly adapted themselves to the

American way of life yet they have largely retained their ethnic identity. For them their family and community are of paramount importance. That is why their weddings are known as “fat gypsy
Gypsy women of Rajasthan
weddings” where the entire community collects in their ethnic chic that is so admired by even the white Americans. Their colourful horse-pulled four-wheeler caravans, too, are much admired. Nonetheless, they always have that lurking fear of facing the same hardships and harassment that their European counterparts face on a regular basis. Hence they generally make themselves “invisible”, passing themselves as of other ethnicities – “assimilation” in American society being somewhat tricky.

Despised, derided, deported and driven away from almost all parts
A Romanian gypsy
of the world it is only here in India that they have found acceptance and rightly so. The Minister of External Affairs, addressing the recent conclave of Roma from all over the world happened to call them “Children of India” which went to mean a lot to them. To be part of Indian diaspora is something they were yearning for. Granting nationality being somewhat difficult, this was the next best thing to bring them closer to the country that they see only in potboilers churned out by Bollywood.



*All photos from internet


A gypsy caravan

Friday, June 24, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 32 :: Uncivil Khanugaon

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Bhopal Lake
The uncivil and crude behavior of the residents of Khanugaon with the members of the Citizens’ Forum was nothing but reprehensible. They not only were rude they also intimidated the few members who had gone to check the site so as to protest against the now-stopped construction of a retaining wall within the Upper Lake. If the residents thought they had the right to protect their residences the members of the Forum too had the right protest of against an ill-advised construction of the retaining wall that has been the subject of almost daily discourse in the vernacular newspapers. Condemnation of the action of the Municipal Corporation has been pouring forth from several quarters. On 22nd instant Ms Savita Raje, Professor of Architecture in the School of Architecture & Planning has said that the so-called retaining wall was going to slowly poison the Lake by destroying its ecology.
Here lies the nub; that is precisely what the problem is. How many people in Khanugaon and even their councillor know the meaning of ecology of a lake? Most of them have not heard of the word and even if they had come across it they wouldn’t have cared to find out its meaning. Since they do not know about it, they are bothered about only their residences which, in all probability are illegal encroachments and, according to them, needed to be protected from being flooded for which the retaining wall would be useful. Ignorance and preservation of personal property, even if it is illegally acquired, propelled them to behave aggressively with members of Citizens’ Forum who seemed to have behaved exemplarily in the face of outright intimidation and grave provocation. That an FIR was not lodged against the intimidators or at least against the Councillor is indicative of decency of the Forum.
However, the point I want to make is mass scale ignorance regarding conservation of the “environment” is the biggest obstacle for its conservation. How can people who are used to open defecation or spitting or littering in public places be expected to know about environment and its conservation? This is what obtains after the biggest environmental disaster that the city witnessed only three decades back. Our education system is such that there is hardly any emphasis on making children, adolescents and adults aware of “environment” and inculcation in them of habits towards its conservation. If the masses are ignorant how the natural assets of the city constituting its environment can be conserved? The residents of Khanugaon think if the municipality is building the retaining wall it would protect their houses. It serves their interests. They are not concerned about what happens to the Lake. For them it could as we ll go to hell and so, they felt who were the Forum people to protest against it? That’s precisely what they reportedly said. This is one aspect that one has to emphsise and the Forum needs to ponder about it. It is for the government to educate them properly on the subject, but will it?
Another issue would seem to be the attitude of the Khanugaon councillor. True, he is the elected representative of the people of Khanugaon in the municipal corporation but he cannot overlook his commitment to the larger interests of the city. He can go ahead and please his constituents but he is one in the elected body the very purpose of which is to take care of the city in its entirety and its physical assets. He is expected to protect the interests of the city as against the narrow and restricted interests of his constituents. Protection and conservation of the Lake should also be one of his main concerns, situated as his constituency is on its shores. But, the question again arises is whether he is aware of his charge and also aware of the reasons for conservation of the Lake. In all probability, no; he too is ignorant having had only rudimentary education. In such a situation how can one expect him to be rational and see the matter in its real perspective.
What was, however, worse he apparently adopted intimidatory tactics and advised the members of the Citizens’ Forum not to repeat their visit to Khanugaon thereby meaning that they could come to harm if they did so. He is quite possibly a bad specimen of councillors forgetting that everyone had the right and liberty of free movements within the city and elsewhere. No amount of muscle power could take away or abridge that right. But the question again is how can such a ignorant and crude person represent the interests of the citizens? It is so unfortunate! No wonder the city is in such a bad shape. Unfortunately, nothing can be done about it; it is, after all, a democratized local body in which mostly ambitious, unscrupulous, half-lettered people get elected, perhaps as a municipal official once said, only to make money.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 31 :: Only people will save Bhopal's environment

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The other day at the Late MN Buch Memorial Lecture when the guest speaker Pradip Krishan, the environmentalist, was taking questions from the audience subsequent to his very interesting talk a member of the audience fired a question at the Chief Secretary who presided over the function. The question was about chopping down of trees under the directions of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. The Chief Secretary was asked whether the plan to build plush quarters for MLAs had been given up. The CS said he had been informed by the Speaker that the plan had been shelved and, he said, one should take that as final. Apparently, the plan has not been given up, it has only been shelved and may get revived at an opportune moment.

Either the speaker, Dr. Sita Saran Sharma, is dim-witted or he has not been quite truthful. After having slaughtered a thousand trees he said that he had given orders to stop the process of chopping down 9000 more trees in view of the strong resentment of the people. The trees were reportedly surreptitiously cut down and when it was flashed in the print media people in the government sat up. Chief Minister is reported to have spoken to the speaker. In all probability the latter got a mouthful and was asked to stop the whole thing. The speaker had no alternative but to stop further felling of trees and, as a face-saver, said he had taken the action in view of the "jan bhavana", public sentiments. As if he did not know about the "jan bhavana" which was so strongly expressed only two weeks ago that the chief minister had to shift the location of the proposed “smart city” approved by the Centre from the tree covered Shivajinaar and Tulsinagar areas.

This is not the first time that the proposal to build residences for the honourable members was shot down. Earlier a similar plan to cut down a large number of trees near the existing well-spread out colony of the members had to be given up because of public resistance. This time the plan was changed and an area behind the Assembly building on Arera Hills was chosen. However, this time everything seems to have been done by stealth so much so that even the watchful media didn't get wind of it. Even though the detailed project report was not ready what they did was to have thousand-odd trees cut down. This is what happens every time. Whether the project is ready or not trees are the ones which face the axe immediately.

June 5 was Environment Day and as usual the chief minister mouthed his hypocritical commitments for conservation of the environment. His government is perhaps the worst in so far as environmental conservation is concerned. All the time there is an assault on environment. If this happens even in Bhopal where people, media and NGOs are so watchful, one shudders to imagine the conditions elsewhere in the state from where resistance, if any, will come off a whole lot muted. Reports keep appearing in the press of illegal felling of trees at various places in the state.

Here in Bhopal trees are felled at any and every pretext so much so that green cover that was once 92% has come down to 22% in a matter of a few decades and soon it may touch a measly 11% in a year or two. Encroachments and constructions on the periphery and catchment area of the Bhoj Wetland, the lifeline of the city, continue unhindered. The report submitted by the Centre of Environmental Planning and Technology of Ahmedabad for conservation of the Lake was submitted two years ago. No decision has been taken on it as it does not suit the government and the builders’ lobby. The report is stated to be under examination by the government. If they take years to study a report without coming to any conclusion, they might as well give up on appointing consultants. The Citizens’ Forum and others had to approach the National Green Tribunal in order to force the government to release the report.

 Greatest damage has been done to the Lake during the tenure of this government. If the government continues in the same vein in so far as the Upper Lake is concerned we might as well say good bye to it. Concerted efforts are being made to make use of the land in the catchments of the Lake where no constructions are allowed but encroachments reportedly are all the time taking place.

 And the fire at Khanti, the city's landfill, continues to rage impairing the health and well-being of those who live and work aound it. The city' air is becoming as foul as that of Delhi but no steps have been taken for mitigation of air pollution. I have on numerous occasions seen the vans for checking vehicular emissions waiting forlornly for custom. There is no compulsion on vehicle owners to have their emissions checked. Besides, while recently bought vehicle are generally checked auto rickshaws and trucks or delivery vans that emit most of the smoke are never seen around these vans. All these seem to be minor matters for the government for which conducting of Simhastha Mela and, later, elections to the Rajya Sabha were of greater importance. There is such a lack of governance.

It has now come down to one rather uncomfortable fact and that it depends on the people to make the government to move and act. By itself it seems to be unable to take any decision acceptable to the people. I remember that few years ago when some of us members of the Citizens’ Forum met the Chief Minister he had told us that as long as he was there he would not allow anything adverse happening to the Lake. But now it is his own government seems to be hell-bent on destroying it.


 Clearly collectively people, the media and other social groups will have to be very very watchful for proper conservation of the city’s environment.

*Photo from the internet

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Corruption prevents India becoming "Sone ki Chidia" again

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Rummaging through my collection of newspaper clippings I came across one that was of a fairly recent origin. Its sub-head said corruption remains major barrier to growth in India. This earth-shattering finding was made by as unlikely an organization as the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Swiss non-profit based near Geneva. Its mission is supposed to be "... improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas".

What the Forum has unearthed has always been known to most of us although, perhaps, we could never pin point the extent of corruption in the country. The Forum has indicated that in more or less specific terms in its report titled “Building Foundation for Transparency” under its Partnership Against Corruption Initiative. Choosing to look into the sectors of real estate and infrastructure its investigators were told by the Indian protagonists that under the prevailing ‘system’ the bribes paid could be considerable and could account for as much as 50% of the project cost or even more. The prevailing system meant ambiguous norms for change of land use, dodgy land records and the need for multiple clearances and these reasons compel the project developers to pay speed money, presumably, to several individuals and/or outfits. Besides, one could safely presume, rules regarding change in land use are deliberately kept ambiguous to dole out favours by those in authority to big and influential project developers in exchange of big money. These findings, the Forum felt, have “strong implications for the competitiveness of the Indian markets”.

The Forum has used the hammer rather lightly and probably preferred to look away from the reality. That almost all the state governments in India are driven by the real estate and construction lobbies is an established fact. Even the prestigious magazine The Economist had once occasion to remark that state governments in India are more likely to be sold to these lobbies either because of the demands of the political parties in power or the politicians’ own venality. Real estate developers and infrastructure contractors are the ones who are really fat cats and buy off the ministers with their financial muscle. State governments are literally led by their nose and the proof prevails in big bold relief in almost all the cities. Forgetting all the environmental or civic norms, buildings or complexes come up with or without the necessary approvals. What if a project is not approved; money can buy the approval at a later date. Buildings, roads, drainage, dams and almost everything infrastructural are all of poor quality as these thickly line the pockets of officials, bureaucrats and politicians – the thickness of the lining being determined by the station of the recipient in the government. This has been the standard practice since the British days but has assumed huge proportions post-independence as those at the helm have been participating in the game with increasingly greater enthusiasm. The padding of 50% or more has perhaps been forced on the project executor because of the prevailing utter lack of ethical behaviour all over.

Findings of WEF apart, the country’s own Minister of Defence recently had occasion to state in an interview that the VVIP choppers that were procured from AugustaWestland during UPA rule at Rs.300 crores apiece should not have cost more than Rs.150 or 160 crores each. He said kickbacks paid to various people doubled the price of the choppers. All those reported to be mired in the scandal include the security establishment at the highest levels, bureaucrats, a number of Air Force officials including its Air Chief Marshal and a number of politicians including, reportedly, the then ruling party chief. An elaborate charade was played out to bring the AugustaWestland helicopters within reckoning. These were meant for the VVIPs to be flown to high altitude military posts. Even the parameters for the purpose earlier determined for selection were revised to bring in the AugustaWestland helicopters in the field for consideration. And even the test flight that was taken was reported to have been of a different helicopter in a different country- not on the heights of India.

Ever since independence there have been numerous scandals involving defence deals. The corrupt deal of buying jeeps in 1948, though trifling in comparison to the mind-boggling ones of current times, short-changed the Indian Army by as many as 45 jeeps as only 155 were received against 200 for which payment had been made. Only Rs. 18 lakh were eaten up. While Krishna Menon, the main culprit, was made a minister, the prime mister brushed the matter under the carpet. Since then, however, numerous magnum-sized defence deals were negotiated and billions of rupees were eaten up by unscrupulous politicians, bureaucrats, officials and middlemen which could have bought thousands of jeeps, howitzers fighter planes and VVIP choppers.  

Why defense, every sphere in governance is infested with corruption. From allocation of coal mines to allocation of telecom spectrum, from holding the Commonwealth Games to even granting approval for opening of medical colleges, every sector of the government has somehow failed to remain untouched by corruption. At the central level the corrupt practices are fewer but the states are dens of corruption. So many chief ministers and other ministers have been caught with their hands in the till. In Bihar a former chief minister literally looted the state treasury as he allowed fraudulent payments from it for cattle-feed for personal gains. There are rackets galore and politicians and officials of the states make merry.

The moral and ethical standards have plummeted so low that every government servant, high or low, wants to be a crorepati (billionaire). There have been cases where the employees of the lowest ranks have been found to have stashed away a billion or more. An aspiring society apparently is trying to satisfy its aspirations mostly by immoral and corrupt means and making no bones about it. If the entire governmental structure is predominantly corrupt can the country ever prosper? Narendra Modi, the present Prime Minister, may try his best but the progress, if at all, will be at snail’s pace – especially because of the states that will drag him down.

Once upon a time India was known as “Sone ki chidia”, a “golden sparrow”, because of its immense riches. Ancient India seemed to have had prosperous trade with the countries in West and South-East Asia. There was intense interaction with the peoples of its trading partners. Foreigners are reported to have wondered at the gold on temples and on bodies of women. The riches attracted invaders to come to pillage and plunder. Even Lord Clive was astounded to see the riches of Murshidabad in Bengal which was at that time richer than even London. Mark Twain too was stunned by the “land of dreams and romance, fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels...”that was India


Whether Muslims or British, they all came and looted the country and took away its wealth. Now that the foreigners are gone, it is our “netas”(politicians) who are doing the same. Trillions of rupees have been siphoned off by them since independence in collaboration with their partners in crime. But for them and their nefarious gangs, the country could have quite possibly regained by now the sobriquet of “Sone ki Chidia”.