Posts Tagged ‘india’
Tehelka has an outstanding piece in this week’s issue about the hyper-sexualization of Indian culture which you should definitely read. In a land where only one generation ago arranged marriages were the norm and pre-marital abstinence a steel command, India’s youth have undergone a startling shift in accepted mores.
At this moment thousands of Indian parents are uneasily wondering whether they really want to know what is going on. Mini’s parents still don’t know how to deal with what they found out. Mini is a dainty, extremely pretty 14-year-old. When she was 12, her first boyfriend and she were both eager to claim BTDT (Been There, Done That) about oral sex. One evening at home alone, they tried it out, anticipating a definite move up the social ladder. Sure enough, the next day at school her friends congratulated her even while making faces at the slight grossness in ‘going down’ on a boy.
Dr Prakash Kothari, founder of the World Association For Sexual Health, a man familiar to India through his ubiquitous sex columns, says that one reason children are sexually active earlier is because better nutrition leads to earlier puberty. He says of his new, young clients: “Thirty years ago, only married couples came in looking for advice on safe sex and contraceptives. Today, young girls and boys walk in and ask about sex toys and tonics. Some even ask us if being high on LSD andcharas will enhance their sexual experience.”
Tehelka gets major points for noting the influence of American television:
Alisha describes the extent of OC role-play in her circle: Alisha’s slender best friend was considered to be like rail-thin Marissa from the show. Alisha, who used to be plump until recently, was automatically typecast as Marissa’s best friend Summer since the girls considered Summer chubby. (Look up Rachel Bilson, the waifish actress who plays Summer, and decide for yourself whether our kids are gripped with hatred for their bodies.) The identification with these shows is so close that Alisha’s best friend decided to “do it” with her boyfriend after OC’s lead couple, Ryan and Marissa, did it for the first time. The pressure then began for Alisha (aka best friend Summer) to also ‘pop the cherry’. All this is recounted without any sense of its bizarreness.
But fails to take into account what I believe to be a major factor in this trend: the ever-rising age of marriage. 50 years ago this kind of blatant promiscuity may have been uncommon, but teenage sex was practiced and widespread. Except the teenagers tended to be married. I have no statistics on hand, but my grandmother, to take the most parochial example, was married and had her first child by age 16. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, was married as an infant and first discovered sex at age 13. No one thought very much of it at the time.
Today, among the upper classes, women and men are generally expected to marry in their mid-to-late twenties, respectively. But they are also expected to keep to the same traditions as their parents’ generation, including arranged marriages and strict abstinence. A child that reaches sexual maturity at age 14-16 but is expected to wait a full decade before “popping the cherry” (as the vulgar expression goes), will almost inevitably engage in promiscuity at some point.
The average age of marriage has gone up across the socioeconomic spectrum, but nowhere has the trend been as acute as among the upper-classes. I think it is telling that they are who comprise most of the anecdotes for the Tehelka piece. Among the middle and lower classes (where the average age dips down to the early 20s to late teens), I should imagine one would find this sort of thing quite a bit less.
I don’t want to make too much of this point, because I think the rise of American television in India is the real culprit, as Tehelka mentions. But I want to also point out the conspiracy of silence that still surrounds sexual matters in Indian culture. Most Indian children would be horrified to discuss these issues with their parents, and their parents no less so. It’s the ultimate taboo. In my own experience, my parents didn’t speak a word of it to me – they left that for the school.
But sex education is almost nonexistent in India, and many states have actually banned teaching sex education in schools. The Internet is a dirty place, as you know, and the television shows these children watch (Tehelka mentions The OC and Gossip Girl) contain scenes that would be impossible for a child to understand. With all adults refusing to speak of it, it is natural they should get a warped perception.
However despite all these rationalizations, this is a very disturbing trend in Indian society, and though Tehelka must have sensationalized it a bit, I think it is a valuable lesson in how children, in an absence of understanding adults, will interpret their new cultural surroundings.
The white sedan crawled down the Indian thoroughfare. In front, the driver gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, ever alert, ever watchful. A child ran in front of the car, and with a slight a motion, he pressed the brake. A cacophony of noise surrounded the vehicle; thousands of bodies swarmed in and out of shops lining the street. The road lay choked with vehicles blaring their horns and contributing to the white haze hanging above. It was a starry night.
Behind the driver, in the spacious rear compartment, Mohan was taking his family out to dinner – or trying to. His wife, docile and uneducated, gave her restaurant preference as she did all else: “You know what is best.” Mohan, having just grown richer through a series of land deals outside the city, wanted to spend the evening in style. Their son, Kumar, age 16, sulked in the back, not saying a word. They decided upon Pizza Hut, which they referred to as “Pidja Hut”.
It was an awkward journey. Mohan, his mind still reeling from the millions of rupees he pulled in that week, thought of what he could do with it. The smart thing, these days, was to give it to the Americans. Now they knew how to make money! You give a cool million to some white entrepreneur, watch your money double! Stock market, buildings, IT sector – it was all booming. You just had to be careful not to invest in a fraud, something Mohan was sure his American partner would be able to avoid.
At the back of his mind he thought of his teenage son. His wife had found a small bottle of liquor in his backpack two weeks ago, and they still hadn’t confronted him. Mohan began to wonder if they would – or should. After all, were these not the same freedoms he worked so hard to provide for his son? The freedom to be rebellious, to be free of tradition, from the need to work incessantly not to starve? A confrontation would only alienate their son – and he was all they had.
Mohan looked out the window and saw a man and his daughter huddled beneath an overpass. Their filthy rags gleamed in the streetlight. Mohan’s wife, Parvati, looked out the same window at the same scene – and perhaps thought the same as Mohan: That is what we worked to avoid. Our son may be a lout, but at least he’s a rich lout!
As if reading their thoughts, Kumar piped up: “Listen, when will you get me those Reebok shoes? You know I need them for school.”
Mohan laughed, a booming laugh: “Oh, we’ll get them tomorrow, I suppose, but for now, aren’t you excited? You love Pidja Hut.”
Kumar sniffed. They were driving through an affluent portion of town, and dozens of signs and billboards assaulted Kumar’s eyes: Reebok, Nike, McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren, Levi’s. Kumar wanted them all.
“Look, the store’s right here,” he whined, “Couldn’t we just stop and get them now? In America they say: ‘Shoes make the man.’.”
“Ah, but we are not in America!” Mohan was in a playful mood. The transgression with the liquor momentarily forgotten, he ribbed his son. “Reebok-Geebok – what is all this? You know when I was your age I wore sandals made of old tires!”
“When you were my age, you couldn’t get Reebok in India,” Kumar said, “All of my classmates have them – why shouldn’t I? They’ll make fun of me! I’ll be miserable without them. What kind of father are you, anyway?” Kumar’s tone was not playful.
Mohan laughed, nervously this time, “Take it easy, Kumar – I’ll get them for you.”
Parvati watched the exchange in silence. She had seen it play out a thousand times, for brand-name clothes, for a television in Kumar’s room, to justify Kumar’s school-marks which descended every year, for Kumar’s ever-growing allowance. She wondered where her son spent the thousands of rupees monthly, and refrained from asking only out of fear for the answer.
Mohan was proud of the things he could buy his son, proud of the business acumen which allowed him to rise above the teeming millions, but he wondered whether his long work hours and scarce interaction had poisoned his relationship with Kumar. At such times he always made an effort to connect with his son, efforts which he increasingly believed were a waste. They followed a similar pattern.
Mohan cleared his throat. “So, Kumar, tell me… how are your studies?”
Kumar looked up from his cell phone, on which he was writing a text message to his friends: “meet at pub 10:30 PM”. “Fine,” he said, “why do you ask?”
“Any subject you’re interested in particularly?”, asked Mohan.
“No, not really…”
“Have you given any thought to what you would like to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be rich like you.”
“What do you think will be your vehicle to riches?”
At this point, Kumar invariably grew irritated. “How should I know?”, he snapped, “I’m only 16! What, don’t you make enough money to support us? I’ll think of some way when the time comes.”
“Your grades have been slipping,” Mohan said hesitantly. It was a sensitive subject.
“Not this again! I told you, I’ll improve them! What more do you want from me? I’m doing the best I can!” Kumar crossed his arms and began to pout.
“All right, all right,” said Mohan, not wanting to fight, “So how are your friends doing?”
“They’re fine,” said Kumar.
Mohan could not think of what else to ask. Kumar broke the silence.
“Oh, speaking of them, I need some money. Maybe 2,000 rupees?”
“2,000?” Mohan feigned shock. “I just gave you 5,000 last week! What did you spend it on?”
Kumar shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, you know, this and that – I went out a couple times with my friends – you know how it is.” He did not want to say he would spend it that night after dinner at the pub.
“Well, I’m sorry, Kumar”, said Mohan, “I need to teach you to be responsible with money.”
Kumar turned red. “Mom!” he exploded, “Tell Dad to give me some money! I’m a good soon to you aren’t I? I don’t deserve this! All my friends get to go out with money in their pockets – how can I show up like a pauper?”
“Oh, Mohan, just give him what he wants, poor thing – he doesn’t ask us for much, does he?” said Parvati, “How much did you make this week? What’s a paltry 5,000 rupees?”
Mohan quailed. He could not stand up to both Parvati and Kumar. He knew would give his son the money he asked, but did not want to know what he would spend it on.
This world of pubs and girls, of drinking and partying, of drugs and alcohol, was totally alien to Mohan. They had none of those things when Mohan grew up. For him it was study, study, study – and face a beating if you did not make the grade. He worked hard, miserable, throughout high school and university, and slogged his way through the ranks of a construction company, where he was an overseer, before leaving to work as an independent contractor. A few well-placed bribes, some insightful business deals, and Mohan could give his son the youth he never had. He would send Kumar to England to study – maybe even the United States. There he would learn business. There he would live the life Mohan could only dream of.
Kumar thought of the fun he would have after this ordeal with his parents. One of his friends had scored some marijuana; there would be girls, cigarettes, and plenty of beer at the pub. He felt not a tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. Was this not what life was about? These nerds who sat up all night studying, they were dead – worse than dead; they were their parents’ creature. Kumar was free.
Parvati thought of the television shows she was missing on this excursion. She wondered if their servant had completed the housework.
Kumar said, “Listen, you just take the driver home after dinner; I’ll meet up with my friends and take a cab.”
Mohan said, “What will you and your friends be doing?”
Kumar said with irritation, “Look, I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we meet. Why do you ask? You don’t trust me?”
Mohan was silent.
Parvati said, “Well, have fun. Don’t stay out too late.”
Kumar said, “Why not? I don’t have school tomorrow.”
Parvati was silent.
The driver heard everything.
On a busy thoroughfare in India, a white sedan passed Gopal, who lived with his family underneath an overpass. This was their home, noisy and open though it was, and Gopal was proud of it. A migrant laborer, his experiences included working on a cotton plantation, standing in ankle-deep water for hours picking rice, and moving to the city to join the million day laborers who made the buildings rise. An accident at a construction site (for which he received no compensation) ended his industrial career and left him with a gamey leg and no employment prospects.
He had taken to rooting through garbage dumpsters for recyclable goods at night to earn an extra few rupees. He spent his days under the scorching sun by the roadside, begging what loose change could be extracted from the wealthy inhabitants of the neighborhood. Lately, they had grown stingy. On a good day, he could scrape together enough for some rice and lentils for him and his children. On a bad day, they went without lentils. His wife had died nine years before, giving birth to his second child, Pallavi. His son Sunil, age 15, and his daughter were all he had in the world.
It had been a good day. Gopal had returned three hundred bottles and netted 75 rupees. Sunil would return with at least 100 rupees. They would have lentils tonight, and could maybe even splurge on a bottle of Kinley brand fresh water.
Out of the rushing chaos in the street, Gopal saw Sunil approach.
“What kind of work did you find today, son?” he asked.
“Oh, father! I got a job at a shopping mall! Security, top class! They gave 150 rupees for the day!”
This was an unexpected windfall. Gopal hated that his son had to work, but with a 9-year-old sister and a crippled father, Sunil had little choice. Regular employment was far out of Sunil’s reach; instead, like many children of his economic means, he took odd jobs as they came: one day as construction worker, another as an amateur mechanic, a third serving tea in one of the city’s innumerable cafes. Few employers were looking for regular help – it was so much easier, after all, to hire unskilled labor by the day. You pay them less that way. Sunil was flush with pleasure – mall security was one of the most sought-after jobs for children like him: simple and lucrative.
Pallavi stirred from her bed, a heap of rags.
“Sunil! I was worried abut you. What did you bring me?”
She grinned a gap-toothed smile.
“Ah, little sister, do you think I had forgotten you? Here, one of the pakkas at the mall dropped this.”
In his outstretched hand lay a plastic guitar pick.
“What is it?” she asked before putting it in her mouth.
“No, no, this is what they use to play guitar. You know, like the rock stars.” Sunil pantomimed a rock star. “Here, with this you’ll grow up to be the most famous musician in India!”
Pallavi laughed with pleasure, but a passing bus obscured the sound.
Gopal looked around for a police officer and started a small fire. Fires were illegal, but one of the few ways for the city’s homeless to cook their food.
“Here Pallavi” he said, “go get two bottles of water and some buttermilk. When you come back we’ll have nice, hot rice and dal.”
Pallavi smiled and sprang to action.
When she was gone, Gopal turned to Sunil.
“Did you have a good day at work?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, father,” said Sunil, “The sun was not so hot today, and they let me go after only ten hours.”
Gopal’s face assumed a pained expression. “You shouldn’t have to work like this,” he began, “A boy your age… you should be in school. I wish you were in school.”
“No, no. Not at all,” said Sunil. This was a frequent conversation between him and his father, one in which he refused to feel the slightest self-pity. “I tell you, I am happy working to feed my family. Listen, at the mall today I saw so many kids my age. They had the nice clothes – the jeans, the T-shirt – walking in and out of the stores. They must have spent thousands of rupees on those clothes. And food! KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. But then I think – it all looks the same when it comes out the other end, doesn’t it?” Sunil smiled, “This rice and dal we eat, those pizzas they eat – it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?”
“What a good son I have,” said Gopal, “I only wish he had as good a father.”
“You are a good father, and I am a good brother,” said Sunil, “We must think now of Pallavi, the little one. If we can avoid taking her out of school, at least we will have that success. She’s a smart girl – who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next CEO of Pepsi!”
Gopal laughed. “And maybe my leg will heal itself.”
Sunil smiled, “It isn’t so improbable as all that. Anyway, my life is pretty much set. What university will take an 8th class dropout? But Pallavi – if we can make sure she stays in school and gets good grades, she could easily get a place at a top university.”
Tears sprang to Gopal’s eyes. “You are truly your mother’s son,” he said, “Now let us tend to the food. The water is boiling – do you have the rice?”
They poured four cups of rice into the boiling water, covered the tin pail, and began preparing to boil the lentils. Gopal sang softly to himself. He had raised two fine children, alone, and with a game leg to boot. He felt proud. He was happy.
Half a kilometer away, a crowd began to form. Gopal and Sunil could hear sirens in the distance.
Gopal shouted to a friend across the street: “What’s going on? Some big-shot actor with police protection?”
His friend shouted back: “I think there was an accident. Let me go find out!”
He left and returned.
“I couldn’t get through the crowd,” he reported, “But I think a little girl was struck by a car. All anyone could make out was a white vehicle speeding away. A hit and run! The bastards!”
Three months after the eruption of Telangana’s latest independence movement, I want to take a few minutes to examine the issue at large. This dispute has caused so much fury and hatred on both “sides” that it’s easy to forget the genuine historical issues that lie at its root. Every two weeks or so, the students at Osmania University begin new demonstrations. The suicides have not ceased – in fact, they’ve accelerated. A bright young chemical engineering student, age 20, hanged himself a few days ago, leaving a note that specifically identified the delay over Telangana’s statehood as the reason for his death. He joins at least one hundred who have successfully killed themselves for this issue, and several hundred who have tried.
The many supporters of Telangana’s statehood with whom I’ve spoken invariably bring up the historical injustices their region has suffered. These date back to the pre-independence era, when the Nizam of Hyderabad, an “independent prince”, ruled Telangana as a fiefdom within the British Empire. The areas now comprising Andhra were under direct British rule, and as a result, those from Andhra gained exposure to the English language and institutions. This, of course, put them at a natural advantage after Independence, when India adopted an English administrative language and a government modeled after Britain’s.
India’s independence was a bloody, sorrow-filled affair that brought with it a raft of state-related problems, in many ways similar to Telangana’s present dispute. In 1956, the States Reorganization Act divided India along “linguistic” lines, wherein they tried to give every major language group its own state. Ironically, Andhra Pradesh was itself born of such a struggle, as the Reorganization Act largely sprang from agitations for a Telegu-speaking state, what later became Andhra Pradesh.
Any Telegu-speaking state would have to include Telangana, and so it joined the new Andhra Pradesh by what is now known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement”, which stipulated that Telangana be given a certain percentage of state spending with respect to population along with several other demands. Most notably, Telangana demanded – and got- an escape clause which would allow it to secede from Andhra Pradesh at any point it should wish. Later, Andhra tried to forget this aspect, but it forms the central part of Telangana’s legal argument for secession.
The Andhra Pradesh government violated the agreement before the ink dried. In not one year after the signing did Telangana receive any of the promised investment. The region was already “underdeveloped” with comparison to the Andhra region due to its separation from the British Empire and the pervasive corruption of its previous ruler, the Nizam. After centuries of feudal serfdom under the Nizam, Telangana found it had merely traded one oppressor for another.
The statistics bear this out. Telangana has received only 13% of irrigation projects in the state, and it faces discrimination in employment, education, health services, and many other areas. The average citizen of Telangana is noticeably worse off when compared an average citizen of Andhra.
In 1969, Telangana exploded into secession demonstrations that the Andhra police brutally suppressed, killing 300. And then began a long and humiliating list of “programmes” – the “Six-point plan”, the “Eight-Point programme”, etc – each valid only on paper. They essentially put the issue on permanent back-burner, allowing Telangana’s frustrations to slowly simmer for forty years, until now, when they again boiled over.
Irrigation is a major thorn. Telangana lies naturally on a plateau, and rivers tend to flow away from it. To add to that, the Andhra government built two dams that diverted away what little water reached Telangana. As a result, Telangana farmers find themselves at the mercy of the rains. Two or three years of uncertain rainfall, as they’ve just experienced, can utterly ruin them. The monsoons were three months late last year, and no one in India can afford the luxury of climate change denial. Each summer is hotter than the one before it. Telangana, being rain-fed, stands to lose the most. In many ways, this issue can be seen through a climate perspective.
Detractors of Telangana’s statehood generally employ “practical” arguments as to why it would be unwise to grant Telangana independence. Often, they refer, with no intended irony, to Telangana’s historical deprivation as a reason it “needs” Andhra to help it ‘develop’. I have even heard one vehement opponent claim that “they [people from Telangana] are just lazy – they don’t want to work and expect jobs to come to them.” Some level of overt discrimination is thus apparent, at least among certain circles – wealthy ones, I should imagine.
Others wonder whether Telangana will still rely on the fertile Andhra plains after it becomes independent, given the terrifying food inflation rate in India – a sore point to raise since a major aspect of this crisis is agrarian.
One also hears the problem of Hyderabad as a good reason this dispute ought to be evaded, or even ignored. Hyderabad is the capital of the consolidated Andhra Pradesh state, and it happens to be right in the center of Telangana. One reason why Andhra wanted Telangana so badly, many contend, is Hyderabad’s attraction as a capital. The Andhra region has no suitable city. And whether by deliberate planning or unconscious will, Andhra’s significant investment in Hyderabad (“colonization”, some would call it) became an unspoken claim to the land.
Hyderabad now stands as perhaps the fourth most-developed city in India, and it has attracted a surge of foreign investment. The city, hazy and overcrowded as it is, now sports dozens of shopping malls, every major fast-food chain, a “world-class” international airport, a burgeoning IT sector, four 5-star hotels, and a jet-set of American and European businessmen, promising to “do business”.
At various press conferences I’ve attended in my capacity as a newspaper intern I’ve heard Indian scientists, businessmen, and politicians, all talking about how Hyderabad knows no recession, how it will become a “world city” by 2015. Over the last two months, these pronouncements have had a tinge of worry to them. Everyone “knows” – or thinks they know – that if Hyderabad goes to Telangana, investment will be ‘scared off’.
One hears often how we must protect “Brand Hyderabad” at all costs. At press conferences and business luncheons, the Caucasian benefactors from America or Europe, those who write the checks, can be seen clucking their tongues in dismay. These protests are “bad for business”.
“Pragmatism” aside, however ,I think it should be clear that Telangana has suffered severe discrimination, and that they deserve some sort of redress for the historical disadvantage at which they find themselves. Further, they’ve been lied to, systemically, for more than forty years. Their anger is legitimate, and it cannot be deferred any longer. However, whether actual statehood is the solution to Telangana’s problems remains to be seen.
I admit my original reaction to these demonstrations was ignorant and uninformed. I saw this movement then as so much emotional nonsense – that even if Telangana had legitimate grievances (which, even at the time, I was beginning to suspect that they did) these pointless demonstrations distracted the political establishment from what should be the real focus of their endeavors: controlling India’s population, reducing the toxic brown cloud lingering above the subcontinent, ensuring equitable water and food distribution, and solving the land problem. I did not realize then that Telangana was agitating precisely for these things, albeit, only for themselves.
A new Gallup Poll:
I wonder if Iran’s low approval has anything to do with the ceaseless, virulent propaganda directed against it. After all, Egypt has just as repressive a government (some might say more so) to Iran’s – but then, they happen to be a US-Funded dictatorship – so that makes all the difference, I guess. Israel, for that matter, is only once step removed from an outright state-sponsor of terrorism, what with its frequent, devastating raids on the Gaza strip (the last one killed more than 1,500 civilians), its continual blockade of Gaza (which starves the Gazan citizens and has been defined as a war crime), and its agressive expansion into the occupied territories (remember when aggression was considered “the supreme international crime”?)
So I guess all this poll really shows is how effective US propaganda is. Americans like countries that are “friendly” to the US, and dislike countries who are “unfriendly” – facts be damned!
The Guardian has a pretty good report up on the latest riots in Kashmir. As a prelude to the upcoming Indo-Pakistani peace talks, they demonstrate the power of Kashmir’s perceived injustice, and the meaninglessness of any “peace plan” that fails to redress their grievances.
So the rocks thrown by Mehraan and his friends have a wider resonance. Enemies of India claim the violent demonstrations in the city reveal the iniquity of the “occupation” of Kashmir and the commitment of locals to independence or accession to Pakistan. Enemies of Pakistan dismiss men like Mehraan as being in the pay of politicians and Pakistan’s intelligence services.
“The stone-pelters are being paid and being used by people who want to keep things on the boil and to create the impression that things are not OK [in Kashmir],” said Kuldeep Khoda, who runs the state police force.
Mehraan and his friends tell a different story, however. As he strode through the rundown Nowhatta, collecting fellow stone-pelters as he went, the shopkeeper said he started attacking security forces when his cousin was shot dead two years ago. Then he was arrested and, he claims, tortured. Since then, he says, he has wanted two things: “Azadi” (freedom) and “blood for blood”. Alongside him, a 14-year-old says he started a few weeks ago when his friend was killed, allegedly by security forces. “These things happen and nothing is changed and then they happen again,” he said.
One startling omission from the Guardian article – and, indeed, from most of what you read about this dispute – is UN Security Council Resolution 47, which allows for a plebiscite for Kashmir to decide its fate, and which India and Pakistan have for the most part ignored since 1948. The only fair solution to this dispute is an internationally-monitored plebiscite, wherein Kashmiris can vote for which country they want to belong. After all they have been through, I think “independence” (that is, “neither”) should also be an option. It’s astounding to me that none of the papers are pushing for this, and instead are trying to paint this in a “on one hand… but on the other hand…” style narrative. The solution here should be clear.
As I write, the city of Hyderabad has virtually shut down – but then, a city of 4 million can never really shut down, can it? The police have cordoned off the arterial roadways; they stand erect, decked in full riot gear, shields glistening in the sun before a tangle of razor-wire. Every 200 meters or so reveals a new checkpoint, a new cadre of stern-faced policeman prepared for – what? – for anything. The students of Osmania University have decided to march on the state assembly, for one last (though it won’t really be the last) cry of agitation for Telangana. The police have determined that they will not get that far. Hyderabad swarms with them; they have learned from past mistakes, and are now taking no chances. The previous agitations may have seemed a joke to most, a petty squabble between fresh-faced youngsters and India’s grimly determined gendarmerie. Only now does the seriousness of this affair sink in. Hyderabad resembles an occupied city, a militarized zone, whose citizens are doing their best, in spite of the inconvenience, to go about their daily business. The main roads blocked, their vehicles cram the side-streets, loosing a cacophony of horns, shouts, and irritated grunts.
But what of the students? From a terrace outside the university campus I got a birds-eye view of the coming agitation; a prelude, perhaps, to the free-for-all that is sure to ensue should the students somehow make it to the state assembly. (As of this writing, at 2:30 PM, the mob has been stopped approximatly four kilometers from their target.) Thousands of students stand in a tightly packed oblong circle, surrounded by hundreds of riot-clad policeman. The crowd roars, “Jai! Telangana!” and the police nervously fingered their batons, ready for the violence to break, perhaps even willing it, but sternly warned not to attack until the first stone had been thrown.
Suddenly – a break. As though by common consent, the stduents in the center of the mass begin pushing, and soon they force a hole in the police line. The police, still cautious, refrain from swinging their batons. One catches just the faintest wisp of bemusement in their eyes – the students, after all, have six kilometers and fifteen roadblocks to traverse before they reach their goal at the assembly. Let them march! But still, one officer cannot help but swing a half-hearted whack at a passing student. The gap widens; the students pour through. The shouts become ebullient, joyful: “Johar! Johar!” One young fellow, only twenty by the looks of him, runs at the head of the mob, leaping with joy, pumping his fist into the air. Another group of students stays behind at the university gate, chanting slogans, waving flags, and glaring, with anger-widened eyes, at their khaki-clad oppressors.
The Telangana movement has entered into the third month of its current incarnation, and it shows no signs of slowing. What moves these students to risk their lives, their well-being? By what do they endure the blows of police batons, the cracked skulls, the shattered ribs? To find out, I visited the Osmania University campus during a lull in the activity, one week ago. In interviews with students and professors, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of the disposession, the frustration that drives this movement – but I gained as well a healthy dose of cynicism.
Before I begin I should admit that my initial writings on this topic (here, here and here) were premature and largely uninformed. I regarded this business then as so much wasted time, a pointless agitation for a rather meaningless goal – would Telangana, after all, relieve India’s systemic corruption? Would it ease Hyderabad’s pollution-withered lungs? I had a sense, at the time, that Telangana had suffered some historical injustice, but I had no idea how systematic it was, how deeply it affected the farmers and villagers of this area, what a scarified psychic wound it left. As with all political movements, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, how much of it is a spontaneous effusion of decades of frustration, and how much planned by clever, power-seeking politicians. My interviews with the Osmania students did little to relieve this ambiguity.
The grievances, at least, are real enough – Telangana has been deprived of water, land, and cultural identity. The statistics are revealing, and Telangana protesters never turn down an opportunity to quote them – 80% of state jobs go to Andhra, even though the state capital is in Telangana; only 13% of the state’s water supplies get to the Telangana region. Telangana finds itself bereft of universities, capital investment, development projects, or any kind of government support. They’ve been lied to from the start – the 1956 agreement that bound Andhra and Telangana together was a sham and was violated almost immediately after it was signed.
The knowledge of this deprivation has moved countless students to protest – but it seems there must be something more to it.
My interviews at Osmania were partially instructive. I wanted to know why these students felt so strongly about the Telangana issue – beyond the various statistics that illustrate Telangana’s subjugation. What did Telangana mean to them? Why were they willing to risk being arrested and beaten? Why were students dousing themselves with kerosene and lighting a match?
Aravind Seti, 22, is a Master’s student in Biotechnology. He has a shy, innocent smile, and a soft-spoken manner about him. He was sitting outside the Osmania Arts College, the main building of the agitations, under a tent where a few students desultorily milled about and a cheap 1960s-era speaker blasted grainy Telangana protest music. I approached him, notebook in hand, and began to ask of his motivations.
“Well…” he started. He seemed to have difficutly putting his thoughts into words. “The political leaders here are all very corrupt. We aren’t represented in the assembly. I’m doing this for the sake of my friends and colleagues. We’ll get more jobs, you see, many more opportunities if Telangana comes.”
I persisted, “But why do you, specifically, feel strongly about this? Is it a sense of historical injustice, or have you personally seen Andhra oppression? What lead you to protest?”
“I am excited to be part of such a historic movement,” he explained, “We have suffered for so long – not me, personally, but my countrymen, we in Telangana. So much history behind us gets stamped under the Andhra heel. Who will speak for us?”
He opened his mouth to continue, but before he could speak, a short professor with a furrowed brow walked quickly towards us. His eyes were red.
“Yes, who are you?” he asked.
“I’m a journalist – I’m trying to get a sense of the public mood here. You know, why the students feel so strongly about this, etc.”
He was brusque. “Address your questions to me. I can speak for the students.”
“And who might you be?” I asked.
“I’m his teacher.”
“Which class do you teach?”
“I teach Arts at a different university.”
“But he just told me he’s a biochemistry student. How can you be…”
“Well, I’ve taken on the role of a mentor for these students. I’m a teacher for all the students of this movement now.”
I attempted to interview Aravind, but his ‘professor’ continued to interject with the standard Telangana grievances: the water, the jobs, the land-grab on the part of Andhra, etc. He was vigorous, angry, even, and hardly allowed Aravind to speak. This was not what I had come there for. The grievances I knew; the students, I didn’t.
Thinking I could not understand Telegu, the professor hurriedly whispered to Aravind: “When he asks you questions, you must give perfect answers. You are speaking for the movement. Do not give wrong answers!”
I felt I wouldn’t get much farther with Aravind, so I asked him one final question: “How long have you felt this way? How long have you been conscious of the Telangana plight?”
He blushed. The professor winced. “To tell you the truth,” said Aravind, “I had no idea about any of this until last November, when K.C.R [the leader’s movement] gave his speech at the university and began his hunger strike. I listened to his speech and wanted to be part of a movement.”
The professor began to give a long speech regarding the historical injustice of Telangana’s union with Andhra – the broken promises, the theft of water, the deprivation of employment. I cut him off and asked: “What do you think of the recent suicides? There have been almost 100 so far, all for Telangana. Do you think that by glorifying the students who choose to kill themselves, the movement condones it?”
He turned scarlet. “We absolutely do not condone these suicides!” he said vigorously, “But how can we stop them? They are an expression of the students’ rage.”
I persisted. “But Aravind just said he didn’t even know about this movement until a couple months ago. How could they have gotten so enraged so quickly?”
The professor stammered. “Well… emotions run hot…” He did not want to comment further.
I was curious as to how long the professor had been active in the movement. For someone who evidently felt so strongly about the issue, for someone who had taken a leadership position in these student agitations, he surely must have agitated before. He was in his late thirties.
“How long have you been in the movement?” I asked.
The professor scowled, then frowned, as though he knew the question was coming, and dreaded it.
“…. I’ve only been participating since November 28th, the date of K.C.R’s speech. ” And then, by way of justification: “One has to take care of their own…” Meaning his family.
Pandu Rangam is 22 years old, and he’s studying for a B. Tech in computer science. His parents are farmers in Nizamabad, in the heart of Telangana. When I spoke with him he betrayed a profound cynicism toward the whole student movement, and questioned the motives of its leaders.
“These students are being totally manipulated by K.C.R and the rest of the leadership,” he said, “The tragedy is that while the politicians aren’t really sincere about this, the students are. Look at how many have killed themselves over this! I’m amazed K.C.R has no shame. 99% of the students you talk to had no idea about Telangana this – Andhra that, until K.C.R came and gave his speech here. They’re 2-month-old patriots.”
“What do you think will happen if Telangana comes into existence?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing much will change,” he replied, almost cheerfully, “The politicians will rule the state much as it has been ruled – only now we’ll be plundered by our own people, instead of those living 200 km away.”
“These students are trying so hard,” he continued, “They endure the police charges, take their blows, but in the end they’ll be disenfranchised as they always have – you know, we’ll only see a real change if the students get leadership positions in the new Telangana. They’re the only ones who aren’t corrupt. How can they be – they haven’t had time to get the taste of money. ”
Arjun, 21, another computer science student, overheard our conversation and joined in.
“But you have to admit, we’ve been totally mistreated by the Andhra government. Remember – 85% of jobs to go Andhra! They buy all our real estate and force our farmers into slavery!” he chided Pandu, “All politicians are corrupt – we know that. But maybe things will be a little better under our own leaders.”
Pandu laughed, “You want to risk your life for a ‘maybe’?”
Arjun continued, “Before we get Telangana we need a full inquiry into government corruption. We must root out corruption in our state if anything is to change.”
Pandu: “That’s why we let the students run the state!”
Arjun: “That’s a stupid idea. What do we know? We 22-and-23 year olds? You yourself said how easily the students were led into risking their lives, into enduring police charges. Who is to say some corrupt politician won’t manipulate these student leaders if they gain power in the state?”
Pandu had no answer.
I asked, “Would it be worth all this be worth it if Telangana happened, but its leaders turned out to be just as corrupt as the Andhra leaders?”
Pandu said no. Arjun said yes.
Pandu: “What is the use if none of our problems are solved?”
Arjun: “Even if we get corrupt leaders, at least they will be our corrupt leaders.”
Walking about the campus, I stopped a student on the street for a spot interview. His name was Vikas, and he had taken part in the agitations since November 28th – K.C.R’s speech. He has attended meetings, but did not participate in the riots.
“I wanted to be a part of something historic,” he said, “I didn’t know very much about this until K.C.R. gave his speech. I listened to it and became very inspired. Without Telangana we won’t get jobs. We won’t get land, or water.”
Thimmapa is 20, and one of the few students I spoke with who rioted with the students last December. He endured the police batons, and showed me a scar on his forehead to prove it. He bears it with pride.
“My dad is dead, and my mom is a coolie,” he said, by way of introduction, “I’ve been wanting Telangana ever since I was 14 years old. I read about it in books, but more than that, I watched society. People from Andhra are managers. People from Telangana are night watchmen outside the buildings.”
I ask you, how is this fair? Are we not people? I tell you, we are just as smart as anyone from Andhra. They think we’re second-class, but I say they are the second-class!”
“What about K.C.R.?” I asked.
“He is a good orator,” Thimmapa replied. “We will see what kind of leader he is. I trust him.”
“With Telangana we’ll have jobs, land,” Thimmapa continued, “We’ll tear down these evil dams that divert our water. Our water! And we won’t give a drop more to Andhra. Have they not drank enough?”
His roommate interjected: “We feel stepped on. They destroy our culture, say it’s no good. Well, I think they’re culture is no good. But who listens to me? If I were from Andhra, I would have a nice job waiting for me when I get out of university; I would have big land with a river flowing through it.”
Anurag is a 19-year-old law student and speaks in flawless English. He, too, is skeptical of the movement, and says he is “neither for nor against Telangana”, instead describing himself merely as “pro-development”.
“I see no clear agenda from the pro-Telangana people”, he remarked, “The students who are involved in this so-called agitation to me seem to be simply moving with the flock. What will happen once they achieve Telangana? No one knows. Well, I guess K.C.R will become Chief Minister – everyone knows that. But then what? Do they think they’ll suddenly get land and water and jobs overnight? I think a lot of students are in for a big disappointment, one way or another.”
“What do you see as the pros and cons of a separate Telangana state?” I asked.
“Well, let’s see – definitely a con will be the lack of negotiation power with the Central Government – consolidated with Andhra we speak with a much bigger voice. All alone, I’m not sure how many concessions we’ll be able to wrest from them. Another con would be the interruption of studies. If these agitations continue, the students will have lost one full year of school. Don’t they care about that?
On the pro side – a new state will open new opportunities for jobs. A new state means a new assembly, a new legislature. These positions will obviously be filled by Telangana students. But at the same time, the number of positions we’re talking about is slight – maybe 300 to 400 new jobs at the max. It’s clear the problem is bigger than this – it has to do with overpopulation – but of course no one wants to talk about that. Let’s see… well, I guess it’ll do wonders for our self-respect. I mean that’s what everyone talks about, right? But I can’t help but think that if we can’t respect ourselves without our own state, how will be be able to respect ourselves with one? During the independence movement that was also a major argument; people said India can never respect itself while it’s under the British crown. Do we really respect ourselves so much now?”
I came away from the university with something of a clearer picture of this movement. The grievances, at least, are no doubt legitimate, but I found it extremely curious that most of the students with whom I spoke had very little knowledge of them before K.C.R gave his fateful speech. However no one can doubt the genuineness of the student’s emotions – they feel the injustice, and are willing to go to some length to demonstrate it. Partly for a desire to belong to a larger movement, certainly, but also of a feeling of historical injustice, and the desire to redress it. The student suicides are especially perplexing, and I cannot wrap my mind around why someone would kill themselves over this.
One last note on the police brutality this movement has seen: at several protests over the past few months the police have charged, seemingly without warning, striking anyone at hand, including women and reporters. I know not under whose orders such actions were undertaken, but they remain counterproductive in the extreme, and have likely done more than their part in recruiting new protesters. It is not a pleasant sight to see young women clutching their heads as blood seeps between their fingers – and those who do see it are likely to become far more enraged over that, rather than abstract historical grievances.
India better watch out, if this excellent Tehelka piece is any indication:
FEEL THE déjà vu. India’s nightmare in the Kashmir Valley may well return to haunt again. “jihad is the only solution to free Kashmir from the Indian yoke,” thundered one separatist after another last week, to boisterous sloganeering by armed cadres. “Kashmir cannot be resolved through dialogue.” The venue: Muzaffarabad, the picturesque capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The date: February 4, 2010. The assembly: men most wanted by New Delhi for waging a terrorist war against India for two decades, belonging to a clutch of a dozen terror outfits that go by the name of United jihad Council (UJC).
Most terror satraps were back together last week, openly defying the bans on their activities, irreverent of the fact that both the US and India have demanded the scalps of most of these men. What’s the new message from these groups? Should India worry? Yes, says General Mirza Aslam Beg, who headed Pakistan’s all-powerful army from 1988 to 1991. “It will be another Vietnam,” Beg told TEHELKA bluntly on the phone from Pakistan, suggesting that Kashmir would turn out for India what Vietnam was for the US 40 years ago: a messy military defeat. Shockingly, General Beg discloses that the Mujahideen who fought the USled forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are headed to Kashmir. With US President Barack Obama committed to a timetable to pull out of both countries, General Beg asks: “Where do you think they [Mujahideen] will go? They will go to Kashmir: that is certain. Their direction is clear and they are moving [to it] gradually.”
I’ve always thought that India was being played by the US in supporting American “intervention” in Pakistan, and this article indicates those fears aren’t far from the mark. India seems to be making the age-old calculation that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, but this often turns out not to be the case. In the current situation, India is happy to let America do most of the heavy-lifting, with their marvelous ‘predator drones’ attacking the Pakistani Islamic movement, and, India hopes, diverting Pakistan’s attention toward the Afghan border and away from Kashmir.
But recent developments suggest this may not be happening. One recalls the massive protests that occurred in Srinagar two weeks ago, which, after a period of calm, should have reminded the Indian establishment that this issue is far from over. In fact, there is reason to believe that American involvement in Pakistan has had an exacerbating effect on India’s Kashmir worries. Hiding behind American forces hasn’t done anything for India.
India’s acquiescence to American aid to Pakistan is also perplexing. For nearly a decade, India has sat by and watched America give tens of billions of dollars to one corrupt Pakistani government after another. This money has been repeatedly demonstrated to have gone to Pakistan terror groups, particularly the Lakshar-e-Taiba, the very group who carried out the horrific 26/11 Mumbai attack. It’s difficult to imagine what India was thinking. Not only did they not object to this US sponsorship of terror, they actually tried to intensify their friendship with America, signing a major trade agreement only a year later.
It should be clear to Indian “strategists” (that’s stretching the definition a bit, given their behavior) that the sum effect of US strategy has been to push the Islamic movement eastward. First they were in Afghanistan, then they bled into Pakistan, and now, if recent reports are any indication, they’re moving even farther east. Needless to say this would be disastrous for India, and its totally baffling to me why nobody in India is protesting against this.
For now, I think India should make it clear to America that its actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are making it demonstrably less safe. Then it should demand the US repeal its Kerry-Luger aid bill to Pakistan, and show America evidence, which at this point should be ample, that Pakistan is using US aid to fund terrorism in India.
It’s also time to solve this Kashmir dispute once and for all. This isn’t the spot to go into the intricacies of the affair, but India promised Kashmir a plebiscite in 1947 to see whether it would become part of India or Pakistan or become an independent state. That plebiscite never occurred. India should abide by UN Resolution 47 and allow the Kashmiris to decide their fate. This petty squabbling has gone on long enough.