Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Divided City

I attended a book launch and reading and discussion with the author, last week, on 27 January 2010. The author was Suad Amiry, a Palestinian architect and writer.

That was indeed interesting. Ms Amiry was attractive, lively, articulate and witty, a great raconteur. Her story about her journey with her puppy through Israeli checkpoints to get the latter vaccinated was absolutely hilarious. Her account of the emergence and rise of Hamas was brilliant. It was difficult not to be infatuated with Ms Amiry!

But the venue was inappropriate, otherwise many more people could have been present. Perhaps the organisers had a private programme in mind! But I would have thought that given the person in question, and the subject of her book, this was something that should have been thrown open to the public.

Calcutta has its public places, where public meetings, conventions etc take place. When one thinks "public" one has to look at things very critically: for instance, is the very venue of an event something that implicitly or explicitly excludes some? How can one ensure maximal public participation? Through engaging with the public domain, and getting acquainted with the people, activities, places and so on, one is schooled in public domain activity. People lacking this experience do not even know that they are devoid of a certain vital knowledge. When they try to organise something, their attempts therefore have a slightly pathetic (and yet never un-arrogant) quality, but they are quite unaware of this. The public domain means self-effacement, and reaching out, and learning, and sharing, and collaborating.

I was fortunate to have served an apprenticeship in public activism in an organisation that was committed in every way to the cause of the public domain of Calcutta.

Calcutta is a peculiar city. Its intelligentsia would be found expressing solidarity with people in Palestine and elsewhere; but they remain callously, chronically apathetic and oblivious to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of slum-dwellers in their own city, who live a sub-human existence. I guess that's the normal hypocrisy of India's babu-class and today's Bengali bhadralok.

I have been working for the last 25 years with the city's squatters and slum-dwellers, for their rights. Since 1997, I have been working in one large, old, jute-workers' slum in Howrah (across the river from Calcutta), trying to build leadership and capabilities for community development among the youth of this predominantly Muslim slum. After hearing Mr Amiry's talk, I was keen to introduce her to my grassrots colleagues and the slum women. I thought her account of everyday resistance and struggle of Palestinian people would resonate with the slum women - who cannot take even a basic thing, like a toilet, for granted.

In 2000, I had visited a Palestinian village, near Nablus, and attended a meeting of a women's self-help group. After hearing me speak about the conditions of life in Howrah's slums, a woman said that when they felt the difficulties of their life they should remember that there are others in even greater difficulty, for whom their prayers should be directed.

I should add something more about my great city, Calcutta, which is held up to be a symbol of diversity and tolerance...

Calcutta is a city that is completely divided, along religious lines. Muslims constitute about 20% of the city population, and are almost entirely confined to ghettos in various enclaves of the city, something that happened in the early 1960s after repeated outbreaks of Hindu-Muslim riots. An overwhelming proportion of Muslims in Calcutta live in slums. The Muslim population is also predominantly a labouring and artisanal one. Muslims in Calcutta and in the state of West Bengal have experienced acute socio-economic marginalisation in the last 2-3 decades.

It is almost impossible for a Muslim family to get a place to live anywhere in the city except in / around the Muslim ghettos.

Muslim slums in the city are among the oldest, largest, most congested and environmentally degraded settlements. Disaggregated health statistics reveal the real nature of urban inequality and institutionalised deprivation. For instance, infant mortality rates for the Muslim population in Howrah (where we work ) are significantly higher than that for Hindus. This basically reflects the slum-non slum differential in environmental health risks, and the fact that Muslims live predominantly in slum neighbourhoods.

While the intelligentsia of Calcutta prides itself on being fiercely secular and tolerant, the truth is that most educated Hindus in the city would never have had any substantive intercourse with a Muslim in their lives. And yet they would not hesitate to express their opinion on Muslims, Islam etc.

Almost every one in a typical intellectuals' gathering - like this one I attended - would be Hindu. Yet that is considered to be a citizens' forum, rather than a Hindu one. But a gathering of Muslim intellectuals would be seen by Hindus as an exclusively Muslim affair, rather than a civic gathering. Hindu - is Indian, the mainstream. Muslim - is the other, an aberration.

To paraphrase something I was told recently, in West Bengal there is no exclusion as such, but inclusion is a big problem!

Yet, there are those who are different, and try to make a difference! That is the real spirit of Calcutta, but that would rarely be found among the glitterati and literati, the intelligentsia and the academics.

Howard Davidson is a friend from Canada who spends a couple of months in Calcutta every winter. In the course of a discussion with him a couple of days ago, about the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in Calcutta, he suddenly remarked that depriving a community of education is nothing short of calculated ethnocide.


gaddeswarup said...

I have been wondering about this after reading about Sarat's strong anti-Islamic views
I heard that Ramakrishna Mission priests can be of any religion but muslim preiests have a tough time and are usually posted abroad. This March I was in Kolkata and enquired and an old friend said that distrust is common. But in Belur Math, I saw some muslim workers interacting very well with others and muslims attending the weekly function ( I forget which day) in Belur Math.

Mumbai Paused said...

Highly evolved caste system I guess.