Telegraph Calcutta

Requiem To Beauteous Bygone Whispers

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We spoke softly. The memory of it may now be buried in the dung heap of raucous decibels, be we did whisper once upon a time. We did not need to any more. Whispers were enough. Okay, not whispers all the time, but a softly spoken tone. Not weak. Not fragile. Not lacking in strength or vigour. In fact quite firm. And forthright. But softly so. We whispered away the mightiest global empire from these shores. We did not scream. We did not rave and rant. We did not raise arms. We did not fire a shot. We called nobody any names.

We merely stated, even of tone, that things were as they were and they ought no longer be so. We refused to cooperate when we thought we ought to. We boycotted when we thought we ought to. We consigned to holy fires what we did, all manner of things. As protest for what we would not have. As protest for what had been imposed on us. As protest for what we recognised as no longer acceptable, even though we were told it was much the vogue of the day. We shoved it. But we shoved it quietly and collectively. To the fires we put such things, and we returned stoic, as if nothing had happened but a protest. As if nothing more had happened than us putting our signature on it. We burnt. Oh yes we did. But we did not commit arson. There are differences.

As I keep saying, but nobody understands, or few do, there are differences. Differences.

There is a difference between lighting a candle or a diya and lighting a pyre, for instance. One is a beginning, the other the beginning to an end. All things that begin must end, but yet there is a difference between lighting a diya or a candle, and lighting a pyre. You understand, of course. Some differences you shall have to understand.

There are beginnings. And there are ends. There are rituals of lighting to beginnings and to ends. But there are differences. Once we set fire to things as a mark of our collective revolt and celebration. What has now become of us? What has now become of us that we set fires with animus, fires of animosity?

And we no longer whisper. We scream. And we scream so loud and so often that screaming has become not screaming but speaking. Screaming is how we speak. It is the new normal. We used to quietly light diyas and candles and we used to reckon their warmth sufficient.

We would very often take those lights out and light up our streets and lanes and bylanes. And whisper to each other glad tidings. It’s our festival. Oh it’s your festival? And your festival too? It’s our collective festival? Is it? Let there be light. Bah! Let there be light. Let there be lights!! But what has suddenly become of us? I mean, I am the all seeing one, Mahadeb. What has suddenly become of us that we are no longer lighting lights to the purposes we used to? That we are lighting things for other purposes? That we are resorting to setting things alight?

I am, as I said, and would reliably repeat to you, Mahadeb. Part of who I am is also destruction. Have you not heard of my Tandav? It is how I dance. And when I dance there is debris to be expected around where I dance. I am Tandav. I know a few things about destruction. Believe me. But I can see there are few who know it too —- Destruction. And how to go about it. Whispering is not one of them. Destruction comes with noise. Whispering comes with the umbra of silences: shhhhhhhh! It is nothing that can even get mention. Those that whisper silently pass. Those that scream stay. That is how we have become, that is who we are. Or you are.

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Telegraph Calcutta

Under A Hobnailed Boot — Through centuries the story of Kashmir has been one of area domination

Area domination is a term that comes with easy disconcert to folks in militarised, conflict-ridden zones — a daily, cloying intimacy, a shadow that won’t go away for any amount of shrugging. Kashmir is an area domination domain, probably, and wretchedly, our premier showcase of it — a sundered, splintered, plundered, barb-fenced, barrel-ridden, risked, fisted, rebuked, bludgeoned, bleeding, weeping geography trodden over by the hob-nailed heel of one ownership or another. Kashmir, a possession so precious it has to be had to destruction. Area domination — that’s first, middle and last name for Kashmir, you might almost want to spell Kashmir that way.

Through centuries, that’s been the story of Kashmir, the story of heckled, and often brutal, area domination: Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs, Dogras, even the British through sleight of their residency in the Dogra courts. On the people of Kashmir, they were all harsh and excessive regimes whose memory lives on in the memory of their battered genes. Should you read Walter Lawrence’s The Valley of Kashmir, to this day probably the most definitive discourse on the nature of Kashmir and its people, you will get some sense of what also went into making the Kashmiri a crafty, and altogether changeable, survivor. It was brought on by mostly imported atrocity.

Kashmir, as we understand it today — and, arguably, there are many and disputed understandings of Kashmir — was re-birthed in another set of area domination enactments. It was the Dakota squadrons flying off Delhi’s Safdarjung (then Willingdon) airfield to unload Indian troops on the Srinagar airstrip on the morning of October 27, 1947, that blew off the Pakistan-backed tribal-military incursion and gave physicality — or geography, if you please — to the piece of paper called the instrument of accession. On the wings of the Dakotas droned in Tempests and Spitfires and Harvards, and surrounding earth and sky were soon secured, area domination established. It was a big bite of Kashmir, not all of it, but what piece there was was India’s, farsh se arsh, a thing of New Delhi’s suzerainty.

Since then, Kashmir has been taken by many tides and turns of area domination. The toppling of those that earned New Delhi’s disfavour (the 1953 arrest and internment of Sheikh Abdullah) and the installation of the favoured ones; a re-enactment of ruined loves (the 1975 Sheikh Abdullah-G. Parthasarathy accord) and, later, another rude annulment of it (the 1984 dismissal of Farooq Abdullah); the phosphorescent eruption of a bigoted military that bayoneted Kashmir’s Pandits out of their Valley homes and hearths; the government-backed counter-terror platoons of the Ikhwanis and their feared Special Operations Group encampments; the serial hijacking of the Kashmiri ballot; the many and long spells of governor’s or president’s rule by Delhi’s obliging proxies; the recurrent rumble against the existence of Article 370 in the Constitution and the very current judicial plaint on abrogating Article 35A (both bring essential guarantees to Kashmir and Kashmiris that underpin the accession and provide them the rather frayed solace of being a special people in a special place, which Kashmir is) are also, in more senses than one, an area domination exercise: expunge Kashmir’s special place in the Indian scheme, dismantle the guaranteed securities, render Kashmir un-special. A burning new argument has now been stapled to the assault on 370 and 35A — Pakistan has ‘completely changed’ the demography of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir! And so, as if to argue, why ever should we not? As if India, or the fundamental idea of it, were not imagined as a meditated contrast to the notion of Pakistan. As if India would do well to begin to aspire at a sameness.

The demography of Kashmir has already been violently and viciously altered once — on the Valley-wide spur of an armed militant insurrection in the early 1990s. Getting the Valley’s Pandits securely back to their shared homeland is the only demographic change this nation should reckon with. As things are, that, like far too many things about Kashmir, seems an improbable and doomed reckoning.

Those out on area domination duty in Kashmir offer little to what could minimally be called sensible, much less normal. In fact, what we have are violated figments of anything that can count as normal. The November just gone by has probably been the most pitiless in the memory of recent winters. Close to 50 people were killed this or that side of the fence that exists everywhere in Kashmir. More than 25 of them were marked militants, some of them were jawans, several of them children. There was, among the injured, a 19-month-old baby with a pellet-hole through her right pupil; Hiba looked a rag doll that the devil was just done with. She was part of the rites of area domination this month just gone. As were three Kashmiri youngsters, yanked off by dark hands and done to death — one of them by dagger or by sword run across his Adam’s apple — and made horrific examples of: Informers. Heretics. Deserving of the worst. That too is an area domination effort. How else are shadowy men with no license to use uniforms or arms or violence, men far fewer than the men licensed to chase and kill them, to establish domination over area but by terror, by frequent demonstration of an ability to strike with stealth and brutality on those they deem the enemy?

It is heart-warming, even poignant, that amidst such savage contenders for area domination also lurk a few seekers of ‘popular’ sanction who employ relatively benign instruments of area domination such as signatures on government files. The rushed jockeying for power by unlikely allies and unlikelier contenders that preceded the abrupt guillotine on the state assembly was charming evidence of it. There are those who still seek sanction. Omar Abdullah and his National Conference, Mehbooba Mufti and her Peoples Democratic Party, and now, too, Sajjad Lone and his People’s Conference, a tadpole party attached to a pole that has no Valley moorings. They have little else but flags — or back-room manoeuvring — to wage their area domination campaigns, and flags should be enough in democracies. But we are on Kashmir. So it’s probably a tribute to them they are still out with flags and slogans to effect their own kind of area domination. Vying for that nettled throne that has only ever bled the anatomies of those who’ve toiled and competed to sit on it. The chief ministership of Kashmir must rank among the most thankless — and painstaking — jobs going. A measure of gratitude should perhaps be extended to those who’d still take that job, even at the cost of brickbats, disapproval, often dismissal. Admittedly, sanction hasn’t been oozing from the people of Kashmir — oh yes, Kashmir is also a people, though we choose to forget so at our convenience. The truth is that the space for those that seek out public sanction and would willingly be cast aside when they lose it has shrunk; the dwindled numbers of Kashmiri voters on ballot day are proof.

But here’s the rub. Neither the military nor the militants — nor the majesty installed in Raj Bhavan — do Kashmiris have a vote on; the choice on whether and who they should vote for is for Kashmiris to make.

TTLink

Telegraph Calcutta

There Is No Place But This Place

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Bear with me. I begin where I left off.

Between the week gone and the week to come, I’ve waited here, on the stage and on the microphone, like well-brought up folks should wait. For their turn. I wasn’t finished when I left, I believe I am entitled a finish. An end to what was begun. I still have things to say. Surprised? You’ve all become used to it, haven’t you? Only that one voice. Only that one clamour. Raging on and on and on.

And there was a time, I do agree, that one voice and one clamour used to sound as if it were fed by ballast — the voice and the clamour too. There was a time. There was an occasion. It broke onto our ears, we gave it our ears. Give it a hearing. Give it a chance. Give another man a chance. That happened. Another man, we gave a chance. For what he said. For what he swore.

For what? That man is still saying. That man is still swearing. That man is still blathering on and on and on.

And now he has begun to sound like the voice and the clamour of an empty canister that there is nothing to beat with but itself. The sound of an empty canister beating itself, flagellating. Seventy years ago, mitron, this happened! Sixty years ago, bhaaiyon-behnon, that happened!! Fifty years ago, have you ever even heard of this, yeh huaaaaaa! Haaan! Fifty years ago, don’t forget! Never forget! Nana! Naaani!!! What did they do? This Nana!! Maino kya pata? Maino, I don’t know anything. Maino maaf karo. I don’t know what happens ji, Maino, when I think of Nana-Nani, it just, sort of, it drives me crazy, you know. The moment I hear Maino, I don’t know what happens to Maino? I can’t tell; you tell me. Am I crazy? And they blame Maino, but why don’t they blame TainoHainji? Tell me. Tell me, naa? Please. What am I to do but ask? And this Pardada aur pardada ke par. Dadi, Dadi, Dadi! Dadi ki aisi ki taisi. Frauds!

I ask of you today! What did they do? What did they ever do? Did they ever slaughter a man walking the road with his cattle? No. Did they ever stab the youngster wearing that sort of cap? No. Did they ever say you are all wrong to all wrong people? No. Did they ever banish your earnings and line you up to prove you were naked and starving and unable to access your rightful things and say prove you are really worth it? No. Did they ever say, if you can’t, go to Bakistan? No. Did they ever say Nathuram did what he did and that was the right thing to do? No. Did they ever say hamaarey paanch, unkey pachees and this is what the battle is about? No. Did they ever say mandir waheen banayenge? No. Did they ever make a supplicant of a homeless God? No. There.

TheChaiwala! His tea is meant to steam and talk, not he himself. He can’t serve any, you see, he is the serving. And he is the serving you ordered. A canister beating itself! Enjoy.

“These mist covered mountains Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn to be
Brothers in arms.
“Through these fields of destruction,
Baptisms of fire;
I’ve witnessed your sorrow, friends
As the battle raged higher;
And though they did hurt me so bad,
In the fear and alarm;
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms.
“There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones.”

I borrow your lines, mortal Mark, I borrow your lines. From behind the fields and the mountains, from beyond what lies reaped, the season’s bloodied harvest. Because I am stumped and stupefied, even though I am on the stage and on the microphone. But I remain stunned and stilled.

This is my place. And this is your place. And nothing moves that. And nothing changes that. I, Mahadeb, will speak. And you shall one day hear.

TT Link

Telegraph Calcutta

When Scream Is What’s Sacred

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Bear with me. I am still here. Weeks and weeks and counting. This has become a habit. But you’ll have to pardon me. I am prone to habit. To what inhabits.

I am a mere chaiwala. I am not inoculated against general malaise. Especially a malaise so prevalent. I am a person of folly. I have my foibles. Even if you shouldn’t believe so. What does it matter what you believe? Things are what they are.

There is this habit, you know, a well-known and often-derided, and rightly derided, habit: once you get hold of the stage, or only the microphone, you don’t let go. You hold it, you cling to it like it were a gifted part of your anatomy, and you go on and on and on until the microphone has withered from the assault of your words or your embrace of it. I was assumed gone. Worse, I was assumed dead. By you, by many others like you. Not your fault. What is one to assume of an entity vanished without trace? Without a forwarding address? Without any word on whys or wherefores? What is one to assume of such entities but the worst? But it’s never good or reliable enough, what we assume, or is it?

We assumed AchchheDin impended. But what we got were KachchheDin; and then we had holes bored into them kachchhe; multiple holes until we did not know we were wearing kachchhe with holes or holes with bits of kachchhe around them. So it may not be such a good idea all the time to assume. Doesn’t even work with such a simple thing as idlis all the time. I mean you may assume they’ll come piping and plump and soft. And then they turn out cold and plump and a real lump. Hard.

Like you might assume I am blabbering nonsense here. Am I? Think. Like you might assume men quietly whispering wisdoms to each other matter. Leh! Do you? Really? From one mouth into another ear? A wisdom transmitted, even a thing of eternal wisdom, although there may be no such thing, from one wise man to another and you’d think it matters? Beyond speaker and listener? No. No. No. No. Bhool. It is screamers who matter, not whisperers. Wisdom gaya bhaanr mein. Let’s just say in one of them bhaanrs I served tea in. You know where they ended up — in the bin or in the streets, reduced to crumbled bits underfoot, or licked by dogs and rats and such. That’s the truth.

Don’t be fanciful. That is how most things end. Licked. Or crushed. But if you scream, you may not get licked or crushed. Lickers and crushers may be wary of screaming things. A whisper they will unmindfully smother; a scream they might actually stand in thrall of.

Oh! A scream! Let’s listen. What’s the scream screaming about?

But actually it matters least what the scream is screaming about; it’s the scream itself. Try some day. Scream. Say your prayers to Munch, feel inspired, and scream. See what happens. Scream on Teetar. Scream on ChaseBook. Scream on Vinstagram. Phalana-dhikaanaAal-faalOol-jaloolHyana-tyanaEer-Beer-Teer-PhatteyMitron-Kachchhon-Chithhron! (Which may translate in Shakespearean as Friends-Underpants-Tatters!) Not mere balderdash but dashing all the balder there is to dash.

There have been famous screamers. And they had listeners. Even greater numbers of listeners than their screams could reach. So they screamed harder. And harder. And the tides and turnouts of their listeners mounted and became greater and greater. And so they screamed harder and harder. And so on and so forth until the Prince married the Princess and they became King and Queen and they lived unhappily ever after, or some such thing. Real life copy of the Great Dictator played by Charlie Chaplin in the movie, The Great Dictator. I am only Mahadeb. And I just got hold of the microphone. It’s only been a few weeks. Bear with me.

TT Link

Telegraph Calcutta

Calling Out for You, the People

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Four weeks it has now been that I have been going, twooting like an owl in this space as if it had become mine to twoot-twoot as I wished. Four weeks, the space in which an entire month is considered gone. Or has it been five? Who cares? I am not among the counting ones, what’s gone is gone, what lies in counting what’s gone?

How much time that’s now gone, fallen into that abyss most folks call history and keep rolling over out of preference and prejudice, this layer on top, no that layer on top, this layer to the dustbin, this new layer in lieu of it. All this shoving and shelving of what history is no longer required or convenient, all this showcasing of history that requires to be superimposed. Like history were some wok of tossed noodles.

How would they ever even know? Anything about history or what Really happened? How would they ever even know? They were not there. Were they? They did not know what happened. Did they?

We are here. Now. At this time. At this moment. A million years years later, how would they know what happened here? What happened now? What happened to us? What was done to us? What happened to others? What we did? What we the People did to you the People? How would anybody even know? A million years? No that’s too long a span, too abstract. Even five hundred years from now: how would they ever even come close to knowing what happened? On what authority? On whose authority? Who’s to tell the truth about what is happening today? To us? To them? Not people. Not a species. Not a kind. Not humankind. But Us. And Them. This religion or that. This sect or that. This race or that. This colour or that. This region or that. This language or that. This culture or that. This hemisphere or that. Eastern or Western. Southern or Northern. Oriental or Occidental. This denomination or that denomination. Continentals or Islanders. Meat eaters or non meat eaters. Such meat eaters and such and such meat eaters not. This meat yes, that meat no. Tuesdays meat yes and Tuesdays meat no. Sabbath people and no Sabbath people. Aryans and non-Aryans. Good clans and poor clans. Upper caste and Lower caste. Touchables and Untouchables. Coloured and Colourless. This sex and that sex; the fair sex and the unfair sex. Where’s the truth amidst us? And who’s to tell it? And who’s to believe? And there’s so much more of that now among us, what do they call it? FaKeNews. Not that it always was not there. The paragon of truth purveyed FaKeNews. Yudhishthira announced Ashwatthama dead. Or did he not? We do not really know. How are we to know? From an epic saga called Mahabarat? Story, that is.

I have come away from all of that. One of you discovered this place is round. Or no, that it is a sphere. Or no, that it is like an orange, bitten on top, bitten at the bottom. But anyhow, that means that should I keep walking and walking and walking away from where I left —- that bric-a-brac lane and the wooden cart upon the other side of it —- if I kept on walking and walking from there I shall get back, eventually to where I began. But I am not of this place, you see, not of this little sphere where everybody has become another body, somebody else, and nobody is part of People. I belong to large spheres. Although I do not even know if they are spheres. They are vacuums. Voids. Shapeless. Formless. Eternal. Where I am.

And some of them would give God a home, as if God did not possess an abode. What might they even think of themselves? They? Give their God shelter? They make my rules? Look at me. Look at my shape. I am gnarled. It is just what the shape of my limbs has turned to, journeying away. And away from it all. What will they do for me? Can they even imagine from the shape of my limbs the state of my body and my soul? What will they give me? Me, Mahadeb?

Telegraph Calcutta

When It’s Time It is Time

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I move and I stay still. I go from one place to another place, and watch the one place become another place from the place I have gone to, and nothing that I see from one place or another changes. I am at a distance. I am of distances. I have become of distances. I know of differences when close, but those differences I have come away from. It is those differences I have come away from. I like differences; they are what make one and another, and one from another, and they are what make things things of variety and vibrancy. I like differences. But I do not like differences when they are inflicted differences. Differences that wound and defile and define in the vocabulary of bigotry. You are this and I am this. I am right because I am this and you are wrong because you are that. You are wrong. You cannot go there. You are not to be allowed this. You may not wish or want this. You may not have this or even seek to have this. You are wrong. You do not belong here. You are not who you might have been. You are not who should be. You are not Us. You are You and for that reason you are now allowed. Anything. Anything. Kuchh bhi. Whatever.

I am. Perched. I am. At a vantage. I am. On a promontory. I am. Looking.

I have arrived here upon travel. By dark, by night, my trail dissolved in my wake by the inkiness that I chose to depart in. From the side of the street I inhabited so long. From the throne I sat upon and served. I was a sewak too. I served. I served piping tea in bhaanrs, and often, when expressly sought, piping coffee in the same bhaanrs. I gave out what I promised to give out. No more. No less. And that is why I had a loyalty around me. Folks who came and got served, and folks who kept returning, day after day, several times a day. They knew they would be served what little I had promised to serve them.

I was the chaiwala (not to be confused with TheChaiwala, God forbid, no) who sat upon that throne of wood and beaten tin. Upon that stove of burning coals. Upon that cart across the street. I served, and I may yet serve again. But only what I ever promise. I promise to serve piping tea, and often, when expressly sought, piping coffee. I never promised to serve the nation, nor ever will. No, Ganga maiyya ki saugandh, such lies are not for me. Not to issue, not to serve out. I do not serve out lies, I do not serve the nation. I only serve tea. Or served. Because I am now gone. I have arrived at quite another place. Who’s to tell how far or how close? But another, quite removed, place it is. Removed from all of that.

You know what I mean. Removed from the one noise and the one clamour. Removed from that tiring, overbearing monotony. Removed from the nausea of single things — One Leader, One Leader, One Leader. And none other. I am, you well know, of many. Many things. Different things. Many different things. Voices. Views. Colours. Shades. Pursuits. Persuasions. Ends. Means. Ways. Tastes. Likes. Dislikes. Isms. Prisms. Many many things, like in prisms.

I am that which comes off prisms, I am not that one and only thing staring back from lavatory mirrors. Ever looked into lavatory mirrors? No matter what you are looking at, they always make you look something good. No matter what you’re looking at, no matter if you looked at something that belonged in the lavatory, something that deserved a good flushing. And a good wiping and washing thereafter.

But I am blabbering. I may not be making sense. Folks that do no longer choose to belong — to this or to that or to the other — often do not make sense, or appear not to, or are said not to. I am, I confess, one of those. I do not belong. But well, I do not wish to belong. I have told you why, in bits and pieces over past weeks. I do not belong where I once did belong. And so I moved on, I travelled. I etched a route. And now I am here. But I am, as I keep telling you. I am missing, but not really. I am not missing to me. I am to me. And I am to those who believe I may still belong, be a being deserving of being. Amongst you. Serving what I made a vocation and a love of serving. I serve nothing now. I serve nobody. But something had begun to tell me I was no longer required to serve. Anybody, or anything. That’s what I have also come away from; from the slightness of being. But what am I saying? I am blabbering. How could that ever be? My slightness of being. I am Mahadeb. And I am time.

TTLink

Telegraph Calcutta

Long Shadows

 

The smallest geographies can often conjure large, often lingering, patterns of politics. A crossroads in Sarajevo. A beer hall in Munich. A palace called Winter. A harbour called Pearl. A line called Radcliffe. A prison house called Robben Island. An absent wall abutting Mexico. A somnolent township on the banks of the Sarayu. Or, on recent witness, a tiny pocket of south-west London called Southall. It used to be a precinct of émigré Indians; in a few ways it still is, though in many ways it no longer is. Southall is a swiftly changing plot, those changes being currently speeded by an ambitious cross-rail project that will drastically shrink the distance between London’s western and eastern suburbs and bring the centre of town cheek by jowl with its stretched-out peripheries. Southall is a small geography rippling with the patterns of a politics far away and at once uncomfortably close.

This summer, an attempt to take over the Southall Town Hall, one of the few remaining public buildings in the neighbourhood, and convert it into a temple was disallowed by Britain’s highest court on procedural grounds. An outfit called the Vishwa Hindu Kendra — it defines itself, like many such proliferating all across, as a charity — had bid for the Town Hall with the avowed intent of converting a secular public institution into a mandir. The bid did not pass legal muster.

But that has not stopped their bluster for another temple in Southall. Three exist, a fourth is being frenetically sought in the name of ‘Hindu rights’ and in the face of legal injunction and community interest and appeal. The VHK, verily the Southall chapter of the sangh parivar, probably feels encouraged and nudged by what apparatchiks of its parent umbrella have proactively resumed pushing for in Ayodhya — a ‘Ram temple’ any which way, even if that means hurrying and hustling the Supreme Court, even if that means upturning a Supreme Court order should that be unfavourable to their ends, and calling the ‘Ram temple’ project a matter of faith, a matter far above any court or mortal set to pronounce upon. What happened in December 1992? A Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh furnished guarantee upon guarantee before the Supreme Court that nothing will happen to the Babri Masjid, notwithstanding the gathered siege of frenzied kar sevaks. Shortly thereupon, the top ranks of the BJP’s leadership stood and gleefully applauded as their summoned horde tore apart the structure. Two hoots to the law and three to any guarantees of lawful behaviour we may have given. Might is right. Majority is authority.

Well, in Southall, there is neither might nor majority for the VHK, no matter what it may claim in the name of ‘Hindu rights’. And yet, its will to push the law and bully the community it inhabits appear undiminished. The VHK’s unrelenting drive to somehow grab the Southall Town Hall and make a mandir of it led a little more than a week ago to a community meeting being called. Let’s settle the fuss, call out whoever might be interested in the issue, this way or that, let’s talk it out face to face. So, on the sleety evening of October 30, the Dominion Centre and Library on the Southall Green geared up for a two-hour powwow over whether the community should retain its historic Town Hall — this is where the National Front’s violent and racist assaults were fought off from in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Southall citizenry — or whether the premises, officially designated a heritage building, be given over to the purposes of a VHK-run temple.

On the approach to the Dominion Centre in the company of a local friend, hooded against the spitting skies, I picked out policemen hovering about the entrance, and around them a bevy of placards. “Save Us Hindus”; “We want Hindu Temple!”; “Protect Hindu Rights”; “Don’t Divide the Community!”; “Speak up for Hindu Rights”. Such was the language those placards spoke. Their carriers, a dozen men and women, no more, were out to picket the meeting. They had been invited in by the organizers, but no, they were not participating, they did not want a dialogue, all they wanted was their temple in the Town Hall. “What’s going to happen inside is anti-Hindu,” one of them railed, “How would you expect us to participate?”

As it turned out, there were more Hindus inside the Dominion Centre that evening than demonstrating outside. In fact many more. Traders, lawyers, teachers, environment and anti-racism activists, householders, retired citizens who believed they had a stake and a say in what was transpiring around them. And there were more people than just Hindus, folks from varied origins and ethnicities — subcontinental and Somali Muslims, Sikhs from India and Afghanistan, Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, a fair sprinkling of English people who have lived on in Southall disregarding its reputation as an immigrant neighbourhood. All of them bound by the common purpose of saving their singular Town Hall for the purposes of the community. Among the lead speakers of the evening was Suresh Grover, a civil rights and anti-racism activist, who has brought himself sharply in the crosshairs of outfits such as the VHK with his vociferous and unapologetic campaigns against sectarian bigotry. “All we want is to lawfully protect our Town Hall for the community and the public, all they want is to purloin it for the purposes of a single community,” Grover told the audience. “Make no mistake about it, there are larger designs behind what may seem a small fight to save the Town Hall. What is operating here is the same kind of majoritarian bullying and smash-and-grab as has come to operate under [Donald] Trump and [Narendra] Modi, it is an effort against the most fundamental human and community values such as we in Southall have come to respect and which we must now protect.”

Grover was probably not exaggerating his pitch in summoning hefty political metaphors to serve what might only have seemed a minor municipal issue. He spoke from a good sense of the ramparts the VHK had already dragged the battle to. Three high functionaries of the Labour Party, which has traditionally won the Southall seat in the House of Commons, were meant to address the Dominion Centre meeting that evening: the Bradford MP, Naz Shah, the local council leader, Julian Bell, and Claudia Webbe, member of Labour’s highest decision-making body. They excused themselves one after another, on one pretext or another. But the pretext was only one and clear to all — the VHK, working through the local Labour MP, Virendra Sharma, had successfully lobbied the Labour boss, Jeremy Corbyn, and Corbyn had given in. Calls had gone out from his office that the Dominion meeting was to be expressly forsaken. Labour, with all its professed ideology, had decided to side not with the larger Southall community but with the mandirwallahs. Guess why. Labour lay stricken by the threat and the prospect of losing the ‘Hindu vote’, it capitulated to the VHK’s dared claim that it is what represents and controls the ‘Hindu vote’. A little incredulous, but palpably true. Such too are ways in which the littlest geographies conjure larger patterns of politics.

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