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Beyond the Four Corners of the Law and the Diggy Palace: Faiz Ullah

February 7, 2012

Guest post by FAIZ ULLAH

I.

Highstreet Phoenix, an upscale shopping mall, rose from the ashes of Lower Parel’s semi-functional Phoenix Mills in the late nineties’ Bombay. It has since successfully emerged as one of the most popular shopping and leisure destinations for the city’s affluent set. Highstreet Phoenix is just one of the many mills in the South-Central Bombay’s Girangaon that have been leased, sold or redeveloped in contravention of industrial and land-use policies and court judgements especially in the last two decades. These large swathes of urban land, two thirds of which was meant for low-cost housing, civic amenities and open spaces, are being fast converted into exclusive housing societies, office complexes and recreation zones that only a few can access and afford. Such tensions, some like McKinsey & Company (of Vision Mumbai report fame) would say, are inevitable, even necessary, for the cities that aspire to be world class.

The Phoenix of Bombay is not just regenerating it is multiplying too. A few years down the line, a lot of effort seems to be going in to liberate this locality from its working-class surroundings and tether it to its more affluent sea-facing neighbourhood Worli. It’s no longer cool to call it Lower Parel; it is now, for all practical purposes, Upper Worli.

At Highstreet Phoenix, standing between Hamleys Toy Shop, Comedy Store, Zara and Manchester United Café you can not only tell yourself that you are in Upper Worli, you could, if you wish, allow yourself to believe momentarily flirt with the idea that you are in a London suburb. Like, Bombay’s first mall Crossroads at Haji Ali (promoted by another major textile mill owner), which required its patrons to have a credit card to enter the mall, Highstreet Phoenix also has a subtle, self-operating profiling mechanism in place. Without a Visa (or some such card) you are as good as an illegal immigrant here, like the “1000 mill workers” for whom it was purportedly built.

I have always, personally, found the idea of such mutating spaces very fascinating as much as the violence inherent in them disturbing. There are just no words that can adequately describe the destruction this pursuit of ‘excellence’ or ‘world class’ leaves in its wake. We will never be able to gauge the full extent of the assault that was 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games on millions of citizens of the city. (And we are just talking about urban spaces here, not the horrors of dispossession and repression that go hand in hand with hundreds of land acquisition drives going around the country for those drivers of growth – mines, nuclear plants, dams, SEZs, highways…)

Many settlements were razed all over Delhi in the run up to the 2010 games to make way, among other things, for an athletes’ village and the world’s largest bus depot or to simply beautify the city. Thousands of families were uprooted from the spaces they had created out of nowhere in the city and made them liveable. A few were shunted out to the peripheries of the Delhi, where the city gives up its ghost, while a large majority was left to their own devices to make sense of this madness. Meanwhile, thousand others, in search of a better life, kept (and keep on) arriving in the city by very thoughtfully named trains like Shramshakti and Shramjeevi Express. They are wanted here because they are crucial to the processes through which urban spaces are renewed and world class cities created, yet remain unwanted like residual by-products that such process are wont to throw up.

No one knows better than those who recycle the waste of the city that even residue has uses, like carrying the burden of rising crime rate in the capital.

Questions of their lives and livelihood are debated in altogether different kinds of spaces between the state apparatus and their (self-appointed) leaders and representatives. A consultation session on ‘Space for the homeless and marginalised in Delhi’ was held. Of all places, at the India Habitat Centre (Source: TOI, 25th Jul, 2003).  These spaces, I like to think, do not open up to accommodate any alternative imagination of the dispossessed outside the prevalent discourse of development.

Just how does one find answers to a particular problem within a framework that is problematic itself? What possible pathways can possibly be conceived from spaces like Highstreet Phoenix or the India Habitat Centre for those who cannot even access them?

That is, perhaps, one of the big reasons why I like to think of Occupy Movement as an alternative to how we think about politics of resistance. The strategy to occupy spaces which are cause of the crises we find ourselves into is encouraging. So is the lack of a coherent agenda. The nebulous, yet palpable anger is not directed against any institution – state or otherwise – in particular but against the larger setup through which the finance capital manifests itself in myriad ways around the world creating economic and social imbalances. One could call it mass hysteria masquerading as a protest and one would be right in saying that. But exigencies and extent of the problem at hand call for commensurate protest forms. To my mind hysteria is a perfect antidote to the feelings of powerlessness and uselessness that have been gnawing relentlessly at all of us lately. It is definitely more powerful than well thought, lucid arguments. It channels and articulates the subterranean calls of distress with complete disregard to prescribed claim-making processes in a democracy. (That the democratic setup is being undermined by exterritorial forces is another debate altogether.)

For days now, I’ve been looking for ways to put together my response to the Rushdie Affair that unfolded in all its glory at the 2012 DSC Jaipur Literature Festival and the critical commentary it generated in various social sphericules. The ensuing debate, no doubt helped me cut through a lot of ideological cobwebs in my head, left me looking for a more nuanced and morally complex argument.

II

I like to think of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival as an SEZ of ideas. It is a space in Jaipur, but it can also be said it is not quite in Jaipur. The kind of people it draws – access to it is demographically limited, the kind of investments it draws and the kind of impact it manages to creates, makes it more of a global phenomenon than a local. It is after all “The Greatest Literary Show in the World”.

Hartosh Singh Bal and Manu Joseph, both of Open Magazine, have already called our attention to the fact how the festival seems beholden to the notions of literary merit and parameters of success laid down by the Western publishing markets. That, for me, takes care of the literary bit.

As for the show part; Teamwork, the producers of the festival, according to their website is an entertainment company with offices in UK, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. Its website claims that it has organised many events around the world, including ‘Celebrating India in Israel’ in April-May last year. Sanjoy Roy, one of the co-founders of Teamwork once famously said that he “doesn’t see the colour of (sponsorship) money”. Perhaps because he is moved to tears quite easily?

DSC or Darshan Singh Constructions has been the main sponsor of the Festival for many years. The company has also been giving away the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature worth $50,000 since last year.

At a World Economic Forum in Mumbai late last year, Harpinder Singh Narula, Chairman, DSC Ltd said that “the slow pace of change in India has prompted firms to scout for construction opportunities overseas, including Africa”. DSC, incidentally, won its first overseas project in 1979, in Libya.

But in spite of slow growth, the company managed to work through the gloom-doom atmosphere of the Indian economic landscape and managed to add an Army Housing Project in Jammu and a Highway Project in Chhattisgarh to its order book, among others.

Mr Narula, amid his understandably busy schedule, makes time to participate in World Economic Forum debates in Davos and sit on the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games Organising Committee.

There is a lot of ground between a High-Altitude Wonkfest in Switzerland and a Low-Altitude Litfest in India. Entities like DSC seem to have all of it covered.

Late last year, in September 2011 to be precise, the organisers of JLF also wanted to organise Harud, an ‘apolitical’ literature festival in Kashmir. They postponed it indefinitely after they found it has been “hijacked by those who hold extreme views in the name of free speech.” They also said “We have received some funding support from corporate sources but we have received no funding from any government source”. What they did not reveal were the identities of the corporate sources that was going to fund the festival. Was DSC likely be one of them? That would have been interesting to know.

But what good is an event if it remains just an event? After all, events are organised so that they can be covered by the media. Since it is impossible to cast a net over the wide ranging and amplified coverage of the festival I would just like to bring in the most recognised and ubiquitous face of journalism here – Barkha Dutt, Group Editor, NDTV. She has brought us some of the most important stories of our times, often, at great risk to her personal security. At times, I cannot help but marvel at her ability to make sense of everything. That Ms Dutt has been named twice on the WEF’s ‘Global Leaders of Tomorrow’ list goes on to show how much her work is appreciated all around.

Just last year, she was one of the many Indian journalists who descended upon Davos to cover the proceedings of the World Economic Forum. Right afterwards she proceeded ahead to Egypt and Libya to send dispatches from Tahrir Square and Benghazi respectively for her home audiences. This year also, around the same time of the year, she brought us interviews of Imran Khan from Davos, Oprah Winfrey from Jaipur and Salman Rushdie from Nowhereland within a span of just a few days.

The interview from nowhereland was brought to our living rooms via a satellite link. It not only allows information and images to flow unfettered through it, it also makes the money go around (except when it is meant for Wikileaks). Unfortunately, real people – Richard Shapiro, David Barsamian, Tom Heinemann, to name a few – still need to have passports, visas and a good humoured state to move around.

I truly think that to debate the Rushdie Affair in context of the political economy of the Jaipur Literature Festival takes us nowhere. It neither affords us any fresh perspective on personal freedoms debate nor allows us to critically appraise the claims of those who want them curbed.

III

In a quirky twist of events, just when we had quit criticising the mad mullahs and paid assassins from Mumbai, young activists of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad and Panun Kashmir came by to stop a seminar titled “Voices from Kashmir” at the Symbiosis College of Arts & Commerce in Pune. Apparently they suspected their sentiments were in danger of getting hurt. Their main contention was to do with the screening of ‘Jashn-e-Aazadi’, a documentary film by Sanjay Kak. They said that the film portrays the Indian armed forces deployed in Kashmir in poor light and is hence anti-national. Symbiosis, a private university, in its response said it is deferring the seminar indefinitely and added that it will try to keep the seminar apolitical, if and when it happens.

There is no denying that in both the cases the Freedom of Expression of Mr Rushdie and Mr Kak were violated. They, or their artistic creations, should have been afforded space and time that they rightly deserved. The four writers who read excerpts from Mr Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were also well within their rights to do so. In a democracy everybody has an inalienable right to protest. It was suggested that reading from a banned text could constitute criminal offence and some even demanded the four be charged and arrested for their audacious gesture. I truly believe these suggestions were ill-informed and the demands of criminal proceedings misplaced.

But what, for me, altered the course of the debate was something else. I really think it was ingenious on the part of Mr Kak’s part to draw our attention to the fact that his film is available online and could be watched for free. Several agitated and resourceful people also posted links of The Satanic Verses all over the social networking websites from where it could be accessed and downloaded freely. It was heartening to see debate being brought out of Diggi Palace (JLF venue) and Symbiosis campuses.

None of the anti-Rushdie protests turned violent, though it was suggested time and again that they could. Now on the hindsight we can all see the how the entire controversy was carefully manufactured and orchestrated. In the case of Jashn-e-Aazadi screening, things could not go very far. The college management offered to crawl when it was just asked to bow.

As much as the writers and filmmakers need to be sure of the ideological moorings of the forums they are participating in, the organisers need to shoulder the moral responsibility of preserving the freedom of expression of their invitees. Neither party can afford the luxury to remain apolitical, especially in these times.

It was interesting, at least online, to see how people started renegotiating or qualifying their positions as ground shifted between the two cases. One saw a huge wave of liberal Muslim voices championing the cause of Mr Rushdie as things came to a boil. But when the same liberal Muslim voices spoke up for Mr Kak, their Muslimness became a big problem. The precursor to this strange forging and fracturing of solidarities was numerous calls by both liberal Hindus and Muslims voices, which asked Muslims to endorse and uphold Mr Rushdie’s rights, as if it was not possible or not enough to do the same without underlining one’s religious identity. Ensconsed in their morally superior positions, liberals from all hues kept themselves busy minding the unruly house of opinions praising or chiding others as they deemed fit.

Anyway, the point that I am trying to make here is that in a democracy different constituencies make political claims by various means and not all of them are well thought out. Minorities of any kind, non-normative citizens, the 99% – one of the most potent weapons they have to re/claim entitlements, normative status or space is hysteria. The anger, the visual spectacle, the shock-value inherent in playing the Rushdie card or organising Slut Walks, Gay Pride Parades, flash strikes, Occupy Wall Street, agitations of Panun Kashmir, sit-ins of Association of Relatives of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir is all part of a desperate attempt to catch the state’s benevolent gaze. Like engaged intellectual debates, like criticism, hysteria is also a legitimate form of protest. Yet most of the times, like residues of democratic process, people who resort to such form of protest often have to carry the weight of criminal intent.

I know many people who keep away from the Jaipur Literature Festival because they see it as a site of accumulation – not only of capital but also of cultural capital. And they are not entirely wrong. Some commentators – surprisingly from the liberal fold – suggested that one of the ways to protest The Satanic Verses and Mr Rushdie is to write a book in response and not prance up and down the street shouting. That, to me, sounds like a filmmaker telling a critic to make a film instead of criticising his work. Both of them are fully aware that a film just cannot be willed into reality, it requires immense resources, not to mention creative skills. Not many of us have all of them at our command.

(It is like Ed Miliband telling The Guardian after a session at WEF this year where Occupy activists were not allowed to participate: “Occupy wanted us to do the debate in a different way.” You bet!)

To me the protestors seemed to say:

‘What we can do, and will do, is criticise. We will not speak in the language you want us to speak in, because when we try all you do is laugh and point out grammatical mistakes in our texts. We will not write in the language you want us to write in because when you wield the critic’s role and shred our text to pieces you not only attack the writer but also millions of her readers who are slowly but surely making way into your rarefied world.’

‘Why Arjun do you now want Eklavya to compete with you? Why are you insisting on an archery match that requires one to have a thumb?’

As for Symbiosis, it’s a relatively young institution and it shows all the signs of developing a strong political culture of its own, one of which is the initiative it took to organise this ‘Voices from Kashmir’ seminar. One just has to look at the journey Jamia Millia Islamia has made vis-à-vis Prof Mushir-ul-Hasan and his views on the banning of The Satanic Verses. The campus where he was not welcome after he spoke against the ban was reluctant to let him go when the time came. He left it a much better place than he found it.

IV

As someone who has made occasional use of services available at Highstreet Phoenix, I sometimes wonder: Am I hurting someone’s sentiments by coming here? Does the word ‘sentiment’ even comes close to describe what I am hurting?

Sentiments are the last thing, I think, I end up hurting. A lot of things get destroyed much before I get there – justice, dignity, livelihoods…whole ways of life.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Akshath J permalink
    February 7, 2012 7:34 PM

    Exceptional. Truly, an outstanding commentary on the notions of space in our socio-economic and political dimensions. And a case to recapture these spaces!

  2. February 7, 2012 7:55 PM

    Yes, thanks for this post. I broke my boycott and went to High street for the first time in December- and I’d like to see all the mill workers and everyone else “Occupy” this hideous world, even if its a symbolic protest! its a vulgar tomb for the workers in this city and by shopping and lolling around in its restaurants or unaffordable shops everyone is literally dancing on the graves of people(read workers) who were kicked out, are still homeless and jobless and now are forced to pay for a house in Mumbai, since the government doesnt believe in giving houses free. A lot of things were destroyed to create this meaningless place which some find uplifting and a whole way of life was just one of the things that was wrecked, as you rightly say.

  3. Nikhil Inamdar permalink
    February 8, 2012 1:25 AM

    Interesting piece! Can’t help but think though – and not aacusing you of suggesting this either, but should an intellectual boycott the Jaipur lit fest because it is sponsored by a dubious corporate entity? After all a compromised lit fest is still better than no lit fest at all. Should a shopper not shop at High Street Phoenix because development control regulations were violated and mill workers got a raw deal? We live in an increasingly paradoxical world with an array of new age complexities unleashed upon us. The solutions to our modern day commedy of errors can barely be found in any one ism or ideology. Injustice and corruption in worse forms have led the course of history…the death of capitalism or the end of globalization or the revival of any other ideology for that will hardly matter unless human beings change fundamentally.

    • Syed Mohd Bilal permalink
      February 8, 2012 11:51 AM

      All isms are narrow minded. We as a human need to change. “The solutions to our modern day commedy of errors can barely be found in any one ism or ideology.” Spot on.

  4. Mohit Kilam permalink
    February 8, 2012 12:22 PM

    Very very well written!!

  5. sneha permalink
    February 8, 2012 5:37 PM

    brilliant piece! one of the many dilemmas we face.

  6. chitrita permalink
    February 8, 2012 6:02 PM

    Faiz, some very good insights… especially glad you mentioned Mushirul Hasan’s Jamia journey. It does take some exceptional people to do the right thing under duress. In hindsight, often one wonders what we could have done different. And sometimes time passes us by and we wonder if we could have raised our voices and said something a little earlier. Your article also reminded me of a quote that I read by Javed Akhtar in TOI: Any belief that cannot be defended by logic, proof or evidence is protected by hurt feelings and if needed, by violence. India and indeed the world, is going through quite a transition and it’s nice to see how you have tied all the various strands together.

  7. February 8, 2012 8:09 PM

    Love the claim that “we can see how the entire controversy was manufactured and orchestrated”. How? Conspiracy theories zindabad.

  8. Marya Shakil permalink
    February 12, 2012 10:28 PM

    The spaces and their conflicts…both co-existing often contradicting. Brilliant and insightful piece faiz. Reminded me of the student film we did in MCRC on the Master Plan Delhi 2021. How the metro would prove a sight on the exteriors…an image of proliferation when the labourers would come from very far during the day and then vanish underneath the towers and flyovers at night.

  9. Raghu permalink
    March 19, 2012 12:57 PM

    Is there anything that can be done in India without hurting the sentiments of one section of the soeicety or the other?

    Proposed law on matrimonial property for women opposed

    http://www.indianexpress.com/comments/proposed-l…/925570/

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