Thursday, 27 August 2015


We had memorised,
'Love does not consist in gazing at each other
In looking outward together in the same direction.'

So we did.

And our glance came to rest upon a tree.
He was soothed by the leaves;
I was drawn by the roots.

First published in The Knicknackery, 6 Aug 2014.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Songs from the Ghat

A story of extraordinary genius, of a penchant for the creation of beautiful art, can emerge from the smallest of towns to the most globalised of cities. This, then, is the story of Banaras, of women like Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai and Girija Devi, who have proved with their exceptional talent and hard work that their mettle was stronger than any odds against them whatsoever, than even the taboos placed upon women singing publicly. They are part of a venerable tradition which has fostered some of our civilization’s most outstanding musicians. The older among them are no more. And many have moved to bigger cities for exploration beyond the borders of their hometown. However, to understand the contemporary music scene in the ancient city, I decided to talk to those who have chosen to stay back and work here, who feel that their lives are so intertwined with that of the city that they cannot imagine being elsewhere. This is their story.

Sprouting new leaves, rooted in the old

As I step onto Banaras soil, I am keen on documenting women as always and meet the vocalist Sucharita Gupta, who learnt from Savita Devi, who, in turn had none other than the accomplaished Siddheshwari Devi as her guru. Her house is teeming with girls of all ages, mostly students from primary school to college, sitting on dhurries. A sincere looking seven-year-old, probably the youngest apprentice there, with Soframycin and talcum powder on newly pierced ears is about to sing. There is a sprinkling of boys waiting around the place too. 

Sucharita Gupta

The veteran singer from Assam – a previous generation would associate her with their more favoured taste and preferences in music – recalls her journey. 'In my family if you were a woman you weren't allowed to sing, except when you presented bhajans to Gopala. My grandmother had made that clear to me. On the other hand, despite being a  businessman, my father was a classical singer. He also happened to be the secretary of my school. Once, after my grandmother had passed away, I secretly participated in a singing competition and won. When it was time to give away the prizes, the school secretary was invited onstage. Scared that I'd have to face my father, I refused to go to accept my prize, till my friends made me go. When I reached home, he just said, "Ustadji will come tomorrow to give your lessons."'

Another turning point for Sucharita Gupta was having witnessed the recital of Savita Devi, a stalwart of her time. 'After the performance I walked up to her and said I would learn from her. She said, "I live in Delhi." I answered, "I'll come." "Where will you live?" she asked. I easily responded, "I'll live with you," and that was it. I went with her and she gave me a lot of affection. I was not more than 13 or 14. If I woke up at night she would put me to sleep and then at 4 in the morning she would do her riyaz. I would make tea for her and eat after she had eaten. When my daughter got married recently, she came and stayed by my side, as my mother would have done.'

She talks about her reverence towards music, 'When Tansen would sing Raga Malhar, it would bring in the rains. We strive for similar excellence. Once we went to sing in a programme organised during the monsoon; our choice was Raga Desh. The same day at 2 in the morning we were thrilled to hear the peacocks' hypnotic calls, as if in response.'

'We have songs for all the sixteen samskaras of life, each event from birth to death. Whenever parts of our classical songs feature in Hindi films, the song is a huge hit, like "Aaoge jab tum o sajna". Sadly, some of us in the older generation have made the education of classical music intimidating. We should keep it accessible for whosoever wants to learn.' Her appreciation is not limted to classical music. 'Folk music is equally important. A student once told me how she listens to her grandmother sing, notes it down and then sings the songs on the radio. Children who haven't even started speaking properly would sing bits and pieces because they would have heard their mothers sing.'

I had noticed upon entering the house all the students touched their guru's feet. An older student, probably in college, was helping with the younger students and also making tea for the guests. Gupta shares her opinion on the guru-shishya tradition. 'Earlier a student considered the guru a parent – a Guru Ma, the teacher mother. Both would cook together and live in the same place. Now this has been replaced by a monetary relationship. Schools and colleges are not the same any more. But the fact remains that if students spend time with teachers listening to them do riyaz and follow the guru's conduct they would pick up even faster. They become an extension of the family. My daughter recently got married and all the arrangements were done so smoothly because my students were running around as if the wedding had been in their own family. Students even participated in the sangeet and people were so happy to listen to and recollect their traditional songs.'

She stops to ask some girls who are leaving about how they would go. After confirming that their guardians have come to pick them up, she turns to answer my question about the role of music in the current sociopolitical climate where so many incidents of communal violence have been reported, including in UP. 'Art has no caste or religion. Bismillah Khan did his riyaz in a temple, Allauddin Khan was a follower of the goddess Kali. Music has always brought people together. It is the politicians who hire goons to riot. Music is therapy that heals. When the Kargil war was on, a music concert was organised for the martyrs. The audience was so moved that they were willing to take off their jewellery as contribution to the cause. If there are students who are aggressive and they start learning music, they gradually become serene.' 

Sucharita Gupta runs special classes for women who love music but could not pursue it after marriage. 'I once went to a college where I was asked to sing a kajri, "Kaise khele jebu sawan mein kajaria." I asked the women to sing with me but they were unfamiliar with the song. It really saddened me to see that living in Banaras they didn't know of a song so popular here. It was then that I decided to teach the traditional songs to these women.' 

I go to one such class where about 15 women have assembled in a ground floor room in an apartment. Gupta concedes that women have many 'duties' at home so rules are relaxed here. I ask the students how they manage to spare even this amount of time when they have so much housework to do. A woman in her fifties responds, "We grab time by the neck and pull it out." They break to sing a love song, reading the lyrics from covered notebooks, yearly diaries and loose sheets. Even before I can start paying attention to the lyrics, the gentle tone of their collective voice soothes. Later I think that this is what some would call a motley crew of singers, even amateur, but they sound exactly what they are, trained singers, no matter how early an stage they might be at in the training.

Together they sing

These classes have been going on for four years. Earlier they were held twice a week but now it's mostly once because not all women could come twice and then they would miss out on the course. 'But we even come on all seven days if we have a programme coming,' the students share. At present they are rehearsing to sing in the festival Subah-e-Banaras. They have performed on radio too and to keep more and more people interested in music, on one occasion they sang popular old Hindi film songs in the Banaras club, which were widely appreciated. 

A retired schoolteacher talks of how she always wanted to learn music. 'This is not just work but pleasure for us.' Students intimidated by other teachers come to Gupta. 'I had never learnt classical but she teaches so simply. She taught us to enjoy it. The oldest student in the class is 75 and no less enthusiastic. 

Gupta also makes it a point to teach them festival and folk songs. 'I keep encouraging them to learn further. I would like to send them for radio auditions and hope those who wok hard and do well also get bigger platforms to perform.' A young woman recalls how she had almost given up because she couldn't manage to come to class with housework and her job. But Gupta kept saying that even if she comes once a year she should come. This motivated the student to keep coming. 

Not distracted by all the praise heaped on her by the pupils, Gupta proceeds to test them on theory, and most of her questions get answered. One woman says, 'This is a restoration of our childhood.' Gupta quips, 'Yes, and when they sneak guavas in the classroom and eat them on the backbenches or chit-chat they also get scolded like schoolgirls.'

About whether there is any apprehension in their homes regarding women going to learn music, they say people have been supportive. The youngest woman remembers that it was her father-in-law who inspired her to go. Maybe given Banaras's culture of music in every ghat and gully, people are more understanding and welcoming of it. Yet at times it seems the women also keep the two worlds separate and are not comfortable with practising at home. 'It is embarrassing if a guest comes and finds you sitting with the harmonium. Some of our kids complain of getting disturbed'. Another laughs nervously, 'Once my son heard me practise and later told me he thought it was some beggar on the streets.' One of her classmates is quick to take umbrage on her behalf and says she would give the son a piece of her mind. 

Morning Raga

At 5.45 the next morning I am at Assi Ghat, when and where I am told I would be able to witness Subah-e-Banaras, a 200-day programme organised by the state government. Each morning a group of artists perform at the ghat, followed by a yoga session. The programme has not yet begun so I shift my attention to the aarti preparations. Similarly clad priests and their similar looking pooja 'desks' with the flowers and aarti plates stand in a line at equal distance to each other. I cannot help thinking of a perfectly set stage for a performance. An announcement is made so people wishing to offer aarti can go down the steps and assemble the material needed for the ritual. In unison the aarti begins and right after it ends the singers on the stage start singing. 

Preparations for the morning aarti

Any crude attempt at categorisation fails as one looks at the diverse age and class groups sitting on the chairs and dhurries. Unlike many concerts where the audience may get distracted or seem detached, the audience here bears an air of gravitas, with reverence towards the performance and the performers. Some have brought mats from home that they would use later for the yoga. As soon as the programme ends, without any awkward gaps, the temple bell rings. 

I have been intrigued by the tabla accompanist who is a woman, still not a very common sight. Priya Tiwari is pursuing her PhD with the help of a government fellowship. Her own thesis is also on women players of tabla and pakhawaj. There are also other girls in college, she says, who are learning to play the instrument. In her opinion one reason for keeping women away is their thinking that playing the tabla makes women's hands hard. She says that this is a myth and that actually soft hands play better music. 


Fateh Ali, Bismillah Khan's grandson, was seven when he started playing the shehnai. 'It is a pity that shehnai is not a part of the taught course in colleges, which is why today there are not many shehnai students. Although the government was open to the idea of adding it to the curriculum, artists, earlier not keen on the academic world, didn’t help the initiative much. Now again we are trying. Sarangi is another instrument that is slowing moving towards the “endangered” category. Both the instruments and the related arts need to be preserved.'

Fateh Ali Khan

His great grandfather was the first in the family to have started playing the shehnai. 'Earlier they were played only during weddings but my family changed that.' Relating his grandfather Bismillah Khan's story, he says, 'His name was Kamruddin. But as he was the youngest in the family, he would always take permission of the older brothers before playing. They would express their assent in the word "Bismillah", indicating he should begin. And thus he became Bismillah Khan.' 

All his brothers specialised in some instrument or the other but Bismillah could play them all. 'As kids we would sit with Dada Saab and he would work with each of us. He would say, “Sing so that even a rickshaw-wallah is moved to turn his head and see who is singing.”' Many players still feel nervous performing on stage. Since we have the advantage of having seen players in the family at close quarters, we don't have that fear.

'[Bismillah] Khan Saab never declared that one or the other of us would do well. He always said, “Jo karega woh payega” (the one who works shall get). Somehow this stayed with me. I felt like I had to do something. In winters I would be up early, practising with the quilt around me. If practice dwindled, my brothers and sisters would remind me to do it. My mother would teach that no matter how modest the sum a person must earn their own living. 

'Shehnai is the only instrument to be able to act like all others. Our family mixes three gharanas (three generations make a gharana): Banaras, Kirana, Gwalior. We can play so traces of each can be heard, a skill possessed only by Banarasi people. We used to keep a mirror in front to check how we would appear on stage. Presentation mattered. We were sent out to learn from other gurus too and include that in our work. In the same family, different players have different individual styles.

'In those days the student-teacher relationship was something else. We used to sit in the room where our guru would sit. But we didn't sit next to him. We would prepare tea for him. Then we started riyaz. Now students come, pay Rs 1000 for an hour and go. Music is a form of worship but some of these students don't even bother taking a bath. If we are not cultured, we cannot learn music. They go together. When someone calls himself a guru's disciple, what of the guru's does he imbibe?'

Does music help in eradicating socio-religious-economic differences? The shehnai player says, 'Definitely music is an equaliser. We have gurus of all religions. We bow our head everywhere. On the ghats, there used to be a blind man whose voice was so miraculous that even Pandit Jasraj praised him. You will find music in every gully here.'

An academic and a performer

R.P. Shastri, the ex-dean of Banaras Hindu University, is also a violinist. 'Banaras saw traditional learning where each temple had huge programmes that would beat any conference. Each temple was maintained like a cultural centre. Those who learnt elsewhere also presented here. Gayan (singing), vadan (playing instruments), nritya (dance) – Kashi houses all three.

R.P. Shastri

'It was Madan Mohan Malviya's dream that BHU should be a centre for learning with knowledge from both the East and the West. Along with the university, he also wanted to set up an academy of music. In 1950 the College of Music and Fine Arts was established and Omkarnath Thakur designed the course in keeping with contemporary times.

Shastri emanates the vibes of an ethnomusicologist when he talks about the peculiar relationship between the city, its people, and its music – a tripartite structure of divine measure. 'The ghats of Banaras are host to musical programmes, and earlier there was chamber music too. The listeners are a match to the artists. Whether it is someone from the West or from neighbouring Pakistan, the artists are happy to find learned and passionate audience. Once when Pandit Ravi Shankar had a programme, despite a steady downpour the audience stayed put. Pandit ji remarked that not just the people but the animals of Banaras are also music aficionados. Artists used to say that they have to pass the Kashi test, win the hearts of the audience here, to be able to prove their worth. It is not that the audience has any training. But they have developed a keen ear from regular exposure to fine music. 

'You can also hear Carnatic music played here, and many others. Ghats are called mini India as people from different states have settled around specific ghats and their music has also become a part of Banaras.

Discussing how media can disseminate music, he says, 'Apart from live performances, during my youth radio used to be the biggest medium. I didn't have one and would cycle for four to six kilometres to listen to someone else's radio. Nowadays despite so many TV channels DD Bharti is the only one giving space to real music. People in the south of India are more conscious about preserving their culture. Their channels play their own music.'

On what accounts for excellence in an artist, he says, 'The one who suffers will be the biggest artist. In abhaav (lack),bhaav (feeling) is born. Look at Abdul Karim Khan. He rose despite being from a poor family. After struggling and making his own mark, he encouraged others as well and mentored talented students without worrying about their background.' 

Alauddin Khan, who played twenty-two instruments, was another example of dogged will. Shastri resumes, 'The older artists didn't focus on clothes like the present generation does. Though there is no dearth of music, the quality often gets compromised now. To think there was a time when the audience used to stay during the overnight programme and tell people that for food and drinks they would be ordering music,' he ends with a smile.

Reviews and Returns

Rajeshwar Acharya was a student of BHU and the head of performing arts in Gorakhpur University. They say he is the go-to man if you have the heart to hear brutal critiques and honest admissions. When he learns of my assignment, he talks of the reporters who would go to a concert and 'rate' it as “astounding” and “inspired a big round of applause”. 'Cultural journalism is lost except for a few comments.' 

Rajeshwar Acharya

Then he turns his attention to his favourite subject – music. 'In the beginning one didn't have the option of pursuing a bachelor's degree in music. 'People would ask, "Why do you want to take up music if you don't have any physical disability?" If someone with a PhD in music would use the "Dr" in their name, they would be asked if they dealt in homoeopathy.' The faculty in universities would talk dismissively of music when Acharya became a music teacher. 'I said I can prove that performance is everywhere and in trying to enrich the academics, I moved away from performance.' He laments the lack of analysis and critique in the discipline of music. 'My own students have done my critique in excellent ways. But people just want praise.

'We teach our students how to identify flaws in a musical piece. Yet people who would have these inconsistencies in their performance are getting national awards. How is this happening? Success in music is being measured by what has never been an element of music – competition and prizes. Those who have sold their music will get obliterated. Getting awards is no big deal if you cannot move a layperson with your work. What good is your Olympic gold if you can't help an old man with his load?' 

Coming back to these patrons of the arts who belong to the masses, he pronounces with approval that the city cares about being meaningful. 'Even a common person can tell whether a piece “touched his heart” or  “felt like his mother's greeting”. This prevalence of music in the most humble of households should not be underestimated. What women sung in their homes was later picked up by Siddheshwari Devi. When toothless old men sing and express their joy in the process, it becomes infectious and gladdens other hearts. You won't find these genuine art appreciators or practitioners too dressed up. In Banaras you find genius mathematicians and musicians in lungis. At times people who would come to meet me would look me up and down and ask me if I am Rajeshwar Acharya. I would say, “Ji haan. Main hi hoon. Aap mujhse milne aaye hain ya mere kapdon se?” (Yes, I am the one. Have you come to meet me or my clothes?)

'True music will pierce your soul. I have had conversations with so many people of all classes in Banaras. There is no inequality in these groups. We are all friends today. Banaras is the place where you can become a “pundit” regardless of your caste or class. Meera worships Ravidas here. The caste that gets oppressed all over finds relief here.'

The inevitable question of making a living through the arts arises and he replies, 'I am not saying music shouldn't be able to feed you. But you cannot cheapen and commercialise what is food for your soul.'

Music, whenever, wherever

'In Banaras we don't need an excuse for musical performances.' Lalit Kumar, tabla accompanist, has been teaching in the Mahila Mahavidyalaya of BHU and also accompanying several artists. 'Apart from the bigger festivals, there are baithaks in Banaras. They are done for 50-60 people in small halls or houses. Budwamangal, the Tuesday after the festival of Holi, is also celebrated. It is done to say goodbye to the old (budwa) year and also to create a space for old people to celebrate Holi. Another occasion is Gulabari. Rose petals mixed with water are strewn on people. Thandai is served with paan and kaju burfi, and the programme continues through the night. 

'If you want to come and enjoy the music of Banaras there are so many festivals lined up: Sankat Mochan, Dev Deepavali, Ganga Mahotsav . .  . Assi and Dashawamedh ghats are specially favoured for the open air programmes.'

This is the extent to which the music is seeped into the breath of this city – it does not belong to one or another but rather it is of Banaras, of Banarasis, musicians and non-musicians alike.

The objective eye 

Though not a musician himself, author Kashinath Singh's books would give the reader a perfect vision of Banaras. He has lived in the city and lived the city. So it seems fitting to know about his take on the music Banaras offers. He begins, 'When we were young, the author Agyeya would bring out the paper Dinman. We got to know of Pandit Jasraj through that. 

Kashinath Singh and Lalit Kumar (L to R)

'Music has always cut across religions. Sa re ga ma is the same for everyone. After the 2006 bomb blast in Sankat Mochan temple, where the Sankat Mochan music festival is held each year,  Muslim artists also started coming there. Artists from all religions played there and together appealed for peace.

He too had something to add about the preservation of Banaras’s rich musical heritage, 'New talent would continue to arise. But earlier if your guru tied a ganda  (amulet) on you, it would mean you dedicate your entire life to your art form. Now we don't know how many people are devoted to music and how many are learning only to teach foreigners. I understand that one has to struggle to maintain their dignity and eke out a living. Let's see how we can do this gracefully.'

Once a Banarasi . . .

Wistful that I couldn't spend more time in the city and soak up all the music I had to offer, I board the train for my return journey. But Banaras is not done with me. An employee of HP travelling in the same compartment, Sudarshan Mishra, strikes up a conversation. 'I make it a point to go either to Ganga Mahotsav or Sankat Mochan festival or to any that I can go to. Of course in school the RIMPA festival used to be the big attraction. The fest would host the prominent classical music celebrities of that time. We couldn't afford even the cheapest tickets so we would try to scale the wall. I miss Banaras and its music.' He sighs, sharing a vivid memory of the muharram procession when Bismillah Khan would walk playing his shehnai and listeners, regardless of their religion, would be eagerly jostling on the sides of the road.'

I could in a way relate to his nostalgia. The echoes of the instruments, the nuanced voices of the singers in Banaras seem to give the setting for a time preserved in memory. Music is not hurried in Banaras. It takes its time. And in that time it permeates the air and your ear with its notes so that even when you wake up the next morning , you can feel the self being strummed upon. 

A lone boat at the ghat

First published in The Equator Line, Jul-Sep 2015.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

How to Get Married Without an Aadhaar Number

From the time of its inception, in the year 2009, a key question at the centre of the Unique Identification (UID) project has been whether the 12-digit Aadhaar number can be made mandatory, and whether people can be denied services for not having one.

The judiciary has ruled unambiguously on the question. On 23 September 2013, the Supreme Court, in response to a writ petition filed by the former judge KS Puttaswamy, challenging the government’s mission of universal Aadhaar enrolment, and of linking various benefit schemes to the programme, ruled that “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card,” despite the fact that some authorities had issued circulars making it mandatory. On 24 March 2014, in another case, it ruled that the biometrics collected for Aadhaar are to be confidential, and, additionally, that “no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number ... All the authorities are directed to modify their forms/circulars/likes so as to not compulsorily require the Aadhaar number...”

One might presume that two clear rulings from the highest court of the land would suffice to lay down the law across the country. And yet, when we—the writers of this piece—reached the office of an additional district magistrate (ADM) in Delhi on the morning of 20 February 2015 to submit our marriage application under the Special Marriages Act of 1954, we were ordered to provide our Aadhaar numbers. “Without Aadhaar, we cannot process your application,” the ADM’s assistant said.

We pointed out that such a requirement was not mentioned anywhere in the law. The assistant responded that he could not help us, since the software in which he had to key in the information to register our application would not allow him to proceed unless an Aadhaar number was keyed in first.
This was in clear violation of the Supreme Court notice of 2014, which directed all authorities to modify their “forms/circulars/likes so as to not compulsorily require the Aadhaar number.” Laws, it seemed, can lose all power as they percolate through many layers of government before they reach the average citizen.

Neither of us had enrolled for Aadhaar, but the office staff informed us that if we did so immediately, our enrolment numbers would suffice to process the application. Though exasperated, we were keen on getting married soon and so chose to enrol, deciding that we would take up the fight later.
Our experience at the enrolment centre further strengthened our impression that the average citizen is arm-twisted into falling into step with the requirements of the Aadhaar programme. For starters, we were charged Rs 100 each by the enrolment centre, when in fact, the procedure is supposed to be free. We also found that the application form asked users whether we granted consent for the information to be shared (without specifying what information would be shared, with whom, and for which purpose). Neither of us wanted to consent to any such thing, but when we received a slip acknowledging our enrolment, it showed that we had in fact given consent. When we asked the person who was enrolling us about this, his response was the same as the person at the ADM’s office—that the software would not allow him to enrol us unless he indicated that we consented to share our information.

We had resigned ourselves to being bulldozed into doing the government’s bidding when, later that day, we had the good fortune of meeting the activist and scholar Usha Ramanathan, who has been opposing what she sees as the flagrant wrongs of the Aadhaar project. When Ramanathan offered to accompany us to the ADM’s office to argue our case, we gladly accepted.

Three days later, we returned to the office to argue our case with the staff. In the course of our discussion, we offered the staff a solution that we thought might circumvent the software’s hiccups: that they key in random characters in the box for the Aadhaar number. The assistant smiled at us indulgently and said that he had tried it all. He then asked us to meet the ADM himself and sort out the matter.

The ADM, who, as it turned out, was a polite and patient man, explained to us that as a government officer, he was caught in this matter between obeying the orders of the judiciary and those of the executive. While the former ostensibly lays down the rule of law, it can only be put in operation, and thus trickle down to the layperson, by the executive. After the Supreme Court orders, the ADM said, the Revenue Department of Delhi should have sent around directions to operationalise the court’s order. It had not done this. Therefore, he had to follow the existing system, which mandated the use of Aadhaar. With the executive ignoring the judiciary’s rulings, the law remained a theoretical truth. The ADM suggested that to pursue the matter, we take up the matter at the Department of Revenue.

The Department of Revenue, which handles “issues of various statutory documents,” including marriage certificates, had issued a circular in December 2012 stating that the Aadhaar platform would be used for many of their services. “Hence, it is considered necessary that the Aadhaar information of the applicants seeking the various certificates from the Revenue Department is to be given in the Application Forms itself,” the circular stated. (The certificates listed included the SC/ST certificate, OBC certificate, domicile certificate, income certificate and others, but, curiously, the marriage certificate is not mentioned in the list.)

At the office, we were directed to another official, a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) who handled Aadhaar-related matters. If the ADM had been polite, and unhelpful only because he did not know how to help, this SDM was pointedly rude. We waited outside his door for about half an hour without being shown in. Finally, we intercepted him when he stepped outside the office on his way elsewhere. “Who sent you here?” he asked, looking at us suspiciously. We told him why we were there. “It cannot be done without Aadhaar,” he scoffed. We pointed out that such a requirement was against court orders. “Go file a contempt petition then,” he said, before storming off.

As we waited there, determined to take him up on his challenge, we received a call from the ADM’s staff, asking us to come back because they had figured out a way around the problem. Back at the office, the ADM told us that he had spoken to the legal department, the legal cell and some other ADMs in other jurisdictions. All this legal consultation yielded the following advice, which we had already suggested: if we were determined to register our marriage without the Aadhaar, all they had to do was key in dots instead of digits in the box provided.

They proceeded to do this, and our application went through successfully. After this was done, the ADM struck up a conversation with us to find out why we were so set against the Aadhaar project. We explained our various concerns, ranging from privacy issues to the sheer inefficacy of the system. “Actually I haven’t enrolled myself either,” the ADM said. “My wife complains that I am enrolling the whole world but not our family.” He added, “I’m not fully convinced of its benefits.”

Ahead of the wedding date, we discovered another potential roadblock. Subsequent to our previous rounds of the offices, the Revenue Department had issued a follow-up circular. Absurdly, the circular attempted to fulfil the SC’s stipulation that no one should be denied any service for want of an Aadhaar number, by ordering that anyone without an Aadhaar should be taken to be enrolled at the nearest centre so that they could then provide the enrolment number. The fact that this was still a form of coerced enrolment seemed to escape the authorities completely.

By happy coincidence, a hearing in the Supreme Court on Justice Puttaswamy’s writ petition—during the earlier hearing of which the initial order in 2013 was issued—was scheduled for 16 March. With the new circular in hand, Ramanathan went to meet the lawyer in the case, Gopal Subramaniam, to apprise him of the developments in the lower rungs of the government.

Six days later, at the hearing, Subramaniam began by pointing out that there was widespread violation of the court’s order against mandatory Aadhaar. A lawyer who was present told us that he cited our example: two people seeking to get married who were turned away for not having enrolled. Justice Chelameshwar, who was heading the special bench constituted for the matter, asked whether it was an arranged marriage or a love marriage. “Special marriage,” Subramaniam responded. Chelameswar jovially retorted, “Mr Subramaniam, you should be pleased that government has not mandated that they need to have Aadhaar to even love one another.” “Thankfully, that is just about the only thing they have left out, your lordships,” Subramaniam said.
Subsequent to this hearing, the Supreme Court issued an order reinforcing its earlier stand on the issue. “It is brought to our notice that in certain quarters, Aadhaar identification is being insisted upon by the various authorities,” the court said. “We expect that both the Union of India and States and all their functionaries should adhere to the Order passed by this Court on 23rd September, 2013.”

On 27 March, Ramanathan visited the Revenue Department to check that there would be no further Aadhaar-related hurdles to our registering our marriage. There she learned that the SDM who had earlier advised us to file contempt, had issued a note stating, “All concerned are requested to ensure strict compliance of the orders of Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. Any administrative instructions in violation of the order of Hon’ble Supreme Court will have no validity.” Finally, the impact of the law seemed to reach at least some of the lower offices. The ruling has not ensured compliance across all government offices, but this one circular represents one small step forward.

And so, we were married at the ADM’s office without any further trouble. But, in our first encounter with the system, we had in fact enrolled for the Aadhaar number, even if we didn’t provide it for the marriage application. Thus, we now have two more battles before us. One, to revoke the consent we were forced to give to have our information shared. Two, more ambitiously, to try and get our Aadhaar numbers revoked.

First published in Caravan, 9 May 2015.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Stirrings beneath the peepul

In recent years khaps (groups of elected village elders, or headmen) have induced horror in the public eye with what are called their kangaroo courts and barbaric judgments. In the debates around violence against women gaining prominence everyday, they have recurred as a figure that represents the worst kind of regression when it comes to gender equality. A Supreme Court judgment declared their orders unlawful, and they have been at the end of much criticism from activist organisations and many sections of the general public. 

Then began reports of  some khaps banning foeticide or stating that it is an outdated custom to ban inter-caste marriages. There was talk of their wanting to contest elections and it was said that some of them are trying to change their public perception in order to gain votes, or to maintain their relevance in changing times. Some said that maybe public disapproval has actually made them aware that they were wrong and now they are trying to make amends. Meanwhile, crimes against women continued and in February 2015 one of the most brutal ones was the rape and murder of a mentally challenged Nepali woman in Rohtak district of Haryana. Next week, I interviewed some khap pradhans to hear them talk about how they see their role, and also the role of women, in present day society.

'I am not fit to stand next to my wife. I have ill-treated her.'
Ram Mehar Singh Hooda
Erstwhile pradhan, Hooda khap

The ex-pradhan started with a background of khaps. 'It is a job involving immense responsibility as God is our witness.' Khaps, he says, started so people could solve their own problems, related to property, marriage or debt, and did not have to go to court. 'Going to court involves several expenses, and money could be used to influence witnesses. A khap is formed by different people's recommendations. The khap pradhan cannot lie or it would be a weight on his conscience. In his decisions he would not observe enmities or friendships. If he errs, his community would correct him.

'A khap is a group of multiple villages. A khap pradhan can preside over matters of members of his community living in different villages. The pradhan [leader] has to be from the village which is the origin of the community. For instance, Hoodas came from Khidwali village and so the Hooda pradhan has to be from the same village each time. From that village, the choice of the pradhan thereafter depends on his familial repute, his leadership qualities and the absence of a criminal background.'

When asked to share what he feels about gender equality, he says it is unfortunate that despite campaigns to save the girl child, politicians do not implement the laws because they do not want to upset people. 'Panchayats have favoured girls. Also earlier women had no property rights but now they do. I can say from experience that a man is nothing in front of a woman. Women fulfil so many roles while men struggle in one.' I thought of how talking of women as superior, god-like beings stereotypes them as much as imposing inferiority on them does.

He states that men have dominated society and exploited women because they know that women are 'kind, forgiving and generous'. Adding to the praise that has often kept women trapped in their oppression, he says, 'A woman has qualities that sustain the world. The moment a mother sees a child, her breast overflows with milk.'

Sharing his experience over marital disputes, he talks of a possible situation where the girl does not want to return to her marital house but the boy wants to bring her back. 'There are some things the girl finds unspeakable and so she shares only a portion of her troubles with her mother. The mother, who is from an even older generation, finds some of the troubles trivial. So when she goes to the panchayat she represents only a portion of what her daughter has told her. The panchayat too, unable to empathise with the girl's predicament, may find some things “normal” and asks the boy's parents to correct their son's behaviour. The son, who is the culprit, is not even present in the hearing so he does not get to realise what he has done to really be able to correct it. The girl takes recourse to her last option, suicide.'

Expressing his regret over such cases, he says that in order to deliver justice, khaps have to go deep into the circumstances. It is tough to take a decision, and tougher to ensure its implementation. 'To follow up is my duty. Otherwise I should not have a right to preside over these disputes. After seven-fifteen days of announcing the decision, the pradhan should ideally follow up by speaking to the petitioners' neighbours for their testimonies. In fifty-sixty cases, the women were found to be happy as the men had corrected themselves after our orders. In one case when the man failed to comply, we got a police complaint registered against him and he spent a year and a half in jail.'

He talks of three kinds of people who come to khaps with their cases. 'Those illiterate may have done many wrongs but apologise easily. Those who are literate are superior. But the toughest cases are the ones where people are semi-literate. They keep cases hanging and the worst sufferer is the girl. We say that if there cannot be a reconciliation, let the couple separate. But do not keep the girl waiting forever. It is additionally unfortunate that boys remarry easily but girls who remarry are scorned.'

His wife, Rajdulari, is sitting quietly listening to the conversation. The pradhan goes on, 'Once there was a case of fraud when the boy had given the girl's family a false impression of his assets. We said if there is to be a separation the boy should give the girl a divorce so that when she works outside, her marital family does not come to trouble her again. Later the boy came to say he did not want a divorce. He was from our village and the girl was from another. Though some people criticised us for it, we stood by the girl. Girls are naturally weak and they deserve all the support they can get.' I find it ironic that a little while ago he had called women superior. 

'In one case the girl came back from her marital house on the third day of the marriage and refused to go back. She said if she is asked to go back she would give up her life. Both sides were ready for a separation. I could sense that there is some serious problem that the girl is uncomfortable in sharing. But how could I ask her?' 

He got to know of a close friend of hers and called her to give her version of the events. The friend was reluctant. The pradhan urged her to treat him like her elder and reveal the truth as many people's happiness was at stake. 'She finally agreed to speak to me privately. It was then discovered that the boy had said to the girl on the night of the wedding that till both of them find jobs the relationship would not be consummated and they would stay in the house as “brother and sister”. 

'Upon knowing this, I called the families aside and asked them to decide if they wanted a divorce. I said, “If the girl dies I will too, so make sure of what she wants.”' Since both agreed to separate, he had the wedding gifts returned. 

'Later there was another problem. The girl's parents could not find anyone. They said, “Even though she is pure, nobody will believe that.” They looked towards me to find a boy. I knew a decent guy from a good family. His family had told me that he should listen to me and agree to whatever I say. The boy said he is willing to accept my decision. I said the people who are going to spend their lives together should take the decision themselves. 

'The first time I arranged their meeting they did not talk at all. I said this was not a matter to be shy about. Things needed to be clear before one decided to marry. I told the boy, “You know for a fact that the girl has been married once. You should never repeat this in front of the girl.” The girl's condition was that she could not do the housework but wanted to open her medical clinic. I asked both the families to contribute to the setting up of the clinic, though the girl's parents willingly gave more. The couple is very happy today and keeps coming to see me. I support girls because I want to follow nature; nature favours and blesses girls.' 

I request him and his spouse to stand together for a photograph. He obliges but fidgets, 'I am not fit to stand next to my wife. Maine iske saath bahut durachar kiya hai (I have ill-treated her).'

Ram Mehar Singh Hooda, Rajdulari

'Some  boys involved in the act were totally spoilt, cruel. Others were innocent who got blinded by lust.'

Hardeep Singh Ahlawat
Pradhan, Ahlawat khap

'The media portrays us as Taliban. But no khap has got any honour killing done till now. As for some of the things we believe in, they are not without reason. I am not a doctor but I have met doctors, professors. To marry within the gotra [clan] has scientific problems. We can only try to save our society and traditions.

'Nowadays boys have become so scared that they dare not harass a girl. Look at the case of the Rohtak sisters [who had been first applauded for their courage in fighting sexual harassment and later accused of having fabricated the case]. They have done wrong. The media clips prove this. Yet the girls and their families are not ready to withdraw the case. The girls wanted to get popular and get government jobs through the bravery awards.' 

How then do we move towards eliminating sexual harassment and regrettable public safety for women?

'People do not know anything in their youth, from the age of 14 to 20. They are blind. Earlier there were people like Dayanand Saraswati who tried to bring in some samaskara [virtues] "like brahmacharya [oath of abstinence] in society. Now such values are not imparted either in homes or schools. My wife could be inside working and my child could pick up the phone and see anything. A young body is always ready to make a mistake.'

When asked about sex education, he says, 'I agree that all our definitions about good and bad in society are not correct. If I talk to anyone about sex education, I would be called shameless. The health of one boy in our family had been falling and we could not fathom the reason. One day his father accidentally discovered that the boy had been masturbating. We counselled the boy and told him how it could make him weak. He understood and gave up the bad habit, and recovered his health. So yes, I agree, that sex education can guide young people properly.

'If you take the example of the Nepali woman who was raped and killed, you'd find some boys involved in the act were totally spoilt, cruel. Others were innocent who got blinded by lust. You know how it is. Some of these spoilt boys go out to party, call other, more naive, boys from their mobile, and they just join. Because of the mobile phone networking all the boys were caught. One section of people would say they should be hanged. But would it help in the long term?'

I think of how tradition, or rather orthodoxy, transmutes in the weirdest of ways to fit inside a narrative of progress. It is one thing to say that boys rape because they are not aware of the consequences, of the punishment. But what about feeling compassion and respect for another human being? 'That differs from person to person. I am the kind who would not hurt a fly. My brother is completely different. The Taliban is cruel. I cannot even slap a person. One can't say why people's souls are different. Even for the 16 December  rape case, I had said that the juvenile should not have been let off so easily. He was the cruellest.'

Some people come to ask for donation for an organisation that saves cows and other animals. The pradhan says that he cannot pledge too big an amount because khap pradhans do not get paid. They have to bear the expenses of their work themselves.

He then gets back to the follies of youth, talking of how thirty years ago there was a fight between 'Harijan' and Jat boys just because they bumped against each other while walking, an incident which led to killings. Whether the folly was the murderous instinct of caste purity, or the innocuous folly of the Dalit, he does not clarify. 

'We ask people to do many good things: not to flaunt the dowry they give or take; to have simple weddings; to marry in the day so that money can be saved and there is less drinking and, therefore, fewer drunken brawls. People don't listen to us.' I wonder if the force of 'moralising' is as powerful as the force of the commands, the edicts people have come to know and condemn khaps for. 

Right outside the living room where the interview is taking place, Hardeep Ahlawat's wife is cleaning the cattle shed. I ask her if I could speak to her too. She enters tentatively and takes a seat. We talk about girls' education and she shares, 'I studied a bit when I was growing up. Now people are educating their daughters more and so are we. But yes if she has to go for tuitions in the evening, we cannot allow her to go alone. That kind of environment is still not there.' Ahlawat says, 'Only 20-30 per cent people do not educate their girls now. The rest do. And after marriage if her marital family allows she can work also.' As is common in society, in the Ahlawat family too it seems that till the girl is married the father would be her chief guardian/custodian and after marriage her life decisions would be taken by her spouse and marital family.

For the photograph, when Ahlawat's wife comes to stand next to him, he says she will look too short standing next to him. I show the photograph I have clicked and the wife looks unsure. When I start clicking again, Ahlawat tells his wife impatiently that one cannot really change the way she looks, that photographs can only reflect what's out there.

The Ahlawat pradhan and his spouse

'If you uplift a Dalit, within a week his tone would change.'
Kidar Singh Kadyan
Pradhan, Kadyan khap

When I introduce myself, he ritualistically raises his hand to bless me like priests do, assuming all who come close would want to be blessed, and I stagger in discomfort. He too shares the mechanics of the ritual justice system of his khap. 'Usually women and the elderly are not called to panchayats. Someone is deputed to go and get their statements. That person has to be conscientious and honestly report to us. As for the culprit, he has to come with his family. If the culprit is absconding, the family comes. But if the guy does not make an appearance we can also report him to the police.'

Perhaps anxious if my attention is wavering, he asks me if I am looking at something. I point to his little grandson peeping from behind the curtains. He calls the child, 'Jat ka balak hoke sharma raha hai?' (You're feeling shy despite being the son of a jat?) Then he turns to me, 'Even when there are cases of people known or related to us, we have to pronounce fair judgments. Once a boy's parent I knew created a furore over how his son was being implicated. But when I investigated and asked him why his son's shoe was found at the crime scene, he had no answer.

'Each community is different and so are their rules. For example Dalits work in the fields while we do not. The same goes for rural and urban spaces. In cities people come home as late as 11 pm. Here even in the day if someone comes back late by an hour or two, we ask for the reason. Members of our communities who have migrated to cities easily agree to an intercaste marriage while here in villages, it is only under compulsion - when someone within the community is not found. 

'There are practical problems with intercaste marriages. If you uplift a Dalit, within a week his tone would change. He would become disrespectful towards you. People would tell him that he has been exploited by upper castes so he would always be wary of them. In such a situation even if he marries someone from that community, he would always be mocking and taunting her.

So exogamy is a problem. What about endogamy? 'Years ago there was a double murder of a same gotra couple by the family. They were arrested but the police kept struggling to find witnesses. Villagers also agree that people within a gotra share a brother-sister relationship. It is not that we ostracise such people. These families feel ashamed to go out and interact with others. If someone does something wrong, naturally the person would feel ashamed. 

'As for mobile phones and ways of dressing, rather than imposing bans our stress is on doing things within control. Some people issue a farman [decree] threatening consequences if their orders are not followed. Who follows them? They just get photographed and make fools of themselves in the media. Go and check their homes. Are they or their families following what they are preaching? 

'If girls are pure, they cannot be harmed.' An air of heaviness punctuates our conversation. 'They should be gutsy enough to slap the person. But it is sad to look at cases like the Rohtak sisters' where they bashed up a boy with prior planning.'

I ask for his views on the most recent failure of all. 'What happened with the Nepali woman was worse than the other rape cases because she was not mentally fit. The boys deserve to be hanged for the pain they caused her. What they committed was a blunder, not a mistake. It is our responsibility to ensure such things do not get repeated.'

On the subject of women's education, he says, 'Our granddaughter studies in another city. We wanted her to study in the best place. I approached so many ministers at the time of her admission. None of it worked. Then she cleared the entrance test and got admitted. Just like that! Both my daughters-in-law are teachers. My wife is class 2 pass.

'Education has become so important. A best mother award was given to a “Harijan” woman who worked as a labourer and taught her children. My mother studied till class 2. She could have taught in a school. But my grandfather said no. Nobody suggested to him that she need not have taken the salary; she could have just taught.'

His wife comes in and says she was busy keeping the children quiet while we talked. Vimla Devi looks easy and confident. Kadyan warmly introduces me to her and continues, 'Khaps must continue. Our youth can then be saved. Khaps will keep them under check.' He asks me to note down that the youth today is averse to guidance. 'Road accidents mostly occur due to young people who have a lot of their parents' money.'

He reiterates, 'As for intercaste and intra-gotra marriages, we are clearly opposed to them. There have been interstate marriages outside the community which are fine. These are to women who come from other states. Their natal families are not here. So the question of taunting her or her family for her caste does not arise.

Coming back to his family, he says, 'We would encourage our granddaughter to pursue what she wants. Yet there are some things we would not allow like going to nightclubs.'

Kidar Singh Kadyan and Vimla Devi

Listening to the stakeholders


In an effort to see how it is for women in the cities, I spend some time with two families in the city of Rohtak. In one of them, the woman, possibly in her late twenties, one of the gentlest I have met, remembers she never did any work while living with her parents. 'My father would tell my mother, “Do not give her any work. Who knows what sort of a household she gets after marriage? She may have to work there. At least here she should have some rest.' 

She has two sons, 'Once I wasn't well and my husband asked for a second cup of tea. I was irritable and refused. He said something sharp in turn. That day my son did not finish his lunch. His teacher called to say he was extremely quiet in school. My husband and I decided never to speak loudly with the children around.' 

When I ask why her spouse did not want to her to complete her graduation, she is annoyed, 'Meri toh ab nibh gayi' (I have adjusted now). After a pause, she asks, 'You have a job. You are independent. Why are you thinking of marrying?'

In another home where education and high profile government jobs came four generations earlier, the woman I talk to is much more vocal. 'Khaps may tell you they do not do honour killings. But their pressure of ostracisation is so strong on families that couples are killed or commit suicide.' She had her first child, a daughter, now in primary school, after almost twenty years of marriage. 'First they asked me to have a child. Then they said I should have a son and I did too, in the next few years. Now people say I could have one more. 

'When we didn't have a child, my mother-in-law would tell me she would get her son married to my younger sister. I asked if they would do the same for me if my husband turned out to be the one with a medical issue. This created a storm and my natal family was summoned to show them how “rude and indecent” I was. Today I tell them they are welcome to bring another woman into the house. I am not a child producing machine.

'I am criticised for paying more attention to my daughter, and it is true that I am more protective of her. My son is pampered by everyone. My daughter has got only me. But, maybe because I have been overprotective, now without me she doesn't want to go anywhere or make friends. I should change that. I want her to grow into a confident person.'

I ask the mother-in-law if she feels people shouldn't differentiate between sons and daughters. 'How can I lie to you about something I didn't do myself? After two daughters, my husband suggested an operation. But I and my mother-in-law did not agree. The chief minister asks people to have only two children. But his own relatives are unable to follow that.'

And the world

As infamous it is for its skewed sex ratio with men hugely outnumbering women, Haryana's name also comes up regularly during major national and international sports championships when women players from Haryana feature among the winners. On the main sports ground of Rohtak city, I meet a batch of women wrestlers practising. Some also wrestle with men. When I ask about their experience at the time that they started training, one of them, Nikki Jatain, shares, 'Our parents were told, “Teach your son, feed your son. What is the use of feeding daughters so much? If you feed the sons, they would grow muscular.” Our parents did not care for such comments.' 

I recall my phone conversation with Anuradha Beniwal, a chess player from Haryana who has been playing in international tournaments since a child and now teaches and plays the game in London. She feels lucky to have parents who nurtured her talent and never pressurised her to marry or do a certain job or a course. She says that she remembers khaps as a benevolent body while she was growing up, who would give prizes to girls when they won sports competitions. I ask the group of wrestlers about their opinion on khaps, and the unanimous answer comes that they should cease to exist. 

Anuradha Beniwal: Checkmating the masters

I told them about how pradhans feel they are not obeyed anyway. Kanta Jatain answers, 'Tell me, how can anyone listen to them looking at the kind of things they say? They say girls should not wear jeans. Are we expected to wrestle in salwar kurtas?' Another one, Rekha Kadyan, pitches in, 'We are worried that if the sarpanch gets to know that some girls are preparing a dance programme for the school function, he would ban that as well.' The fourth one says, 'We are wrestlers. We have physical strength. Yet we are afraid to be out in the dark.'

Have the strongholds of patriarchy really started giving way?

During my trip, I went to attend a khap hearing where the Rohtak rape-murder case was to be discussed. Upon reaching the meeting place, I was told the meet was cancelled because the pradhan had to rush back to the village where a woman got burnt. I met the pradhans I interviewed individually, where they spoke in the privacy and comfort of their homes. Would their statements have been any different if they had met collectively or while performing their 'official' functions as khap pradhans? 

One common factor binding them was that they tried to use logic to explain their stand on issues. Whether that logic appeals to others or not is a different question. But are they making this effort to justify and explain their position in order to gain relevance in present times? Or is this simply defence of spurious logic in order to secure more people's obedience arising out of belief and not merely from fear? Or is it due to the most common reason for changing one's position, to gain electoral power?

In any of the situations, if the final aim is to win more ayes, khaps in the state would do well by directly engaging in a conversation with the Rekhas, Kantas and Nikkis of Haryana, instead of denying them the right to be who they have already become.

Krishan Singh Beniwal participated in conducting some of the interviews.

First published in The Equator Line, Apr-Jun 2015.


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