Post-Modern Undercurrents

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‘Whether there is a Modi wave or not, is not to be known from the large gatherings, sometimes the undercurrents are stronger than the open waves.’ Says Medha Patkar, social activist and candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Mumbai North East.

This article appears in Outlook magazine on the 28th April, 2014 issue.

Santosh Thorat, an organizer for the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement from Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar in Mankhurd had many questions about joining Aam Aadmi Party, long before the Assembly Elections in Delhi, long before his movement and Medha Patkar would decide to stand for elections in Mumbai North East; his own constituency that had seen massive demolitions in 2004-2005 of 80,000 homes. It was pretty obvious that day, a year earlier in an Irani restaurant in Bandra, that he wouldn’t want his own politics, of strong community-driven movements, of Ambedkarite politics, a strong anti-caste centrality, of women’s participation, from the legacy of Bhagat Singh to Annabhau Sathe, to be diluted by joining any political party, as a footsoldier, but as a leader of people.

Today he holds meetings in groups after groups of women, all who have been part of dharna after dharna, march after march, demanding a right to a home, now moving their strategy towards electoral politics: everyone here must get ten votes for Medha Patkar and for Aam Aadmi Party. Exactly a month earlier, when Medha held a public meeting to decide whether to go for electoral politics or not: a patient Santosh waited for his turn to speak on stage, and when he got his chance, he gave a short speech to loud applause, simple and to the point: ‘Tai kudh nahi khadi hai, hum unko khada karaya.’ (Medha is not standing for herself, we are making her stand for elections)

‘Humare kaam karne ke liye hum Tai ko khada kiye’ (We are making her stand for elections to do our work)

In the 2009 general elections, her constituency was really a neck-in neck battle between Sanjay Dina Patil of the Nationalist Congress Party and Kirit Somaiya of the Bharatiya Janta Party, both who are running again, whose vote tallies had a difference of just 2,933 votes. NCP counted 2,13,505 votes to BJP’s 2,10,572 votes, with Maharashtra Navkiran Sena’s Shishir Shinde coming third with 1,95,148 votes. And while none of them have started their election campaign, apart from trying to ridicule Medha Patkar or talk about Modi Waves, at every other street corner laden with AAP’s signature white hats, a speech is often heard, ‘In the last elections 9 lakh people did not vote, this time please do.’

Medha Patkar’s AAP campaign strategy is to the point, she simply responds, ‘we’re reaching out to people. And we have to resort to whatever electronic media my collegues use, and to hold small meetings, work with groups that are active in the grassroots.’

“The campaign is of course hampered by the twin handicaps of funding and electoral rules: ‘We apparently can’t even put our stickers outside the autos, even if they are owned by autowallas,’ she would say. Just two days earlier the BJP had a frontpage advertisement, in the Times of India, which as per their rates of Rs.6960 per square centimetre, and that a frontpage has 1716 square centimetre, comes to Rs.11,942,360, without the 15% discount. Meanwhile Medha’s AAP donation website merely collected 13,000 in the 4 days it went online (On the sixth day a corporate lawyer from Kolkata donated Rs.1,00,00 for as he has seen Medha work for years, and feels corruption is a cause to all ills). ‘We say development planning has to be face to face, so how can electoral campaigning not be face to face?’ she says, sitting in a small AAP office in Vikhroli, set up by a small restaurant owner, over the chatter of volunteers and the tan-tan of drums ready to be played when they continue to go on the road. (the five young boys who had come from Vikhroli’s Bheem Chhaya Nagar to play drums for Medha’s walks through the bastis, also faced election rules, as the police did not give them permission to play publically.)

‘We have to depend on the social media.’ She says, ‘But there has to has to be very serious changes in rules and regulations from the election commission. Hoardings are allowed, on purchase basis, where parties pay lakhs of rupees but banners are not allowed. We are not allowed to put our stickers. Raj Thackeray has put up big hoardings, lakhs, and crores are spent, but those are not violations. There’s a rule that your hoardings should not face the municipal land, but the road is municipal land, why is that not a violation? Do we all just point our banners to ourselves?’

Almost every other day, her campaign starts after a night spent as late as time affords, as she wakes up at 5 in the morning, plans her meetings with her volunteers, and continues with short rallies and meetings, on the road, at parks, at markets, at crossroads and nakas, up the small by-lanes of slums, to small rooms and homes housed by countless supporters of the movement and now the party, with a motley bunch of volunteers, those rooted in the grassroots and those who have come down from their buildings, from across the city, and some from across the country. On the road with her, it is clear that in many of the lower depths of the city, her simplicity is something that strikes with her prospective voters, and her legendary energy, which some feel is her strenght but also others fear for her age, and the tolls of countless hunger strikes and arrests by the police.

In one of her public meetings on the 14th of March, at the one birthplaces of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, at Rafiq Nagar 2, it was almost an accepted reality, as far as bystander conversations can grace wholesale voting patterns, that they would all vote for her, they just don’t need to sit in a public rally where a thousand people, mostly unorganized workers sat patiently, donning the AAP hats that were being distributed by young volunteers. Rafiq Nagar, itself, is on the dumping grounds of Mumbai, where children die every other month from malnutrition-related disease, where policemen routinely harass young Muslim boys, and which has faced demolitions almost every other year. Rafiq Nagar, the citadel of the ragpickers, Rafiq Nagar, when it was still Rafiq Nagar 1, where some boys still have not returned home from the 1992 riots.

It was here that proceedings started with Lok Shahir Milind Kambli from Mulund, who starts the rally with a song, a rendition of Sambaji Bhagat’s Surat ko pehchano bhai’– a song that attacks caste as much as corruption, that invokes Dr.Ambedkar’s dreams, ridicules every political figure, from Advani, to the Gandhis, and invokes the blindness of those who ran after the ‘mandir’.

The organizers would then give speeches, with Santosh Thorat now talking about his memories of growing up near Rafiq Nagar, with Jameela Begum from Mandala talking about the memories of the movement, and Ram from Mandala talking about the recent custodial death of 22 year old Mohammed Sheikh who was picked up by the Shivaji Nagar police. It was exactly like all the countless public meetings of the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, except for the entry of the slogan: ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, sometimes invoked by Atique, himself a Muslim from UP, and sometimes to the chagrin of other Muslims in the movement, while Medha herself feels these slogans need to be reclaimed from the Hindutva, and returned to the tradition of the Independence struggle.

The one thing that AAP has done for Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement, whether as a boon or a bane, is that it has brought many volunteers from the upper middle classes, the middle classes, and upper-castes, or Savarnas, into what was once a purely populated by the working class, the urban poor, and those who have grown up in a tradition of Ambedkar politics. Her rallies at more suburban middle class areas are often done with the help of AAP volunteers and a ragtag group of locals who she has worked with in the movement. The slogans that she invokes, is typically from a rights tradition: ‘Hume Satta nahi Satya chahiye! (We are for truth not for power) and ‘Matya deya, hakka leva’ (Give your vote, take your rights.)

Her speeches at all corners are laced with not just ‘brashtachyaar’ (corruption) but also ‘atyachaar’ (atrocity) and covers the work done by the movement to expose the Adarsh scam, the Maharashtra Sugar scam, to the SRA scams, the corruption in the builder lobby, to the work that was done for unorganized workers, street hawkers, slum-dwellers, to invocations of women’s participation in the community and to vote, to the behaviour of the previous Minister of Parliament who has apparently never asked a single question in parliament, to the lies of every ruling party in the state that promised the regularization of slums, to basic infrastructure: sanitation, electricity, roads, and water, which many people of her constituency are deprived of. She often exerts that there is 30,000 acres land free in the city, and inequitible distribution of resources is a mainstay in her speechs on the street corner. ‘Land has to be released. Land is now blocked. From Bhayandar, Vasai to Mumbai, a handful of companies and a few hundred people have more than 10 acres, six companies have more than 500 to 2000-3000acres.’

The ten-year long movement for the Right To Housing, the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, is central to understanding the shifting genealogies of a city, where housing moved from being ‘shelter’ to ‘an investment’, and the markets only defence regarding its existential crisis of slums, is to demolish them in the name of urban planning. Meanwhile, a Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme for the BMC, stated that …. ‘the relevant dimension is that the area, they (slums) together occupy – just 6 per cent of all land in Mumbai explaining the horrific levels of congestion.’ And against mainstream perception that the movement is demanding free housing, at every public rally, they themselves demand that they’re willing to pay for affordable housing, often to cheers from an entire crowd. ‘If Hiranandani gets land meant for us for Rs.40 per acre, we’re willing to pay even more!’ Said organizer Jameel Akhtar from Ambujwadi in January of 2012.

‘Our housing plan’ Says Medha, ‘Includes dormitaries, to self-reliant housing. And for that it is very necessary that you classify people according to their needs. And the whole plan has to be brought out by public-people participation. Under the public agencies and the people themselves – and the people include the construction labourers and the service sector.’

‘And some of the issues we’re raising are pollution and environmental, and the polluted air does not understand if its flowing through slums or the middle class areas. Drainage, infrastructure, the traffic, and there is no regulation about the number of cars coming on the roads, or whether there will be a skywalk or something else, there is just no consultation with the people. All of this clearly, brings out the non-participatory and undemocratic planning on one hand, and the corruption on the other. And it brings in the fraudulent and flawed planning, and the affordable housing’s definition and the plan for 1 crore housing, is very acheivable.’

It had become visibly obvious that her decision to stand for elections was not just taken due to AAP’s Assembly Election results, or that she is propelled to fight for her movement and Right To Housing, but she also adds, almost as an afterthought, that there had to be a counter to Modi. ‘Fear of him amongst people in Mumbai is not so strong, but fraud in his own presentation, is impactful. And who questions Ambani? Who questions Adani? Who questions inequality?’ That there was dissent in the National Alliance of People’s Movement against her decision to stand, ‘a handful of people’ as she adds, mostly from Assam, Karnataka and some NAPM units from West Bengal, the idea was that many felt that electoral politics had to be seen as complimentary to non-electoral politics. She often implies the role played by social movements in shaping policy and law, and her vision of development is motivated by the Directive Principles of State Policy, guidelines in the constitution, which being ‘not justiable’, has ensured that its tenets for more equitable development that pays attention to ecology, environment, and social justice, has not been followed by most state and central governments. Her desire to give more power to the Panchayats as per Article 243 of the constitution has often been attacked as playing into caste power dynamics but she continues to insist that, ‘Unless there is democracy in the bottom level, there is nothing, and this is why becoming a MP doesn’t mean so much. ‘

‘At the parliament we debate laws and policies and that is also important and as movements we have influenced so many acts. RTI has come from social movements. And the unorganized sectors workers who are part of NAPM, where we’ve had umpteen number of meetings with the workers, the ministers, with officials where we’ve drafted, re-worked, and we brought out that act, but certain sections are still weak, like regulation, and recording of labour. And as movements we continue to fight, even with the Hawkers act, we extensively have worked on it since the Kolkatta hawkers were evicted and the Hawkers Federation came into being. And we’ve taken all the movements of hawkers and the urban poor to every single ministry, from all states to that forum, with Jaipal Reddy, Shailaja, Shivraj Patil, and all officals. And we got the policy in 2003, the bill in 2009, we got it passed in 2013. And the president still has not signed the bill.’

We met for an interview during breaks from campaigning at Vikhroli, where a visibly tired Medha Patkar seemed more out of place with english-media journalists, than the streets, and she seems absolutely comfortable on the road, campaigning in slums where her organization has just started to take roots. Volunteers would come and go, take long instructions, while she would sit behind a table in a small 10X4 room, laden with AAP newspaper cuttings, posters and banners.

‘There is a general middle class and media perception, which is anti-slum, but the only people fighting agaisnt the builder lobby are the working class and the poor. How would your housing policy move beyond those narratives?

‘Those fighting the builder lobby are not only the working class and the poor, that is my point. We are fighting MHADA re-development, all middle class people – government officials, government servants, bank employees, are all with us. We are fighting other redevelopment projects, and everywhere people are cheated. The Catholic properties in the heart of the city are grabbed by builders.’

‘How would you defeat this perception?’

‘We are holding meetings in societies, and raising these questions. And the more confirmation I am getting is that they say ‘we need your kind of fighting spirit’. And they know they can’t fight these battles, wherever they face injustice. Even the Campa Cola people came to us. So everyone seeks support and it’s not only the slums. And it’s only through the media we can defeat the perception. And we’re not so strong in social media. Aabhi do din pehle mujhe maloom pada ‘Whats APP’ kuch cheez hai. And someone told me that you can put in a 25 second message, and I can’t even give a speech less than 25 minutes.’

‘Your constituency, especially around Ward M, which is also known as the dumping ground of people, owning to all the displaced people and the dumping ground, has a high prevalence of juvenile deliquency and violence against women. Are you going to address this issue with your constituency and the general public?

‘We have to come to a position. Women’s rights, though we are actually empowering women through the movements, and their participation itself is their way out of drudgery, and insecurity. And people become secure themselves so they don’t have to beg for outside external security forces. And suffice to say, Justice Verma’s committees recommendations should be implemented which has not happened. And there is no political will, but social will has to be there, and nowadays it is there, and people know they can’t beg before politicians, they know there is something about a demand for better governance, and much will be achieved when people will say we will govern ourselves. And that change, whether at an individual women’s level, or a community level, is self-reliance. Swaraj can’t mean self-sufficience but go up to self-reliance, and this is the position we as people’s movements have said. We can’t be naïve on an economic or political level, and there are caste and gender divisions. And at the same time, we feel that asserting people’s right to resources, even land in an urban area. Water in an urban area people don’t have access to. Why? Because water falling onto the roofs or anganwadi, is not recognized as a resource. And it is all just lost due to people being diverted by bad politics.

And what about policing? The police in fact, in a general perception, does not represent the people of Ward M. Just on the 21st of January, there was a custodial death of a 22 year old Muslim and about four months ago there was a custodial death of a dalit man, after an altercation outside a restaurant. There is a breakdown of trust between the people and the police.

‘The police as an institution is a big problem. That’s because from top to bottom it is corrupt. And corruption ensures they will not fulfill their role and leads to them commit crimes themselves. And these custodial deaths, you have seen, only after mass action they acted on going on a second post-mortem. But how many people can fight like this? With this kind of perseverance and this strength? And the police can’t be totally ruled out, and there has to be a security force within the community, and we don’t mean there be a parallel army, but the security will come with community level inputs, and strenghtening the community relationships. Everything else is value change.

Mumbai has a long legacy of Ambedkarite politics and working class struggles, which is represented in the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. Arvind Kejriwal may have taken a stand on contract labour but then there’s reservation and there are some radicals in the movement who’re uncomfortable with some of the language of AAP. There are internal contradictions between AAP whose slogans are very different from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. And do you see these contradictions and how are you dealing with it?

See, these are some allegations and questioning is based on lack of knowledge. The other day, I told Arvind Kejriwal to take a clear stand in support of reservation at Kannawaram Nagar in Vikhroli. And there are lots of strange situations with Marathas asking for reservation and Brahmins asking for it and even with Muslims, not every movement is in support of it. And Dalit muslims must get reservation as per Article 341. The other thing is, about contract labour what the party did in Delhi, it must go beyond what they have done. The manifesto is still not ready on it. But with the organized worker’s sector, there were 31 committees formed on contract labour and I have seen their documents, and there are promises in it. As for as people’s movements, we’ve strongly taken positions. Everywhere in the country in all the movements of our supporters, there are mismatches, there are differences. I personally don’t feel scared of that, our conscience and commitment matters, there are disagreements in all families. But no doubt a common mimimum agenda must be developed.

***

It was after this point as Medha would leave to prepare for the next rally, after her response to a question in English, was spoken in Hindi, deliberately by Medha to her listening volunteers, that led to an internal conversation between the AAP and Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao-AAP, about the suitability of certain slogans, about the importance of Ambedkar’s Birth anniversary on the 14th of April, about those who feel the Lokpal is against the constitution, and is therefore against them, and these people must be spoken to. ‘RSS chaddi pehnti hai toh hum chaddi pehna chodd de?’ asked one man. Over the ruckus of interview-exploding into a conversation ten minutes ago, an elderly AAP volunteer had said that Vande Mataram is the same as Jai Bhim, and no one paid much attention to him.

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