Thursday, September 22, 2016

Where little girls become brides each time an elder dies

In case there are no daughters in a family where a death has taken place, daughters of close relatives are married off, thinking the occasion to be auspicious enough.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | Updated: September 22, 2016 7:06 pm

The tradition of mass marriages in families is clearly rooted in economic compulsions.

“I got married when my grandmother died. I was 7 then. Eight girls in my family got married on the same day, including my sisters and my uncle’s daughters,” says Bhagwati.

In Bhiyansar, a small village in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, the elders and schoolgirls have come together to take a pledge against child marriages. As the male heads of the village speak at length on the ill effects of early marriage, 16-year-old Bhagwati sits quietly in a corner with her friends. She had missed school to attend the ceremony despite being rebuked by her mother.

Watch Video: Child brides of Rajasthan and their stories

She goes on to explain that it is part of tradition in her community to hold mass marriages of daughters on the occasion of a death. There is a silent sadness in her eyes as she says she does not understand the custom, but does not have a say in the matter either.

Bhagwati belongs to the Bishnoi community, reputed for its environment consciousness. A popular anecdote about the Bishnois tells the story of the community defending the trees in their forest using their bodies as shields when the Jodhpur King wanted to cut down all the trees for the sake of building his palace.

Dr Aidan Singh Bhati, a retired professor, says “such a tradition of mass marriages on the occasion of someone’s death is not limited to the Bishnoi community only. It is commonly practised in Rajasthan among the Jats and the OBCs.”

Also Read: Rajasthan hasn’t grown out of child marriage traditions: Why has law enforcement failed?

Radha, another 16-year-old, had just returned home from school and was chattering away with her friends. She loves reading and dreams of becoming an IAS officer someday. Later in the conversation Radha says she got married two years back.

“My uncle’s daughters were getting married so my father got me married as well. I told my parents I did not want to marry, I wanted to study further. But parents also have their own compulsions,” said Radha.

The tradition of mass marriages in families is clearly rooted in economic compulsions. Dr Bhati explains “the desert terrain in Rajasthan was frequently met with droughts and agriculture was not a secure source of income. Due to the scarcity of adequate financial resources, parents often thought that since people would anyways have to be invited on the occasion of someone’s death or the wedding of one daughter, it would be an ideal moment to marry off all other girls in the family regardless of age.”

when a death takes place in the family, the community believes a wedding would be a good way to mark an end to the sadness. (Express Photo by Prashant Nadkar.)

However, poverty is no longer the prime reason behind mass marriages in these communities. But the custom has got so deeply rooted in tradition that it is difficult to do away with it. Dr Bhati says that in case there are no daughters in a family where a death has taken place, they marry off the daughters of close relatives, thinking the occasion to be auspicious enough.

Arvind Ojha, member of the global partnership “Girls not brides”, says “when a death takes place in the family, the community believes a wedding would be a good way to mark an end to the sadness.”

“Among these communities the death of an elderly person is in fact not seen as a sad event. They do not get very emotional about it and believe that the spirit of the dead one would in fact bless the married couple,” explains Dr Bhati.

Ojha goes on to explain that two reasons why this largely economic arrangement got so steeped in tradition are lack of safety and adequate opportunity for education.

Two reasons why this largely economic arrangement got so steeped in tradition are lack of safety and adequate opportunity for education. (Express archive photo by Gurinder Osan)

Interestingly, community members are not at all unaware of the ill effects of an early marriage. This is evident from the fact that whatever be the age of the girl as which she got married, she never leaves for her husband’s home until she attains maturity at the age of 18 or 19. But then this hardly comes across as relief for the married girls who have to deal with the repercussions all through their adult life.

Bhauri, who is 25, got married with her uncle’s daughters and two younger sisters, the youngest being two months old. She was seven then and met her husband only when she left for his home 11 years later. It was then that she realised that he is an unemployed alcoholic.

“I did not know what marriage meant. I just knew that mehendi would be applied on my hands and I would wear good clothes. If I knew my husband was an alcoholic, I would have opposed the marriage. But I could not do anything then since my community would look down upon me. One just has to somehow live on at their in laws’ house,” she says.

Thankfully, there is a conspicuous feel of change in the atmosphere. Bhauri is determined to work hard and educate her daughter as much as possible. “I know the moment my husband’s grandmother passes away my family would want me to marry off my daughter. But I am all prepared to deal with the situation. I will only get her married when she wants to and to whom she wants to,” says Bhauri with an unswerving resolution.

Source: indianexpress

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How Adi Shankaracharya united a fragmented land with philosophy, poetry and pilgrimage

Is our current understanding of Shankara contaminated by the ambitions of his not-so-intellectual followers who relish the idea of domination?


Image credit:  Raja Ravi Varma 

Monday, September 19th 2016

Devdutt Pattanaik

Those who insist that history is real, and mythology false, go against the very grain of Adi Shankaracharya’s non-dualist maxim: Jagat mithya, brahma satyam, which means the world, including measured scientific conclusions, that we experience is essentially illusory or rather, mind-dependent epistemological truths. The only mind-independent ontological truth is brahma, variously translated as God, soul, consciousness, language, or the infinitely expanded, eternal, unconditioned mind.

This doctrine of reducing the world to mere illusion, popularly known as maya-vada, enabled Shankara to do something remarkable: unite a land with diverse communities and diverse, seemingly irreconcilable, worldviews – from the Buddhists, the Mimansakas (old Vedic householders) and the Vedantins (the later Vedic hermits), to the Shaivas, the Vaishnavas, and the Shaktas. This is evident in his copious literary outpourings.

Political sage

Shankara’s philosophy is avowedly Vedic. Unlike Buddhists and Jains, he traced his knowledge to the Vedas and submitted to its impersonal authority, which made him a believer (astika). In his commentaries (bhasya) and monographs (prakarana), he repeatedly sought a formless divine (nirguna brahman) being the only reality, outside all binaries. This is evident in his commentary on Vedanta, the Brahma-sutra-bhasya, his Sanskrit poems Vivekachudamani and Nirvana-shatakam and his treatise Atma-bodha. Many consider this to be an acceptance of the Buddhist theme of the world being a series of disconnected transitory moments, hence amounting to nothingness (shunya-vada), while giving it a Vedic twist, which is why Shankara was often accused of being a disguised Buddhist (prachanna bauddha).

But Shankara’s poetry (stotra) also celebrates several tangible forms of the divine (saguna brahmana) as they appear in the Puranas. He composed grand benedictions to Puranic gods: Shiva (Daksinamurti-stotra), Vishnu (Govinda-ashtaka) and Shakti (Saundarya-lahari). This makes him the first Vedic scholar, after Vyasa, to overtly link Vedic Hinduism to Puranic Hinduism, an idea further elaborated a few centuries later by other teachers of Vedanta, such as Ramanuja, Madhva, and Vallabha. Shankara even wrote on tantra, which made its presence explicitly felt around that time.

For all his talk of formlessness and nothingness, and the world being an illusion, Shankara went on to connect holy spots of India such as the 12 jyotirlingas, 18 shakti-peethas and four Vishnu-dhaams to create pilgrim routes that defined India as a single land. In his legends, he travelled from Kerala to Kashmir, from Puri in present-day Odisha to Dwarka in Gujarat, from Shringeri in present-day Karnataka to Badari in Uttarakhand, from Kanchi in present-day Tamil Nadu to Kashi in Uttar Pradesh, along the slopes of the Himalayas, the banks of the rivers Narmada and Ganga, and along the eastern and western coasts.

Shankara then is not an ivory tower philosopher; he is a political sage, engaging with and responding to the historical context of his time. Through philosophy, poetry and pilgrimage, he attempted to bind the subcontinent of India that was constantly referred to in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts as well as in the Vedic ritual of sankalpa as Jambu-dvipa, the continent of the jambul tree, and Bharat-varsha, the land of the Bharata kings.

Historical context

In his commentary on the Brahma-sutra (1.3.33), Shankara observed, “One can say that there never was a universal ruler as there is none now,” an acknowledgement of the fragmented nature of his society at his time, and refusing to accept the mythology of Chakravarti, or universal emperor, found in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu lore.

Most historians agree that Adi Shankaracharya lived in the 8th century CE, or 1,200 years ago, 1,300 years after the Buddha.

This period was a major cusp in Indian history – between the collapse of the Gupta Empire 1,500 years ago, and the Muslim conquest of South Asia 1,000 years ago. Harshavardhan of Kannauj had died, the Rashtrakutas held sway on either side of the river Narmada, constantly at war with the Pratiharas of the North, Palas of the East, and Chalukyas of the South. Regional languages and scripts which are now so familiar had not yet emerged. South Indian temples did not have their characteristic gopuram gateways, the Ramayana had yet to be translated into Tamil, Jayadeva had yet to write the Gita Govinda that introduced the world to Radha.

Adi Shankara, who travelled the breadth of the land, communicated through the one language that connected the intellectual elite of the land: Sanskrit.

To appreciate the spirit of this time, we must understand the fundamental tension of Indian society between the world-affirming, ritual-bound householder and world-renouncing, ritual-rejecting hermit.

Householder vs hermit

When Alexander of Macedon attacked India in 327 BCE, the Vedic worldview favoured the householder, while the Buddhist (and Jain, and Ajivika) worldview favoured the hermit.

In Shankara’s time, the Vedic worldview was split into the Mimansaka worldview that favoured the householder, and the Vedantik worldview that favoured the hermit.

Some people argue that this shows the influence of Buddhism on Vedism, causing Hindu supremacists to bristle. What is often overlooked is the influence of Vedism on Buddhism, for by Shankara’s time, the intellectual hermit Buddha had been replaced by the more-worldly Bodhisattva, and his feminine form, Tara, who valued compassion (karuna) over wisdom (pragnya).

And while the Brahminical elite argued over the ritual ways (karma marga) of the Mimansika and the intellectual ways (gyan marga) of the Vedantin, the storytellers (suta) of India from Vyasa to Valmiki were reshaping Hinduism dramatically with the composition of the Puranas, where the hermit Shiva was being compelled to marry the Goddess, Shakti, and Vishnu was duty-bound to take care of Lakshmi and Saraswati.


Shankara was born to a poor Brahmin (Namboodri) family in Kerala. His father’s name was Shivaguru, suggesting Shaiva roots. His father died when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother, known to us only as Aryamba (noble lady). She was a worshipper of Krishna, indicating Vaishnava roots. Despite his mother’s protests, he chose to become a hermit as he favoured the prevailing Vedantik worldview to the Mimansik. His guru, Govinda Bhagavatapada, whose name suggests Vaishnava roots, who chose the hermit’s life on the banks of the river Narmada, was deeply influenced by Buddhism.

From Central India, Shankara moved to Kashi where he encountered a chandala, keeper of the crematorium, the most polluted of professions in the Hindu caste hierarchy. When Shankara asked him to move aside, the chandala chastised him saying, “My body, or my soul, the form, or the formless, the limited, or the limitless?” This incident had a deep impact on Shankara, as it made him question the invalidity of the flesh proposed by the hermit tradition. Shankara was steeped in the traditional varna-ashrama-dharma, where caste purity and pollution mattered, so his acceptance of the chandala as his guru holds special significance. The incident led him to compose the Manisha-panchakam where he looks beyond divisions that create dualities (dvaita) and affirms non-duality (advaita). Wisdom is seen here as the tool to transcend caste.

Shankara then encountered the great Mimansaka scholar Mandana Mishra at Mahismati in Bihar and convinced him of the superiority of knowledge (gyana) over ritual (karma). But then, Mandana’s wife, Ubhaya Bharati, playfully challenged him to knowledge of erotics (kama-shastra). When the celibate Shankara pleaded ignorance, the lady asked him how he could claim to have understood the world without experiencing sensual pleasure and emotional intimacy. What followed is shrouded in mystery, and edited by latter-day puritans.

Shankara used his yogic powers to enter the corpse of Amaru, the king of Kashmir, and animate it long enough to enjoy all kinds of pleasure of the flesh. Legend has it that it led Shankara to write erotic love poetry known as Amaru-shataka. In Kashmir then, and later in Shringeri, in present-day Karnataka, Shankara established temples to his personal deity, Sharada, who is commonly identified as Saraswati as she holds a book. However, she also holds a pot and a parrot, symbols of household and sensual life, indicating Shankara’s acknowledgment of the senses, the flesh, matter itself: in other words, tantra. Shankara’s association with the tantrik geometrical symbol of the divine feminine, the shree-yantra, reinforces this. Was the goddess inspired by Ubhaya Bharati, or his mother, who kept presenting householder wisdom? We can only speculate.

Shankara returned to Kerala to perform his mother’s last rites on learning of her death. This was his promise to her when she finally gave him permission to become a hermit, after he survived an attack by a crocodile.

However, in Vedic tradition, having renounced household life, a hermit cannot perform household rituals like funerals. As a hermit, Shankara had given up his role as son, and so had no obligations to the woman who was once his mother. But Shankara here displayed the spirit of a defiant revolutionary. When prevented from performing her rites in the crematorium, he carried his mother’s body to the backyard of her house and performed the rituals there.

He then proceeded to travel across India, establishing his institution (matha) in the four corners of India, all the while visiting and mapping pilgrim routes. He is said to have established the various akharas of hermits who were told to use their knowledge and their physical and yogic powers to protect Hinduism. He even organised their movements across pilgrim spots and their meetings during the Kumbha mela.

Shankara died at the young age of 32 in the Himalayan region. The story goes that his father, on being given a choice by the gods, wanted a great son with a short lifespan, rather than an ordinary son with a long lifespan. According to legend, a child prodigy, he was supposed to die at the age of eight, but was given an extension of eight years so that he could excavate the truth of the Vedas. His commentaries and monographs were so brilliant that Vyasa, the mythical organiser of the Vedas, himself extended his life by another 16 years to spread his ideas to the world.

Decoding Shankara

Scholars wonder if Shankara, the philosopher, who valorised knowledge, was also the Shankara who composed devotional poetry? Was the Shankara who established pilgrimages the one who also spoke the futility of mindless ritual, so beautifully expressed in Bhaja Govindam? Was he Vedic or Tantric? Was he Shaivite, Vaishnavite, or Shakta? Is he this or that, or both, or neither? Was he anti-Buddhist or a subversive pro-Buddhist? The diverse fragments of his life mirror the diverse fragmented worldviews that shaped India in his time, and continue to do so today.

The diversity of India relative to the Middle East, Europe and America is undeniable. It bewilders the world. For outsiders, it is chaotic, on the verge of collapse and division. For insiders, there is meaning underlying the madness. The outsider and insider view of India is therefore divergent.

Outsiders tend to see India’s diversity in divisive terms: it is either the outcome of hierarchy (casteism, Brahminism imposed through Manusmriti), or complex postmodern arguments are used to say India did not exist, mirroring the shunya-vada of Buddhists that denies continuity. By contrast, Shankara, an insider, used the doctrine of illusion to democratise fragmented and limited worldviews: all views, all perceptions, all understanding of these words are imperfect and incomplete, but they delude us into assuming they are perfect and complete.

To understand Shankara, we need to break free from the fixed Abrahamic binary of one true God and other false gods, which even influences much of today’s political and scientific discourse, and move into the Hindu, rather fluid, binary where the divine can be limited (god, without capitalisation) and limitless (God, with capitalisation), and where the relationship of form and formless divine is much like the relationship between sound and meaning without which no word can exist.

Shankara sees the world around him as full of fragmented ephemeral limited truths, just like Buddhists. However, unlike Buddhists, he insists that they exist on a platform of an unfragmented eternal limitless truth, that attributes meaning and value to existence. The former is accessible; the latter is transcendental and elusive. Life’s experiences are full of limited and temporary joys and sorrows. Without a transcendental underpinning, life becomes meaningless, valueless.

Rejection of brahman, that there is something permanent and unifying within and without all of us, results in nihilism, and leads to the monastic obsession with oblivion of the self (nirvana), while acceptance of brahman enables one to enjoy the beauty of life, its colours (ranga), its juices (rasa), its emotions (bhava), its experiences (anubhava), as diverse expressions of the divine, rendered more beautiful by mortality. Hence, the importance given by Shankara to the exciting characters of Hindu mythology whose tales in the Puranas evoke Vedic truths, and anchor them to pilgrim spots across India, on the top of mountains, in caves and at confluences of rivers, an idea that would horrify a traditional Vedic ritualist.

One reason why Buddhism did not thrive in India is its avowed distancing from the arts, viewing it as temporal indulgence, in contrast to Puranic Hinduism, where the gods danced and sang to reveal wisdom. 

The Buddhist elite shunned rituals at Buddhist shrines that were popular with the masses. Shankara, by contrast, realised how stories and songs connect with people and create the highway to an expanded vision of life. So he embraced Puranic temples and their rituals, which were relatively more inclusive (caste rules still prevailed), and far more artistic, and public, than the more rigid exclusivist Vedic rituals. And this played a huge role in establishing Shankara’s popularity as the saviour of Hinduism.

Rather than arguing which commentary, poetry, pilgrimage, worldview, or god, is a superior or comprehensive fragment, Shankara insists that the only truth that matters is brahman, which is unreachable through reason and argument, and can only be accessed through faith, via the Vedas.

Is this real, or strategic? We cannot be sure. What we can be sure is that, with nothing superior, and everything illusory, there can be mutual respect, awareness of each other’s inadequacies, and the empathy to mutually complement, or supplement, rather than substitute.

Tranquillity escapes us as long as we shun knowledge. Knowledge is acquired when we make our pilgrimage into other views – as Shankara engaged with his guru, the chandala, Ubhaya Bharati and finally his mother – and have faith in a larger transcendental mind-independent reality, the brahman.


There are many who believe that Shankara’s philosophy is for the intellectual elite, and his poetry and pilgrimage routes for the less intellectual masses. This condescending suggestion is often made by those who imagine themselves to be intellectual for they fail to see Shankara’s diverse body of work as an integrated whole.

Like any ancient or medieval figure of Indian history, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction about Shankara’s life. Scholars are not sure which of his literary works are authentically his, and which are attributed to him to gain legitimacy or popularity. Depending on what one cherry picks, Shankara can be turned into an incarnation of Shiva, a champion of Hinduism who drove out Buddhists, a prodigious and prolific logician and poet, a savarna casteist Hindu, or a reconciler of paradoxes.

What is most interesting is that his hagiography (exaggerated biographies), composed centuries after his birth, are often referred to as dig-vijaya, or conquests, and his encounters with philosophers such as Mandana Mishra are described in combative and triumphalist terms.

This obsession of defeating intellectuals in debates has more to do with indulging the ego than expanding knowledge. And it is highly unlikely that a Vedic philosopher would engage in such activity, for the Vedas view ego (aham) as the eclipse that blocks our view of brahma, which resides within everyone as atma.

Ego thrives on violence and violation and so chooses argument (vi-vaad) over discussion (sam-vaad). In vi-vaad, we listen not to understand but to retort, thus remaining trapped in ignorance (avidya). In sam-vaad, we listen to refine our ideas, gain knowledge (vidya). Perhaps our understanding of Shankara is contaminated by the ambitions of his not-so-intellectual fans and followers who relish the idea of domination. Sounds familiar?

But the more we argue with a bad idea, the more it entraps us. We end up as loyal opposition. It is important to let go, and seek alternate ideas. This essay is an attempt to present that alternate idea: see jagat mithya, brahma satyam (verse 20, Brahmajnanavalimala), not as a statement to invalidate experience, or establish Hindu supremacy, but as a simple framework to allow, accept and even assimilate myriad ideas, find unity in diversity, in India, and the global village.

We welcome your comments at

Source: scrollin

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dalit Resistance and the Role of the Left

9th September 2016


 By Brinda Karat

A fundamental and core feature of India’s socio-economic structures is its caste system. Birth and descent determine positions in immutable social hierarchies. When Rohith Vemula penned his tragic yet passionate suicide note he described his Dalit identity as a ‘fatal accident’. And it is true. Had he been born into another caste, he would not as a child has had to witness his mother Radhika facing caste based indignities. Nor would Rohith and his sibling Raja have faced discrimination in their school classrooms. The cancellation of his scholarship, his only means of survival as a student at a top University, would not have led to the drastic action he took, thus making him a victim of an institutional murder.

The institution in question is not just the callous university establishment, but in fact, the institution of caste.

Contrary to the claims made by the apologists of capitalism, the so-called modernizing features of capitalism have not succeeded in eliminating the horror that is the caste system in India. The trajectory of capitalism in India has been in alliance with the feudal and semi-feudal social forces. But this is not the only feature. Capitalism itself has co-opted the caste system to enable an intensified form of the exploitation of the labour of the scheduled castes and extraction of surplus value. It is systemic, part of the very structure of capitalism in India. Neo-liberal policies have accentuated this reality.

In the recent period, three issues have emerged as the focal point for Dalit resistance, all three of them very relevant for the Left:

The issue of livelihood of Dalits, highlighted by the Una movement in Gujarat.

    The issue of education for Dalits, highlighted by the suicide of RohithVemula.
    The issue of violence against Dalits, highlighted by the burning of two Dalit children in the village of Sunaped in Haryana.

But first, let us look at the political and economic context of these issues and movements.

Hindutva and Caste

Today, the fight for the annihilation of the caste system takes place in a qualitatively new political situation where the forces representing Hindutva are in power. The RSS has always taken a dual approach to the issue of caste. On the one hand, it is a votary of Sanatandharam, which not only sanctions but glorifies the caste system. On the other hand, it speaks about the ‘unity of the Hindu family’.

According to the RSS version of history, there was nothing wrong in the original caste system. It was only during the Mughal rule, they say, that caste became an instrument of oppression. Bhaiyya Joshi the RSS second in command, has written in his introduction to a book on Dalits that ‘shudras and Dalits were never discriminated against in the Hindu Shastras.There was no untouchability. It was the Muslim invaders who created such practices’.

What about the Manu Smriti and other Hindu scriptures that sanction and glorify caste centuries earlier? Facts hardly matter to the RSS.

According to another interpretation by none other than NarendraModi, now PM, manual scavenging done by Dalits was a ‘spiritual activity’ and chosen by Dalits themselves to serve the people as a spiritual duty.Modi wrote, in his book Karamyog,I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation’.This was not sufficient. Modi then wrote,

‘At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business’.

It seems Mr.Modi has not learnt any lessons from history. It was precisely this kind of unashamed defence of the caste system rooted in Hindu scriptures that had repulsed Dalit leaders and led the tallest of Dalit rights champions, Dr.BabasahebAmbedkar to convert to Buddhism.

The idea of the great ‘Hindu family’ is a non-starter, full of contradictions and daily hypocrisies in its practice.It is a concept of unity on the basis of the caste status quo, with the Dalits at the bottom of the ladder. This also came to the forefront during the GharWapsi of the Hindutva platform, when it was stated that the Dalit converts would return to their original position as Dalits in the caste hierarchy!

RSS speaks of Dalit rights but supports every reactionary agitation against reservation. The RSS chief openly spoke against reservations, asking for its reconsideration. The RSS uses Dalits in the Hindutva campaign, with a Dalit asked to lay the foundation stone for the planned temple in Ayodhya. But, at the same time, numerous temples deny Dalits entry. The RSS has never ever led a movement to enforce temple entry. It was communists like P.Sundarayya, AKG, and others – alongside BabasahebAmbedkar – who played that role, a legacy taken forward by the Left even today.The RSS talks of sharing food with Dalits, but stands on the side of KhapPanchayats when they issue dictates and incite violence against a love marriage between a Dalit boy and an upper caste girl. In BJP-ruled States there have been no efforts to address the multiple issues of discrimination and low economic and social indicators of Dalits. For the RSS, the main role of Dalits is as a militant force to be used against Muslim communities, such as in the Gujarat genocide.

The self-contradictory Hindutva agenda vis-a-visDalits is being pursued at all levels and with State patronage. It is, therefore, clear that the Dalit resistance movements necessarily come into confrontation with the RSS-BJP political combine.

Neo-Liberal policies worsen Dalit status

At the same time, the economic policies of neoliberalism pursued aggressively by the BJP Government have worsened the situation.

The Socio-Economic Census report indicates the utter failure of capitalism to address historical inequalities of Scheduled Caste communities. The gap remains wide.At the same time, it also shows how capitalism has led to a situation where the numbers of those who are poor and deprived, across castes, form the majority of the population. While the number of poor has increased, Dalits, because of caste oppression, are the poorer among the poor.

Among the 3.31 crore Dalit households, 72.58 percent come in the ‘deprived’ category, 55 percent have no land at all, 67.27 per cent are casual manual workers and only 11.29 percent have pucca houses. Scheduled Castes – based on this data – suffer a twenty percent deprivation when compared to non-SC/ST castes.

A recently published study titled ‘Social Exclusion and Caste Discrimination in Public and Private Sectors in India: A Decomposition Analysis’ (2016) shows that when equally-qualified categories of employees are compared, the pay gap between SCs and other social groups is an average 19.4 per cent in public sector and 31.7 per cent in private sectors. Significantly, it notes that in the private sector, the wage gap between SCs and others has increased in the post-liberalisation period. The public sector gap is less only because of the benefits of reservations, but even then it is quite high at almost 20 per cent.

Earlier, a study conducted by the IIM Ahmedabad of MBA graduates in 2006 found that graduates belonging to the SC/ST category got significantly lower wages ranging from 20 per cent to 35 per cent than those in the general category.

Whereas reservations mandated by the Constitution helped weaken the cast-iron barriers against social mobility of Dalit communities, with the advent of neo-liberal policies, the accelerated process of privatization, as well as a freeze in recruitment in the Government sectors, reserved posts for Dalits, have seen drastic cuts. Opportunities for educated members of the community have reduced in this period.

This, in turn, strengthens gross exploitation in caste-based professions. The so-called unclean professions – cleaning, sweeping, manually lifting human excreta, unblocking filthy sewers, skinning dead animals – are ‘reserved’ almost exclusively for Dalits. There is over-representation of the community in such jobs. Even in Government jobs of cleaning which is now outsourced and contractors, over 90 percent are done by Dalits. With the advent of the era of neo-liberal policies, all new recruitment for these jobs in the Government sector has been de-regularised even though the work is of a permanent nature. Thus it is the capitalist State that has led the exploitation of the labour of Dalits both in economic and social terms.

Gujarat Model

The ‘Gujarat model’, which is so close to the hearts of corporate India,epitomizes the twin images of corporate profits and Dalit distress. This was highlighted by the incidents in Una in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat where four young Dalit men were stripped, beaten and publicly paraded on the charge of cow slaughter.In fact, they were skinning a dead cow at the request of the cow’s owner, a farmer from a neighbouring village.

When I went to Una as part of the CPI(M) delegation we were told that the so-called GauRakshaks had threatened the Dalits to give up their profession of skinning cows. The father of two of the victims, who was also badly beaten when he rushed to the spot to save his sons, complained that in fact there were no other jobs available.

In Gujarat, the Scheduled Castes comprise around 8 per cent of the population. Most are landless. In rural Gujarat, they are employed either as agricultural labourers or are involved in caste-determined occupations. The lack of assets makes them all the most vulnerable to cruel untouchability and segregationist policies, which are commonplace.In the village we visited, the Dalit basti was segregated from the main village, which was much more developed. In the Dalit area, there was no piped water, no sanitation, no school, no built up road. This, we were told, is a feature across villages in the Saurashtra region. The Gujarat model based on the trickle down theory provides further evidence if such were needed, that the model only accentuates inequality, social, economic and political.

Neo-liberal policies have hit Dalits the hardest. Thus, Dalit groups and movements taking up these issues are the natural allies of movements against neo-liberal policies.

Relevance of Left Alternative Model To Fight Untouchability

In this context, it is most significant that in Gujarat the spontaneous upsurge among Dalit communities is focused on issues of Dalit Asmita – Dalit dignity – linked to livelihood and land. Leaders of the movement have called upon Dalits to refuse to do the ‘traditional’ jobs, which they consider demeaning. In a most powerful symbolic action, Dalits took the carcasses of scores of dead cows and threw them before the main offices of Government. One of the most crucial demands of the Dalit resistance that emerged after the Una atrocities is the demand for land reforms. The most popular slogan of the Dalit movement is ‘you keep the cow’s tail, give us our land’. This brings into focus the Left approach to land reform as an essential component of fighting discriminatory and untouchability practices along with social and political mobilisations.

The Left model as worked out in the 1970s in Bengal is most relevant. Out of the approximately 12 lakh acres of land distributed to about 30 lakh rural poor by the Left Front Government, as much as 37 percent of the beneficiaries were Scheduled Castes. This provided the foundation, which was later built up through the participation in leadership positions by the SCs in the panchayat structures. This process of land reform and local self-government broke the back of casteist practices in rural Bengal and provided the environment for the Left political and social intervention against caste. This is not to say that the caste system has been demolished in Bengal, but most certainly it is socially far less detrimental than it is in Gujarat. Thus, the Dalit resistance in Gujarat and the slogans raised by its protagonists once again establish the general relevance of the Left alternative model.

Another important aspect that the Gujarat movement has brought out is the issue of growth without social justice. Gujarat claims to have the highest growth rates among States in the last decade under Modi. But in social terms, it is only the rich and crony corporates like the Adanis and the Ambanis who have benefitted from this pattern of growth. Where are the jobs and who has got them? Highly capital-intensive industries have restricted the creation of jobs and have kept wages low in the Gujarat model. Dalits have been the worst sufferers. This is made clear by the absence of any alternatives for Dalits who challenge traditional caste-based jobs.

In a study done by Navsarjan, a prominent Dalit group in Gujarat, 64,000 vacancies in various state departments meant for scheduled castes have not been filled – this is according to the government’s own data released last year. The Director of Navsarjan, Martin Macwan, sees this as ‘a conspiracy to keep the caste chained to the occupations forced upon them by an exploitative system – manual scavenging or processing of carcasses, for example – to ensure their social status remains unchanged’.

The important point to note is that issues of livelihood, jobs, land, and wages have come to the forefront in the thinking and analysis of various Dalit groups. This is a shift from the earlier understanding which tended to divorce these issues from that of social status. The development is most welcome and provides the ground for sustained joint actions between Dalit groups and left-oriented mass organisations. In particular, trade unions and Kisan organisations can play an important role in building these new alliances.

 Students and Educational Institutions

The second dimension of protest has been highlighted by the RohithVemula case, which is linked to discrimination in educational institutions from the school classroom to higher institutions of learning including technical and professional ones. Prof SukhdeoThorat has done detailed research on the different aspects of discrimination in educational institutions. In his capacity as UGC Chairman, Prof Thorat in his Report of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST Students in AIIMS, Delhi detailed the discrimination faced by Dalit students and made a series of recommendations including the setting up of an Equal Opportunity Office in the institution. All these recommendations are relevant and valid, not only for AIIMS but for other institutions of higher learning and universities. But even though the report was placed in 2007, no action has been taken on it.

The developments in Hyderabad Central University culminating in the tragic death of RohithVemula and the subsequent callous approach of the Modi Government and especially the HRD ministry led to a strong solidarity movement by students in many colleges and universities in different parts of India. The demand for a Rohith Act has emerged as a rallying point for justice for Dalit students. It envisages a legislation that will address many and more of the issues pinpointed by the Thorat report, which is reflective of the situation for Dalits in most educational institutions.

The CPI(M) has supported the struggle for such a legislation. It is a welcome development that Left student organisations have shown through their practice and struggles in many universities such as in HCU, JNU, Jadavpur university, Himachal University and others that they stand with and by the demands against caste discrimination and oppression against Dalits in educational institutions. Here again, the possibility of broad alliances has emerged and is, in some instances, already in operation.

Violence against Dalits

The third dimension of protest which has been a constant feature but further highlighted by the barbarity of recent attacks is the violence against Dalits by non-Dalit castes, not necessarily only the upper castes but also some sections of the OBCs, the middle,castes who have achieved political and social power in the post-Mandal mobilisations. The horrific incident in Sunped(Haryana) when the upper landed castes took ‘revenge’ on a Dalit family for a perceived ‘insult’ by trying to burn them alive, leading to the deaths of two infants,outraged the country. It was further accentuated by the statement of a Minister in the Modi Government who compared the incident to the routine death of a dog – to justify the PMs silence on the issue.

Violence against SCs has grown in the last decade and specifically in the last few years. According to statistics compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crimes against SCs rose to 47,064 in 2014 from 39,408 in 2013. In 2012 there were 33,655 crimes against Dalits, about the same as in 2011. In fact, the rate of such crimes against SCs surpassed the national average in as many as 10 states in 2013 and 2014.

In 2014, the rate of crime against Dalits was 23.4 and in 2013 it was 19.57. The rate of crime is the number of crimes reported against SCs per one lakh of their population. Every day three Dalit women are victims of rape. In a large number of cases, Dalit women who are sexually abused are unable to register cases for a variety of equally oppressive causes, further compounding the crime against them.

The conviction rates in crimes against Dalits were abysmal. If the conviction rate is to be calculated on the total number of cases undergoing trial in 2014, then the conviction rate was a mere 3.7 per cent.

The lack of political will of bourgeois parties, the deep caste biases in sections of the police and the predominance of vote bank politics, which has led to such flagrant violations of the minimum human rights of Dalits, have ensured vulnerability of Dalits to caste-based violence, The fight to stop violence against Dalits requires the most broad-based mobilisations of all sections of citizens. The left organization, particularly in States like Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, have, in the last several years, been in the forefront of the struggles against untouchability, successfully mobilising broader sections. The formation of the Dalit SoshanMuktiManch, an initiative of the CPI(M) but a broader-based non-party platform, has expanded to many States in India and is fighting on many issues for Dalit rights.

Politics of the Struggles against the Caste System

While resistance and awareness of the need for unity are growing on issues connected with Dalit oppression, it is true that among a section of Dalit organisations and NGOs the political, ideological trend of hostility towards the organised Left and Left oriented mass organisations remain. There are differences between Dalit groups as to what approach should be taken towards the Left. Some of them believe that the Left should be the main target and oppose any joint movements. This is not only rooted in a narrow reading and practice of identity politics but is oblivious to the qualitatively new situation that has arisen since the coming to power of the Modi Government. But the Left and specifically the CPI(M) has to overcome these prejudices against the Left and work with all those willing to build struggles against the hated caste system.

In this struggle, we have to overcome our own weaknesses. As Marxists our understanding that the class struggle in India requires the mobilization of the workers against the caste system needs to be emphasized both in theory and in practice. It is not a ‘social issue’, one concerning the ‘superstructure’, which can wait till after the revolution. The annihilation of caste and the struggle for it is very much a strategic aspect of the CPI(M) programme for revolution and has both the class aspect as well as the social aspect.

In India’s socio-economic realities, Dalits form a substantial section of what we call the classes basic to our strategy for fundamental social change, the urban and rural proletariat, the agricultural and manual worker. The slogan of class unity will have more meaning for a Dalit worker if working class and agrarian class organisations and movements, mobilize all workers against the specific oppression and exploitation that a worker faces as a Dalit.

Weakness stems from the absence of an understanding among some Left sections of the class dimensions of social issues. It is often taken mechanically that the common bonds of class exploitation will lead automatically to the unity of all the workers without necessarily addressing the specific issues of Dalit workers and the poor as Dalit members of the working class. There is a social differentiation among workers created by the caste system. The double burden that Dalit workers face, and in the case of women Dalit workers the triple burden as a result of caste and gender discriminations and class exploitation, has to be recognised and addressed.

It is wrong to posit class unity against the need to take up Dalit worker issues. Unless class organisations specifically take up the issues of Dalits among the sections we are working as part of the broader class struggle, why should Dalit workers and the poor working Dalits be attracted to the Left? It is no use criticising ‘identity politics’ if we do not address specifically the issues faced by the Dalit working poor from our broader platforms. For this, we will have to confront any casteist feelings and approaches which may exist in some sections of mass organisations.


The failure of the capitalist system to successfully address issues linked to caste  discrimination is not fortuitous. On the contrary, capitalism in its various phases has utilized and strengthened casteist practices to maximise profits.The way Indian society has historically developed with the close intertwining of caste and class, it is clear enough that caste has been used as a tool to extract more surplus from the labour of the so-called untouchables and Shudras. Patriarchal cultures have been used to depress the value of female labour more so of Scheduled Caste women.

In the present situation with the Modi Government in power, the Hindutva forces attempt to build a wider ‘Hindu unity’. Communal slogans and mobilisations against minority communities are also used to mobilise Dalits by these forces.

Our fundamental theoretical framework in understanding the caste structures in India should form the basis for our day to day work among Dalits, in our relations with Dalit groups and organisations and in our being able to successfully build broad social alliances to take forward our positive agenda. New opportunities have opened up, we should grasp the moment, today is the time to move forward on a radical social and economic agenda to fight the caste system and all its inequities with a specific focus on the three aspects thrown up in the present struggles of Dalits for justice.


Brinda Karat is a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). For LeftWord Books, she wrote the introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution (2016).

Source: leftword

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A foreign woman's response to Mahesh Sharma: It's got nothing to do with dressing modestly

Sexual Harassment

A story of surviving India as a woman, and how things are changing, slowly but surely.


Yesterday · 08:30 am   Updated Yesterday · 03:16 pm

Thank you Mahesh Sharma for reminding me that it is up to us foreign girls to dress modestly rather than for desi boys to behave appropriately or for the police to be actively part of ensuring everyone’s safety in India.

There is nothing new, however, in the tourism minister suggesting handing out welcome kits telling women not to wear skirts or go out at night. It eerily reminded me of the guidelines given to me over 25 years ago before I first came to India.

My first taste of India

Rewind to 1990 in Montreal. I sat through a pre-orientation for a Summer Study Abroad in India programme. We were provided tips on appropriate behaviour, dress, health and safety. Some of these suggestions were remarkably similar to the tourism minister’s controversial comments.

Traveling all over India, we were struck by the contrast in what was acceptable in different contexts and parts of the country. We witnessed clear gender segregation and strict hierarchies, norms of behavior in rural Gujarat that contrasted completely with young couples merrily sauntering hand-in-hand on the streets of downtown Bangalore.

And those guidelines? Dressing modestly was no magic shield from being harassed. Instead, traveling in a group, sprinkled with our limited male members, did the trick.

It was a remarkable experience and an early lesson on how multiple realities and rules coexist – particularly in matters of gender relations.

Introduction to eveteasing

Fast forward to 1995, I returned, as a student in Delhi. This time, I was on my own. No orientation, no guides, no group. I lived as a paying guest with a family for a year.

From the first week, I navigated Delhi Transport Corporation buses and was immediately acquainted with the real meaning of the innocuous sounding phrase eveteasing. On the buses, it meant various body parts rubbed and hands grabbed private places they had no right to.

Did what I wore make a difference? Only slightly. A simple salwar kurta did not prevent unwanted attention. I was young, blue-eyed, fair and, therefore, fair prey.

And then the family I was living with shared a story.

A story of how the matriarch mashi was driving past a bus stop near IIT Gate and saw a young woman being taunted by a young man on a bicycle. The girl kept her eyes downcast, shrinking into herself. The boy grew more emboldened. Until, mashi intervened.

She leapt out of her car, yanked the boy off his bike, grabbed her chappal and started hitting him on the head. “How dare you abuse this girl? Have you no shame? No mother? No sister?” Scared witless, the boy ran off.

But the story did not end here.

Mashi then turned to the girl. “Why did you let him get away with misbehaving? If he does this to you today, what more will he try in future?”

The girl in question was not a foreigner. It had nothing to do with her eye, skin or hair colour. Only her gender.

The story empowered me to shed my polite Canadian demeanour and fight back. Practising my rudimentary Hindi, I embarrassed the perpetrators by shaming them loudly, shoving away their groping fingers.

Simplistic notions of not wearing a skirt or going out alone at night were not enough to survive Delhi. What I had to learn was to behave boldly if required. To expect harassment and be prepared for battle.

It worked. And as I accepted this new reality, I began to see a social revolution around me.

Urban India was changing. Night clubs pulsed till the wee hours. Ad campaigns pushed the boundaries of censorship. Couples lived together before marriage.

And the hypocrisy that sometimes lay beneath conservative veneers was revealed.

That elderly tauji who demands you behave modestly, giving due respect to his stature? He had a long-term mistress with two daughters.

The India I knew on the inside was not the India people perceived on the outside.

Adopting India

For more than a decade, I’ve been fortunate to call India my adopted home.

And I found it ironic when I was asked to give advice for a Study Abroad in India programme.

How do I translate my years here to guide young women coming to India for the first time?

How do I encourage them to find a delicate balance between being true to themselves and open to new experiences and, yet, being sensitive to the different environments they will encounter?

Knowing that any step they take to reduce unwanted attention simply may not make a difference.

How do I alert them to the shifting sands of acceptability based on context, time of day, location, company and more?

How do I make them acknowledge that India is not alone in its male chauvinistic notions and its inability to keep the vulnerable safe, that sexual harassment is unfortunately universal?

Today, I have age on my side. I have grown from being a young didi to a mature aunty, my hair spiked with silver. In Mumbai, I can wear a dress, go out at night and, chances are, I will be fine.

Yet, I look back on those guidelines I was given in 1990 and wonder how much has really changed.

And isn’t there another story in that?

We welcome your comments at

Source: scrollin

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Monday, September 05, 2016

Sedition, defamation charges cannot be invoked for criticism: Supreme Court

The observation came as Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for an NGO, said sedition was a serious offence and the law on it was being grossly misused for stifling dissent.

PTI | New Delhi | Published:September 5, 2016 5:11 pm

The court, while disposing of a petition filed by NGO Common Cause alleging misuse of the sedition law, refused to pass a direction on the plea that a copy of this order be sent to all Chief Secretaries of states and the DGPs. (File Photo)

Sedition or defamation cases cannot be slapped on anyone criticising the government, the Supreme Court on Monday said in a clear message.

“Someone making a statement to criticise the government does not invoke an offence under sedition or defamation law. We have made it clear that invoking of section 124(A) of IPC (sedition) requires certain guidelines to be followed as per the earlier judgement of the apex court,” a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and U U Lalit said while refraining from saying anything further on the issue.

The observation came as Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for an NGO, said sedition was a serious offence and the law on it was being grossly misused for stifling dissent. He cited the examples of sedition charges being slapped on agitators protesting against Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project and cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, among others.

To this, the bench said “we don’t have to explain the sedition law. It’s already there in the five-judges constitution bench judgement in Kedar Nath Singh vs state of Bihar of 1962.” The court, while disposing of a petition filed by NGO Common Cause alleging misuse of the sedition law, refused to pass a direction on the plea that a copy of this order be sent to all Chief Secretaries of states and the Directors General of Police.

“You have to file separate plea highlighting if any misuse of sedition law is there. In criminal jurisprudence, allegations and cognisance have to be case specific, otherwise it will go haywire. There can’t be any generalisation,” the bench said. Bhushan said law has not been amended after the Kedar Nath Singh judgement by the apex court and a constable does not understand the judgement but what he understands is the section in the IPC.

“Constables don’t need to understand. It is the magistrate who needs to understand and follow the guidelines as laid down by the apex court while invoking sedition charges,” the apex court said. The court was hearing a plea seeking the apex court’s intervention to address the “misuse” of section 124 A of the IPC contending that such a charge was being framed with a view to “instill fear and scuttle dissent”.

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The not-so-swachh life of the Railways’ cleaners

NEW DELHI, September 5, 2016

Sidhartha Roy


Safai Karamcharis, who keep the tracks clean of filth round the clock, are the ignored foot soldiers of the massive Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.

Most people just look the other way.

Santosh Kumar* (38), however, walks down the rail track next to platform 13 of the New Delhi railway station. His is face an inscrutable mask as he begins cleaning the track — leftover food, plastic bottles, packets, paper boxes — and human excreta. Remains of a train that has ended its journey.

The railway tracks, which resemble a garbage dump, are Mr. Kumar’s workplace for 12 hours a day and have been so for a decade now. Safai Karamcharis is the tag given to Mr. Kumar and his co-workers, who get a monthly remuneration of Rs. 8,500 for their efforts to keep the railway tracks clean. The money is barely enough to make ends meet, but for a man un-educated, avenues of employment are limited.

The Safai Karamcharis are the foot soldiers of the Indian Railway's massive cleanliness drive as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, who keep the tracks clean of filth round the clock. Every day, a staggering 300 trains enter and leave the New Delhi railway station; five lakh passengers pass through the station. It is the responsibility Mr. Kumar and his colleagues to keep it clean — they are employed by private contractors to whom the Indian Railways has outsourced the work.

They work with their bare hands, wearing uniforms that are soiled. Armed with brooms and gunny sacks, the sweepers brave infections and disease every day as they wade through filth wearing only slippers. The gloves and boots provided to them are uncomfortable and of poor quality and hence generally not used.

In denial

The Railway Ministry categorically denies their existence. But they are manual scavengers. For Mr. Kumar, it provides a livelihood that he hates. “Sometime the water doesn’t get the job done or the drains get clogged. That is when we have to scoop up the excreta with ply boards, using our hands,” he said, matter-of-factly.

The Parliament may have banned manual scavenging, with the passage of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, but the Railways employs them, albeit having outsourced the task. On Wednesday last week, a Delhi High Court bench, headed by Justice B.D. Ahmed, directed both the AAP government and Centre to file an affidavit indicating the steps taken under the law, particularly under Section 36 of the Act.

The High Court was hearing a petition filed by an NGO — National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers — on rehabilitation of manual scavengers in Delhi. The court expressed its “shock and disquiet” when a report by the Delhi State Legal Services Authority showed that several thousand persons were working as manual scavengers in the national Capital. The report stated that these were working with the Delhi Jal Board, municipal corporations, Railways or for contractors hired by these agencies in 30 out of 104 wards in Delhi.

The High Court’s direction holds hope for Mr. Kumar and his team for better protective gear and hopefully, a better life. “Our hands get infected all the time and recurring fevers are a part of life but there is nothing you can do; the job has to be done,” he said. Being exposed to germs and infections has meant that most of the sweepers suffer from bouts of jaundice. “It would be nice if we could be provided with face masks,” he said.

“The gloves tear easily and the boots gave me sores when I tried wearing them for work. Also, it gets very difficult to scoop up garbage while wearing gloves as it makes hand movements difficult,” said Raju* (25), another sweeper.

“It is stipulated in the tender conditions of the contractor that they have to provide protective gear such as gloves and boots. It is possible that the contractor is at fault,” said a senior commercial officer of the Railways’ Delhi Division.

The day of a railway sweeper starts very early and since most of them live in peripheral areas of Delhi as they can’t afford to pay too much rent, quite a few hours are spent on the daily commute.

Mr. Kumar lives in Narela, 40 km from the New Delhi Railway Station. “I wake up at 3.30 a.m. and leave my house in time to catch the bus at 5 a.m. I reach the railway station by 6.30 a.m. when my shift starts. I take a bus back to home after 6.30 p.m.,” he said. “By the time I return, I have no energy left to even talk to my children. It’s just eating and going to sleep again to wake up for the next day’s shift,” he said.

The stigma attached

Manoj Kumar (35), lives in a village in Haryana and the long commute and 12 hour shifts means he doesn’t get to spend time with his family either. When he first got the job five years ago, he didn’t know how to break the news to his family. “I was ashamed to tell them that I would have to pick up garbage. Though now they know, my neighbours and relatives still don’t know what I exactly do at the railway station,” he said.

More than gloves and boots, however, it is the low salary and long working hours that perturbs the sweepers of New Delhi railway station. “Our salaries should be hiked keeping in mind the inflation and also, if I get more time for myself, I would like to spend it with my wife and two children,” Mr. Manoj Kumar said.

“When I reach home exhausted and reeking of garbage, my wife doesn’t let me go near my children before I take a thorough bath for fear of an infection,” he said. “The stench, however, is the last to leave my body.”

*Names have been changed to protect the workers’ identity

Source: thehindu

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