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The Hindu Notes for 08th September 2018

The sadness of silence

What has become of the Indian intellectual as storyteller? Is he only an annexe of the state or can he be critical?

A few months ago, I was at a screening of a documentary on the Bengal Famine. Bengal Shadows, while well-intentioned, was more a pretext for the text that followed. The question was, why was there such a silence about the event, which claimed over 3.5 million people and was one of the most arrogant acts of triage in history? It was a systematic elimination of people on grounds of rationality, of a scaling in terms of policy priorities. The British tended to explain it away as one of the sideshows of history, an act of contingency of an imperial Winston Churchill too busy with winning the war.

A split narrative

Indian historians were also polite as though belonging to the Oxbridge club was more critical than compassion for the victims. Between the middle ground of silence and an illiteracy about the event, the narrative split into two. One strand merged into folklore and people’s memory and became a tale told by old men and women to their families. In the other what one sees is a banalisation, a ritualisation of the event. There is a subtle recognition of a new possibility, that while the national movement may have been peaceful, even dialogic, the nation-state as an entity emerged out of the imagination of two genocides: Partition and the Bengal Famine.

What emerged was a state devoted to science, planning and development and committed to managing huge populations. Memory recedes to the background and what remains is the politics of dislocation and number. What emerges is an implicit social contract between the nation-state and science to create new orders of stability. Out of Partition comes the idea of community development and urban planning. Jawaharlal Nehru invites Le Corbusier to build the new city of Chandigarh. The Bengal Famine becomes a pretext for planning and the administrative apparatus required to create a welfare state. The violence of the famine is not erased, it is sublimated into the creation of a new state.

Second, the violence and its large-scale disruptions led to the violence of Partition and also an acknowledgement that such large-scale violence is part of the new modernity. What one misses is a critique of the famine as it gets domesticated to a benign policy document. There is little protest about British behaviour, no attempt to call Winston Churchill to account as a war criminal. Instead, what we get is a ritual of table manners, not an ethical response to one of the great genocides in history.

Failure of story-telling

The Bengal Famine is a failure of storytelling as it gets sublimated into policy narratives or war-time memories. That very silence, its normalisation where a society accepts violence as part of a logic of strategy has tainted the unconscious of India. Sadly, the intellectual has become part of the conspiracy of silence, hiding behind the emperor’s new clothes, the emerging policy science, which banalise the logic of violence in everyday life. A Michel Foucault would have been ironically delighted with the event as a case study where Famine, Partition and World War become the creation myths of the Indian state apparatus.

Listening to the narratives, one often wonders what became of the Indian intellectual as storyteller. Is he only an annexe of the state or can he be a critical intellectual? This question becomes even more critical during the Narendra Modi regime where the silence and passivity of the intellectual are deeply distressing. Yet, there is little analysis or reflection to fix it at another level.

At another level, I keep wondering why so little attention has been paid to silence in history. Listening to narratives of genocide and violence, I often think that there should be a monument to silence. The silence of Partition centres around rape and few talk about it. It is a bit like the scene in the film where men discuss Partition and a woman listens quietly. In the end she says, “You have told a man’s story. The woman’s is still not available.” In fact, India has become a history of silences. I was thinking of the history of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The tragedy of Bhopal was a tragedy of storytelling. After the census of numbers and the arguments of legality, little remains. It is as if suffering and silence go together. The idea of witnessing hardly seems to command attention, and the few witnesses that did exist seem to be voices in the wilderness. It is as if silence was as lethal a killer as the gas and more overwhelming. The missing-ness that silence creates haunts Bhopal. Even commemorations become empty events, punctuation marks which sound hollow. They lack the poetics to challenge and the poignancy of the silence.

One senses the same tenor of desperation as one confronts the battle against the Narmada dam. The survivor as resister attempted to revive memory, even create a calendar of struggle — yet today the waters of the dam have reduced the struggle to silence.

I keep wondering why even events that find their voice lapse into silence. I am thinking of the Emergency which found a storyteller in the Shah Commission report, or the 1984 riots which found a witness in the PUCL-PUDR report, “Who are the Guilty?”. But eventually even these interrogating voices lost power. It is almost as if every atrocity is accompanied by its own symphony of silence. Each genocide creates its own demography of silences. India, in fact, becomes a history of silence, when actual history is too mute, unable to stand witness. Voice becomes a disappearing species. So all we have is the silences of Partition, the muteness of Bhopal, the silence of Narmada, and along with these bigger silences, the little dialects of silence — a Dalit’s silence, a woman’s silence, a tortured silence, a child’s silence, all waiting. It is as if justice begins when the storyteller returns and the first voice is raised against the silence. India suddenly appears as a million bodies walking in the muteness of silence.

Silence today seems to need an anthropology of its own. Today’s silence does not smell of yesterday’s desperation but of consumerist indifference, of a self-centredness immune of the other. It is not the silence of compassion, or the conviviality of caring. There is erasure, indifference, amnesia, forgetfulness, muteness, each calling a different world of experiences.

Troubling everydayness

I find the everydayness of silence even more troubling. It is like the silence of a husband and wife who have seen torture and rape and yet never talk about Partition. It is like the silence of Gujarat after 2002. Yet the agony is, silence speaks, silence demands speech, silence begs for voice and then lapses into defeat. Silence still has an eloquence which indicts us at every moment. India stands today like a Republic Day parade of silences, each violence mute into itself.

A democracy cannot be built on silences; it needs the speech of storytelling. Silence cannot be replaced by noise, by the bombast of the nation-state, or the cacophony of development. Each concept, each word must yield its story, so suffering never occurs in silence

A few weeks ago I saw a Chinese painting under which was inscribed a haiku-like poem. All it said was “How sad, silence is.” That inscription could be the history of modern India. By breaking this silence, we could begin to challenge the tyranny of modern India, bring back to citizenship a memory that flows, revive the power of storyteller and the hospitality of listening. The sadness of an empty democracy cannot settle for less.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

A strange new world

American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s protests have underlined the power of sport and endorsement

It is a strange world when a brash young man, a multinational corporation with a reputation for running sweatshops and a Twitter-happy American President combine to convince you that American football is more than a bunch of grown men piling over each other. It just might be the stuff that legends are made of.

Taking on Trump

The story began in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick, a football player with the San Francisco 49er team, chose to kneel on one knee instead of standing when the American national anthem was being played before a nationally televised football game. Kaepernick chose kneeling as a way of drawing attention to needless deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police and vigilantes — while demonstrating his respect for the anthem. Instead of focussing on the cause Kaepernick was trying to highlight — Black Lives Matter movement — U.S. President Donald Trump chose to make him a whipping post by tweeting in September 2017, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect… our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Kaepernick was in the process of renegotiating his contract and found no professional football team willing to sign him, even as they were signing up players who appeared to have an inferior record. For the past two years, Kaepernick has been unable to find work, and he is suing the National Football League (NFL) for illegal collusion to keep him out of the game in response to political pressure. Recently, athletic shoe and apparel manufacturer Nike signed him as the face of their new advertising campaign and instantly became target of Mr. Trump’s tirade where he called for a boycott of the company. Mr. Trump’s supporters have mounted a boycott and the Nike share price has fallen. Regardless of the market risk, the company has chosen to stick to its guns and even increased Kaepernick’s coverage.

With everything to lose

All good stories need heroes and villains. The irony of this story is that we are handed unlikely heroes and villains. We have Kaepernick, a brash young man with tattoos, who is often considered an egotist. It would be easy to dismiss his protest as a way of seeking the limelight. However, the magnitude of his sacrifice can only be understood if we remember that as a young college student, Kaepernick was seen as a rising baseball star, while he loved another sport, football. He was offered a professional contract to play for one of the well-known baseball teams that he turned down to continue to play football at a time when his future in football was uncertain. For a man who loves football this much, to walk away from it in order to continue to speak truth to power is a profile in courage that few can match.

There is not much to be said about a President who uses his bully pulpit to target friends and foes alike. However, it is strange that a country that has always taken pride in the freedom of expression chose to see kneeling rather than standing for the national anthem as a sign of disrespect but has no problem with seeing its national flag on towels and bathing trunks. Strangest of all is Nike, the poster child for corporate greed thriving on sweatshops in poor countries, choosing to make a stand against government pressure and buyer boycotts to support Kaepernick.

The moments that make history are only recognised in retrospect. Mahatma Gandhi picked up a pinch of salt in Dandi and changed the fate of British empire. Rosa Parks sat down on a bus in Alabama in a seat reserved for whites and changed the nature of race relations in America. Will Nike by standing up to political and market forces change the nature of corporate citizenship? I hope so.

Sonalde Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and Senior Fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. The views expressed are personal

New addicts of Punjab

The State’s drug crisis has acquired another dimension following a steady increase in the number of female addicts. Vikas Vasudeva reports on the toll substance abuse has taken on the lives and families of these women and the infrastructural support needed to help them

She got hooked on drugs seven years ago. Her school-going, teenage daughter had introduced her to a drug. “Within three days,” says Jasmeet, 42, “I had become an addict.”

Jasmeet works as a domestic help in Jalandhar. She has been a regular visitor at a drug de-addiction centre in Kapurthala since 2014. Along with her, her husband and their only daughter are also undergoing treatment for heroin addiction. Cases of whole families being compulsive consumers of drugs are not uncommon in today’s Punjab.

Describing her descent into drug addiction, Jasmeet says, “After working all day, I would feel anxious and exhausted. One day my daughter came to me and said she had a medicine that would make me relax. I agreed to try it. She then injected the medicine, which turned out to be heroin. Initially I felt a heaviness in my head. But in a few hours I felt quite relaxed. I took the drug for two days. On the fourth day, when I skipped a dose, it felt as if my body was crumbling.”

As the daily dose of the drug — a fraction of a gram — helped Jasmeet to keep up her energy levels, she found it to be a support in helping her cope with her workload. At the time, she was earning ₹6,000-7,000 a month.

“I liked the drug as it made me feel agile while working,” recalls Jasmeet. Sourcing it was not a problem either as my daughter would get it from her friends. Later, I got myself introduced to drug suppliers and began to buy it directly from them. Over the years, the destructive side of the drug addiction started. I began to spend my entire earnings on drugs. As my dependence on heroin increased, I started selling my personal belongings to pay for it. The first thing I sold was my gold earrings.”

She adds, as she waits with her husband at the clinic centre: “My husband is a truck driver. He would be away from home for months at a time. So I had a free run. And he too was addicted to heroin. All three of us in the family had fallen prey to the drug. It was when my husband and I started selling jewellery that we started having quarrels, which also led our secrets [our drug habits] spilling into the open.”

Despite four years of methadone maintenance treatment [a comprehensive treatment programme using methadone], Jasmeet has so far been unable to kick the habit as her rehabilitation has been disrupted by relapses. Their daughter had visited the same clinic for her routine dose earlier in the day as she had to take care of her 18-month-old baby.

“I came to know that my daughter was also addicted to heroin the day she fainted. We took her to the hospital, where it became clear that she had been on drugs. My husband was in jail at the time on charges of drug trafficking. My daughter and I nearly starved to death before a worker from a local non-governmental organisation came to our rescue and took us for treatment,” Jasmeet remembers.

Says her husband, Amandeep, 45: “I spent nearly three years in jail before I was acquitted of the charges. It was a really bad phase in our lives. We kept quarrelling whenever I was at home. We neglected our daughter. We were on the verge of getting divorced. Altogether I wasted nearly ₹4 lakh, first on drugs and then on court fees. We sold almost all our belongings, except for a small house that we somehow managed to retain. It is not as if the local police are unaware of what is going on but no one is bothered.” He emphasises the point that the availability of drugs needs to be curtailed if the drug epidemic in the State is to be ended.

The road to ruin

The latest front to have emerged in Punjab’s war on drugs is the growing number of women addicts. However, data on the number of women addicts are not available — or on the number of de-addiction centres for women. Punjab has 31 government-run de-addiction centres but only one exclusively for women. This is in Kapurthala, which it came up in July last year.

Around three years ago, Tara, 25, from Jalandhar, began having heroin in the company of her friends for “enjoyment and relaxation”. What followed was a descent into addiction and misery that eventually led her to becoming a drug peddler.

“Tara was brought to our centre for treatment about seven months ago by the police,” says Dr. Sandeep Bhola, who is in charge of the Kapurthala centre. “They had arrested her in connection with a drug smuggling case. She was not interested in treatment. But two weeks later she came back with her family and signed up here. She is well educated and was working as a teacher in a government school. But her colleagues and friends got her hooked on heroin.”

Describing her ordeal, Dr. Bhola observes that the desire to show that she belonged to an “upmarket and open” culture drew her to drugs. “Once she got addicted, she entered the drugs business herself in a bid to earn more money and fund her addiction.”

Dr. Bhola points out that while the problem of drug abuse among women is on the rise, not many seek help. Two factors hold them back: social stigma, and the lack of exclusive treatment centres for women. “Establishing exclusive treatment facilities for women and large-scale awareness, besides a crackdown on availability are necessary to address the problem,” he says.

Sangeeta, 28, who works as a daily wager with food service units in Kapurthala, echoes his sentiments: “My friends lured me into it. Initially, they offered me heroin for free. Once I was addicted, they began to demand money. I ended up spending my entire day’s wage of ₹400-500 on drugs.” She is currently under treatment.

“I started taking heroin, inhaling it through foil. Later, I began injecting it. In about four days I was addicted. My day started with a dose of heroin as it helped me to keep working without feeling tired. When I was left with no money, I would have sex with peddlers in exchange for the drug,” says Sangeeta, whose husband is also a truck driver.

Under treatment at the Kapurthala centre since 2016, she remembers her past with horror: “It was a terrible time that I want to completely forget. I didn’t even have money to feed my four children. No savings, nothing left for their health and education.”

Shaminder, a counsellor at the clinic, says that drug abuse among women is increasing: “Until a few years ago there were hardly any female patients. But in the last couple of years their numbers have been rising. The women who visit us are from across a wide cross-section of society — rich, poor, educated, uneducated. But it is mostly the lower- and the middle-class patients who take regular treatment from us. There is a high percentage of female sex workers among our patients. The upper middle class prefer to visit private de-addiction centres as the social stigma associated with a woman drug addict is the biggest source of anxiety for them and their families.”

At the Kapurthala centre, over 60 female patients have undergone treatment since 2012. While 35 were treated through the outpatient department (OPD), the remainder got admitted at the indoor patient facility.

“These patients have been treated for substance (drug) abuse and dependence. Most of them are here for a month or two and discharged after treatment,” says Shaminder. The centre has a 15-bed facility where, at present, three indoor patients have been admitted while 10 are undergoing treatment through the OPD.

Lured by ‘friends’

Most of the addicts at the centre have similar tales of how they got hooked on drugs — they all blame their friends. Rajni, 35, from Kapurthala, had been on heroin for nearly five years, until 2017, when she decided to seek treatment. “My friends introduced me to heroin,” she says. “My husband died 10 years ago. I had four school-going children to look after. I was finding it difficult to manage. One day my friend offered me heroin to ‘relax’ and that was it. I took to it. I used to earn ₹200-300 a day cleaning utensils in houses. I began to spend everything I earned on drugs.”

Rajni is at the centre along with Rimpi, her teenage niece, who is also under treatment for heroin addiction. She says her addiction to drugs caused her niece also to fall into the same trap. “When I ran out of money, I started offering my place to peddlers. They would come to my home and use it as a safe haven to do drugs. Then I started to have sex with them in exchange for heroin. While I remained ‘high’, my children and niece suffered. Things got so bad that it didn’t even register that my children hadn’t been fed for three to four days. My neighbours found them crying and extended help,” she says.

Rimpi says her drug habit completely ruined her family life. “My addiction to heroin was the reason my husband and I got separated. Raising my two-year-old as a single mother has been very difficult.”

Shaminder, who has been at the de-addiction centre since 2013, says she has seen addicts from across the community, all ages, occupations, and class categories. Sharing details about Manpreet, a college student, she says, “This young girl, from a financially well-off family, came to us for treatment in 2014. She had been on heroin for more than four years. Her boyfriend had introduced her to heroin on the pretext that it would improve her concentration and keep her relaxed while preparing for her examinations. After she broke up with him, she began to source drugs from female sex workers. She told us that on several occasions she had had sex with different men in exchange for drugs. She dropped out of college and stayed at home for more than a year. All through this her parents remained clueless about her drug habit. Accessing heroin was never a problem for her as she had developed an efficient system of suppliers. Whenever she needed a ‘dose’, she would ‘give a missed call’ to the agent’s cell phone number, and would have it delivered home. She had identified a spot near the main gate of her house where the agent would hide the package and take the money left for him there.”

Adds Shaminder: “Manpreet had two names, one for use in public life, and another one by which she was well known among drug dealers.” “Everyone in Kapurthala’s drug circle knew her. After treatment, she is doing fine now. She told me recently that she is getting married soon and trying to move on with her life.”

Alarming levels of dependence

A recent study, titled “Epidemiology of substance use and dependence in the state of Punjab, India: Results of a household survey on a statewide representative sample” — by the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, and published in March 2018 in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry — says that in Punjab, almost 4.1 million people have been found to have used a substance (licit or illicit) at least once in their lifetime. Among the lifetime users, four million were men and around 0.1 million women. The number of people dependent on a substance in their lifetime was 3.2 million (3.1 million men and 0.1 million women). Licit substances consist of alcohol and tobacco, while illicit substances include opioids, cannabinoids, inhalants, stimulants, and sedatives.

Opioids (heroin, smack, crude opium, poppy husk) were by far the most commonly used illicit drugs in the State. In the study, there were around 2,02,817 males and 10,658 females who displayed “lifetime dependence” on opioids as per World Health Organisation criteria. Interestingly, while 1,56,942 males were “currently dependent” on opioids, the corresponding figure for females remained the same (at 10,658), which experts find alarming.

“It is alarming because while the number of men who are ‘currently dependent’ on opioids is substantially less when compared to the number for ‘lifetime dependence’, in the case of women, the figures for the two categories are the same. That ‘current dependence’ among men is less when compared to ‘lifetime dependence’ suggesting that a large number of those who use and become dependent on opioids eventually break out of the drug habit. That is why a smaller proportion is currently dependent. With women, on the other hand, those using opioids become dependent on them, and will not or cannot stop using them. They continue using it in a dependent pattern, which is deeply worrying,” says Dr. Subodh B.N. from the Department of Psychiatry at the PGIMER.

He points out most women do not come forward for treatment fearing social stigma, which means that the actual number of women addicts is likely to be higher. “Exclusive treatment centres for women will definitely help,” he says.

For Nimmi, 32, it was not easy to overcome her fears and step out of her house for treatment. “The fear of being judged by society is what initially kept me from seeking treatment. It took almost a year of persuasion by my sister-in-law before I could get myself to visit the de-addiction centre,” she says. Since 2015, she has been regularly making the 30 km trip from her village to Kapurthala for treatment.

“Taking treatment meant that everyone would get to know that I am a drug addict,” she says. “It is not easy to live a normal life once you are addicted. In my village, most people know each other. While few are there to support you, there are too many who taunt for you for being an addict. My entire life has been ruined. My husband and I are separated. He is an alcoholic. I have three children. My third child is only 11 months old. To live with an alcoholic husband and such a young baby was also getting to be very difficult. I can’t feed the child because I have relapsed several times during the treatment. For a mother, not being able to breast feed is painful.”

Nimmi is now wiser for her decision to seek help: “What is most important is that once you get addicted to drugs, you admit that fact to yourself. If you continue to remain in denial, then by the time the consequences begin to hit you, it is often too late.” “Treatment for women and also children should be made available in exclusive centres across the State. Only then will Punjab stand a chance of winning a battle that it has been waging for so long.”

The names of the patients have been changed to protect their identities