Friday, July 19, 2013

Talking about Change: about then and now

Aakar Patel is a weekly columnist in Mint. I try to read whatever he writes and at times some of the interpretations he makes seem completely ridiculous but at times be brings to the fore some very useful insights. He has an amazing taste of reading and therefore collection of books/magazines etc which he shared in one of his posts sometime back. His work drew extra degree of attention thereafter.

Last week I came across this post of this on what makes the business class truly unique. The article brought home some interesting insights on some of the feats of the business community in India. He also gave reference to an essay by Dr Ambedkar on 'Maharashtra as a Linguistic Province'. My interest in language and its role in politics made me read it as well.

One of things that really interested me was the history of Gujratis in Mumbai. Anyone familiar with Mumbai and Gujaratis would realize that they are really good at trade. They are entrepreneurial and quite professional about their approach to business. The most expensive part of the city, the South Bombay (where none of the flats woudl be anywhere less than 5 cr) has several of Gujarati residents. However, what made them come to Mumbai?The article tells that they were made to come there because of trading compulsions of the British.

In the essay by Ambedkar there is a reference of a petition filed sometime in 1680s where some Nima Parekh. What were the privileges which the Gujrarathi Banias had asked for from the East India Company ? The following petition by one Nima Parakh, an eminent Bania belonging to the City of Diu, gives some idea of what they were:

"1. That the Honourable Company shall allot him so much ground in or near the present town free of rent as shall be judged necessary to build a house or warehouse thereon.

"2. That he with the Brahmans of Vers (Gors or priests) of his caste shall enjoy the free exercise of their religion within their own houses without the molestation of any person whatsoever; that no Englishman, Portuguese, or other Christian nor Muhammadan shall be permitted to live within their compound or offer to kill any living creature there, or do the least injury or indignity to them, and if any shall presume to offend them within the limits of their said compound, upon their complaint to the Governor (at Surat) or Deputy Governor (at Bombay), the offenders shall be exemplarily punished; that they shall have liberty to burn their dead according to their custom, also to use their ceremonies at their weddings ; and that none of their profession of what age, sex or condition whatever they be, shall be forced to turn Christians, nor to carry burthens against their wills.

" 3. That he and his family shall be free from all duties of watch and ward, or any charge and duty depending thereon; that neither the Company nor the Governor, Deputy Governor or Council, or any other person, shall on any pretence whatsoever force them to lend money for public or private account or use any indirect.

"4. That in case there falls out any difference or suit in law between him or his vakil or attorneys or the Banias of his caste, and any other persons remaining on the island, the Governor or Deputy Governor shall not suffer him or them to be publicly arrested dishonoured or carried to prison, without first giving him due notice of the cause depending, that he or they may cause justice to be done in an honest and amicable way and in case any difference happen between him or his attorney and any Bania of their own caste, they may have liberty to decide it among themselves without being forced to go to law.

"5. That he shall have liberty of trade in his own ships and vessels to what port he pleases, and come in and go out when he thinks good; without paying anchorage, having first given the Governor or Deputy Governor or customer notice and taken their consent thereunto.

" 6. That in case he brings any goods on shore more than he can sell on the island within the space of 12 months, he shall have liberty to transport them to what port he pleases, without paying custom for exportation.

" 7. That in case any person be indebted to him, and also to other Banias, and be not able to pay all his debts, his right may be preferred before other Banias.

" 8. That in case of war. or any other danger which may succeed, he shall have a warehouse in the castle to secure his goods, treasure, and family therein.

"9. That he or any of his family shall have liberty of egress and regress to and from the fort or residence of the Governor or Deputy Governor; that they shall be received with civil respect and be permitted to sit down according to their qualities; that they shall freely use coaches, horses or palanquins and quitasols (that is barsums or umbrellas) for their convenience without any disturbances ; that their servants may wear swords and daggers, shall not be abused, beaten or imprisoned except they offend, and that in case of any of his kindred or friends shall come to visit him or them from any other ports, they shall be used with civility and respect.

"10. That he and his assigns shall have liberty to sell and buy coconuts, betelnuts, pan or betel-leaves, and any other commodity not rented out without any molesiation on the island."

India was not a nation per se at that time and one can see a strong feeling of community centeredness in the petition.

The interesting part is that I am writing this post from Ahmedabad where yesterday i had a meeting with an organization which has been working towards bringing about securlarism, democracy and equality with a strong focus on Panchmahal district after the Godhra riots. According the head of the organization, the caste feeling runs very strong even in urban Gujarat. You can't really get a home a home easily in a society where traditionally people from a given caste or group have been staying. Its impossible for Muslims to live in the same society. Please refer to point '2' in the petition above to understand the sentiment even during that period.

One wonders that even 350 years of journey (since 1680s and may be centuries before it) are not sufficient for us to get rid of our caste feelings. Corruption issue is still very very young. Barely few decades old.

The field workers took me to a site where predominantly displaced Muslims and Dalits are staying. Do note that Ahmedabad is a fairly rich city otherwise. I won't get into the details of what all work they have been able to do there etc. Though that is where the actual substance of efforts really lies.

Slum at Vatva- 10 kms from Ahmedabad

 One can imagine the brink of disease and death on which many a children lead there lives. How susceptible would little ones be to catching some really nefarious germ in such a site that too during rainy season?  
I won't necessarily want to blame X or Y political party over here since i have been to slums in both BJP as well as Congress governed states. But i guess, all these facts really need to be put together as one tries to assess, are we getting it really right?

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