In one fine stroke, the Punjab police have managed to put a question mark on the entire Punjabi poetry, modern classics, and if one were to fall in the trap of a baseless argument, even Guru Granth Sahib.
On September 15, two publishers and two poets-cum-book editors were jailed in Barnala and Patiala, while the printer was also booked under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. These men allegedly offended Dalits by reprinting poetry of legendary kavishari-writer Babu Rajab Ali (1894-1979), which carries some caste-denoting words.
There were stray press statements by the 'offended', a public apology by one of the 'offenders', himself a Dalit, but effigies were still burnt on September 12 in Moga. Three days later, publisher Amit Mittar and kavishar (folk poet-singer) Jagjeet Singh Sahoke were thrown in the Barnala jail, while publisher Ashok Garg and kavishar Sukhwinder Singh Swatantar in the Patiala jail. While Garg and Swatantar got bail on Tuesday, the other two remain in jail and the printer has applied for anticipatory bail.
WHY SINGLE OUT?
Protesters from Moga have reason to believe that their memorandum to the Punjab chief minister had an effect, but Barnala and Patiala's deputy superintendents of police (DSPs), who are themselves complainants in the FIRs, credit unnamed 'sources' for having tipped them off about possible violent repercussions of Ali's texts. The crackdown was coordinated, manifested in the identical texts of the two FIRs.
But that's just the trivia bit.
What puts a question mark on the veracity of the allegations is that these texts have been merely reprinted, otherwise in circulation since before Independence, when Ali chose to shift to Pakistan. "He is not alone in using caste-denoting words to describe the society of the times; even Guru Nanak did it. Shah Hussain's poetry with such words is taught in MA courses," says Dr Sukhdev Singh, chairperson of the School of Punjabi Studies at Panjab University (PU), Chandigarh.
"Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Giani Gurdit Singh in 'Mera Pind', Waris Shah in his seminal work 'Heer', you name one great writer who has not used the word!" says Balbir Madhopuri, Delhi-based Dalit writer, "Even Guru Ravidass has identified himself proudly as a Chamar in Guru Granth Sahib. If we remove these, we will kill the sanctity of our texts."
CONNOTATION THE KEY
But the argument of sanctity does not pass muster with the offended, who insist that the connotation of the usage is the key. According to the Supreme Court, too, the connotation of insult is necessary to invoke the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Thus, it could strike as preposterous when Guru Nanak uses the word 'choorha' to denote a sweeper, Bhai Gurdas uses it for a woman who carries dog meat on her head, or when Waris Shah writes in 'Heer', 'Nahin choorhe da putt hove saiyyad'. A singer-writer from the Mirasi clan, Jagraj Dhaula from Barnala, explains the nuance, "The writers were merely depicting 'what' they saw, not 'how' they saw it."
A case worth recalling is that of Ludhiana-based Lahore Book Depot's owner Tejinder Bir, who was booked under the SC/ST Act after reprinting a 19th-century history book. The case was dropped after pressure from the civil society. He suggests, "Before filing a case, there can be a debate. And one party can convince the other."
CHANGE TIMES, NOT WORDS
"This was the folk wisdom of the times. So the writer, too, ends up using stereotypes that were the reality then," says Dr Sukhdev. "This shows that the need is to change the times, the oral and societal usage of these words; then, writings will not have these words anyway."
Ali uses the word 'choorha' in a particular derogatory sense and it seems not right, opines Harish Puri, a political scientist who has written extensively on caste matters. "But you cannot judge the past with today's prism," he adds perspective, "The so-called lower castes are now asserting themselves, and rightly so. But unless you acknowledge the shameful aspects of your history, how would you move forward?"
There have been such whitewashes earlier, in Prem Chand's stories in NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) books, in the title of a Shah Rukh Khan movie ('Billu Barber', renamed 'Billu' after protests), in a song from Madhuri Dixit starrer 'Aaja Nachle'. Yet, there have also been attempts to turn the connotation on its head by singers in Doaba, who proudly employ the word 'Chamar'. One such singer, Roop Lal Dhir, believes "it's a swear word if you let it be one".
But the moot point here is the word 'choorha', "which is not caste-denoting but a swear word for non-Chamars like Balmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs," underlines Moga-based Jaskaran Singh, one of those who led the Moga protest before the arrests. A leader of the Balmik Mazhabi Sikh Rakhwankaran Bachao Morcha, he details his agenda, "Chamars hog all the reservation quotas for Scheduled Castes. We want a 50% reservation within reservation."
Ask him if all books containing caste references should be banned, and he says a roaring 'yes', refusing to discuss the nuances.
Manjit Singh of the Balmik Mazhabi Sikh Bhalai Front is dismissive when reminded that book editor Jagjeet Singh, a Ramdassia Dalit, had apologised publicly eight days before their agitation: "He apologised to the public, not to our organisation specifically. There's a difference." He refuses to describe the difference.
But what meets the eye does not convince the over a score of "non-CPI, non-CPM" Leftist cultural and farm organisations that passed a resolution against the arrests at a rally in Jagraon on Sunday. "The anti-Dalit discourse is easier to sell. Actually, the government is uneasy with Amit Mittar, in particular, for printing Left-leaning literature," says Amolak Singh, head of the Punjab Lok Sabhyachar Manch.
Adds Chandigarh-based Harish Jain, who owns Unistar Publishers, "We are all for moderation and debate. But Rajab Ali's poetry, which has been printed by other publishers for years, is just a way to pull down publishers who give space to varied views. The government probably thought such an action could get votes. But with even the sacred texts also in the picture now, it has put itself in a corner."
As for the police, DSP Harmik Singh Deol just reiterates what the FIR says, "I got a tip-off about the book, and possible violence." He refuses there was pressure from high-ups.
But the irony of the Moga protest becomes apparent when Dalip Singh Pandhi, member of the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes, argues, "The need is to remove prejudices now and stop the usage now, not remove words that depicted certain times in the past."
Prof Nahar Singh of the PU Punjabi department, himself a Dalit, agrees, "At worst, ask publishers to withdraw copies."
"We can even change a word or two on a case-by-case basis, like we did when I was helping ghazal singer Jagjit Singh put together an album of Dhani Ram Chatrik's poetry," says Jnanpith awardee Surjit Patar.
Amid all this, Dr Pramod Kumar, director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh,
tries to lend a wider canvas to the debate: "What we need is a forum for continuous dialogue to discuss sensitive issues."
Harish Puri throws in two suggestions: "There can be rules on how widely to present certain texts that may be deemed offensive. There can be disclaimers at the start."
Even as opinions and suggestions fly, and solutions abound, at least two carriers of literature remain behind bars. And there remains a threat to a proper reading of our history, the history of injustice in particular.
Amit Mittar, 37, Tark Bharti Parkashan, known for Left literature. In dock for book ‘Soormeyan di Gatha’ that has Rajab Ali’s folktales. “It’s not about that book,” he smiles through grills at the jail meeting room.
Jagjit Singh Sahoke, 65, a folk singer from Rajab Ali’s native village Sahoke (Moga). He has edited 3 books of Ali’s works, one being ‘Soormeyan di gatha’. “I’m a devotee of Rajab Ali, victim of politics.”
Ashok Garg, 52, owns Samana-based Sangam Publications. In the trade fo three decades, he is particularly known for publishing folk literature. In trouble for ‘Anokha Rajab Ali’, he got bail on Tuesday
Sukhwinder Singh Swatantar, 50, kavishar from Pakka Kalan (Bathinda). He edited the collected volume ‘Anokha Rajab Ali’, besides seven other such volumes of the same writer. He got bail after 10 days on Tuesday.