India?s Bastille

The storming of Jehanabad jail on the night of November 13 reminded me of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, which triggered off the French Revolution, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2005 03:04 IST

The storming of Jehanabad jail on the night of November 13 reminded me of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, which triggered off the French Revolution. It is celebrated to this day as Quatorze Juillet, the French day of Independence. The Bastille was stormed by a Parisian mob. The Jehanabad jail was stormed by hundreds of trained and armed militants. In the Bastille, they found a handful of prisoners; in Jehanabad over 380. No blood was shed in the Bastille; in Jehanabad, nine men who the attackers regarded as their sworn enemies were slain.

However, let us not take the storming of Jehanabad jail lightly. It has clearly proved that the Naxalite-Maoist inspired peasant movement that started in Naxalbari in West Bengal in 1967 has steadily gathered strength. There are pockets of armed and well-organised guerrilla fighters stretching from the Himalayas down to Andhra and elsewhere. Neither the police nor the army have been able to stamp it out. Nor can it do so.

Besides robbing landless farmers of their rightful share of produce, the caste factor has further complicated the issue. The vast majority of Naxalite-Maoist supporters are drawn from landless peasantry of the lower castes. Their prime targets are landowners and their cronies from the higher castes. The latter have their own private militia in Bihar, the Ranvir Sena, which often slaughters those landless poor who dare raise their voices in protest against injustice. Successive governments have done very little to solve their problems. Land reforms remain largely on paper, as big landowners continue to hold more than is allowed to them under different names, including that of their servants. The Bhoodan movement launched by Acharya Vinoba Bhave achieved very little. There is a lot to be said in favour of the slogan ‘land to the tiller’. It should be implemented — the sooner the better.

However, modern farming requiring use of tractors, harvesters, fertilisers, pesticides etc. need huge investments, which small farmers cannot afford. We have to set up many more farmers cooperatives to get over these difficulties. If the government does not take up the task earnestly, pretty soon the Naxalite-Maoist movement may go beyond control. The storming of Jehanabad jail should not be allowed to become India’s version of the storming of the Bastille.

Loo and behold

Bindeshwar Pathak, the founding-father of Sulabh public lavatories in India, has been invited by the Afghanistan government to replicate low-cost shauchalayas in that country. Toilet facilities for the poor are worse in Afghanistan than in India. During winter, it is bitterly cold and large parts of the country are under snow. There are few trees and fewer bushes behind which women can hide as they bare their bottoms to defecate. There are no rail lines which have become, for reasons unknown, the favourite haunts of Indian male shitters in the mornings and force rail passengers to turn away from their windows. Afghanistan needs Sulabh as much as, if not more than, India.

In his latest book, The Future of India (Viking Penguin) Bimal Jalan, after six years as Governor of RBI, and now MP, Rajya Sabha, mentions two undertakings that have proved to be outstanding successes of public and private enterprises: one is public call offices and the other, Sulabh International. In the last 35 years, Sulabh has provided toilet facilities to over one million homes, and has 5,500 pay-and-use toilets working across the country night and day. It has generated more than 5,000 jobs and freed thousands of sweepers from carrying night soil on their heads. We have much to be grateful for to Pathak. However, his job is far from over. Rail-track shitters continue to foul the countryside and women suffer constipation till the dark hours when they can relieve themselves. Under Pathak’s guidance, we should be able to blot out this stigma from our landscape.

The Delhi that was

Till 1947, Delhi was a city of wide roads and open spaces, no buses, few cars, taxis or scooters. There were more bicycles and pedestrians. Living was gracious; no one was in a hurry. Muslims, who formed a little less than half of its population, dominated its cultural life and spoke Urdu. We aira-gairas spoke a Delhi-brand of Hindustani: Humbay meyrey yaar! Tu mujhey janata nahin (Yes, my pal, you don’t know who I am). Courtesans sat on their balconies in Chawri Bazaar, common whores and hijras around Lal Kuan, Khari Baoli and Ajmeri Gate.

All that changed in a few weeks in August and September 1947. Punjabi Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan swamped the city. Thousands of Muslim families fled to Pakistan. New colonies to house refugees mushroomed everywhere. Delhi became congested and soon became a concrete jungle spreading over 30 miles from north to south, east to west. The city lost much of its charm.

Few people are better equipped to write about the dramatic change in Delhi’s character than Dhruv Chaudhuri, son of Nirad C. Chaudhuri. He came to Delhi in 1942, when his father rented a flat near Mori Gate. He never went to school, but learnt everything from his distinguished father. He took up photography as his profession, starting with a box camera before going in for more sophisticated instruments. He has recorded his impressions of the Delhi that was with beautiful photographs and lucidly written text in Delhi: Light, Shades, Shadows (Niyogi). I recommend this pictorial biography of the Delhi that was and what it became to all lovers of the city.


A Pune restaurant has pictures of Raakhi, Sharmila Tagore, Sushmita Sen and Bipasha Basu in a corner labelled, ‘Famous old and new Bengali dishes’.

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Texpur)

First Published: Nov 26, 2005 03:04 IST