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Saturday, September 18, 2010

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Fatima Meer: A Gandhian Gujarati Dadima from South Africa

Tushar Bhatt For South Africa,where Gandhiji perfected his weapon of Satyagraha in the early years of this century,a marathon revolution against the apartheid is over with the advent of the Nelson Rolihalahla Mandela government in power.For Gujarat,Gandhiji was not the only connection it has had with that country which suffered untold miseries for nearly half a century under the racist regime.Gujaratis had settled in Africa long long ago;there were immigrant labourers and traders from the State in South Africa,as also in other countries in the African continent. Gujaratis are still prominent at many places in South Africa,although along with the black people they too were treated as children of a lesser God by the white rulers.The dramatic victory of the African National Congress (ANC) against the unjust racialist regime itself has taken long. "When the African National Congress set out its vision for a non-racial society on January 8,1912", says the ANC's election manifesto, " we did not know how long it would take to achieve." Nelson Mandela,now 75,was not even born when the struggle against the white ruler began. Gujaratis too participated in this struggle.Memroies of one such fighter flood back in the mind as South Africa embarks on a more difficult task of national reconciliation and reconstruction. It was in December, 1991,when clad in a deep green saree,Mrs.Fatima Meer who looked like a typical matronly Gujarati housewife-- which she is -- walked into the offices of The Times of India in Ahmedabad.The appearance was deceptive in her case: the grand-motherly deportment,the toothy smile,the soft-spoken greetings in Gujarati --Kem Chho ? --pronounced with the sweet lilt as is done by the people of South Gujarat,all hid a veteran leader of Indian origin in South AFrica's embattled African National Con-gress,with a record of life-long fight against aprtheid. The struggle began when she was in school,and barely 17.Today,at nearly 65,she has not called it a day. "I have been in-volved in protesting against the racial policies eversince my school days.They tried to kill me once, bombed our house twice,and for my activities,I was sent to prison for five months without any trial.To cap iot all, the government banned me from public activities for 12 years,forcing me to live within a neighbourhood of about two square kilometres. She went on talking in a quiet,matter-of-fact tone.There was no trace of bitterness or resentment,as if,like the other great Indian,the Mahatma,she had anticipated the racist regime to behave no dif-frently. Unlike Gandhiji,however,Mrs Fatima Meer never thought to re-turnning to India her ancestral country. " My grandfather migrated to South Africa from Surat when he was 16. My father was born in Surat,and I have been to Surat to visit Rajawadi,our old home." For all her years away from home,she spoke fairly fluently in Gujarati. But that was about all as far as her active Indian connection is concerned. In fact, she described herself as a South African,born on August 12,1928, at Durban, the daughter of a journalist.Her father, Mr.Moosa Ismail Meer, was the editor of a journal,The Indian Views,for six decades from 1910 onwards. Mrs Meer was the founder and the first president of the Federa-tion of Black Women in South Africa, an organisation which too was banned in 1976. A socilogist by training,she was director of the Institute of Black Research at the University of Natal, as also an honorary research fellow.Of late, she has been the editor of Madiba publishers,a subsidiary of the Institute for Black Research. A prolific writer,her books include an official biography of the ANC supremo, Mandela, a book that has been published in nine languages,and another on Black Women Workers.Her works,of course, also include a volume on Gandhiji -- Apprenticeship of a Mahatma. To an Indian ear,Gandhiji's name,his ideology and how we should draw inspiration from his life and work -- all sound like too familiar a rhetoric,for the Mahatma has been converted into a propaganda material by self-seekers and other image builders in the post-Independence years. But what Mrs Fatima Meer had to say about the Mahatma, even in the closing weeks of 1991, did not sound like a blast of bombastic cliches. "Gandhi is relevant today also. The most important thing to learn from him is to how to get in otuch with one's own soul." Mrs Meer could foresee even when nobody knew in 1991 how long will it take to end apartheid :"In my country too, we have a stupendous task in rebuilding our society on the lines of equality between human beings,disregarding the colour of the skin." It was this quest to define the relationship of new man and woman in re-building South Africa in the post-apartheid era that had brought her to Ahmedabad three years ago on a flying visit. She had gone round looking at the work being done by the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) among the women of the poor." I am not surprised,butt am impressed as also inspired by by the Gandhian methods used for the uplift of the opressed women in this city.I would love to start something similar in my country",she had said. Although she is not associated with AFESEWU,Mrs Meer's fond hopes seem to find an echo in what has been started in Durban by Ms.Horn and her colleagues. In some ways,the task of helping the women of the poor in South Africa is even more daunting than in India.As a country,South Af-rica is not exactly poor;its per capita income roughly matches that of Argentina.But its tragedy is the stark poverty of the black peo-ple.Behind the national average,black people have incomes one-tenth those of whites and nearly half have no formal jobs. This re-porter had asked Mrs Fatima Meer as to what were the conditions of the women in such a miliue ? She replied: "When we consider women's freedom, we are not just considering it in the context of an aprtheidal society,but in the context of a male dominated society, a domnation that occurs across race and class.White women were favoured to the extent that they were part of the white people and so their status was higher than that of black men." She was blunt: "As in practially all human societies,in South Af-rica too,women constitute a majority of the population,but have an insgnificanct influence on the legislature of the country or on any kind of corporate decision-making ,whether on the level of man-agement or labour.South Africa's nearly 16 million women suffer from oppression as a result of male domination."Again, African women constitute more than 70 per cent of the women in her coun-try,and their status is most depressed of all.Untrained in any sphere ,under-educated and largely confined to rural areas, a vast majority of them remain excluded from tje job market.Those employed find the lowest paid jobs; 57 per cent of African women in gainful employment are employed as domestic servants or farm labourers,and as such remain outside unionisation.There are prob-lems in agricultural sector where a majority of the women live. "Our task in helping the women of the poor will be tougher than that faced by organisations like SEWA." Is SEWA model applicable to South Africa ? "It is not that our domen do not have any skills.They,for instance, skilled in bead-making.There is a beautiful tribe called Ndebele,whose women do lovely mural paint-ing.But,these have to be revived ,enriched.And this is not to be viewed in isolation.Nearly half of the black youths need work,and so we have to evolve a system in which machines and handicrafts exist together.We have to develop a strategy for this." The mid-80s saw a decline in the economic well-being of South Africa as a whole because of the economic sanctions and boycott by many countries.Now that it has set on a new road to equality,the recovery will be there.But it still is an uphill assignment,even more so for organisations like AFESEWU.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Then & Now : 100 minutes of history,eternity of indifference

By Tushar Bhatt Time: 11.40 a m on March 18, 1922. Place: A ground floor room at the Circuit House in Shahibaug in Ahmedabad. Scene: Barely 20 minutes before the trial, often compared with that of Socrates, of Mahatma Gandhi on charges of sedition.The court room was filled to the capacity. The charges were that the three articles published in Young In-dia of September 29 and December 15,1921, and February 23, 1922,titled Tampering with Loyalty, A Puzzle and Its Solution and Shaking of the Manes. After the arguments by the Advocate-General, Sir Thomas Strangman,the court asked Gandhi if he would like to make a statement. The Mahatma,then 53, stood up,erect and unafraid.The court room was all ears,as if the entire the world were intently listening to what this man who described himself as a farmer and weaver had to say. "...I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me....Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.But I had to make a choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth, when they understood the truth from my lips....I am, therefore, here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act." Gandhiji then read out the statement in a measured tone,tracing the events of Chauri Chora,the Punjab and other places in the country,which made him become an "uncompromising disaffection-ist and non-co-operator" from a " staunch loyalist". " I discovered that as a man and an Indian, I had no right. More correctly I discovered that I had no rights as a man, because I was an Indian....The administration of law is prostituted consciously or consciously for the benefit of the exploiter." Gandhiji said: " Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence." " I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a government which in totality has done more harm to India than any previous system. India is less manly under the British Rule than she ever was before. Holding such a belief, I consider it to be a sin to have affection for the system and it has been a precious privilege for me to be able to write what I have in the various articles tendered in evidence against me." He told the judge: "The only course open to you is either to resign your post and thus dissociate yourself from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil and that in real-ity I am innocent; or to inflict on me the severest penalty...." The statement that sounded like the testament of India's freedom struggle had taken just 15 minutes to read. There was a hush in the court room. The air was heavy with apprehension. The sessions judge,Mr C.Broomsfield,began slowly : "....The law is no respecter of per-sons.Nevertheless it will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to try. It would be impossible to ignore the fact that in the eyes of millions of your countrymen are a great patriot and a great leader. Even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and of even saintly life.I have to deal with you in one character only." The judge handed the Mahatma an imprisonment of six years adding that " if the course of events in India should make it possible for the government to reduce the period and release you, no one will be better pleased than I." As the judge left the room, followers crowded around Gandhi. Some fell at his feet,others were sobbing.Gandhi was smiling and cool.The Great Trial of Gandhi had taken 100 minutes. TIME MARCHES ON And, an eternity of casualness follows.Here is a scene frozen in memory. Time: Around 3.45 in the afternoon on a humid July day in 1997,barely four weeks before the 50th anniversary of India's Independence. Scene: Circuit House in Shahibaug. Despite being state guest house frequented by VIPs,the lawn gives an impression of poor maintenance,an impression that would strengthen inside the historic room.The place is quiet, with only a handful of bearers and other minions on government payroll,are bustling around,wearing the patented bureaucratic look of being purposeful without being meaningfully so.In short, not doing much. Nobody has time to answer queries related to the past, pre-occupied with the mundane matters of the present. " The manager saheb has gone out for work" comes the pat reply from a bored clerk,manning the telephone-cum-reception desk. A limousine slides into the portico and he does not have time even for a bored non-reply. A chhota-make-believe VIP, i.e. a political hanger-on of a leader,has arrived. All along the four wall,stacked are smaller chairs,numbering more than 35. Some one dozen more chairs, of moulded plastics are piled up at one place. The general idea appears to be that no one, but no one should, run short of a chair, at least in this room,if not in the state and the country at large. Everyone appears blissfully unaware of the real significance of the room,where Gandhiji was tried.It faces the dining hall on the ground floor and is used now as a lounge for visitors and as a place where occasionally politicians of all hues hold press conferences. "You see, the place is really inexpensive as compared to a hotel", says a worker, explaining why politicians choose the lounge to tell the media on-record untruths, right under the mournful glance of the Bapu,whose life-size oil painting adorns the far-side wall.Mercifully, the politicians generally sit with their back turned on the historic Gandhi trial documents. The floor tiles wear a dirty look,as if it has only been sparingly and grudgingly swept all these days. Three-piece sofa sets,each one complete with side and front tables are in front of all the four walls.There are several doors but only one is open; two neon tube-lights throw pools of eerie fluorescent light.Three fans are turning in true government-fashion,going round and round without cooling the room. On another wall is a large painting ,depicting the scene of Gan-dhi's trial but hardly anyone seems interested.Next to it is another oil-painting,with Gandhi sitting in his famous posture.The next wall has the honour of having a bust each of the Mahatma and Sardar Patel.So much for the effort to render the place beautiful.It has the signature of PWD all over. The actual documents-- or,truthfully,photostat copies of these -- are housed in display panels,numbering nine and mounted on steel tubings,pushed into the room corners in clusters of threes and twos.The first panel,mounted on a black paper says boldly, The Judgement,but the first page of the judgement that should be under it is missing. The second page (see the photograph) has been eaten into by moths.The tube lights on each panel are resolutely switched off,lest someone reads the historic documents. Outside the room are two plaques,one in Hindi and the other in English,telling visitors of the historic importance of the room. An employee is half-dozing on a chair,presumably doing his duty to-wards the government and the state it rules,thanks to the Ma-hatma. It all looks like an ill-kept,unkempt place honouring the apostle of cleaninless in personal and public life, a stark reminder of how far we have come to his ideal of Swaraj after half-a-century.If it is a determined effort designed to make one forget about Gandhi, it succeeds eminently. The eternity of indifference persists, with minor modifications visualised by the Babudum. MAHATMA GANDHI AMAR RAHO.

Monday, September 13, 2010