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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 43, New Delhi, October 10, 2020

In My Own Voice: Gulzar, Pramila Dandavate and dissent | Sagari Chhabra

Friday 9 October 2020, by Sagari Chhabra

At the Indian International Film Festival many years ago, I saw Gulzar, Sai Paranjape and Amol Palekar huddled together. I wished Sai who I knew, but she nodded perfunctorily and I thought she was rather preoccupied discussing her next film project. Then again, the next day I saw the three in deep conversation, heads put together talking in almost hushed whispers. I watched but this time I stayed away.

Later I was invited to read my poetry at the Delhi International Literary Festival. It was a trip by bus to the Neemrana fort with other writers for which I had to get up in the early hours of the morning but on reaching there I was perfunctorily informed by the festival organizer, that the ‘poetry slots were full’ and I would not be reading. I was annoyed, I loathe going to fancy hotels but there had been a purpose, now my time had been completely wasted.

I looked around and spotted Gulzar dressed in his trademark white kurta-pajama, he had positioned himself besides a pastry counter and was serving each person like a granthi offers kara prasad. I joined him and together we served the langar. We got talking and I told him I had read his , ‘ A Story In The Name Of Kuldip Nayar’ published in translation in The Little Magazine. Someone asked what it was about and Gulzar asked me to retell it, as ‘a reader’.

I tried to render it faithfully: Gulzar tells Kuldip Nayar that he is travelling to Sialkot, Nayar’s hometown now in Pakistan. Kuldip Nayar asks him to visit his family home that he had been compelled to leave like millions of others during Partition. Nayar recalls that there was a grave of a Pir on which his mother, Puran Devi a Sikh, used to light a diya every evening with a prayer. He wonders is the grave still there?

Gulzar promises Kuldip Nayar he will go to his former home; he recounts how everything in Sialkot has changed beyond description, but he locates the grave which has remained intact. It was touching that both time and marauding mobs had left the grave alone and with it a certain history of inter-faith living and harmony.

I had pushed our conversation to the recesses of my memory when a friend forwarded me an exquisite oral rendering of Gulzar’s ‘Taqseem’ on the web by Arti Jain. The memoir is about a call that Gulzar receives from Sai Paranjape. She tells him that Pramila Dandavate wants to talk to him and wants a convenient time. Gulzar asks ‘who is Pramila Dandavate?’ and Sai responds, ‘She is the wife of the former Finance Minister’. Gulzar asks, ‘why does she want to talk to me?’ He recalls that Sai hides behind the curtain of English to give him a formal reply. She tells him that there is a certain Sardar Harbhajan Singh who was a Minister of Civil Supplies during the Janata Dal and who had lost his son during the Partition. Harbhajan Singh is convinced that he, Gulzar is indeed his long lost son. Gulzar is clearly baffled; he responds that he was with his parents at the time of Partition and he was already 11 years old enough to know what was happening. The actor-director, Amol Palekar too calls with the same request and he gives a time to Pramila Dandavate for the next day.

Pramila Dandavate calls Gulzar from Delhi and reiterates what both Sai Paranjape and Amol Palekar have been expressing, but she also adds that Harbhajan Singh is willing to come to Bombay to meet him. Gulzar tells her that he is coming to Delhi in January for the international film festival — it was November when she called — and that he would meet Harbhajan Singh then.

The three, Gulzar, Amol and Sai Paranjape meet at the Indian International Festival foyer and discuss the issue; so that is what I had witnessed as an unwitting bystander and delegate to the festival.

Gulzar recounts that he went to meet Harbhajan Singh who was present with his wife and a grown up son, Iqbal Singh; both Sai and Amol were also present.

He did ‘pauri paunna’ to Harbhajan Singh and also touched his wife’s feet who Harbhajan said was ‘his mother’. He was deeply touched. Then Harbhajan Singh shared how they had a Muslim landlord who was both reassuring and supportive but when the marauding mobs came from outside he and his family were compelled to leave. As they trudged on foot across the border, weary, hopelessly tired, hungry and thirsty, somehow their younger children got lost. They searched every refugee camp for years thinking they would find them but it was not to be. Many years later they located their daughter now a grown up woman. She recalled that she had got exhausted with walking, wandered off and slept behind a tandoor, when she awoke the karavaan had left. The owners of the house kept her thinking someone would return for her but when no one arrived they made her do some chores, fed her and were decent. After she grew of age, the master of the house performed a nikah and married her. She bore him two children who are now well settled.

Gulzar asked Harbhajan Singh and his wife what emotions did she express when she met them, but they said she was calm and told everything in a matter of fact manner. Then he asked them how were they so sure he, Gulzar was their son?

 Harbhajan Singh said his little son, Sampooran Singh too had gone missing over this ordeal of walking across the border and when his elder son, Iqbal Singh read in a magazine that Gulzar was his pen name and he had changed it from Sampooran Singh, both he and his wife were convinced that he indeed was their long lost son. Just as their daughter, Satya was now named Dilshaad, he too was their son, Sampooran Singh.

Gulzar again explained that he was with his parents in Delhi during the Partition and gave a long explanation of his antecedents. They part with warmth and he again touches their feet. Time moves on and one day he gets a letter from the elder son, Iqbal that his father had died and his mother had said, ‘Chotte nu zaroor dasna’ — do let the youngest know. Gulzar writes, ‘I felt I had lost my own Daarji’ — father.

The story touched me, the Partition had divided not just the border but so many lives and scarred the psyche of millions but then I get the news that a memorial built by the Punjabis in memory of the victims of Partition with the words of Amrita Pritam, ‘Aaj Me Aakha Warris Shah Nun... ‘ - I invoke Warris Shah today - along with the words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz had been demolished. This memorial had been set up by those who had suffered the unspeakable horrors of Partition including freedom fighter, Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga, and writers, Kuldip Nayar, Harbhajan Singh Halvarvi and Poonam. During its inauguration, the waters of the five rivers of Punjab had been poured over it; how could anyone have trampled over the feelings of Punjabis on both sides of the border, I wondered.

Partition had been the Holocaust of South Asia where over a million had lost their lives and now in free India we had witnessed thousands walking home during the lockdown some collapsing from thirst and hunger. When will we ever learn? Now we are told that no data was kept of the migrants who died, so how will their families ever receive compensation?

There was another aspect of Gulzar’s story that stirred memories. Gulzar writes that Pramila Dandavate was ‘the wife of the former Finance Minister’ but surely she was much more than just that; she was a Member of Parliament in her own right and a champion of women’s rights.

In the late eighties there was the case of N.G a young woman who was picked up from a dhaba in Dhaula Kuan taken into police custody and raped. As part of the Peoples Union of Democratic Rights fact-finding team we observed that nothing warranted her being picked up and taken to the police station. There was also no record in the Daily Diary of her being taken to the police station and the police were ambivalent about everything. She had now been lodged at the Nari Niketan women’s shelter home and along with Harish Dhawan of PUDR I went to meet her. The authorities denied us a meeting with her but told us of the date when she would appear before the courts for her case.

On that day I reached the courts well before the time given to me only to learn that her case had come up as per schedule a day earlier. Obviously someone had lied to us and did not want us to meet N.G. I called the authorities at Nari Niketan and asked them where had she gone, surely she had left a forwarding address. They told me she had gone to the Brindavan temples in Mathura. That is when I decided to go the Mathura to search for N.G to tell her that she was not alone, that some of us did care. Sujata Madhok, a journalist with the Women’s Feature Service and a friend, said she would accompany me and together we set off for Mathura. We combed the Brindavan temples, it was obviously a wild goose chase and there was no sign of N.G.

The PUDR report, ‘Custodial Rape In Delhi’ documented as many as fourteen custodial rapes within the span of 1988-1990. I documented the case of N.G and when I presented the report at a small meeting of Mahila Dakshta Samiti, Pramila Dandavate grabbed the report from my hands. Shortly after, I read in the newspapers that two policeman had been suspended and then later, dismissed over a custodial rape. The R.K Puram police station where this custodial rape had occured, started a Crimes Against Women’s cell; so obviously the police had done some introspection and taken action over the issue. No trial could take place because the victim had ‘disappeared’. However, it must be remembered that Pramila Dandavate got the wheels of justice moving by taking the report forward.

The story does not end here. I went on to direct a documentary film, ‘Now, I will Speak’ on rape. In the course of my research I went to Pararia in Bihar where the women had been gang-raped by the police who broke into their huts at night, in uniform. As I wandered around the area, I noticed a huge mass of land that had been dug out and earth-moving machines lying around. On inquiring from the villagers I learnt that a dam was to be built on the Punasi river and Pararia was one of the villages that would be submerged. The villagers were protesting; was rape used as a tool to suppress the movement for their human rights?

The film aroused a lot of attention and concerned debate and Pramila Dandavate organized a seminar and a screening of the film at India International Centre. At the discussion that followed, I was incensed that a group of women MLA’s of the ruling party had said that no gang rape had occurred obviously to save the government of the day. I said, ‘We cannot rely on politicians to stand for women’s rights as they favour the political dispensation’. Pramila Dandavate looked at me and walked out of the auditorium. I was young and brash; I regret my words for here was a woman of conscience who had taken the report on ‘Custodial Rape in Delhi’ forward and ensured that action had been taken. However those were different times and however flawed our democracy, one could express dissent.

 Today I find the Delhi Police charging those who have spoken for peace for the rights of the minorities and expressed dissent. In the Delhi riots of February ’20 in which 52 people were killed - mostly Muslims - the brilliant economist, Jayati Ghosh who has done sterling work on the farmers’ crisis, Professor Apoorvanand whose very conduct bespeaks of ahimsa and filmmaker, Saba Dewan who organized the ‘Not In My Name’ rallies against lynching — have been named! These academics and filmmakers are dissenters and eminent members of civil society; the Delhi Police needs to do some serious introspection.

The days of Pramila Dandavate seem so free; there were flaws in our democracy then as well but we could speak. The recent gang-rape at Hathras and subsequent cremation of a Dalit girl at the death of the night as well as Amnesty International being forced to close its India office, shows there are attempts to erase the rights and speech of our people.

Free speech can never die, it can be suppressed at the peril of the nation; we must take heed or else we will have to set up a monument for the India that was.

(Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author & film-maker; she is director of the ‘Hamaara Itihaas ‘ archives.)

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