Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Man Who Stopped the Desert

By Mantoe Phakathi

Yacouba Sawadogo, a peasant farmer from Burkina Faso, is known as the "man who stopped the desert." But when he first tried to save his arid land from desertification by planting the trees that have since grown into a 15-hectare forest, people in his village thought he was mad.


In the new land plan the government claims ownership of Sawadogo’s forest and fields and divides his father’s grave into two.

Seeing his father’s grave being split to give way for the construction of a house kills him as much as the idea of letting go of his forest does, Sawadogo said.

The only way Sawadogo can retain his land is if he buys it back from government. It is an option that he feels is both unfair and unaffordable.

Sawadogo would need 100,000 Euros to buy back the forest alone.

"This is unjust," he said. "I’ve worked so hard for this and now the government is punishing me."

He has been to the United States where he pled his case to President Barrack Obama and asked him to consider the plight of smallholder farmers in the G8’s Global Food Security Initiative for underdeveloped countries. The initiative was a pledge by the G8 to boost world food security. 


Friday, October 14, 2011

Gursharan Singh: undiluted non-fiction

Daljit Ami

Finding one of his primary school classmates doing menial jobs, Gursharan Singh got the shock of his life at the age of twelve. Tears rolled out of his eyes that Shingara despite having the most beautiful handwriting among classmates had to drop out of school.  Gursharan could not help himself and tears kept on rolling from his eyes throughout life, every time he talked about Shingara. At the age of 82, Gursharan breathed his last on September 27, 2011. He kept his commitment with his childhood friend and fought against all forms of injustice in society. Theatre was his tool to raise loudest possible voice against any kind of exploitation and inequality. The energy he enthused into his performances remained unparallel. How can a person maintain such intensity and energy for such a long time? Dr. Areet, his daughter shares that he could never talk about Shingara without crying 
Born on September 16, 1929 in Multan (now Pakistan) Gursharan Singh was one of the millions forced to migrate during partition of India in 1947.  As a student activist he protested against communal frenzy and helped refugees. He always used to say that he could never laugh whole-heartedly after watching the bloodbath in 1947. More than one million people were killed during partition and innumerable became homeless. Insulted and amputated mass of humanity struggling to cope with rampant hostility haunted Gursharan Singh throughout his life. He remained an ardent opponent of communal politics and he was ready to risk his life to stop recurrence of partition in any form. During the first assembly elections in independent India in 1952 he campaigned for Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the founder president of Ghadar Party. After losing to a former bureaucrat Bhakna consoled Gursharan Singh that British imperialism has ended but the exploitative character of the state has remained intact, and there is a need to fight against it for true independence. Gurshran Singh remained true to these words. 

Gursharan Singh was a multifaceted personality who became famous for activism through theatre. Formally educated as an engineer in cement technology, Gursharan Singh was one of those who built the Bhakra Dam, described as ‘New Temple of Resurgent India’ by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru. While working on Bhakra Dam, Gursharan Singh realized the strength of human potential which can change the course of rivers. And a very important question came to his mind — why can the course of lives of people not be changed? He engaged with this question and fought for social change till his last breath at the age of 82 years. He was in charge of the cultural program staged on the inauguration of Bhakra Dam, attended by Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  Workers were not allowed to attend the function as it was thought to be beyond their comprehension. Gursharan Singh requested artists to stay for another day and perform for the workers. Artists agreed and the response of audience remained always fresh in Gursharan Singh’s memory. He recognized the potential of theatre to reach out to masses and for the rest of his life his name became synonymous with theatre.  

Shingara, partition, Baba Bhakna and Bhakra Dam were the stories Gursharan Singh shared with relentless passion with any audience on any occasion and with any visitor.  With a Marxist understanding he  interlinked  these stories and he fearlessly addressed all kind of hegemonies. He opposed the imposition of emergency powers in 1975 by the Government of Indira Gandhi, he staged Takht Lahore, a play written by Nazam Hussain Sayyad  that was written to expose the dictatorship of Ayub Khan in Pakistan. He was suspended and arrested. Like many enlightened fellow countrymen, the period of emergency made him realize the importance of human rights. From then onwards he remained committed as a human rights activist. His association with Association for Democratic Rights (AFDR), People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and activists like Jaswant Singh Khalra kept him engaged with these issues. 

When Sikh militancy grew in Punjab and a supposed HITLIST designed by its leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawala was chilling everyone's spine, Gursharan published a story called Hit list in his literary cultural magazine Samta (equality). It declared that the leader using HITLIST to terrorise people is himself on people’s hit list. He became the loud and conscientious voice of the troubled times.  He opposed communal violence and state terrorism in the same breath.  In an obituary article on him, Navjit Singh Johal, a Professor in the department of Journalism in Punjabi University has shared an experience from 1989 when he got the chance to travel with Gursharan Singh in a state transport bus. In that last bus from Jalandhar to Chandigarh Johal asked Gursharan about his activity at a halt in the town of Nawa Shahr. He started explaining the complexity of the situation in the the darkness of night and mindless of prevailing terror. His voice went from loud to louder and then the loudest possible. The number of listeners increased from a select few to many other fellow passengers including the tea stall workers and the police guards. Another bus stopped there and its passengers became Gursharan’s listeners.  He spoke for an hour. Johal comments that it was the best possible example of people’s theatre and a fearless commitment. His listeners could not remain same individuals again after this chance meeting. The Revolutionary Unity Centre under his leadership raised two slogans to state terror and Sikh-militancy; Gobind, Babbar, Bhagat, Sarabha; sabhacharak virsa sada (Gobind, Babbar, Bhagat, Sarabha; they are our cultural legacy) and na hindu raj na khalistan; raj kare mazdoor kisan (Neither Hindu state nor Khalistan; workers and peasants will rule). When his comrades like Baldev Mann, Jaimal Padda, Passh and Gian Singh Sangha were gunned down he took his wife and two daughters to perform in militancy dominated areas. He invoked Sikh history and Punjabi tradition of resistance to present people alternative. 

Gursharan Singh’s theatre started from proscenium and soon flowed on to the   street. He further declassed theatre to what he used to called thara (platform). He could perform from any makeshift place with the minimum number of artists. He addressed his audience directly. As his form became simple his content became focused on specific issues. He picked his lines straight from the newspaper headlines and he commented on them. He could enact any ongoing political scandal of public interest on stage and tell how many Bhakra Dams have become cases of embezzlement of resources. With the passage of time his focus became sharper as he tried to address the voiceless standing at the edge of deprivation. He went on to raise the issues of rural landless communities, caste discrimination and dignity of poor women. He was doing a theatre of non-fiction and ‘telling the truth about the state and to the state.’ His theatre was criticized for being a statement or lacking in aesthetic quality. Without bothering about such critique he did his best to reach out to the intended audience with clear messages.  Harjinder Singh (Laltu), a well known scientist and a creative writer, has shared his experiences in an obituary article. As a Science and Technology Awareness Group (STAG), Laltu and his colleagues took a slideshow on nuclear weapons to Gursharan Singh. The slideshow designed by several Indian scientists after the Pokhran nuclear explosions in 1998   share the experience of nuclear holocaust and talk about its potential dangers in South Asia. Gursharan Singh adapted this slideshow into a street play and rendered its complexity in simple Punjabi without changing anything. Here was a theatre activist working in tandem with scientists in the field of non-fiction. 

Gursharan Singh has often been confined by critiques to theatre, Punjab and progressive politics. During his life he never remained confined in these binaries. He was a publisher who introduced young writers through Balraj Sahni Parkashan. This publication is the best effort in the history of Punjabi literature to reach out to masses. Low priced mobile bookstall of Balraj Sahni Parkashan remained integral part of Gursharan Singh’s performances. After he closed down the publication, the character of Punjabi language publication has changed. No opportunity for new writers and no efforts to reach out to poor readers are seen any more. Now Punjabi language publications revolve around established writers, universities and writers, who can pay to get their books published. Gursharn Singh edited two literary cultural magazines Samta and Sardal where creative writing and criticism got liberal space. He could engage different shades of left politics and literary-cultural trends of the time.  While aspiring for a revolutionary change Gursharan Singh never lost sight of reforms. He campaigned against negation of mothers while talking about children. This campaign resulted in the decision of Punjab School Education Board to include mother’s name on educational certificates. Gursharan was always proud of this intervention and counted it among his achievements. He campaigned against foul language targeting women. He was very sensitive towards women, which got enough reflection in his theatre, speeches and writings.  Gursharan Singh was puritan in more than one way. He used to claim that he has never tasted any drug nor indulged in any dishonesty nor flirted through out life. These claims have had not been contested even by his rivals and political opponents. 

Gursharan Singh grew up with Indian People Theatre Association (IPTA) and kept its mission functional through different theatre groups. He was founder president of Punjab Lok Sabhacharak (PALAS) Manch (Punjab people’s cultural platform) which patronized cultural groups and different performing arts. Its activity has an important space in the cultural calendar of Punjab. He was a regular invitee to cultural programs all over India. His association with All India League for Revolutionary Culture (ALCRC), Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), Jan Sanskriti Manch and Desh Bhagat Yadgari Hall establish him as a truly revolutionary personality far beyond the boundaries of Punjab. He played the lead role in one of Jalandhar Doordarshan’s (state owned Punjabi television station) most popular serial, Bhai Manna Singh. Lots of people still remember him as Bhai Manna Singh exposing corruption in the system and making bureaucracy accountable. 

He got many awards for his work including Sahit Academy Award, Kaidas Samman and Sangeet Natak Rattan. The best moment of his life may be in 2006 when more than ten thousand people gathered, with a single point agenda, to honor him in a village, Kussa, in district Moga, for his lifetime contributions. Prominent punjabi short story writer Waryam Singh Sandhu spoke on that occasion, “Gursharan Singh has always walked with his face towards Sangat (people) and today people have gathered to respond with these words - Gursharan Singh asin tere han te tun sada hain (you belong to us and we belong to you).” The gathering responded with thunderous slogans: Gursharan Bha Ji Yug Yug Jive (Long live Gursharn Bha ji). Bha Ji (elder brother) has become synonymous with Gursharan Singh’s name. People from all ages called him Bha Ji. In Punjab the message ‘Bha Ji is no more’ needed no explanation.

After the event of 9/11, lots of things changed. The Gujrat carnage and attack on Indian Parliament placed Indian citizenry against fundamentalism and irrational responses from the state became a commonplace. Gursharn Singh opposed communal politics and campaigned for the Right to Fair Trial. He was one of the most vocal supporters of All India Defense Committee for SAR Geelani, an accused in the parliament attack case. Once SAR Geelani was acquitted by Delhi High Court he raised the question of political prisoners languishing in sub-human conditions in Indian jails. The Society for the protection of Detainees and Prisoners Rights (SPDPR) was formed and Gursharan Singh became its founder president. Realizing the diversity of political movements and state repression it was decided to expand the scope of struggle for political prisoners’ rights. The Committee for the release of Political Prisoners (CRPP) was formed with participants from different streams of political movements from all over India with Gursharan Singh as its founder president. In this context SAR Geelani, acting president of CRPP says, “Gursharn Singh cannot be confined to geographical boundaries or merely to the role of a theatre artist as he had a large heart to empathize with victims of state repression from all other parts of the world. He will be remembered for his humanistic approach and revolutionary zeal.” Gursharan was a strong votary of autonomy for Kashmir. Geelani adds, “Kashmir has lost a great supporter in Gursharan Singh.” He was the convener of ‘Democratic Front against Operation Green Hunt, Punjab’ and spoke against the mobilization of para-military forces against Maoist movement in central India. He had the courage to confront his opponents as well as his comrades, when necessary. He never hesitated to point out the shortcomings of revolutionary movements often inviting scathing criticism. While being outspoken he remained open to criticism and always strived for the unity of progressive forces.

Gursharan Singh turns out to be the great non-fiction of our times who questioned the fictitious logic of injustice, social inequality and discrimination. He did not believe in aesthetics sans life, but it evolved as a by-product of the process of his activism. This is the only aesthetic he trusted, even in other people's work. The tradition he belongs to and the legacy he left behind will be debated for long. Like his hero Shaheed Bhagat Singh he will also be invoked in peoples’ struggles ‘as long as human beings are exploiting their fellow beings.’  In the fictional world of virtual reality and manufactured consent he was people’s undiluted non-fiction. 

Daljit Ami is an independent documentary filmmaker