By Ratnottama Sengupta
Roti Kapda aur Makaan/ Maang raha hai Hindustan…
India is demanding food, clothing and shelter…
Sometime in 1949 writer-director-actor Manoj Kumar had heard a young man recite these lines in post-Partition Punjab. The simple line had stayed on in his mind and almost two decades later he came up with the film Roti Kapda aur Makaan (food, clothes and housing). By then India had its third prime minister Indira Gandhi who had swept into the office in 1967 winning with a huge popular mandate on the wings of the slogan Garibi Hatao (Do away with poverty). The three tenets of identifying poverty then outlined were – yes, lack of food, clothing, and roof over people’s head.
These, needless to add, were the prime concern of millions who had been uprooted, disowned by the nation they so far knew to be their own, driven out of their ancestral homes with barely a change of clothes, spending days and nights in refugee camp queues for one square meal and perhaps the vaguest hope of some employment.
In 1949 the Constituent Assembly was already meeting but had yet to formally adopt the Bharatiya Samvidhan – the Constitution of India that came into effect on 26th January 1950, the day that is gloriously celebrated every year with a gratifying display of our military might and cultural wealth on the Rajpath of the Capital. Full seven decades ago the Constitution laid down a framework that delineates the fundamental code, the directive principles that would govern the political structure, powers, and duties of the government and its institutions – as much as it set out the fundamental rights and the duties of citizens.
We were perhaps receiving our first lessons in civics when Indira Gandhi stepped into the prime minister’s office. We learnt by rote the Preamble that asserts the solemn resolution of the People of India to Constitute the land into a Sovereign Democratic Republic that would secure every one of its citizens Justice – social, economic and political; Liberty – of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality – of status and opportunity; and Fraternity which would assure the dignity of individual and unity of the nation.
We were not, however, aware at that age that the two years before India gave itself the Samvidhan, nations of the world had united in declaring that recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. By the end of the barbaric World War II they had realised that disregard and contempt for human rights had resulted in the nightmarish acts that continue to outrage the conscience of mankind. By this time, universally, nations were keen to forge a world wherein humans would enjoy “freedom of speech and belief, freedom from fear and want.” These, it was proclaimed by one and all, were “the highest aspiration of the common man,” anywhere on the globe.
By the time the British left India to its destiny, the imperial power too had realised that, if man were not compelled to recourse to the last resort – rebellion against tyranny and oppression – then human rights ought to be protected by the rule of law.
So, in the Charter, the peoples of the United Nations reaffirmed their “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.” The Human Rights Declaration was, then, meant “to promote social progress and better standards of life for larger freedom.”
By proclaiming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” member States of the United Nations had pledged the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights as fundamental to every freedom. Keeping the Declaration constantly in mind, they will “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”
When I read this, I am astounded that Nabendu Ghosh, writing five years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was almost setting the charter for nations to follow once they lose the harness of imperialism and emerge out of the shadow of colonialism. “When, despite repeated pleas, a man is deprived of his basic needs, what else can he do?” – wonders the leader portrayed in the mould of a Gandhi in Bastrang Dehi (Give Me a Rag, Please). “Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him to cover his natural anatomy, today how can he forget that nudity is primitive and accept nudity as normal? How can age-old norms hold sway over dire needs?” the writer poses.
In the swiftly developing crisis that engulfs the entire community which is suffering the aftermath of rationing and subsequent profiteering in clothes, the village Brahmin Bhattachajji is not apologetic for wearing a lungi, the mark of a mullah: bhaagte bhoot ki langot bhali! – one could add the Hindi proverb to imply, when one is running to save one’s skin, even a loincloth is most acceptable (something is better than nothing). Profiteering, we realise before the end draws up, is the worst of crime against mankind, for it fishes in troubled waters.
The writer ends by describing two opposite reactions – one, of a leader; the other, of a common man. Nationalist Manish turns his face away from the howling surrounding the half-naked corpse of Harimati: the sight and sound was ridiculing his leadership, taunting the failure of his processions to procure more than false promises, mocking his manhood, he felt. But Teenkori, Harimati’s husband, does not cry. He is lynched, he is jailed, he becomes a thief in his attempt to procure a sari for his abused wife who eventually commits suicide – but no, he does not shed a drop of tear. He becomes vicious, a savage look descends in his eyes, his fingers tingle just as do soldiers’ when they confront enemies.
To me, representing a generation which has, since it started walking, celebrated Republic Day by singing paeans to the Hindustan better than the rest of the world, Bastrang Dehi brought home truths that no history book has ever taught. Yes, I knew about the Bengal Famine of 1943 that saw millions starved for the want of rice dying on the streets of Calcutta – the erstwhile capital of the jewel in the British crown. Yes, they were uprooted; they were compelled to leave their homes and hearth in the villages and flock to the city in search of a meal. Yes, I knew that they died of cholera and dysentery as they snatched food out of bins from the jaws of snarling dogs too. But did I know that clothes too were rationed, and sold in the black market, sending saris and dhotis beyond the reach of peasants? Once the ‘Quit India!’ slogan rang out, most Indians would not touch the clothes from the English mills while the British were sending everything — food and handloom clothings produced in the Province — to the Theatre of the War in the North East, where American GIs were joining British Tommies to beat back the Japs who were regularly bombing Bengal.
Nabendu Ghosh, a devotee of the Buddha, must have read this gospel. A disciple of the Enlightened One complained that one of his flock was indifferent to his sermons. He was sorely disappointed that Tathagata’s teachings were falling on deaf ears. One day the Buddha accompanied the disciple to the hut from where he had been shooed away. The Buddha offered the man a bowl of rice, then turned to his disciple and calmly said, “Could you see the man was starving? Truth can be served to him only in a bowl of rice.”
Ghosh derived the title of Bastrang Dehi from the popular invocation of Goddess Durga that rings through Bengal year after year after year, at the advent of the Autumnal Festival: Rupang Dehi, Jayang Dehi, Yasho Dehi Disho Jayee! ( grant me Beauty, grant me Victory, grant me Fame!) By adapting the prayer to seek something as mundane as a piece of cloth, the writer underscores that food, clothing and shelter may be basic individual needs, but if humans constitute society these must be enshrined as basic rights even before we enshrine political liberty, rule of law, equality of worship, freedom of expression… Else democracy and justice and other lofty ideals of human life will go for a toss.
Decades after the history books have changed the way we look at the past, why do I still cringe when I read Bastrang Dehi? Because I know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
I am certain Anshu Gupta has never read Bastrang Dehi. But ‘Give me cloth’ was the plea that had launched his journey with Goonj – and it has earned him the Magsaysay Award, World Bank’s Development Marketplace award, Mother Teresa award, NASA’S Game Changing Innovation, the prestigious Ashoka fellowship… they are still coming in.
What had spurred the young man and his wife to start Goonj with merely 67 items of clothings? The realisation that clothing was overlooked as a basic human right. Today the NGO registered under Societies Act and for exemption under several sections and for foreign contributions etc, deals with more than 3500 tonnes of material every year.
A real life incidence had prompted Gupta to start this arduous journey. One night, going home in Delhi’s winter, he met a three-wheeler scooter rickshaw driver, Habib. His rickshaw had this inscribed on its side: Laawarish laash uthaane wala (I pick up unclaimed dead bodies). Talking to him Gupta learnt that for every dead body Habib carried to the crematorium, he got twenty rupees and two metres of cloth. That, workload in winter was more than in summer. That, many underprivileged families don’t have enough clothes to stave off the cold. So much so that Habib’s little daughter Bano told Anshu, “When I feel cold, I hug a dead body to sleep. It does not turn around, it does not trouble me…”
Anshu Gupta deserves every single award that has come his way. For, unlike nationalist Manish of Bastrang Dehi, he did not turn his face away. That one meeting ignited in him the impulse to address the sufferings of millions due to shortage of clothing. He started collecting under-utilised used material, to maintain human dignity rather than to give them as charity. In the process he has triggered development with dignity across the land.
Saare jahaan se achha... I still sing on Republic Day, and I still sing Sakal desher shera amaar janma bhoomi Independence Day. But when I run into Anshu Gupta at a conference perhaps in Budapest, I hang my head in shame. I am elated that Goonj has clothed millions. But even today, if a Tsunami, an Amphan or a Yaas sweeps the shores of Midnapur or Sundarbans, a Kendrapada or Bhadrak, in Bengal or Odisha – even today, I hear the cries of women and men cry out, ‘Give me a rag, please!”
It is a cry to save their dignity.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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