(With a long prologue, longer epilogue and a short main section)

Exactly 40 years ago, on the evening of 3rdSeptember 1974, I entered the jail in Daltonganj, headquarters of Palamu district (then of Bihar, now of Jharkhand state) and was to spend nine days there.

They were fairly eventless, except for a couple of chats with a smiling, soft-spoken and clearly very well-read person, jailed for being a “Naxalite” (extreme leftist) who organised poor, oppressed-caste rural folk to resist landlords’ terror, peacefully for the most part but otherwise if need be.[1]

But how and why did I get to be lodged in that prison?


During my undergrad years studying in St Joseph’s College, Bangalore, I used to occasionally attend talks and seminars at various venues around town, especially over the weekends. Those days the local branch of the Gandhi Peace Foundation was somewhat active and as it was easily reached by bicycle, I used to gravitate there often. Moreover, I had read books in praise of Gandhi. The Gandhian and socialist Jayaprakash Narayan was much in the news in the early 1970s as he was raising a voice against the then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s autocratic ways. Incidentally, I learned of an atheist Gandhian named Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao) and it felt good to know that there were precedents to an atheist such as me admiring the deeply religious Gandhi.

At one of the weekend meetings around town, I met two interesting people. One was a person living in the Gandhi Bhavan compound but who seemed quite pro-left, especially pro-Soviet Union. He continues to live there. During a couple of my recent chats with him, I was shocked to note that he had now turned pro-Modi.

The more interesting person was V.T. Rajshekhar Shetty, who went on to found Dalit Voice. Mr Shetty, whose son Salil currently heads the global human rights organisation Amnesty International, had already written a paper entitled “Why Marx failed in Hindu India”. I began to call on Mr Shetty from time to time and he taught me a great deal about caste and casteism. From what I understood of his thesis then, he argued that the left parties were under Brahminical control, had neglected to address the issue of caste and that any change to the current exploitative structures in India was impossible without tackling caste oppression. Mr Shetty was from the Bunts sub-caste, which he proclaimed to be Dalit, much to the chagrin of his community (which includes the actress Aishwarya Rai).

Mr Shetty was then a reporter with the Indian Express and he was but one individual. The Gandhians had brick and mortar institutions and their pull was greater. The desire to “change the world” was strong within me and the Gandhians seemed to offer opportunities. One of their publications carried an announcement from the Banwasi Seva Ashram in what was then Mirzapur district of eastern Uttar Pradesh calling for volunteers. I wrote to its then head, Prembhai (who used just one name) and he replied inviting me and offering a stipend of Rs 100 a month to cover expenses.

My father had just been posted to Bhubaneshwar, capital of Orissa, and I went with him until there, with the plan of going on to Mirzapur via Howrah (Calcutta). Once in Bhubaneshwar, my father said he wouldn’t give me the money for the ticket and asked that I join the M.A. Economics course in the local university. Nice try. I’d already hoarded the cash needed. And so I left on a train, the very first time I was going to northern India. And was immediately gripped by a feeling of ennui and homesickness. There had been a number of times I had left home to go to camps with school and college mates and visit relatives but this was my first foray so far from home and in a distant land. It was also the longest train journey I was making yet. And I was 19 then.

Banwasi Seva Ashram was a reasonably cheerful place (now with a web presence, obviously).[2] It received funds from a number of foreign NGOs and used them to build small earthen dams for the benefit of people in the mostly forest area.  There was a well-run residential school for children from the area and the kitchen that served them, next to a biogas plant, was also used by those who did not cook their own meals. The monthly bill came to just about Rs. 50 or so – the usual fare was rotis and boiled vegetables with a hint of salt and spices. No tea, nothing. And so I was left with a like amount but with absolutely nothing to spend on for miles around.

Moreover, I was gripped by bouts of Gandhi-style self-abnegation. There were times when I wanted to give up things like tea and coffee. Now, twice-daily doses of coffee had been part of my life ever since early childhood. My attempts at giving up these beverages as a 19-year-old merely led to my thinking of little else for parts of the day.

The Ashram – as it was usually referred to – had placed some workers in distant villages, the better to cater to the needs of neighbouring areas. After a few days of orientation I was asked to accompany one of the workers to the village where he lived. This man was the starkest in simplicity I’ve met yet. Absolutely no question of tea, breakfast or snacks. Just two meals a day consisting of crudely made thick rotis and boiled vegetables. I was to assist him in collecting socio-economic data in nearby villages. Fortunately for me, he decided after just a few days to hand me over to the care of another worker elsewhere. The latter engaged a local lad to cook rotis and vegetables with not just salt but some pepper. The difference, though small in retrospect, seemed immense then.

Once during lunch break, while the worker I was assigned to was resting, I noticed a farmer close by ploughing. He seemed tired. I asked whether I could take over for a while. He let me do so. There is a set pattern to the ploughing. So the buffalo I was supposedly overseeing kept at it. But after a while he must have realised that behind him was no farmer but some clueless idiot. And he stopped.

The Gandhian worker I was with used a small corner of his cottage to shower. But obviously the water had to be carried there by the lad he had engaged. I was asked to use public conveniences. And so I had to adjourn to a nearby well to shower. I used to strip down to my underwear, pull up the water and pour it on myself. Often I was asked whether I wanted some oil to rub over myself by the villagers who were also showering. (It was much later in life that I learned of their good sense in asking me. The skin needs a bit of oiling to avoid getting dry. I’m reminded that in the film Reds, the Grigori Zinoviev character is shown in one scene to be eating lemon slices and explaining to the celebrated journalist John Reed that this prevents scurvy. And sure enough…)[3] After a few days of this, a discreet and indirect message was communicated to me: “wear a towel around your waist while showering. This undie thing is not done, even if there are no women about”.

I found that many of the workers had little conviction in the job they were doing or in their membership of the institution. Some of them wanted to be paid more. Many seemed to lack enthusiasm for the task. A lot of them fully subscribed to the caste system even though the head, Prembhai, by suppressing his surname, was making a point about the need for a casteless society.

One point of disagreement I had with the Gandhians was on alcohol. Tribal villagers and others in many states of India brew a drink from the mahua flower and consume it in moderate quantities as part of their culture and animist religion.[4] Prohibitionist zeal directed against them was, I thought, misplaced and poorly thought through. The Gandhians might have been, and still be, sincere in their opposition to alcohol but some state governments have cynically banned arrack and toddy only to replace those with products from super-affluent urban liquor manufacturers.

After the first few weeks at the Ashram and its workers in far-off villages, I began to realise that I, an economics honours graduate, was making little contribution. Had I been a doctor, engineer or otherwise talented in crafts or arts, I might have been of use to the rural communities.

Around that time, Prembhai had gone visiting in Bihar, where Jayaprakash Narayan (known as JP) had launched a movement opposing Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism and corruption.[5] This was a time when among India’s Gandhians there was a deep split between the JP line which opposed Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian ways and the massive corruption that was flourishing under her, and the Vinoba camp which was supportive of the government. (This earned Vinoba the sobriquet, “sarkaari sant” or pro-government monk). Prembhai was in the JP camp. On his return from Bihar he asked me whether I wanted to go over to take part in the JP movement and I jumped at it.

By this time, JP had already led a couple of major rallies in Patna, at one of which he had suffered beatings by the police. This was also the summer when India’s first nuclear test had taken place and most Gandhians were opposed to it. There was considerable sympathy for JP’s message of waging a war on corruption and official high-handedness. He proclaimed that the movement was not limited to corruption but “total revolution”. It might sound hollow now, but in those days quite a few people, especially in his native Bihar, thought he knew what he was talking about. And so did I, an urbanite from south India.

A short train journey took me to the western town Garhwa Road in Palamu district where I hooked up with one Arvind Sinha who had arrived from Patna. JP had given a call for Bihar Bandh (general strike). Arvind and I went to a nearby village on the night of 2nd September 1974 and the following morning stopped a train. After an hour or so the police and a sub-divisional officer arrived there and asked us to go away quietly or they’d have to arrest us. We opted for arrest.

We spent the good part of the day at the police station in Garhwa Road. I gave honest answers to all the questions regarding my address, father’s name and occupation etc. All that we got the whole day was a cup of tea and perhaps a couple of biscuits.

Late in the afternoon Arvind and I were handcuffed together and, along with a police constable, put on a train to Daltonganj. While on the train, both he and I had to use the toilet once, but thankfully only for what in our school days was known as number 1. I shudder to think what might have ensued if either of us had had the number 2 urge and whether the constable even had a key to the handcuffs.

And thus it was that I found myself in Daltonganj jail.



There were perhaps another 150 or so people arrested the same day in various parts of Palamu district. We were put in two large halls and had to sleep on the ground. Each of us was given a thin white cloth to serve as a “lungi” and a small and thin white towel. There was just about enough room for us all to sleep, in that there was at least a foot or more of space between us. I was lucky to get a place near a window and away from the toilet which, like most Indian facilities, was ill-maintained. I was young and slept soundly and so could contain myself until the hall was unlocked in the morning and use the slightly less intolerable facilities outside.

Food, prepared by convicted prisoners, consisted of a measured amount of rice and dal, breakfast consisting of a paratha. Apparently each prisoner was allotted a certain amount of rice, flour, oil and dal a day but obviously there were many slips between the ledger and our lips. At mealtimes, each of us was handed an aluminium plate for the food. These plates, which were new when we checked in, started suffering massive damage from one day to the next. It was as if someone was deliberately beating them with a stone. For what purpose remained a mystery.

For most of the day, we were allowed to roam around the prison compound, which, if memory serves me right, was the size of five or six football fields. A couple of times I saw the prison chief making his rounds. It was a bizarre spectacle: an orderly walked behind him carrying a huge umbrella made of coloured cloth, the kind usually used in temple processions. It was said that he would personally taste the food from the communal kitchen. If that was so, it did not show in the quality of the fare.

An ex-member of the Bihar Legislative Assembly of the then Bharatiya Lok Dal (led by Charan Singh) had also been arrested but his conditions were palatial compared to ours. He had a room plus kitchen and bathroom all to himself in a separate building and a prisoner to cook his meals and clean his clothes. I and a couple of others called on the diminutive man once and he treated us to a cup of tea, perhaps the only cup that I had during those nine days.

By far the most interesting person in the jail was the genial “Naxalite” I mentioned in the second paragraph. He was in solitary confinement but his quiet dignity might perhaps have won over the jail authorities and led to his being let out in the sun for long periods. I failed to ask him what his crime was and of the treatment he had received at the hands of the police. But I guess that was partly because he effortlessly made his interlocutors the subject of his conversation. I’d told him more of my background than he had told me of his. On learning that I had been hobnobbing with Gandhians, he asked me if I’d read a certain book on Gandhi. (I’m afraid I do not remember the title nor the author he named.) That was his way. No preaching, nor talk of Marx or Naxalbari.

By about the sixth or seventh day in jail, it became clear that most or all of us who had been arrested on 3rd September would be released on bail. Some lawyers sympathetic to the JP movement were working on it. One of the prisoners who acted as a cook sidled up to me once and said he wanted my white lungi and towel when I left. It sounded more like a menacing order than request. Which I ignored.


Given the large numbers of people who had courted arrest, the Bihar government had the good sense to drop charges a few days later. In other words I’m unblemished in legal terms.

A sign of the misplaced and perverse efficiency of the Indian bureaucracy was that a few days or a week or two after my brief incarceration, it transpired that my father, then a central government technical officer in Bhubaneshwar, received a visit from the local police who asked him how and why his son was taking part in an anti-government protest in Bihar. My father replied entirely truthfully that he had no control over his son.

(In the good year 2014, I’m able to say that my father, 87, and mother, 85, have as little control over me as I have over them. My corpulent father ignores my advice regarding the fat and salt content in his consumption and the need for exercise and my rake-thin mother ignores the opposite. And I turn a deaf ear to most of what they tell me. Modus vivendi.)

Many weeks later, I found myself in Garhwa town where a certain young man named Vijayji, who was a local forest contractor’s son, had taken part in a pro-JP movement meeting and invited me to a “havan” (or “homa” – ritual offerings to a consecrated fire). Not to be impolitic, I turned up there, only to find the sub-divisional official who had overseen my arrest a few weeks previously near Garhwa Road looking daggers at me. He took the head of the household aside for a quiet word. I was then severely ignored. No food, nada. I left. And found that subsequent efforts to contact “Vijayji” were thwarted.

Incidentally, while getting to Garhwa town, I had to pass through Garhwa Road station. The previous time I had taken the train from the (unstaffed) station close to Banwasi Seva Ashram, a Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) on board had issued me a ticket. This time, no TTE turned up. I had every intention of paying for the journey and was left anxious. After I got off at Garhwa Road, set on paying the fare at the counter and exiting legally, I was accosted by a railway official who demanded a bribe. My explanation that I was heading to the ticket counter to buy the ticket (albeit post facto) fell on deaf ears. I was a South Indian in a rather strange land, quite young and tired. I confess I gave him the bribe demanded – Rs 10 perhaps, not a small amount those days.

By a strange coincidence, the next evening while I was calling on a local homeopathic healer who was said to be sympathetic to the JP movement, the railway chap who had shaken me down dropped in. After overcoming my shock, I reminded him of the previous evening. He denied his bribe-taking completely. My host weighed in on his side.

I was to have other bits of education regarding train journeys in Bihar in the following weeks and months: “chain-pulling” to stop a train close to one’s village was fairly common. Once while travelling from Gaya to Patna, I got on to a train as it was steaming out and noticing that the crowded bogeys (carriages/compartments) had no TTEs I could spot, went over to the last compartment to buy a ticket. The man mumbled something to the effect that it was the first time since Independence (1947) … I hope he was exaggerating.

I was in Bihar – off and on – until late May or early June 1975, with one or two visits back in Banwasi Seva Ashram. There were a certain number of “shibir”s or camps where some of us gathered for training or conferences. One of them was at Benares (Varanasi) where I met Narayan Desai, son of Mahdev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary. Narayanbhai, as he was called by everyone, used to spin the charkha constantly, even while delivering a lecture. Another was in Ujjain where JP addressed the meeting. JP spoke at length about the situation in the country and the need for “total revolution”. The next day’s local papers highlighted some minor reference he had made to misunderstandings among his supporters.

While in Ujjain, I saw S.N. Subba Rao, who had acquired renown for having rehabilitated hundreds of “dacoits” in Madhya Pradesh, interpret JP’s speech for a couple of visiting foreigners. It was simultaneous interpretation of superb quality.  Another abiding memory from Ujjain was the high quality of the tea in local shops. It was thick, with generous amounts of ginger and cardamom.

Once in Muzaffarpur (from where the erstwhile socialist firebrand George Fernandes was to contest Lok Sabha elections in 1977 and win with a massive margin), I met senior Gandhian Siddharaj Dhadda who, despite his advanced age, picked up a broom and started sweeping the front-yard of a place we were staying at – perhaps the little-used office of a local activist group. I relieved him of the broom and it was a lesson in the importance of cleanliness. While in Muzaffarpur, at one of the functions organised by local youth, I heard that the name of one of them was Chakravarthy. I went up to him and asked if he were a South Indian. I was to learn later that the name is found not only in southern India but is a common surname in Bengal. I guess I had come to see myself as a South Indian and it had been months since I’d met and spoken to one. Years earlier, when I was studying in Madras (Chennai) where my father was posted, the class teacher, a Tamilian, made me feel that non-Tamilians were somehow inferior. And in 1977 when I moved to New Delhi to work, I learned that I was a “Madraasee”.

In Gaya I met S. Jagannathan and his wife Krishnammal, who were both so concerned with the issue of land ownership that they had even named their son Bhoomi Kumar. Gaya and neighbouring districts presented a pathetic scene. In some villages, there were so-called ashrams headed by a “mahant” that owned vast swathes of land and the rest of the population there had little or nothing. These districts were fertile grounds for extreme left movements.

Casteism was rife. Caste seemed to be the first and abiding identity. Often while walking from village to village, someone would ask me “kahan makaan ba” (where do you live)? I was to learn that it was a loaded question. If I’d mentioned the name of a nearby village, the person could size me up and place me in the caste hierarchy (many are dominant-caste villages. I presume that in the case of multi-caste villages, further interrogation as to which part might have followed). Since I came from far away, it led to more questions: “thaithil (title)” (meaning surname)? Obviously most surnames in India are identified with a specific caste and even sub-caste.  (Singh and Rao among others are used by members of more than one caste.) There again, I told my interlocutors in Bihar truthfully that I had no surname. I guess my father figured surnames had gone out of fashion in post-independence India and gave just the village name, abbreviated to one initial, N. and my given name, Jayaram when I started going to school.

A few who did not want to give up would ask me outright “what is your caste?” It was an article of faith with many of us in the JP movement that we wanted to build a casteless society.  I was stubborn. Once in a village in Gaya district, a Brahmin villager I was visiting offered me lunch but said he had to know what caste I was from because that was vital to where I would be seated. I refused to divulge. So he made me sit outside his house and brought me a plate of rice and dal there. He was rather courteous otherwise and accompanied me till the edge of the village to see me off. I was debating whether to deliver a parting shot by telling him but thought better of it.

I once met a Brahmin named Pathak who said “we Pathaks are the highest sub-caste among Brahmins” immediately adding, “I don’t say so, others say so.” And I met a man surnamed Haq, who said “we Haqs are the highest sub-caste among Muslims”. And he too went, “I don’t say so, others…” In Daltonganj, a so-called Gandhian named Jha (Brahmin surname) who owned tracts of land and houses in several villages in the district, asked me how to make out the caste from South Indian names.

Incidentally, just as the English word “title” is used in that part of India to mean surname (euphemism for caste identity), I learned that there were a few other words with different connotations in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. “Gaarjun” (guardian) meant parent, “diet” meant a meal (“you have consumed x diets this month and you owe…”) and “professor” was anyone in the teaching profession.

Many Indians have a peculiar notion of “purity” and “pollution”. Once in Garhwa town I had a glass of tea and kept the used utensil at one end of the counter. The teashop owner abused me roundly for polluting it. My sin was that I had kept the used glass on the same level as the one where he was keeping glasses full of tea, not yet drunk from. My mother too believes in such purity/pollution ideas: she objects to used plates being kept on the kitchen counter. But we Indians have abjectly neglected toilets.

One issue I have thus far not dealt with: What was I doing over all those months in Bihar and what did I accomplish? Precious little, to be honest. As the foregoing shows, plenty of time went in travelling from place to place. And much time was wasted in trying to gather people to talk to. I would talk about “total revolution” and the need to frustrate the corrupt government through non-cooperation. Mostly I was listened to politely but I guess people had their harsh lives to lead, and no time to bother with “revolution” or a distant entity called government which had no beneficial influence on their lives. One Muslim villager lectured me and another pro-JP volunteer who happened to be Muslim about the virtues of the Indira Gandhi government and the bankruptcy of the opposition.

I spent quite some time in Kalpana Kuteer in Patna, a sort of de facto headquarters of the JP movement, and helped by going to the printers to collect copies of the Hindi publication we hawked, Sampoorna Kraanthi (Total Revolution), and other bits and pieces of work. Once one of the local lads told me that outsiders such as me were “eating” Bihar’s resources and at best doing the work locals could do or contributing nothing. In other words he was accusing me of being a parasite. It stung, of course and I then thought it unfair. But somewhere the message went home. Perhaps weeks or months after that exchange, I decided to return to Bangalore and pursue “total revolution” there.

Looking back, what do I think of the JP movement?  First the person of JP himself: there have been some writings to the effect that he was a rival of Nehru and that he felt ignored by Indira Gandhi and therefore the movement. I find that difficult to swallow. The man consistently spurned office. What might stick is to say that he was upper caste, although not a patrician by birth, he became one thanks to his education and the opportunities he had. But he certainly came across as honest and principled and adducing negative motivations to his movement is plainly crass.

However, the movement he led, and the idea of “total revolution”, were nebulous and ideologically rootless. The movement had on board the non-communist left and the right-wing Jan Sangh-RSS in addition to many Gandhians and idealistic youth. The socialists (Lohiaites and others) were critical of the inclusion of Jan Sangh-RSS in the movement. JP is reported to have said, “If RSS is fascist then JP is fascist”. I believe he was plain wrong. Perhaps he mistakenly thought that by bringing the RSS into the mainstream, he could humanise them. Recent years and months in India have proved that it is the RSS that has eaten into the mainstream to the extent that one of its members is ruling the country today. JP grossly underestimated the fanatic fervour of the RSS and its lethal capabilities as shown not only in 2002 in Gujarat and 1992 in Ayodhya but also in New Delhi in 1984 when many of its members quietly cooperated with Congress party goons in their anti-Sikh pogrom following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Before returning to Bangalore I went to Bhubaneshwar to spend a few weeks with my parents, ageing grandfather and my brother. A cat and her kittens had adopted our family and I had a delightful time playing with them. My love of cats and – over recent years – many other species of fauna dates back to those few weeks.

On 25th June 1975, the radio delivered the news that Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency. A fortnight earlier, Justice J.M.L. Sinha of the Allahabad high court had set aside her election, declaring her guilty of corrupt practices.[6] This only further fuelled the long festering revolt against her rule. That night, as I listened to the news, I was left shaken and lost my appetite, a feeling that was to recur after news of the destruction of the Babri  Masjid in Ayodhya came in on 6th December 1992 and on 16th May this year after the election results were announced. (I was not in India during the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the anti-Muslim one of 2002 in Gujarat and, at any rate, the full scale of the carnage came to light in the days following. In 1992 I was in Beijing and a brief altercation on the Babri issue led to my spurning an influential Indian there.)

Upon returning to Bangalore post Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, I was left friendless and rootless. I thought perhaps I could use that time to educate myself. I can’t recall exactly why it was that I enrolled in the M.A. Economics programme in Mysore rather than in Bangalore but I guess it had something to do with the last date for applications.

I lasted just a couple of months there. The casteism in that university, including the economics department, was unbearable. When I submitted my application form, I’d left the religion column blank. The clerk who examined it objected and filled it without so much as a by your leave. The late U.R. Ananthamurthy was a teacher in the neighbouring English department. I wished I could have been his student (as I said in my previous blog).[7] One of my economics teachers (I was told she was the wife of an army officer) made us, MA economics students, write an essay on Indira Gandhi’s “20 point programme”. I wrote a stinker (and a classmate later informed me to my delight that the first thing she did in the next class was to call my name out.) That was the last straw. I quit and went back to Bangalore.

During the remainder of 1975 and early 1976, I wasn’t up to much other than some minor anti-Emergency underground pamphleteering. I believe many of these pamphlets were of RSS origin. The secular but Sanskritised language suggested as much. Nevertheless, in so far as they were opposing the current autocracy, I was in agreement. Incidentally, I learned a couple of years later that some of the pamphlets I’d left in the toilet of my Alma Mater, St Joseph’s College, had gotten a pro-RSS lecturer in trouble. (Most of the South Indian Hindu teachers in that college were fanatical and pro-RSS. Their gripe was that Christians were being favoured in that institution. Never mind that their kind controlled/and control many more multiples of educational institutions which had and have few, if any, non-upper-caste Hindu teachers.)

In 1976, I signed up for a journalism course during which, memorably, I met a member of my own sub-caste but who was pro-CPI (then pro-Soviet Communist Party of India, but which was also, incidentally, pro-Indira Gandhi regime). The man has since moved Hindutva-wards, or so it seems to me.

Do I regret my outing in Bihar/UP in 1974-75? Absolutely not. I do genuinely regret availing of the generous hospitality that I received from individuals and institutions. Then again, in my defence, I’d say that feeding a visitor (though not stranger – given our caste constraints) was something I’d grown up with. I feel grateful for the many generous souls I met in Bihar. Incidentally, the very rich culinary traditions of Bihar – the diversity of its meals and snacks and especially satthu and litthi – left me with great respect for that state whose lilting Bhojpuri I fell in love with. I met many brilliant people, albeit briefly and came away with great respect for Bihar and its people.

Moreover, during those months, I met some wonderful people with whom, thanks to the Internet and social networking, I have reconnected in recent years. Nachiketa and Aflatoon, sons of the aforementioned Narayanbhai and grandsons of Mahadev Desai, I was fortunate enough to meet in recent years. I’m also in touch with Arun Kelkar, Ashok Bhargava, Kumar Kalanand, Kumar Shubhamoorty and Sudhakar Jadhav (to mention only those I can remember, and who I’ve connected with now via social media.)

I’d met Nachiketa in New Delhi in either the late 1970s or early 1980s. Both of us had got into journalism. I reconnected with him via email some years ago and via social networking links in more recent years. And I met his brother Aflatoon and his wife several months ago when they visited Bangalore. I’ve mentioned only male names. The JP movement was mostly male dominated but behind it was a small band known as Tarun Shaanthi Sena (Youth Peace Force) consisting of both males and females, which inevitably earned the sobriquet “Tarun Shaadi Sena” as a few members clicked and got hitched.

Unbeknown to me then I had run into Harsh Mander in Banwasi Seva Ashram briefly but was to have a longer association with him in Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi in the late 1970s. In Bihar I also met Krishna Kumar, who went on to become one of the best directors the National Council for Educational Research and Training has had and a doughty voice against communalism. During my travels I also met the Professor Thakurdas Bang and his sons Ashok and Dr Abhay Bang, who are both doing yeoman work in rural Maharashtra.

Now that I’ve been back in Bangalore since early 2012, I’ve reconnected with many people who work on caste issues. Plus social media has helped me connect with Kuffir Nalgundwar, who edits Round Table India.[8] And many working on communalism.

My education continues in the larger – intellectual though not in all our cases physical – jail that is India under Modi.









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(After Margaret Thatcher’s death, there was a brief discussion among many people on social media about the acceptability or otherwise of speaking ill of the recently dead. My takeaway was that we simply need to tell it like it is. So here goes.)

First some – in fact, many – words in praise of Professor Ananthamurthy:

He was teaching in the English Department of Mysore University for a while in the mid-1970s. I’d already heard of his formidable reputation and wished I were his student rather than in the Economics MA class where I encountered far too much casteism. As a Bangalorean having graduated from St Joseph’s College, I was least interested in the caste backgrounds of those around me, but the question of caste lay thick on the ground in the Economics department. I quit in disgust after a couple of months, the last provocation being that one of the lecturers made us write an essay on Indira Gandhi’s so-called “20-point programme” (it was her “Emergency” era), and like Prof Ananthamurthy and others, I was opposed to authoritarianism. And I thank his Samskaara for having partly fuelled my abhorrence of caste.

One of my cousins, some years later, was able to do what I could not. She was a student of his and once told me of how he had guided her choice of subjects to study and, needless to say, of his formidable scholarship.

Prof Ananthamurthy’s has been a strident voice against communalism/sectarianism. Together with Girish Karnad, he has been among Brahmin-born people in privileged positions to take staunchly secular stands – now increasingly derided as “pseudo-secular” or “sickular”.

He had no airs about him and did not stand on ceremony. He turned up uninvited at a function on 21 Aug 2013 to honour D. Devraj Urs, one of the more progressive chief ministers of Karnataka (for the benefit of any non-Indians who might be seeing this, the south-western state is now home to 64 million people), who did a lot towards bettering the lives of members of oppressed castes.

That said, Prof Ananthamurthy misused his proximity to the powers that be, not to gain any personal favours, of course, but to flog a hobby horse and get the English spelling of Bangalore changed to the wholly illogical and unwarranted “Bengaluru”.
A centenarian lexicographer named G. Venkatasubbaiah has weighed in on the issue:

Moreover, had Prof Ananthamurthy set aside his self-importance and Kannada chauvinism for a while and focused on linguistics, he might have seen the error of his ways.

One of his arguments was that many nouns end with a ‘u’ sound in Kannada and that words from other languages get owned by adding that vowel at the end, as in ”bassu” for bus or “caaru” for car. However I doubt that Prof Ananthamurthy paid attention to the length of the first vowel accompanying “caaru”, also as in kaaLu (beans) or aaru (six) and more pertinently, ooru (city), as distinct from “uru” (rote-learning).

Almost all Indian languages have long and short vowels. And as in the ooru/uru example from Kannada above, they can change the meaning. Another example is madi (Brahminical purity) and maadi (a variant of mahadi for upstairs/rooftop). Moreover many consonants in Indian languages have been poorly transliterated into English to start with and it is rather late in the day to make changes. Queen is raani, with the ‘n’ pronounced as in name, the tongue held flat in North Indian languages. In Kannada and a few other languages it is raaNi, with the tip of the tongue turned up. Also maNNu (mud) and suLLu (a lie) are pronounced similarly. The L in Pramila is pronounced similarly in South Indian languages and Marathi (ळा).

Thus a more appropriate transliteration of ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು might have been to introduce an accent mark over L, capitalise it (BengaLooru) or in some other way distinguish it from a mere “lu”.

Prof Ananthamurthy neglected another aspect and that is, the way people actually pronounce it in quotidian conversations. No one really says BengaLooru all the time. The g and the r are sometimes swallowed and what is heard is “Ben(g)Loo(r)”. Moreover people add other vowels when conjugating. Ben(g)Looralli (in Bangalore), Ben(g)Loorigay (to Bangalore), Ben(g)Looraa/ Ben(g)Loorgaa? (is it Bangalore/are you headed to Bangalore?).

And what would Prof Ananthamurthy say to Tamilians as to how they should transliterate the name of the city? In Tamil there is but one consonant for p, b, ph and bh, as also for k, g, kh and gh, for instance. Thus ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು is written in Tamil as பெங்களூர், which may also be pronounced as PenkaLoor.

While he was at it, the good professor could have altered the spelling of his own name to suit the way it ought to be written in Kannada and pronounced: Ananathamooruthy.

Also, why did he neglect the spelling of the state: Karnataka. The second a is a long vowel: Kar-naa-ta-ka.

By insisting that his obsession with the spelling change become official policy, Prof Ananthamurthy caused massive amount of wastage in terms of new official texts to be printed and official nameplates repainted.

However, the private sector and the ordinary people have mostly ignored it.
ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು will always be ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು and Bangalore, Bangalore.

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During my childhood and youth in Bangalore many decades ago, we never had a fan or a refrigerator at home. We still don’t have an air-conditioner, although it gets unbearably hot in parts of the west-facing house in the afternoons.

Decades ago, it almost never felt too warm except possibly while bicycling on, or walking beside, asphalted roads at certain hours of the day, mainly mid-afternoons.

Distant memory now.

On a brief visit to New Delhi – a city where I lived for 11 years until 1988 and which my mind associates with crippling summers – on work last week, I was lodged in a room in an area endowed with much tree cover and adjacent to a sprawling garden with ponds and abundant arboreal growth. There was an air conditioner in the room but on entering, it was clear that AC use was uncalled for. I did mechanically switch on the ceiling fan. Duh! A little past midnight, I had to switch it off. Second week of April, mind!

Before leaving for Delhi, I’d checked the temperatures online. On that particular day it showed: Bangalore 38C, New Delhi 34C: obviously, the mean temperature. In New Delhi’s wooded areas, it’s generously cool, especially from dusk to a couple of hours post-dawn.

Decades ago in New Delhi, while taking the bus from/to work at night (I was a wire service hack), I invariably noticed that during the summer months temperatures dropped considerably while traversing through the area where ministers, senior officials and judges lived in sprawling bungalows inside large compounds featuring much greenery and along wide, tree-lined avenues.

With reservations regarding the incredibly enormous privileges enjoyed by the said worthies, I’d have to concede that in terms of the presence of greenery and absence of human marauding at least, it’s perhaps good there’s been no change over the decades to that part of Delhi.

Meanwhile, those controlling the fates of Bangalore and its denizens have been systematically chopping tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of trees and filling up dozens of lakes as if there’s no tomorrow. The said authorities work in air-conditioned offices, travel by air-conditioned cars, live in air-conditioned homes and hobnob with their kind in clubs, hotels and other facilities that are, needless to say, air-…

As for dust, during the late 1970s to late 1980s in New Delhi, I’d noticed that dust, soot and vehicular exhaust tended to saturate one’s skin and the collars of one’s shirts during the winter months when, following the laws of physics, suspended particles – what a harmless sounding term for noxious stuff – tended less inclined to rise into the upper atmosphere. In Bangalore now, whatever season, whatever the hour of the day or night, almost wherever thou liveth, dust and vehicular soot shall stick to thee.

Apart from the obviously uber-, ultra-corrupt cabal or mafia that rules over Bangalore, there is a fast proliferating, despicable species – the Bangalore Car Owner – about which over-affluent, sub-human creature that seems to have evolved in under two decades into a major, virulent menace causing massive pollution in terms of noise, light, heat, dust and soot, I have much to say and shall, in a future blog. 


This was my second visit to New Delhi in three months and the third in under a year. Having observed Independent Canine Personages in various parts of that city now – and stopped to offer a few of them some of the biscuits I usually carry for just such communions with members of that delightful species – I arrive at the tentative conclusion that those cute doggies are in general noticeably healthier looking than their counterparts in Bangalore.

I’m friends with a large number of ICPs (please avoid the word “stray” while referring to dogs!) around the area where I live and those I visit regularly elsewhere in Bangalore and have tried and am still trying to see what can be done as regards the ones who display obvious signs of skin disease but the numbers of dogs in various states of ill-health seem to be huge.

Perhaps this testifies to the superior attention to the well-being of non-human animals in Delhi compared to Bangalore, where even human welfare is criminally neglected.


Delhiites, I notice, refer to a T-junction as a “T-point”.

Ask for directions and people say, “go straight and at the T-point take a left/right… etc”.

Bangaloreans are more likely to call upon the powers in their lungs and the muscles in their tongues to say, “left/right at the DDDEADDDENDDD!” (Never mind that a dead-end is what the French call a cul-de-sac, where there’s no turning except back.)

Given that we Kannadigas, like our fellow South Indian Telugu-speakers – and Italians and a few others – end almost all words with vowels and carry that practice into the pronunciation of English words, more often than not it sounds like “dddeadddendddU!”

I have to concede: Delhiites 30 – Bangaloreans 0.

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I have seen you many times during my peregrinations around the area where I live and where you are confined.

A few times I have bent down to touch your forehead and your cheeks, acknowledging and celebrating your presence and that of other members of your docile and beautiful species in the urban jungle members of my species have built.

The other evening I thought you were looking at me for the duration of those few seconds as I moved from the extreme left of your line of sight and towards the centre.

You followed me with your large, expressive eyes and when I tried to stroke your head and neck you seemed to acknowledge the all too brief ministrations – by someone from a species that in your experience has an altogether different agenda – with noticeable twitches of your amply large ears.

It was the first time I’d seen you standing untethered, on a lane next to where you are usually confined. You were, in other words, free to go where you pleased. No human enslaver seemed to be paying attention.

“RUN, COW, RUN,” I felt like telling you. “Walk away as fast and as far as you can. Seize the freedom that ought to be yours. Go away from this Brahminical, Casteist, Speciesist hellhole, where hundreds of generations of your forebears have been enslaved, tied up in confined spaces and tortured, your calves spirited away soon after birth, to be butchered if male, your milk stolen for years on end …”

Even if I could have spoken your language, Cow, you might have demurred. Confinement, imprisonment or slavery are soul-destroying. It is not merely the body that experiences restrictions but the spirit as well.P1030126

Unless you were a character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Richard Adams’ Watership Down or some other anthropomorphising fictional work, you and members of your species, I’m sorry to say, have been and are pretty much done for.

Moreover, Cow, and I was obviously ignoring what you might instinctively have realised: even if you could run or walk, where to?

To be sure, there actually are a few – very few – small, grassy patches within a couple of kilometres of where you live. But you would be unwelcome there: in fact, your way would be barred. Even if you, my friend, were to make your escape, what of the dozens of other members of your species enslaved by humans within a couple of square kilometres of you? How and where to can all of you escape?

In your wisdom you discerned that already, perhaps?

Having said all this, Cow, I must confess that I am a lacto-vegetarian. I live with my parents who consume milk stolen from members of your species as well as by-products thereof such as yoghurt.

I shall allow myself this poor attempt at a pun by saying it must curdle your blood thinking that the milk meant for your – perhaps many a murdered – children are being boiled and set to curdle for the delectation of your slave-drivers and their customers.

Dear Cow, in India you are deemed a Hindu Goddess. But no benefit accrues to you from that status of which you are no doubt oblivious. Yes, a few caring dairy farmers observe an annual spring festival ritual of dressing you up and feeding you some dainties, but that is it. The rest of the 365 days minus the few hours or, more likely, minutes when you might be the object of adulation, your life is one of untold misery.

I have previously written about the plight of your kind, Cow: “An Indian Would-Be Vegan’s Defence of Beef-Eating” ( and shall not repeat the arguments I set out therein.

Suffice it to say, Cow, and I hope you will not be shocked by my making this mere rhetorical statment: I’d sooner eat a part of your flesh so long as you were killed with a short sharp cut or strike than see you suffer for the rest of your life – meaning many, many more months or years of your enslavement until you stop lactating and then your abandonment on the streets of Bangalore, to scrounge around among mounds of sickening rubbish until your eventual and excruciatingly painful death.

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On the sidelines of a press conference of the Bangalore Bus Prayaanikara Vedike (commuters’ forum), a survivor of sexual harassment narrated her recent experience on the city’s Metro. She’d complained to the police, who hauled in the perpetrators – white collar employees of a prestigious global brand.

She got them to the police station with some difficulty. A staff member of the Metro had resented having to help her by locating the CCTV tapes and so on.

The now chastened young men pleaded with her, saying one of them had to head back to his job in the Middle East and his visa status would be affected in case he faced criminal charges.

She decided not to file a formal complaint, even though a police constable urged her to do so, saying, “people such as these need to be taught a lesson”.

That the young men had spent a few hours in the cooler and had received beatings from the cops was good enough for her. (Police beatings and torture are routine and it is taken for granted that they happen – and even should happen – never mind constitutional provisions and the heck with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.)

“I’m sure they’ll never do it again,” she said, defending her decision to let the perpetrators go scot free. (How can she be so sure?)

She admitted that in most instances police would not have cooperated with women approaching them with complaints of sexual harassment. They normally have little time for ordinary citizens. But in her line of work she and her colleagues deal with the cops day in and day out.

It was a rare instance of the police showing far greater alacrity than the survivor of sexual harassment to book an offender.


A couple of weeks ago, the driver of a public bus in Bangalore verbally abused and slapped a 16-year-old. He had asked her to move back in the bus, using abusive language. She’d said: “uncle, I will, but there’s no space”. The bus was crowded. He got up from his seat, asked her, “how dare you talk back to me?” and slapped her.

Unbeknown to him then, he’d picked on the daughter of a trade unionist. Madina Taj of the Garment and Textile Workers Union complained to the police and to his employers, the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC).

Ms Taj (her name is being used here with her concurrence) says she has faced great pressures since then to drop the complaint. BMTC officials, the police, the head of the school where her daughter studies, the office of a Member of the Legislative Assembly … they have all been leaning on her.

“Why are you making such a big issue of it? … He made a mistake… He’s sorry … Bus drivers too are under a lot of pressure … Think of his family … You’re a trade unionist… He too is a worker… Think of his future…”

Hello, a young person was traumatised, she was unfairly subjected to verbal and physical violence, her family was traumatised… Will someone please think about her, her mother – who has handled numerous cases of harassment of all sorts as a trade unionist – and the rest of her family?


Strange is this society in which survivors of sexual harassment, assault, violence and worse are expected to – and some even feel they need to – show consideration, understanding, concern, compassion and the rest of it for the perpetrators!

Either that or blood lust – otherwise sensible men and women get screaming: “Hang the rapists!”

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A stock reaction from a section of people reading about the tragedy befalling a non-human animal is to say: “why are you grieving over this cat/dog/donkey when there are people dying of hunger and are getting killed in war zones?” But comparing individual or mass human tragedies and those affecting non-humans is odious to anyone with a modicum of genuine compassion.

The term speciesism is still rarely used, especially in India. But the need to eschew hierarchies when it comes to dealing with misery will be recognized by the sensitive and the sensible.

An evidently sweet and charming cat, who had apparently been a long-term companion to at least one human being and precious friend of many others, died an unnatural death late in March. From an evocative and highly reliable account of the death and life of that dear feline being (, it seems clear that the tragedy was avoidable. A company into whose care that precious little living bundle was given is alleged to have blundered, with its allegedly ill-trained staff adding to the misery of the grieving human companion of the deceased through shocking and callous insensitivity.

If that company thinks we’ll all have forgotten after a few days or weeks, it can think again. Some of us refuse to forget.

Cats. Most humans who use languages in which the neuter gender exists prefer it when referring to non-human living beings in the singular: “It”. Although substantial sections of humans around the globe have institutional or cultural practices of respect for nature – for all fauna and flora – unfortunately the average human today cares little for the welfare of other species. Far be it from their conception to respect non-human living beings (assuming they respect even human ones).

The late James Dean, the feline, is now known to many tens of thousands of people around the world, because of Tara Chowdhry’s account flagged above, which has deservedly been read and shared by countless numbers. A petition has done the rounds:

The company concerned first issued a brief, 200-word statement via Facebook in effect denying responsibility for the tragic death at its hands, which it dismissed as “accidental demise” and “unfortunate incident” (

Such was the furious reaction it sparked that the company came back two days later with a 1,000-word note, obviously another PR-cum-company-lawyer job, full of passive sentences signifying little (

The overwhelming number of responses to these two statements – perhaps upwards of the 95% range – is by people expressing dismay and disgust and not buying the company’s version. A tiny percentage – in fact, tinier than might have been expected – voice cynical objection to the indignation and condemnation of the way little James Dean was handled. Their objections are mainly three-fold – why are you agitated about this cat when humans are dying, don’t you eat meat (in other words don’t you cause the death of other non-human animals, so why object to this cat’s death) and an underlying assumption that cats shouldn’t be allowed the luxury of international flight (dump this one and get another at your destination, was one breathtakingly insensitive suggestion).

It would be interesting to know how many of those who ask “why don’t you talk about human misery” do so themselves except while objecting to the discussion of a non-human’s fate. These are akin to the people who object to reports about human rights abuses in Kashmir by saying why don’t you talk about Kashmiri Pandits. And the ones who say why don’t you talk about the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom by Congress Party goons when one raises the issue of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Or when the harassment of Muslims in India is discussed, pat comes their question: why don’t you talk about Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh? As if one instance of cruelty either cancels the other out or justifies the other.

The existence and persistence of human misery does not preclude the need to reduce cruelty towards animals. Most of the passionate advocates of human rights are also wedded to the idea of humane treatment of non-human animals. Because, the bottomline is compassion, which brooks no exceptions. A compassionate attitude on the part of a human has necessarily to extend to non-humans.

As for meat consumption, of course, from a vegan/vegetarian viewpoint as well as an ecological one, the ideal world would be one in which human beings reduced or eliminated dependence on animal protein. But that is not going to happen overnight. There are movements of people working for such an eventuality. But they have decades of work cut out. However, the persistence of animal-protein consumption should not in any way mean that human beings should be cruel to living non-humans. Or that they should be inconsiderate towards animals in their care.

Why fly a cat (even if only in the hold)? This is classic speciesism. It’s pretty rich for humans to be robbing milk from cows, eggs from chickens and putting millions of animals to death to extract meat (which is transported by air too in massive quantities) and then object to efforts at easing the pain non-human animals endure or efforts at ensuring that a given human and non-human team can stay together after one of them moves to another place.

Why fly cats, why make prosthetics for dogs and other disabled non-humans? Why not let them die? Such queries need really not be dignified with an answer. Fortunately, there are enough sensitive and level headed humans who ignore such inanities and carry on with their humane care for the non-humans.

Moreover, those who raise such objections fail to read the responses. Such was the experience with two articles I wrote recently on the issue of non-human animals and their right to exist: “An Indian Would Be Vegan’s Defence of Beef-eating” ( and “Let Independent Dogs Be” ( The latter was reproduced in a Bangalore-based website and drew some bizarre comments:

But let us talk business. Airlines are paid to carry the remains of humans, for burial in their home countries or climes. The flesh of non-humans – all sorts of mammals, birds, fish and others – is transported in refrigerated containers. So why this level of apathy for a paying – living – non-human passenger, companion of a human? Moreover there are dogs in the service of security forces, customs, drug enforcement authorities and so forth present in many airports. Should there not be properly trained veterinary carers in the airports to cater to them and others?

Had the company which was paid a tidy sum to transport James Dean been compassionate and its employees been trained to be too, the tiny cat would have lived. It is this compassion deficit that led to the tragedy and that continues to prevent the company from issuing a sincere public apology. It is not too late to make amends while ensuring that such a tragedy is repeated never again.

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International Labour Day 2013 has been and gone and today is another day. Vast numbers of workers are back to wallowing in disunity, uninvited to lose their chains. And on this the 2nd of May, I have three disjointed thoughts:

Solidarity with the people of Hong Kong, a city where I spent a total of 16 years and where the labour movement is quite vibrant albeit under the thumb of an undemocratic government beholden to business lobbies and to Beijing, which listens more to tycoons rather than to workers and ordinary people, never mind that the ruling party in China continues to use the word “communist” in its name for perhaps nostalgic reasons (if one might be charitable).

Hong Kong’s dockworkers have been on strike for a month now.[1] All they are asking is for wages to be returned to levels before they were reduced on the pretext of economic downturn.[2] The man who is denying them the small consideration is Hong Kong’s richest tycoon, Li Ka-shing, who reputedly enjoys a direct line to the Beijing leadership.[3]

Photo courtesy Hong Kong dockers' blog:

For several years until 2011, I marched on May Day with Hong Kong’s tens of thousands of workers from Victoria Park to Government House in scorching afternoon heat. The drumbeats of Indonesian domestic workers in colourful clothes and similar antics of others provided a bit of entertainment along the route, making up for the machinations of the police force mindlessly trying to restrict the space available for the rally.

Since moving back to Bangalore, India, in February 2012, I march, shout slogans and raise fist vicariously. To be sure, there were May Day rallies here too but mostly by individual political parties or groups linked to them.

Yesterday (May 1), Garga Chatterjee, rightly said in his Facebook update: “… Almost all of my Facebook friends from the subcontinent belong to the middle/upper-middle class. Since yesterday (April 30), many of them have been talking about May Day and workers’ rights, posting pictures and what not. Most of their homes have at least one domestic help working for them. I am sure, that person did not get a day off on May Day…”


And too late.

By the time I’d read it, a part-time worker had been and gone after her roughly one-hour stint helping clean dishes from overnight and beating up a few clothes on a stone, in addition to cleaning the floor around my parents’ house and the front-yard. She has a mobile phone but I doubt she’s on Facebook. How many domestic workers, full-time or part-time, in India are even aware of IWD?

In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers – mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand and Nepal – have formed a number of unions and organisations to deal with not only their employers and the local authorities but the unreasonable fees and rules their own countries’ governments gouge out of them.

Garga Chatterjee might have had Facebook friends from among them had he lived in Hong Kong, as a large section of the foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are on Facebook and use it partly to organise.

Eni Lestari is one such. She’s bright and dynamic but however long she lives in Hong Kong, she’ll not be granted permanent resident status. I got it after seven years, because my visa conditions were different. I once asked Eni if she couldn’t try and squeeze a scholarship to study in a university in Hong Kong. She said the foreign domestic worker visa precluded conversion to a student visa. Apartheid.


I too am a worker. I used to be a full-time journalist for decades. For 11 years I worked at a French organisation whose branch had no union but which nevertheless allowed a five-day working week (with compensatory offs for night shifts), 13th month salary and medical coverage until 2006 when I opted out, taking sabbatical leave to enrol in Hong Kong University. I subsequently worked for several months full-time but mostly part-time as a journalist for both commercial entities and human rights NGOs, something I still do since returning to my hometown, Bangalore.

The payment per day for freelance editing has stagnated at the 1990s level in Hong Kong. And that per word of translation for another Hong Kong-based entity has remained the same since, I am told, 2006. An agency in Taipei that used to be under the thumb of the ruling Kuomintang party – a once rabidly anti-communist group that presided over “White Terror” on the island until democratisation began in the late 1980s – pays a more decent rate and I might do a spot of work for them.
I am a freelance/independent journalist and translator. We hacks sell our wares and services to those who’ll have them at a price they quote. No union. Nada.

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