The environment ministry is proposing to make changes to the law so that development projects can be pushed through quickly. But will forest dwellers be short-changed in the process? Sonia Sarkar finds out

The Narendra Modi government may be concerned about “clean” India but does it have a somewhat blinkered view when it comes to green India? That’s what many environment experts are saying after the government proposed a series of changes to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or FRA. The move has sparked a storm of outrage from activists who allege that it will deprive tribals and forest dwellers of their democratic rights to their own land.

One of the proposals is to do away with a provision in the act that requires the “prior informed consent” of gram sabhas before their forests are cleared for industrial activities. A recent circular issued by the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) states that linear projects such as roads, canals, pipelines, optical fibres or power transmission lines are exempted from seeking the consent of gram sabhas. Now district collectors will have the power to certify that the diversion of land is permissible for a development project.

This is a dilution of the act, say activists. And recently, thousands of adivasis demonstrated in Gajapati in Odisha, against the proposal to make changes in the Forest Rights Act.

It’s not just activists who are crying foul. Legal experts too say that such a change is tantamount to depriving tribals and forest dwellers of their legal rights and that this can be challenged in court. “The powers are given to the gram sabha under Section 6 of the FRA to determine the nature and extent of individual and community forest rights. Therefore, the role of gram sabhas is very significant,” says Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Parikh, who fought for the rights of the Dongria Kondh in Niyamgari against Vedanta Resources.

He adds, “The proposed amendment will dilute the role played by the gram sabhas in doing justice to the scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers. In fact, the elimination of gram sabhas in the process will be a complete nullification of the act.” Adds forest rights activist Debjeet Sarangi, “Doing away with this provision would mean giving speedy clearances for projects, which is the ultimate aim of the government.”

However, that is exactly what voices from industry are happy about. Says Rita Roy Choudhury, senior director, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, “These steps have been taken to expedite the process of clearance of development projects. The government is keen on doing reforms and is trying to do away with unnecessary bottlenecks and delays that come up in projects.”

While many point to the scores of projects that were stuck during the tenure of the previous government owing to environmental clearances not coming through, others say the NDA government’s move is a blatant violation of the existing law. In a letter dated October 28, 2014, the MoEFCC declared that for plantations, notified as forests for 75 years after the FRA came into force on December 13, 2005 — and not having tribal population as per the 2001 and 2011 census — “no forest rights are likely to be recognised, even if the process is stipulated in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.”

Neema Pathak Broome, member of the Pune-based NGO, Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, points out that according to Clause 2(d) of the FRA, “forest land” means land of any description falling within any forest area and includes unclassified forests, undemarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks. “The definition of forest land makes no distinction between plantations and other forests and includes non-notified unclassified as well as ‘deemed’ forests. It also includes all forests conforming to the ‘dictionary definition of forest’ as per the Supreme Court judgment of 1996 in the Godavarman case, irrespective of whether these are recorded or notified as forests or not,” she says. “The MoEFCC’s order violates the principal act, which is meant to undo the historical injustice suffered by forest dwelling tribal and non tribal communities,” she adds.

Activists have also slammed another provision in the circular — that the FRA does not apply to forest dwellers who have not been living on that land for more than 75 years before the law was instituted.

Experts say that this latest directive is contradictory to a letter by the ministry of tribal affairs sent to the MoEFCC earlier. The letter had said, “There is no requirement in the act that for the purposes of recognition and vesting of forest rights, a person or community of other traditional forest dwellers must have been specifically located in a particular and identifiable location in the forest for 75 years. As long as they are able to establish that they have been primarily residing in and dependent on forests or forest land for bona fide livelihood needs for 75 years prior to December 13, 2005, they are to be considered eligible for recognition and vesting of forest rights under the act.”

A group of over 300 social environmental and tribal activists and organisations have sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi registering their protest against the proposed changes.

The ministry of tribal affairs too wrote a stern letter to the MoEFCC, saying that no agency of the government has the power to exempt the application of the act in part or in full. And any action inconsistent with the act would not be legally tenable and is likely to be struck down by the court. “We will ensure that rights of tribals and forest dwellers under the act are duly protected,” tribal affairs minister Jual Oram says.

The MoEFCC, on its part, says it is not riding roughshod over the act. “We are not doing anything arbitrarily. We are consulting the people concerned to see how developmental projects could be expedited,” says an official in the ministry who declined to be quoted.

Advocate Parikh says that any changes to the law would mean that the government is going back on its commitment to abide by international declarations on environment protection. “All these laws were formed keeping India’s commitment to international declarations in mind. Plus, there are several Supreme Court judgments that reinforce the commitment that India has made on sustainable development. It is legally not permissible to tinker with the environmental jurisprudence of the country,” Parikh stresses.

Clearly there are two sides to the debate, and it remains to be seen if the government is able to reconcile the concerns of all stakeholders — not just the tribals and forest dwellers but also those who want to push through development projects in quicktime.

SPublished in The Telegraph on November 19, 2014

It ‘s poll time in Kashmir, and political parties are gearing up for another battle. The number crunching has begun, with pundits predicting how the people will vote. But there is one politician who insists that he is not interested in “political gains”. He would, he says, rather think about the people of Kashmir.

Meet Sajjad Ghani Lone, the chairman of People’s Conference, which is fighting Assembly elections — announced last week in the capital — after 27 years.

“As a political leader, I am ready for elections. But given the current situation, I think, it is very embarrassing and shameful to talk about votes,” Lone, 47, says.

Indeed, Kashmir is still to recover from the devastating floods that left 85 dead and 12.5 lakh families affected. The floods in September are believed to have led to losses worth Rs 8,000 crore.

Lone doesn’t believe that this is the time for elections. “The least that the people of Kashmir deserve is to be given the time to recover from homelessness. They are not in the frame of mind for polls. The flood was a big disaster and the other disaster will be holding elections now.”

He fears that money will play a crucial role in this election. “At this time, when thousands are homeless, elections will be linked to relief. One can imagine what the role of money will be. This will make a mockery of the elections,” he holds.

Lone is a new entrant in mainstream politics in Kashmir. A separatist leader till 2009, he opposed the electoral process. In May 2009, however, he contested for the Lok Sabha from Baramulla. With 70,000 votes, he lost his security deposit and the seat to Sahrifuddin Shariq of the National Conference.

He is ready to contest again — this time from Handwara constituency, which his father, the senior leader Abdul Ghani Lone, once represented. He also plans to field candidates for at least 35 seats across Kashmir for the polls to be held in November and December.

The time has come to boot out the two main political parties of Kashmir — the ruling National Conference and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — for they have done little for the state, he maintains. “They need to go. All of India is seeing a change, why not Kashmir,” he asks.

There is speculation in Kashmir about Lone being willing to take the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the elections. According to the BJP, it will win more than 44 seats in the 87-member Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and form the government in the state. Lone shrugs off talk of aligning with the BJP but discloses that in July he met senior BJP leader J.P. Nadda, who is the election in-charge of the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir.

“I had a fruitful discussion with him. He talked about developmental issues. I told him that there was a sense of isolation among the people of Kashmir,” he says.

Lone admires former BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, holding that it was his effort that led to a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan. Vajpayee was the only national leader who could “capture the imagination of Kashmiris,” he says.

Lone is also optimistic about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spent Diwali in Kashmir. “It is too early to judge Modi but I feel he can do something good for the people of Kashmir,” he says. And though Muslim-dominated Kashmir may still be wary of the man who headed a state which saw brutal anti-Muslim violence in 2002, Lone believes that the perception, too, may change.

“When Vajpayee came (to power), there was apprehension and suspicion about him. This was more so because L.K. Advani, known to be the biggest ‘hawk’ at that point of time, was the deputy Prime Minister. Now Advani is considered a moderate leader. I won’t be surprised if that metamorphosis takes place in Modi, too” he says.

Modi, he stresses, should carry forward the “rich legacy” left behind by Vajpayee. “It’s up to him how he wants to carry it forward. He has to talk of development here too. He has to understand that people here want a dignified co-existence with India,” he says.

And Modi, he adds, will also have to take a call on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — which gives the army special powers to rein in the people of the state. “The leadership in Delhi has to assess whether Kashmir is staying with India because of the AFSPA or because it wants to be with India willingly. To deal with Kashmir, Modi needs to show magnanimity, not pettiness.”

Lone is not new to centrist politics. His father represented the Congress in the 1967 election and was an education and health minister in the Congress government in Kashmir in 1972. He left the Congress and won from Handwara on a Janata Party ticket in 1977. But disillusioned with the party, he formed his own political outfit, People’s Conference, in 1978.

His son has nothing but criticism for the Congress. “Congress leaders believe it is important only to connect with the two dynasties here — the Muftis and the Abdullahs,” he says, referring to PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, and the chief minister, Omar Abdullah, and his father, Farooq. “They don’t know anybody else. They don’t want to meet anyone or talk to anyone,” he says.

Lone sounds like a seasoned politician but his entry into politics was accidental. When Abdul Ghani was gunned down — allegedly by a militant outfit — in 2002, the party named him the chief. In 2004, he was thrown out of the Hurriyat Conference, a body of separatist leaders, by his elder brother, Bilal, after he’d attacked the senior Hurriyat leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, for attending the funeral of Rafiq Ahmed Lidari, who had allegedly plotted the assassination of their father.

“I was like unwanted baggage in the Hurriyat,” he says.

Lone is harsh on separatist leaders and their movement even now. “There is a web of confusion in them. Are they Pakistanis? Are they Kashmiris? What are they? What do they want? This separatist movement has almost died in this confusion,” he says.

He is also critical of the section that he calls “opportunist” Kashmiris. “This minuscule section will advocate stone-pelting in seminars and newspaper editorials but will send their own children abroad for higher studies. They are the biggest problem here,” he says.

Lone’s sons — nine-year-old Emaad and Adnan — study in a school outside Delhi. He married their mother Asma, the daughter of Amanullah Khan, the founder of militant outfit Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, in Pakistan in 1999. His sons were born there.

He himself was born in Handwara in north Kashmir. A student of Srinagar’s Burn Hall School, he graduated in economics from Cardiff University in 1986.

When Lone returned to Kashmir in 1989 after college, he found that the scenario had changed drastically. “Within a month after I returned, my father was put in jail — and was there for two years. I was tied upside down in an interrogation centre. I kept wondering: why did I come back,” he says.

In 1992, Lone left for Saudi Arabia. He lived there for four years and then spent another three years in Dubai, where he ran a business in scrap metals. After his marriage, the family lived in Pakistan before returning to Srinagar in 2000. He flits between the city and Delhi, where his wife and children live on the outskirts of the capital in Faridabad’s upmarket Charmwood village.

“I don’t want my sons to grow up in this environment where I have to move around with security. I want a normal upbringing for them,” he says, as he lights up a cigarette — his seventh in two hours.

We are sitting in his 20,000-square-foot palatial house in Srinagar’s Sant Nagar. He has converted a part of the property into a commercial complex. “My father once told me, ‘If you ever want to do politics, make sure you have a regular source of income.’”

The room where we are sitting is minimalistic in its décor and furnishing. A photograph of the senior Lone is on the wall behind him. Two wooden shelves stand on two sides, stacked with books such as The Essential Rumi, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk and Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer.

“But my favourite book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The moral of the book is whatever happens in life, happens for a purpose,” says Lone, who is now reading Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir.

Lone says he gets philosophical when he reads a good book or sees a meaningful film. When he watched Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider recently, he started to relate the film — based in Kashmir — with his own life. “Haider cried in front of his father’s grave. I too cried in front of my father’s grave 10 days after his death.”

Thankfully, I have seen Haider, too, for Lone goes on to disclose the film’s dramatic end. “Even Tabu’s character symbolises Kashmir. The way she blew herself up at the end, I think, it is something Kashmiris did to themselves,” he says.

Strong words, these. And not quite an election slogan, I’d say.

Published in The Telegraph, Sunday, November 2, 2014

It is prime time bulletin on Lotus News, a satellite news channel in southern Indian town, Coimbatore. Dressed in a dark brown silk sari, 31-year-old Padmini Prakash is all set to read out the day’s headlines. In matching brown lipstick, vermilion in the parting of her hairline and a bunch of white jasmine tucked in her black curls, Padmini sports a professional charm. Her Tamil pronunciation is clear. Her intonation is perfectly timed. In less than two months, Padmini has become one of the most popular news anchors of the television channel.  

But it wasn’t an easy journey for this first ever transgender television news anchor of India.

 “I never wanted to create any history. All I wanted was social recognition and a dignified life. I am happy that I have got it now,” a confident Padmini says.

Indeed, social recognition and dignified life are certainly rare for a transgender in India. Even as more than 4,90,000 transgenders live here, they are considered as outsiders. Known as ‘hijras’, transgenders are avoided, feared, despised or vilified. They have always been seen as menace to the society.

In India, they live in cramped ghettos. They are mostly unlettered and belong to the lower middle class. They could be spotted begging at bus stops, railway stations and traffic signals. They are often seen stripping in public to embarrass people into coughing up money.

They visit families on the occasion of child birth to confer blessings on the child and receive money, in return. Perhaps, this is the only time when they are allowed to enter someone’s house but only out of sheer fear that they will cast a spell on the new born if refused money. And many believe that the curse of a transgender is dangerous for the child. Of late, they have also been used as tax collectors by state governments. They sing loudly in front of the defaulters’ premises so that the defaulters are shamed into paying up out of embarrassment.

But reality kicks in when they have to fight a daily battle for survival. They are subjected to physical and sexual harassment on a regular basis. Human rights activists point out that they are also forced to prostitution which has led to high prevalence of HIV-AIDS in them.

If Padmini had not gathered the strength to stand against all odds in her life, she fears she would have faced a similar fate too. But she chose to fight against the discrimination and dejection with courage and conviction. She was disowned by her parents at the age of 13 as they couldn’t accept her sexual orientation. But she refused to give up. She took it upon herself to create a space of her own in this ruthless society that considers transgenders a “curse”. She enrolled herself in a Bachelors of Commerce course in an open university. She learnt to dance and also acted in soap operas before she got the job as a news anchor.

Padmini’s recruitment in the television channel has reflected the slow but significant changes that are taking place in the society in order to make dignified space for transgenders. A recent Supreme Court judgment has brought about these small social changes. In April this year, the apex court recognised transgender people as a legal third gender. Prior to the ruling, one was forced to classify oneself as either male or female on identification documents.

The government has been directed to recognise transgenders as an official minority. They have been directed to create a “third” gender box in all identity documents such as birth certificates, passports and driver’s licences.  The court also directed the government to allot quotas for public jobs and admission to educational institutions and for the provision of health care facilities.

Some states have already taken some progressive measures to this effect. For example, Tamil Nadu has offered special third gender cards, passports and reserved seats much before the apex court judgement had arrived. Even a television channel in the state had launched a show in 2009 which was hosted by a transgender.

Some IT companies, security companies and departmental stores across the country are hiring transgenders now. Reality shows on television channels invite them to participate. Talent hunts and carnivals have been organised exclusively for them. In fact, Padmini had won the title of Miss Transgender India in 2009. Padmini is certainly an inspiration for many other transgenders who are yet to defy their destiny.

But it is not the fight of transgenders alone. It is our fight to change our traditional mind-set towards transgenders. We have to believe that they are not despicable. We have to make a conscious effort to create space for them, in every possible way. In public transports, we need to sit next to them and not change our seats with a fear that they will embarrass us by stripping. Our schools need to allow a transgender child to sit in their classrooms. We need to teach our children not to look at them as an object of curiosity. Our Bollywood scriptwriters need to be a bit more creative and not use the word “hijra” as an abuse while penning down the most “revolutionary” dialogues for blockbusters.

We need to remind ourselves every day that the time has come to shape up a society which is equal and sensitive.

Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Ram Madhav represents the new face of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The six-footer from Andhra Pradesh tellsSonia Sarkar that the RSS is changing

There’s not an inch of space in room No. 26 in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi. Those queued up there include a distressed villager from Uttar Pradesh, a voluntary sector worker from Bangladesh and an elderly Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member from Bhopal. And they are waiting for a meeting with the man in the adjoining room — Ram Madhav.

The BJP general secretary is busy surfing the Internet on his iPad. It’s been a busy fortnight — Chinese President Xi Jinping has come and gone, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance has come apart in Maharashtra, where elections are to be held next month, and the BJP performed poorly in bypolls held in the states.

Have the people of Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP did phenomenally well in the general election, turned their backs on the party, which lost (along with an ally) seven of the 11 seats it held in the Assembly?

Madhav, 49, doesn’t think so. The results, he holds, were impacted by the fact that the Bahujan Samaj Party did not take part in the polls, turning the contests into virtually straight fights between the Samajwadi Party and BJP. “But to expect to win every election is not correct either, because each election has its own arithmetic and dynamics,” he adds.

Election results, however, must lead to analyses, he points out. “Every election result is a time for stocktaking. It gives us an opportunity to find out what is happening on the ground, so that we can prepare ourselves for the next election,” Madhav says.

The poll in Bengal has given the BJP reason to rejoice. The party now has a seat in the Bengal Assembly, won by Shamik Bhattacharjee, who defeated Trinamul candidate Dipendu Biswas in Basirhat by 1,568 votes. Of course, Bhattacharjee had led from the same Assembly segment in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls by 30,000 votes. The margin has come down drastically, but Madhav is not greatly troubled by that — he is happy that the party is making its presence felt in a “tough” state like Bengal.

“We have certainly emerged as a force in Bengal. In the next Assembly election, BJP will be seen as an alternative to the ruling party,” he says.

But the party’s dismal performance in the bypolls in many of the states — including Bihar and Rajasthan — has triggered a blame game in the BJP. Senior party leader and former deputy chief minister of Bihar Sushil Modi had put the failure in UP on Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath, who had accused Muslims of carrying out a “Love Jihad” campaign, in which Muslim men targeted Hindu girls for conversion to Islam by feigning love.

“This (Love Jihad) is a concern of local political leaders, including Yogi Adityanath. They have noticed this happening and have talked about it. So what’s wrong,” he asks.

Madhav shrugs off criticism of Modi’s second-in-command, Amit Shah. Some in the party have criticised Shah’s individualistic style of functioning and blamed it for the UP debacle.

“Shah is a capable leader. He has proved his political mettle and maturity in Gujarat. Probably, if we win two state elections — Maharashtra and Haryana — the whole assessment will change,” Madhav says.

It’s difficult to rile Madhav, who wears a smile on his face most of the time. Originally from Andhra Pradesh, the six-footer represents the new face of the RSS.

Technologically savvy, Madhav is active on social networking forums. A recent tweet, however, put him in trouble when, after the death of historian Bipan Chandra, he praised the academic’s contribution to history. Angry reactions followed, condemning Madhav for lauding a staunch critic of the RSS.

But Madhav is not troubled by the trolls. “We are a democracy. Everyone — even the last man on the street — is entitled to his views. I don’t disrespect anybody personally merely because he or she was critical of the RSS. I would rather defend the RSS with all my might,” he says.

And that’s not surprising, for Madhav’s links with the RSS are old. His father, Surya Narayan, was a member of the RSS, the state general secretary of the Jan Sangh and later a member of the BJP. His mother Janaki Devi, too, was active in the party.

Madhav, who joined the RSS when he was four, studied engineering and then political science from Mysore University — which is when he decided to became a full-time RSS pracharak.

“I had a great training in the RSS. Whatever I am today, it is because of the RSS,” he says.

He argues that the RSS is changing with time — and the belief that it’s stuck in a time warp is misleading.

“It adapts to changing times,” he says. “It has introduced so many new activities for the young such as exclusive shakhas where there are specific activities for IT professionals. I went to a shakha recently where youngsters were playing rugby.”

Many university students are joining the RSS, he contends, adding that “thousands of men” express their desire to join the RSS on its website. “So if there is membership through the website, you can imagine that young people are joining us,” he says.

He himself is one of the younger leaders of the RSS, which is generally seen as a body of greying men. Spokesperson for the RSS since 2003, Madhav, articulate and suave, was leased to the BJP in July this year, soon after the BJP rode to power at the Centre (and is now with the Prime Minister’s delegation to the United States).

With a foot in each camp, Madhav knows the equation between the parent body and the party. He dismisses stories about rifts between the RSS and BJP — and rumours that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no time for the RSS.

“The RSS and BJP share a very good equation. And it’s not correct that Modiji ignores the RSS. He is an experienced and visionary leader and he would have his own views. That doesn’t mean he is ignoring the RSS,” he says, with a broad smile.

But why is the RSS quiet? Shouldn’t it have stepped in when Modi’s team sidelined senior leaders such as L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi?

“I really don’t understand why people call it sidelining. They are such seniors and such fatherly figures for the party that nobody can sideline them. As far as responsibilities are concerned, they themselves have handed over responsibilities to younger teams,” he says.

There are many who believe that the “younger teams” took away their responsibilities, I point out. “It’s your interpretation,” he replies.

He reminds me that he has only a few more minutes to spare. So we move on to the subject of writing — an old passion of his. His recent book, Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after Fifty Years of the War, prompts me to ask him about Xi’s visit, and if it has improved ties between India and China.

“From the Indian side, we have always made sincere efforts to improve ties with China. Both Modi and Xi Jinping talk to each other without any baggage of history,” he says. “But what really plagues our relationship is that there is a huge deficit of trust between the two countries. I am sure the new leadership will bridge the deficit,” he adds.

Madhav says he is an avid reader. He is reading a book on Pakistan — but says he can’t remember the name. That nudges me towards Pakistan, and I ask him about the government’s decision to call off talks between foreign secretaries because the Pakistan high commissioner had met Kashmiri separatist leaders.

“The government’s stand on not appreciating the Pak envoy’s invitation to separatist leaders is a firm message to our neighbour that things have changed in India and they can’t take us for granted. We were used to a docile diplomacy. We think it is natural for separatist leaders to meet Pakistani officials here. We have allowed all this to happen for far too long. Good that things have now changed,” he stresses.

The BJP hopes to see change in Kashmir, too — where it has launched its Mission 44, a campaign with the help of which it seeks to form a government (with 44 seats in the Assembly) in Kashmir in the next election. Some people in Kashmir have accused the BJP of rolling out relief measures during the recent floods in the state mainly to woo voters.

Madhav doesn’t smile any more. “This is a wrong and irresponsible statement. This is a natural calamity and everyone should jump into flood relief measures. There is no political agenda in it,” he says.

I can tell that the few extra minutes are over. He gets up to leave for another meeting. The crowd in the adjoining room will have to wait some more.


Kashmir’s militants who’ve given up the gun have a new passion — business.Sonia Sarkar tracks their forays into the world of money

The apple trees in his 100-bigha orchard are in full bloom, and Abdul Qadeer Dar is gently plucking the fruits. The good ones are going to be carefully packed in wooden boxes and sold across the country.

“My clients have lot of respect for me,” he says. “It’s hard earned, and I cannot lose it by compromising on the quality of the fruit,” Dar says.

From ammos to apples, Dar’s journey has been a dramatic one. Dar took to the gun 25 years ago when he was 18. He was among 60,000 young Kashmiri men who walked to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan for armed training.

But many years and jail stints later, the former commander of north Kashmir of the militant organisation Al Jahad has found a new passion. In 2000, he went back to tending his ancestral land.

Over the last few years, he has bought more land and grown more trees. The fruits in the Baramullah orchard are now being sold outside Kashmir. Dar doesn’t wield the gun any more — instead he brandishes sprays for his apple trees.

The cry for freedom may still ring out from the Valley, but militancy has over the years been subdued in Kashmir, where elected governments have been in power for 18 years. For many of the men who had dedicated their youth to the militant movement for independence, life has taken new turns. They have given up the gun, and picked up the threads of their lives.

“I will not get back my youth. I have started from zero to give myself a normal life,” says Dar, who also runs Voice of Victims, an NGO that works for the rights of former militants.

Dar, 43, focused on horticulture because it was the only sector of the economy that ran successfully even when militancy was at its peak. Now Dar’s annual turnover from apples is about Rs 15 lakh.

Some, like Dar, deal with horticulture. Others are in real estate and businesses such as electrical goods and handicrafts. Sajjad Gul, a former senior commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, deals with electrical goods in Srinagar’s Maisuma Bazar.

Gul, 42, was barely 16 when he joined the militants in 1988. In 2010, when he was released following a year in jail after being arrested for the ninth time, Gul decided to give up militancy and start his business.

  • New innings: Sheikh Imtiyaz Ahmed with his son; (top) Abdul Qadeer Dar. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

“I realised that life had become a vicious cycle of killings and jail. I decided to get out of it and start a new one which would carry no scars of the past,” Gul says.

He took financial help from his brothers and started his shop with an investment of Rs 15 lakh. “Fortunately, I earned a profit of Rs 1 lakh in the first month itself. I told myself, I can do it,” Gul says. He lives in a four-storey house in Pantha Chowk on the outskirts of Srinagar, with wife Shaheeda, son, Sharif, 9, and daughter Zanam, 5.

But while many militants of the late Eighties and Nineties are looking at ways of redoing their lives, they complain that little help has come from the government. In 2010, the state government launched a rehabilitation package for militants but it was aimed at helping surrendered militants who had returned from Pakistan.

“The government did not provide us with any loans at subsidised rates to help us start a business,” says Mohammed Ayyub, a former commander of Al Jahad. The 43-year-old Srinagar resident now runs a real estate business.

The fact that Kashmir has been largely peaceful in the last three years has given a boost to the construction sector. “Wherever there is destruction, there will also be construction,” says Ayyub. “So this is the best business to be in now,” he adds.

Moving into business after years of unrest was not easy for the men, many of whom had dropped out of schools and colleges to fight for independence. Sheikh Imtiyaz Ahmed, 46, didn’t know what to do when he was released from jail in 1995. Ahmed, whose family members mostly held government jobs, knew that his record meant he couldn’t join the government. So the former district commander of al-Umar Mujahideen started an aluminium fabrication business in 1997.

“I took a bank loan of Rs 2 lakh and mortgaged my father’s house,” he says. Ahmed says his business has now an annual turnover of around Rs 25 lakh.

Till two years ago, separatist leader Shabir Shah, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, held a 25 per cent share in a hotel in Pahalgam, which he says he has subsequently got rid of.

Shah states that he invests money in various local projects, and the contractors share their profit with him in return. “This is my regular source of income,” he says.

Running their own businesses is not easy for the former militants, who allege that they are often harassed by government agencies. “I want to purchase material from Delhi but the police follow me everywhere I go. I get humiliated in front of my clients,” Ahmed says.

Gul adds that the initial years were difficult because his clients were worried about his past. “It was difficult to strike business deals. I had to convince people that I didn’t own a gun anymore,” he says.

But they have now been successfully expanding their businesses — Dar has started a transport business too, Gul plans to start a furnishing shop and Sheikh also deals with interiors.

The former militants want their children to lead happy lives. Dar dreams that his children — Suvaid, 10, and Sovan, 5, who go to an English medium school in Baramulla — will prosper. “I want a promising future for my children,” he says.

But even that is not always easy. Ahmed says his daughter wanted to go abroad for higher studies. “But the government held back her application for a passport because of ‘adverse reports’ on my past,” he adds.

Sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla says the government has to ensure that former militants and their families lead a normal life. “They have been tortured and are now out of jail. If they have been cleared of charges, it is the responsibility of the government to give them the space to lead normal lives,” the Kashmir University professor says.

For some of the former militants, activism has taken different forms. Dar and a former operation commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Zaffar Akbar Butt, who sat through the first ceasefire agreement with the Indian government in July 2000, are now distributing relief material to flood victims.

“It is important to tell everyone that we once had a bloody past but we have a heart too,” says Butt, who deals in real estate in Srinagar’s Chhanapora. “We have to prove ourselves daily.”


When we earn something hard, we flaunt it too often. This is exactly what has happened with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He really worked hard to become the Prime Minister of this largest democracy in the world, so he doesn’t leave any chance to flaunt his newly acclaimed status.

Delivering the Teachers’ day speech and making it compulsory for all students and teachers to listen to it was just another attempt to tell the world he has arrived. The huge Manekshaw auditorium in New Delhi was chock-a-block with enthusiastic students who asked him some well-rehearsed questions. Donning the avatar of Chacha Nehru (as India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was fondly called by children for his connect with them), he answered them spontaneously. But the tone and tenor of his answers clearly exhibited his achievement as an individual and his complacency as the Prime Minister.

Newspaper reports next day state that some section of students and teachers enjoyed listening to him. But there were many others who expressed their disappointment for being forced to be a part of this mega event.

But one thing is clear that the reason behind organising a grand event like this was that the Prime Minister wanted the people of this country to know that the degrading education system of the country pains him. He wanted to tell one and all that he is here to change the face of the education system and script a new future for the lakhs of school going children.

But he could have conveyed this message by other ways too. The Prime Minister of India should know that addressing a handful of children, who have access to television sets, while sitting in an air-conditioned auditorium is far easier than addressing the real problems that have made the education system hollow.

He should know that his real job is to reach children, for whom, going to school is not easy.

His itinerary could be reasonably long. But he should start from Gujarat, where he served as a chief minister for more than 13 years. In some villages of his state, it is, indeed, a huge ordeal for the children to go to schools. For example, in Chhota Udepur district in Gujarat, children of 16 villages swim across the Hiran river to reach their school in Utavadi village in Narmada district every morning because there is no bridge constructed over the river.

His next stop should be another state ruled by his own party, BJP, which is Rajasthan. If he goes to Dungarpur and Udaipur districts of the state, the locals will apprise him of an ongoing crisis of hundreds of children dropping out of schools and going to work in Bt cotton fields as child labourers in the neighbouring Gujarat. There are schools in these districts where teachers have been caught hand in gloves with middlemen who pack them off in trucks to work as bonded labourers. Not that their parents are not aware of it. It is the parents who send their children to work at an early age, in want of money.

Another reason why parents convincingly pull their wards out of school is that there are barely any teachers available in these village schools. There is no check by the government on why teachers never come to class even if they stay close by.

The problem of missing teachers is huge in another BJP-ruled state, Chhattisgarh. Teachers go missing from these schools fearing attacks from both the Maoists and security forces. There is no assurance from the state government that it will make proper security arrangements in these areas where schools can run uninterruptedly. Children have to walk no less than 50 kilometers in both Dantewada and Bijapur districts of Bastar region to reach schools. Textbooks reach these students only when they are nearing the end of the academic year. The headmasters of some of these schools and even heads of villages will tell the Prime Minister that how rebels often want to interact with the students and interfere into the functioning of schools.

But rebels are not the only ones who add to the woes of students. Many ashram or residential schools in both Maoist-dominated districts (Dantewada and Bijapur) have been preoccupied by the security forces. Owing to which, students have to stay in cramped barracks and their classes have been running in open fields. Ironic, isn’t it?

The leaders of Salwa Judum or civil milita have made life all the more miserable for these children studying in ashram schools. These children have been forced to carry arms and participate in the raids conducted by Salwa Judum in villages. Children have been pushed by the leaders of Salwa Judum to go to jungles, track the trails and sniff out the enemy.

The last government in power couldn’t do anything to make things better for these children of the conflict torn state. But for all the noise that Modi has created on good governance, children of this strife torn state have every reason to expect Narendra Modi to be their saviour.

But Modi’s journey to schools doesn’t end here. If he moves towards a little far off towards the north-east, in Manipur, he would know that children here cannot attend school for days because of long days of strikes called by various underground groups. At present, the state government itself has ordered an indefinite closure of schools and colleges. This is the second time in less than two months that such an order has been issued by the government because some students were injured in the ongoing protest marches demanding the implementation of Inner Line Permit in the state. This is completely a political issue but students are suffering. No effort has been made by the central government to bring normalcy so far.

In 2009, all educational institutions including schools were closed for four months in Manipur after Apunba Lup, an apex civil society group representing more than 20 different organisations, demanding the resignation of the chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh over the alleged extra judicial killing of a youth the same year.

All that Prime Minister Modi can do is improve the law and order situation in Manipur to ensure that education doesn’t become the casualty.

Prime Minister claims to be clever, ingenious and strong. So he should not resort to the easy job of delivering a speech on Teachers’ day and expect children of his country to listen to his “valuable” advice and see him as their role model. Instead, he should make an effort to go to the most remote places of the country and find out ways about how more and more children can make way to schools.

If he wants to be the darling of the children, his concentration should not be on the handful of students, who he interacted with, in the auditorium or via –video conferencing. His real challenge is to win the hearts of 1.4 million unlettered children who are waiting to go to school. His real challenge is to retain the children in schools. His real challenge is bring back children, who left school in search of work, to classrooms. His real challenge is to make education accessible to every child of this country.

It’s about time for the Prime Minister to start his legwork, simply for his self-proclaimed love for children. So let’s get going, Mr Modi before the next Teachers’day arrives.

The children of women prisoners who stay in jail with their mothers live under terrible conditions — despite a Supreme Court guideline to provide them with proper care. But some states are making an effort to improve their lot.

One of the most tragic fallouts of incarcerating women who are mothers is that their young children stay with them in jail. Today, questions are being raised about the living conditions of these children below six years of age, which, more often than not, are deplorable, to say the least.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 344 women convicts with their 382 children and 1,226 women undertrials with their 1,397 children were lodged in prisons around the country in 2012.

Experts point out that the Supreme Court guidelines passed in 2006 relating to the education, living conditions, food, hygiene and psycho-social well-being of these children are being blatantly flouted.

As per the Supreme Court guidelines, children in prisons are to have separate accommodation and should not share cells with female inmates who are not their mothers. They should also not be exposed to women who use abusive language, behave violently, or might be dangerous. The guidelines also mandate that a permanent arrangement be made in all jails to provide separate food to these children to take care of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, none of these guidelines is properly followed.

“In India, children of incarcerated parents are collateral convicts. In jails, a child is treated just like an undertrial or a convict,” says Delhi-based independent child rights lawyer Anant Kumar Asthana. “At present, the children of prisoners are not covered by any law. The Supreme Court order too is not followed strictly,” he adds.

Experts who monitor the functioning of jails say that children of convicts live under terrible conditions. “Most Indian prisons do not have a separate unit for mothers and their children; so they are often housed with other adult offenders, including women convicted of having committed violent crimes. This obviously raises child protection issues,” says Nikhil Roy, programme director for Penal Reform International, a London-based, non-government organisation which works on criminal justice.

Lawmakers say that these children should have the liberty to live in an open environment as that is their fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. “First and foremost, there has to be a provision wherein children don’t need to stay with their mothers in the lock-ups. State governments should build hostels and playgrounds for these children. Arrangements should also be made for them to go to local schools,” senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi says.

He adds, “In a 1980 Supreme Court judgment, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer observed that prisons are built with bricks of punitive law. This means that these children should be liberated. Since they have no role to play in the crime of their parents, their lives shouldn’t be ruined.”

A 2011 report by Haq, Centre for Child Rights, a non-government organisation, said that many jails house children above six years, and they lack the diet, medical care, recreational and educational facilities that they should have by law.

The same report also pointed out that there were instances of sexual abuse of children who live with their mothers in prison. Other kinds of torture too abound. In one jail, a mother and her two-year-old daughter were forced by other inmates to sleep on the bathroom floor for a month while she “earned her place” in the overcrowded cell.

Even as legal experts and social activists demand better living conditions for children inside prisons, government officials argue that prisons are too overburdened to put things in order.

“All our jails are overcrowded. It is difficult to provide good living conditions to prisoners. Arranging special benefits for their children is not an easy task,” a ministry of home affairs official says. “But the effort is on.”

Many child rights activists would like these children to be governed by the Juvenile Justice Act. “Under the JJ Act, these children would be entitled to basic rights and also proper counselling which would prepare them to fight the stigma of being the children of undertrials or convicts,” Asthana says.

Activists also point out that the condition of children who live in prisons of conflict-ridden states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand is much worse. “As per the NCRB, at 252.6 per cent, Chhattisgarh reported the highest overcrowding in prisons. Living conditions are terrible in most jails in the state except the central jail in Jagdalpur,” Chhattisgarh lawyer Shalini Gera says. “Also, since most of these prisoners are accused of helping the Maoists or for waging war against the state, their children are never treated with compassion.”

But some states in the country are taking some positive steps for the children of prisoners. For example, jails of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh send these children to local schools. Some also have crèches for them.

The Delhi government too has recently notified a law on the financial sustenance, education and welfare of such children.

“Even when these children come out of the jail premises, their future remains bleak. Under the Delhi government law, Rs 3,000 will be given to the first child, Rs 2,000 to the second and Rs 1,500 to the third child (if a woman prisoner has three children) a month till he or she attains the age of 18 years,” says Surinder S. Rathi, officer on special duty, Delhi State Legal Services Authority, who drafted the scheme.

Financial help apart, special provisions for the education, medical care and living conditions of children inside prisons are also listed in this policy.

“It is the duty of the state to provide adequate care and protection to children for their full physical, mental and social development in a healthy and congenial environment. This should be kept in mind,” asserts Rathi.

Are jail authorities around the country listening?


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