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?

A few minutes before the movie, The 100 foot journey, was about to begin, my friend intimates me that this movie is about food. I must confess, I was disappointed to hear that. Neither am I a gourmet, nor a great cook, so my interest in food is limited to my meals, twice a day.

But I gradually discovered that it is not about food alone. In short, the story is about one young Indian, Hasan Kadam, who is a great cook. He runs his family restaurant first in Mumbai, then in London. But the family soon moves to a French village and opens an Indian restaurant. They were doing well till one night, the restaurant was vandalized by a chef of their rival French restaurant, run by Madam Mallory, across the road, just 100 feet away. Mallory, upon realizing that her chef was the man behind the attack, fires him and apologizes to Hasan’s family.

But Hasan realizes that if he cannot defeat his enemy, he should join them. He joins Mallory for six months to add finesse to his art of cooking. He was already in love with Marguerite (the sous chef in the restaurant), who he met on his first day in the village. Despite being in love, Marguerite feels threatened by Hasan’s presence because she knows he is a competition. After Hasan joins in, Mallory’s restaurant gets the second Michelin Star, an elite honor bestowed on only a handful of restaurants in Europe. This honor came to Madam Mallory after 30 years of receiving her first star. The entire credit goes to Hasan. The award draws national attention to Hasan’s cooking, and he is offered a job in Paris, which he accepts.

But after some time, he leaves his promising career in Paris and comes back to the village, to his family, to the girl he loved. He makes a business proposition to Marguerite that the two will work together to get a 3 star for Mallory’s restaurant. She happily accepts the proposal. And their journey begins.

There is a convincing message that the film sends across to all of us, especially professionals like us who are very career oriented. The message is that two people who love each other can never encroach on each other’s space. They will only enlarge the space where the two can comfortably stay together.

Many of us, (here, I am primarily talking about journalists) who are in our mid-careers, have really worked hard to reach where we are today . The journey has never been easy for those who had no Godfathers in the profession. It is only because of the sheer love for what we want to do and for what we believe in, that we have earned certain space in this ruthless professional world.

Having achieved whatever little we all have in our own way, I feel, we often get trapped in the cobweb of false recognition. It is the virtual world of Facebook, Twitter and many other social networking forums that rule our lives these days. We get swayed away by the number of times our stories get shared on social networking forums. We judge our work by the number of followers we get on Twitter. This constant look out for validation is slowly ruining our individualities, in a way. Sometimes, we argue for the sake of argument because the order of the day is to go against the tide. Stronger the argument, more the likes on Facebook or more the number of followers on Twitter. But if there is anyone who disagrees with us, we take half a minute to un-friend or un-follow that person. This gives us an immense sense of pleasure and accomplishment.

I feel, we are becoming self-obsessed and self-centered. Our world starts and ends with us. There is no place for someone who holds a view, contrary to ours.

In my opinion, this superficial happiness on the digital platform has taken a toll on our real life relationships. Not that we don’t want people in our “real” lives but we have prepared a checklist for them, a list which is drawn mostly in the lines of the responses that we get in the virtual world.

The checklist is like this. The person has to accommodate himself/herself according to our convenience. We should hold the right to call the shots – to befriend or un-friend people anytime. We should have the right to cut off ourselves from the other person, whenever we think is right or whenever we feel that the other person is occupying too much of our precious time.

It clearly shows that we are too impatient to accommodate the other person in our life.We think it is “cool” not to value our real life relationships because we have thousands of friends and followers in the virtual world. It is unfortunate that we lack sensitivity in dealing with relationships, even which we choose.

Conveniently,here again, it is all about ourselves. The other person doesn’t exist at all for us. . Our shortsightedness doesn’t allow us to look beyond this vicious cycle of deadlines, bylines,exclusives and fan following on social networking forums.It is sad that relationships are extremely short-lived these days because we give priority only to our ambition and success.

But The 100 foot journey reminds many of us that ambition and success can co-exist with various relationships in life. All we need to do is to re-work our priorities from time to time. It also tells us that we have to trust people we love. We should also understand that our partners are not intruders, nor are they threat to our flourishing career. They are not here to take away our space but to share their own space with us. They can never intrude into our privacy because they respect it as much as they respect their own privacy.

If we truly believe in this, it will be a wonderful journey together. An incredible journey of sharing and togetherness.

On a day, when the political tensions were running high in the corridors of power in both New Delhi and Islamabad because talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries were called off by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, people of both the countries including Pakistani expats in Delhi were thoroughly enjoying a cross-border film, ‘Bol’ in New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. Bol was part of a film festival organised by the High Commission of Pakistan jointly with Habitat.

The movie opens with a scene where a woman prisoner who decides to tell her story to the television cameras, from the gallows. This is a story of a young girl, Zainab, who kills her father. She wants to tell the world why she killed her father.

The story goes like this. The father, Hakim, who practices Unani medicine, has seven daughters and one transgender child, Saifi. He thinks all his children are curse for the family. Zainab, the eldest of all, is the most vocal. She often challenges her father for his patriarchal reasoning.

The family lives in dire straits because the father doesn’t earn much by practicing old school of medicine. Zainab decides to send Saifi to work. He is self-taught painter who gets a job to paint trucks. But sadly, Saifi gets raped by two truck drivers. When the father gets to know about it, he hates Saifi all the more and suffocates him to death. The cops get to know about the murder and demands bribe from him to cover up the case. This is a sum of over two lakh which he pays from the mosque funds. But when the clergymen ask him to return the money, he resorts to something very shocking. In want of money, he goes to a man named Saqa, who runs a brothel. Hakim used to teach Urdu to Saqa’s sons. Saqa gives him an option. He asks him to get married to Meena, who is one of the prostitutes and have a baby with her. Since Hakim has seven daughters, Saqa tells him that he can get him a baby girl. The deal is that he will get money when the child is born.

In a few months, the baby girl is born. Hakim begs Meena to give him the baby so that the child doesn’t have to face a horrible future. Saqa overhears this and kicks Hakim out. But Meena drops the child to Hakim’s house the same night. Hakim’s wife and daughters come to know about his second marriage and the child. Meanwhile, Saqa comes to take away the child. In confusion and rage, Hakim tries to suffocate the newborn to death too. Zainab resists but he doesn’t listen. At this juncture, Zainab hits his father with a cricket bat to death and saves the child.

This is Zainab’s story. Before going to the gallows, she raises a pertinent question – Why do you give birth to children if you cannot bring them up properly?

The story has touched upon every issue that Pakistan is struggling with – poverty, illiteracy, sexual abuse of transgenders, violence against women and patriarchal mindset. But any Indian would agree that these are the issues that India too is fighting for decades.

The question that comes to one’s mind is why the two countries cannot take up these issues jointly? There is so much in common, yet the two countries fail to see beyond Kashmir.

And the shortsightedness of the so-called visionary leader, Narendra Modi is the talk of the town now after he called off talks with Pakistan. The man who projected himself to be an “out of the box” thinker couldn’t really move beyond petty politics.

In May, he invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony to show the world that he has great statesmanship. He got his share of praise in national and international media for taking this “bold” step.

But then this decision to stall talks with Pakistan because the Pakistan High Commisisoner to India Abdul Basit met the separatist leaders of Kashmir has exposed his narrow mindedness. He did exactly what the leaders of his parent organistaion, RSS, who protested talks of Pakistan envoy with Kashmri separatist leaders, wanted him to do.

This is certainly to appease BJP’s Hindu leaders who are ambitiously eyeing for 44 seats in Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in the upcoming elections. Strange enough, in a bid to accomplish his national mission, he is playing havoc on foreign policies.

Talking to separatist leaders is an old ritual followed by the Pakistani diplomats posted in India. In fact, India too has spoken to Hurriyat leaders in 2000 during the regime of the previous NDA government.

Somebody should tell Modi that his move is extremely puerile. It reminds me of a silly incident in school when two best friends refused to play with each other because one of them had shared his lunch box with the other’s rival in class.

Modi is still to learn the art of diplomacy but it is too early for him to tell the world that he is a novice.

Modi, the new kid in the block, should understand that the hardliners have to show their supporters in Kashmir that they have some say in India-Pakistan talks. And he should also know the Pakistan government has to tell its people back in Islamabad that Kashmir is an issue that remains unresolved without talks with separatist leaders of the Valley.

But till the time, good sense prevails on him, interaction between the people of the two countries should continue to take place through film and music festivals. A senior Pakistan High Commission official says that the Commission will organise music and food festival in association with the Press Club of India for the second year in a row in November. These gestures from both sides are the need of the hour. Let’s keep the dialogue on. Let’s keep talking.

Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju has set the cat among the pigeons by calling for an amendment to India’s Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. “There is an urgent need to amend the law because the judiciary should not be above suspicion,” Katju, a retired Supreme Court judge, says.

He argues that times have changed and today, every state functionary should be questioned. “In the olden days, the King was the master and people were the subjects. Since judges used to be delegates of the King, they had authority and dignity. But in a democracy, this relationship has been reversed. It’s the people who are the masters now and the state authorities, including judges, are their servants,” he says.

Katju’s comments came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s observation last month that the truth, if it is said in good faith and in public interest, is a valid defence against charges of contempt of court. The apex court dropped the 24-year-old contempt proceedings against journalist Arun Shourie for writing against its then sitting judge in an editorial.

Many legal experts feel that the contempt of court law should, in fact, be amended. They point out that contempt goes against the very spirit of freedom of expression. “Contempt is nothing but censorship and there is no place for censorship in the Constitution,” Upendra Baxi, professor of law at the University of Warwik, says.

Baxi had questioned Supreme Court judges in 1979 in an open letter after the court acquitted two policemen of custodial rape in the famous Mathura case. The questions — and the outrage that the acquittal triggered — led to amendments in the rape law.

Experts say that Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, should have primacy and that Articles 129 and 215, which relate to powers of judges, are only secondary to it.

Yet there are also those in the legal fraternity who believe that amending the contempt law would not be a good idea. Attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi, for example, is not in favour of amending the law. “This law is important to maintain the decorum of the court,” he says.

Others say that it is time to do away with the offence related to “scandalising” the court in the law. The act says, “criminal contempt” means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any act which scandalises or lowers the authority of any court. The maximum punishment for contempt of court is six months of imprisonment.

The contempt law is actually enforced quite often in India. Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Uttar Pradesh lawyer Bal Kishan Giri for contempt of court for his “wild and scandalous” accusations against judges of the Allahabad High Court and several other judicial officers in the case, Bal Kishan Giri vs State of UP. The Allahabad High Court had convicted the lawyer for contempt of court and sentenced him to one month’s simple imprisonment and a fine of Rs 20,000.

Again, in 2007, three journalists and the publisher of an English tabloid were sentenced to four months in jail by the Delhi High Court for accusing a former chief justice of India of corruption. Earlier, in 2002, the apex court issued a suo motu contempt notice to writer Arundhati Roy for her comments against the judiciary, sentencing her to a one-day “symbolic imprisonment” and a fine of Rs 2,000.

Indeed, some of the finest legal minds in India are against the indiscriminate use of the contempt law. Says senior advocate Fali S. Nariman, “There is urgent need to proclaim — and only the highest court can so proclaim — that contempt jurisdiction for scandalising the court, like the death penalty jurisdiction, ought to be invoked only in the rarest of rare cases, and not left to be exercised by benches of two-three judges. And it must only be exercised under rules framed by the court — by a bench of at least five justices: this will help everyone accept that the Supreme Court of India (like its counterpart, the US Supreme Court) has come of age, that it can take sharp blows on its chin, that our judges are human and apt to err like the rest of us, and that to point out their errors (even occasionally in colourful language) is no sin.”

Baxi feels that the contempt of court law should be used only in certain specific circumstances. “For example, if there is any comment that interferes with the working of the court, it should be called contempt,” he says.

Katju adds that if someone disrupts the proceedings of the court, he or she could be subjected to contempt too. “For example, if someone calls the judge a ‘fool’, it should not be contempt. But if he keeps on shouting, ‘fool, fool’ for a long time, disrupting the proceedings, it could be contempt,” he says.

“Also, one could be charged with contempt if a court’s order is not obeyed,” Baxi adds.

For example, in May this year, the Rajasthan High Court issued a contempt notice to state chief secretary Rajeev Mehrishi for failing to provide a retired government employee the benefits promised to him in an affidavit.

Experts also object to the fact that though the law states that “fair criticism of a judicial act” is not contempt, it lets the courts decide what is fair criticism. “The court should not decide what is fair or unfair. It should be specified in the law,” Baxi says.

But Rohatgi feels that a personal attack on a judge is a complete no-no. “The judge speaks through his judgment. So attacking the judge in the name of attacking the judgment is not permissible,” he says.

Many lawyers too are strongly in favour of maintaining the status quo as far as contempt is concerned. For example, in 2011, lawyer Manish Kaushik filed a petition in the Delhi High Court seeking the initiation of criminal contempt proceedings against advocate Ashok Arora. Arora had written an article on his website criticising a high court judge for acquitting four accused in the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case.

“I did it because Arora called the judge corrupt,” says Kaushik.

“Contempt is a constitutional power given to the courts. If it is taken away, it is not left with any powers at all. Its existence becomes meaningless without it,” he adds.

Of course, the Contempt of Courts Act has been amended in the past. For example, an amendment to the law in 2006 stipulated that a person accused of contempt could seek his defence in “truth” and that he must get the permission of the court for this defence after satisfying it that this truth was in the public interest and that he was acting in good faith.

It remains to be seen if the law will be amended yet again to render judges somewhat less immune to criticism.

Irom Sharmila has again been whisked into custody. Sonia Sarkar met her before that

The small feeding tube attached to her nose is missing. It was through this that Irom Sharmila Chanu was force-fed. “I feel so nice without it,” she says. “I want to be a free bird. I want to freely roam the streets of Imphal.”

She didn’t roam for long. A day after Manipur’s most enduring — though now seemingly reluctant — symbol of resistance was released by court orders, she was picked up again. The authorities said they were concerned about her health, for Sharmila was still on hunger strike — one that she started 13 years ago.

On November 4, 2000, Sharmila vowed that she would not eat till the government repealed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958, which gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. The trigger was the November 2 firing by security forces on civilians in Malom, in which 10 people were killed.

Since then she has been arrested, released and rearrested on charges of attempting suicide. But on Monday, Manipur’s sessions court dismissed the charges against her.

She was 28 when she started her hunger strike. Her niece, Irom Roma Devi, was 16 when her “cool aunt” was picked up by the police. The two had often spent time together — picking up books from the library or watching films. Their last film together was the Shah Rukh Khan- starrer Dil To Pagal Hai in the summer of 2000. In November, Roma’s nene (aunt) was taken into custody.

Now 42, Sharmila finds that life around her has changed.

When she began her dharna, more than 2,000 women sat on relay hunger strike with her. On Thursday morning, in a makeshift shack in Porampot in east Imphal, there are barely six women with her.

Her protest site is one of the busiest roads of Imphal. People pass by, but few stop to greet her. A couple with a small son praises her courage and faith, poses for photographs with her — and leaves.

Sharmila says she detests being hero-worshipped. I am no God, she says. “I don’t want to live like a symbol of resistance. I am no statue. I too have a desire which cannot be hidden,” she says, as tears roll down her cheeks.

Sharmila’s mother, Irom Sakhi Devi, whom she has not met for 13 years
Life took a new turn for her after she fell in love with Desmond Coutinho, a British social worker. She openly spoke of her love for the first time in an interview to The Telegraph in January, 2011.

Coutinho wrote to her in 2010, praising her courage, after reading Burning Bright, a book on Manipur written by Delhi academic Deepti Priya Mehrotra. The two started writing to each other, and were soon exchanging love letters. They have met only once — in a courtroom in 2011.

I show her an email that I’d received from Coutinho that day. He writes, “Tell her, I love her.”

She scrolls down the mail and smiles. “Tell him, I love him,” she replies. “I want him. He should be positive and hopeful for my freedom and success.”

Dressed in a traditional green phanek and a white embroidered kurta, a gift from Coutinho, with a traditional Manipuri shawl, she looks pale. Shiny black tendrils play on her forehead. She doesn’t comb her hair — having vowed she wouldn’t do so till her demands were met. Nurses in the hospital where she was lodged say she used to rinse her hair with water mixed with rice and vegetable peels thrice a week to soften her hair. She used cotton and spirit to clean her mouth instead of water so that water wouldn’t go down her throat.

After the lukewarm response in Porampot, the crowds at Ima market, the biggest all-woman market in Asia, are overwhelming. Thousands have gathered to greet her, and she is welcomed with garland after garland — red, green, yellow. Women kiss her forehead, touch her hands and hug her.

“The market has changed,” she says. “It was a dingy place with tin roofs. Now it is a concrete building.” Imphal, indeed, has changed dramatically in these 13 years — with three-star hotels, super-specialty hospitals, mega markets and IT companies having come up across the Manipur capital.

But what catches Sharmila’s eyes is the use of mobile phones. “Every other person is on a cellphone,” she says.

There have been dramatic changes in her own life, too. Her relationship with her brother, Irom Singhajit, 14 years older, is not the same. Singhajit was her closest sibling, but differences between the two cropped up in 2011 soon after he asked her not to publicly acknowledge her relationship with Coutinho. “People of Manipur will stop supporting her if she gets involved in such relationships,” he says.

In interviews to the media, Sharmila accused her brother of threatening her. Coutinho also alleged that he had been warned not to meet her.

“But now I have asked them not to trouble Coutinho. My life is not under anyone’s control,” she says, as her fingers play with the cover of a book titled Speeches that Changed the World. She is an avid reader — and has read almost everything written by Kahlil Gibran, Orhan Pamuk and Khushwant Singh. A pile of books lies in room No. A-4 in the special ward of Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital — where she was lodged.

On Thursday, though, she refuses to talk about her incarceration. “I want to erase my hospital days from my memory,” Sharmila says. She is more focused on the future — and wants quick action. She hopes to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to remind him of a promise made by the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It had said that if the BJP came to power at the Centre, the AFSPA would be revoked in Manipur.

“If the AFSPA is revoked in Manipur, I will give up my fast. But I will carry on with the movement to repeal the act,” she says.

If it is revoked in Manipur, she will be able to see her mother — whom she has not met for 13 years. “If I meet her, she will get emotionally weak. So we promised to meet only after her demand was met,” Irom Sakhi Devi, 84, says.

Does she believe the government will listen to her? “I believe in miracles. A miracle will happen.” The onus to carry on, however, is on the people of Manipur, she says. At a press conference, she says: “I have not had a drop of water for the last 14 years. Please help me, I am yearning to have my first meal.”

But Sharmila is back in room A-4. On Friday, barely 40 hours after her release, she was forcibly picked up, put in a Maruti Gypsy, and whisked away. She will be in judicial custody for 15 days.

She is now being fed intravenously. But the feeding tube may soon be back.

It is not usual for an Indian Prime Minister to make such announcements on an Independence Day. But Narendra Modi did the unusual. From the ramparts of the Red Fort, he announced that his government will scrap the 64-year-old government institution, The Planning Commission.

“The times have changed since the Planning Commission was created. In a short span of time we will initiate a new institution that will work in place of the Planning Commission,” Narendra Modi said on India’s 68th Independence Day.”We need creative thinking on the Planning Commission’s role,” he said.

Speculations that the Commission will soon be scrapped were doing rounds in the corridors of power, weeks after Modi took over as the Prime Minister. But Modi, who has become unpredictably reticent after assuming his office, chose the Independence Day as the occasion to make this big announcement. He, obviously, wanted the town to talk about it.

But this announcement to scrap one of the oldest institutions of India has clearly divided the house. A section of policy makers and experts who believe in market economy and Modi’s model of development say that this is an absolute redundant body which should have been dissolved much earlier. But India’s intellectuals, who believe in the socialist mindset, think that such a body is needed for policy reforms and advocacy.

An arm of the central government, the Commission, whose primary job was to allocate funds for projects and schemes, has a full-time deputy chairman and the Prime Minister as the part-time chairman. In 1950, it was the idea of a socialist state which will not just focus on the economic development but also welfare of the people that gave birth to the Planning Commission. It is still seen as the only lobby for the poor.

Some of the most “ambitious” projects of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government, such as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) were conceived with the help of the Planning Commission. The Commission flourished more in the years when the Left lobby was strong.

A former Planning Commission secretary says that there is a need for the Commission because it gives “unbiased” views on important policy matters of varied ministries to ensure the policies are flawless and tailor-made to cater to the people.

“Reference to previous years’ discussions with states gave us an opportunity to rank them on their performance. By the same measure, states could express unhappiness with various aspects of Central plans and schemes. Solutions were proposed. Frank discussions yielded good results,” Syed Hameed, a former member of the Planning Commission wrote in Indian Express.

It is one institution which promoted public-private partnership (PPP) especially in the infrastructure sector. The Planning Commission approves the states’ annual plans. It is the only body which would help in bringing “balanced” development in the country.

But critics have pointed out that the Commission has been working on parameters of a different era. It has been highly disconnected from the ground realities. No new roles and functions have been added to the Commission for the past few years. It was only in the initial years of its formation that the Prime Ministers conducted meetings. In the recent years, such a customary meeting too stopped taking place. But the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in one of his last meetings with the Commission members, had asked to adopt creative thinking and look for new directions in planning to meet contemporary challenges.

In fact, three years back, the Commission was heavily criticised because it had said that persons consuming items worth more than Rs32 per day in urban areas (Rs26 in rural areas) are not poor. An affidavit was also filed in the Supreme Court challenging it, which forced the Commission to announce that a new methodology will be worked out to determine entitlements of beneficiaries under various schemes for poor.

The larger view is that the India in 21st century needs planning process but not a planning ministry. A committee which was formed under a Planning Commission member, Arun Maira, to see the relevance of the Commission in today’s age had also pointed out that the change has to start from within the Commission. It said, “The Planning Commission should play the role of a systems reforms commission and not just get into allocations and controlling.”

Perhaps, the new body called National Development Reforms Commission that is proposed to replace the Planning Commission will do what its predecessor couldn’t do. The new Commission that intends to replicate the China model should focus on the market-led economic reform and state-led developmentalism which should be India’s road to reform. Above all, it should never lose touch with ground realities like its predecessor.


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