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The advent of the jhadoo — the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol — has turned the spotlight on all the curious objects that parties and candidates select as their electoral symbols, says Sonia Sarkar

If you want a pair of slippers and scissors, you are too late. And forget about laying your hands on a cot or a ceiling fan. These images — all electoral symbols — have already been taken.

Symbols are the flavour of the season. Two independent candidates from Ranchi, Ranjit Mahato and Lal Jatindra Dev, fought over the cot symbol earlier this month. Two others, Arshad Ayub and Abdul Hassan, wanted the fan. Finally an Election Commission of India (EC) officer drew lots to settle the matter. The cot went to Mahato and the ceiling fan to Arshad. Jatindra had to be satisfied with an autorickshaw, and Hassan with scissors.

These icons are an essential part of the elections that are being held across India in phases. The symbols of the bigger parties — an open palm, a lotus, hammer and sickle, bicycle and elephant — are known to the voters. But the advent of the jhadoo — the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol, and message — has put the spotlight on all the curious objects that parties and candidates select.

Symbols have been a part of the process from 1951-52, when the first elections were held. The government wanted to help unlettered people identify the party or candidate of their choice.

“These have played very important role in India’s electoral politics for voters who have not had any formal education but are politically conscious,” Dhirubhai Sheth, senior fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), stresses.

India’s literacy rate may have gone up from 18 per cent in 1951 to 74 per cent in 2011, but symbols are still important. With the number of parties growing massively (up from 53 in 1951 to over 1,600 in 2014), the pictures continue to help voters — and candidates. Not surprisingly, the number of free symbols of the EC has gone up from 25 to 87 in six decades. Apart from these listed symbols, candidates can ask for special figures which the EC has to endorse.

  • Logo list: (From top) Dr Daljit Singh, AAP candidate for Amritsar, and symbols of the Trinamul Congress, Congress, BJP and Jai Samaikyandhra Party; (below) the symbol Indira Gandhi chose when she broke away from the Congress in 1967

“With a large number of candidates fighting the polls, it is difficult for voters to remember their names. So symbols help them recognise their candidate,” points out N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi.

Some political parties have been innovative while designing their symbols. In 1997, when Mamata Banerjee left the Congress, she wanted to send a strong message to her parent party that the grassroots level workers were with her. So she called her party Trinamul Congress (which means grassroots).

The newly-born party needed a symbol. One winter night, in her Kalighat home, Banerjee — an occasional artist — drew a logo depicting two grass flowers. “The symbol came naturally to her because it shows what we are — a party for those at the grassroots,” spokesperson Derek ‘ Brien says.

The AAP was lucky enough to find a tailor-made symbol. “The moment we saw the ‘broom’, we grabbed it,” says Yogendra Yadav, AAP political affairs committee member. “It shows our party is for the working class and wants to cleanse corruption. But when we chose it, some advertising agencies said it was ‘downmarket’ and urged us to change it. But we stuck to it.”

This year, three new symbols — a pair of slippers, green chilli, and nib with seven rays — have been added to the EC’s list. The slippers have gone to former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy’s new Jai Samaikyandhra Party. “People wear a chappal for protection and therefore the party chose it — as its motto is to protect the people of Andhra,” a party official says.

The party says the symbol also alludes to the Ramayana. When Rama was exiled, his brother Bharata kept his elder brother’s wooden sandals at the foot of the throne as a symbol of his rule. “Footwear symbolises great service,” the official adds.

The green chilli is in the midst of a tug of war — wanted by both the UP-based Al-Hind party and actress Rakhi Sawant, who is fighting elections from Mumbai.

The EC bars the use of religious symbols and national emblems. It doesn’t allow animals because of protests from animal rights groups. Animal symbols were earlier allowed — the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Asom Gana Parishad both have an elephant as their symbol, while the All India Forward Bloc has a lion.

Among the free symbols are an electric pole, a telephone, table lamp, letter box, sewing machine, ring, stethoscope, pressure cooker, frock, necktie, nail cutter and helmet.

“Since elections are all about serving the people’s needs, we usually think of articles of daily use,” a senior EC official says. “It is not our job to add meaning to it. Let the political parties make the necessary interpretations.”

Some free symbols do strike a chord with political parties. The Congress got its current symbol — an open palm — from the EC list in 1978. The party earlier had a pair of yoked bullocks as its symbol. After Indira Gandhi broke away from the Congress in 1967, she chose a calf and a cow as the symbol of her faction. The open palm became the symbol after she formed Congress (I). “We chose it because it is easy to recognise,” Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi says.

The political grapevine has it that the symbol was decided by Congress leader Buta Singh, who sought Gandhi’s approval over the phone. She kept hearing haathi (elephant), instead of haath (hand). She said no to it even as Buta tried to explain that it was not the elephant, but the open palm symbol he was advising her to pick, writes The Telegraph journalist Rasheed Kidwai in 24 Akbar Road.

Gandhi handed over the phone to Congress leader P.V. Narasimha Rao, who understood what Singh was saying. “He shouted, ‘Buta Singhji, panja kahiye, panja.’ Indira was relieved and took the receiver and said, ‘Haan, haan, panja theek rahega (Yes, yes, the open palm symbol will be appropriate).”

The Bharatiya Janata Party recently took away the orange colour of its symbol, a lotus, and turned it black and white to make the icon more visible. “The lotus represents nationalism because it is also the national flower,” party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman says. “Also, as per Hindu mythology, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Brahma, the creator of the universe, sit on a lotus. The lotus evokes strong Hindu sentiments.”

Political parties like their symbols to be distinctive. Recently, the AAP urged the EC to remove the symbol of a torch with rays arguing that it was similar to its broom. The EC modified it and it’s now a torch with no rays. It also removed a hat from its list of symbols for Andhra Pradesh at the request of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which held that the hat could be mistaken for its own symbol, a car. And it removed the road-roller for Haryana to avoid confusion with Haryana Janhit Congress’s tractor.

A symbol, clearly, is not just a picture. A victory or defeat could depend on it.

Among the free symbols are an electric pole, a telephone, table lamp, letter box, sewing machine, ring, stethoscope, pressure cooker, frock, necktie, nail cutter and helmet


 

The Indian icons

There’s more to the BJP’s Jhansi election candidate Uma Bharti than meets the eye. She’s an avid reader, a fan of Che Guevera and collects dolls, Sonia Sarkar discovers, while accompanying her on the campaign trail

The interview starts with a request for silence. We are in a BMW X3, cruising down the roads of Bundelkhand, and Uma Bharti is chanting mantras. Once in a while, she gestures to her driver with a mimed instruction. Some 20 minutes later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Jhansi opens her eyes — she is now ready to talk.

“There is so much of support for the BJP everywhere,” Bharti says, while popping pomegranate seeds into her mouth. “But the problem is that we have been sliding down in every Assembly election, so a large number of our previous supporters have become neutral. This is a sign for worry.”

My day with Bharti has started with a visit to a local Kali temple in Jhansi — said to have been frequented by Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. Bharti has a bad back, and two security guards help her climb the stairs to the temple — one holding her hand and the other lifting her foot. “I always start my day with Ma’s blessings,” Bharti, 54, explains, and then addressing the goddess, she says: “Ma, dekho yeh Kalkattey se aayi hai (Ma, look, she’s come from Calcutta).”

Once the ritual is over, she gets into her car, an aide carrying her two handbags — one brown and the other blue and grey. We take the highway to Mauranipur, and Bharti opens up, talking about the problems she faces in Jhansi, which goes to the polls on April 30.

Winning Jhansi, which is in the Bundelkhand region straddling Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (UP) but falls in UP, is certainly not going to be a cakewalk for her. “Jhansi is the weakest seat for the BJP in UP because we have not been able to win this parliamentary seat after 1998.”

Her rivals in the constituency — Congress MP Pradeep Jain Aditya and the Samajwadi Party’s Chaudhary Chandrapal Singh Yadav — call her an outsider because she’s never fought from UP. A sitting MLA from Madhya Pradesh’s Charkhari constituency, Bharti has represented the parliamentary seat of Khajuraho four times and Bhopal once.

But she is certainly no stranger to Bundelkhand. “I was born in Tikamgarh and I have been an MP in Khajuraho — both fall in Bundelkhand. People of this region know me well,” she says..

Jhansi, however, was not her first choice. BJP insiders say that she was keen to fight from Bhopal, the seat which party leader L.K. Advani also wished to be fielded from. By the time the party had asked her to fight against Congress chief Sonia Gandhi from Rae Bareli, she had already decided on contesting from Jhansi. The local grapevine has it that she would have liked to fight from both seats, but the party turned down the offer.

Will the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi campaign for her? “Actually I am not very keen because his time should be used for campaigning in other places. Also, he addressed the Vijay Sankhanad Rally in Jhansi in October. He is such a strategist that he took me along for that.”

Bharti’s ties with Modi are known to be tenuous. In 2007, she called him “Vinash Purush” (destroyer). And recently, she had remarked that Vajpayee had been a better orator than Modi.

She now blames the media for “flaring” it up. “I was complimenting Modi for the support that he gets even while not being a good orator. The media turned the compliment into criticism,” she complains.

Bharti points out that she has known Modi for decades. She first met him in the early 1970s when he was active in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “During his RSS days, Modi was a keen listener of my religious discourses. I call him Mota Bhai (Gujarati for elder brother). I always found him to be a strong-headed person,” she says.

As the car speeds up, she asks the chauffeur to switch off the AC. “I have to keep getting in and out of the car, it is dangerous to turn on the AC after bearing the scorching heat outside,” she says as the temperature shots up to 40 degrees.

As the car moves towards Magarpur village, slogans rent the air. “Narendra Modi Kashi se, Uma Bharti Jhansi se.” This is the time for her to play the Modi card. “If you vote for the BJP, we will make Bundelkhand like Gujarat,” she says.

Elsewhere, she stops to speak on local issues such as unemployment, migration and lack of irrigation facilities in the drought-hit region. She espouses a separate Bundelkhand state that would consist of districts from both UP and MP. “If we come to power, we will make Bundelkhand a separate state in three years,” Bharti announces.

We are back inside the car now. She quickly finishes a bowl of sprouts and pieces of snake cucumber (kakri) and moves on to other subjects. Bharti stresses that she is an avid reader — she loves “the smell of new books”. Her favourite reading is Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. “She understood women’s mind. I also go very deep into a woman’s mind. I am very feminine. You haven’t seen that side of me. But that’s not for you to see either,” she laughs.

She is also a fan of Che Guevera, the Marxist revolutionary. She started reading about him, and then his writings and his speeches. “I am a fighter myself, so I like revolutionaries like Che,” she says.

The phone rings. The caller is Baba Ramdev. The Yoga guru is said to be close to Bharti — it was he who pitched for her candidature against Gandhi from Rae Bareli. The baba wants to hold some meetings. She hangs up and says: “My fight is for roti aur rozgaar (food and jobs) as much as it is for gau, Ganga aur gareeb (cow, the Ganges and the poor). If we come to power, we will ban cow slaughter,” she adds before suddenly stopping the car to feed a stray cow.

Bharti comes from an “affluent” family of peasants, she says. Her father was a Left-leaning land owner, adds the sanyasin who took up vows of asceticism at the age of 32. The youngest of four brothers and two sisters, she studied till Class IV. Her ability to recite the Hindu scriptures as a small girl brought her fame. Soon she had come to the notice of Gwalior’s Vijaya Raje Scindia — a political leader and member of the erstwhile royal family.

With Scindia as her mentor, Bharti grew up in her palace. When she was a teenager, she started giving religious discourses around the world. “I collected dolls from every country I visited. I had a huge collection of dolls — Swiss dolls, Japanese dolls, Heidi dolls and so on,” she says.

After a failed attempt to get into Lok Sabha from Khajuraho in 1984, she won five elections in a row. As her stature kept growing, she became a minister at the Centre in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government. In 2003, under her leadership, the BJP won three-fourth of all seats in the MP Assembly. Bharti defeated Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and was elected chief minister. But she had to resign within a year because of an arrest warrant issued against her in connection with riots in Hubli in 1994.

Bharti’s temperamental nature has often put her in a fix. In 2004, she had a fall-out with Advani after she stormed out of a party meeting accusing some party leaders of briefing the media against her. “Some BJP leaders including [the late Pramod] Mahajan always fabricated things against me,” she says.

The dissidence continued — the inside buzz was that she wanted the party to reinstate her as chief minister, replacing Shivraj Singh Chauhan, but the party was in no mood to do so. She was served with several showcause notices and was eventually expelled by the BJP in 2005. Bharti ended up floating her own outfit — the Bharatiya Janshakti Party.

This was the “worst” phase of her political life, she says. “During those days the BJP gave me lot of trouble because they were in power but I wasn’t. I have forgiven them for that but can never forget it.”

By the time former BJP president Nitin Gadkari took her back into the party in 2011, Bharti had reined in her impetuous nature. “I have controlled my anger to a great extent,” she says. “But my weakness is that I am emotional. I try to be clever but I often land up being a buddhu (an idiot),” she adds.

In her second innings in the party, she has been placed in UP with the hope that her presence and image will revive the party in the state. “But they never made me part of any decision-making committee. I was asked only to campaign for the elections in the state,” she says.

Her role in UP during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in Ayodhya in the 1990s was a crucial one — and sharply condemned by her critics. She was among those present in Ayodhya when the Babri Masjid fell in 1992 and was indicted for inciting a mob to violence during the demolition by the Liberhan Commission that probed the incident. Twenty-two years later, she remains “unapologetic”.

She adds that the issue is as relevant as ever and justifies its mention in the 2014 party manifesto. “Ram is the face of the country. The issue will always remain relevant,” she says.

Bharti is confident that the BJP has picked the right issues this election. She is convinced that the BJP will win 300 seats and not need to ally with regional parties such as the Trinamul Congress or the Biju Janata Dal to be able to form a government. “For the first time, the regional parties have become insignificant,” she says.

The car stops at Uldan — a backward class-dominated village — where she lambasts local Samajwadi Party leaders for not doing enough for the villagers. “I will protect you the way a tigress protects her cubs,” Bharti says. The temper may be under control — for the time being, at least — but the message is clear: do not provoke the roar within.

(A version of this story is published in The Telegraph, April 13,2014)

 

It’s 11 in the morning, and it’s business as usual in Delhi’s commercial hub, Connaught Place. But the security guard standing outside the glass door of an office in a high-rise building is leisurely drinking tea. There are hardly any visitors coming in.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) office, once a hub of activity, bears a deserted look. Yet, even some months ago, corporate bigwigs from India and abroad would land up there to meet its then boss, Nandan Nilekani. Everybody wanted their Aadhaar cards, which had been launched at a cost of Rs 3,300 crore in 2009.

On March 24, the Supreme Court (SC) of India said in an interim order that people without Aadhaar cards should not be deprived of government benefits. The order came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by former Justice K.S. Puttaswamy and retired major general S.G. Vombatkere, challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.

On the same day, the SC stayed the order of the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court asking the UIDAI to share fingerprint details of a rape accused with the CBI. “The UIDAI stated that this would open up the floodgates for all kinds of requests for resident data,” Nilekani wrote in his blog on March 24.

“When it (Aadhaar) was launched, the government said the scheme would help transfer the benefits of various government subsidy programmes directly to the people. After the SC interim order, it clearly means that you do not have to have an Aadhaar card to get the benefits,” says Colonel (retd) Mathew Thomas, who too had filed a petition in the SC questioning the Aadhaar, under which every citizen is given a specific identification number.

Shyam Divan, the counsel for Vombatkere, told the court that there was no statute to back the project and even if there was one, it would violate the fundamental rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution as the project enables surveillance of individuals and impinges upon the right to human dignity.

So far, UIDAI has been functioning under an executive order issued by the government in January 2009, as an attached office of the Planning Commission. Even before the National Identification Authority of India Bill (the proposed legislature for UIDAI) was passed, UIDAI was issuing Aadhaar cards.

A former planning commission official says that the standing Committee of Finance had stated in its report way back in 2011 that this is a clear circumvention of the Parliament. “Not just that, it also said that Aadhaar is a waste of resources since there are other existing form of IDs,” she says.

Aadhaar-enabled service delivery initiatives have been linked to various government schemes such as payment of wages, social security benefits including old age payments and distribution of LPG cylinders. Maharashtra and Delhi made Aadhaar compulsory for opening of bank accounts, rent agreements and marriage certificates.

Many have said that the scheme violates human rights because citizens have to submit their biometric details (such as fingerprints and an iris scan) to get their unique numbers. These details of the 59.4 crore people who have received their Aadhaar cards have already been recorded by the UIDAI.

The card has been courting controversy from the beginning. Four major PILs have been filed in the SC. Two question the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. The third, filed by social activist Aruna Roy, makes a plea against making Aadhaar mandatory for benefits such as pensions and scholarships. The fourth holds that Aadhaar lacks statutory backing. The apex court is also hearing a batch of pleas against decisions of some states to make Aadhaar numbers compulsory for a range of activities including payment of salary, provident fund, marriage and property registration.

In September, the Supreme Court said Aadhaar was not mandatory for citizens to get benefits of government schemes. It also asked the government not to issue the card to illegal migrants. In November, it issued notices to 11 states on a PIL questioning the legal validity of the Aadhaar card as well as the authority to link it with certain services and benefits. On March 24, the court directed the government to withdraw all orders that made Aadhaar mandatory for any service.

“The UIDAI always said it was a voluntary scheme. It is the state government which made it mandatory, not us,” stresses Zoheb Hossain, the assisting lawyer of solicitor-general Mohan Parasaran.

The government, the UIDAI argues, launched Aadhaar to eradicate fraud, black-marketeering and pilferage in its beneficiary schemes. “Aadhaar is the only foolproof mechanism to check misuse of subsidies,” attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati and Parasaran, representing UIDAI, told the court in their submission.

UIDAI’s opponents, however, believe that the scheme is flawed. They have questioned the agencies put in charge of enrolling people, the involvement of dubious companies and the ever-increasing cost of the project.

Cases of fake enrollment have been rampant under Aadhaar. In 2012, police in Hyderabad unearthed that 800 fake enrollments were being made under the quota of physically-disabled. In 2013, newspaper reports revealed that in Bangalore, Aadhaar cards have been issued in the name of chair, dog and tree.

Experts say that there has always been an emphasis on the “number” of enrolments being done under the scheme because the enrollment agencies get Rs 350 per enrollment from the UIDAI. “So the focus  has always been on the getting more and more people enrolled. But how one is doing it was never a concern fro the government,” Mathews says.

A recent sting operation by an investigative portal said people who posed as refugees from Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan were permitted to sign up for the scheme.

“If a person had a fake ID all these years with his photo and address on it, his Aadhaar ID is also fake because it is based on a fake card,” says Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a Rajya Sabha MP critical of the system. “Aadhaar doesn’t have a mechanism to distinguish between a citizen and a non-citizen. So taxpayer-funded subsidies and cash transfers can go to illegal immigrants,” Hossain says.

The other allegation has been that UIDAI had signed contract with dubious enrollement agencies. For example, UIDAI signed a contract with one private form, COMAT Technologies Private Limited , which had earlier failed to deliver after signing a contract with the Karnataka government.

“In 2010, according to a government audit report, COMAT Technologies Private Limited, did not comply with contract that it had signed with Karnataka government to undertake a door-to-door survey and to set up biometric devices, for which it was paid 542.3 million for this purpose. Even then, in the same year, COMAT Technologies was empanelled as an enrolling agency of the UIDAI,” Thomas says.

There were also questions being raised related to the contracts given to foreign companies for collecting biometrics. Critics allege that all the biometric data are lying with these foreign companies -  L1 Identity Solutions and Accenture.

“L1 Identity Solutions provides biometric services to department of defence of the US and Homeland security. The board of directors of the company are former CIA and FBI officials. Who gives the guarantee that this data will not be used against the interest of the country?”, Mathews asks.

But Nilekani calls these allegations nonsensical. “All biometrics are under the control of the Indian government, no foreign company has access to our data,” Nilekani, who feels very “proud” of the project, replied to the questions via email.

A senior advocate associated with the case stresses that through UIDAI, the government can keep tabs on people’s whereabouts. “If bank accounts are UID-enabled using biometrics, then wherever we withdraw money from is recorded. What right does the government have to know about my whereabouts? Is it a police state,” he asks.

According to the Supreme Court, UIDAI cannot impart data with anyone without the consent of the individual. “We have always stated that the data collected from residents would remain private, and not be shared with other agencies,” Nilekani writes in his blog.

Clearly, the controversy over the UID will continue to rage over the next few months. The matter is expected to come up for a final hearing either in April or in July, after the summer break.

“We want the court to strike down the UIDAI scheme,” a lawyer fighting UIDAI says. “The scheme can be saved if the court gives us certain guidelines on how to function,” Hossain holds.

 (A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph on April 2, 2014)

 

Actor Biswajit Chatterjee, the Trinamul Congress candidate for the New Delhi constituency, talks to Sonia Sarkar on fighting an electoral battle without chief minister Mamata Banerjee around, and on why his son, actor Prosenjit, should not plunge into politics

There are no retakes here — the fight is for real. Actor Biswajit Chatterjee, who is the Trinamul Congress candidate for the New Delhi constituency, knows that well. So he is getting ready to give his best shot.

“There is no time left, I have to run in my constituency to be able to meet everyone,” he says. “I will try to win,” he smiles.

It’s going to be quite a fight because his rivals are Congress leader Ajay Maken, a two-time MP from the constituency, and BJP spokesperson and lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi.

But Chatterjee, 77, insists he is not intimidated by them. “We all know that there will be just one winner but I am not afraid to fight. In cricket, too, there is just one man of the match. And I will soon learn the tricks of the trade.”

Maken and Lekhi belong to the city. The actor, on the other hand, has spent his life mostly in Mumbai and Calcutta. Wouldn’t he have had a better chance of winning if he had been fielded from Bengal? “When it comes to chances of winning, contesting from Bengal would have been a better option for me,” he admits. “But it was Didi’s decision to field me from Delhi,” he says, referring to Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee.

Actually, the buzz goes that the party leadership had earlier decided to field him from Delhi South, under the impression that the Bengali-dominated Chittaranjan Park area was a part of the constituency. Later, when the party discovered that CR Park actually came under New Delhi, he was moved. Being a Bengali, it was thought that Chatterjee would vibe well with the Bengali voters.

But he insists he’s there not just for the Bengali electorate. “People in Delhi know me,” he stresses.

The actor has a Trinamul scarf draped around his neck and sports a stone-studded badge with Didi’s photo inscribed on it. He looks like a Trinamul loyalist, but he got to know Banerjee only in 2009 when she was the Union railway minister. He wanted permission to shoot a train sequence for a documentary he had produced and directed on Subhas Bose. “Not only did she give us the permission to shoot at the Sealdah railway station, she also instructed her officials to make us comfortable,” he says.

Since then, he has been quite a loyalist. He campaigned for her party in the 2011 state Assembly elections in Bengal. “I have great admiration for her. She feels strongly for the people of Bengal and gets whatever she wants,” he says, fiddling with his packet of Classic cigarettes.

It’s a cue for him to start listing her achievements. “She revived the Technicians Studio in the Bengali film industry. She brought many artistes and technicians under medical insurance cover. Since I am from the film fraternity, I count these as her achievements,” he says.

Her critics, he says, only see her “outer” self, which appears tough. “Yes, she doesn’t spare anyone for any wrong they do. But she is also very emotional. She is like anyone’s boudi (sister-in-law) or didi (elder sister) or mashima (aunt). Her softer side is adorable,” he says. “She gets angry only when people cross their limit. If I make a mistake, I would like to be told by her so that I could rectify it.”

We move back to the election in New Delhi, where the Trinamul has hardly any presence. Chatterjee admits that he feels a bit “isolated” in this political battle when the leader is not around. “Didi has to keep coming to Delhi to boost our morale. That would help the party make its mark at the national level,” he feels.

Chatterjee is the latest in a list of stars — actors, singers, theatre people and others — who have been fielded by her in the 2014 elections. The list includes actors Dev, Sandhya Roy and Moon Moon Sen and singers Indranil Sen and Soumitro Ray — all newcomers in the electoral field.

“She must think that we have popularity, so we can fetch votes,” he says, adjusting the white baseball cap on his head. “But for that, we need her to be around.”

Biswajit’s stature — or perhaps it’s naiveté — prompts him to step into areas seasoned politicians would steer clear of. “I have heard that nobody else other than Dev will do well in this election. But my best wishes are for everyone, even for the candidate from Varanasi,” he says wryly.

Speaking of Varanasi, what does he think of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi?

“I don’t know much about him. But yes, I have heard that he has done a lot for Gujarat,” he replies.

Who, in his opinion, would make a good prime minister? “I am not a political person, how do I know?” he retorts. After being prodded a bit, he opens up. “I would have liked Sardar Patel or Subhas Chandra Bose as a prime minister. But that’s not possible. I don’t think there is anybody in today’s political world who loves the country beyond his or her party.”

But for the present, he is busy planning his campaign. The actor, who sings well, seeks to liven up his meetings with songs from the films that made him famous — including Pukarta chala hoon main and Oh, my love. He also plans to ask some of his cricketer friends — such as Salim Durrani and Kapil Dev — to campaign for him. “They are good friends,” says Chatterjee, who has organised many charity matches.

His son, Prosenjit — a superstar in Bengal — is likely to campaign for him, too. The father and son fell out more than 30 years ago when Chatterjee left his first wife and Prosenjit’s mother, Ratna, to marry Ira. He regrets the fact that he couldn’t keep his family together.

“Bumba (Prosenjit) was around 17 then. He was immature and blamed me for our failed marriage. But he gradually understood that marriages do come apart only when his two marriages failed,” he says.

Now Chatterjee often goes to Calcutta and stays with his son. Like any other father, he advises him. Recently, when there was speculation that the Trinamul Congress was likely to give Prosenjit a ticket, he urged his son not to hang up his boots this soon.

“He is doing amazingly well in cinema. I told him that he should wait for some more years before taking the plunge into politics,” says Chatterjee, who gave his son his first role in 1968 with his home production Chhotto Jigyasha. “Also, he has to be mature enough to counter the unpleasant things that come in politics,” he adds.

Chatterjee is surprisingly fit, though his face looks drawn when he takes off his dark glasses. Yoga and a restricted diet are the secrets of his health, he says. “I eat very simple food,” he says.

Simplicity is a trait that he picked up as a child. Originally from Hooghly’s Uttarpara region, he studied at the Ramkrishna Mission Vidyamandir in Belur. His father, Ranjit Kumar Chatterjee, was a doctor in the Army; so as a child he also travelled to places such as Karachi and Lahore. Later, they moved to Coochbehar where his mother, Smritimoyee, died of brain cancer when he was 13.

He started taking an interest in theatre as a young man, following in the footsteps of a maternal uncle. Soon he had been offered — and had accepted — roles in Bengali films. After his first film, Daak Harkara in 1959, he acted in many other Bengali films, including the national award winning Dada Thakur in 1962.

Bombay beckoned when Guru Dutt offered him a role in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. Chatterjee couldn’t take that up because it meant signing a contract for five years, for which he wasn’t ready. But right then singer Hemant Kumar offered him a role in his production, Bees Saal Baad. Then, of course, there was no looking back. He acted in a series of films including Mere Sanaam, Kohra and Kismet. His last Hindi film was Inth Ka Jawaab Pathhar, which released in 2002.

He runs two production houses now — Biswajit Creations and Prima Films. In 2012, he produced Adorini, where Prosenjit acted with his half-sister Prima. He is now going to feature in a new Bengali film, Sandhya Naamar Aage. But the shooting has been suspended till the elections.

After all, a nail-biting production is opening soon in a theatre near you.

 

Schoolteacher Soni Sori is a Lok Sabha candidate from Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The Aam Aadmi Party member’s campaign will be different from that of many other aspirants: she will tell her own story.

Sori has just returned to her ancestral home in Palnar village in Dantewada district after three years in jail. Accused of being a Maoist accomplice and attacking a Congress leader in 2011, she has now been acquitted in five out of seven cases registered against her and granted bail in the remaining ones.

But she has filed a case too — alleging that a senior police officer oversaw her assault while she was in police custody in 2011. The Supreme Court is yet to decide on it.

In her complaint, Sori said the police officer verbally abused her and directed policemen to torture her.

“In a conflict zone like Chhattisgarh, there is no one to hear our plea,” she says.

With armed unrest rampant in parts of the country — from Kashmir to Chhattisgarh and Manipur — human rights activists are raising the issue of sexual violence by security forces against citizens. There are also numerous cases of sexual assault by armed men who have the government’s backing. In Chhattisgarh for instance, members of Salwa Judum, a civil militia group formed in 2005, face 99 charges of rape.

Tribal activists such as Sori often face the brunt of such attacks. In the Jadingi village of Odisha’s Gajapati district, Arati Majhi, 21, was marked as a Naxalite and allegedly raped by the police in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the activists have been urging India to sign a Declaration of Commitment to end Sexual Violence in Conflict. In September 2013, 122 nations endorsed the declaration that was tabled by the UK in the 68th UN General Assembly.

The declaration says that sexual violence in conflict areas must not be viewed as a lesser crime. It also calls for comprehensive, improved and timely medical and psychosocial care for survivors and funding for sexual violence prevention.

“Most victims never see justice for what they have endured nor receive the necessary assistance and support,” it says.

Former cop K.P.S. Gill, who fought terrorism in Punjab, agrees that sexual violence against women and children is common in every conflict zone. “India too has seen it for years. Our government authorities do make investigations about such violence but no comprehensive plan has been worked out to tackle it,” says Gill, president, Institute for Conflict Management, Delhi, a non-profit outfit which analyses internal security in South Asia.

Some experts fear that India will not back the declaration. The government, they believe, shies away from backing such a document as it would put the State under the international scanner, especially in places such as Kashmir where the problem goes beyond its borders.

“Even after alleging that the violence in Kashmir is instigated by neighbouring Pakistan, India doesn’t recognise Kashmir as an international armed conflict because that would mean allowing international investigations into the violence,” says Khurram Parvez, programme co-ordinator, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

“Endorsing it would mean India is open to international scrutiny, and it would never be acceptable to the government,” echoes Colin Gonsalves of Human Rights Law Network, a Delhi-based lawyers’ collective that fought Sori’s case in the Supreme Court.

But as more and more cases get exposed, the demand for steps to protect women is also on the rise. “Majhi and Sori belong to that unarmed population which is caught in the crossfire of Maoists and State forces… Such a declaration is an instrument for the people to take their fight forward,” advocate Shalini Gera, who fought Sori’s case at the Dantewada court, argues.

But far from supporting the declaration, the activists point out that the government has laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which give immunity to security forces, even when they commit sexual violence.

The human rights activists stress that steps have to be taken urgently, arguing that sexual violence against women is an old and continuing problem.

In 1991, security forces allegedly raped over 100 women over one night in Kunan-Poshpora in J&K’s Kupwara district. In 1992, soldiers in Shopian in Pulwama district were accused of gang raping at least six women. In Manipur, Thangjam Manorama Devi, 34, was allegedly raped by soldiers of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, in 2004.

“During conflict, women are particularly vulnerable to sexual attack by both State and non-State actors,” Human Rights Watch spokesperson Meenakshi Ganguly says.

Not everybody agrees that endorsing such a document is the answer to the problem. Supreme Court advocate K.T.S. Tulsi believes that it undermines India’s democratic process. “Endorsing it could subject us to trial in international tribunals, which is not right for our democracy,” he argues.

Tulsi also believes that India has enough safeguards to tackle such issues. “Our courts have taken suo motu cognisance of many such crimes in conflict areas. Our Constitution has the provision of giving fair trials to everyone,” he says.

But the activists argue that such declarations lead to the forming of effective domestic laws.

“International laws always help in the formation of domestic laws,” People’s Union for Civil Liberties general-secretary Kavita Srivastava maintains. “After India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1993, we got the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.”

But there is a feeling that unless the government wants change, joining such global efforts will not yield results. “India signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997 but it has not ratified it. The Prevention of Torture Bill that is related to the convention too is pending before Parliament,” Parvez says. “India signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2007 but it has not ratified it. Such half-hearted initiatives serve no purpose,” he adds.

Sori, for one, will be happy if the declaration leads to action. Because, she stresses, it’s not just her case that needs to be redressed. During her time in jail, she met many other women who had been sexually tortured in jail or custody. “It’s the fight of several others like me,” she adds.

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia fears India is distancing itself from its neighbour by supporting the government of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. In an exclusive email interview, the Opposition leader, however, stresses that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) believes in working closely with New Delhi. Would the BNP’s ties with India be affected if Narendra Modi came to power? “It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country,” she replies. Extracts from the interview:

Q: Why did you boycott parliamentary polls in January 2014?A:Our decision not to participate in the election was a principled one. It arose in response to the Awami League’s calculated move to annul the 13th Amendment, in May 2011, to the Constitution which provided for a neutral, non-party caretaker government to oversee general elections and replace it with the 15th Amendment one month later, which provided for elections to be held under a political government while members of Parliament were still in place.The BNP along with the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh opposed the Constitution’s 15th Amendment because of their firm belief that is was susceptible to widespread electoral manipulation. Suffice it to say that our stance was fully vindicated by the people of Bangladesh, who outright rejected the fraudulent election of January 5, 2014… More than half the total parliamentary seats was declared by the Election Commission to have been won “uncontested”, including those of the Speaker and the leader of the Opposition. Election for the remaining seats was a conspicuous sham with an abysmally low voter turnout, around 5 per cent according to reliable estimates.Q:But after boycotting the parliamentary elections, why is the BNP participating in the upazila council elections?

A:The reasons are simple. First, our demand for elections under a non-party caretaker government is for the parliamentary elections, not for elections to the local bodies. Second, elections to local bodies are non-party though the individuals concerned seek a measure of support from political parties. Third, because local body elections are smaller in dimension, scrutiny is easier. Importantly, local elections are not game changing.

Q: What’s your next challenge? Are you in favour of a dialogue with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?

A:The next big challenge, indeed, the paramount objective of the BNP and its future political programme, is to realise the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to exercise their right to vote and to freely choose their own representatives. How long can Sheikh Hasina continue to ignore such a deeply rooted public demand and still claim to speak for democracy? She must respond to the people’s demand or take refuge in mounting autocracy.

Q: It seems unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will go for a re-poll before her five-year term ends. Have you lost your chance of ruling Bangladesh?

A:The BNP has consistently and positively responded to all domestic and international calls for dialogue in the face of continuous stalling and intransigence by the Awami League. BNP, like the people of Bangladesh, believes it is imperative to hold meaningful dialogues between the major political parties for free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.

I may point out that neither my party nor I believe in “ruling” Bangladesh. We believe in serving our country and people.

Q: In India many believe that you are not a “friend”. Why is your image so anti-India?

A:Our party and I personally believe in maintaining friendly relations with all countries, especially with our neighbours. We also believe that such relations should be based on the universally recognised principles of mutual benefit and respect.

As our closest neighbour, our relation with India is of added significance and relevance. I had reiterated this to the political leadership of India at every level during my visit to New Delhi in November 2012 at the invitation of the Indian government, when I was warmly received. My impression is that my assurances of friendship and mutually beneficial co-operation were deeply appreciated.

Q: Yet the UPA government has supported Sheikh Hasina…

A:India, which has a long and proud history of democracy, should stand on the side of the people of Bangladesh, as it did during our glorious war of liberation in 1971. By extending support to a government that is in office through a fraudulent election and one which has seen the disenfranchisement of the public… India may distance itself from the people of Bangladesh.

Q: How do you see India-Bangladesh ties if BJP’s Narendra Modi comes to power?

A:Relations between Bangladesh and India should not be contingent on an individual or any particular political party. It should be based on the need to address the interests of the people of the two countries and be responsive to their perceptions of each other. It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country. We believe in working closely with the elected government for furthering our relations.

Q: The Hasina government alleges that your government has been harbouring Indian militants from the Northeast.

A:Sheikh Hasina’s remarks are baseless, false and clearly motivated. During my meeting with the Indian leadership in 2012, I had assured them that the territory of Bangladesh shall never be allowed to be used by anyone against the interests of India or for anything that could threaten India’s security. Bangladesh has never been nor will it ever be a safe haven for militants.

Q: But the Awami League party holds that the BNP and its key ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, are friends of al Qaida, which has threatened to wage an intifada in Bangladesh.

A:No terrorist threat should be taken lightly, nor should these be used for narrow political gains. The blame game is self-defeating. Global terrorism has to be taken seriously and there should be concerted efforts and preparedness to combat this threat. Terrorism or militancy can have no place in our pluralist societies.

The BNP has been consistent in condemning and acting resolutely against terrorism in any form and manifestation. This is evident from the manner in which the BNP government in the past has acted against terrorists. Between 2005 and 2006, the BNP government arrested 1,177 terrorists and extremists.

During the time of the Awami League government between 1996 and 2001 Bangladesh witnessed the presence of new terrorist groups and attacks on cultural events.

There are differences between the political philosophies of the BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Our relation with the Jamaat is an electoral alliance. There is, however, a history of political alliances between the Jamaat and other major political parties. The Awami League, for example, maintained very close alliance with the Jamaat going back to the 1980s and 1990s. It was also the Awami League that signed a memorandum of understanding with the fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Khelafate Majlish, in 2006. That MoU was aimed at legalising religious fatwa.

Q: There is a popular movement for punishing war criminals. How true is the general perception that those undergoing life sentences will be released and rehabilitated by the BNP if it comes to power?

A:We believe that anyone who has committed crimes against humanity should be held accountable and brought before the realm of law. The BNP will try all those who have committed crimes against humanity in Bangladesh through a process that is transparent and one that meets international standards.

Q: Recently, a “telephonic” conversation between you and Sheikh Hasina went viral. Didn’t it highlight the ego clash between Bangladesh’s two top leaders?

A:The telephone conversation was a privileged communication between the leaders of the country’s top political parties. It should have been treated as such. The act of making it public by the government was inappropriate, motivated as well as a breach of trust.

Q: What will the BNP focus on now?

A:Let me end by saying that for Bangladesh democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance are vital if we are to avoid chaos and political instability. A democratic, peaceful and a politically stable Bangladesh is not just in our interest — it is also in the interest of our region.


  • MUSCLE POWER: Some bouncers from Fatehpur Beri; Pics:Yasir Iqbal

Young men are on the treadmill, lifting weights and contorting their bodies in the most amazing of ways. Among them is Pradeep Tanwar, 28. His biceps measure 18 inches, but Tanwar wants them bigger and stronger. But then these are the muscles that pay his bills.

“Jab tak sharir hai, tab tak paisa hai (As long as my body is strong, there will be money),” he says.

He knows that because he is a bouncer — and belongs to a village of bouncers. He, along with a host of others, spends three hours six days a week in the local gym. In the evening, he works in a pub, where, with the help of his bulging muscles, he minds unruly guests.

In the south of Delhi, abutting Chhatarpur and a few kilometres from Gurgaon, are two Gujjar-dominated villages. Over 200 young men from Asola and Fatehpur Beri have been working as bouncers in night clubs, educational institutions and hospitals in Delhi and Gurgaon. Some are hired for the security cover of politicians and industrialists.

Their fathers were farmers. But over the years, their agricultural land was sold to affluent Indians who built sprawling farmhouses there. The villages also tell the story of two worlds that live cheek by jowl. Besides a muddy track that leads to a cowshed where buffaloes and cows feed from hay bins, a cemented road winds its way to multi-storey houses with SUVs and bikes parked around. There is money in the villages, but little education, and thus few avenues for jobs.

A man called Sundar Chaudhary was the first to realise that the well-built village boys could find jobs in the glitzy malls and pubs. The former milk seller set the trend by becoming a bouncer. This was in 1998, a time when Gurgaon’s pub culture was picking up.

Chaudhary, now 38, never went to school. His father was a regular at the village akhara and Chaudhary, the youngest of six brothers and three sisters, picked up tips on body building from him.

  • Vital statistics

    Chest: 60 inches

    Biceps: 18 inches

    Weight: 100 kilos

“That helped me get a job as a security guard at an industrialist’s house at a monthly salary of Rs 3,000,” he says. Soon he was working as a weekend bouncer in a pub for Rs 180 per night. Then he was hired to guard Bollywood stars when they came to Delhi and Gurgaon for product launches and film shoots.

Today Chaudhary runs an informal hiring agency for bouncers. “When the juniors in my village saw me moving around with celebrities, they too wanted to try out their luck as bouncers. They felt it was a glamorous job,” Chaudhary — referred to as guruji by the young men — adds.

Many young men are following in his footsteps because of the growing number of malls and pubs, earning Rs 15,000-30,000 a month. Even many hotels, hospitals and educational institutes prefer to hire these muscular men instead of armed guards, who charge more, and whose firearms can lead to untoward incidents. Bouncers, on the other hand, merely intimidate, without usually indulging in violence.

The bouncers say they have an easy job because all that they have to do is flaunt their body. “Our bulging muscles and the glare in our eyes are enough to warn troublemakers,” says Mushtaq Khan, who works with a private educational institution at Chhatarpur.

Khan says he wanted to become a bouncer as a child. When he was 16, he started building his body. “The senior bouncers in my village were my inspiration,” Khan, 21, says. “I was 65 kilos in 2009 but now I weigh 100 kilos.”

If their fathers and grandfathers built their bodies on milk, curd and ghee, the young men are conscious of their protein-rich diet. On an daily average, most consume the whites of 10 eggs, two boneless chicken breasts, three litres of milk, 10 pieces of roasted almond and walnuts, milkshake and 100gm of mixed soya beans and chickpea soaked in water, apart from two rotis and a bowl of vegetable curry for dinner.

“We spend around Rs 10,000 on our diet,” Vikram Tanwar, 26, says. “We worship the body. It’s the body that sells.”

It doesn’t just sell; it evokes respect as well. Vinod Tanwar, a former bouncer who runs two clubs, recalls that when he visited Delhi’s Lotus Temple with his wife, he found a long queue at the gate. “I rolled up my sleeves, flaunted my 19-inch biceps and walked ahead with my wife. The security guard didn’t stop me,” he recounts.

Ashok Tanwar, who was also once a bouncer and now runs a club, even impressed Bollywood star Govinda. In 2006, he was a part of a team of 15 bouncers who were taking care of the actor’s security during a film shoot. “Govinda was awed by my body. He asked me for tips on how to lose fat on his thighs.”

But a bouncer’s life is not quite a bed of roses either. Arguments in pubs over trivial issues such as the choice of a song being played or over a drink can lead to violence. Most bouncers have been given instructions by their employers on how to behave in such circumstances. They have been told to be assertive, but not aggressive.

“If we see anyone misbehaving, we just walk up to the person and request him to behave. If he still doesn’t, we quietly ask him to leave. We don’t use abusive language or physically abuse anyone. When the situation goes out of the hand, we call the police,” Khan says.

Bar managers agree that sometimes situations spin out of control. “Some men come with a wad of notes and a gun and demand entry. When bouncers stop them, they are abused,” a pub manager says.

Sometimes the altercations turn violent. Last year, some drunken men thrashed the bouncers in a pub in Gurgaon’s Sahara Mall. Vinod was also jailed for six months on charges of attempt to murder in 2011 in a case where bouncers from his village clashed with youngsters from a nearby village in a Gurgaon mall. “I was just a silent spectator but was falsely implicated,” he says.

Bouncers rue that some people tend to shrug them off as goons. Soft-spoken Ravi Tanwar, who works at the Ignite club in Gurgaon, believes his job doesn’t bring him respect. “That’s why I have told my father that I work as a manager in a restaurant. If he gets to know that I am a bouncer, he won’t let me work.”

Another problem that they face is that their jobs will not see them through old age. The professional life of a bouncer, they add, is limited to the age of 40. “It is difficult to maintain the body beyond 40. After that, some choose to open their own clubs while others sit at home,” Ravi says.

That explains why the younger boys from the villages in the gyms don’t aspire to be bouncers. Sachin Chauhan, 22, is pursuing a bachelor’s in business administration at a private college but has dreams that have little do with accounts.

“I want to become a model,” he says.

Fit food

Daily diet for the average bouncer

• Whites of 10 eggs

• Two boneless chicken breasts

• Three litres of milk

• 10 pieces of roasted almond and walnuts

• Milkshake

• 100 grams of mixed soya beans and chickpeas soaked in water


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