minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province

The war in Sri Lanka may be over, but the battles continue. The 30-year-long civil war in the Northern Province ended five years ago. Yet, for the people of this troubled area, there is no end to the conflict.

“The official war has ended but the unofficial war has just started,” says C.V. Wigneswaran, the province’s first Tamil chief minister.

Four years after the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was wiped out by the Sri Lankan army, elections were held in the war-torn Northern Province of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. Wigneswaran was appointed the CM in the 2013 polls, which was held after 25 years.

The chief minister, who was in Delhi last week to attend the World Hindu Congress, organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, may be looking at informal alliances in India. “There is need of Hindu solidarity as far as the Northern Province is concerned. So I came,” he says in his first interview to an English paper in India after his election.

Many Sri Lanka watchers in India, however, stress that Wigneswaran’s attitude towards India has been ambivalent. For instance, he refused to be part of the Sri Lankan delegation, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May.

“It was nothing against India,” he clarifies. “By asking me to be part of the delegation, Rajapaksa wanted to show the world that we were all together. That was nonsense.”

How does he compare the two leaders of the neighbouring nations? “Modi is like Rama and Rajapaksa is like Ravana,” he laughs. Does he see Modi as a strong leader? “He could be strong but those who are strong need to be humane too. Your humanity shouldn’t be deadly,” he replies.

The chief minister is more direct when asked to comment about the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which have been espousing the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Wigneswaran believes that it’s time they stopped worrying about the Lankan Tamil community.

“There is no need for the political parties in the South to become our spokespersons. Now we are here to voice the issue of Tamils.”

A staunch critic of Rajapaksa, Wigneswaran says that his presidency is no less than a dictatorship. He accuses the government and the army of human rights violations.

The huge presence of the army in the Northern Province is a reason the region is still troubled. “The soldier to civilian ratio in the north is 1:8,” Wigneswaran says. “Acres of lands have been taken by the army to set up camps. There are areas where even I, as chief minister, cannot enter without the permission of the army,” he complains.

He blames the “flawed” 13th Amendment for much of the province’s problem. The amendment was a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed by then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene.

Under this, the “only official with executive powers” is the governor, who is appointed by the President. “Without the governor’s approval, the council and the chief minister are ineffective,” he points out.

He says that there is starvation in some areas of the province, but the government has neither given it funds nor allowed the UN World Food Programme to reach out to the people. He also accuses the government of discriminating against Tamil fishermen who, unlike Sinhalese anglers, are not allowed to use trawlers.

What about the issue of Indian fishermen who are often jailed in Sri Lanka? On Wednesday, Modi thanked Rajapaksa in Kathmandu for releasing five Indian fishermen sentenced to death for drug trafficking.

Wigneswaran is not impressed. “Rajapaksa wants to show the world that he is majestic enough to oblige Modi by releasing the five fishermen,” he says. But the irony, he says, is that three Sri Lankan fishermen, who were also sentenced to death in the same case, have not been pardoned.

Wigneswaran, who calls himself a “reluctant” politician, was a judge in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court and a fierce critic of Rajapaksa even before he joined politics.

Getting into politics was accidental, he explains. He was persuaded to fight the election five months before the polls by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a conglomeration of five groups – Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, the Tamil United Liberation Front, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation. The TNA won 30 seats in the 38-member provincial council.

He believes that India should now follow in the footsteps of the European Union and lift the ban on the LTTE. The 75-year-old politician, sitting in his room in a five-star hotel in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri, shrugs off apprehensions voiced by Sri Lankan government officials that giving away too much power to the Tamil-dominated TNA could lead to the resurgence of the LTTE.

“This is nonsense. There has been no activity of violence for five years,” he says.

Wigneswaran believes that Rajapaksa’s popularity is diminishing in Sri Lanka and he predicts that he will face a drubbing in snap polls scheduled for January 8, 2015. Rajapaksa’s fading popularity is evident from the fact that his party won the recent polls in the southeastern province of Uva, but with 21 per cent fewer votes than in 2009. Many members of his government and party, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, have joined the Opposition, unhappy about the concentration of power round Rajapaksa and his family members who hold key positions in the government.

“The Rajapaksa family has taken control of the economy, power and the party in the country. They should go,” he says.

The placard – raised in a stadium at an India-Pakistan match – had evoked considerable mirth. “Keep Kashmir, give us Madhuri,” said the sign put up by a Pakistani fan of the Bollywood actress, who had then just danced her way into the subcontinent’s collective heart.

The slogan seems set to change. “Take Kashmir, give us Fawad,” may well be the new message from this side of the border. Fawad Khan is a Pakistani actor who features in television series broadcast on an Indian channel devoted to Pakistani soap – and who has wowed Indian viewers.

An infiltration of a different kind seems to have taken place in India in recent months. The social face of Pakistan has captured the hearts of people across India. Zee TV’s Zindagi channel is a rage – and its Pakistani stars including Fawad, Mahira Khan and Samira Peerzada, are all talking points.

But that’s just one facet of the silent invasion. From Pakistani humour to textiles, from fashion to food and films, the social media platforms are brimming with comments from Indian fans of all that is Pakistani.

“Pakistan is the flavour of the moment,” agrees social commentator Santosh Desai. “Yes, a change is on its way. It may be subtle and it may be silent, but it’s definitely there,” stresses Pakistani social media commentator Alia Suleman.

The current interest in Pakistan has been triggered by the success of Zindagi, no doubt, but there have been several other recent developments as well. The Pakistan stall – with its onyx and textiles – at the ongoing International Trade Fair is besieged by visitors. Pakistani food and film festivals are taking place in the Capital, and eateries are serving Pakistani cuisine. A great many Pakistani comic videos are also being circulated in India on whatsapp and social sites.

“There is always a curiosity among Indians about Pakistan and its culture,” says an official at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.

Pakistani social commentator Bina Shah stresses that strained bilateral ties had always come in the way of easy relations. “But because of social media, it isn’t just jokes that are being shared – folks on both sides of the border can observe the latest trends and what’s hot in our respective countries, and share it,” she says.

And among all that’s hot is fashion. In a first for Lakme Fashion Week (LFW), four Pakistani designers were invited this August to showcase their collections. “So far only a niche category was aware of our brand. But now there’s a huge buzz around Pakistani fashion,” says Sania Maskatiya, one of the designers who debuted at LFW.

The market — from a tony South Delhi mall to the local dress material shop in West Delhi — is stocking up on cuts, prints and fabric either procured from Pakistan or replicated in a wholesale market in India. “We are attracted to their stylish cuts and lace,” writer-columnist Shobhaa De points out.

That there’s an overwhelming interest in Pakistani textile and fashion was evident at the Aalishan Pakistan exhibition held earlier this year at the Pragati Maidan. Organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and The Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, it showcased fashion apparel, home textiles, leather goods, furniture and marble handicraft.

About 100,000 people are believed to have visited the exhibition on its second day. “We marked sales worth Rs 15 lakh over four days,” says Muhammad Yasin of Pakistan-based clothiers Gul Ahmed.

Wardha Saleem, the chief executive officer of the Pakistan Fashion Design Council, a non-profit organisation which facilitates the promotion of Pakistani designers, says that most of the designers had sold off their stock in the first three days of Aalishan Pakistan.

“We presented buyers with fusion wear — shirts (kurtas in India) paired with trousers or palazzo pants or skinny pants or form fitting cigarette cut pants,” Saleem says. “Our flowy chiffons, cotton silk and chamois silk are very popular in India.” The Council has also opened an outlet in Delhi’s South Extension in association with an Indian retailer where Pakistani collections are sold.

The Pakistan High Commission has been facilitating the exhibitions, and has also helped organise food and film fests in Delhi. “Chapli kebab and Kabuli Pulao are the two most popular Pakistani dishes in India. Both come from Peshawar,” says Mazhar Allahyar, the general manager of Islamabad’s Monal restaurant, which will collaborate in another food festival to be held in Delhi next month.

Restaurants serving Pakistani dishes have also opened up in the city. “Indians are keen on Pakistani cuisine because of its variety. Each region of Pakistan has something different to offer,” says Sanjeev Verma, manager of the Hauz Khas Village restaurant Raas, which has a Pakistani menu.

Commentator Desai describes this interest in Pakistan as cyclical. Indeed, in the late eighties and early nineties, too, there was a deep interest in Pakistani television drama series. A decade or so ago, it was the age of Pakistani music as bands such as Junoon and Strings became popular in India. Then the last few years saw another invasion – of the literary kind. Pakistani authors — Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif and others – were lapped up in India.

But what’s given a boost to the trend is the growth of the social media.

“Social networking sites are abuzz with praise for Pakistani shows. In fact, there are continuous requests for repeat telecasts and that’s why we have also had re-runs of some of our popular shows,” says Priyanka Datta, business head of Zindagi, which Zee launched five months ago.

Apeksha Harihar, content head, Social Samosa, a Mumbai-based social media knowledge storehouse, says she has noticed a “fascination” for Zindagi channel shows on social media platforms. “Most tweets favour these Pakistani shows over Indian shows,” Harihar holds.

Indeed, Pakistan seems to have entered the lives of many people through their television sets. “Till now, whatever we read about Pakistan or watched on TV through news channels was political. But these dramas gave us a glimpse of Pakistan which we’d never thought about,” says an ardent Fawad Khan fan, Shipti Sabharwal. Sabharwal, who runs a boutique in West Delhi, adds that Pakistani long kurtis “sell like hot cakes” in her shop. A trader at the Pakistan stall at the trade fair points out that women buyers often ask him for specific designs or styles sported by Pakistani actors in the serials.

The channel already has over 90,000 followers on Twitter and 300,000 fans on Facebook. “The platforms are abuzz with discussions,” Harihar says, adding that viewers have also started fan pages.

Fawad Khan’s fan clubs include ‘_FawadKhanFan_’, ‘Fan_FawadAK_Fanatic’ and ‘Fawad Khan Fever’. With a fan base of the kind, Fawad has not surprisingly made his Bollywood debut. The actor starred in the recent release Khoobsurat. Another Pakistani actor who debuted in Bollywood in recent times is Imran Abbas Naqvi, who was paired with Bipasha Basu in ‘Creature 3D’.

Talks are on for a role for Mahira Khan, too. “I consider myself among the lucky few from Pakistan to have their work recognised and appreciated in India,” says the female lead star of ‘Humsafar’, the blockbuster serial which was premiered on Zindagi in September. “I recently joined Twitter and have experienced craziness since,” she says.

The use of Urdu words in the series may have sparked an interest in the language, too. Zindagi now runs a scroll that acts as a thesaurus for Urdu phrases — a word is explained in Roman letters every day. About 65 per cent of people who log on to an Indian website on Urdu poetry called Rekhta, launched in 2013, are from India.

“We have close to 7000 visitors every day, up from the 300 that we used to get last year. We are now planning a festival for which poets from across the border will be invited,” Rekhta founder Sanjiv Saraf says.

Back in Pakistan, too, the trend has been appreciated.

“The segment of the population that had begrudgingly viewed the influence of Indian culture in Pakistan, openly opposing the airing of Indian movies in our theatres and on TV, is now pleased that this influence is reciprocated on the other side of the border too,” Suleman says. “The segment that sincerely wishes to see the two ‘bullies’ finally call it a day sees this as a step towards that goal.”

Samira Peerzada, a popular character actor from ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hain’ and ’Dhoop Chhaon’, points out that she grew up watching Indian shows and films in Pakistan. “We always dreamt and hoped that the work of Pakistani artists also got the same kind of response in India. It seems the dream has come true.”

Suleman has noticed another outcome of the trend – a difference in attitude in her Indian relatives. “To them, Pakistanis had always appeared to be too ‘fast’, too ‘modern’, too ‘unreal’, and too ‘foreign’. But now, it is all changing.”

When she phones them in the evening, her Indian relatives tell her “somewhat irritably” not to call when they are watching Pakistani serials on TV. “For the first time, they want to hear about the other good serials, writers and actors, something they never wanted to do before… They are interested when I talk about Pakistani fashion for a change. For the first time, they are interested in me as a Pakistani rather than just a relative.”

So it’s not just India that’s rejoicing in this friendly invasion. This could well be the season of hope. After all, the twin siblings -– separated at birth, like so much of Bollywood — just shared the Nobel Peace Prize, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPublished in The Telegraph on November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in The Telegraph, Sunday, November 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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