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The angry young man is now older — but still garnering eyeballs. As Amitabh Bachchan, at 71, makes his debut in television fiction, Smitha Verma and Sonia Sarkar assess whether Big B’s magic is working.

Yudhisthir Sikarwar’s life is like a house of cards, ready to be blown away. There’s been a blast in his coal mine, and the workers are agitated. His daughter from his first marriage is walking out on him. To top it, his son from his second wife has been kidnapped by Maoists. As the eighth episode of Yudh draws to a close, Sikarwar announces, in his familiar baritone, that the game is about to change. “It’ll be played according to my rules,” he says.

Amitabh Bachchan is Sikarwar. And the game on television is set for change.

The series, launched on July 14, boasts of many firsts: Bachchan stars in his first TV fiction series; Anurag Kashyap and Shoojit Sircar team up as the creative director and the creative consultant, respectively, for a TV show; and it features heavyweights such as Tigmanshu Dhulia, Kay Kay Menon, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Zakir Hussain and Sarika, some making their television debut with the show.

The 20-episode story of the ageing male protagonist strives to capture an audience attuned to women-centric family dramas. Yudh is the story of Sikarwar, a construction magnate, who suffers from Huntington’s disease, a life-threatening neuro-psychological disorder. Bachchan, the angry young man of the 1973 Bollywood hit Zanjeer, makes entry as an angry old man.

“I liked the story idea,” Bachchan, 71, stresses. “I liked the character and its complicated bearings and I liked the idea of doing something in a serial form for television,” he says.

For the broadcaster, Sony Entertainment Television (SET), a drama centred on Bachchan is a coup — and it’s gone all out to market the mini series, said to be the costliest Indian TV drama per episode.

The show was announced in June last year, and interest sparked when its trailer was launched on television during the IPL cricket finals. The first look of the show was unveiled with a 50-foot poster from atop a building in Connaught Place in Delhi. This was followed by the fictional listing of Sikarwar’s company “Shanti Construction” on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

“Since the show is pitched as Big B’s debut in fiction format on television, we did a lot of film-style marketing,” says Gaurav Seth, senior vice-president and head, marketing, SET.

Though the channel refuses to divulge production costs, the whisper is that each episode costs around Rs 3 crore, including marketing costs. Ad spots are being sold at double the rate of the usual Rs 3 lakh charge for a 10-second spot. “This is premium property,” Seth holds.

The industry buzz is that the series was actually Bachchan’s idea. In December 2012, the actor expressed the desire to act in a television drama in talks with members of the production house Endemol India. His company, Saraswati Creations, was keen to co-produce the show. Endemol India, in turn, asked writer Bijesh Jayarajan to draft a script.

Bachchan and Kashyap also discussed the show, and the director agreed to handle the first five episodes and then hand over the reins to his one-time assistant director, Ribhu Dasgupta. Bachchan, who is close to Sircar, asked the director of Vicky Donor to oversee the work.

“The series was thought, written and envisaged keeping Big B in mind,” says Bonnie Jain, business head, Endemol India. “We had to do something that was never done before.”

Kashyap suggested that the lead character be based on the role played by Sanjeev Kumar in the 1978 film Trishul — but 40 years later. Sikarwar’s company, Shanti Constructions, was the name of Kumar’s group in the film that also starred Bachchan.

The first 16 episodes were written in a little over two months by Jayarajan, while the remaining four were scripted by another young writer, Manu Warrier. After the opening episodes had been written in April, 2013, shooting began in mid-June in Mumbai and Lonavala.

The shoot took a cinematic course. Like a film, Yudh too followed a post-production work schedule which involved sound design, colour correction, visual effects and background music. “Also, we shot in C 3100, a camera which accommodates all film lenses. But we shot in digital mode, not on celluloid,” says Jain. Helicams or remote-controlled helicopters were used to capture the aerial views for shooting the mining scenes in Virar.

Jayarajan, who has penned scripts for television series Kagaar and Parvarish, believes the show seeks to reach out to fans of Western dramas such as the Game of Thrones. Critics have also drawn comparison with the American mini series Boss. In both shows the protagonists have life-threatening diseases, rely on their two close aides and try to win back their estranged daughters. For an Indian audience which is not accustomed to watching finite series on television (as opposed to series that carry on indefinitely), Yudh attempts to present a male protagonist, a shift from the usual women-dominated dramas.

“This kind of format is tried and tested in the West,” Shoojit Sircar says. “I am not saying Yudh will be something historic but it definitely is an important milestone in one of the many milestones on the small screen.”

Bachchan, too, is wary of calling the show a game changer. “Adapting to change can only come if change is presented or attempted,” he says. “We have tried that and shall await reactions. All fresh and new ideas shall go through the gamut of adjustment and acceptability,” he adds.

What’s true is that Yudh — which deals with builder mafia, mining and Maoists — has created a buzz. Television critic Shailaja Bajpai feels it can mark a new turn in television because of the issues it tackles. “The context is contemporary, topical, social and political,” she says. “Our serials for long have ignored this reality. It takes an Amitabh Bachchan to bring forward the urban reality.”

Indeed, quite a few people who are in the series joined up when they heard that it was a Bachchan show. “It was Big B’s idea to get the most talented actors to the series. He wanted Siddiqui in the show so we created a cameo for him,” Jayarajan says. “I acted in this serial because I wanted to work with Amitabh Bachchan,” adds Dhulia, who plays a crafty politician.

Bajpai points out that where Bachchan goes, others follow. In the summer of 2000, Bachchan first entered living rooms with a reality show. A bevy of top stars followed suit including Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan. The latest top actor to make an impressive TV debut was Anil Kapoor, whose 24, an Indian adaptation of a popular Western series, was aired last year.

“But 24 was a remake of an English serial while Yudh is original. And Yudh reinforces the belief that something different can be tried out,” Jayarajan says. “We took a big risk in today’s television.”

Bachchan and Kashyap are aware of the mounting viewer expectations. “Creativity shall always bear the burden of apprehension. When we work on any project there are concerns on what the reactions are going to be, and whether we have been able to deliver what was expected of us,” the actor says.

In some quarters, however, the show is already been panned, with critics drawing attention to its slow pace, weak dialogues and convoluted character sketches. “The show is taking time to find acceptance,” agrees Zakir Hussain, who plays Bachchan’s close aide. “Some scenes look weak because we never went out of Mumbai for shoots. We talk of Maoists but we never went to a place that would look like a red corridor,” Hussain says.

But others argue that it is too early to discuss the impact of the series. “Even 24 became a success towards the end. Anything new takes time to settle with the Indian audience. So it would be unfair to judge the show so early,” says an industry evaluator.

Meanwhile, producers and broadcasters are keeping a close watch on Yudh. The series competes with Savdhaan India (Life OK), Veera (STAR Plus), Doli Armaano Ki (Zee) and Uttaran (Colors). “Our viewership has gone up even after the launch of Yudh. So there is little reason to worry,” says Ajit Thakur, general manager, Life OK. According to trade pundits, at the 10.30pm slot, Life OK’s Savdhaan India, a topical crime show launched two years ago, has high TRP ratings across Hindi general entertainment channels.

Yudh also faces competition from Pakistani series being aired on Zee’s newly launched Zindagi channel. “We launched Zindagi to offer an alternative viewing experience; the formats of the shows with a finite number of episodes are completely different from what viewers in India are used to watching,” Priyanka Datta, business head, Zindagi, says. “As far as competition from Yudh is concerned, we are quite confident of our line-up.”

Bachchan’s quiz show, Kaun Banega Crorepati — now ready for a new season — changed the nature of reality shows on television. Will he do the same with Yudh? The initial response is tepid, but excitement is still rife. After all, it’s a battlefield out there.

Manipur is seeing a resurgence of polo. Schools have been encouraging students to play polo and women have taken to the game. Polo clubs have been mushrooming in the state.

When the city downs its shutters, H. Kaoba, 35, gets ready for action. A bandh in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, may force most residents to stay indoors. But Kaoba heads for the fields, where, with a group of like-minded people, he plays a robust game of polo.

“During bandhs, when everyone else is home, we play polo,” says the farmer’s son.

Kaoba has been playing the game for the last 22 years. But he says there has been a sudden interest in the game in the strife-torn state in recent years. “It seems to have got a new lease of life.”

If youngsters across the country are donning their football T-shirts or white flannel for cricket, the Manipuri youngster is atop a pony, playing polo — which is believed to have originated centuries ago in Manipur. Known as Sagol Kangjei, it was a game played by princes and their companions. Today, it’s every Manipuri’s favourite sport.

Polo clubs have been mushrooming across the Imphal valley and in neighbouring Bishnupur and Thoubal. Around 20 clubs have opened in the last three years, taking the total number to 33.

“Even five years ago, there were only a few clubs,” says Girimohan Singh, former captain of the state team.

The game has picked up also because the state has been hosting global polo tournaments. Though the tournament was first held in 1991, it was discontinued for lack of funds. But it was revived in 2012, and polo enthusiasts are now waiting for the 2014 games, to be held in November.

The tournament, being held with corporate funding, features teams such as England’s Hurlingham polo club and others from France, Germany and Thailand. The organisers hope that UK’s Prince William will be present during the matches as the chief guest.

“We also want him to play an exhibition match with our local players where the game will be played in the traditional way with a team of seven players,” adds S. Budhhachandra Singh, president, Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA), the body which organises several local matches and the international tournament.

The game, which is elsewhere played on horse with sticks and balls, has changed over time in Manipur. The teams don’t consist of seven members but of four members as everywhere else.

The only difference is that players sit on Manipuri ponies and not horses. These ponies, about 52 inches at the shoulder, are much loved beasts. There was a time when every house in Manipur had a pony, used for transport as well as to ward off enemies. The sturdy ponies now cost anything from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

Manipuris say that families have started keeping ponies at home. “And anyone who has a pony invariably learns to play polo,” MHRPA vice-president Rajkumar Dilip Singh says.

But the game is not restricted to affluent families. Schools, cutting across strata, have also been encouraging students to play polo. “Children start to learn the game at the age of 12 or 13. Schools want us to give them lessons in pony riding, and then polo,” Girimohan Singh, who is a member of the Nambul Mapal Polo club, adds.

“We encourage the children to keep the tradition alive. Polo was first invented in Manipur and the state should be known to the world for this,” he stresses.

Legend has it that the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it was in the 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, that the game attracted attention — especially of the British. It gained in popularity as an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up India’s first polo club in Silchar.

In 1864, a British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

“Those were the days when everyone played polo — not just kings but ordinary people too,” Dilip Singh says.

The game remained popular till the 1950s. But with construction and the disappearance of grazing grounds for ponies, interest waned. In 1977, the MHRPA was set up by a handful of polo enthusiasts to revive the game. In 2005, the MHRPA started a pony breeding farm. It has 102 ponies which are hired by players who don’t own one.

Manipuri women have been playing the game, too. The state has five teams of women players, and there are separate tournaments for women participants.

Deventy Devi, a 28-year-old player, stresses that polo is a challenge for women in a patriarchal society. “It was hard to convince my parents that I too wanted to play polo because there was a pony at home. They were convinced only after I proved to be a better player than my brothers,” the Imphal Riding Club member says.

Manipuris have another reason to be interested in the game. Polo players often find jobs in the government. Sinam Bimol Singh, 38, is now a constable with the Manipur police — and believes that it’s polo that got him the job. “I learnt the game because I loved it. But I never thought it would help me get a job — and an identity,” he says. Bimol is one of the 30 players who have government jobs.

Some of the senior players feel that the game needs a professional touch. “If the government gives it a push, we will make Manipur visible on the global map. We want to give us a different identity through the game of polo,” says 54-year-old M. Manihar, who has been playing for the past 30 years.

For those who grew up in times of violence, polo is not just fun. “When we are mounted on a pony, we feel that the world is under control. There is no fear even if the state is under siege,” Kaoba says.

Polo’s past

Polo the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it attracted attention in 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba.

Polo is said to have become popular after an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up the first polo club in India in Silchar.

In 1864, A British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

A little village in Manipur has pinned its hope on the new Prime Minister. Sonia Sarkar tells us why

WAITING FOR PM: Children in front of the village school
When Bebe Jackson heard about Narendra Modi — then just a prime ministerial candidate — he was intrigued. The 28-year-old Manipuri knew little about him because he had been working in Ghana for several years. Back in India, Jackson quickly did a background search on the Internet — but not because Modi seemed set to rule India. Jackson’s interest was triggered by the fact that his village was also called Modi.

“I started reading about him because I wanted to know if he had any connections with our village,” Jackson says. “I must say I was disappointed to discover that there was none.”

Village Modi in Manipur’s Chandel district is five kilometres from Chandel town. The village — inhabited by the Anal people of the Naga tribe — is surrounded by hills. A narrow lane, covered with pebbles, runs through the village, with single-storey wood houses on its two sides. The lane curves up to the village church, which is where the villagers meet to discuss social and political issues.

These days, Modi is the topic of discussion. The village of 253 Christians has been in a state of excitement ever since the 2014 elections were announced.

L. Hringam, who runs a grocery shop
“We are extremely happy that our village shares its name with the Prime Minister. Now we hope that the fate of our village will change,” says L. Hringam, 68. “We want him to visit us. We too want to see ‘achhe din’ (good days).”

Modi’s election slogan of better times is reiterated by the people of Modi, who have lived without basic facilities such as water and electricity all their lives. “The Chapki river is the source of drinking water and we use the same water for cleaning,” says 64-year-old R.T. Thintra, who runs the only grocery store of the village with her husband, Hringam.

The river itself is a cause of worry. The previous United Progressive Alliance government had proposed the construction of a dam for the Chapkimultipurpose hydroelectric project. “But our village will be submerged if this dam is constructed,” says P.S. Raylee, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently. “In fact, we would want Prime Minister Modi to stop this project. He should do something to save the village which bears his name,” he says.

Some of the villagers have been following Modi’s rise to power since he became the chief minister of Gujarat for the fourth time in 2012. “We used to joke that this man was making us proud by doing such good work in Gujarat,” says village chief K.L. John.

Modi’s name was heard more often as local BJP leaders started campaigning for the elections this spring. The thrill peaked when the party organised its first election rally in the state in Chandel. “The BJP never took so much interest in our district or our village before. But it was different in this election — they wanted to reach out to everyone,” John says.

Twenty men from the village attended a rally that Modi addressed in Imphal. Modi spoke of unemployment and corruption and promised to develop the state. Vastly impressed by his speech, 130 people of Modi voted for BJP, John says.

“For the first time, this village voted for the BJP,” says W.S. Kanral Anal, president of the Chandel Naga People’s Organisation. But Gangmumei Kamei, the BJP candidate of outer Manipur — the Lok Sabha Constituency of all hill districts including Chandel — lost the election to the sitting MP, Thangso Baite of the Congress.

Villagers on the steps of the Modi Baptist Church
The villagers now hope to make the most of their village name. Folklore has it that the village was set up in 1893 by a man called Pashel Modi, who also belonged to the Anal tribe. Village elders say that Modi and his wife, Nula Pethem, came in search of a new place when his own village became too crowded.

“Once he discovered this place, he named it after himself,” Thintra says.

This village has been a part of world history too. Elders in the village believe that some people spied for the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, during the battle of Imphal.

Hringam’s grandfather was one of them. “My grandfather used to keep an eye on the British soldiers who hid in our village,” he says.

In 1946, an old bomb shell burst, killing seven villagers. “We also discovered a bunker in the village,” he adds.

But all that is history. Modi, the village, wants to move on. And that’s because it’s caught in a time warp.

Villagers mostly survive on the rice that they grow. Barely 10 families in the village have their own land; the others work in the paddy fields as daily wagers.

The villagers complain of unemployment, and about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which promises to give 100 days of work in a year. The people say they barely get 40 days of work and are mostly underpaid.

The young ones have been moving out of the village in search of jobs. Some have joined the Manipur police force or the army. Raylee, a graduate from Chandel’s United College, worked in a call centre in Delhi for a year, but came back to “do something” for his village.

At a tea stall
He and a few other men pooled in money to repair the rain ravaged state highway. Nobody from the government paid any heed to it, so the villagers say they decided to do it themselves.

“It took us more than a month to repair the road. But the village gets cut off from the rest of the world if this highway is not functional,” Raylee says.

PM Modi would like their sense of enterprise. In the late 60s, when the village didn’t have a school, the villagers set up their own primary school by hiring three teachers from nearby areas. But though the school got government recognition in 1971, the village children have to walk to Chandel town for secondary and higher secondary education.

Local teachers believe their students will have a brighter future if the village catches the attention of Modi. “Just as Modi scripted his own destiny — from being a tea seller to becoming PM — our children too can do that if he gives them what they deserve, which is good education,” teacher Totorani Khumlo says.

But will Modi visit the village? Some point out that local BJP leaders visited the village only once after the election results were announced. They promised water and electricity but have not been seen since then.

But then lack of development is the story of many villages across India. Even Modi’s neighbouring Lamphoupasna village, also inhabited by Anal tribals, is underdeveloped. “We feel a little jealous because we too voted for the BJP. If he gives a special package to Modi, we too should get a share,” demands Nita Khumlo, who is an assistant teacher at a school in Chandel town.

Village Modi, however, continues to pin its hopes on its namesake. “We want Modi to turn this into a model village,” Raylee says. “Then the name of the village will be justified.”

(Published in The Telegraph, July 6, 2014

Has the jholawallah, the social activist whose hallmark often was a beard — or a handloom sari — and a bag, faded out? Sonia Sarkar and Moumita Chaudhurilooked for him and her here and there — and found it tough to catch a glimpse of that once iconic individual

  • PIC: Rashbehari Das

    Model: SHAMAUN AHMED

Giridhar Poddar has seen it all. The waiter at the Indian Coffee House in Calcutta remembers the time when an adda meant a revolution. Men and women would gather around their cups of tea — mostly black, with a squeeze of lime — and change the world. “They do have addas now, but they are just pure addas — only conversation,” he says.

A large whiteboard at the reception underlines all that Poddar misses. The board — titled Voice of Kolkata — is almost blank, but for a reference to an exhibition in the city and a few lines scribbled by an obscure poet. “People no longer raise a storm in their teacups. Nobody has the time anymore,” manager Jahid Hussain points out.

There was a time when a place like a coffee house was the watering hole for radicals, liberals, activists and armchair revolutionists. But the jholawallah is hard to find these days. The term, used generically and somewhat derogatorily for the activist in the Eighties, referred to a class that was easily identifiable — the men wore scraggly beards and khadi kurtas; the women had unkempt hair and wore cotton saris. And they all carried jholas — cloth bags that somehow symbolised their missions.

But the times have changed. A new National Democratic Alliance government has been installed at the Centre which has little in common with the activists. The old United Progressive Alliance government — which had given a platform to a wide spectrum of activists in its National Advisory Council (NAC) — has been deposed. And the NAC has downed its shutters.

The arc lights are on the activist as well. A report by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has listed non-government organisations (NGOs) and social activists associated with various peoples’ movements as those stalling developmental work in the country.

“This is not a conducive environment for social activists to function,” says Anil Chaudhary, a peace and NGO activist associated with the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a platform for some 700 movements and NGOs.

Many believe that the jholawallah — already marginalised by a host of global and domestic developments — is on his way out.

But who is the jholawallah in the first place? Academics agree that the term refers to a large section of Left liberals who are usually not part of a political party. You see them at rallies, at seminars and conferences, at world fora and in villages. Their causes differ — and some jump from cause to cause. But the issues are varied — from protecting villagers against big dams and spreading literacy to people’s right to information and against nuclear projects.

“Of course, the word jholawallah is now obsolete. Nowadays hardly anybody walks around with a beard and a jhola,” says theatre personality Bibhas Chakraborty. “But generally, jholawallahs are educated and erudite people giving unsolicited advice.”

Most agree that the presence of jholawallahs is felt most during times of crisis. The end of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta, the growth of the JP movement and the start of the Emergency were some such flashpoints. Small groups formed over the years, taking up issues such as the rights of women and of tribals and Dalits, and for the environment. In recent times, the activists have been rallying together under an anti-nuclear banner. Not surprisingly, many of the groups mentioned in the IB report are against nuclear energy.

“If communities feel threatened, they will give birth to activists who will give voice to their concerns,” reasons former NAC member and Right to Information activist Aruna Roy. “As a society we need to listen to those voices.”

But the movements have also lost steam over the years, and jholawallahs their place in the sun. Observers say that a host of developments across the world has together pushed the activist to the margins. The Vietnam War gave birth to a whole new generation of Left-winged activists. But subsequent events such as the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the firing on students in Tiananmen Square in China — shrunk the radical’s world.

“The role of an activist is a very difficult one in a globalised, liberalised economy and in the age of sponsorships,” says Mohammed Selim, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of Parliament. “But though they may be invisible at the moment, they have not been vanquished.”

Calcutta, of course, has seen the rise of a “civil society” movement — the participation of artistes, academics and others in rallies that started with the firing at Nandigarm and more or less ended with the fall of the Left Front government in 2011. “But it is true that jholawallahs are a rare sight these days,” agrees actor Badshah Moitra. “They are not as ubiquitous as they were 15 years ago in coffee houses and tea stalls.”

Indeed, you can hardly see the jholawallah in many parts of the country today. Take Bangalore’s Koshy’s, where, the locals joke, many court cases were argued and newspaper articles written over steaming coffee and chilled beer. Started during the days of the Raj and located just off M.G. Road, Koshy’s for decades served the city’s intelligentsia.

“While some people discussed glasnost and perestroika on one table, you’d find another table occupied by a writer penning a novel,” a spokesman for the restaurant says. “But the city’s young don’t hang around at Koshy’s as much as they did a decade ago,” he says.

In fact, that, many hold, is the crux of the problem — the fact that the young are not as enamoured of the jhola as their parents were. The trendy Caf� Coffee Day (CCD), Barista and Starbucks outlets are where the young would rather be. If there is one Koshy’s in Bangalore, CCD has 250 outlets. When Tata Starbucks opened its outlet in Bangalore last year, youngsters waited for an hour to get a table.

“The youth of today believes more in aspirational politics than confrontation,” points out Anirban Ganguly, director of the BJP-affiliated think tank Shyama Prasad Mookherjee Research Foundation in Delhi. “They believe in a different lexicon.”

But some believe the young do have a role to play in movements. “Our work will not be stalled. We are committed to the cause,” says Medha Patkar, whose anti-big dam movement attracted the young in large numbers. “All pro-people agencies, from civil rights activists to journalists to the judiciary, should come forth to fight against the government. The challenge is to stay together,” adds Teesta Setalvad, who runs the NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace.

Some argue that the jholawallah is not extinct but has taken on different forms. The BJP, for instance, has its share of supporters who may carry laptop backpacks instead of jholas, but have a mission as well. “Modi would not have become Prime Minister without the support of an army of Right-wing activists in the corporate sector, the media, the economics profession, the Hindutva movement and the public at large,” social activist Jean Dr�ze, a former NAC member, stresses.

Political and social observers also point out that the platform for the jholawallah has changed. Anil Chaudhary recalls that there was a time when demonstrators gathered at Delhi’s Boat Club — or India Gate — for all kinds of protests. The protestors have now been shoved to a corner near Jantar Mantar, so as not to obstruct traffic.

But many contend today’s platform for protest is neither Calcutta’s Maidan nor Jantar Mantar. It’s the Internet.

“Now dissent has become digital. Protests have taken a cyber form,” points out sociologist G.K. Karanth.

Indeed, many small movements have spread their message through and congregated on the Internet — from stone-throwing schoolboys in Kashmir to the thousands that came together to protest against the gang rape and death of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. Many of the gay parades across India have been put into motion on the Internet. The Pink Chaddi campaign — against conservatives who frowned at women going to pubs — found supporters on social networking sites. In other parts of the world, too, urban movements — such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement — have been garnering support, thanks to the Internet.

There are movements on the ground, too, but, as Karanth points out, they have to be sufficiently large or grand to attract people. Anna Hazare, for instance, brought the jholawallahs and the Prada-wallahs together. But the latter outnumber the former.

So is the score, for the present, Jholas 0 and Pradas 1? The supporters of the jhola are livid. “I have strong reservations about the very word jholawallah and such labelling of people. They have contributed to our society and stood by the interests of the poor and faced stiff opposition and even physical resistance from governments in their crusades,” says theatre director and actor Kaushik Sen, who was part of the “Paribartan” wave in favour of Mamata Banerjee three years ago. “But that has not eroded their resolve and grit.”

As for the detractors, they are busy coining jhola jokes. So what is the jholawallah song? I’m a jholi good fellow.

Severe six

Aruna Roy

Heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and led the Right to Information movement

Medha Patkar

Founder member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan

Jean Drèze

Works on hunger, famine, child health and education. He drafted the first version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme of the UPA government

Vandana Shiva

Environmental activist. Founded Navadanya, a national green movement on organic farming and fair trade

Teesta Setalvad

Secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace which fights against communalism

Arundhati Roy

Essay writer and human rights activist. A member of the anti-globalisation movement

 

Tete a TeteTete a Tete

Yogendra Yadav is gearing up for the Haryana Assembly elections. As he criss-crosses the state, the AAP leader tells Sonia Sarkar that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral campaign was brilliant and that he wants to learn from it

Some say the bubble’s burst, but Yogendra Yadav will have none of that. He has hit the road and is travelling across Haryana to talk to workers of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which emerged with a bang last year and now appears to have dwindled into a whimper. Yadav, the soft-spoken face of the party, is gearing up for the polls in Haryana, slated to be held later this year.

Clearly, AAP — Arvind Kejriwal’s political alternative — is putting its house in order. “We have to focus on our sangathan (organisation), sampark (connect with people) and sambad (communication) before the Assembly elections,” Yadav says, talking about the party’s new programme, Mission Vistaar. “We are discussing the lessons that we have learnt from the Lok Sabha elections.”

AAP’s rise and fall took place almost at the same velocity. It rose to its peak by winning 28 of the 70 seats in the Delhi elections in 2013, and almost turned to dust a few months later, winning only four of the 400 seats it contested in the Lok Sabha elections held this summer.

Among those who lost — a grand list that also includes party leader Arvind Kejriwal — was Yadav, whose 80,000 votes from Gurgaon put him in the fourth place.

“In the course of campaign, I knew I was No. 3. I didn’t know I would come down to No. 4. That was a disappointment,” he says.

Yadav, occasionally wearing the party’s trademark boat-shaped cap and otherwise fiddling with it, is on his way from Panipat to Ambala, where he has a meeting with party leaders. Our conversation continues as he stops at a roadside dhaba for a cup of tea, which he has with the paranthas and aloo sabzi that his sister has packed for him.

He plans to travel to all 21 districts of Haryana to understand how to make a fresh start before the state polls. “We are trying to reach the last person in every district,” he says.

The Lok Sabha poll results came as a shock to AAP leaders, who had thought they’d perform a lot better than they did. Party chief Kejriwal, in fact, had claimed that it would win 100 seats. “That was his political judgement. Before the Delhi elections, he’d said we’d get 47 seats, but we got 28,” Yadav says.

“Getting 100 seats or so was an unrealistic hope. I have a technical background. I didn’t say a word on the number of seats because I knew we were going for a single digit win,” the psephologist adds.

But he also believes that if the euphoria that was created after the Delhi victory had continued till the end of the general elections, the party could have ended up with 100 seats. “Dilli chunaao ke baad hamari aadat kharab ho gayi thi (we got spoiled after the Delhi elections). That time, our feet were not on the ground. That sort of quick success brings you to power sooner than you deserve. But the people punished us for quitting Delhi,” he admits, referring to AAP’s decision to exit power after ruling for 49 days. The excuse was the failure to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill — an anti-graft platform that the AAP rode to power on.

The buzz in political circles is that it was Yadav who advised Kejriwal to step down.

“I shared the view that if we could not pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in Delhi we had no moral right to remain in the government. But I wanted this decision to be taken in consultation with the people, which did not happen,” Yadav rues.

The differences of opinion within the AAP are out in the open. People have been walking out of the party ever since the poll debacle. Yadav, too, resigned from the political affairs committee last month. In a letter to his colleagues, he referred to the lack of organisational building, absence of mechanism for consulting volunteers and policy deficit as among the many drawbacks in the party.

“This is not the first time that I have raised these questions. This time the public got to know about my concerns because the letter was leaked. Though it is a cause of embarrassment that it is out in the public, I am not ashamed of what I said,” adds Yadav, whose resignation was not accepted by Kejriwal.

In his letter, he said Kejriwal behaved like a party “supremo” and not a leader. It’s not a subject that he wants to elaborate on, but says, “I write more carefully than I speak, so I would rather that my written words be trusted.”

But Kejriwal, he adds, has an “extraordinary ability” to pick a single relevant fact from a heap of irrelevancies. “He has a superhuman capacity to remain focused. He has the gift of bringing people together.”

Yadav and Kejriwal have known each other from the time Kerjiwal ran a non- government organisation called Parivartan to press for the implementation of the Right to Information Act. Yadav had held public hearings on the then newly-appointed Central Information Commission on behalf of Parivartan.

But it was Anna Hazare’s drive against corruption in 2011 that brought the two together, though Yadav had his doubts about the movement.

“I thought it was a very positive movement but didn’t like it the way they were carrying it forward. I told Kejriwal that if he wanted to do satyagraha, he had to read Gandhi. I thought he would never get back to me because not many people like criticism. But he did, and asked me to be a part of the movement. And I joined them.”

Yadav — with his well-modulated voice and felicity with words — was soon one of the leaders of the party that was formed in late 2012. It helped that he spoke both Hindi and English fluently. “I learnt my Hindi from textbooks and Doordarshan. So my Hindi does not bear any regional influences,” says Yadav, dressed in a blue cotton kurta with white pyjamas.

Originally from Saharanwas, near Rewari in Haryana, Yadav, now 50, grew up in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar, where his father was a lecturer in economics.

Yadav says that his father was seven when he saw his own father, a hostel warden in a Haryana school, being killed in a communal riot in Hissar in 1936. “The rioters wanted the Muslim children in the hostel,” he says. “My grandfather told the rioters he would rather have his head chopped. So they chopped off his head. My father saw it all happening,” Yadav narrates.

It was this incident — and the Hindu-Muslim killings during Partition — that made his secular father name him Salim. AAP workers brought the name up during Yadav’s electoral campaign in Haryana, leading to a barrage of scornful tweets and comments on social media sites, describing it as a gimmick aimed at the Muslim vote.

But though the name is used by some friends and family, most people know him as Yogendra. Yadav explains that he asked his parents to change his name because his Muslim name led to taunts in school when he was a small boy. “So I was rechristened Yogendra,” he says.

Unfortunately, he adds, the communal divide that his father witnessed as a child continues to haunt India. “The new generation of India wants to move forward. They don’t want to be in the shadow of 1984 or 2002 but politics will not allow them to do so. It wants to drag them back,” he says.

His own political leanings were given shape when he was studying in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University by socialist leader Kishan Patnaik, who headed a political body called Samata Sangathan.

“My initiation into public life, in fact my understanding of politics, dates back to that period. But party politics of the visible kind is a new thing in my life,” he says.

Yadav, who taught politics at Punjab University for eight years, joined the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Studies in 1993. Under the United Progressive Alliance government, he was a member of the National Advisory Council, from which he resigned, and the University Grants Commission, from which he was removed last year.

A political observer for many years and an able number cruncher, the Phanishwar Nath Renu fan now finds himself knee-deep in politics, leaving him with little time for reading or writing (“that’s a deep regret”), or for his family — wife Madhulika Banerjee, who teaches political science in Delhi University, daughter Sufi, 15, and son, Sahej, 10.

“The first thing I do every morning is check the newspapers to see if there is a stupid story about AAP,” he says.

He also wants to learn some lessons from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral triumph. “It was a brilliant campaign executed to near perfection. If you get two seats in Parliament, you should not lose hope, you should continue to work,” he says, referring to the BJP’s 1984 electoral defeat which left it with just two members of Parliament. “One needs to be consistent for a long time to be able to achieve anything,” he says.

Yadav is doing that, as AAP gets ready to rewrite its own story.

 

● June 2014: A 19-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly raped and murdered in Badhauna village in Uttar Pradesh.

● May 2014: Two teenage Dalit girls were allegedly gang raped by men and then hanged from a tree in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district.

● January 2014: A 13-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly molested by a 55-year-old Gujjar in Dumada village of Ajmer. When a police complaint was filed, the family of the teenager was forced to flee the village under constant pressure from Gujjars.

These are just some of the instances which show that atrocities against Dalit women are on the rise. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, there were 1,346 cases of rape of Dalit women in 2009; the number rose to 1,557 in 2011 and 1,576 in 2012.

“Members of dominant castes are known to use sexual violence against Dalit women as a political tool for punishment, humiliation and assertion of power,” says Divya Iyer, senior researcher, social rights watch group, Amnesty International India.

But it is not just sexual assault. There are cases of other forms of torture of Dalits too. For example, in May this year, over 50 Dalits in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu complained that they were harassed by the police over their participation in an annual festival of a church in Periyavarseeli village. Similarly, in September last year, a Dalit government employee in Ahmedabad committed suicide in his office toilet after he was allegedly humiliated by his senior and harassed by his colleagues for many months.

A look at some figures tells the story. There were 32,712 registered cases of atrocities against Dalits in 2010 which rose to 33,719 in 2011 according to the NCRB. It is estimated that a crime is committed against a Dalit person every 18 minutes. Dalit Media Watch, a group that reports on crimes against India’s lowest caste, has reported that two Dalits are assaulted, murdered and have their homes torched every hour.

Though the rights of Dalits are protected under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, experts point out that there are too many drawbacks in the law to make it into a forceful deterrent to those who victimise them.

They say that victims confront hurdles at every stage of the legal process — from the registration of a case to its investigation to filing a chargesheet and right up to the trial.

“Certain forms of atrocities, though well-documented, are not covered by the act. Plus, there are procedural hurdles such as non-registration of cases. There are delays in trial and the conviction rate is low too. There are also delays in providing relief and rehabilitation to victims,” says Mehul Dabhi of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a forum committed to the elimination of discrimination based on caste.

Experts also say that the implementation of the law has always been a problem. “Under the act, special courts are supposed to tackle Dalit cases. But this is not happening as these courts take up other cases too,” says Rahul Singh, a Delhi-based Dalit rights lawyer.

The law also stipulates that the investigation of a case be done by a police officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent of police. However, this too is rarely followed. “Often, the accused go scot free because no investigation was done by an officer of this rank. Mostly, investigations are carried out by lower rank officers, which are not accepted by the court,” Singh adds.

Taking note of these flaws, several amendments to the law have been proposed by Dalit rights groups. An ordinance was also brought into effect by the previous UPA government in March this year to amend the law.

The ordinance has added a list of new offences to the act, including such atrocities as the tonsuring of head, moustache, or similar acts which are derogatory to the dignity of Dalits and Adivasis; garlanding with chappals; denying access to irrigation facilities or forest rights; forcing them to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or to dig graves; imposing social or economic boycott; preventing Dalit and Adivasi candidates filing nomination to contest elections; hurting the modesty of Dalit or Adivasi woman by removing her garments, and forcing a Dalit to leave his or her house or village.

“At present, only those offences listed in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that attract punishment of 10 years or more and are committed on Dalits or Adivasis are accepted as offences falling under the Atrocities Act. A number of commonly committed offences (hurt, grievous hurt, intimidation, kidnapping, etc.) are excluded from the law. Therefore, a schedule of a list of IPC offences has been provided in the amended act,” Dabhi states.

The ordinance also specifies that the special courts established exclusively for the trial of Dalit cases should have the power to directly take cognizance of offences under this act and the trial shall, as far as possible, be completed within a period of two months from the date of filing of the chargesheet.

There is also an addition of a chapter on the “Rights of Victims and Witnesses”. Though the law does recognise a few rights, “many other essential rights have been included so as to ensure that the state makes arrangements for the protection of victims, their dependents and witnesses against any kind of intimidation, coercion or inducement or violence or threats of violence,” Singh says.

But Dalit rights activists such as Chaman Lal feel that the law should also include a proper sensitisation programme. “There should be a sensitisation programme on Dalit rights at schools which could be carried out in tandem with the ministry of human resources development. It is important to change the mindset,” says Lal, professor, Centre for Comparative Literature, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda.

For the moment, Dalits are looking to the implementation of the ordinance, which has been tabled in the current session of Parliament. If passed, the Dalits would have a reason to rejoice.

The Telegraph, June 11, 2014 

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Caste Away

Will the RSS continue to lead the BJP? Or will Prime Minister Narendra Modi keep it at bay? Sonia Sarkar seeks some answers.

 

A portrait of M.S. Golwalkar is displayed prominently in the exhibition hall of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur. Made of threads, it has a three-dimensional effect — the RSS strongman’s image can be seen from either side. The portrait is not signed — and visitors usually ask for the name of the artist.

“But that’s how the RSS works,” says Nagpur pracharak Ram Narayan. “RSS pracharaks don’t take credit for their work because they do it for the organisation.”

 

Indeed, for long years, the RSS, the parental body of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has — silently, like the artist behind the Golwalkar portrait — led the path that it expects BJP leaders to follow.But Narendra Damodardas Modi is a whole new ball game.

In RSS quarters, Modi’s smooth rise to power — he led the BJP to an unprecedented win in the 2014 elections — is discussed in whispers. And the question being asked is: will the RSS continue to lead the BJP?

“The RSS doesn’t believe in personality cults, but Modi does. He has forgotten all that he learnt during his Sangh days about taking people on board,” a senior leader at the RSS headquarters grumbles.

In fact, the RSS has always been aware that Modi works like a law unto himself. A political observer recalls the time when Golwalkar was the RSS chief and Modi, then a young pracharak, decided to keep a beard like the RSS boss. The Sangh disapproved of this, holding that only Golwalkar could do so. But Modi went right ahead — paying no attention to the RSS strictures.

 

Right now, however, all seems well on the RSS-Modi front. Modi met RSS leaders in Delhi soon after his victory. He acknowledged the effort of RSS workers during the election campaign in his maiden speech in the central hall of Parliament. He announced a year-long celebration to mark the centenary of RSS leader Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya. Top RSS leaders were present when Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister.

 

But RSS insiders say that despite the bonhomie, tensions remain. Some in the RSS are worried that Modi is not going to allow the Sangh to have a major say in governance. “It’s not that Modi is anti-RSS,” a senior BJP member explains. “But he doesn’t want to be dictated to.”

 

The RSS has been known to dictate. In the last BJP-led central government, the Sangh’s imprint was clear, especially in the human resource development (HRD) ministry. But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could also keep the RSS at arm’s length.

The RSS, for instance, did not want Brajesh Mishra, whose father was a Congress leader, as the national security adviser. It didn’t succeed — instead K.S. Sudarshan, the then sarsanghachalak, was asked to stay away from Delhi. A more pragmatic Madan Das Devi functioned as the go-between.

 

Will Modi succeed in keeping a gap between the RSS and the BJP? “He will give the impression that he has been consulting the RSS. But these will only be for public consumption. He’ll do what thinks he is right,” a senior RSS leader in Nagpur says.

 

Modi, as a former Sangh pracharak, knows how the system works. He joined the RSS as a balswayamsevak, a junior cadet, at the age of eight and became a full-time pracharak in 1970. The RSS assigned Modi to the BJP in 1985. Three years later, he was elected organising secretary of the BJP’s Gujarat unit, marking his formal entry into mainstream politics.

 

Modi quickly went up the rungs. As national secretary, he was credited with the BJP’s victory in Gujarat in 1998. Soon he had replaced chief minister Keshubhai Patel in the state.

 

But differences with the RSS sharpened when Modi became the chief minister. For instance, he gave little space to the RSS’s frontal organisations. Vidyabharati, an RSS education outfit which opposed Modi’s policy of introducing English at the primary school level, was not granted government land. Workers of other groups — the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal — were arrested when they took to the streets. A housing scheme started by VHP leader Pravin Togadia’s brother, Dineshbhai, was stalled. RSS supporters also say that Modi did not allow anybody to campaign in the local corporation, taluka and panchayat elections. Modi’s “no repeat” (of elected politicians) helped him weed out all RSS supporters from local self-government all over Gujarat. Modi allegedly cut the RSS to size and divided it.

RSS’ frontal organisation Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) was forced to vacate its state-level office in Gandhinagar. Under Modi’s leadership, a large number of temples were razed and the police beat up VHP activists in Gujarat. VHP activists were lathicharged and even complaints were lodged against them when they vandalised an art gallery exhibiting MF Hussain’s paintings.

 

Also, the co-ordination committee between the RSS members and ministers that was created during Keshubhai Patel’s chief ministership, Modi disbanded it when he came to power. Patel helped in the appointment of scores of RSS supporters in boards and corporations of the government and RSS-backed organisations and unions were fully involved in government. Patel also nominated Bajrang Dal presidents as home guard commanders. Under Modi’s rule, RSS alleges that cow slaughter increased manifold. He handed over vast areas of grazing land to industrialists.

RSS leaders such as Manmohan Vaidya and Madhubhai Kulkarni were shunted out of Gujarat. Modi stopped talking to  Vaidya. He was sent off to Chennai and replaced by Praveenbhai Otia, who proved more trouble-free. At mega events of the government, he barely invited Vaidya and other RSS leaders.

 

But, Gujarat watchers point out, Modi also had a channel open for “friendly” talks with RSS leaders Suresh Joshi, Ram Madhav and Suresh Soni. Despite the ups and downs, the RSS knew that Modi was the best choice for the BJP for the general elections. The tipping point was in May 2012 at the Mumbai national executive. Modi refused to attend the meet in the presence of his old bete noire Sanjay Joshi — whom Gadkari had put in charge of UP for the 2012 elections. The Modi-Joshi rivalry went back to the days when both played for control of the BJP turf in Gujarat. Joshi triumphed once — Modi was sent packing to Delhi till he returned to Gandhinagar as chief minister in 2001. Not surprisingly, Modi waited for his chance to strike. And he did so before the Mumbai meet. The RSS, which regarded Joshi as its own, asked him to leave — and it was then that Modi showed up. Since then Joshi has been kept out of the BJP.

 

In September 2012, three months before the Gujarat polls, Modi was summoned to the RSS headquarters by RSS chief Mohanrao Bhagwat and told to go ahead and give his best to the Gujarat polls. He was also assured that he would lead the 2014 elections. The RSS leaders knew that Modi had the unstinted support of its cadres.

“The top leadership couldn’t have said no to Modi’s candidature for the prime ministership because the cadre would have revolted,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

 

Once it was decided that Modi was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, the RSS workers came on to the field to help in the campaign. “All Sangh parivar frontal organisations worked for him. Now it’s payback time for Modi — or that’s what the RSS wants,” Mukhopadhyay believes. “But will the RSS be able to control this tiger?”

 

The RSS’s policy of swadeshi will be its leitmotif — but may face opposition from the new government. The RSS doesn’t want foreign investment in retail, which the BJP government may want to open its doors to (though in a recent interview Ram Madhav stressed that the RSS was not an “economic fundamentalist”). The RSS may want the BJP to go slow on labour reform. And its frontal groups may want movement on the Ram Mandir front.

“Modi says the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya will not solve all our problems because he prefers to fill empty stomachs first. Hindutva was not an issue in this elections but the aspiration of 125 crore people was. For the RSS, Ram Mandir continues to be an issue,” says RSS man Virag Pachpore.

 

When it comes to HRD, the RSS hopes to bring in change. “We want the government to revise the school curriculum. We want specific chapters on Hindu rulers such as Maharana Pratap and Shivaji,” Nagpur-based Ramesh Shiledar, an old RSS hand, stresses.

In Delhi, RSS men are more circumspect. “If Modi has to deliver, he has to stick to the BJP manifesto,” says Prafulla Ketkar, editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organiser. “As Prime Minister, Modi will abide by the Constitution of India; he will not be guided by the RSS,” adds R. Balachandran, national convener of the BJP intellectual cell.

 

Some, however, believe that the RSS is not going to give up what was once a superior position without a fight. Earlier this week, there were reports that home minister Rajnath Singh had had a talk with RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat over the fate of Article 370 which gives special status to Kashmir. But on Twitter, RSS spokesperson Madhav denied the meeting focused on this issue.

 

“We will never interfere in the functioning of the government. But we will articulate our views,” he says.

 

The RSS, political observers hold, is in a catch-22 situation. “It feels emotionally thrilled that someone who is its own is the Prime Minister. But it also knows that Modi will not allow the RSS to call the shots,” a BJP leader says.

It’s not hard to detect bitterness among some senior leaders in the RSS headquarters. “What does RSS lose even if Modi has dumped it? It doesn’t have any expectation either. We are better off without the BJP and Modi,” Nagpur-based RSS ideologue R.H. Tupkary stresses. “It takes more than 25 years to cultivate leadership in the BJP and only the RSS can make leaders,” he adds.

Meanwhile, a new set of leaders is being groomed at the annual training centre in Nagpur’s Hedgewar Smarak Smruti. Some 700 men in khaki shorts are learning how to wield lathis and batons. This is going to be followed by a discussion on a Hindu nation and the qualities of a swayamsevak. Clearly, for the RSS, the work carries on. –

 

 

( A shorter version of the story has been published in The Telegraph, June 1,2014: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140601/jsp/7days/18467318.jsp)

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