– Words, sometimes, can be more baffling than illuminating. As people struggle over a particularly verbose verdict, legal experts tell Sonia Sarkar that brevity, simplicity and clarity are important parts of a judgment

Justice delayed, as the old saying goes, is justice denied. But what about justice misread? What happens when a verdict is worded in such a way that it is not easy to understand what is being said?

That wordy judgments can be difficult to understand was brought to the fore last month when a Supreme Court bench was giving its verdict on the issue of defamation.

“This batch of writ petitions preferred under Article 32 of the Constitution of India exposits cavil in its quintessential conceptuality and percipient discord between venerated and exalted right of freedom of speech and expression of an individual, exploring manifold and multilayered, limitless, unbounded and unfettered spectrums and the controls, restrictions and constrictions, under the assumed power of ‘reasonableness’ ingrained in the statutory provisions relating to criminal law to reviver (sic) and uphold one’s reputation,” Justice Dipak Misra said in a 268-page long judgment in the Subramanian Swamy vs Union of India case.

Faced with a convoluted sentence such as this, it is not surprising that there is growing demand for simply phrased judgments. “Brevity, simplicity and clarity are the essentials of a good judgment,” says (Retd) Justice Sunil Ambwani, former Chief Justice of the Rajasthan High Court. “Sometimes, judges emulate Shakespeare. But they don’t know that little Shakespeare is fatal to justice,” adds former Law Commission chairperson Upendra Baxi.

What constitutes a sound verdict? Reasoning, and the result of that, holds Baxi, who teaches law at the University of Warwick, UK. Verbosity is not a sign of a good judgment, he points out. “Judges should never use flowery language which becomes incomprehensible. One should not need a dictionary to understand a judgment.”

The importance of language lies not just in the fact that it should read or sound well. Legal experts stress that the essence of a verdict should not get lost in the language. A verdict becomes unclear if the wording is not sharp. And that can lead to justice being derailed.

The experts point out that judges should bear in mind that judgments are written for aggrieved parties, lawyers, appellate courts, law students and for society at large. That’s the primary reason why it should be written in an understandable language, they add.

The Supreme Court, too, is aware of the pitfalls of verbosity. It laid out guidelines on the writing of judgments in 2010. It said that “appropriate care” should be taken to not load a verdict with all legal knowledge on a subject as citing too many judgments could lead to confusion rather than clarity.

The movement against incomprehensible judgments has been gaining ground for a while now. The issue was taken up by former Supreme Court Justice R.V. Raveendran in an article titled “Rendering Judgments — Some Basics” in 2009, a collection of lectures that he delivered at the National Judicial Academy in Bhopal. The unwarranted use of legalese, hackneyed phrases and clichés should be avoided in a judgment, he writes.

Justice Ambwani, who wrote around 10,000 judgments in his career as a judge, seconds it. “Plain and simple language has always been appreciated in writing judgments,” he writes in a brochure on “Skills of Judgment Writing” by the Judicial Training and Research Institute, Lucknow. “The greatest of these is clarity. It is better to avoid invidious examples, unnecessary quotations, and lecture.”

There was a time when judges were known for their crisp language. Former Supreme Court Chief Justices M. Patanjali Sastri and P.N. Bhagwati were particularly admired for their language, Baxi says.

Inadequate knowledge of English is often held up as a sign of badly written judgments, but perhaps the issue goes beyond that. Not every judge is fluent in English, for they come from different states, and have different socio-economic backgrounds.

“I knew one judge who used to go through the editorials of newspapers and picked up words from there. He used those words in his order even if there was no need for them,” ex-Justice Ambwani says.

Last month, a Supreme Court bench consisting of Justice Abhay Mohan Sapre and Justice Ashok Bhushan objected to a high court judge passing an order in English which was erroneous on account of grammar, syntax, usage of words and punctuation, and sent the order back to the subordinate court and asked him to issue a fresh order.
But knowledge of English is not essentially a sign of a well-written judgment, and not all scholarly judges are lucid. Baxi believes that some verdicts of V.R. Krishna Iyer — known for scores of path-breaking judgments — were often difficult to understand.

“It is true that Justice Iyer has his authentic brand of self-expression which frequently violates canons of good English as well as good legalese,” Baxi is quoted as saying in the book Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, written by Shailaja Chander.

To ensure that judges write using simple words, the National Judicial Academy in Bhopal and 22 academies run by different states have started compulsory courses for judges with special emphasis on writing judgments.

“Very few judges have good command over language. They use flowery language because they think that’s how a good judgment is written,” Geeta Oberoi, acting head of the National Judicial Academy, says.

The Delhi Judicial Academy, which too conducts courses for judges, has been focusing since 2014 on writing judgments. “We invite English professors who tell judges how to construct sentences in simple words. They also tell them how to keep the essence of judgments intact. A judgment should not be verbose,” an officials says.

“Judgment should always be to the point. To enrich the judgment with language style may not be very desirable. If one gets lost in the language, one loses the grip over the main issue,” former Supreme Court judge V.D. Tulzapurkar said in the Manohar Nathurao Samarth vs Marotrao and Others case (1979).

In the brochure on judgment writing, retired Justice Ambwani stresses the need to adopt short words and avoid long sentences. Minimise jargon and technical terms and avoid double or triple negatives, he wrote. “No reader wants to wrestle with sentences,” he warned.

Justice Misra’s sentence was 73 words long. And, indeed, it called for some serious wrestling.


This story appeared in The Telegraph.

It’s winter, the high season of dining. Ever wondered how many varieties of flesh we consume as a nation? Take a guess, with Sonia Sarkar

The meat is boiled in water with salt and chilli. No spices, no oil. Leafy vegetables and ginger added as garnish. Sometimes, the fresh meat is roasted on a spit or smoke-dried and preserved in bamboo baskets for future use. That’s how the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh likes its favoured table flesh: porcupine.

You heard that right, it’s porcupine.

Not very far from Arunachal, in Nagaland, the Ao tribe relishes the wild bear, listed as endangered, on festivals. The priest gets the head of the animal, the rest is devoured by his tribespeople. But pregnant women avoid eating it; the bear is considered a “stupid” animal.

Indians love their meat. Contrary to the notion that Indians are a largely vegetarian people, a 2014 Registrar General of India survey shows that seven out of 10 Indians are non-vegetarians. Chicken, mutton, lamb, beef, fish and crabs are commonplace. From the melt-in-your mouth galauti kebab of Lucknow to the tangy achari murg of Jodhpur to the spicy beef curry of Kerala, the list is endless. But Indians go beyond the conventional culinary delights.

Besides porcupine and bear, they eat frogs, snakes, dogs, rats, rabbits, yaks, turtles, barking deer, worms, quails and snails, pigeons and turtle doves, mud-snappers and mallards, what not.

This fascination for different forms of meat is nothing new. According to Om Prakash’s Food and Drinks in Ancient India, flesh of a wide range of animals – horses, rams, barren cows, sheep and buffaloes – was cooked in the Rigvedic period (c.1500-c.500 BCE). There is evidence that peacocks and alligators were eaten during the Satavahana period (271 BCE to 30 BCE).

The culinary map of India is vast and fascinating. “It’s a myth that Indians are vegetarians,” says foodie and food historian Pushpesh Pant. “The quantum of meat eating in India is influenced by the economy, climate and the habitat we stay close to.” He adds an essential caveat: “A lot of endangered birds are eaten in India. For example, quail and partridge meat are banned in our country but people eat them in Bhopal, Hyderabad and Awadh.”

We are serious about what we eat, or abstain from, so serious we can kill over them. Here’s a catalogue:

Porcupine: The Indian porcupine, about 32-inches long with a seven-inch tail, is eaten by the Adis of Arunachal Pradesh, Kathkaris of Maharashtra, Tiwa hunters of Karbi Anglong, Assam, and in Bihar. Killing a porcupine is tough because of its sharp quills but its white meat is soft and succulent.

Bear: Apart from the Ao tribe of Nagaland, the Purums of Manipur – settled mostly in Chandel district – also eat bear. They devour shong-amei-but, a curry made out of the entrails of the animal, especially during festivals.

Mithun:The tender meat of mithun, or bison, is eaten by the tribals in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. It is the state animal of Arunachal and is the most prized dowry in the state’s Adi tribe weddings. It is sacrificed on the wedding day by the bride’s brother and then portions of meat are distributed among the villagers. The head of the animal is often relished with opo (rice beer).

Rabbit/hare: Rabbit eating is popular in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Bihar. In fact, it was once promoted by the Bihar government. In 2011, Bihar’s former animal husbandry and fisheries minister and BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, urged people to eat rabbit because it is low on fat and high on protein.

Rabbit, which is a game meat, is also part of the Jodhpuri royal cuisine. The succulent khud khargosh (rabbit meat cooked underground) is eaten during the summers when the hare is lean.

Pig: Pork is widely eaten in Manipur, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Goa and Karnataka among others. Pork musadang (pork cubes dry roasted with green chillies) and Chunga Bejong (spiced pork served in bamboo cooked in wood fire) are dished out in Tripura homes. Goans love their vindaloo and sorpotel especially during Christmas.

Boar: People in various parts of the country go pig-sticking for sport. In Rajasthan, boar spare ribs or bhansalas, are marinated in a mixture of dry yogurt, browned onions, garlic, ginger, coriander, red chilli and kachri (meat tenderiser) before being smoked, spitted on skewers, and grilled over hot coals. Boar is widely popular in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh too.

Turtle: Among the Jeru and Cari tribes of North Andaman, there is a turtle-eating ceremony for the girl when she attains first menstruation. Surveys have found that Christians in Kerala also consume turtles while its eggs are eaten by all communities. People in Jharkhand and Bengal also eat turtles, which are now endangered.

Duck: In Assam, Kumurat diya hanhor mangxo (duck meat curry) is a favourite among locals. Cooked with ash gourd and spiced up with crushed black pepper, duck meat has a distinctive flavour. Christians in Goa love their sweet and sour duck curry. The Wanchos of Arunachal Pradesh relish duck meat. In Kashmir, they have it roasted on an open fire, or curried. It is eaten in Bengal and Bihar as well.

Dog: In Nagaland and Mizoram, black dog meat is part of the regular diet. It is eaten for its punchy taste. The spices they use are Naga pepper ( mejinga), Naga mircha and bamboo shoot.

Frog: Frog legs are a delicacy among the Lepchas of Sikkim. Prepared in multiple ways, it is believed that frog legs can cure various stomach related ailments. In Naga kitchens, frogs are cooked till dry with Naga pepper, ginger, garlic and Naga chilli. Some love their meat with anishi (a preparation made of dried yam leaves). Frogs are eaten when one is injured because locals believe it helps heal faster.

Monkey: It would be wrong to create an impression that you could walk into a restaurant in Kohima and order a plate of monkey brains but monkey is eaten in some parts of Nagaland, and also Arunachal Pradesh.

Rats: The high protein patal bageri (rat meat) is popular among the Musahars, the rat-eating community of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, in 2008, Bihar’s former chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, who hails from the same community, tried to popularise rat meat in restaurants.

For the Adis of Arunachal, rats are a must on the menu in any festival. For them, the most delicious parts are the tail and legs. The Gonds and Bhumias of eastern Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, too eat rat legs.

Elephant: Some research papers suggest that the Adis eat elephants as well.

Yak: Yak meat is naturally lean and around 97 per cent fat-free. This red meat, which is high in protein and low in calories, is consumed by the Sulungs of Arunachal Pradesh, and also by Ladakhis and Sikkimese. The latter eat yak blood cubes too as a snack. It is made by drawing around 0.25 kilogram of blood from yak, poured into a pan and boiled on a slow fire until the blood solidifies. Then it is cut into cubes and hot butter and white sugar are added to it.

Quail: Jodhpuris love roasted quails marinated with a melon-like fruit of the kachri plant that grows wild in the desert. The Maharajas of Rampur, the descendants of Nawab Raza Ali Khan, also keep bater kibiryani in their royal cuisine. The Chettiars of Tamil Nadu fry quails to make their crispy and spicy, ” kada fry”.

Red ant: The sour red ant chutney is known as chaprah in Bastar. And in Jharkhand, especially in Chaibasa, it is known as demta (local word for ant). The ants are cleaned and cooked in a mix of fresh tomato, garlic and chillies and tossed with onions in oil. The mix is dried in the heat before serving.

Monitor lizard: In 2003, a drug addict rickshaw puller from Amritsar came into news when he ate lizards to get a high but for a section of tribes in Assam and Kerala, monitor lizard is a part of the diet.

Insects: In a 2013 book, Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security, the Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that insects could be a viable replacement for meat in the event of a food shortage over the next century. Bodos consume many insects such as caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. Even the Nagas consume over 42 different species of insects.

Snakes: India is known to be a land of snake-charmers but there are tribes who eat snakes. Recently, a man from Jharkhand’s Harmu village in Lohardaga hit the headlines when he chewed and swallowed a snake shortly after it bit him. Some studies say snakes are eaten in Nagaland too.

Squirrel: The Malayan giant and orange-bellied squirrels are hunted in Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh for its meat. They are had roasted.

Peacock: The Bhumia tribe of Madhya Pradesh eats flesh of peacocks. But, of course, they commit a crime if they do; the peacock is our national bird.

We also eat a lot of crow, but of that, another day.

They’ve been at the forefront of social and political activism in Manipur but women haven’t got their due share in power yet. The forthcoming Assembly elections hold out little hope that things will change. Sonia Sarkar looks into the reasons why


  • LADIES LAST: Irom Sharmila Chanu (centre)

Imphal. It’s 4am. At five degrees, 44-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu warms up with an hour-long suryanamaskar. She boils some rice and ‘laphu tharo’ (banana florets) for breakfast. At 7am, donning her green phanek and yellow pullover with a pink shawl, she prepares for a long day ahead. A water bottle, hat and a scarf in the bicycle basket, she sets off for Thoubal, 30 kilometres away.

“I like to start early. I get more hours of the day to meet people,” says Sharmila, famed rights activist and co-convener of the newly formed People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA).

She is having to work hard. After all, she is taking on the three-time sitting chief minister of Manipur and Congress leader, Okram Ibobi Singh, in the forthcoming Assembly elections. Also, being a woman politician in Manipur isn’t easy.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s Indira Oinam, who has been into politics for the past eight years, knows better. “As women politicians, we are made to feel that we are intruding into the man’s world and every day, we need to fight this patriarchal mindset,” says Indira, who too has pitted herself against Ibobi Singh (this is her second attempt at unseating him).

  • Indira Oinam

The irony is that women feel politically left out in a state where they have been at the forefront of many a battle. “Having women participate in social agitations is one thing, giving them their rights in politics quite another. We have failed to do the latter,” says S. Mangi Singh, professor of political science at Manipur University.

There is only a handful of women in politics in Manipur. In the outgoing state Assembly, only three of the 60 MLAs are women. And for the coming Assembly, only two women other than Sharmila and Indira have entered the fray. Both are from Congress – Akoijam Mirabai Devi from Patsoi constituency in west Imphal and Nemcha Kipgen, a Kuki from the Kangpokpi constituency in Sadar Hills. The celebrated boxer and the Rajya Sabha MP, Mary Kom, is likely to be courted by the BJP for campaigning.

“There are only a few women candidates because it’s predominantly a patriarchal society, so the real decision-making power lies with men,” Mangi Singh says.

But it’s not that women in Manipur have no say in society at all. Two Nupi Lan (women’s agitation) movements, the first in 1904 and then in 1939, both against the British, became the defining moments of woman power in the state. Protests led by Rani Gaidinliu against the British, forcing them to leave Manipur, is a local legend. In 1925 and 1932, women also led agitations against the increase of water tax by the then king.

When the late Indira Gandhi was addressing a gathering in Imphal’s polo ground in 1969, women staged a black flag vigil to press their demand for statehood. Curfew was imposed but three years later, statehood was granted.

  • Nemcha Kipgen

An all-woman campaign for prohibition, called Nisha Bandh, was much highlighted in the 70s. Irom Sharmila’s 16-year-long fast to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is iconic, of course. Also, Meira Paibis, or women torchbearers, redefined public protests when 12 naked Manipuri women agitated against the killing of 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi by security forces. Imphal’s all-women Ima market, centre point of the Nupi Lan movement, is considered to be a sign of women’s economic progress.

“But in politics, women are treated as second-class citizens,” says 57-year-old Akoijam Mirabai, the social welfare and co-operatives minister. “People feel women are not committed to politics and their focus is the family.”

That’s the reason Mirabai never got married. “I wanted to tell people that I am serious about politics,” she says.

But the journey wasn’t easy for her when she joined politics in 1980 at the age of 17 – first as part of the Congress Sevadal and then the Mahila Congress. “My neighbours used to tell my parents that my image as a woman would be tarnished if I joined politics. I fought every gaze and every taunt because I knew politics was my true calling,” says Mirabai, who hails from Taobungkhok in west Imphal.

There are several deterrents for women. “Women lack winnability. Even if we want to give tickets to women, we would lose out seats because the BJP might just put up stronger male candidates there. Social goals and political gains cannot go hand in hand,” says a Manipuri Congress leader.

In contrast to national politics, where political parties often foreground women candidates, keeping their glamour quotient in mind, Manipur politicians don’t look at “glamour” as a valid reason to give tickets to women. But glamour or no glamour, Indira thinks, women should get a chance. “When our PM talks about beti bachao, beti padhao, women should get priority in politics,” she says.

A senior BJP leader in Imphal argues that elections are all about money and muscle power and women fail to exhibit both, in most cases. “Indira will fight against Ibobi Singh but we are not projecting her as the CM candidate,” says the BJP leader.

Indira, who fetched 3,668 votes in the 2012 elections, the second largest tally any BJP candidate swung in Manipur, has faced such a bias once before. In 2014, Indira was expecting to get the ticket for Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency but the party chose R.K. Ranjan Singh, instead. Women members of the party protested openly, but quite in vain.

In the past, women in Manipur have mostly contested elections under the legacy of their powerful husbands in politics. For example, former Manipur King Bodhachandra’s wife, Srimati Ishwari Devi, contested from the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency in 1952, but lost.

The first elected woman in the Manipur state Assembly, Hangmila Shaiza, came into politics in 1990 after the assasination of her husband and the former chief minister, Yangmaso Shaiza. Similarly, K. Apabi Devi won the 1992 by-elections after MLA K. Bira Singh died in a plane crash. Both benefited from “sympathy votes”, writes Binarani Devi in her paper, “Electoral Politics and Women”.

Again, Wahengbam Leima Devi, wife of Angou Singh, contested and got elected from Singh’s seat in 2000, only after Singh became an MP. Landhoni Devi, wife of Ibobi Singh, contested and won from the Khangabok constituency in 2007 and 2012 after Singh vacated it as he could retain only one, and that was Thoubal. In Ibobi Singh’s party, patriarchy rules. “Now that his son, Okram Surajkumar, is contesting, Landhoni Devi has had to sacrifice her seat. A woman has to make way for the male members of the family,” a state Congress leader says.

Mirabai feels that her singlehood is certainly a boon for her as a politician. “Being single, I don’t have the compulsion to listen to my husband, at least,” she laughs.

  • M.C. Mary Kom

Mirabai and Nemcha are the only two women to have made a mark in mainstream Manipuri politics without any political patronage. “When I joined politics in 2012, many discouraged me but now they are happy to see that I have sustained,” says Nemcha, who left her job as a nurse in Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences to join politics.

Nemcha – her husband S.T. Thangboi Kipgen is chairman of the United People’s Front, a Kuki militant group – claims one of her biggest achievements is forcing the government to create the new district of Kangpokpi – a longstanding demand of the people of her constituency. The creation of seven new districts, which led to an economic blockade by the Nagas, is one of the issues in the Manipur elections, besides the Centre’s secret peace deal with the NSCN-IM, corruption, unemployment and repeal of AFSPA.

But issues related to women such as compensation to widows, whose husbands were killed either by the militants or the state forces, and women’s empowerment are also likely to enter party manifestos.

In fact, political parties often float women self-help groups to generate funds. In Manipur, a woman’s entry into politics is mostly through social work. Both Indira and Mirabai were well-known social workers before joining politics. But few make it to the decision-making level of the party.

Here, another irony. Female voters have outnumbered the male voters in almost every Manipur election. In 2012, 6,94,893 women cast their votes as opposed to 6,31,223 men. The truth remains, though, that – as Sharmila herself rues – even women voters lack confidence in women candidates. She’s set on contesting nevertheless.

Sonia Sarkar travels into the depths of Abujmarh, Chattisgarh’s inaccessible and guerilla-run forestland, to find flourishing shoots of commerce and change.

A collage of colours – bright blue, yellow and black – welcomes you to Orchha, a small town in the Maoist stronghold of Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh. Coloured tarpaulin sheets drape tables laden with goods set up along the undulating lane that cuts through the dusty town.

Ramesh Usendi holds his chequered blue-grey lungi, fluttering in the wind, with one hand, and with the other fiddles with an MP3 player. He has bought this digital player of Chinese make for Rs 150.

“The shopkeeper downloaded some Gondi songs for me,” says the 25-year-old from Jatlur, 30 kilometres from Orchha in Narayanpur district. Gondi is the predominant tribal language spoken in Abujmarh.

In this back-of-beyond pocket – a land caught in a time warp – excitement arrives every Wednesday morning. For this is when the haat comes up, week after week and through the year. People walk from their villages in the hills and forests, often trekking all day and more to travel 45 kilometres or so, to buy – or perhaps just look at – the goods on sale.

There are torches on the tables, LED bulbs, emergency lamps and even selfie sticks. From synthetic clothes and plastic slippers to fashion jewellery and from pencil cells to mobile phones, the market tempts villagers with a variety of goods. Most have a Made in China emboss; the prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 1,400.

  • WORLD WINDOW: The Orchha bazaar is a social hub where tribals from far-flung hamlets congregate once a week. Pictures by the author

Dressed in a fitted red blouse with a green gamchha and a strip of printed cloth wrapped around her thin waist, Santi Gota of Handawada has walked with her two little children through broken roads and crossed two streams to reach what the locals call their bazaar.

She has bought clothes for her two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and is now looking at artificial silver earrings for herself, a local interpreter explains. “We wear only traditional brass jewellery. But these artificial ones look different,” she says.

The market, a running affair for more than three decades, is the lifeline of people living in the 237 villages of Abujmarh, a terrain that spans across 4,975 square kilometres. The locals also sell their own produce – brooms, tamarind, Indian gooseberries ( amla), etc. – in the market; this is how most earn a little cash and ease living.

But the market has changed character. There was a time it sold only essentials such as rice, sugar, salt, pulses, spices and utensils. For the past five years or so, it has been flooded with cheap Chinese goods.

The shopkeepers are petty merchants from Narayanpur town, who collect Chinese goods from markets in Jagdalpur and Raipur, and sell them in Orchha, 65 kilometres away. Most of the goods enter Chhattisgarh through Hyderabad, administration sources say. According to some estimates, Chinese goods worth about Rs 300 crore are sold in the state every year.

Attempts have been made to put a curb on them. Chief minister Raman Singh had said recently that the government would ban the sale of Chinese goods. There was an outcry against such goods in October, when Chinese-made halogen lamps apparently burst at a cultural programme in Rajnandgaon district and caused eye injuries to many present.

But Abujmarh is not troubled by such threats. The sellers say that halogen lamps and torches are in big demand because electricity is rare; it embraces but a few rural outposts like Orchha, Godadi and Mandali. “Villagers often buy halogen lamps and torches in bulk for the entire village,” says Sunil Singh, who sells the torches for Rs 150 and the lamps for Rs 300 a piece.

The other popular product is the mobile phone. There is no cellular network in the villages, but people like to carry cell phones. “They listen to songs on their phones,” says Suresh Soni, another shopkeeper. “Portable radios are in demand. They want to hear the news,” he adds.

Some shopkeepers believe villagers often buy radios and phones for Maoists living deep in the jungles of Abujmarh. Over 175 villages of Abujmarh fall under the so-called liberated zone ruled by the Jantana Sarkar, or people’s government.

Little is known about this region; it lies cut off from the rest of Chhattisgarh and the country, courtesy an inaccessible geography and the violent politics of Maoist cadres. “The name Abujmarh means nobody knows about anything. It means the area which is unknown, deserted and blank,” says a paper called “Orchha, the market within blank space of Abujmarh” by N.L. Dongre.

The forests are thick with mango, tamarind, mahua and peepal trees. The Indravati river cuts off Abujmarh from Bastar, making it even more isolated. Populated by people belonging to the Gond, Muria, Maria and Halba tribes, most Abujmarh villages can be accessed only by foot.

That is why development is not a word that the villagers know of. Government officials have not stepped into the interiors of Abujmarh. Orchha, its headquarters, is one of the few places that can boast of a healthcare centre. Abujmarh has not been surveyed by the government, and there has been no official mapping yet.

One of the vehicular roads to Orchha leads off from Dhaudai in Narayanpur. I travelled about 30 kilometres down this track to reach the market. The curved and pebbled road passes through dense forests of sal, teak and bamboo thickets. By night, this stretch is inky black. The occasional and passing blur of lights are CRPF camps set up along the route.

After an hour of travelling in the dark, a huge pillar with faded murals of a tribal man and woman welcomes you to Orchha.

Orchha, not to be confused with the more famous tourist destination in Madhya Pradesh, springs to life on Wednesdays – occasionally even Tuesday nights – when the stalls are set up. Sometimes, the police stop vendors from setting up shop at night. When that happens, the market opens the next morning.

On an average, some 400 villagers gather in Orchha for the bazaar. They buy essentials such as vegetables and cereals, and Chinese goods that interest them. The place is also a social hub; this is where tribals from far-flung hamlets convene. “For six days a week, they live in isolation. People wait for this one day,” says Narayanpur district collector Taman Singh Sonwani.

The stalls also tell the villagers about new technology, or of changing trends. For instance, people for generations in these regions have cooked food in utensils made of clay or bottle gourd skin. Now they buy aluminium pots. If they ate mostly boiled kodo kutki (millets) and pikhur (a tuber), they are now buying vegetables, oil and turmeric. Stalls selling samosas and jalebis do brisk business.

Though many tribal people still wear traditional clothes, an increasing number of men sport shirts or T-shirts and cargo shorts, which they pick up from the market. Once they walked barefoot; now they move around in plastic slippers. Women, who earlier wore just a piece of cloth or a lungi wrapped around their waists, are often seen in saris and blouses.

“We have taught them how to wear clothes,” says samosa-seller Nibha Banerjee, who has been setting up a shop in the market for 30 years. Someone called Banerjee? Here? But of course; after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, a lot many refugees were re-settled in these parts and have since made it their home.

This is also where the tribal people – who usually speak Gondi, Maria and Halba – pick up a smattering of Hindi and English. Some of their children study in schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission or the government. Last year, for the first time, three boys from a village in Abujmarh joined Delhi University.

Muru Ram, a 19-year-old boy who has come to Orchha to buy a chain saw for his father, has studied in a Mission school, and now wants to go to Jagdalpur for further studies. The chain saw is not available, and he is asked to come back after a few weeks.

There are rumours that local Maoists have asked hawkers not to sell Chinese goods. The news is unconfirmed and unexplained, but the shopkeepers are worried. “We will clear the stock and not pick up fresh ones. But we will run into losses if we don’t sell Chinese goods,” Soni says.

Ironically, the sale of Chinese goods is the only issue on which the Maoists and the Centre are on the same page.

For the villagers of Abujmarh, China perhaps is no longer a symbol of guerilla warfare with the promise of revolution. It now stands for lights, phones, batteries and music, for profitable commerce and ease of life, no more.


• Area: 4,975 square kilometres, mostly unmapped and inaccessible.
• Stretch of metal road: 54 kilometres
• Population: 34,950
• Maoists (rough estimate): 500
• Security forces: 800 across six camps (Orchha, Dhanora, Basingbahar, Kurusnar, Akabeda and Kukdajhor)
• Security personnel killed between 2012 and 2016: 11
• Maoists killed: 36
• Government schools: 135 across only 30 villages
• Schools destroyed in 10 years: 50*
• Healthcare centres: 6 across 5 villages; 42 had been sanctioned
• Healthcare centres destroyed in  10 years: 12*

*No damage to schools and healthcare centres in the last 5 years
Source: Government and police in Narayanpur and Orchha.


Published in The Telegraph, December 26, 2016.


Sonia Sarkar finds JDU’s Sharad Yadav at his quintessential best – angry, easily affronted, defiant, combative, dismissive

  • Illustration Suman Choudhury

Kashmir’s summer of discontent is writ large on Sharad Yadav’s face. His brows are furrowed and he looks disconcertingly grim. But then the man, who has just returned to Delhi after a futile search for peace in the Valley, has been widely – and perhaps unfairly – pilloried for making an effort to meet separatist leaders.

Some have accused him – and a clutch of other members of Parliament – of overstepping bounds. For Yadav, along with a group of Opposition leaders, had tried to reach out to Kashmiri secessionist leaders. Yadav glowers when I bring this up.

“Kashmir is a 70-year-old issue. How do we solve it in two days,” the 69-year-old leader of the Janata Dal (United) fumes.

Yadav and the 27 other politicians in an all-party delegation of parliamentarians led by home minister Rajnath Singh hadn’t really gone to Kashmir last week to settle the Kashmir conflict. Their attempt was to seek ways to resolve the two-month-long crisis that has brought the Valley to a standstill ever since security forces gunned down the 24-year-old commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, on July 8. In an unending cycle of violence, 76 people have been killed by the forces so far. Many hundreds lie injured, some have lost their eyesight.

The JDU leader, along with, among others, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja, broke away from the group and knocked at the door of the chairman of the All India Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani didn’t let them in, and the media was full of images of the stumped parliamentarians standing outside his closed door. Some even labelled him anti-national for breaking ranks with the parliamentary delegation.

“I don’t care who calls me anti-national. Even if Geelani slammed his door on us, we will go again,” Yadav asserts.

Four other separatist leaders – Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Shabir Shah and Abdul Gani Bhat – did meet Yadav and his group, but declined to have a dialogue with them on the current crisis. “Their bone of contention was that the central government hadn’t invited them to the talks,” Yadav says. “They promised to meet us in Delhi.”

Yadav holds the state government – an alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – responsible for the ongoing crisis.

“When they formed the government in the state, the BJP-PDP alliance declared that they would talk to all stakeholders, including the Hurriyat. Before our visit, too, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had asked separatists to join the talks. Do you really think she invited them without even consulting the Centre? But the home minister said that it (the Centre) had neither said yes, nor said no to it [the MPs’ initiative].”

The confusion, he holds, demonstrates that the BJP is in a bind. “They want to solve the crisis without involving the Hurriyat but the PDP is keen on their participation. There is no co-ordination between the two,” he grumbles.

Yadav blames the Kashmiri youth for the impasse. “The biggest problem in Kashmir is its leaderless youth,” he asserts.

The former minister has just spoken for a few minutes when he waves his hand to indicate that he has had enough of the interview. ” Bas, ho gaya, chalo, chalo (Enough, I am done, you may go now),” he says.

I quickly change the topic, moving to Bihar, thinking that on this issue he may be more forthcoming. This is the state where his party is in power and has introduced Prohibition, which has been roundly opposed by sections of the people. But, no, Yadav is not going to discuss his colleague, JDU president and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. “I will not talk about Bihar,” he maintains.

Not even on the alliance in the state between the Congress and the JDU, once known for its anti-Congress stance? ” Main kah raha hoon ki Bihar ke baare mein baat nahin karna chahta (I have told you I don’t want to talk about Bihar),” he replies sternly.

There is speculation in political circles that all is not well between the Bihar CM and Yadav. Nitish Kumar has been calling the shots in the JDU, which was once Yadav’s domain. As the former convenor of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), he had a cordial relationship with senior BJP leaders such as L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj. But he had no say when Nitish Kumar severed ties with the BJP and pulled the JDU out of the NDA in 2013, rejecting Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections.

Does Sharad Yadav have no role to play in the JDU anymore? “It’s up to you to analyse,” he says, scratching his grey stubble.

In 2013, the party constitution was amended to enable Yadav to hold a third term as the chief of the party. But earlier this year, Kumar was installed as the JDU president, replacing Yadav. Many thought it was to underline Nitish’s popularity with the electorate – which would help the party in the 2019 general elections.

“It’s natural for people to associate the JDU with Nitish Kumar because he is the chief minister,” Yadav says.

There was a time, though, when the Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar was one of the prominent faces of the Janata Dal and its many avatars. He has had a long political innings, too. Active in student politics, Yadav, who topped his batch in the Jabalpur Engineering College in Madhya Pradesh, was the college students’ union president in 1971.

When he was 27, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan asked him to fight a Lok Sabha bypoll from Jabalpur. He won the seat by over one lakh votes. From 1971 to 1974, Yadav, a strong opponent of the ruling Congress, was in and out of jail under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa).

He has been a familiar political face since then – recognisable in his trademark white dhoti and kurta. He is in his usual attire when we meet in his office at his residence in central Delhi. On the walls are photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan.

As a diehard socialist and a follower of Narayan, Yadav surprised many when he joined hands with the BJP as the NDA formed its first coalition government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Yadav was known to have enjoyed friendly relations with Vajpayee. How does he get along with Narendra Modi? “I connected with all the prime ministers in the past but never got a chance to have a one-to-one (relationship) with Modi,” Yadav replies. ” Inse koi samvad nahi ban paya abhi tak.”

How would current developments – Dalit men being flogged by self-styled cow protectors in Gujarat, the Patel agitation seeking reservations in jobs and education in Gujarat, a Muslim man being lynched for storing beef in Dadri – affect the 2019 general elections?

“Their (the BJP’s) pre-poll promises included giving jobs to two crore unemployed people, getting black money back, cleaning the Ganges. They have done nothing of this. They are only talking of gau rakshaks (cow protectors), beef ban, ghar wapsi (re-conversion to Hinduism),” he says. “They have to pay a price for that.”

He waves his hand again – indicating that my time is up. But I can’t leave without a question on his position on women. Recently, he came under fire when he said in Parliament that south Indian women were beautiful, as were their bodies – while his hands moved in a circular motion to explain what he wanted to say. ” Woh nritya jaanti hai (They know dance),” he’d said.

“I was not wrong when I said that women from the South have nice figures because they dance regularly,” he now explains.

On another occasion several years ago, while opposing in Parliament a bill that sought to reserve seats for women in elected bodies, he had referred to urban women dismissively as ” par-kati mahilayein“.

“I admit that I shouldn’t have used the word ‘ par-kati‘,” he states.

By now Yadav has had enough of this particular par-kati mahila. He accuses me of raking up an old issue. “Aapka sanskar kharab hai. Itne din baad aap yeh baat pooch rahin hain. Is baat ka koi waasta nahin hai. (Your values are all wrong. You are bringing this up after all these years when it has no connection to the present),” he says.

Now he is not waving his hand anymore – he is on his feet. The interview has to end, he tells me, for he is waiting for a newspaper editor. ” Ab jaaiye (you may go now),” he says.

I now know how the parliamentarians felt when Geelani showed them the door.


1969-71: Gets involved in student politics while studying engineering at Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh
1974: Spotted by Jayaprakash Narayan as a youngster with promise; contests the Lok Sabha by-election from Jabalpur, wins as an Independent candidate
1977: Enters Parliament as a Janata Party member
Re-elected to Lok Sabha many more times — 1989, 1991, 1996, 1999 and 2009; wins Rajya Sabha terms in 1986, 2004 and 2016
1987: Involved in the founding of the Janata Dal (JD) under V.P. Singh’s leadership; wins from Badaun, UP, joins Cabinet
Becomes JD president replacing Lalu Prasad in 1997. Joins the Vajpayee-led NDA coalition, becomes a Cabinet minister
2003: Merges with the Lokshakti Party and the Samata Party to form Janata Dal (United) or JDU, becomes party president
2013: JDU ends alliance with BJP after Modi is named face of the campaign; is defeated in the LS polls in 2014 by Pappu Yadav
2016: Cedes presidentship of the JDU to Nitish; remains head of the JDU parliamentary party

Should Urjit Patel earn a rap for not raising the flag on demonetisation and its painful playout? Or is he being made the fall guy for a bungled decision? Sonia Sarkar finds out

Talk about keeping secrets. When Urjit Ravinder Patel travels to Delhi on work, his assistants at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) headquarters in Mumbai keep three sets of tickets ready for him. This enables him to travel quietly, without anyone getting to know about his plans, an RBI insider says.

If that’s a waste of energy and money, it’s nothing compared to the mayhem that is being played out across the country. And the secrecy about his travel plans is but a tiny dot compared to the blanket of silence that surrounds the government today.

Almost a month after the Narendra Modi government banned 500-rupee and 1,000-rupee notes, people are still waiting for Patel, 53, to reassure them that all would be well. Last week, in his first public remarks after the demonetisation, he said: “The RBI is taking all necessary actions to ease the genuine pain of citizens who are honest and have been hurt.”

On November 8, Patel – in a black suit and a purple tie – told the media that the RBI would be ready with enough new notes to meet the crisis of a nationwide currency crunch caused by the move.

But clearly it isn’t. And fingers are being pointed at the inscrutable man from Kenya who replaced the gregarious Raghuram Rajan this September. Questions are being raised on how involved the RBI had been in the move.

“If the governor had been consulted on demonetisation, then it is unclear why he did not explain to the Prime Minister the enormous disruption withdrawing 86.4 per cent of the currency in circulation would cause to the economy,” says Meera Sanyal, former banker and AAP national executive member.

Patel, indeed, has some explaining to do. As RBI governor, he would have known how many notes the presses could print, and how much time it would take to replace the old notes, Sanyal says. “He would certainly have been aware of problems that would be caused to households, farmers, traders, businesses, schools, hospitals and banks across the country as cash ran out and had to rationed,” she adds.

Speculation is rife. Former RBI deputy governor K.C. Chakrabarty has been quoted as saying that the last government – led by Manmohan Singh – had also discussed demonetisation, but had been advised against the move because the costs were high, the benefits low.

Was the Modi government similarly apprised? “Patel should have told the government that demonetisation was not necessary,” a former RBI governor states. “It was his job to make the government understand that the purpose of nabbing black money hoarders won’t be served by killing notes.”

The number of killed notes is humungous. Over 16.5 billion 500-rupee notes and 6.7 billion 1,000-rupee notes in circulation – amounting to Rs 14 lakh crore – were believed to have been sucked out. So far, reports show that Rs 11 lakh crore have come back to banks, and more may come in. So the government’s belief that Rs 3-4 lakh crore of black money would not be returned to the banks, and thus would the RBI’s gain, may not be accurate.

Yet, how much of all this is Patel’s fault? The jury is out on that, too, though the All India Bank Officers Confederation has asked for his resignation. “The show is entirely managed by the finance ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. The RBI is only doing a post office’s job,” Chakrabarty says.

Patel may have unwittingly presaged his present predilection. In a 2007 column, he wrote: “Economists feel smug about their insight regarding the merits of an independent (and narrow) central bank. Actually it is politicians who are smart; it helps to have a central bank (designated as independent) that can be blamed for taking away the punch bowl just when the party is getting started, but it can also overrule the central bank and be seen on the side of depositors, who also happen to be voters.”

It’s not easy for a government employee to stand up to the government. But many have done so. The government wanted interest rates to go down but Raghuram Rajan preferred to keep inflation under control instead. Former governor D. Subbarao also didn’t give in to the demand for interest rate cuts during the UPA years. In 1957, a similar issue had forced the then RBI governor, Benegal Rama Rau, to resign after a difference of opinion with finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari.

But Patel, unlike many of his predecessors, has not had much experience in handling political pressures. “Patel could be academically excellent, but he lacks administrative experience in a government office – which is what is needed in a large and complex economy like India’s,” says Chakrabarty.

Indeed, his stints in the government have been short. He was working for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when he was sent to the RBI on deputation for advising it on the development of the debt market and banking sector reforms in 1996-97. In 2001, he was a member of the drafting team for the RBI’s advisory group on securities market regulations. He was a consultant with the finance ministry from 1998 to 2001.

In 2013, he was appointed RBI’s deputy governor. There was a hitch – having grown up in Nairobi and studied in England and the United States, he didn’t have an Indian passport.

At that point, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a recommendation letter to the home ministry. Patel, Singh said, was “very important for the country”. Some believe Patel had impressed Singh with a paper he had co-written called “The Dynamics of Inflation ‘Herding’: Decoding India’s Inflationary Process”. When the UPA returned to power in 2009, Patel was an expert commentator tracking the first 100 days of the government for a Hindi news channel.

A former Oxford University professor is not as impressed with Patel as Manmohan Singh was. Patel, when he was pursuing an MPhil from Oxford (he later completed his PhD from Yale in the US), did not stand out “socially or intellectually” and did not write any “exceptionally brilliant” papers, says the ex-professor.

“It’s a coterie of economists led by former Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who has a fascination for people who have worked with the IMF and the World Bank, that made Patel’s entry into the RBI possible. Even Rajan has a similar professional background, but he was clearly a distinguished and decorated economist.”

Rajan, in fact, appointed his deputy as the chairman of the RBI’s monetary policy committee, saying that he was confident he would be able to guide the committee to move forward in achieving India’s inflation objectives.

Patel may not have had much experience in governance, but has worked for the private sector. He was the executive director and member of the management committee in Infrastructure Development Finance Company Limited (IDFC) from 1997 to 2006. Reports suggest that it was then that he met Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat. Modi offered him the post of independent director and chair of the audit committee on the board of the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC) in 2005-06. (The GSPC borrowed more than Rs 19,000 crore from banks.) In 2008, he joined Reliance Industries as president (business development).

Unlike his predecessor, whose flamboyant manner was regularly remarked upon by the media, not much is known about Patel, the person. Some describe him as “abrupt”. His collection of ties – purple, blue and orange – has often been a topic for conversation. Rajan went for jogs, but Patel is not known as a fitness freak. At the fifth BRICS Deputies’ meet in Durban in 2013, however, he was spotted on a treadmill every morning.

Patel lives with his mother, Manjula, in Mumbai and, if he can, dines with her every evening. The family is originally from Mahudha village in Gujarat’s Khera district, a traditional Patidar belt. His father, Ravinder, moved to Nairobi where he set up a chemical factory. Young Urjit studied at the Oshwal Academy Nairobi Primary and then at the Jamhuri High School.

“Urjit was calm, polite and always smiling,” recalls Umakant Patel, head of the Premiere Club of Nairobi. “He often came to the club for walks with his father.”

He was married in the mid-90s to Vibha Joshi, and the couple divorced in 2003. Joshi was the sister of Arvind Joshi, an IAS officer who was suspended in February 2010 after IT raids. Arvind and his wife, Tinoo, are in jail.

His personal history has little to do with the present, which is, clearly, tense. “He is on test now in what has been his most high profile and important job so far,” says Shumita Deveshwar, director, India Research at Trusted Sources, an independent investment research firm that focuses on emerging markets.

What he needs to do, an economist stresses, is communicate with the people. “He doesn’t talk much, and that’s his real problem,” says the economist who worked with him on a Planning Commission Plan. “Unless he communicates with the media, one won’t understand his stand as the RBI governor.”

Meanwhile, the Twitter world can’t have enough of Patel’s silence.

Missing Notice, says a post.

Name: Urjit Patel; Last seen: Altamount Road; If found inform RBI, Mint Road, Mumbai Distinguishing feature: Says yes to everything.

Another post asks: “Have you seen Urjit? Urjit Patel, 53, last seen at RBI Building. Please come home. All is forgiven. Situation serious.”

And serious it is.

‘To say that my attack on Urjit is personal is utter rubbish’

Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh has demanded the resignation of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor. “Urjit Patel is either guilty of misleading the nation about the RBI’s preparedness on demonetisation or has sacrificed the autonomy of the RBI. Either way he should resign,” he wrote in a recent article. He tells us in an email interview that those responsible for the “chaos, despair and panic among citizens” should be held accountable. Extracts:

Q. RBI governor Urjit Patel says the RBI is taking “all necessary actions” to ease the “genuine pain of citizens”. Your reaction?

A. The RBI governor’s response has only bolstered my argument that either the RBI misled the nation about its preparedness or got forced into this decision. The governor has not explained in unambiguous terms the cause for this chaos or concrete timelines to end this suffering of citizens.

Q. Finance minister Arun Jaitley called your column “an unfair attack”. Many in the BJP say it was a personal attack on Patel.

A. It is utter rubbish that this is a personal attack. It is now the unanimous opinion of all – bhakts and non-bhakts – that there is chaos, despair and panic among citizens over access to currency notes. So who is responsible for this? There has to be an accountability somewhere. We have a culture in this country where ministers resign over accidents or even natural disasters. This is a disaster of monumental proportion inflicted entirely by poor planning and execution. So is it not right to question the concerned person and authority?

Q. Do you think Patel is handicapped by his old connection with the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC)? [He was an independent director and chair of the audit committee of GSPC and is said to have approved GSPC’s excessive borrowings from banks.]

A. GSPC is certainly the elephant on the 18th floor office of the RBI headquarters! The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has indicted GSPC over its huge borrowings and squandering them away. The Indian Expresshas exposed a related party conflict between [ex-Gujarat energy minister] Saurabh Patel and GSPC. Urjit Patel was the chairman of the audit committee and independent director during this entire time. People in public life should be held to high standards of probity, shouldn’t they?

Q. Will Patel be able to deal with inflation, banking sector reforms and so on?

A. I do not for a moment doubt Urjit Patel’s academic credentials as an economist. The issue here is who is responsible for unleashing this unprecedented misery on the people of India and why should they not be held accountable.

Published in The Telegraph. December 4, 2016.


Sonia Sarkar reports from Kashmir on efforts by Valley folk to prevent the violent turmoil from derailing children’s education

  • LESSONS FOR LIFE: A community school in Budgam

Winter is closing in on Kashmir. The skies have turned grey, the air ridden with fog, the tall chinars have shed their leaves and stand shivered, the government has moved to Jammu. Winter is a quiet season in these parts. But this year, an unusual hubbub has come to populate the Valley’s indoors. Shut out of schools since summer, children are keeping up with the help of community volunteers — a unique effort to insulate education from disruption.

Hena Bashir is not worried about the ongoing board examinations. “At least I know I won’t fail,” says the 17-year-old Class XII student of a government school in Kashmir.

Bashir was given special lessons in Shopian in a makeshift arrangement locally referred to as a curfew school.

Classes are held in wedding halls, mosques and homes. The tutors are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and fresh graduates. Among the students are children who sometimes travel eight kilometres to take classes.

Regular schools in Kashmir broke for the summer on July 1. They were to have reopened after 15 days, but never did. On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, leading to widespread protests. Curfew was in force for 79 days. Among the worst hit were schools.

  • Security forces guard a school in Padgampora

Schools have become a bone of contention in Kashmir. “The separatists are not letting schools open to register their protest. The government is conducting examinations to show normalcy,” says a government education officer. “It is education versus azadi.”

But Kashmiris, who saw thousands of youngsters dropping out of school and college when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, don’t want another generation to suffer. It is for this that curfew schools have come up.

The first such school was set up in Bandipora in north Kashmir this August. When the unrest showed no signs of abating, more informal schools — they charge no fees — came up.

“We had to support the resistance movement but we also wanted to help our students. The entire community pitched in. Even a former militant opened his house for a curfew school for more than 300 kids,” says Arafat Basheer, a civil engineer from Tral, the south Kashmir home to Burhanuddin Wani and militancy hotbed, who taught in one such school.

  • A game of cricket at the Idgah in Tral
    Photographs by Sonia Sarkar

To begin with, not many parents were enthusiastic about these classes. But with private tuition centres shut, they realised this was the only way out. “Parents took the risk of sending their children to our school because they wanted them to study,” stresses Idrees Fazili, a computer science expert who taught in a school in Budgam, south of Srinagar.

Classes were, on an average, held for four hours every day. Some of the schools opened at 6am to ensure that there was no police interference. Still, it was not easy.

“I was stopped by the police once. They were not convinced that I was going to a school to teach. They let me go only after one of my students, who was passing by, told the police I taught them,” says Engineer Arshad, a civil engineer who taught mathematics in a curfew school in Shopian, also in south Kashmir.

Kashmir’s education minister Naeem Akhtar, however, believes that these schools cannot be a substitute for formal education. “This is only a stop-gap arrangement,” he says. “People must understand that discipline comes only through formal schooling. One cannot miss it for long.”

The curfew schools are shut for now, but are likely to start again. Right now, there is a lull, for the government has announced that all government students from Classes I to IX and XI will be automatically promoted. Most private schools have followed suit.

Board examinations for Class X and XII have also begun. The syllabi have been relaxed to help students clear the exams, a move some youngsters describe as a “super sale”.

  • ANOTHER TEST: File photo of students heading for an exam centre

But the people of Kashmir stress that the classes were not just about helping children cope with studies. Often, the teachers discussed issues that went beyond school syllabi.

“When we were teaching a chapter on Gandhi, some students wanted to know why they were being taught India’s history, why not Kashmir’s history,” says Mohammad Saquib, a curfew school teacher in Anantnag.

The journalism graduate adds that intense political discussions often took place. “Articles on Burhan Wani and a copy of the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir were distributed among the students. We also showed them documentaries on identity and colonialism,” Saquib says.

For many of the students, education is important — as is the cause of independence. So, while the informal classes carried on, so did the protests. Some of the curfew school students admit that as soon as the classes got over, they were out on the streets, chucking stones at security forces.

“I used to cover my face with a handkerchief and wear a pair of sunglasses to join the protests,” says a 16-year-old Shopian student.

But some children are also missing regular school. Thirteen-year-old Ikra Jaan, playing cricket at the Tral Idgah with her best friend, Qurat ul Ain, is among them. Jaan has a message for separatists: “Humare liye jaldi se school khol do. Hamara future kharab ho raha hai — please get our schools to open; our future is in danger,” she says.

Some elderly Kashmiris, who have entered the grounds, shut her up. “What would they achieve even after they study? They won’t get a job even if they become toppers. As Kashmiris, their life won’t change, will it?” asks Zafar Mushtaq, 60. As if on cue, a group of small children — all in the 6-8 age group — begin an “Azadi! Azadi!!” chant.

The closure of schools underlines the divide in Kashmir over how long the protests should continue. Burhan Wani’s father, Muzaffar Wani, principal of a government school in Tral, stresses the need for qurbani (sacrifice). “Some children have lost their eyesight after being shot with pellet guns. Some have lost their legs. So some students might lose a year. Qurbani toh deni padhegi Kashmir ke cause ke liye,” he says.

The curfew schools also point to a development that has had the people worried — the burning down of school buildings. In these five months, at least 31 schools in Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian have been burnt down. Security forces blame supporters of separatists for the arson, holding that they want to ensure the protests carry on. But people in the Valley believe security forces burned the buildings to malign separatists.

More than 25 people have been arrested in this connection. Control rooms have been set up by the government to prevent more cases. Teachers have been assigned to guard schools.

In parts of Kashmir, some people are questioning the impasse between the government and the protestors. “Since the government is not responding to the bloodshed, it’s time separatists revised their strategy. Let’s de-link education from protests and allow students to attend school,” says Hameedah Nayeem, a professor and chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of pro-freedom parties, doesn’t agree. “It’s the people’s decision to continue with the strike,” he says. “How else do you register protest? It’s not that we are not worried about the future of our children, but the strike will continue.”

For Kashmir’s students, crisis has always been a way of life. Bashir has faced academic hurdles almost every year. When she was in the sixth standard in 2008, schools closed for months because of an agitation surrounding the Amarnath land row. In 2009, there was an uprising when two women from her district were allegedly raped and killed by security forces. In 2010, more than 110 protesting children were killed by security forces. Two years ago, schools were shut because of floods.

This time, though, a curfew school came to her rescue. Just for the present, Bashir has no worries. And this quiet winter, there’ll be enough time to sit close to hearth fires and burrow into books.

Published in The Telegraph. November 27, 2016.




Culture minister Mahesh Sharma does some practised hop and skip around Sonia Sarkar’s questions
The minister meets each of his visitors, embraces some, laughs aloud now and then (often at his own jokes), narrates a story or two — and keeps an eye on me. I am waiting for Mahesh Sharma in his office in Delhi’s Transport Bhawan, and can hear the culture and tourism minister say — in a particularly loud voice — that he is soon going to get busy with the Prime Minister.

He has just declined an invitation to preside over a function. For that is the day when he has to be present with the Prime Minister at another event, he explains. “I’ll be there all day,” he tells the visitor, and then looks at me. “On that day, I have to focus on that event, and on nothing else. You know, he is such a perfectionist,” he says.

It is interesting to watch him from the sidelines. The member of Parliament from Gautam Budh Nagar, or Noida, in Uttar Pradesh is discussing an event with a group of men from the Gujjar community; it’s about laying the foundation stone of an archaeological institute in Greater Noida, which falls in his constituency.

“Don’t forget to add the Kashmir angle to this,” he tells his aides in Hindi while discussing the event.

Elections are round the corner in UP, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader is invoking nationalism. Kashmir and the Indian Army are subjects that the minister likes to hold forth on. He tells his visitors how Gujjars — Muslim shepherds of Kashmir — have helped the army by keeping an eye on infiltrators from Pakistan.

“Soniaji, aap jitne bhi badi editor ho jaayen, yeh general knowledge kahin nahi milega (however big a journalist you may become, you won’t get this bit of general knowledge anywhere),” he tells me.

“You know, Gujjars in Kashmir played a major role as informers for the army in our two wars against Pakistan in 1965 and 1999 (Kargil),” he adds.

Clearly, for the BJP, it’s important to keep the nationalist flag flying — and the memory of Uri alive, the September 18 incident in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed by Pakistani terrorists. In the run-up to the UP polls, the party
has placed huge billboards across various towns in the state, lauding the army’s surgical strikes which followed the Uri attack.

‘‘All national television channels were showing everything about the surgical strikes. These were not visible in UP alone. If people want to link them with the elections, let them,” he says.

His ministry is contemplating steps which may or may not be linked with the polls, depending on how you view them. Sharma announced a Ramayana museum project for Ayodhya. The town is also expected to be a part of the Ramayana circuit, one of three religious circuits to be promoted by his tourism ministry.

The BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP, Vinay Katiyar, who has been making disgruntled sounds of late, called the Ramayana project a pre-poll “lollipop”. Is that right, Mr Sharma?

“No, it’s purely tourism. We have been working on this for the past one year. We want to take tourism to new heights,” the 58-year-old minister maintains.

Sharma is an uncharacteristically reticent man, meeting journalists at any rate. He is chary of the media, which has often been critical of him. And that’s mainly because he courts controversy every time he opens his mouth. Not too long ago, he had addressed the visiting New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, as McCullum — the former skipper of the Kiwi cricket team.

Last year, he had the media zero in on him when he said that night outs for girls were not a part of Indian culture. Then again, he urged women foreign tourists not to wear short skirts if they wanted to stave off harassment.

Why does he make such comments, I ask him.

“That’s my subject, my ministry is like that,” he replies.

The hemline of skirts comes under the culture and tourism ministries?

“See, I clarified immediately [after the comment was made],” he adds. “Suppose you say that I abused you. Then someone asks me if I abused you, and I said, no, I did not. Then that chapter should be closed there.”

But he agrees to explain his stand once more. “I never said that girls should not do nights out. Whatever statement I made in the past, people made controversies out of them. I am not an expert in facing the media. I am a doctor by profession,” he says with a smile on his face.

Some would, however, say that Sharma suffers from a foot-in-mouth syndrome, I point out. “This could be somebody’s nature,” he admits.

It’s clear that Sharma is measuring his words. On some issues, he prefers not to comment. He will not react to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray’s demand that Karan Johar pay the army’s welfare fund Rs 5 crore as “penance” for signing up a Pakistani actor in his last film.

“Why should I comment on that,” Sharma asks. “If I say something, you will again say, I have a foot-in-mouth disease,” he says.

He won’t comment on self-styled cow vigilantes or gau rakshaks who have lynched Dalits for allegedly skinning dead cows. I prod him a little bit, and he responds. “No human being should be lynched — it’s to be condemned and stopped,” he says.

In that case, how is it that he paid homage to Ravin Sisodia, who was accused of lynching Mohammed Akhlaque in Dadri in 2015 for allegedly storing beef?

“You know, people have polluted minds,” Sharma says. “I am the member of Parliament from that area. Except me, nobody has the right to visit those places. And remember, he was an accused, not a convict. Also, there was a stress situation between locals and the police after his death. I went there to ease the tension.”

He points out that he also met Akhlaque’s family after he was killed. “I also got his injured son operated in my hospital,” he says, referring to Noida’s Kailash Hospital, which he owns. “I gave consent to his surgery at midnight. So as the MP, I did the right thing,” says Sharma, who had earlier called Akhlaque’s murder an accident.

As a minister, Sharma has often been in the eye of raging storms. It was reported in July that his ministry was grading writers and artistes in the country as “promising”, “outstanding” and “waiting”. His ministry is also pushing for the Rs 5-crore Kashi to Kashgar road project, proposed by the Archaeological Survey of India. This project seeks to retrace an ancient route that Buddhist missionaries took from Kashi to Kashgar in China’s Uyghur region.

Sharma has also come under periodic fire for replacing heads of government-run cultural institutes with people said to be handpicked by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He, however, insists that there is no concerted move to “saffronise” these institutes.

“Whenever a new Prime Minister comes, he has a vision on how these institutes should work. When I am entrusted with this responsibility by the PM, I ensure that all these organisations work for the cause for which they have been created. Their job is to showcase India’s rich heritage and culture for the country and the world,” he says.

And that didn’t happen earlier? “I won’t comment on how they worked earlier. But I don’t have a vision about throwing out the Left. All the institutes required some changes, so I made them,” he holds.

Sharma’s links with the RSS are known — and he is proud of them. “The RSS instilled the idea of ‘nation first’ in me.” He came in contact with the RSS just before he joined Delhi University’s University College of Medical Sciences.

Sharma says he always wanted to be a doctor. “When I was eight or nine, somebody in my village said that was a 25 paise coin inside a squirrel’s head. To know if that was true, I killed a squirrel,” he recounts.

“There were people who buried their children in the village. I, along with my friends, dug them out to study them. I
always had a medical bent of mind,” he says.

Sharma opens up — and he may well have put the foot back where it belongs with these gory details — only when he speaks about his childhood. But on matters of policy and governance, he has clearly decided that he is going to be circumspect when the media is around.

He says as much to a visitor who wants to discuss a proposal for a heritage reality show involving school children.
“I think, every child should know about the country’s rich heritage and culture. They should have a ‘country first’ feeling,” he tells her. “But when I say this, the media will write, dekho, bhagwakaran kar rahe hai (he is trying to saffronise them),” Sharma tells her, pointing to me.

It’s not easy being Mahesh Sharma. And it’s certainly not easy being a mediaperson with him.


1960s: Sharma spends his early years in Alwar, Rajasthan. While he is still in school, the family moves to Delhi and at 14, Sharma gets involved with the RSS. Joins ABVP eventually; completes the rest of his education
1983: Starts his career as a general physician in Noida. Later, establishes Kailash Healthcare Limited, a chain of hospitals in Uttar Pradesh
2009: Contests the 15th Lok Sabha elections on BJP ticket from Gautam Budh Nagar and loses. But in 2012, gets into the UP Assembly
2014: A week before Lok Sabha polls, the Congress candidate for Gautam Budh Nagar — Ramesh Chand Tomar — crosses over to the BJP. This tips the scales in Sharma’s favour. He wins and is inducted into the Union Cabinet
Given the portfolios of culture, tourism and civil aviation. Hogs headlines with his remarks about the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam — that he was a great man “despite being a Muslim” — and the need for a “cultural cleansing” of the country
2016: Announces bonanza of nine airports for UP. Manages to get the ministry to agree to build a second airport near Delhi, in Jewar. (Kailash Hospital in Jewar started functioning in 2015)
A day later, loses crown of junior civil aviation minister in Cabinet reshuffle. Bureaucrats describe him as a “big talker” always trying to hog the limelight


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    • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
    • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...