– 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.

Returning to Bangladesh is like going away to find myself home


DHAKA IS a bit like Calcutta – noisy, chaotic. I connect the Bangladesh capital with traffic jams and those cage-like green auto-rickshaws that give new meaning to claustrophobia. But this time, as I leave the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport behind, on my way to Banani in the north of Dhaka, I cut through an eerie silence.

The city is a ghost town. The autos are missing, and there are no crippling gridlocks. A festival is around the corner, but there is little sign of the joyousness that comes with Eid.

Dhaka is observing a two-day national mourning to pay homage to those killed in a terror attack in an upmarket cafeteria. I land there three days after the attack that killed 20 people, most of them foreigners, in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, Gulshan.

Chaos on the roads is a sign of normal life in Dhaka; calm indicates that not all is well. When I visited Dhaka for the first time in 2011, all was well: the city was loud and messy. I was on my way there from Jessore – and was surprised to see towering buildings, flyovers and glitzy malls in the capital. Jessore, on the other hand, was the archetypal sleepy town.

Jessore is an hour’s drive from Benapole, the Bangladesh border town which is commonly used as a crossover between Dhaka and Calcutta. I was there to chase a story on child carriers who illegally ferried sugar, urea, bicycles, cough syrups and even country-made pistols to Bangladesh from India.

Unlike Dhaka, there was no “rush hour” in Jessore. There were no newly-paved footpaths or highrises either. There was a time when Jessore had the biggest cinema hall of Bangladesh. But Monihar had been overtaken by multiplexes elsewhere. Jessore, however, now boasts of a technology park, multi-cuisine restaurants and malls.

It is also a treasure trove of heritage. The Jessore Institute Public Library, established in 1851, is Bangladesh’s oldest and largest library, with a huge collection of books, manuscripts, journals and newspapers. And you can’t go to Jessore and not see the massive sculpture called Bijoy, at the Michael Madhusudan Memorial College campus, dedicated to the martyrs of the Bangladesh War of Liberation of 1971.

Going to Jessore was like going home – albeit a home I had never visited. Jessore is the place my ancestors came from. For years, I held up the flag of “Opaar Bangla” and participated in various Bangal vs Ghoti debates, where I left no stone unturned to make the former look superior in every respect (knowledge, food, hospitality and much more) to the latter. So when I reached Jessore, it was like a dream come true – I was in the place that I belonged to. Like a true Bangal, I told myself, ” Aah, amago dash.”

My paternal grandfather, Adhir Kumar Sarkar, a timber merchant, lived in a sprawling two-storey house with long white columns, overlooking a thakur dalan (where the deity was kept for daily worship), in the erstwhile Khashial village in Jessore. Several acres of rice fields surrounded the house, we were told. Middle-aged Nakuruddin Mia used to look after the fields when grandfather shifted his base partially to Calcutta in the late 30s. Even though he visited Khashial at regular intervals, the visits during the Durga Puja were special for the family: gatherings, lunch, new clothes, entertainment, celebrations.

My efforts to locate Khashial were in vain. The village doesn’t exist anymore, I was told. But I traced my roots partially to the ancestral house of the Bengali poet and father of the Bengali sonnet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. At his house-turned-museum in Sagordari, I came across a signboard of the Jessore and Khulna Co-operative Bank, which had an office in the complex. My grandfather was a member of the board. I felt like an achiever to have partially traced the past.

The spiral staircases of the house took me to the room on the first floor, whose walls were plastered with photographs of Dutt, his poems and even some of his answer scripts. At the entrance of his house was his epitaph, a verse of his own. A few days before his death on June 29, 1873, Dutt gave the verse to Debaki, who, some historians say, was romantically interested in him. It read:

“…On the bosom of the earth,

Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep

Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.”

These words rang in my ears for days.

As I touch the soil of Bangladesh once again this June, I wonder how life would have been if my grandfather had chosen to stay back, like many other Bengali Hindu families. But the thought doesn’t stay with me for long as I quickly recall the words of a Hindu friend from Dhaka: ” Din kaal bhalo na, bujhla. Amra khub bhoye thaktesi” – these are not good times, we live in fear.

Indeed, attacks on Hindus – bloggers, priests and activists – by Islamic radicals are rampant in Bangladesh these days. The social fabric of Bangladesh is changing. Young men from elite families are joining terror outfits. The other sign of radicalisation is the use of veils by women. Hijab or burqa is not mandatory in Bangladesh, yet more and more women are wearing one these days. An old timer of Dhaka tells me, “Even some years ago, if a woman from the relatively conservative part of old Dhaka stepped out of her house in a burqa, the local urchins would tease her with the words ‘Burqe wali bua, tere burqe mein chuha’ (There is a mouse in your burqa, aunt).”

But I decide that for my grandfather’s sake, I will always celebrate Bangladesh. I leave for India after a special Eid meal at my friend’s place. The taste of the shorshe ilish – mustard hilsa – and maachch chorchori – a mix of various kinds of fish – stays with me long after I return home.

The man who brought the ISIS footprint to Dhaka remains at large and could still be in Bangladesh. Sonia Sarkar has exclusive details from an ongoing probe

He is 30, has an egg-shaped face and a neat French beard. In a photograph that the Bangladesh police have circulated, he is seen wearing retro, rectangular glasses. But he could well be the unkempt rickshaw-puller you see, or perhaps the daily-wager waiting for a job. Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury – who is believed to have masterminded the terror assault in a Dhaka café last month – could well be moving around in disguise.

This Tuesday, the Bangladesh police said they had arrested four women and identified seven others connected with the July 1 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, in which 20 people were killed. But the one who still evades arrest is Chowdhury, a Canadian-citizen of Bangladeshi origin, with a US$ 25,000 (over Rs 16 lakh) bounty on his head.

“We are trying but we have not been able to arrest him yet,” says Mufti Mahmud Khan, director (media) of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism unit.

Researchers studying Chowdhury’s movements believe that he may be hiding in a densely populated city such as Dhaka. “It is easier to hide in a busy suburb, where you can move freely without people getting suspicious of you,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian scholar currently a fellow in the extremism programme at the George Washington University in the US capital.

As Chowdhury’s story is pieced together by researchers and security experts, little-known facts are being unearthed about the man who is on Bangladesh’s most wanted list. His grandfather, Abdul Majid, belonged to Sadimapur in Sylhet and was a member of the infamous East Pakistan Central Peace Committee, formed by the Pakistan Army to crush rebels of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

But Chowdhury’s life unfolded thousands of miles from Sylhet. He grew up in Canada, where his father, Shafiq Ahmed, who worked for a shipping company, had migrated in the early Seventies. Young Tamim is remembered as a shy and skinny boy when he was studying at the J.L. Forster Secondary School in Ontario.

He was seemingly fond of track and field activities – but always lagged behind other participants. He represented his school in an inter-school meet in 2004. He was last among 45 entrants in the 100 metre dash, last of 30 in javelin throw, and last among 28 in shot put throw, says Devin Gray, communications co-ordinator, Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations.

After finishing school, Chowdhury joined the University of Windsor to major in chemistry. University authorities refused to speak about their ex- student, but his acquaintances told Amarasingam that he was a “regular guy” in college.

That he had changed became apparent after 2011, when he finished college. That was when he moved to Calgary, the ski resort town in Canada’s Alberta Province, where, local newspaper reports say, there has been a rise in the number of Islamic groups in recent times.

Chowdhury is believed to have joined a small prayer group in Calgary and come in contact with two locals – a white Canadian called Damian Clairmont who converted to Islam and a Pakistani-Canadian called Salman Ashrafi. Clairmont joined the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and was killed by the Free Syrian Army in 2014; Ashrafi joined the ISIS and was killed in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2013.

People around him started noticing the changes in the boy from Ontario. Amarasingam was told that he had become “domineering” and “arrogant”. Some who met him in 2012 said he was “full of himself” and “unbearable” because of his extreme views.

“This is part and parcel of the radicalisation process. He believed that he had discovered the truth whereas everyone else was living a falsehood,” says Amarasingam, who also co-directs a study of western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Initial investigations by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reveal that Chowdhury believed in the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, a pro-al-Qaida propagandist killed in 2011. He followed his online speeches and videos, which urged Muslims in the West to either go abroad or conduct terrorist attacks at home. Investigators say Chowdhury had started uploading posts as Abu Dujana al-Muhajir in a blog called Beneath which Rivers Flow. The blog had been started by a man called Ahmad Waseem, who is believed to have joined the ISIS and was killed by Kurdish forces in 2015.

In his blog posts, he wrote that he and others had taken up arms against a “global system of oppression” in which “innocent men, women and children are pleading for our help”. He described the Canadian government as “evil” and “despotic”. Jihad, he wrote, was going to be as Canadian as maple syrup.

Chowdhury’s radicalisation worried the community. In 2013, religious leaders in Windsor urged him not to talk to local Muslim youths. “There was a sense that he was radicalising fellow youth and goading them into something,” Amarasingam says. A year later, in his blog posts, he denounced the local imams as “deviant” and said they had been outnumbered by militants.

Details about his life in Canada are still sketchy. It is believed that he is married and has three children. What is not clear is when he left Canada. Some believe it was when the police started questioning him after Waseem joined the ISIS in 2013. But some reports state that he may have gone to Syria in 2012.

“People I interviewed had told me that he had almost certainly gone to Syria, either directly from Calgary or from Windsor, probably in late 2012. But another source claims he saw him hanging around the University of Calgary in 2013,” Amarasingam says.

There are conflicting reports about when Chowdhury entered Bangladesh but as per immigration records, he landed in Dhaka in October 2013.After arriving, he worked in populated areas such as Mirpur, Gazipur and Savar, police officials believe. They also claim that he started recruiting members to the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, the students’ outfit of the Bangladesh radical group, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh.

Chowdhury, Amarasingam says, worked as a “project manager”, drawing young men into the ISIS fold, organising attacks and establishing links with the central leadership of the ISIS. “If you have the stamp of having visited Syria, then you can have many followers,” he adds.

According to intelligence officials in India, who have also been following the Dhaka attack, Chowdhury stayed in touch with the ISIS leadership regarding the café attack. They also claim that the ISIS in Syria established initial links with five attackers – all in the age group of 18-24 years – through fake Facebook accounts. Once they came into the ISIS fold, the interactions took place through encrypted messaging applications such as Pidgin and Threema.

Chowdhury was kept in the loop but he did not meet the boys to begin with, the officials add. Some of his team members in Bangladesh established links with them to see how committed they were to their cause. It is likely that a meeting with Chowdhury took place in one of his Dhaka hideouts after the boys had left home.

Intelligence officials in Dhaka have revealed that on the day of the attack, Chowdhury, along with the five assailants, came out of an apartment in the Bashundhara residential area. They were spotted near the café at around 8.45pm. Later, the five men stormed in with their weapons, but Chowdhury was not with them. They also believe that nine militants, who were killed by the Dhaka police three weeks ago, had had a meeting with Chowdhury earlier.

In some circles, Chowdhury is also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the “amir (chief) of the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal”, the Bangladesh intelligence officials claim. In an eight-page interview to the ISIS mouthpieceDabiq in April this year, Chowdhury, alias al-Hanif, warned Bangladesh of terror attacks.

“Soldiers are presently sharpening their knives to slaughter the atheists, the mockers of the prophet and every other apostate in the region,” he was quoted as saying. In the interview, he also vowed to “slaughter” non-believers throughout Bangladesh. Police officials claim that Chowdhury’s team killed a Hindu priest in June this year.

In the same interview, he said a group based in Bangladesh would facilitate “guerilla” attacks in India.

On Tuesday, the police said that Chowdhury had been tracked down in Dhaka. Unconfirmed reports earlier said he might have crossed over to Meghalaya in India while running for cover.

The man is still running; and for once, he has taken the lead in a race.

Tracking Terror Next Door

• Bangladesh government denies the presence of the ISIS in the country. But investigations have revealed that Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, is the so-called ‘amir (chief) of
the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal’.

• A video clip was released in July by the ISIS which featured three Bangla-speaking youths. They were believed to be Bangladeshi ISIS fighters in Raqqah, Syria. They said there would be more attacks in Bangladesh.

• Over 261 men, mostly in the age group of 18-24 years, have gone missing in Bangladesh this year. Dhaka police officials believe that some of them have joined terrorist organisations.

• Besides Tamim, Dhaka Metropolitan Police is looking for Nurul Hasan Marzan, who too is believed to have been involved in recent terror attacks.

• The terrorist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, is believed to be affiliated with the ISIS.

• Other terrorist organisations active in Bangladesh are the al-Qaida in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) and Ansarulla Bangla Team

It is a tough time to be a Dalit voice in the BJP. Sonia Sarkar meets Udit Raj, the party’s Lok Sabha MP from North West Delhi, to measure the depths of his discomfort

  • Illustration Suman Choudhury

Udit Raj looks angry. He frowns as an aide tells him that there’s a call from a former Prime Minister’s nephew. “Arrey, chhoro yaar,” he shouts at him – just forget it. He looks more and more irritated as people flood the room. And his eyebrows merge into one harsh slash.

There is good reason for the Dalit member of Parliament (MP) to be incensed. There has been a spate of attacks on Dalits across the country – by members of militant Hindu groups affiliated to Udit Raj’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In Una in Gujarat, four Dalit men were lashed by a mob of cow protectors, led by a Shiv Sena leader. Three members of a Dalit family in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district were attacked by the Bajrang Dal for alleged cattle theft and slaughter. Earlier this week, two Dalit men in Lucknow were thrashed by a group of so-called cow vigilantes for allegedly skinning a dead cow.

“I am ashamed of these cow vigilantes,” Udit Raj, Lok Sabha member from North West Delhi says. “I am ashamed to see Dalits being treated worse than animals by people who belong to their own religion.”

He is angry, no doubt, but circumspect, too. For, while the BJP leadership has been accused of looking the other way as its supporters run amok, Udit Raj – who joined the party just before the general elections two years ago – cannot speak up. In fact, in a newspaper article this week, he tried to give the BJP an exit route, by underlining that it wasn’t just his party that was at fault. “Violence and atrocities against Dalits cannot be linked to any party or government,” he wrote.

But clearly, Udit Raj is in a bind. Dalits are upset with the former bureaucrat they once thought would usher in change. At his residence in Lutyens’s Delhi, scores of Dalit men, from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bihar, have gathered to voice their worries. They want him to tell the top BJP leadership – including Prime Minister Narendra Modi – that these attacks have to stop.

Udit Raj, 55, has not been able to do that. He has not met Modi or BJP president Amit Shah. Behind closed doors, he has been telling his aides that there is little he can do. ” Kya karein, koi sunne ke liye raazi hi nahin hai – what can I do, nobody is ready to listen to me.”

He has been waiting for an appointment with Modi and Shah for over a week now. “They decide according to their priority, I think,” he says.

Neither Udit Raj, nor the issue of Dalits, are apparently priorities for the BJP at the moment. It is, at best, two-faced on the issue. Modi often invokes the name and thoughts of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar in his speeches. He inaugurated an Ambedkar memorial in London and launched commemorative coins on him. But he did not condemn the recent attacks on Dalits or pull up the then BJP vice-president in Uttar Pradesh, Dayashankar Singh, for his sexist denigration of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. And though Singh was later expelled from the party, there was no reaction from Modi when Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Hyderabad, described the Una beating of Dalits as a “good thing” in a video uploaded on his Facebook page.

“But why do you want the Prime Minister to speak on this issue? The Union home minister (Rajnath Singh), has ensured the arrest of the culprits of the Una attack,” Udit Raj counters defensively, “And I, myself, have asked for Raja Singh’s expulsion.”

But it is evident his voice doesn’t go too far in the party. Raja Singh is still an MLA, and very much in the BJP. Not surprisingly, many of Udit Raj’s supporters have been asking him what he’s still doing in the BJP.

Why did he join the BJP, a party that has for long been dominated by upper castes, widely perceived as “Manuvadi”? He waves a hand in the air, indicating that he doesn’t want to talk about it. He finally replies, choosing his words with care. “I joined the party because I thought I would bring a change in the condition of Dalits,” he says. “I thought the party was ready to give space to Dalits.”

Udit Raj admits that “caste does play a role” in the upper caste-dominated party. “It has always been so. Dalit leader (and former party president) Bangaru Laxman was thrown out of the party for being caught on camera while accepting a bribe in a fake defence deal expose by Tehelka because he was a Dalit. But the other accused in the case, George Fernandes, was re-inducted as the defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance government even before the inquiry was over. Justice was not done to Laxman by the party because he was a Dalit,” he says.

Yet, he joined the party, after his own outfit, the Indian Justice Party, which he floated in 2003, failed to make a mark. He stresses that he is not an “ace” politician – he is certainly not in the league of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, who has emerged as the undisputed political face of Dalits. But Udit Raj and Mayawati cannot be on the same platform – the grapevine has it that he was keen to strike an alliance with her; she wasn’t. Though Udit Raj criticises Dayashankar Singh’s derogatory remarks on Mayawati, he also believes that her supporters were wrong to hurl abuse at Singh’s daughter. “That’s not right at all,” he maintains.

He doesn’t want to talk about Mayawati’s chances in the Uttar Pradesh elections – though there is speculation that she may gain, electorally, from the BJP parivar‘s attacks on Dalits. But he does believe that the BJP, which got 24 per cent of the national Dalit vote share in 2014, will suffer in UP because of the attacks on Dalits. He merely stops with saying: “These incidents will have some bearing on the elections.”

He should know – for Udit Raj understands the Dalit mind in Uttar Pradesh. This was where he grew up – in Sirsa village in Allahabad. And this was where he started to raise his voice against oppression – in fact, at home itself. He was in his teens when he stood up against his father for physically abusing his mother. In the Lala Ram Lal Agarwal Inter College and later at the Allahabad University, this lanky dark-skinned angry young man fought for the rights of the oppressed.

Udit Raj, who had been named Ram Raj by his parents, converted to Buddhism in 2001 to escape the “tyranny” of upper castes and rechristened himself. “It was a rebirth for me, so I changed my name to Udit Raj. Udit means awakened.”

His wife, Seema Bahl, is from an upper caste. They met at the National Academy of Direct Taxes, where the two budding revenue service officers had gone for training. “In one of our initial meetings, I told her that I was a Dalit. To this, she asked, what does that mean? I was so impressed that I decided I had to marry her.”

In the Indian Revenue Service – which he quit when he launched the Indian Justice Party – he made a name for himself as the voice of Dalits in government. It was his “uncompromising effort”, he says, that forced the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to pass the 81st, 82nd and 85th constitutional amendments, leading to the revival of reservations in promotion for SC/ST categories, which had been held “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court.

That was then. Observers of Dalit politics believe he no longer has the rage that was his calling card once. “Some parliamentarians tell me that I was far more fearless when I was not in the BJP,” he says. “But I tell them, I still hold my militant image.”

If he does, he has kept it hidden from his party leaders so far. His voice was not heard when Dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide after being subjected to discrimination in Hyderabad University in January this year. He did not object to some of his party leaders calling his alma mater, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), anti-national, or when JNU student leaders were arrested by the police. He, however, did attend a Mahishasura Shaadat Divas, to worship the demon who battled Durga, in JNU in 2013 – a celebration that had been condemned by the student wing of the BJP and some party leaders.

His aides say that in private, Udit Raj often expresses helplessness at not being able to push his party to help the community. Does that mean he may leave the BJP? Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has urged him to do so – but Udit Raj is not going anywhere, not yet anyway.

“I should be in the party and hope to get my due one day,” he says. For the present, he would be happy merely to get that appointment he has sought with Modi.


1980: Ram Raj joins JNU. Born a khatik — a Scheduled Caste — the quick-tempered young man quickly earns a reputation championing Dalit rights
1988: Cracks the civil services, is selected for the Indian Revenue Service. Senior to Arvind Kejriwal by a couple of years, Raj is known as Gabbar Singh in the IT department
1997: Appointed national president of the newly formed All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations
2001: Citing indignity suffered by Dalits under Hinduism, publicly embraces Buddhism and becomes Udit Raj; had earlier cast away his family name, Sonkar
2003: Resigns his government job and floats a political party — the Indian Justice Party. Looks, rather desperately, to make a political opening but fails
2014: Shuns Modi-bashing and joins the BJP. Gets the party’s Lok Sabha ticket from North West Delhi and beats former Union minister Krishna Tirath of the Congress to enter Parliament

It has survived calls for abrogation by some of the nation’s foremost political and civil society voices. It has survived an epic protest: last week Manipur’s Irom Sharmila decided to end her 16-year hunger strike to have it scrapped. What’s the reason that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — or the debate over it — refuses to die? Sonia Sarkar reports Earlier this week, 16 years after she went on a hunger strike, Irom Sharmila announced that she’d had enough. She was going to call off the fast. Back in November 2000, Sharmila, then 28, had vowed she would not eat until the government repealed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), a law that has been defended and decried alike since it was invoked in 1958. As year piled upon year and Irom held out with her protest, chained to a tube that force-fed her, charged with attempting to commit suicide, she began to symbolise a fight to the finish. Iron Lady, her many admirers began to call her, a woman of rare nerve and resolve who would eventually see AFSPA cast in the bin. But in the end, it is Irom who has had to bow out on her vow; AFSPA survives, its notorious lease on Kashmir and parts of the Northeast untouched.

Have Irom’s 16 years without a morsel been all in vain then?

“Exactly,” agrees Kiren Rijiju, the junior Union minister for home affairs, matter-of-factly. “The situation has not improved to the extent in Manipur that AFSPA can be lifted.”

Nothing, it seems, can dent this Act – not outrage or opposition from the country’s most influential corners, not even a marathon one-woman vigil that made Irom a global human rights cause celebre.

Clearly, the Indian state – and successive governments of varying hues and ideologies – will not give up on AFSPA because it is seen as a national bulwark of sorts, critical to safeguarding security interests and stamping out anything that would threaten them. It is probably worth noting that AFSPA reigns on India’s fragile territorial fringes – in Kashmir and across major parts of the Northeast. TADA and POTA can fall to public outcry and pressure; not AFSPA.

The provisions of AFSPA allow soldiers of the army and battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) operationally placed under the army in counter-insurgency campaigns to arrest anyone without a warrant and carry out searches without consent. It also offers them, controversially, blanket immunities from persecution in cases of excesses committed.

“The big question is, why do we require an Act under which military forces are allowed to fight their own people,” asks social activist Gautam Navlakha. “That’s what Sharmila has been asking, too.”

Those who have been lobbying for the repeal of AFSPA believe that abuse of military powers is built into the Act; its provisions are a lure to human rights violations such as fake encounters, murders and rapes. There have been numerous cases where AFSPA is alleged to have been misused by security forces. Irom’s fast was triggered by one such – the killing by soldiers of 10 civilians waiting at a bus-stand outside the Manipur capital, Imphal.

It’s not just activists who want the removal of the Act. Supreme Court (SC) appointed committees, too, have described it over the years as “a symbol of oppression”, “an object of hate” and “instruments of discrimination and high handedness”.

Earlier this month, the SC ordered a probe into 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur that took place over the last 20 years. It also said that indefinite deployment of armed forces in the name of restoring normalcy under AFSPA “would mock at our democratic process”. The court observed that “ordinarily our armed forces should not be used against our countrymen and women”.

On the other hand, though, the army stresses it has a tough job fighting internal insurgencies – often arguing that it is not its mandate in any case, and defending AFSPA as an essential requirement. “If the army is deployed in a state to fight an internal situation, there has to be AFSPA, too,” asserts retired Lieutenant-General H.S. Panag, a counter-insurgency expert. “How do you expect the army to operate under civil magistrates?”

Security experts also believe that in strife-torn regions, the army should have the liberty to take on-the-spot decisions. “It’s not a football match but a struggle between life and death in a counter-insurgency situation,” says Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni.

Some retired army officers, however, admit in private that there are occasions when young officers get “carried away”. Often, says a retired senior officer, it is “patriotic zeal” that fuels them. “But there are also chances of getting awards if they kill more terrorists. So it becomes an obsession to kill and that leads to rogue operations.”

What troubles activists is that the law gives protection to such officers. A case against a soldier is registered under AFSPA and he cannot be tried in the civil court without the permission of the Centre. Rarely does the Centre give consent. In most cases, there is no trial, and when there is one, it happens in an army court. Only in a few cases have soldiers been court martialed.

There have been many such cases in Kashmir, too. In 1991, dozens of women in Kunan Poshpora, 120km from Srinagar, were allegedly raped by army men. Fifteen years later, the police is yet to close the investigations.

“When a case goes to the army court, very often there is a cover-up by the seniors,” says former BSF chief E.N. Rammohan, who has served in both Kashmir and the Northeast.

AFSPA is such a hot potato that even political parties try not to touch it. The Kashmir government, however, has lately been making noises against it. Last week, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti asked for the withdrawal of AFSPA on an “experimental” basis. In her earlier avatar as Opposition leader, Mehbooba led dozens of protest marches demanding the repeal of AFSPA.

What happened with her predecessor and National Conference leader, Omar Abdullah, is more interesting and symptomatic of the obdurate entity AFSPA is. During UPA II, when Abdullah was chief minister, he held detailed discussions with the then home minister P. Chidambaram, on repealing AFSPA, at least from some central districts of the Kashmir Valley. The two agreed – much later, Chidambaram was to write in his widely-read newspaper column that AFSPA “has no place in democratic society” – and were close to announcing a repeal when the security forces got into the act. They made a presentation to the two leaders, bluntly conveying that the army could not operate without AFSPA and would take its hands off counter-insurgency, the choice was theirs. The repeal never happened.

Civil rights activists in Kashmir believe, though, that political protestations are a sham. “Politicians are trying to tell the people that they have bargained well with the Centre. But the people of Kashmir don’t just want the Act to go; they want the army to go,” says Khurram Parvez, a Srinagar-based civil society activist.

To top it, the activists – and even some defence experts – believe that some state governments do not actually mind the presence of the army. “It is easier for a government to shoot a gun from the army’s shoulder. It is easier for governments to call an area disturbed and send for the army,” says retired Lieutenant-General J.B.S. Yadava, who’d also served in Kashmir.

Political ambivalence on AFSPA continues; some defend it strongly as an essential instrument of state, others flay it, especially when they are not in office. Former Union home minister Shivraj Patil admits that the law gives the army the “licence” to kill. But having said that he rushes to its defence: “The harshness can change but the law must stay,” he says. Lawyer and activist Nandita Haksar pooh-poohs the suggestion that AFSPA can be made more humane. “It’s not about making the Act nicer. It must go,” she says.

But for it to go, the state has to move. Minister Rijiju points out that a state imposes AFSPA, and it is up to the state to revoke it. Then, he at once goes out, as a central minister, to emphasise its necessity. So long as there is insurgence, AFSPA won’t go, he says. “As far as the Northeast is concerned, AFSPA will remain implemented.”

For all its infamy, and for all the names it has been called, AFSPA isn’t going anywhere for the moment. Its most prominent opponent, Irom Sharmila, will be gone from her long and hungry vigil against it later this week. When she leaves Room A-4 of the Imphal Hospital and steps out, she will still roam an AFSPA regime and come upon, all too frequently, the prickly barbed fences that represent it.

IMG_1799 (1).PNGWe We are in another season of tumult in Kashmir. Violence has been spiralling in the Valley ever since the 22-year-old Hizb-ul Mujahideen (HM) commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, was killed on July 8. More than 40 people have been killed in sporadic clashes with security forces. Miles away from the scene of action, across a forever tense Line of Control, sits Syed Salahuddin, fount of the HM, Kashmir’s only homegrown militant outfit – for most, a shadowy figure that drifts between Muzaffarabad, Lahore and Islamabad and looms over Kashmir. Some believe that the seed of the turmoil in Kashmir was planted when Salahuddin – then known as Mohammed Yusuf Shah – fought an election in the state as a candidate of the Muslim United Front from Srinagar’s Amirakadal constituency in 1987. His supporters hold that he was winning by a wide margin, but widespread electoral rigging led to his unexpected defeat. The seat was won by Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah of the National Conference. Two years later, he had crossed the border into Pakistan, and launched an armed struggle for the freedom of Kashmir. Salahuddin, who is on the NIA’s ‘most wanted’ list, warns that there’s more trouble on the way, if security forces do not stop killing ‘unarmed’ civilians. And it won’t be restricted to Kashmir alone: ‘We will hit everywhere and anywhere we like.’ Pertinently, at one point the militant also offered himself as a peace mediator between India and Pakistan. Sonia Sarkar spoke to him for an hour over Skype, imo and telephone. Excerpts:
Q. Did you know Burhan Muzaffar Wani?
A. I did not meet him but he was inspired by me. There are thousands of mujahideen in Kashmir whom I have not met, but who follow me and my path. 

Q. How do you see the recent spurt in violence after the killing of Burhan Wani?

A. Burhan Muzaffar Wani was not just any man killed by security forces. He is the sentiment of the Kashmir Valley. Every person in the Valley – man, woman and child – all of them are attached to this sentiment. There is a Burhan in every corner of the Kashmir Valley. This sentiment will not go away with the killing of Burhan Wani.

Q. Media reports said that the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, Hafiz Saeed, and you organised a prayer meeting for Wani in Muzaffarabad. Also, in Lahore, Saeed said that there would be more trouble for Kashmir. What exactly did he mean?

A. I organised the prayer meeting for Wani. I did not invite Hafiz Saeed to come, but he offered to come on his own.

I agree with Hafiz Saeed. More trouble means that when the security forces of India are killing unarmed Kashmiris, we will intensify and escalate our attacks not just in Kashmir but elsewhere. There is no alternative left for us.

We want to stress that it is for the good of the Indian government to understand that the people of Kashmir are asking for their right to self-determination. If they don’t, we have to start target-oriented attacks.

Q. But the Indian government blames militant leaders like you for encouraging people to come out in protest to the streets, leading to civilian deaths…

A. It is government propaganda that we are pushing the people of Kashmir to come out on streets and protest. Children, doctors, government servants, old men, mothers – they are not coming out on the streets because I asked them to do so. They are committed to their cause.

Q. Aren’t you using the bodybags to fuel your movement? How is the Hurriyat helping you?

A. Hurriyat leaders are with us, shoulder to shoulder in the ongoing freedom struggle. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Shabir Shah – all of them are with us on the same page. They are in touch with us on a regular basis. But I have been cautious and have not spoken with any top separatist leader in the past one week. They are also supporting it (the protest) because themujahideen and the children, who are getting killed, are their children as well.

Q. Many youngsters are dying in these protests. Don’t you think it’s your responsibility to stop these children from going out on the streets so that this cycle of death comes to an end?

A. What we are seeing on the streets of Kashmir is a spontaneous public reaction to the killing of Wani. Also, there is pent up anger against the security forces because every day, somebody or the other is being targeted. You must understand that the youths of Kashmir, who are protesting on the streets, are a part of the generation which was born during the armed struggle. They have grown up witnessing unrest, killings and crackdowns. You need to understand their desperation to be freed from India on the basis of the fact that they are attacking heavily armed security forces with stones. It means they have no fear for life and they are not ready to compromise their right to self-determination.

Q. What is your plan of action in Kashmir now?

A. Our armed struggle and political struggle will carry on simultaneously. So far, our effort was to limit our activities to Jammu and Kashmir. If the Narendra Modi government continues to oppress the Kashmiris and if the security forces increase their assault on Kashmiris, I promise that we will hit everywhere and anywhere we like. We will go to any extent. You will see it, we will intensify our attacks.

Q. Several of your family members including your four sons are government employees. What’s their part in all this? Did you ever ask your sons to join the militancy movement?

A. I have not asked a single man to join militancy. It is the choice of the person to join it. It could be possible that my sons don’t think I am doing the right thing. You should understand that people joining us feel it strongly from within. They think this is the most befitting reply to oppression.

Q. How are you using the social media to recruit young men into militancy?

A. We don’t recruit people. Young boys are coming to us on their own because they have been facing assault by the Indian government. If we don’t recruit them, then they will pick up stones and protest on the streets. Also, the social media revolution is everywhere in the world. The young and educated Kashmiris do not need to learn from me how to use the social media. They know how to make the best use of it.

Q. Don’t you think, your movement has failed because it’s been 26 years since the struggle began – and there has been no real outcome? Also, according to security agencies, militancy has decreased in the Valley. Have you lost the war?

A. What has India got in these 26 years, tell me? Have they got Kashmiris with them? Let me tell you, in a freedom movement, a struggle of 26 years is nothing. India’s freedom movement went on for 90 years, so how do you even say that 26 years is enough? If there is no militancy and if we have lost the war, where is the need for such heavy deployment of security forces in Kashmir? Let me tell you, everyone in Kashmir is into the freedom movement now.

Q. Why is the Kashmir movement getting Islamised?

A. The Kashmiri movement was Islamised from day one. Why do you think an educated young man, who has a bright future otherwise, is willing to die? Is he mad? Azaadi is not his objective. What will he do with azaadi if he dies during the struggle?

He is into militancy because he knows that if he dies for a noble cause, he would become a martyr, as per Islam. We tell him that he would get into the “real life” after this death and he would get peace. Khuda usse raazi hoga.

Q. Is the ISIS with you?

A. There is no ISIS at all [in Kashmir]. This is fabricated propaganda by the Indian government. There is no support for ISIS, Al Qaeda and Taliban in Kashmir.

Q. Has there been any step by the Indian government to reach out to you? Do you think it would be difficult for you to operate in Kashmir because the BJP government under Narendra Modi has a more hardline approach?

A. [Atal Bihari] Vaj- payee was broad-minded. There is no com- parison of Modi with Vajpayee.

We still believe in peace but subject to one condition – let the Modi government give up dilly-dallying with the Kashmir issue. He should first accept that Kashmir is a disputed territory.

Q. You had earlier accepted that you were fighting Pakistan’s war in Kashmir. This time, how is Pakistan helping you to fuel the tension in Kashmir?

A. Let India agree to come to the table for our right to self-determination – it is my personal obligation [that I will get] Pakistan to the “peace” table.

The story was published in The Telegraph, July 17. Link :

He’s the one parents of young boys in Bangladesh should be wary of. His job is to draw students into the terror fold, and to ensure that an attacker’s background is not very different from that of his targets, finds Sonia Sarkar

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He is in a tee and a pair of blue jeans. The goatee is well trimmed. He is a teacher in a private university in Dhaka, and a member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical organisation in Bangladesh. When he is not teaching young students, he seeks to “radicalise” them. He is a recruiter who identifies youngsters who feel that Islam is under attack, and urges them to do their bit to defend their faith.

“We identify men who are meritorious but could be motivated to work… across the world. We are showing them the right path,” says the professor.

Across Bangladesh, young men from well-to-do families are being drawn into the terror fold, as the July 1 attack on a cafeteria in Dhaka demonstrated. And leading them into the path are men who are not very different – articulate, well dressed and from similar backgrounds.

The old-fashioned image of the fundamentalist recruiter has taken a beating. The new recruiters are tech-savvy men who look for potential recruits on social networking forums, coaching institutes, neighbourhood cafés and private colleges. And they are men who had been similarly recruited.

The idea behind recruiting men from upper middle-class families is to ensure that when an attack is planned, the assailants look no different from their targets, security analysts say.

“Striking at an upmarket café would be far easier for someone who frequents the café or knows the area well. When the attacker is from the same class as the targets, nobody will suspect him,” points out Dhaka-based security and defence analyst Brigadier-General (retd) M. Sakhawat Hussain.

Last week, when a group of terrorists raided Holey Artisan Bakery, a café in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, Gulshan, and killed 20 people, mostly foreigners, the police discovered that three of the young terrorists belonged to influential families of Bangladesh. The father of one of the attackers is a leader of the ruling Awami League.

The three gunmen, identified by the police as Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz and Meer Saameh Mubasher, had studied in elite institutes in Dhaka. Islam had also studied in Malaysia.

Preliminary evidence shows that these men belonged to the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ISIS released photographs of the attackers on their website a few hours after the massacre.

Last week, a video featuring three Bangladeshi boys, again from influential families, who were believed to have gone to Syria, surfaced. They spoke of more attacks.

According to the police, the two terrorist groups active in Bangladesh at present are the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Both give arms training to their recruits.

There are also radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Hefajote Islam, but their focus is on influencing the youth with radical views. Some of their recruits, however, are sent for training to ABT and JMB. Police officials reveal that the banned ABT and JMB have close links with terrorist groups al Qaida and the ISIS.

There is acute consternation in Bangladesh about young men joining the ranks of terror groups. According to unofficial police estimates, 70 young men have been missing this year – and many of them, are suspected to have join- ed such groups.

Five of the July 1 attackers had been missing from home. Abir Rahman, one of the young men killed by the police at the Sholakia Idgah on Thursday, too, had been missing from home since March.

“We are trying to compile data to know what happened to each of the missing children, especially from these (upmarket) areas,” says Commander Mufti Mahmud Khan, director (media) of the counter-terrorism unit, Rapid Action Battalion.

Of course, recruitment of young men into terrorist organisations is not new. The security officials state that for decades, the students’ outfit, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, has been recruiting young impoverished madrasa students for the JMB.

The officials hold that a large number of engineering students were enrolled into the JMB by the Chhatrashibir, which offered them scholarships, free coaching and books when they were in college. But now, simultaneously, recruiters are zeroing in on students of private colleges and reputable schools.

The recruiters are also young men, many in the age group of 18-24 years, like their recruits. “They too belong to the same strata of society,” says Zia Rahman, founding chairman of the department of criminology in Dhaka University.

The modus operandi of recruitment is simple. First, the recruiters identify young men studying in reputed private institutes on Facebook (FB) or other social media sites. Many FB pages such as Ansarullah Bangla Team, Basher Kella and Islami Online Activist are used to connect with possible recruits. Some of these pages have been banned by the government, but new ones crop up from time to time.

One of the common ways of starting a conversation with a potential recruit is by posting “religious” images in open groups where discussion on politics and religion often takes place. Then the recruiter follows every person who hits the “like” button by visiting their individual profiles.

Next, he sends a personal message, with a greeting. If the young man replies, discussions follow, mostly on religion. After some days, the recruiter invites the FB account holder out for a cup of coffee in a café. The conversation usually touches upon a host of subjects.

“If we sense that the person is disappointed with the government, we discuss religion. We talk about the condition of Muslims across the world, the attack on Islam by the West and also about jihad elsewhere in the world,” a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir says.

A few meetings later, videos and literature on jihad are sent to the young man. Some of the literature deals with suicide bombings.

The videos highlight attacks on Muslims. Then there are videos of youngsters in the ISIS being trained in Syria and of armed children dressed in military fatigues marching on the streets of Syria. Pictures of young boys holding assault rifles, with messages such as “What’s your excuse?” or “What’s stopping you?”, have been found in the cell phones of Bangladeshi youth.

“The idea is to keep showing him such videos till he yearns for more,” the Hizb ut-Tahrir member says.

Once he is in the fold, the next step is to train him in the use of arms. The ABT – which was said to have been behind the killing of bloggers and liberal thinkers in Bangladesh in the last two years – tutors potential recruits on the use of machetes through videos sent on WhatsApp, security forces say.

Some of the recruitment is conducted through fellow students in colleges or coaching institutes, or through teachers in private educational institutes. A senior leader of Hefajote Islam says that some 1,000 teachers in various private institutions are affiliated to the group.

Hasnat Karim, one of the suspects held by the police for the July 1 attack, was dismissed from his job as a professor in the North South University in Dhaka in 2012 for his alleged links with the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Two students from the university were sentenced to death for killing blogger Rajib Haider last year. Abir Rahman too was a student of this university.

“These days, parents are not aware of the whereabouts of their children, how do we keep track of all 22,000 students? Also, because many of our teachers are part-timers, it is difficult to know who is affiliated to which organisation. But, of late, we have installed CCTV cameras on campus to keep an eye on the activities of students and teachers,” says Yasmin Kamal, member, board of trustees, North South University.

The government, too, is keeping a close watch on colleges now. “Our detective department is trying to find out why so many boys from these institutes have joined terrorism,” Bangladesh home affairs minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told The Telegraph .

There are other reasons why students are being drawn into terror activities. For one, students in private universities can easily get influenced by what their teachers have to say in a climate where there are no other outlets – such as students’ unions – for channelling their energies, Rahman of Dhaka University points out.

Another reason, cited by cultural experts, is the fact that students, unlike those in previous generations, have little involvement with cultural and literary activities. Their main preoccupation is the Internet. The number of Internet users in Bangladesh increased from 35 lakh in 2008 to 6.1 crore in March 2016.

“Recruiters have identified the huge cultural void in society today. They are tapping a generation that has little knowledge about the history of Bangladesh. These young men have an identity crisis,” says journalist-filmmaker Shahriar Kabir.

The identity of many youngsters, he rues, is primarily religious. “It is unfortunate that the children of this generation can relate more to 1947, when lines were drawn between India and Pakistan on the basis of religion, and not 1971, when Bangladesh was born of linguistic demands,” Kabir says.

It is this religious identity that the recruiters are zeroing in on. Security experts point out that they look out for overly religious youngsters.

“We also look for introverts, people who are capable of keeping secrets,” the Hizb ut-Tahrir-affiliated teacher says. “Also, we don’t meet them in groups; the meetings have to be one-on-one.”

Rahman believes that what the recruiters seek to hone is the rebellious streak in young men. “They look for people whom they can convince that it is romantic to be a rebel. Also, young college students are full of zeal and vigour, which is tapped by the recruiters.”

In the aftermath of the Gulshan killings, as images of people weeping and paying homage to the dead with tuberoses flood the media, another image is going to stay etched in the memories of the people of Bangladesh – and others. It is that of five smiling boys, holding an assault rifle.


The Congress’s fortunes might have reached a nadir, but senior party leader Kapil Sibal is humming Mast hawa and Tere bina. The busy lawyer-lyricist,
however, finds time for a metaphysical chit-chat with Sonia Sarkar 

It’s not easy being Kapil Sibal. When he speaks on politics, he is trolled. When he is elected to the Rajya Sabha, his opponents do their best to have him defeated. And when he talks of love in a song for a Hindi film, there is an outcry, though the hullabaloo, of course, is more over the film than the song.

Let’s start with his love song. Earlier this week, a Hindi film called Shorgul, based on the riots of Muzaffarnagar, was released in many parts of the country, but was not allowed to be screened in theatre halls in parts of western Uttar Pradesh. Sibal , 67, had written two songs for the film. One was an item number called Mast hawa (crazy current); the other a love song called Tere bina (without you).

“All of us have a romantic streak is us,” the senior Congress leader says modestly. “That’s why we are fallible, aren’t we?” Sibal switches on his iPad and zooms in on his debut Bollywood song Tu jaldi bata de (tell me), which he wrote for a 2013 crime thriller, Bandook.

It’s been a busy week for Sibal. His comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interview to a television channel led to an uproar on social media sites. “Modi ji, have a press conference. Let our journalists ask you questions. This is better than an interview with one person,” Sibal had said after the interview.

The Twitterati, as one would expect, had pounced on him. What exactly did he mean by “our” journalists, they asked. Indeed, just what did he mean by that?

“When I said, ‘our’ journalists, I meant journalists sitting in front of us at press conferences. They (PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party) may have journalists in their pocket but we don’t.”

Sibal, who has been fighting the BJP for long years, was a mite shaken during the RS elections from Uttar Pradesh last month. He had been nominated by the Congress, and was expected to sail through, but an independent candidate, backed by the BJP, put a spoke in his wheel. The candidate, Preeti Mahapatra, got 18 first preference votes cutting across party lines. Sibal finally made it through with 25 first preference votes. Six Congress MLAs have been expelled for not supporting him. Three of the six voted in favour of Mahapatra, the others sided with the BSP.

“The BJP had sent her (Mahapatra) to poach votes. It shows the mindset of the party. Cabinet ministers – Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley – moved heaven and earth hoping to ensure that I wouldn’t get into the Rajya Sabha. They made it out to be like a Lok Sabha election,” Sibal says.

No, it’s not easy being Kapil Sibal. And it’s certainly not easy to be in a party that is seen losing ground in almost every state. Is that because the party doesn’t have a credible leader any more? Rahul Gandhi – who once evocatively spoke of farm widows in Parliament – is being lampooned as Pappu across the media, social and otherwise.

“If you look at the army of trolls who use that term, you’ll understand that it’s part of a political campaign by the BJP in the social media,” he says. “But personal politics cannot work in a huge country like India. In 2019, we’ll know who the real Pappu is,” he says, referring to the next general election.

Looking at the state of the Congress, few would believe that the party could reclaim power, I point out. “We have to get our act together. We have only 44 seats (in the Lok Sabha). We have a long way to go,” he says.

Congress watchers believe that the party is not trying very hard to get its act together. They refer to the recent appointment of Asha Kumari, convicted in a land grab case, as the Congress in-charge of Punjab, which goes to poll next year.

“BJP president Amit Shah has been charged with murder. Babubhai Bokhiria, involved in illegal mining, continues to be a minister in Gujarat. B.S. Yeddyurappa was involved in illegal land dealings is the president of the Karnataka BJP. Is that all right for the BJP? Why are fingers always being pointed at the Congress?”

Sibal breaks off to take a call, and I look around his office on the second floor of a palatial house that he’s leased in Jor Bagh in central Delhi. The bookshelves behind him are filled with fiction and non-fiction, as well as legal journals and copies of judgments. There is a framed photograph of Tagore by his side, while Shakespeare is framed on the wall. Sibal, as is well known, acted in several Shakespeare plays as a student of St. Stephen’s College, which he joined after schooling in Chandigarh.

Sibal later studied law – completing a master’s degree in maritime law at Harvard when his late wife, Nina, who was an Indian Foreign Service officer, was posted to the United States. One of the most prominent constitutional lawyers of India, Sibal was the additional solicitor-general of India from 1989 to 1990. In 2005, he got married again – his wife, Promila, is a social activist.

With the Congress out of power at the Centre – Sibal was a minister during the United Progressive Alliance’s two terms – the Supreme Court lawyer has the time to practise law. He defended Modi’s opponent, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, in court.

Sibal also represented Trinamul’s Madan Mitra in the Saradha scam – for which he was sharply criticised by his party colleagues in Bengal. Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi in 2015, urging her not to allow Sibal to take part in any party meeting in the state.

“Some Congress leader from West Bengal, charged with murder, came to me for advice. So should I give advice only to Congressmen? I am a lawyer by profession. What’s their problem? I don’t cow down to these things,” he replies.

Sibal also defended Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar in Delhi in the high court. Kumar’s arrest from the JNU campus had evoked nationwide condemnation.

“Universities are not places where police can come and arrest people. Let the children have a discourse as they want to. They will learn as they move on in life. But to target individuals and institutions is dangerous,” Sibal says.

The former human resource development minister is critical of the way the ministry is now being run. “The harm the ministry is causing to the future generation is unimaginable,” he says.

I mention, in the context of JNU’s Kumar, who has been charged with sedition, that the controversy started over student protests about Afzal Guru who was executed in 2013, when the UPA was in power. It has been often said that Guru was not given a fair trial, and that he was hanged without his family being informed.

As a lawyer who defended the Kashmiri separatist leader and co-founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Maqbool Bhat (who, too, was hanged), does he believe that Guru’s execution was a right move?

Sibal does not give a clear answer. “The judiciary is entitled to finally resolve a dispute. Not every decision is right,” he replies.

The former minister, who won his first Lok Sabha election from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency in 2004 by defeating the current human resource development minister Smriti Irani, has often been criticised for his own tenures as minister.

As minister of communications and IT, he had claimed in 2011 that “zero loss” was caused by distributing 2G licences on a first-come, first-served basis. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India estimated the loss at Rs 1.76 crore. Sibal, however, stands by his comment.

“I meant that it’s not our policy to auction the spectrum. Where is the question of loss? Now that you have auctioned it, it is in loss. We did not auction it. The sum, Rs 1.76 crore, had not been pocketed by us,” he clarifies.

He has been reminded again by his aides of appointments with clients. We have discussed a range of subjects, and it’s time for me to leave.

But before that, he wants me to listen to one of his poems, a particular favourite that has been sung by Adnan Sami. The first line goes like this: Iss jahan mein mera kuchh bhi nahin hai, jo mera hai who bhi mera nahin hai – nothing in this world belongs to me, not even that which is mine.

“That’s the philosophy of my life. Everything I have is meaningless,” explains Sibal, who also released an album, Raunaq, with music director A.R. Rahman two years ago.

His last words ring in my ears as I walk towards the main gate of the house, past his brown Toyota Camry. No, it’s not easy being Kapil Sibal.

(This was published in The Telegraph, July 3,2016.

  • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
  • 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 ...