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Drab old walls are being given a splash of colour in cities across the country. Sonia Sarkar finds that artists are happy to be able to share their art with the common man.

A cat sits quietly on a wall in a building in a crowded area of Delhi. Dadasaheb Phalke is looking at a roll of film in Mumbai’s Bandra. A series of chinar trees stands tall on the columns of a Srinagar flyover.

Suddenly, drab old walls are getting a splash of colour.

“The idea is to change the landscape of Indian cities. India is so colourful but our streets don’t portray the real image. Also, our walls are covered with political posters and advertisements. We want to change this look,” says Giulia Ambrogi, the festival curator of St+Art India Foundation, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation which promotes street art. “We want to create new landmarks in our cities.”

The movement for public art in Indian cities started in 2012 when a group of 10 people came together to give shape to a unique festival in one of Delhi’s densely populated urban villages, Khirki Extension. Brought together by the Delhi-based artist forum, Khoj International Artists Association, and supported by advertising agency W+K Exp, the festival sought to beautify the congested streets of Khirki with wall paintings.

“This festival was the first open engagement between public and art in that place,” Ambrogi says. It also gave birth to the foundation, and soon similar projects were being taken up in different parts of the city.

The Foundation chooses a site based on the visibility of the building or the walls and subsequently puts up a proposal with the owner of the space. Once permission is granted, it commissions artists to paint the wall, or the facade.

One of the new landmarks of Delhi is the huge mural of M.K. Gandhi which adorns a side wall of the police headquarters in central Delhi. The artist, Anpu Varkey, put this up in collaboration with a German artist, Hendrik Beikirch.

Varkey believes that street art in India is catching on. “When people see these paintings on the streets, they often want us to paint their homes and walls, too,” the 34-year-old graduate from the Baroda School of Art says.

Street art has also picked up in Mumbai, Pune, Calcutta, Bangalore, Varanasi and Srinagar. Efforts are made to give the art a theme that complements the place where it appears. For example, the walls of a working women’s hostel in Bandra has a black-and-white image of Mother Earth. Called Prakriti, it has been painted by Pune-based Harshvardhan Kadam, who perceives Nature as a divine feminine force.

“The beauty and grace of the self-reliant Mother Earth has similarities with the qualities of self-belief and self-sustainability of women,” Kadam explains. “A hostel that supports women itself is a strong statement. It was apparent I would draw a woman here.”

Similarly, the otherwise dull white wall of the Delhi cold storage building in Azadpur, known for its mandis, is now all black, with a few fruits and vegetables placed next to a candle. The painter is Miami-born Alejandro Hugo Dorda Mevs, better known as Axel Void.

“Since the cold storage is used for freezing fruits and vegetables, this image is relevant,” says St+Art India Foundation co-founder Arjun Bahl, who commissioned the project.

The campaign also seeks to introduce art to people who have no access to galleries. “We chose this wall because this building is a part of the lives of so many people – such as rickshaw pullers and vegetable sellers – who have not been exposed to art but who would be happy to see such a colourful image,” Bahl adds.

Artists use acrylic distempers, enamel paints and spray cans for street paintings. They also have their favourite subject. Varkey loves to work with cats and Japan-based Lady Aiko, who recently painted an image of the Rani of Jhansi on one of the walls of Lodhi Colony, mostly focuses on women. Kadam, who has a master’s in design from IIT, Bombay, finds mythology intriguing.

“Mythological characters are my superheroes. But they don’t carry religious connotations because street art has to be non-controversial,” says Kadam, whose painting, Six horses of Sun God, has been wowing passers-by in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat for the past one year.

For onlookers, indeed, the paintings are a change from graffiti and posters. Calcutta, known for its political slogans on walls, now has an image of the Ganges on the boundary wall of the German consulate in Alipore. The work, by graffiti artist Samita Chatterjee (or Samsam), shows a youth trying to clean the river, represented in dark blue and black and dotted with fish bones, painted in white-grey, highlighting a toxic build-up.

In Srinagar, too, passers-by who were earlier used to anti-India slogans on the walls now find art on the streets. Six young artists have been asked by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation to beautify walls.

“These paintings depict the lives of Kashmiris – rural lifestyles, folk art and the scenic beauty. We are also planning to have more images of the ‘good old days’ when Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims lived happily together,” Srinagar municipal commissioner Tufail Mattoo says.

Street art is fairly new to India, though some public spaces have been encouraging and exhibiting art. But across the world, it has been an enduring trend, especially in cities such as New York, London and Berlin.

“But street art in India doesn’t follow the same trend as that of the West. In the West, it is mostly artist-centric where they mark a territory and leave their impression on the wall. But our street art has a lot of local relevance. This is mostly about our people and their lives,” Kadam feels.

Globally, the interest on Indian street art is growing. “India is definitely a good place for painting,” says Germany-based Christian Kreamer (known as Dome), whose painting Coming Home – a human figure, animals and objects such as a guitar and a bicycle – is up on the Diamond Arch Building in Bandra.

Art experts view the trend as a “positive” movement in contemporary times. “Artists have been moving away from the confines of studio spaces and painting in public spaces. The world of street art defines these spaces as canvases. These creations are also seen as reflections of our society in its various facets,” says National Gallery of Modern Art director Rajeev Lochan.

Street art also seeks to celebrate the fact that it is nobody’s possession, but belongs to everybody. “The most important philosophy of street art is that the artist should never own the space,” 34-year-old Ruchin Soni, who has painted a three-wing figure called Angel on the walls of the Tihar jail in Delhi, says.

This form of art also underlines that nothing is permanent. “After some months, the colours will fade. Perhaps the space will be taken over by another artist later,” Soni says.

Meanwhile, though, it certainly is a sight for sore eyes.

(The story has been published in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150621/jsp/7days/story_26877.jsp)

With India and Bangladesh signing a land boundary agreement, the focus now is on people who live on the border, straddling both countries. This is an attempt to catch a glimpse of life in nowhere land.

Eleven-year-old Abhijit Majumdar plans to spend most of his summer holidays in Bangladesh. Not with a passport and a visa, but by just stepping out into his backyard. The front of his house is in India, the back in Bangladesh.

“My friends from Bangladesh come to play football with me,” says Majumdar, who lives in Dakshin Para in the South Dinajpur district of West Bengal.

His house is among the 70 houses in his village on or near the zero line or Radcliffe Line, the international boundary (IB) drawn between India and what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. A large part of the house falls in India, while a portion lies in Bangladesh.

As India and Bangladesh sealed a Land Boundary Agreement recently to exchange enclaves on the border where thousands of people from the two countries live without proper citizenship and legal rights, the focus is now on people who are placed near the zero line of the India-Bangladesh border.
A 2216km-long stretch of the 4,096km border falls in West Bengal, covering North 24-Parganas, South 24-Parganas, Murshidabad, Nadia, Malda, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.

Around 70,000 people live on or near the zero line across the border, more than 11,000 in South Dinajpur alone, where the border is the most porous.

There should be no settlements within 150 yards of the IB. But this no man’s land is dotted with houses, with large agricultural fields and ponds surrounding the habitat.

One can easily cross the border by stretching one’s leg. The distance between the two countries is less than a foot in most areas. A series of white pillars – some submerged in ponds or half buried in the ground – indicate that this is the border area.

For the residents, there is nothing new about living in two countries. But when Hamida Bibi came to Shrikrishnapur village after getting married 10 years ago, she felt strange when she looked out of her window into Bangladesh.

“Now it is so normal,” Bibi says, standing next to a bamboo tree which was planted in India and branches out into Bangladesh.

For people across the two sides, the border is no barrier. “I often cross the border. I go to the Katla market in Bangladesh, two kilometres away, to buy clothes or grocery,” Bibi says.

It is difficult to tell which house is in India for the undulating by-lanes with packed mud houses snake across the two countries seamlessly. From one house, you can hear the sounds of two women quarrelling – one is in India, the other in Bangladesh. The bone of contention is the quality of saris that a Bangladeshi woman has sold to Indian villagers.

Stories of harassment are common. To go to another village a few kilometres away, the local people have to take permission from the jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF). The huge black gates that stand next to the IB fence, around 150 yards away from these villages, open only from 6am to 6pm. To cross the gates, the villagers have to submit their identity cards at the checkpost.

Other villagers who live beyond the gates are not allowed into this area – this correspondent entered covertly with the help of a local villager.

“They have cut us off from our own country. They refuse to open the gates for us even if there is an emergency at night,” says 24-year-old Tahmina Bibi of Shrikrishnapur village. “We have to wait till a senior officer gives us permission.”

The BSF claims that security in these villages has been tightened because this is the hub of illegal trade. The villagers, mostly women and children, smuggle into Bangladesh goods such as cough syrups, rice, spices, cooking oil, saris and cycles. The goods are mostly transported by trains to and from Bangladesh which pass through Hili Block close to the zero line. Trafficking of cows and trading of illegal currency are the two biggest problems that security forces face on this porous border.

“Having a house on the zero line is not a problem. The problem is that these houses are used for illegal activities,” says Veena Sikri, former Indian envoy to Bangladesh.

Villagers accuse the BSF of raiding their houses in search of illegal goods. “The jawans beat us up. They treat us worse than animals,” complains Minhajul Islam, who runs a grocery shop in Purba Gobindapur.

The BSF denies the allegations. “We do our job for security issues but they think we are harassing them. If we don’t keep a check, we would be accused of colluding with them on illegal trade,” says Sandeep Salunke, inspector-general, BSF, South Bengal Frontier, who is also in charge of the North Bengal border.
Some of the villagers claim that they possess identity cards issued by both Bangladesh and India.

“Living on zero line is like living on the edge. There is always an air of suspicion around us. Dual identity cards help because when we are not allowed to cross the gate we can always go to the other side in case of any emergency,” says Monirul Islam (name changed).

The BSF says that the identity cards are issued by district administrations, and they have no way to control this. But to check crime, it has proposed to the ministry of home affairs to facilitate the relocation of these villages to an area outside the IB fence. The ministry of home affairs has asked for a response from the states bordering Bangladesh.

“It would be appropriate if the issue of people living ahead of the fence near the zero line receive the same kind of attention that the areas under Land Boundary Agreement received,” says Salunke. “The onus is on state governments to provide land and ensure that the villages ahead of the fence are relocated and that no Indian is staying close to the zero line.”

The villagers are worried about being relocated, and not being adequately compensated.
“Most of these people have been living in their ancestral houses. Some of them have agricultural land, too.

If they don’t get good compensation, why should they move out of their homes,” asks Anil Roy, a member of the Dhalpara Gram Panchayat in Hili block.

And would it affect their schooling, ask the children of Purba Gobindapur village. Ever since their primary school shut down two years ago, many of them have been walking to Daudpur in Bangladesh to study in a madrasa.

“We want to study. It doesn’t matter if it is an Indian or a Bangladeshi school,” says Jahana Khatoon (name changed).

Clearly, for the villagers, straddling two countries is part of life. Cross-border love stories are common. Tamina Bibi of Islambagh in Bangladesh and Rashid of Jamalpur in South Dinajpur met when Bibi crossed the border to fetch water from Rashid’s village seven years ago.

“We fell in love and got married. The borders didn’t matter,” she says.

In the Haripukur mosque, next to a boundary pillar, Indians and Bangladeshis pray together every Friday. “The mosque belongs to Bangladesh but we pray here because it is right next to our village,” Haripukur resident Mohammed Amjad Ali points out. “When the leaders of the two countries are promoting goodwill, where is the problem when we do so?”

The story has been published in The Telegraph, June 14, 2015

I thought of writing this blog several times earlier. Every time, I collected my thoughts, I made an excuse not to pen them down. Strangely though, this perpetual desire to delay, perhaps, came from my unjustified fear that I might have to go through the pain once again.

But today, I forced myself to write it. I felt an internal push to flush out all fears and apprehensions that I have developed in the past two years. It is certainly cathartic.

In fact, a piece written by one of my ex-colleagues on her ailing mother, in a way, inspired me to start writing it. In that blog, she mentioned, how her mother cannot recognise anyone after she met with an accident some months back. After reading it, I was reassured that life is all about sudden changes and we should gracefully accept them. And we are not the only ones dealing with it.

The other thing that inspired me to write this blog is the film, Piku, which, I thought, is based on a father-daughter relationship (For me, it was not just about constipation of an aging man but something more). I watched it with Baba and both of us could relate to the main characters – Bhashkor and Piku.

Both of us enjoyed the nuances of the relationship. I could see Baba smiling and laughing, every now and then. Sometimes, he cross-checked the names of the actors with me. He looked very involved in it.

These days, very few things amuse Baba. So when we see him smiling, we feel relieved that he is happy. We keep a constant watch on his expressions because he doesn’t articulate his feelings as immaculately as before.

Yes, all four of us – my father, mother, sister and I- live a life, which is clearly demarcated into two phases – before and after. The event which divided our lives into two separate phases is my father’s cerebral stroke on April 3, 2013. The stroke paralysed his right side. It robbed him of his speech too.

But after rigorous sessions of physiotherapy and speech therapy, he is now able to walk with the help of a stick and he has regained his speech, to a certain extent. But his comprehension skills have been badly affected which delays his speech. Sometimes, he fumbles. He takes a little longer than usual to gather his thoughts before he can speak.

But this has been a long, very long journey for him. When he came home after spending 17 days in the hospital, he was no less than a little baby, who had to learn everything afresh. He was nose fed for a week before he could start eating through his mouth. After many months, he learnt to eat on his own, using his left hand. He learnt to pronounce words and speak in sentences. Initially, it was very difficult to understand what he wanted to say. We repeatedly failed at our job but he never gave up. Now, we don’t make guesses anymore. He is coherent and clear in his speech. He also learnt to write with his left hand but surprisingly, his handwriting remains as artistic as before.

These days, his job is to write short sentences and essays to let his thoughts flow. As part of his therapy, he makes small additions and subtractions too. I am proud to see his diligence and sincerity in doing his homework. His honesty and hard work remain the same as it used to be before, when he ran a fire bricks factory as a works manager on the outskirts of the mining town, Dhanbad in Jharkhand for more than three decades.

In these two years, there have been many ups and downs. Some days, he would walk well but then, there would be phases, when his pace would slow down. He would sink into bouts of depression, when he would refuse to speak and would gradually forget basic words of communication.

Every time, the pace of progress is lost; there has been a whole new process of starting things afresh. But if we cajole him to keep trying, he makes an effort to overcome these hurdles. He, truly, has the spirit of a fighter.

For the past two years, many have questioned his abilities to cope with physical deformities. It is difficult to convince people that he is doing enough to live a normal life but it’s not easy for a stroke patient to recover fully. Only a few understand that his journey from the hospital ventilator two years back, where he was lying like a vegetable, to a casual evening in a nearby theatre today, has not been easy. He is not suffering but he is struggling. He is struggling to live a “normal” life.

On many occasions, I have asked myself, why does my father have to go through all this? Why a stroke? Is stroke worse than cancer? I must confess that there have  also been occasions, when I have secretly envied acquaintances whose parents are hale and hearty and can move around alone.

That’s when I also remembered what my father always said, ‘you are better off than many, in many ways.’ After reading my ex-colleague’s piece on her mother, I am clearly convinced that we are better off than many.

People who know my father well remember him for his sense of humour, which is laced with sarcasm. He is a man with immense knowledge about practicalities of life. He is an intelligent man who has made the most of his resources.

As his child, I have always been in awe of  his spontaneous thinking. Whether it is making protective gear with unused welder’s glasses for us to watch the solar eclipse or covering the damp walls of my room with Rajasthani paintings in Delhi’s Outram Lines, he always thought on his feet. Even now, when his brain functions only partially, he has surprised us by thinking on his feet, more than often.
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Whenever I try to remember our lives before Baba’s stroke, I feel, as if, I am talking about some past life. It feels a little distant because a lot has changed in these two years.

But it’s my mother, whose life has certainly changed in a big way in this period of two years. A homemaker, who preferred to spend most of her afternoons reading Bengali novels and watching television, she was oblivious to the world’s various games. But now, she has stepped up in a much bigger way than we could imagine. Someone who needed guidance in her bank proceedings or to book a taxi is now handling everything all by herself. She always looked up to Baba for every big or small advice but now she has only her own judgement and wits to rely upon. Not like Baba can’t help her decide but these days, Baba chooses to be nonchalant about worldly matters. Sometimes, it is difficult to cope with his insouciance.

Earlier, Baba used to call the shots on every occasion but now his interest lies only in deciding what time he will go for a walk or what snack he would like to munch in the evening. (He insists that he should be fed  “phuchka” every day but his demand is difficult to meet with).

But as a daughter, I celebrate my association with him for a lot of things. I love the way he has lived his life on his own terms and conditions. He has never toed the line. He has never taken the easier road. He has always taken a stand. Perhaps, it is his rebellious nature that pushed him to participate in the uprising in Bengal in the 70s.(Many young men in Bengal in the 70s were part of the movement).

Since childhood, I have heard many stories from my grandmother and Aunts about how he had to be away from home, for months. Once, he came to our north Calcutta house to see my grandmother. The cops got to know about his whereabouts and chased him. He would have been shot dead if a neighbour hadn’t helped him jump off the boundary wall of the colony and flee.

Every time, I have heard these stories, I basked in the glory of my father’s “not so glorious” past. I developed a sense of pride to be the daughter of this rebel. I have shared these stories with people I trust.

Baba is well versed with Mao Tse Tung’s The Little Red Book and Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done?. Baba deeply believes that it is important to challenge the establishment. He has always been a great supporter of the masses. An avid follower of the Leftist ideology, he strongly believes that there will be a resurgence of the Left.

It is some of these ideologies that make him different from others. But let me also confess, as a child, I felt deprived because he didn’t behave like any other father. For example, when our school bus would break down, he would come to school, on his motorbike, to check why his kids haven’t reached home yet but would not take them along with him. Instead, he would go to the BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) office and ask them to send another vehicle to fetch all kids from school. (Just a backgrounder, most school children in Dhanbad used to commute in buses provided by the BCCL).

That was in the late 80s. In the early 90s, when he graduated into a four wheeler, in similar occasions, he would invite other kids of the neighbourood to come with us in the vehicle to ensure they don’t feel deprived.

When we used to visit Calcutta during vacations, I remember, my father used to buy clothes for all our paternal cousins. For him, every child (we are seven of us in the joint family) held equal space in his heart as his daughters, sometimes even more. He always felt indebted to his brothers who took care of him after his father passed away. He was only 11 then.

All his life, he accumulated memories. But these days, he tends to lose them, bit by bit.

My father is the salt of the earth. Just like before, he will be the first person to offer help to anyone. Since his mobility is restricted these days, he expects us to do his duties.

In these two years, I have seen an ebullient man slowly turning silent. I have seen a workaholic, forced to be confined to home. But I am happy that certain things that make him special such as his temper (I inherited it from him), his straightforwardness and his ever-forgiving heart (which my sister has inherited) remain with him.

He loves people unconditionally just as before. Till today, he is a big fan of women who make it big. He continues to be a liberal thinker. He would always encourage his daughters to fight for their rights. He would want young women to make a career before focusing on marriage. He would advice us to work for our own satisfaction and not for money. (He followed this principle all his life.) He is the same man who would prefer to wear a shirt worth Rs 50 if that fits him well. He abhors branded clothes.

He continues to remain someone who we can fall back upon. But yes, sometimes, he responds, sometimes, he doesn’t.

But even now, he continues to be my confession box. When I complain to him about a frustrating day at work, he says, “Take it easy.” When I confide in him that I have been drinking a little too often, he says, “Be careful. Don’t make it a habit.” When I tell him, I am dating someone, he curiously asks, “Are things  serious?”

I realise, the more he changed, the more he has remained the same.

There is something else that remains unchanged. It is his love for music. He starts his day, listening to his favourite singers – Begum Akhtar. Manna De. Shyamal Mitra and Geeta Dutt. Even today, he flawlessly sings his favourite Shyamal Mitra number, ‘Na na na jaabo na, mono jete naahi chaaye.Ei shundor prithibi chhere..mono jete naahi chaaye.” (No, I won’t leave now. I don’t want to leave this wonderful world, now )

(It would have been impossible to write this blog post without the support of my sister, Mohua Sarkar)

By day, 55-year-old Paul Burgess is a busy academic in University College Cork.But once he is back home, guitar and drums take over. Burgess is a drummer and lyricist with the punk band Ruefrex and is busy composing new songs.

“We are planning to bring out a new album. It’s important for us to be alive and kicking because there is a genuine passion and appetite for punk music once again in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Burgess, who is often seen in the clubs in Belfast with fellow band members, added: “It’s an amazing feeling that people want to hear us again.”

Ruefrex was formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and played for around eight years until members, Allan Clarke, Tom Coulter, Jackie Forgie and Paul Burgess, went their separate ways in 1985.

Those members performed at informal events a few times afterwards, but the band came together to play once again formally in a concert in June 2014.

“The reunion happened by chance. Tom’s brother, Colin, an academic, invited me to speak in a conference in National University of Ireland Maynooth, in June last year. He proposed, why don’t we perform once again?” said Burgess.

“It looked difficult then but ultimately, we did perform at a fundraising programme in Belfast. That was our second gig in the past 20 years.”

Other old Northern Ireland punk bands such as The Defects, The Outcasts and Stiff Little Fingers, are active. They are either releasing their unreleased old songs or cutting new albums.

“There is a growing nostalgia for punk music in Northern Ireland,” said Gary Fahy, who runs Punkerama Records, a DIY label in Belfast.

‘Angry’

He said punk music had been a lifeline for many young people when Northern Ireland was convulsed by conflict.
“There was a bunch of youth, frustrated and angry, who didn’t know what to do during the turmoil. They chose music to be the best medium for expressing their views and opinions on the current scenario,” he said.
The punk scene faded in the mid-80s.

Ian ‘Buck’ Murdock, the vocalist of punk band, The Defects, said: “But then, we reached at a point in life, when we were settled and wanted to go back to our old passion, the punk music.”

The Defects, formed in 1978, have recorded songs such as Dance (Until you Drop), Revelator and Survival.

They reunited in 2010 and found new audiences.
In 2012, they went to perform in Australia and in 2013, they played at the Rebellion Punk Festival in Blackpool, Lancashire.

“We didn’t see this level of success back in the 1970s or the 80s,” Murdock said.

The Outcasts too have played in various parts of Europe this year.New punk bands, such as Aggressors BC, Cadaver Club, Fubar, Fresh Meat, Empty Lungs, Empires, Divisions, Hard Case and Assailants, have also emerged.

“Our society is grappling with various problems such as austerity, unemployment and lack of housing facilities. The punk music of today revolves around these grim realities of urban life,” Gary Fahy said.

‘Uncomplicated’

Marty Riot, the lyricist of the five-member band Aggressors BC, said: “Our songs are very pro-people. We are anti-fascist and left-wing.

“We react to what we see around us. We chose music as the medium to tell people how the world around us makes us feel,” he added.

For many, the appeal of punk music songs is that they are short and uncomplicated.

“People find it very easy to connect with it,” said Guy Trelford, co-author of It Makes You Want to Spit: The Definitive Guide to Punk in Northern Ireland.

Terri Hooley, known as the godfather of punk in Northern Ireland, said: “The idea is to provoke people to think about what’s happening around.”

( BBC Northern Ireland published the story on April 29. I visited the BBC, Northern Ireland in April, 2015) Here is the link: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-32431572)

Discrimination against those from the North­east is a subject that’s close to minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju’s heart. The home ministry is recruiting around 160 police personnel from the Northeast for the Delhi police, the MP from Arunachal Pradesh tells Sonia Sarkar

This is my first visit to the office of the minister of state for home affairs but I am assured that I am in the right place when I enter the waiting room. All the seven people seated there are from the Northeast, and each of them is hoping to meet the young minister, Kiren Rijiju.

Rijiju, who is a member of Parliament from west Arunachal Pradesh, is the Northeast’s point man in Delhi. One of the visitors, a public sector employee in Guwahati, wants a transfer to Delhi. Two are contractors from Imphal, seeking the minister’s intervention on extortion calls from militants. There is also a social activist from Itanagar, who wants help to run his school project.

The 43-year-old minister doesn’t disappoint them either. But then, Rijiju stresses, he seeks to deal with issues that affect the region. To begin with, his ministry wants to check acts of discrimination that the people from the northeastern states face in many parts of India.

The ministry has proposed amendments to the Indian Penal Code by inserting two new sections for dealing with violence against people of the Northeast. It spells out punishment to those using derogatory words or gestures for racial features or racial behaviour, culture, customs, way of living or any other practice. Anybody who intends to use criminal force against a particular race or causes fear or alarm or insecurity amongst racial groups may face imprisonment.

Is the government planning a separate law on anti-racial discrimination? “This is enough to deal with the problem,” Rijiju replies.

Discrimination is a subject close to his heart. As a young student at Hansraj College in Delhi, and later at the law faculty, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rijiju had witnessed acts of discrimination against Northeasterners. And he regrets that nothing has changed since then.

“We have to change the mindset of the people. To change the mindset, we need a strong law,” he says. ” Sahi tareekein se kam nahin chalta hai to danda chalana parta hai (You have to wield a stick if people don’t listen to polite words),” he says in his heavily-accented Hindi.

But much of the harassment comes from a department that’s under his ministry – the Delhi police. To deal with this, the home ministry is recruiting around 160 police personnel from the Northeast for the Delhi police.

“Of Delhi’s 90,000 police personnel, only 39 are from the Northeast now. It is strange that we don’t have even 0.5 per cent representation from the Northeast. It is important to have them to deal with issues of the region,” he says.

But there is widespread resentment even against local police forces in the Northeast, I point out. The people of Assam and Manipur, for instance, complain that the police harass women and extort money from the locals. Will they be any different in Delhi?

“They will be forced to be nice. We know how to deal with them,” Rijiju says.

He speaks the language of a tough policeman but looks like a corporate head honcho in his grey suit and white shirt with a matching striped tie. But even that is deceptive – for beneath the suave exterior is a shrewd politician. And that becomes clear when I ask him a spate of uncomfortable questions.

He evades answers on most issues relating to his ministry – from the rise in the number of attacks by Maoists and recruitment in the ISIS to blasts in Burdwan and the recent killings of more than 80 tribals in Kokrajhar by militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

“We have achieved so many things,” he replies, skirting the core issues. “Whether it is disaster management or police modernisation or strengthening of internal security, we are going in the right direction. The security apparatus of the country is foolproof,” he asserts.

What does the ministry plan to do to counter militancy in Manipur and extortion and kidnapping by militants? “I will not talk about all this. These are big subjects,” he replies.

I remind him that in October last year, he had announced that India would construct a frontier highway in Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. How far has the project moved?

“We are planning to do something but if I talk now it will spoil the atmosphere,” he says. “Our good intention of developing (the region) for our own people in the border area could be taken as an aggressive posture. We are taking care of our borders. That’s all I have to say.”

I realise that he is on a different page when he places his smartphone in front of me. “Have a look at this video where (Atal Behari) Vajpayee is speaking about me,” he says.

The video clip is part of a media interview in 2005 in which former Prime Minister Vajpayee had praised Rijiju for his work as a young parliamentarian. I tell him that I’ve seen it, but he insists that I see it again.

After we finish watching the video, I grab the opportunity to ask him about the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. How does he see the transition in the BJP from Vajpayee’s era to the Modi regime?

“It’s a great transition,” he replies promptly. “Vajpayee was such a great leader. We are happy to have replaced him with a great Prime Minister like Narendra Modi. India needs discipline and to enforce discipline you need a strong leader like him.”

Rijiju has old links with Modi. When Modi was the national secretary of the BJP in the mid-Nineties, the minister was the party’s general secretary in Arunachal Pradesh. “I had the pleasure of working with him then. I am happy that I am back in his team.”

He stresses that he has old party links, too. “I am one of the few original BJP members,” the minister, who started his political career as an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activist, adds. “I come from BJP ideology. I am not imported.”

I refer to reports that suggest Modi has been relying heavily on Rijiju’s colleague in the ministry – minister of state Haribhai Chaudhary, a four-time MP from Gujarat. He is believed to be very close to Modi, I point out. “I don’t care about that,” he retorts.

And what about reports that Rijiju’s relationship with Union home minister Rajnath Singh is choppy? “We are working together,” he says tersely.

His heart may be with the BJP but Rijiju has had one breach with his party. The minister, who became an MP for the first time in 2004, lost the 2009 election by 1,319 votes, following which he resigned from the party. News reports had then suggested that he had joined the Congress.

Not true, he says. “Our local BJP leaders wanted me to have an understanding with the former Congress chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Dorjee Khandu, and support the Congress candidate (in the 2009 poll). Khandu offered me the post of the deputy chief minister but I refused. I only extended my support to it but never joined the Congress,” he says.

Months before the 2014 election, he returned to his party with a public announcement. “I am a BJP man. I had to be here,” he says.

Rijiju, who is from Nafra in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, belongs to a political family. His father, Rinchin Kharu, was a pro tem speaker in the state’s first Assembly. Rijiju says he was active in social work from his schooldays.

When he was 14, he was drawn to the teachings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), though he initially looked at it with suspicion. “As a young boy, I used to think that the RSS was communal. So I attended an RSS camp in Arunachal. But I realised that there was no organisation as patriotic and nationalistic as the RSS,” he says. “People who accuse the RSS of being communal should attend their camps.”

From the austere RSS, Rijiju may have picked up the habit of simple living. After becoming a minister, he stayed in a single room in a state bhawan in Delhi with his family (his wife, an alumna of Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, teaches history at the Dera Natung Government College in Itanagar). He moved from Arunachal Bhawan to Andaman and Nicobar Bhawan while waiting for the bungalow allotted to him to be vacated by former defence minister A.K. Antony.

He has now shifted to the sprawling bungalow on Krishna Menon Marg but complains that he barely gets time to be home. “I am not enjoying life in a bungalow. I just go there to sleep because there is no end to meetings,” he says.

I move on to another thorny issue – conversions. How does he react to moves within the Sangh Parivar to convert people to Hinduism? As a Buddhist, what does he feel about the recent conversion of 500 Hindus in Bihar’s Gaya district to Buddhism?

“There should be no forceful conversion by any religion,” he says sternly. “I don’t want to pass any judgement or opinion about any high funda thing. Hindu is not religion but a way of life. If you are living in Hindustan, you are Hindustani but that doesn’t make you Hindu.”

Rijiju has said what he wants to – at least for the time being. There are men waiting for him in the visitors’ room. And the Northeast is his constituency, after all.

You don’t often see Kiran Bedi pleading. But she is doing that right now, while urging the reporter of a Hindi news channel to ask her more questions. The reporter had stood up in a huff, terminating his interview with Delhi’s wannabe chief minister, when her aides had asked him to cut it short. “Please don’t go,” Bedi pleads. “Ask more questions.”

There’s a background to this. A few days before that, she had walked out of a television interview. Anchor Arnab Goswami was, as is his wont, hectoring her a bit when Bedi walked off, saying that she was late for another interview. The video clip went viral, leading to a deluge of jokes and critical remarks about Bedi.

Clearly, the no-nonsense former super cop is learning to be a politician. The walk-out was a mistake. Two weeks before Assembly elections in Delhi – where she is the chief ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bedi can’t afford to be seen as a political parvenu unable to handle the media.

So the first woman in the Indian Police Service (IPS), wearing a dark blue blazer over a pair of blue trousers, with a saffron scarf draped around her neck, is doing what she can to get people on her side. And that’s not a tall order, she believes.

“I have the trust of the people. That will help me to work as the chief minister,” Bedi, 65, says.

Last week, the BJP – which has no dearth of leaders in its state unit – sprung a surprise on the people, to say nothing of its Delhi party, when it said that Bedi had joined the BJP and was its candidate for the chief minister’s post. The move has led to furious debates in and outside the city. Is she chief minister material, as the phrase goes? Does a tough cop necessarily mean an able chief minister?

Many of her former colleagues believe that the very traits that made her a go-getting police officer may come in her way if she is chief minister. As a cop, she was dictatorial and broke protocol. In a chief minister, such traits will be frowned upon.

“She is an instructor, not a listener,” a former colleague rues. “Her word has to be the last word.”

Bedi denies that. “When I work, I listen to everyone. I urge people to speak,” she stresses.

Of course, Bedi is known to have a mind of her own. Old colleagues say she has been like this from the very beginning, even when she was a newbie at Mount Abu’s National Police Academy in 1972.

“Even at 21, she was outspoken and confident,” retired IPS officer Gautam Kaul says. “And she was never awkward as the only woman in the academy.”

A batchmate recalls that she would take a regular stroll with other probationers near Nakki Lake, a lone and slight woman in a group of strapping men. An Asian lawn tennis champion, she played tennis with equal elan with the then director of the academy. “We secretly envied her,” he says.

She was quick to impress her seniors with her “can-do” attitude when she was posted to Delhi after her training. “The first impression she gives is always positive,” a former cop says.

But those are the strengths – which should be an asset to any chief minister. The problems that her colleagues saw soon thereafter are traits that may trip her up.

As a cop, she would do things on her own, sometimes bypassing seniors, says a former Delhi police official. “She had this tendency to fix all problems alone, which is never possible in the government.”

She wasn’t a team player, but to be an effective chief minister she cannot work in isolation. “She has to take everyone else on board. She cannot wield her baton here,” a senior BJP leader says.

On the other hand, a trait that bureaucrats oppose may be just what the voter wants. Her colleagues were not happy with her “over-enthusiastic” approach. A senior recalls that while undergoing training as a station house officer in 1973, she decided to stay back overnight at the police station to get work done. “She went back only after a senior asked her not to ‘overdo’ things,” the retired Delhi police officer recalls.

But Delhi residents may not be unhappy at all if a chief minister decides to spend a night in the secretariat, clearing files.

Some old associates say that she is self-centered. Her detractors say that she imposes her opinion on others. But Bedi doesn’t believe this is true. “I cannot impose myself on others unless people trust me,” she says.

But if she carries so much baggage, why would the BJP have chosen her as the CM candidate? Sources say that the party had sought a delay in the elections because it was in search of a “brave” face to counter Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The party brass felt that it needed someone with mass appeal, which their Delhi leaders lacked. Senior BJP leader and Union finance minister Arun Jaitley is said to have approached Bedi, after getting the go-ahead from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

It worked out well – the BJP was looking for a face; Bedi was looking for a body. Sidelined by the AAP, she needed a platform.

The BJP high command believes it is on the right track – she is seen as honest, energetic and determined. She gets work done. People still remember her as Crane Bedi because she got cars parked illegally towed away. Delhi wallahas even believe that she had Indira Gandhi’s car towed away, though it later transpired that Gandhi, then Prime Minister, was out of town, and the car’s driver was “challaned” by a police constable for illegal parking.

In the late 1970s, she hit the headlines when she rescued 10 women and seven children from a burning house in Sadar Bazar. In 1978, with a stick in hand, she took on Akali agitators at India Gate. Her personal album has a series of pictures of Bedi – in heeled boots – warding off the men carrying sturdy sticks.

Bedi has already shown a talent that some successful politicians possess – the ability to change camps at will. When she was one of the leading lights of the Anna Hazare movement – seeking to weed out corruption from India – she lampooned politicians at a public rally. There was a time, too, not so long ago, when she was critical of Modi, frequently questioning him about the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Her tilt towards the BJP first became apparent to the AAP in 2014, when the latter was campaigning against Union minister and former BJP president Nitin Gadkari on corruption issues. “She was fine when such protests were carried out against Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. But she opposed the AAP when it targeted Gadkari,” an AAP member says.

Bedi now sees herself an out-and-out BJP person. “It’s a value-based solid organisation. I have seen it from inside,” she says.

She may have also seen the dissidents inside – for that’s going to be one of the biggest problems she’ll face in the party. Many have already started grumbling about her lack of political experience. “She should have been made an MLA first to help her understand how the administration runs. She has always been on the other side of the fence. She has no knowledge of politics and governance,” a BJP leader says.

Her critics point out that she is also not known to complete assignments. When she was posted to Goa, she left before finishing her tenure. She was removed from a post in Chandigarh after she got into a tussle with a senior bureaucrat. She left her job in Mizoram after widespread protests about her daughter getting a seat in a medical college in Delhi under the “Mizoram quota” – meant essentially for people of the state.

Yet, for every characteristic that is seen as a con, there are many in her favour. She is disciplined and looks after the interest of her subordinates, who used to fondly call her “Madam, Sir”.

She is also seen as a doer, a quality that people would like in their chief minister. “She doesn’t sit on anything. For example, if a pipe leaks, she will get a plumber to fix it right away. She won’t go through the sarkari way of filling up a requisition form, etc,” a former colleague says.

This, though, is not a job for quick fixes. Will she cope, or cop out? Time will tell, no doubt. But before that, the voter will.

‘I give, don’t take’

Q. What are the qualities you have that will make you a good chief minister?
A. I am trustworthy. As a cop, I have learnt only to give, never to take.
Q. How did you get the BJP ticket?
A. Nobody will ever get to know this.
Q. Why do you always abandon your posts?
A. Read my book. It has all the answers. It costs Rs 500, but I am gifting it to you.
Q. Why have you changed your views about the BJP and Modi?
A. I haven’t changed my views. I have understood that it’s a solid, value-based organisation. You haven’t got a chance to understand it, which I’ve got.
Q. You are a good mimicry artiste. You also used to imitate dancer Prabhudheva’s moves in the song Muqabla muqabla…
A. I used to do that. I mimicked tennis players too.

Pros and Cons

Strengths

Quick to act
Disciplined
Clean image
Weaknesses

Critics call her dictatorial
No experience
Not a team player

It was a birthday party with a difference. The bungalow at 97, Lodhi Estate, in Lutyens’s Delhi, was lit up, and the menu included some of the most delectable dishes of Kashmir. The capital’s Who’s Who was there – except for one. The birthday girl.

Five months after Sunanda Pushkar, 52, was found dead in a hotel room in Delhi, her husband, member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, had thrown a party in her memory. Many of the guests there that June evening couldn’t believe that the vivacious woman was no more.

They have trouble believing the rumours and reports now doing the rounds of the city. Earlier this week, the Delhi police termed the death on January 17, 2014 – so far widely seen as suspected suicide or accidental death – a possible murder by poisoning. A special investigation team has been formed to probe the death.

The stories about her unresolved death refuse to die down. Senior cops reveal that the autopsy report had shown that she had 15 injury marks on her body, caused in the 12 hours before she died. A puncture mark between the index and middle fingers of her right hand indicated the possible use of a syringe.

Was poison, as the police hint, injected into her body? And could the death have been related to a controversy that broke out during the Indian Premier League (IPL) of 2010? A section of the media had then alleged that Tharoor had used his influence as Union minister to get Pushkar sweat equity worth Rs 700 million in a cricket franchise, Rendezvous Sports World, which had bid for the Kochi team. Questions were raised as to whether Pushkar was acting as a proxy for him, speculation that Tharoor dismissed. But the controversy ultimately resulted in his resignation as a minister in the United Progressive Alliance government.

The city which thrives on salacious whispers came up with a host of theories. Some held that Pushkar, who thought her twice-divorced husband was in a relationship, had threatened to spill the beans about the IPL fracas.

“What she would have revealed about the IPL controversy or something else would have hurt a lot of politicians in India,” claims BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who has been taking considerable interest in getting the mystery of her death solved. “I suspect that was the major cause of her murder,” says Swamy, who met her for the first and last time three days before her death at a function in Thiruvananthapuram.

The police are checking whether there are any Dubai links to her death. Police sources say that four people – two from Pakistan and two from Dubai – were staying in the same hotel where Pushkar was found dead around the same time on fake passports. The sources say the police are probing the role, if any, of the Dubai underworld, which controls illegal betting and match-fixing in cricket.

But there are enough reasons to back the suicide theory, too. Three of Sunanda’s close aides confirm that she was depressed for the past few months before her death. “Anybody who spoke to her could sense that,” a cousin from Jammu says.

Pushkar, clearly, was troubled about her marriage. “Every marriage has some problem or another. That Sue was not keeping well aggravated her anxiety,” a male friend stresses.

Bollywood actor-producer, and a regular at Delhi parties, Nasser Abdulla, says that Sunanda had revealed to him that she suffered from lupus, an autoimmune disease. He had urged her to go for a 10-day vipassana (meditation) course. “I had told her that meditation helps someone who’s ailing and disturbed,” he says.

Part of her depression could have emanated from her worries about her marriage. There was speculation about Tharoor’s relationship with a Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar. Tharoor and Pushkar issued a joint statement saying that they were together and happy. It also said that Pushkar had been hospitalised after an illness and was seeking rest.

A day before she died, however, Pushkar posted a series of personal messages, supposedly sent by Tarar to Tharoor, on his Twitter account.

In an earlier TV interview, she had said that her husband wasted a lot of time on Twitter. “Twitter is my sautan (husband’s second wife),” she had joked.

To most spectators, it seemed that the marriage was unravelling. And that surprised their friends, for theirs was a whirlwind romance. The two had met in July 2009 in Dubai, where Pushkar, who ran a real estate company, was based. Tharoor, a former UN under secretary-general, had by then moved to the Gulf with his then wife.

“They were like teenagers in love. The two were inseparable,” a former Tharoor aide says.

Emotional and spirited, she was intelligent, complex and sensitive. “She had many grey areas to her life too,” a friends says.

Another friend recalls that Pushkar loved Hindi film songs. Her favourite was the old Lata Mangeshkar classic from Guide, Piya tose naina laage re. “She danced to this once at a private party,” the friend recollects.

The two were married in August 2010. In a media interview earlier, Tharoor had admitted that he was in a rush to get married to her because he didn’t want any more controversies regarding their relationship.

Friends of the couple say that Tharoor was completely besotted. Even though he was married at that point of time, he wanted Sunanda’s company, they say.

“She was vivacious and intelligent. One of the other reasons why Tharoor got attracted to her was that she was well connected in Dubai,” a male friend of Sunanda says.

“But She too enjoyed the power and luxury of being the wife of a senior politician and a former union minister,” he adds.

A close friend of Sunanda believes that they complemented each other – though there were differences. For Tharoor, always good with words, romance was all about reciting poetry for her. For Sunanda, romance meant togetherness, the friend says.

Tharoor is soft-spoken in public; Pushkar was known to be vocal and impulsive. She slapped a man who had groped her when she arrived with Tharoor at the Thiruvananthapuram airport to attend a literature festival in October 2012.

“She was not a dainty lily, she knew what to do at the right time and she always did it,” a friend says.

But one of Tharoor’s former aides says while suave and sophisticated, he was also hot-tempered. Media reports quoting their domestic help say that in the last few months the couple often fought – sometimes physically.

A cousin, who fondly called her Pinky, stresses that Pushkar was outgoing. The daughter of an army officer from Kashmir lived a life that seemed to belong to the pages of a fast-paced novel. After graduating from a Srinagar college, she worked as a restaurant hostess in a Srinagar hotel. She married a Kashmiri Pandit, Sanjay Raina, in 1986 but was divorced in 1988. She later married Sujith Menon, a financial consultant, and had a son, Shiv. Menon died in an accident.

“She was a Kashmiri at heart even after being in different parts of the world for so long. She often spoke of her Kashmir days,” a friend says.

She was also a good cook. “She loved feeding her guests. She knew how to connect to them,” says Sanjoy Roy, managing director of the production company, Teamwork Productions, who was one of the guests at her posthumous birthday party. “We badly missed her that day.”

Birthdays, for Tharoor and Pushkar, were special. Four years before he marked June 27 with lights and gushtaba at his Delhi residence, they had another memorable birthday.

“It was on her birthday that I proposed to her in Kasauli,” Tharoor had said in an earlier TV interview.

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