– A new report on prisoners sentenced to death in India finds that many convicts did not get a fair trial. Sonia Sarkar zeroes in on five ways the law was violated

While the debate on the death penalty continues, the spotlight is now on the kind of trial a prisoner on death row often undergoes. The Death Penalty India Report, compiled by the Delhi-based National Law University (NLU), points out that many among those sentenced to death were denied even their basic legal rights. That explains, perhaps, why only 4.9 per cent death sentences have been upheld by appellate courts in the past 15 years.

Some of the basic violations, as listed by the report, released recently, are:


The law states that prisoners should not be handcuffed in court but the Death Penalty India Report states that prisoners on death row are routinely handcuffed when they appear for their trials.
“There were instances recorded of prisoners who were kept handcuffed even in the courtroom while proceedings were taking place,” the report states.

This is in violation of Section 49 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) which disallows handcuffing unless it is feared the prisoner will escape or there can be harm.

Former Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in Prem Shankar Shukla vs Delhi Administration (1980) described handcuffing as “inhuman, cruel and unreasonable”. Prisoners should be handcuffed only if the State has no other way of ensuring   the prisoner doesn’t escape, or if the prisoner is deemed dangerous.

But this is a routine violation, points out Mumbai-based lawyer Farhana Shah. “The common argument used by the police is there is apprehension that the person, if not handcuffed, will abscond. But nobody cares that the law is being violated,” says Shah, who represented Ajmal Kasab, executed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.


The NLU team asked 189 prisoners who were on death row if they were represented when they were first produced before the magistrate. But 89.4 per cent said they did not have a lawyer.

Article 21 of the Constitution casts the obligation on the State to preserve life. In M.H. Hoskot vs State of Maharashtra (1978), the Supreme Court said the right to free legal aid was the duty of the government and an implicit aspect of Article 21 in ensuring fairness. Section 304 of the CrPC states that if the accused is not represented by a lawyer, or cannot engage one, the court shall assign a pleader for his or her defence at the expense of the State.

Legal educator N.R. Madhava Menon says that no criminal trial can happen without a defence lawyer and the lawyer should be assigned before the trial starts. “It is the responsibility of the court (precisely the judge) that the accused gets a lawyer and understands the implications of the charges made against him or her. Also, the accused should be told that he or she is entitled to plead not guilty if he or she is innocent,” the founder vice-chancellor of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences states.

But legal observers hold that lawyers provided by the government seldom take an interest in a case. “There are instances when lawyers from state legal services authority do not meet the accused in jail. In such instances, the accused doesn’t get a fair representation in the court,” Shah says. This is especially true in terror cases, legal experts point out.


Section 207 of the CrPC states that the magistrate has to furnish the accused with a copy of the chargesheet, along with other relevant documents — such as the first information report, statements made by persons whom the police may seek to examine as witnesses and judicial confessions before the magistrate.

But the report states that 60 out of the 255 prisoners on death row, when asked if they had received a chargesheet, replied that they had not. The 195 prisoners who did receive a copy of the chargesheet said they were given this after the trial began, or even after the pronouncement of the trial court judgment.

Worse, even after the chargesheet was provided to them, few understood the language. “Understanding the convoluted language of the chargesheet is mostly impossible for prisoners,” lawyer Shah states.


The law provides for direct interaction between the judge and the accused (without any role of the lawyers) and this is seen as an integral element of a fair trial. It is an obligation upon the judge under Section 313 of the CrPC to explain simply and clearly each of the incriminating circumstances presented by the prosecution to the accused.

This, however, is denied to prisoners sentenced to death, the report states. “Often, prisoners complain that they don’t get an opportunity to explain their version as the questions are in a ‘Yes or No’ format,” Shreya Rastogi, co-author of the report, says.

Legal experts say that questions should be asked in such a way that there is no room for confusion. This is when the court will be in a position to know all the circumstances which have been brought in evidence against the accused, and the questions put by it can cover this entire gamut.

“Section 313 of the CrPC allows the judge to have a conversation with the accused,” Supreme Court advocate K.T.S. Tulsi says. “But it is done in a mechanical manner and is dictated by the prosecutor. The accused is made to sit on the floor. He or she doesn’t have the guts to get up and tell his or her story.”


Under the law, when an accused is sentenced to imprisonment, a copy of the judgment should be provided to him or her immediately after the pronouncement of the sentence, free of cost. Section 363 of the CrPC also allows the accused to apply for a translated copy of the judgment in a language that the accused understands.

But in most cases, death row convicts were not given a copy of the judgment, the report finds. Prisoners also did not get a translated copy of the judgment, originally written in English, when they asked for it. However, in the M.H. Hoskot case, the Supreme Court had observed that being given a copy of judgment to the accused was a part of the right to appeal.
“These violations clearly show how just the criminal justice system is,” says former VC Menon.

IMG_1269IMG_1277Kashmir’s young are no longer just shouting slogans on the streets. Their smartphones are their new battlefield – as well as their ammunition, finds Sonia Sarkar


Like millions of other young teens, Usman Hussain spends considerable time on Facebook and YouTube. But the 13-year-old student of a Srinagar public school surfs for information that is not likely to interest his peers elsewhere in the country. He spends almost seven hours a day on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and related issues.”I want to know what the world has to say on conflict and Islam. It helps me to understand my identity and role as a Muslim,” Hussain says.Nazir Masood, 22, is glued to the social media, too. But the student of Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology (NIT) doesn’t waste time poking friends or sharing the latest musical hits. He uses the platform to voice his protest against government moves and policies.”This is our platform for resistance. We resist, so we exist. Otherwise nobody would bother to listen to us,” he says.In Srinagar, the stage for resistance has moved from the streets to the Internet. The youth, the police say, is being “radicalised” by the Internet, and expressing their views on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Masood’s Facebook page, for instance, is flooded with photographs, videos and articles against the deployment of security forces on the NIT campus after two groups of students – Kashmiris and those from outside Kashmir – got into a fight over a recent cricket match where India was defeated.

“ISIS is the most searched word on the Internet in Kashmir,” a senior police officer says. “The radicalisation of the youth on the social media is a cause for concern in Kashmir,” adds another senior police official. An eight-member cyber team was set up by the police last year to keep a close check on the social media. So far, the team has only been monitoring the sites.

According to a 2015 report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, over 35 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir use the Net, and the state has 97 lakh mobile phones. An internal survey by the ruling Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) reveals that even in villages in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag, where electricity is available for only two hours a day on an average, a large number of people own smartphones with 2G connections.

Indeed, almost every young Kashmiri has a smartphone in hand. The phones – once used by the youth to assure their parents that they were safe – help them gather and share information, and voice dissent.

“Our children have been caged for years in Kashmir. Social media sites give them the wings to reach out to the outside world,” says Masood’s father, a Srinagar businessman. “But they shouldn’t do anything that would create trouble for them and us.”

But the police have been sniffing trouble – though they seek to stress that there is little danger of Kashmiri youth moving to outfits such as the ISIS. Some of the popular Facebook pages in Kashmir are Pulwama Live, Islamic Jamiat Talba and Tral – the Land of Martyrs, and Burhan the Fighter. Burhan is a reference to Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the 21-year-old commander of the militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

The pages have 3,500 to 12,000 followers, and carry photographs and videos of militants posing with Kalashnikovs, funerals of militants and videos of militants calling for violence.

Among the popular hashtags on Twitter, frequently retweeted by Kashmiris, are GoIndiaGoBack, Indianoppressedkashmir, Kashmirbleeds, IamBurhan and FreeKashmir.

The Kashmir police have blocked 186 pages which portrayed militants as heroes and propagated anti-India sentiments in the last one year. Among them were FB pages such as India ki Mout, Rahii Mir, Mujahideen-e-Islam and Tral Tigers Tigers.

Social scientists fear that young Kashmiris, who have always been on the forefront of the movement for secession, are now looking at Islamic movements across the globe and showing a readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam.

“Kashmir’s youth are looking for a global Islamic identity,” stresses sociologist Farah Qayoom of Kashmir University. “More and more young men and women are turning towards [the ultra conservative] Salafism. And they are using the social media for a selective interpretation of Islam.”

What attracts the young to the social media are parallels that they see across the world – of struggles for nationhood, police and army action against the youth and uprisings. “Social networking for Kashmiris is all about telling their story of alienation in India and also connecting to those who have similar stories to tell,” points out Srinagar-based psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoub.

Indeed, when a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who had been jailed by Israel was released recently, the news was widely shared by Kashmiri youngsters on Facebook. “We relate to it because children have been picked up by the police and kept in custody for months in Kashmir,” Kashmir University student Nadeem Muhammad says.

There are several other reasons why social media sites are becoming more and more popular in Kashmir. For one, Kashmiris tend not to trust mainstream media, especially television, and look at Internet as a source for news.

There was a time when Kashmiris had few channels for expressing their anger. Those days, people would write their grievances in sealed envelopes and leave them at the UN observers’ office in Srinagar, recalls artist Masood Hussain. “While dropping the envelopes, people used to chant, ‘azaadi‘.” The situation changed with the advent of the world press corps. The Kashmiri’s angry voice was carried abroad by representatives of international news groups who reported extensively from Kashmir.

Now social media sites have replaced the world press. “The mainstream media censor our grievances, so we share our stories on social media with the world,” says Zaraq Jahan, an undergraduate student at Kashmir University. “My mother often says, I’ve heard such-and-such thing has happened. Just check it out on the Internet,” adds another student.

Continuing police and army action against Kashmiris has fanned the simmering anger among the young, politicians stress. Waheed Rehman Parra, the youth wing president of the PDP, believes that the killing of children by security forces in 2010, the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament) in 2013 and other such incidents have “exacerbated the simmering anger and hatred” against the Centre. “What we see on social media is the manifestation of this anger and hatred,” he says.

Qayoom adds, “This generation of Kashmiris has grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and killings. So resistance on social media seems an obvious way for them to express their anger.”

Attacks on Muslims in other parts of the country, such as the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, have also added to the Kashmiri’s sense of alienation, a police officer admits. Kashmiri students have been attacked, too – in Rajasthan, Meerut, Mohali and Greater Noida in recent times.

“Even after witnessing such incidents against Kashmiris, if we don’t become radical now, then when,” asks Mushin Khan, a student of Kashmir University.

It’s not just angry posts that flood the sites. Black humour also crops up often. Mir Suhail, a 26-year-old cartoonist, has been taking potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one cartoon, he shows the PM standing behind his wax statue, recently unveiled by Madame Tussauds, watching a man hanging from a tree. “This man represents anyone who is oppressed in India – cattle traders, Dalits or farmers,” Suhail says.

One of Suhail’s cartoons, criticising the hanging of Guru, was pulled down by Facebook in February this year.

The government, too, has on occasion banned Internet in the Valley. When the news of a Handwara girl who had allegedly been molested by security forces spread last month, Internet was disconnected for three days. Last year, too, Internet lines were severed for three days when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to impose an economic blockade on Kashmir if cows were slaughtered for Eid.

There is concern in political quarters about the trend. “The Kashmir conflict was always political. But now many young Kashmiris are trying to give it a religious colour after being influenced by the conflict in West Asia,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, Awami Action Committee. “It has influenced them so much that they don’t listen to us when we try to dissuade them from moving towards this ideology.”

The police say they are now planning to use the social media to foil the radicals. “But we have just taken baby steps,” a senior police officer admits. “And whatever we do, the youth will be much ahead of us when it comes to using social media sites.”

The use of the social media has so far hampered the administration only in one way. Word spreads fast about police raids or search operations, and the youth reach the spot almost at once. “Sometimes we’ve had to abandon our operations because of the crowds,” the police official says.

There have been sporadic incidents of masked men waving ISIS flags in the Valley in recent times. A 23-year-old man from Ganderbal in Kashmir, who was in Dubai, was arrested in January this year by the National Investigation Agency for alleged links with the ISIS. But the police stress that they are not worried about radicalism leading to a rise in militancy in Kashmir.

“Not all those who have been radicalised on social media are joining militancy,” says the inspector-general of police, Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani. “It is easier to be a Facebook jihadi than to fight on the ground.”

But for young Kashmiris, the arena for the battle is indeed shifting. And people like Suhail are not going to give up their campaign on the social media. The cartoonist says his friends often warn him that the security forces may target him for his “radical” art.

“But the security forces don’t understand that what is radical for them is the reality for us,” he says.

Facebook pages blocked by police

186 pages blocked since 2015. Some of them are:

  • India ki Mout
  • Qaidai Azamm
  • Tral The Land of Martyrs
  • AK Burhan
  • Malik malik [burhan bhai]
  • Mujahideen-e-islam
  • Tral Tigers Tigers
  • Tral The Beauty Land

Popular hashtags on Twitter

#GoIndiaGoBack, #Indianoppressedkashmir,  #Kashmirbleeds,  #IamBurhan, #IamKashmir,  #RagdaRagda,  #AndOccupation,  #FreeKashmir,  #BlackDay  #Illegaloccupation

( Some names have been changed to protect identities)

A longer version of the story is published in The Telegraph on May 8, 2015

Tete a TeteTete a Tete

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is a changed man after his sabbatical last year. He may soon become the head of the party, former minister Jairam Ramesh tells Sonia Sarkar

Ravi Shankar’s sitar notes waft in the air. I am early for my appointment, but Jairam Ramesh is already in his study at his residence in central Delhi. The former Congress minister may give the impression that he has all the time in the world for you. But he has been busy.

“You have to do a lot of work when you are in Opposition,” he says.

Last week, Ramesh filed a petition in the Supreme Court, challenging the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for passing the Aadhaar Bill as a money bill in the Lok Sabha. A money bill does not need to be passed by the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling NDA is in a minority and where Ramesh, as a member, had suggested amendments. The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, got passed after all recommendations from the Upper House, primarily suggested by Ramesh, were rejected.

“The government declared it a money bill, which was a fraudulent declaration. I have challenged this,” the Congress spokesperson says.

Ramesh’s recommendations related to privacy. He argued that Aadhaar should not be made mandatory and should only be used for subsidy and welfare programmes.

His criticism of Aadhaar is ironical because it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which launched the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) with much fanfare in 2010. The project, which promised to give every citizen an Aadhaar number, got mired in controversy, with many holding that it violated a person’s right to privacy.

A swanky office was built in central Delhi for UIDAI during the UPA rule. The former Infosys head, Nandan Nilekani (who later fought on a Congress ticket from Bangalore and was defeated), was made its chairman.

But Ramesh distances himself from the scheme. “Neither (former Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh nor (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi nor I created any hype around Aadhaar. The only person who created the hype around Aadhaar was Nilekani,” the former rural development minister says.

Ramesh is one of the most vocal leaders of the Congress. Political watchers describe him as a good communicator, always articulate and often provocative. “Communication is also visual these days, not just oral. It is not about your words but also your body language that matters,” he explains.

It would seem that the mantra has dawned upon the Congress rather late. The party has often been criticised for not managing to communicate its policy to the people, unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party, which excels in coining slogans.

“Narendra Modi has certainly brought a greater awareness of marketing, networking and communication into the political class,” Ramesh says, adding that he gives full marks to the Prime Minister’s “packaging” skills. “Whether it is Digital India or Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna or Aadhaar or the Swachh Bharat mission, he has re-packaged all our schemes well,” he says.

Ramesh, who was also minister of state for drinking water and sanitation, refers to the Swachh Bharat mission, which, as Nirmal Bharat, was one of the planks of the UPA government. He believes that when issues such as hygiene and cleanliness are taken up by a prime minister, they get “sanctity”. Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, did not bring them up.

“When I was the minister, I said that India needed more toilets than temples, but I could not get my PM to talk about it,” Ramesh laments.

But Modi’s biggest failure, he adds, is that he has not brought business to India as he had promised. “There is disappointment and disenchantment, if not disillusionment, among people in the business community who voted for Modi. But the Prime Minister has to outgrow Twitter and Instagram to know the reality,” he says.

He describes Modi as “a ‘ dramebaaz‘ prime minister and not a ‘gravitas’ prime minister”, and maintains that India is now marching to an “illiberal” democracy. “The core of democratic structures – debate, dissent, discussion, compromise and negotiation – is slowly disappearing,” he says.

Ramesh himself grew up in what he refers to as an “ecumenical Hindu family”, learning Sanskrit from the age of nine. His father, a Vaishnavite and a Shankaracharya devotee, taught in engineering colleges, and he grew up in campuses in Roorkee, Bombay and Ranchi.

He recalls that when he was in IIT Bombay, where he studied mechanical engineering, a professor had urged him to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “But I refused,” he says. “I am not an RSS Hindu. I’d rather not be a Hindu if the RSS is going to tell me what a Hindu is,” he says. “This is not Tagore or Gandhi or Vivekananda’s Hinduism. This is bigoted and convoluted Hinduism.”

Ramesh is not a known follower of the silence-is-golden school. During the UPA rule, he had upset Prime Minister Singh when, in Beijing, he criticised his government’s “paranoid” attitude towards Chinese companies and investments. In 2007, he kicked up a row after he asked the then culture minister, Ambika Soni, to resign over a government affidavit to court saying that Ram was a mythological figure.

“I shouldn’t have said publicly what I said,” Ramesh admits. “Now I have learnt not to answer every question.”

He is certainly more careful than he was earlier, but still tends to speak first and regret later. He refers at length to a senior Congress leader’s attire, and then texts me after the interview, earnestly requesting me to drop those lines.

His own attire is eye-catching. Ramesh is usually to be seen in well-cut kurtas and churidars. The most striking feature is his wavy white hair that touches his neck. He doesn’t look his 62 years, and old friends recall that he looked young for his age even when he returned from the US after higher studies and joined the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices.

This was followed by stints on the advisory board in energy, ministry of industry and the Planning Commission. Perceived to be close to P.V. Narasimha Rao, he worked for three months in the Prime Minister’s Office in Rao’s government, after which he was sent back to the Planning Commission. Almost 26 years later, Ramesh says he still doesn’t know why that happened.

“That remains a mystery to me,” he says.

In his book To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story, out last year, Ramesh writes that there was speculation that he was too open and accessible and couldn’t work self-effacingly. Others speculated that [godman] Chandraswami was not happy with his presence in the PMO. Some said Rao would not “stomach” anybody whom he saw as “Rajiv’s boys”.

<,>R<,>amesh was also seen as one of Rao’s blue-eyed boys. In fact, through his career, he has had people who’ve mentored him to success. Among the first was former civil servant and diplomat Abid Hussain, who introduced him to the Planning Commission in 1986. He met Sam Pitroda through Hussain, and Pitroda introduced him to Rajiv Gandhi, for whom Ramesh wrote election speeches.

Another adviser was former home minister P. Chidambaram. But the two, it is believed, fell out during the UPA’s second stint.

“We had differences. As finance minister, he had a role to play, and I also had to take care of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, rural roads and Indira Awaas Yojna. We were prisoners of circumstances,” he says.

Some whisper that Ramesh has risen in politics because of his acute networking skills. He laughs at that. “How could you say that when I don’t socialise or go out? Life has been good to me. I have been at the right place at the right time.”

And when you are a Congressman who is close to the Gandhi family, you are, of course, at the right place all the time. He has worked closely with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and is seen as an adviser to the party vice-president, Rahul Gandhi.

“Sonia Gandhi is a remarkably private person who has been thrown into the whirlpool of Indian politics which is a horrendously public enterprise,” he says. “The poker-faced serious personality one sees in public is different from the real Mrs Gandhi, who has a remarkable sense of humour and an ability to laugh at herself.”

Rahul Gandhi, he adds, is “a friend and colleague, who gives me the freedom to talk”. After his sabbatical last year, when he took a 56-day break from politics, Gandhi is a “transformed man – visible, vocal and active”.

The Gandhi scion, he adds, may soon take over as the president of the party. “We hope it will happen in 2016,” he adds.

We move on to the elections in West Bengal, where the Congress has formed an alliance with the Left parties. What made it strike a deal with a sinking ship?

“The Left is not a sinking ship. The Buddha babu-led Left is very pragmatic,” he says, referring to former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “Between the Left and Trinamul, the Left is more predictable; Mamata is mercurial.”

A Rajya Sabha member from Andhra Pradesh, Ramesh’s tenure in the Upper House will end in June this year. Sections in the party are said to be opposing the half-Kannadiga and half-Tamil MP’s bid for re-election. “If the party wants me, it will have me. If the party wants somebody else, the party will have somebody else,” he says.

Like Rahul Gandhi, Ramesh is a changed man – he is being careful with his words.

Skinny jeans and dead bodies, billiard tables and teen soldiers — Karbala
is a story of conflicting images. Sonia Sarkar visits the holy city in Iraq and
finds that another war is being waged

  • AND LIFE GOES ON:  A garment shop in Karbala

Friday evenings at the Al Kawthar shopping complex on Al-Jumhuriya Street in Karbala are busy. Less than 100 metres from the shrine of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, burqa clad women shop for leather bags, skinny jeans and heart-shaped soft toys. A few yards away, cheerful young men play billiards inside a noisy cafeteria. By the Nahr-al-Furat – the Euphrates – families unwind.

But it doesn’t take much to change the mood in Karbala. A group of young men in uniform, carrying three dead bodies, marches towards the Karbala shrine. The dead are men killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh, in war-ravaged Fallujah, 120km from Karbala, home to 1.86 million Iraqis.

Just 100km from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Karbala is a picture of contrasting images. On the one hand, there are five-star hotels, shopping malls, theme parks, 5D theatres and apartments. On the other hand, huge billboards with photographs of young men killed by the ISIS, cavalcades of armoured vehicles and video clips from the warfront on television remind visitors that the country is still at war.

  • An 8-year-old boy, whose father was killed by the ISIS, celebrates his birthday at a camp

“The two images of Karbala could be contrasting but they are a part of each other. Both represent today’s reality of Iraq,” Muhammad Alawadi Al Musawi, lecturer, department of history, University of Karbala, points out.

Karbala is where Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was believed to have been killed by the ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazid, in 680 AD. Some 50 million tourists visit it every year.

Efforts are on to erase the picture of violence that is today associated with Iraq. And the movement is being spearheaded by the shrine, whose coffers are rich.

“We want to make Karbala a world class city and change the face of Iraq. The world believes Iraq is all about war but we want to change the image of Iraq through Karbala,” says Fawzy Al-Shaher, general manager, Khayrat Al-Sobtayn, an investment company floated by the shrine. “We want to make Karbala the next developed city after Baghdad in Iraq.”

With a two-year budget of US $500 million, it has started several projects. One of the biggest is the construction of the Imam Hussein International Airport with help from China. Currently, all major airlines operate from the Najaf airport, 76km from Karbala.

Old-timers point out that Karbala, which witnessed Shia unrest against former President Saddam Hussein in 1979, was a neglected city during his regime. But now it is unrecognisable. With construction galore, land rates are shooting up as malls, restaurants and auditoriums come up.

  • A jewellery shop

“The effort is to tell the world that Iraq is beyond sectarian divide between the Shias and Sunnis,” says Sheikh Mahdi Al Karbalai, the chief cleric of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain.

Ironically, war cannot be taken out of the lives of the people of Karbala – or of Iraq. Iraq has been ravaged by war several times in the past 35 years. In 1980, the protracted Iran-Iraq war began as Saddam attacked Iran. In 1991, he invaded Kuwait in what was to be known as the Gulf War. Iraq was forced to retreat and economic sanctions were imposed on it. In 2003, US forces invaded Iraq, supposedly to destroy weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was captured and executed in 2006.

In 2014, a new war began, as the ISIS seized huge swathes of areas in northern and western Iraq, including the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit. The town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 60km from Karbala, was captured by the ISIS but recaptured by Iraqi forces in 2014.

Karbala has been relatively safe, but there was an incident in 2007 when 12 men from Qods Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, disguised as US soldiers, entered the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala and killed five US army men.

But the shadow of the war continues to loom over Karbala. Even toy shops are not spared.

“Every child wants to buy a toy gun or a military tank,” says Sala Al Hashmi, owner of a toy shop in Karbala. “Children see visuals of men in uniform brandishing guns and want to be like them.”

Children, as young as eight, speak of defeating the ISIS. “I want to fight Daesh,” says eight-year-old Murtaba Rahim, who is celebrating his birthday in a military camp in Karbala. His father was killed by the ISIS four years ago while he was protecting the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Syria, the centre of religious studies for Shias.

Teenagers have been making a beeline for the mobilisation force, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which was formed in 2014 after the Shiite cleric, the grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave out a call to civilians to fight the ISIS. Civilians are now trained in using weapons such as Kalashnikovs, Tabuk sniper rifles and M2 Browning machine guns by the Iraqi army under the supervision of military advisers from the US, Canada and Iran.

Sixteen-year-old Ali Fadal Abbas is among the 1.2 lakh civilians to have joined the force. Son of a daily wage earner, Abbas has been promised a monthly salary of Rs 40,106 (US$600) but has not received any wages for the past three months because of a fund crunch.

“But that doesn’t stop us from fighting. The ISIS has attacked our homes; we have to save our homes,” he says.

  • Men playing billards

But Iraq is not just about battling enemies. Azhar Talafar owns a garment shop in Karbala and likes to play billiards in the evenings. For him, life is “normal”, he says.

“I will also go [join the forces] when there is need. Till then, I can relax,” he says.

Muhammad Youssif is not overly worried about the ISIS either. He is celebrating the grand wedding of a cousin in a five-star hotel, where the room tariff for a night is around Rs 11,695. “We can afford this. And a wedding is special,” Youssif says.

Life in parts of Iraq is changing rapidly, and there are some concerns, too.

Elders are worried about drug addiction among the youth. In 2012, the city police had shut down the cafés and billiard halls in the city, holding that they were being used by drug dealers. The other emerging problem is of the use of alcohol – outlawed by Islamic law. Reports of trucks loaded with alcohol being seized by the administration often appear in local newspapers. Rehabilitation centres have come up in the city, too, to deal with drug and alcohol abuse.

“These are the new challenges besides the war. We have to deal with them firmly,” Al Musawi says.

War, clearly, is an unending metaphor.

The reporter visited Karbala at the invitation of the administrators of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain

– A move to scale down pictorial warnings on cigarette packets has set off alarm bells in some sectors. Health experts tell Sonia Sarkar that they fear a proposed law that seeks to curb the use of tobacco may also be diluted

NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE: Experts fear that the government may end up diluting the stringent Cotpa Bill, 2015

From April 1 this year, cigarette packets were going to be substantially different. A government notification last year had said that 85 per cent of a packet would be devoted to a pictorial health warning on the ill effects of smoking. But recently a parliamentary committee recommended that it be reduced to 50 per cent.

The proposal came from the Lok Sabha committee on subordinate legislation headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament, Dilip Gandhi.

The development has caused a flutter in anti-tobacco circles in the country.  Does it mean the government is not serious about tackling tobacco use? What is the fate of a stringent bill that seeks to address the issue?

Indeed, there has been no recent movement on the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill, 2015, or the Cotpa Bill. After the bill was drafted a year ago, the Union health and family welfare ministry invited comments from stakeholders. The ministry received over 2,00,000 views but has not moved on the front, a source says.

“We have not received any directive from the health minister J.P. Nadda’s office. Copies of the comments are lying in sacks,” says a member of the National Tobacco Control Programme, a government initiative for tobacco control in India.
With experts linking the use of tobacco to health problems, the bill was drafted to check the high consumption of tobacco in India. According to the University of Melbourne, 275 million Indians use tobacco, leading to nearly one million deaths a year.

The bill stipulates strong measures such as plain packaging of cigarettes — without a brand name — as has been done in Australia. A clause in the earlier bill, Cotpa 2003, allows branding or advertisement. “But the proposed bill has done away with the proviso,” the member says.

Plain packaging has led to a fall in smoking in Australia. In 2014, the Australian government-sponsored National Drugs Strategy Household Survey showed that the smoking rate fell by 15 per cent between 2010 and 2013.
The new bill also proposes prohibition of advertisement of tobacco products in films, on the Internet and cell phones. The bill proposes a ban on on-site advertising of tobacco products and shops selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, which often have hoardings of brand names.

There has been pressure on successive Indian governments to bring in stringent law to deter tobacco use and follow the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) of the World Health Organization in compliance with international standards of Tobacco control, which proposed the scrapping of designated smoking areas in hotels, restaurants and airports (barring international airports) to prevent exposure of non-smokers to harmful emissions.

Responding to a global movement against tobacco, the would-be law spells out stringent punishments. “The penalty for smoking in restricted areas has been raised from Rs 200 to Rs 1,000. Anyone found manufacturing tobacco products without the specified warning will be liable for imprisonment for up to two years or fine up to Rs 50,000 or both on their first offence. For the second and subsequent offences, the imprisonment can be up to five years with a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh. This will be a big deterrent,” says advocate Prashant Bhushan, who had argued on behalf of Health for Millions Trust, a Delhi-based non government organisation which advocated the ban on the sale of gutkha and paan masala with tobacco in the Supreme Court in 2013.

The new bill also states that the tobacco products and cigarettes in approved packaging will now be sold only to those above 21 years of age as against 18. An earlier parliamentary standing committee on the Cotpa Bill had observed that if people were kept away from tobacco for the first 20 years of their life, there was high probability that they would always stay tobacco-free.

The new bill also proposes establishing a National Tobacco Control Organisation to implement and monitor the provisions of Cotpa.

But public health experts say that the bill also has certain grey areas which need to be addressed. “For example, the act should specifically mention that cinema halls, stadia, cantonments and shopping malls will be 100 per cent smoke-free. The amendments also do not take into account the growing threat of electronic cigarettes, which are easily available for sale through online portals,” says Monika Arora, associate professor, Public Health Foundation of India, an NGO on public health advocacy.

Activists fear that the bill may be diluted because of pressure from the tobacco industry. One of the controversial measures is the government’s attempt to ban the sale of loose cigarettes and other tobacco products. “Tobacco growers and tobacco product manufacturers have been raising objections to it,” Bhushan says.

The ban, the Federation of Karnataka Virginia Tobacco Growers Association says, will lead to “illegal, non tax-paid cigarettes or other cheaper types of tobacco consumption like bidis”. In a statement, it says: “We demand a more equitable and practical policy regime balancing the public health concerns with impact on livelihood of millions of farmers and workers and policies covering all forms of tobacco consumption without discrimination against cigarettes.”

Some believe the government may be sitting on the bill because of the concerns of tobacco growers, who say that more than 60 per cent of the total crop produce is used for making cigarettes. Such restrictions, they hold, will lead to huge financial losses. The government will also feel the pinch, for it earns around Rs 30,000 crore as excise duty on cigarettes.
Public health experts stress that there will be strong opposition from the tobacco industry because the measures will affect their turnover. “This silence on the part of the ministry clearly shows that even if the bill comes up, it will be diluted,” Bhushan says.

A ministry source says that the bill is being delayed because of the tobacco growers’ concerns. “They have sent us their opinions. We have to consider them before finalising the bill,” the official says. “We cannot rush.”

But others argue about the need to move fast. “The government should understand that they are not building a national highway that they will do it in phases,” says Alok Mukhopadhyay, chairman of the Voluntary Health Association of India. “They have to do it right away because we are losing lives every day.”


‘JNU… can deal with its internal challenges on its own’

The vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) likes to keep a low profile – and there’s good reason for him to want to do so. Ten days after M. Jagadesh Kumar joined JNU, it erupted in flames. The police entered the campus in South Delhi and arrested students’ union leader Kanhaiya Kumar – and there was mayhem.
For Kumar, 55, who was a professor of electrical engineering in IIT Delhi before he moved to JNU, this was a new world. Kumar’s father – from Mamidala village in the Nalgonda district of Telangana – was a teacher. Having come from a financially weaker section of society, Kumar says that he can easily empathise with students who belong to deprived sections. He recalls that he walked five kilometres to his college in Hyderabad because he could not afford the bus fare.
A karate expert, Kumar’s initial days in JNU have been ominous. But he tells Sonia Sarkar – in his first interview to the media – that if he could go back, he would still take the path that he followed. “Whether it was yesterday or today, I would have taken the same decision,” he says. Excerpts from the email interview:

TRIAL BY FIRE: M. Jagadesh Kumar, vice-chancellor of JNU

Q: How do you react to the developments that have rocked JNU?
A: I am a team player and I want ideas to start from the bottom of the pyramid and propagate upwards. I was overwhelmed by the way the students, staff and faculty accepted me in JNU. It is this moral support that makes me take my decisions in a cool and calm manner. Even for problems which appear to be insurmountable, my experience tells me that we can always begin with an approximate solution and fine-tune it.
JNU has strong foundations in terms of free speech, debate and discussion on topics that affect our society. Students will have their opinion and observations on what is happening around them. As a scientist and a teacher, I always encourage my students to think out of the box.
Q: You have dealt with students for many decades. What kind of a strategy do you need to follow in JNU?
A: I treat them as equals. I have confidence in them that they can think objectively and progressively. [I will] Provide an environment where they can express their opinions without any fear.
Q: There is belief that efforts are on to stifle the liberal voice of JNU. What do you have to say?
A: JNU has a strong tradition of being open-minded in its approach to analysing societal challenges. We will continue to do so. However, it needs to be underlined that like any other Indian, every JNUite believes in our Constitution. We will never encourage any activity which is unconstitutional and unlawful.
Q: A BJP MP has said that JNU should be shut down and there should be a complete revamp of the institute. Do you agree?
A: We have always maintained that JNU, like any other central university, is an autonomous body. It can deal with its internal challenges on its own.
Q: Looking back, do you think you would have handled the crisis in JNU differently?
A: There is a saying that if you tell the truth, you do not have to remember anything. I always take my decisions in a fair and transparent manner through consultations with my colleagues. Therefore, whether it was yesterday or today, I would have taken the same decision. However, I would like to point out that I will continue to learn through my experiences and improve my world view.
Q: Students everywhere are known to be anti-establishment. Where do you draw the line between what’s anti-establishment and anti-national?
A: For me, our Indian Constitution is the guiding principle. Our Constitution provides the right to freedom of expression, debate and discussion. Whatever we do should be within the boundaries of what the Constitution tells us.
Q: Senior lawyers such as Shanti Bhushan and Soli Sorabjee have said that questioning the government about Afzal Guru’s execution is not seditious. Don’t you think students should have the liberty to ask questions?
A: All of us have a right to question the government and its policies. That is how we provide feedback to the government so that correctional measures can be taken. However, I again underline that whatever we do should be within the boundaries of what the Constitution tells us.
Q: Is there pressure from the government?
A: [There is] Absolutely no pressure from anyone. JNU is autonomous and we handle our internal matters ourselves.
Q: Is there a lesson that you have learnt from these developments as an academic and as an administrator?
A: The guideline I follow is not to panic when a crisis springs up uninformed. Do not lose your smile even in the most stressful conditions and keep communicating with stakeholders. Be objective and never be judgmental. Be a good listener and be approachable.

Often described as the last bastion of the Left, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is in the middle of a political tug of war. Sonia Sarkar and V. Kumara Swamy report that while the Right is pulling hard, the Left is holding on

  • Imaging: Sabyasachi Kundu

The union leader sits alone on a bench, next to a heap of roses. Students walk up to him, each one carrying a rose which they hand over to him. Saurabh Kumar Sharma chucks them on a table near him.

Flowers, slogans, placards, meetings and marches – Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is in the thick of it all. For 10 days now, the university – often described as the last bastion of the Left – has been in a state of turmoil. Students are out on the streets, classes have been suspended in many of the centres, teachers are in emergency meetings and mass lectures are being held on the campus.

It all started on February 9, when Sharma, joint secretary of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) and a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), lodged a police complaint about a meeting that had been held on the campus. The police stormed in and arrested JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar – and all hell broke loose.

Sharma’s outfit is backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); Kumar is a member of the All India Students Federation (AISF), led by the Communist Party of India. Sharma alleged that Kumar, along with other students, had shouted “anti-national slogans” at the meeting which marked the third anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, convicted of attacking Parliament. Since then, students and teachers have been condemned as “anti-nationals”, and there have been calls for the closure of JNU.

“At any point in time there are around 8,000 students in JNU,” says former vice-chancellor S.K. Sopory. “It saddens me that one of the finest institutions in the country is being labelled anti-national just because of slogans shouted by 20-odd students.”

Many inside and outside the institute do not view this as a mere fight between two opposing students’ groups. They smell a conspiracy – of the BJP trying to make inroads into what has largely been a liberal institute.

“There is apprehension among students that the BJP is trying to capture JNU and bring the university under the fold of saffron ideology,” former VC B.B. Bhattacharya says.

Some faculty members believe that there is a larger move to portray the university as a den of “anti-nationals”. In November last year, Panchjanya, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) journal, said JNU was home to “a huge anti-national block which has the aim of disintegrating India”.

Former JNUSU president Sandeep Singh believes the BJP wants to “polarise” the country over the JNU issue. “It wants to earn political mileage by telling the country that JNU produces anti-nationals,” he says.

Last September, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy stirred up a storm when he referred to JNU’s students and teachers as “Naxalites”. For a while, JNU was abuzz with rumours, baseless as they turned out, that Swamy would be the new VC after Sopory’s term ended in January.

It was the new VC, M. Jagadesh Kumar, who gave permission to the police to enter the campus and look for Kumar and other students in hostels. “I would never have allowed the police to enter the campus,” Bhattacharya says.

Earlier this week, as thousands of students came out on the streets with placards and slogans, BJP member of Parliament Chandan Mitra called for the closure of JNU.

“JNU has a long history of sedition and anti-national politics and it is not easy to combat it intellectually or through campus politics,” he says. “So the best way is to vacate the hostels and shut the university down. It can be restarted in a different way, with a different curriculum, a different set of students and a different administration,” he elaborates.

Most members of the faculty believe that this is part of a larger plan to stifle dissent. “The BJP government knows very clearly that this is one place where people openly dissent,” says JNU professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy.

But the real battle, for the present, is being fought between student groups. One of the developments in recent years in JNU has been the strengthening of the ABVP. Last September, it made a comeback in the JNUSU central panel after 14 years when it bagged the post of the joint secretary. Sharma believes he was elected because he talked of “real” issues.

“The Left parties talk about war in Syria and elections in the US. We talk about campus issues such as inadequate hostels, inconsistent Wi-Fi connection on the campus and a poor placement cell,” he says.

Trouble has been brewing on the 1,000-acre for a while. In November, an ABVP member and student of Sanskrit organised a havan, a fire-lit ritual, in his hostel room. When wardens stopped him, a complaint was lodged and one of the wardens was questioned by the police.

Some ABVP students did not allow a Kashmiri stall at a food festival in JNU. They protested when the All India Backward Students’ Forum organised a Mahishasur Divas to hail the buffalo-demon slain by Durga. And they have been protesting against Guru being hailed as a martyr.

“We tried to stop them earlier too but they didn’t listen,” says JNU ABVP president Rohit Singh. “It was important to teach them a lesson.”

JNU students believe that they are also being singled out because they took on the Centre late last year. JNU students were prominent in sit-ins outside the University Grants Commission office in protest against a move by the ministry of human resources and development (HRD). The ministry had announced that it planned to scrap fellowships granted to research students who had not cleared an examination that was required by those seeking a lecturer’s job.

“JNU students were at the forefront of the ‘Occupy UGC’ movement. The Centre has been targeting us since then,” says N. Sai Balaji, councillor, School of International Studies, JNU.

Indeed, JNU students have been at the centre of many movements in recent times. They organised two all-India mobilisation marches to express support for striking students of the Film and Television Institute of India. They rose in protest when the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a student outfit in the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, was de-recognised for being critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And they led marches against the death of Hyderabad University’s Dalit student Rohith Vemula.

“Our voice and strength always irk those in power,” JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid says.

But can a handful of students trouble a government so much that an entire administration ends up hounding them for raising slogans? Many believe they can, because JNU has been for long a red rag for RSS-led groups.

The university was set up in 1969 with, among other things, the objectives of “national integration, social justice, secularism and the democratic way of life”. It came up at a time when the Communist Party of India swayed policy in the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government. Over the years, many of the faculty posts were held by Left or liberal academics.

“The Left always dominated the campus. It is only recently that the Right wing is also making its presence felt,” says JNU registrar Bhupinder Zutshi.

Not surprisingly, people such as political scientist Yogendra Yadav believe that the present crisis is “a well thought out attempt” by the BJP to capture JNU. “The BJP has political and economic power but it doesn’t have the control of any intellectual establishment,” Yadav says.

“Given the prominence of JNU, its identification with the Left and its questions on nationalism, JNU becomes a soft target,” he holds.

So, every now and then, efforts are made to open small doors in JNU. When the National Democratic Alliance-1 was at the Centre, the then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi set up the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies in 2001. “Left-wing groups accused him of saffronising JNU,” says former JNU student and ABVP worker Navneet Kumar.

Old-timers recall that in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the BJP started gaining ground, meetings were held in JNU, convened by party ideologues such as Govindacharya. In 1991, the ABVP won its first seat as joint secretary in JNUSU. In 1996, it bagged three central posts. “It established us firmly on the campus,” says former ABVP leader Shiv Shakti Bakshi, executive editor of Kamal Sandesh, a BJP mouthpiece.

Watch out for more. “We will make further inroads into JNU with this anti-national stance taken by some groups,” BJP MP Tarun Vijay says.

That is, of course, if the teachers and students at JNU allow them to do so.

The teachers have been busy. Instead of a sit-in, they have organised a “teach-in” to protest against the arrest of Kumar and related events. The mass lectures, open to all students, have been dealing with issues such as nationalism, regions and civil liberties. Next week, the topic is Gandhi’s nation. Nationalism, anyone?


From hostel accommodation and admission fees to protests against the Emergency and nuclear tests, JNU students over the years have agitated on a wide range of issues. Some of the campaigns:
1975: The Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi led to massive campus unrest. Several student leaders were jailed

1983: A protest in favour of “deprivation points” for other backward classes during admission snowballed into a huge protest. Around 350 students spent two weeks in Delhi’s Tihar Jail

1993: Massive protests were held for the restoration of deprivation points and against proposed fee hikes. Both were successful

2015: Led by JNU students, huge demonstrations were held under the  ‘Occupy UGC’ movement


JNU was where many leaders cut their political teeth. Among them were:

D.P. Tripathi: The Nationalist Congress Party member of Parliament was an Students’ Federation of India, or SFI, member. As JNUSU president during the Emergency, he went underground. Still remembered for stopping Maneka Gandhi, then a student of German in JNU, from entering a classroom

Prakash Karat: The former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) was president in 1972-73, but lost the next year to the Free Thinkers’ Anand Kumar, ex JNU professor and a former member of Aam Aadmi Party

Sitaram Yechury: The CPI(M) general secretary was thrice president. A postgraduate student in economics, he had been jailed during the Emergency

Chandrasekhar Prasad: President for two terms in the mid-90s, he led several agitations. He was shot dead in 1997 in Siwan, Bihar, while addressing a meeting

Kavita Krishnan: She was elected joint secretary in 1995. She spent time in jail after organising protests against Prasad’s murder. Was on the forefront of the Nirbhaya protests in Delhi

Nirmala Sitharaman: The minister of state for commerce and industry did her PhD from JNU and was a Free Thinker.

Additional reporting by T.V. Jayan in New Delhi

Published in The Telegraph on February 21, 2016.



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