The Gurdaspur candidate has begun distancing himself from the nationalistic rhetoric


By Sonia Sarkar

The rich and resonant voice of Sunny Deol has mellowed down. He is barely audible. His sleep-deprived eyes are half-open. The 40-minute morning workout hasn’t really helped. He drinks a glass of lassi to boost himself. “It has been a little hectic because I came in pretty late,” says the 62-year-old Bollywood actor. He is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from Punjab’s Gurdaspur, pitted against incumbent Congress MP Sunil Jakhar.

Deol is flooded with visitors at the courtyard of a guesthouse at Nawan Pind Sardaran Di, about six kilometres away from Gurdaspur town. Mill workers who have been laid off, want their jobs back. Farmers want their debts paid off. Young men want selfies with him. Deol interacts with them for about 15 minutes, and then goes inside. “I am trying to understand everything; I am battling,” he says candidly, while fiddling with a string of white beads on his right wrist.

Clearly, his colleagues in the BJP haven’t briefed him enough about his constituents. It seems they are only keen to milk the barrel-chested Deol’s muscular nationalist image from the silver screen for Gurdaspur, which shares 110 kilometres of international boundary with Pakistan. This is the same constituency that saw two terrorist attacks four years ago. As Gurdaspur goes to the polls on May 19, the party wants to project Deol as a “tough man” who has taught Pakistan many “lessons” in films such as Border (1997), Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Maa Tujhhe Salaam (2002) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003).

Several patriotic dialogues from his films are a huge hit even today. This one from Gadar – “Hindustan zindabad tha, hai, aur rahega,” which is heard in his rallies, was tweeted by even Prime Minister Narendra Modi after Deol met him last month. BJP leaders call him the sachha deshbhakt (true patriot). Initially, Deol too used to parrot, “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot).” But, after he betrayed his ignorance over recent Indian Air Force strikes on Pakistan’s Balakot in a media interview, he seems to be distancing himself from the nationalist rhetoric.  “I didn’t do those films because I wanted to do patriotic films. They just happened. I am not trying to cash in on that image — no way — I will never do that,” he clarifies.

While patting his forehead gently with a white towel, the actor adds, “People just didn’t understand Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was a love story.”  He stresses, “In that film, I fought for my family — I didn’t fight for India.”

Slowly, he is picking up issues that matter to his constituents. On arsenic contamination of groundwater in Gurdaspur, he says, “We have to stop farmers from using fertilisers.” His solution to the region’s drug addiction problem is this — “We need to divert the attention of the youth towards sports.”

But he isn’t speaking much at the rallies. He moves with a fleet of SUVs around villages, waves to the cheering crowd and shakes hands with a few enthusiasts from the sunroof of his white Land Rover. At rare times, he opens the door of his car, interacts with people. He nods when they share their problems with him, but he isn’t offering any solutions for now. Many find him honest, but are not convinced he would be around if he wins. After all, his father, actor Dharmendra, also a BJP man, remained a ‘missing MP’ in Rajasthan’s Bikaner.

His opponents allege he is fighting elections under pressure from the BJP to escape an income-tax raid, and that he has jumped into politics because his film career is virtually over. In fact, his latest release, Blank, where he plays an anti-terrorist squad (ATS) officer, isn’t doing well at the box office.

Are the allegations true, I ask?

He is irked. Now, I can hear the familiar intense voice. Without badmouthing his rivals, the actor, who has declared assets worth Rs 87.18 crore in his nomination papers, asserts: “My purpose of getting into politics is not for gaining anything… I am doing pretty well, where I am. I want to serve the people.”

Traditionally a Congress bastion, Gurdaspur was won by late Bollywood actor and BJP MP Vinod Khanna four times, till he died in 2017. Jakhar defeated BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) joint candidate Swaran Salaria in the by-elections. Rumours are that the BJP didn’t have a candidate who could match the charm of Khanna. So, at the last minute, it turned to this macho Jat Bollywood hero.

When I ask whether Khanna’s legacy would help him, he doesn’t have a straight answer. “There will be factors, which might work in my favour and also go against me,” Deol says. “I want everything to go against me, and I will still emerge a winner.”

His voice lacks conviction, though.


Published in Firstpost:


In the past three weeks, a lot of people have asked me, what happened, why are you touring so many countries together? What is this trip all about? Work or holiday? Are you really travelling solo or you have friends with you? Then there are people who have not asked direct questions but have given me enough indications that they really find it strange that I am travelling and having fun in a year when I have suffered a major personal loss, isn’t this supposed to be a year of mourning?

Well, this post is not any clarification but only a way of expressing myself. First, I have been travelling solo for close to 9 years now, locations may not always be exotic but I have realised, traveling solo is a learning experience. Like many trips before, this too has exposed me to some harsh realities of life and I have embraced them.

But it is not that I have been really planning for this trip for the longest time. I have stopped planning things because foreseeing future is not in my to-do list anymore, I have failed in it badly. I thought of Istanbul because I heard a lot about it; going to another neighbouring country was only a “paisa vasool” strategy for this poor scribe, so it was Greece. And Almaty just happened because of some major visa issue.

Why did I travel now — the whole idea was to get confused about time zones on my birthday! I made the plan in a way that I don’t get the real sense of time — whether I am ahead or behind India time — and by how many hours— when is the midnight for me on the 26th — because I knew, for the first time in my life, the person who loved me the most would not wish me on my birthday! I was not sure how would I handle this pain of not being wished by him.

But on the 25th night before going off to bed, when I sat down in silence and closed my eyes, I actually heard Baba’s voice — he did wish me just the way he wished me before— stressing on “r” and “a” while saying, “Happy Birrthdaaay, ” in a certain familiar rhythm. I can hear it even now while writing this.

Running away from realities don’t help. We need to know, people who love us don’t go away. They are with us, always around.

On the 26th, when I came back to my hotel around 9:30 pm after an all-day walking tour, a hotel staffer came to my room with this beautiful cake. He insisted I cut it.

I would remember this pleasant surprise, always. It was very touching!


P.C — Staffer at Byzantine Suites, Istanbul.

On Independence Day, the only noise on the street was that of helicopters circling overhead

  • Published 4.09.19, 1:14 AM
  • Updated 4.09.19, 1:14 AM
A Kashmiri man carries a child on his shoulders in a closed market area in SrinagarAP

As the aircraft was about to descend, the flight attendants started pulling down the window shades hurriedly for “security reasons”.

We were landing in Srinagar.

In the course of the next three days in the Valley, I encountered barbed wire, checkpoints, road diversions and metal shutters on my way to meet dozens of people whose voices have been cut off from the mainstream since August 5, the day Parliament abrogated Article 370 and 35A, which gave special status to Kashmir.

Listen in.

August 14, Srinagar.

In a cab, 7:25 am

Taxi driver Hilal, 42: “Everything was running fine, tourists poured in, there was good business. Then they destroyed it completely.”

Hotel Ahdoos, Residency Road, 8:15 am

Receptionist: “There is nothing to eat. No fresh vegetables are available. At best, we could serve you rice and lentils.”

District Commissioner’s Office, Tankipora, 11:30 am

Hundreds are taking the stairs to the first floor, where telephone lines have been set up for people to speak to their families outside the Valley.

“I have been in the queue for the past two hours to call my daughter who is studying in Bangalore. I wanted to inform her that her aunt in Delhi would send her the monthly expenses as banks are closed here,” said 59-year-old Sameer Bhat of Safa Kadal.

Gowhar Mir, 19, a student, requested me to ask the officials for the password of the Wi-Fi connection: “You are an Indian, they won’t refuse you. We can connect with your phone via Bluetooth, and use it for money transfer to my brother studying in Mohali.”

I disappointed him. I couldn’t ask for the password. As I stepped out, I bumped into a huge board showcasing the promises of ‘Digital India’.

Gojwara Chowk, Downtown Srinagar, 1:10 pm

A group of seven paramilitary personnel were screaming at three little boys with stones in hand.

Zafar Mahmood, 14 (student): “The jawans brought in some milk packets to distribute among locals two days back. But nobody took them. They would distribute a few packets and shoot a video and tell the world how humane they are.”

Gousia Colony, Bemina, 4 pm

Mehboob, 41 (businessman): “Indian media is showing that everything is normal. We were not even allowed to go to our mosques on the day of Eid. If everything was normal, why have they caged us?”

Dalgate, 5:30 pm

Zaffer Ahmed Boktoo, 50 (hotel owner): “Big leaders look for solutions, criminals look for ways to create problems. For us, they are only creating problems.”

Residency Road, 7:10 pm

As I stepped out of the police station after making a call from the mobile phone of a cop kept exclusively for reaching out to people outside Kashmir, a man asked, “Could you make a call?” When I nodded, he said, “But they don’t allow us in because we are terrorists.”

August 15, Independence Day.

Lal Chowk, 12 noon

The only noise on the street was that of helicopters circling overhead.

2:30 pm

Ubaid Mehraj, 22 (student): “Independence Day is for a selective few. Interestingly, the pro-government people are under house arrest too. What could Independence Day mean for people of Kashmir whose freedom has been taken away?”

Nowhatta, 4:25 pm

Nasir Ahmed, 49 (shop owner): “Even 10-12 year olds have been picked up randomly from this area before Independence Day. If India considers us its own, let me ask, which country does this to its own children?”

Dalgate, 6:10 pm

Shikarawallah (refused to give his name): “They asked the tourists to leave first. Were we killing them? We ourselves are dead, you have put us in jails. How long this cruelty would go on? ”

August 16.

Tral town, 8:00 am

Muzaffar Wani, father of the slain Hizb-ul Mujahideen militant, Burhan: “I never want the children to pelt stones but they don’t listen to anyone. I never told my child to pick up gun but he did… As adults, we still can bear the torture but children don’t have the strength to bear the torture.”

Eijaz, 35 (pharmacy owner): “My stock of medicines for diabetes and hypertension is over but I cannot go to Srinagar to collect them because I couldn’t get a curfew pass.”

Tariq Dar, 49 (contractor): “This is not democracy. All of this is done with a muscular approach. There is simply no dialogue India wants with us.”

On the highway, near Khanabal, 10: 15 am

Abdul Hamid, 45, (kulcha seller): “The BJP has betrayed us. Yeh kaun sa hukumat hai?”

Dangarpura, Awantipora, 11:15 am

Rasheed, 24 (unemployed): “My uncle, an imam with the local Jamia Masjid, was picked up by the police on August 6 without any charges. We have no clue when he would be released.”

Awantipora Jamia Masjid, 11:45 am

Milkman Nisar Ahmed, 49: “Yahan sirf fauj ka gasht hai, hum nahin chal sakte rasto mein.”

Delhi-bound flight, 5 pm

Fellow passenger: “Would you write what you saw and heard in these three days? Or would you too say, ‘All’s well’?’”

(It was published on September 4, 2019 in The Telegraph,

By Sonia Sarkar


A school in Kashmir's Tral area with Musa - a rebel killed by security forces - written on its entrance [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
A school in Kashmir’s Tral area with Musa – a rebel killed by security forces – written on its entrance [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]


When the bearded man in blue tee screamed – “There is only one solution,” hundreds of others on the street cheered  – “Gun Solution, Gun Solution.”

These were the scenes from Srinagar, capital of the Indian-administered Kashmir, soon after Friday prayers on August 23, showed a New York Times video.

 Curfew has been imposed across the Valley since August 5, the day the Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370 and 35 A which gave special status to Kashmir. Barring a few landlines, all communication channels have been snapped since then.

 Forces have been deployed in large numbers, especially during Friday prayers to prevent possible protests.

But these visuals showed that the locals defied all restrictions and gave a stern message to the government that the only solution to this crisis is militancy.

These sentiments have been echoed by 24-year-old unemployed commerce graduate Rasheed in Dangarpura village of Awantipora in south Kashmir.

Rasheed claimed, since the lockdown, he has been summoned by paramilitary personnel posted at a nearby camp several times because they wanted him to work as an “informer.” As he rejected the offer, they have started harassing him.

“Recently, two paramilitary personnel came home and threatened to slap a case under Public Safety Act against me if I don’t accept the offer. I would never work for an Indian security agency but if this harassment continues, the only way to protect myself is to join the militants, pick up a gun,” Rasheed said. “I prefer to die only once than dying multiple deaths every day.”

South Kashmir has turned into a hotbed of militancy in the past half a decade. Two militants of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa, killed by security forces in 2016 and 2019 respectively, belonged to Tral in south Kashmir. People came out in large numbers in their support at their funerals. Names of Wani and Musa are scribbled on every second wall including that of a school in Tral (see pic). A tag — “Burhan Wani, you are still alive,” stencilled by local boys outside Burhan’s house has been recently replaced with “India,” written by the security forces.

Detentions of boys

Police sources said, many “troublemakers” have been picked up from Tral township in the past three weeks. 

Locals alleged, the number is, at least, 100.

A day before Eid, a 12-year-old boy has been picked up by the police from his house on this lane adjacent to Khanqah-e-Faiz Panah shrine in Tral. “They picked him up for stone-pelting but the truth is, he was confined to his house all these days, didn’t go to tuition either,” alleged Salma, the boy’s Aunt.

Estimates said, around 4,000 people have been detained by the police across the Valley ever since the lock down. The director general of police of Jammu and Kashmir Dilbag Singh didn’t comment on the figures or on detention of minors but told Al Jazeera, “Detention is a dynamic process. We keep picking up men and releasing them.”

Tral-based contractor Tariq Dar said this harassment and torture would push the boys to join militancy.  “When they are being picked up, questioned and tortured for no reason, how else they would heal their wound other than picking up guns?” asked  Dar.

Human rights violations have been a routine affair in Kashmir for the past three decades. But what hurts young Kashmiris like 18-year-old Sameer of Tral most now is the snapping of all communication channels and ripping them off the special status and statehood. 

“The Indian government has made us non-existent in one blow,” Sameer, a Class XII student said. “If we follow the path of armed resistance like Burhan, we would, at least, feel we have done something fruitful to avenge this humiliation,” he reasoned out.

Burhan’s father Muzaffar Wani, a school principal, told Al Jazeera,  “Children don’t have the strength to bear the torture that we have been bearing for the past 70 years.” 

Adding that he never encouraged students to join militancy, Wani said, “Currently, everyone has been forced to remain silent. We will know how the boys react only after this lull.”

But Singh is confident that there will be “better days” ahead.

“Whenever our intelligence reports reveal, any boy is joining militancy, we tell his parents that he too will get killed like Wani and Musa, then the parents try to dissuade him,” he told Al Jazeera, adding, 127 militants have been killed so far this year.

Singh claimed, the number of men joining militancy has gone down in the past one year. About 120 men joined militancy between January – August, 2018, as compared to 70 in the same period this year.

‘Muscular’ approach 

The ruling nationalist BJP has adopted a “muscular” policy in Kashmir soon after implementing Operation All Out 2017 in order to “flush out” militants.


But Delhi-based defence expert A.S. Dulat warned that this muscular approach may not work.

“The excessive use of force won’t work if you use it as a policy to sort out Kashmir insurgency. There will be a reaction to it. Remember, the whole population is angry,” former Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Dulat told Al Jazeera.

Krakow-based Kashmir expert Agnieszka Kuszewska said, “People seem to be more determined to defend themselves against what they perceive as occupation and unprecedented military presence.”

Delhi-based national security analyst Happymon Jacob believed, historically, “political missteps” have led to a spike in militancy in Kashmir. 

“In all these years –1987 (rigged elections), 1990s (militarization of the Valley), 2008 (the Amarnath land dispute), 2010 (when over 100 Kashmiris were allegedly killed by the Indian security forces) and 2016 (killing of Burhan Wani), pre-existing alienation and proximate causes led to increased violence. What has happened now is a step further. New Delhi has not only stripped Kashmir off the statehood but also made mainstream politicians irrelevant. These factors could lead to a spike in violence in months ahead,” said Jacob.

Three pro-India former chief ministers have been put under house arrest after abrogation of Article 370.

“Indian government labels all Kashmiris as terrorists,” Rasheed said. “Let’s then prove the government right.”


India has a more humanitarian approach towards drug offenders than its neighbours Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

By Sonia Sarkar

After a moratorium of 43 years, the gallows were getting ready in Sri Lanka. Two executioners with ‘excellent moral character’ and ‘mental strength’ were appointed. A list of four convicts — involved in drug offences — to be hanged was prepared. On June 26 — the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking — the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, announced that he had signed the requisite documents for the imposition of the death penalty for drug-related offences.

But these executions had to be stalled. The country’s Supreme Court, on July 5, issued a temporary injunction against the execution of the four convicts until October.

It is only an interim relief for the convicts, as Sirisena, who is likely to fight a re-election in December, looks adamant upon imposing the death penalty. A week after the parliamentarian, Bandula Lal Bandarigoda, submitted a private member’s motion seeking to block the return of capital punishment, Sirisena, on July 14, said he will declare a national day of mourning if the Sri Lankan Parliament blocks his proposal to reinstate the death penalty. Sirisena, it seems, wants to rely on the populist rhetoric against the threat of drug use and convince people about his ‘social commitment’ to eradicating the menace before the elections. He wants the hangings to be a ‘powerful’ message to the illegal drug trade.

According to government data, 60 per cent of the 24,000 prisoners in Sri Lanka are drug offenders. Currently, 48 people have been convicted of drug offences. All death penalties for drug convicts in Sri Lanka were commuted to life imprisonment for the past 43 years. The death penalty for drug-related offences is a violation of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party. Ironically, last year, Sri Lanka was among the 121 countries that endorsed a United Nations general assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Human rights bodies argue that punitive drug policy has not acted as a deterrent anywhere. Over 170 countries are said to have either abolished the death penalty or taken a position in favour of ending executions. But Sirisena is in no mood to listen. He even rejected an appeal by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, to reconsider his decision. He has also demanded the death penalty for the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks in April that killed over 258 people by calling the attack the handiwork of “international drug dealers” who wanted to “discourage [his] anti-narcotics drive”.

Besides Sri Lanka, Bangladesh is another south Asian country which imposes the death penalty for drug offences. Last year, its Parliament passed the narcotics control bill, 2018 which, alongside the life sentence, also has a death row provision for producing, trading and using 200 grams or more of yaba, or more than 25 grams of heroin and cocaine. Human rights bodies demanded a revocation of the law but their voices remained unheard. Two death sentences for drug trafficking were pronounced last year. Ahead of the general elections in December 2018, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, adopted a populist anti-drug stance by launching a campaign to toughen punishments for drug crimes. More than 250 people were killed in anti-drug operations between May and December in 2018. The Philippines-style ‘war on drugs’ campaign has targeted the poor and underprivileged. In some cases, human rights activists alleged, the killings may have been ‘politically motivated’.

In contrast, India has a more humanitarian approach towards drug offenders. In 2011, the Bombay High Court declared Section 31A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, that imposed a mandatory death sentence for a subsequent conviction for drug trafficking, ‘unconstitutional’. Later, it made the imposition of capital punishment on a person convicted only for a subsequent offence involving possession, production or transportation of specified drugs and quantities optional and not obligatory.

The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2018, published by Harm Reduction International — a London-based NGO working on social and legal impacts of drug use and drug policy — stated that only six of 915 death sentences pronounced in India from 2011 onwards were for drug offences. Last year, the Punjab government called for expanding the death penalty that is currently applicable for child rape convicts to first-time drug offenders. But the Central government rejected it, arguing that the UN office on drugs and crime opposes the imposition of the death penalty for drug offences. Moreover, last year, the Congress parliamentarian, Shashi Tharoor, introduced a private member’s bill in Parliament seeking a total abolition of the death penalty.

But the Indian Parliament, last week, passed the protection of children from sexual offences (amendment) bill, 2019, seeking to impose the death penalty for aggravated sexual assault against children. This bill has been passed at a time when a girl, allegedly raped by a former leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party when she was a minor in 2017, is battling for life in hospital. Ironically, the BJP, which supports the death penalty and proclaims its love for the ‘betis’ of India, expelled the rape accused from the party only last week, more than a year after his arrest.

By Sonia Sarkar


All of 5ft, 6 inches, Ramaswamy Madhavan looks unassuming. But as he begins to recite his poem, Empty World, one is drawn to his rich and resonant voice, eagerly telling his story—a story of struggle and existence in Singapore.

Madhavan, 28, originally from Tamil Nadu’s Karaikudi, is a site engineer at a construction firm in Singapore. Every day, after working for more than 10 hours, he returns to the room he shares with five others and sits down to write in Tamil. It is poetry that gives him solace, away from home and family—his farmer parents, three sisters and fiancée.

Like him, many migrant workers in Singapore have taken refuge in the written word. They highlight their daily lives of drudgery and the wrenching heartache of being away from home through their poetry. They publish memoirs, participate in literary workshops, win competitions and make short films inspired by their life experiences.

“Writing is cathartic to me. I write to express my pent-up emotions,” says Madhavan as he fiddles with his phone, which stores about 100 poems he has written in his three years in Singapore.

Madhavan, who earns around $43 (around 3,060) a day, is one of 972,600 lower-skilled and low-wage migrant workers with work permits in Singapore, according to Singapore’s ministry of manpower. Dressed in high-visibility vests, mud-stained trousers, rugged boots and white helmets, migrant workers can be spotted everywhere in this ever-expanding city, but not many Singaporeans and expats interact with them.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Besides India, there are workers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, who are employed at Singapore’s construction sites, in the marine sector and at people’s homes. They arrive believing Singapore to be a city of dreams, but soon encounter the harsh reality.

Foreign workers have to grapple with exorbitant recruitment fees to agents, non-payment and underpayment of salary, lack of contracts or employment terms, injury, lack of medical care, forced repatriation and premature termination, says Debbie Fordyce, president of the Singapore-based non-governmental organization Transient Workers Count Too.

The ministry of manpower’s June report, however, claimed foreign workers were satisfied with their working conditions. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment on the problems of migrant workers.

But their voices are now finding an outlet. Shivaji Das, a Singaporean writer-photographer of Indian origin, started the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 with a few others. “After listening to their poetry, many people, in a condescending tone, have told me, ‘I didn’t know migrant workers have such sophisticated thoughts,’” he says.

Many cases of abuse or negligence have been reported in this city state. In early August, a Singaporean woman was sentenced to 11 years in jail for physically abusing an Indonesian domestic worker, who was hit with a hammer, stone pestle and bamboo pole. In March, a Singaporean couple was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for caning their foreign domestic helper. In 2017, a Bangladeshi worker died after falling off the edge of a building at a construction site.

Migrant workers generally earn $13-57 for 10-12 hours of work. Sometimes, they work for three months at a stretch. Some workers can afford to visit their homes only once in three-four years. Male workers live in cramped dormitories. Women, most of whom are domestic workers, live with the families they work for. “Many employers of both domestic and construction workers take away mobile phones and confiscate passports too,” says Md Sharif Uddin, an author whose memoir of living as a migrant worker in Singapore won the Best Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards last year. Stranger To Myself (2017), which also has a collection of his poems, talks about inhumane working conditions and his longing for home.

Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district.
Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district. (Photo: Reuters)

The stories that don’t make news are narrated by migrant workers themselves. Madhavan, with Zakir Hossain Khokan—a TEDxSingapore speaker who encourages migrant workers to be vocal about their problems through art and literature—has just wrapped up production of their short film, Salary Day. It highlights how a worker’s meagre monthly salary of SGD$450 (around 23,000) finishes on the first day itself after he pays off debts, buys basic necessities and sends some money home.

Another Indian worker, N. Rengarajan, in his poem Life Overseas: Pluses And Minuses (originally written in Tamil), narrates what it is like to live in a foreign land where they can “buy everything that has a price” but not “love and affection”. Thirty women domestic workers have penned down their experiences in a book, Our Homes, Our Stories, released in 2018.

Sherwin Mendoza of De Anza College in California, in his paper Singapore’s Migrant Worker Poetry, Worker Resistance, And International Solidarity, released in July, writes that such poems are part of the “broad continuum of working-class poetry”.

For Rengarajan, the 33-year-old from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai who has been working in Singapore since 2014—first as a construction worker and now as a supervisor—poetry “fills the vacuum” in his life. “I write even in my sleep,” laughs Rengarajan, who won the third prize in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 for Lessons From Circumstances.

For Khokan, 41, winner of the 2014 competition, poetry “soothes and enriches” the soul. Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani, 29, who won the same competition in 2017 for her poem Further Away, says writing gives her “a sense of liberation”.

Yeo Siew Hua, the Singaporean director of A Land Imagined, a film on migrant workers in the city state, says film and literature help create awareness of injustice.

Some Singapore-based independent publishers, such as Math Paper Press, Landmark Books and Ethos Books, have released anthologies and books carrying translated versions of the poems as well as memoirs written by the migrant workers in their mother tongues. Their aim is to nurture these voices in the growing literary community in Singapore.

Locals have started helping migrant workers to get their voices heard. A Bengali paper, Banglar Kantha, has reserved space for Bangladeshi workers-turned-poets to showcase their literary work, while a cultural space called Dibashram has come up in Little India, a migrant-worker dominated area, to showcase their music and poetry. Sing Lit Station, a non-profit literary group, conducts writing workshops for migrant workers.

In this nanny state which keeps a strict vigil on its people, migrant workers often “self-censor” their poetry. “They haven’t written as much on issues such as work-injury related claims and employer apathy. They fear that if they write about these issues, they will be sent back home,” says Das. Starvation, penury and death, however, are often addressed in poems.

Filipina worker-turned-poet Rolinda Onates Espanola, in her poem My Story, which won the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, highlights the torture of domestic worker Thelma Oyasan Gawidan by her employers. The employers were eventually convicted and jailed in 2017.

It reads: Not allowed handphone not allowed to bathe every day even brushing teeth too/ Can’t talk to anybody not even to my fellow Filipino/ Worst to my disgrace, noodles and slices of bread is my only sustenance.

Sharif Uddin writes about an Indian construction worker, Velu, who was knocked down by a bus in 2013, in Velu And A HistoryLook, there Velu goes with empty hands/ while Development, Progress, Civilization laughs.

In an untitled poem, Madhavan writes about how migrant workers sell everything to come to work in Singapore.

A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore.
A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore. (Photo: Reuters)

Sold off agricultural land/ Left the farming job/ Stepped on to the aeroplane and landed in another land/ Woke up early morning and hurried to shed the tears/blood.

A graduate in civil engineering from Chennai’s Sree Sastha Institute of Engineering and Technology, Madhavan would have stayed back in India if job prospects had been better. He began penning his thoughts, and months after arriving in Singapore in 2016, submitted a poem on food scarcity, titled Offering To God, to Das’ poetry competition. Shortlisted as among the best 12 entries, it motivated him to write more. His poem Empty World, on his desire to meet his fiancée, featured in an anthology of poems called Call And Response, published by Math Paper Press, in which 30 migrant poets paired with local writers last year.

Select publishers may have provided space to such workers but writer Cyril Wong is doubtful if mainstream publishers would take a chance on the work of migrant workers not writing in English. “It would take forever for any migrant worker to gain enough social and cultural traction in order to penetrate mainstream writing. Which migrant worker has the time to gain such traction?” asks Wong, who helped Bangladeshi migrant-worker poet Md Mukul Hossine “transcreate” his book of poems, Me Migrant, in 2016

Indeed, writing comes to them only after a day’s hard work, when they are travelling back to their residences in the empty MRT, bus or company van.

Singaporean film-maker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, who made the documentary Poets On Permits (2017), featuring five workers-turned-poets, says the conversation about migrant workers is growing, but it still lacks empathy. They are individuals with “dreams, aspirations, joys and fears, familiar to all of us”, she adds.

It’s a long haul but the poetry competition has given them recognition, says Madhavan. “Because of our literary accomplishments showcased at the competition, we have made a place in the heart of a few locals,” he says. “Sometimes, when we eat our lunch at food courts, locals smile at us and say makan well (meaning “eat well” in Malay).”

One of their biggest dreams is to go back home—but they often feel they have no choice. “My family takes lot of pride that I live in Singapore. It is difficult to explain to them my condition here,” says Sharif Uddin, who has been home only four times in 11 years.

Sometimes, huge debts back home tie them to the jobs forever.

And there is never enough money, as Rengarajan writes in his poem MoneyA peculiar disease/ The world’s deadliest afflictions/ cancer, AIDS, ebola/ even love/kill by their presence./ Money alone kills by absence.

Madhavan, however, is looking forward to going home in November for his wedding and saving enough to bring his wife along. For home is where there is hope—“a hope for a new beginning”.

The story was published in Lounge, the Sunday edition of Live Mint: August 16, 2019.


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that politicians come late for meetings. I am there well in advance, of course, for my appointment with the chief minister of Delhi. And then Sheila Dikshit springs a surprise on me by appearing 20 minutes before the scheduled time. But then, the lady — like that old ad for a ketchup brand — has always been different.

We are sitting in her living room in her official residence in central Delhi on a Sunday morning. “So tell me, what would you like to know,” she asks as she settles down on a cushy sofa.

A lot of things, actually. For one, the criticism that her government has been facing for its tardy work on the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Or why Manu Sharma, convicted of killing Jessica Lal, was out on parole. Or, indeed, how she ducks all the knives that are chucked at her by her own party men.

But all that will come later. To begin with, I ask her how she looks back at her three-term tenure that started in 1998. “Thrilling, exciting and challenging,” she replies succinctly. Not one loose word there. No wonder she’s called a smart politician.

But she wasn’t born with a ballot paper in her mouth in Punjab’s Kapurthala seven decades ago. Her family was apolitical — but she was drawn into politics after she married a bureaucrat called Vinod Dikshit. His father, Uma Shankar Dikshit, was a home minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Widowed young, Sheila Dikshit started helping her father-in-law in administrative jobs. She also worked as secretary of the New Delhi-based Garment Exporters Association. But it was when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and launched a search for people he could identify with that she fought her first election.

She stood and won from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh in 1984, and was appointed Parliamentary affairs minister in 1986. She was later made a minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Minister’s Office — a portfolio created for the first time.

“It was a huge learning experience working with Rajivji. He was extremely progressive and farsighted. Our thought process matched,” Dikshit recalls.

Is it the same working with Sonia Gandhi? “I share a very close, personal and political relationship with her,” says Dikshit. “She is an iconic figure for me,” she adds, looking at an artistic photo frame, kept on the table in front of her, which holds an old photograph featuring the smiling faces of the two.

Dikshit, however, had a falling out with the Gandhis after she lost the 1989 election from Kannauj. The political grapevine has it that the distancing happened because of Uma Shankar Dikshit’s demand that she be made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She was denied a ticket by Gandhi in the 1991 election but was finally rehabilitated by Sonia, who saw her as an ally in her fight against P.V. Narasimha Rao.

But her proximity to 10 Janpath has never stopped her detractors — and there are quite a few in her party — from attacking her. Among her top critics are party leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Her opponents have often described her as an “outsider”.

“I never felt intimidated by such comments. One can call anyone an outsider but it is the people who elect you and decide your fate,” says the suave, English-speaking politician, an alumna of Delhi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary and Miranda House.

Sometimes, though, Dikshit is accused of making political gaffes. After Delhi journalist Soumya Vishwanathan was killed while driving home from work late at night, the chief minister’s reported remark “One should not be adventurous” drew flak from many. She came under attack recently for Manu Sharma’s parole, the request for which had been passed by the Delhi government. It was claimed that Sharma needed parole because his mother was unwell. But the “ailing” mother was seen at a media briefing in Chandigarh, and the son was found partying in Samrat Hotel’s nightclub Lap in Delhi.

Diskhit does not believe the Sharma incident embarrassed her in any way. “Why should it be embarrassing for me? I did nothing that was not to be done legally. I have been framed for being a political figure,” she replies. “But what Manu Sharma did was wrong. He shouldn’t have left Chandigarh,” Dikshit adds.

She speaks in her characteristic voice — soft and well modulated — but it carries conviction. In fact, her persona oozes confidence. The image of the chief minister in her trademark tussar block printed saris, worn in winter, or thin-bordered cotton print saris in the summer, is that of a favourite aunt — who may trip up now and then but is both pleasant and efficient.

We move on to the topic of saris. Dikshit is known to frequent handloom melas in the capital in search of good saris. She’s also picked up cotton saris from her earlier visits to Calcutta. “I used to frequent Calcutta when my father-in-law was the Governor of West Bengal in 1976-77. I have always been fascinated by Bengal’s art and culture but sadly the flavour has got lost in the past two decades,” says Dikshit, taking a quick potshot at the Left Front government in Bengal, while not naming it.

But despite her party’s differences with the Left, she says she has high regard for her Bengal counterpart — chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “I find him very accommodating and understanding. He has modern and progressive thinking,” says Dikshit, who worked with Bhattacharjee in the Central Advisory Board of Education during Arjun Singh’s tenure as the human resources development minister. Even as she talks about her “rapport” with the Left leader, she strives to point out that her appreciation for his rival Mamata Banerjee’s “hard work” is no less.

“I am thankful to her that she has upgraded a couple of stations in Delhi that needed urgent renovation. Things have moved pretty fast after she took over as railway minister,” feels Dikshit.

Not only that, Banerjee has also agreed to meet the Indian Olympic Association’s demand for a special train to popularise the Commonwealth Games of 2010, an event surrounding which Dikshit’s government has been roundly lammed for not completing the scheduled work — stadia, roads, hotels and so on — within the stipulated time. “I am nervously excited about the event,” she confesses. But “the stage will be set for action on time”.

And once the mega event gets over, she plans to go on a long vacation. As she talks about her travel plans, Dikshit suddenly recalls one of her “adventure trips” in Europe with her husband way back in the late 1960s.

“It was winter, freezing cold, and we were driving from Italy through the Alps to Britain. Neither of us realised that there was a car heater, which had to be turned on. A friend later told us how we could have avoided the bone-chilling cold in Switzerland. But by then, we had already driven for more than 12 days without the car heater. Whenever my husband and I recalled the incident, we had a good laugh at our foolishness,” she says and laughs again.

But it was not easy for this daughter of Sikh and Hindu Punjabi parents to marry a Hindu Brahmin. When her husband, a graduate of St Stephen’s College in Delhi, first told her that his parents would not accept her because she was from a different caste, her reaction was — “Oh my God! Is caste so important?”

But eventually the caste difference was overshadowed by love, and in 1961, a year after Dikshit got inducted into the IAS, she tied the knot with him at the age of 23.

“Though I am not a religious person I did perform a couple of pujas to keep my mother-in-law happy,” recalls Dikshit who, in her early days in marriage, had to cover her head with the traditional ghoonghat in front of her in laws.

Now, at 71, Dikshit is a bit of a loner. She stays alone in her sprawling government bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi. After a long day at the secretariat, she likes to bury herself in a book. And her favourite book, till date, is Alice in Wonderland.

She likes doing up her house — and the drawing room is tastefully adorned with mirrors, vases, picture frames and pots, all placed in strategic corners. “If I were not a politician, I would have been an interior designer,” she says.

A movie buff, she also drops by at the nearest theatre for late-night shows. Her all-time favourite is Yash Chopra’s romantic flick Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) — a film that she has watched 15 times.

But it is not Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ who has caught her fancy. “My latest crush is Shahid Kapoor,” she says skittishly.

You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!


You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!

Drawn to India by a ‘homecoming’ campaign, Pakistani Hindus, having escaped discrimination and poverty, feel betrayed.

Before the 2014 vote, India launched a 'homecoming' campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Before the 2014 vote, India launched a ‘homecoming’ campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]