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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This story appeared in The Telegraph.

Congress leader Palaniappan Chidambaram looks different today. He is not in his trademark white veshti and shirt. He is sporting black trousers and a grey pullover, instead. His tone is a touch different too, more reflective, easier, patient. The former finance and home minister is seated in his plush basement office at Jor Bagh, a tony central Delhi neighbourhood, open to questions and candid to answer. Since the Congress went out of power in 2014, Chidambaram has built upon his earlier reputation, writing a punctiliously researched and widely read weekly column. Fearless in Opposition , a new collection of his essays, has just hit the stands, and Chidambaram is in an expansive mood. He answered a wide range of questions Sonia Sarkar put to him. We present excerpts:

Q: The name of your book is Fearless in Opposition. But why do we see so little real Opposition in Parliament?

A: That’s because our numbers are small in Lok Sabha.

Q: But you have spoken only twice in Rajya Sabha, last year. Why?

A: Since the time I became the member of Rajya Sabha in June 2016, my regret is that there have been few debates. One major debate was on the goods and services tax (GST), which I initiated and the other on Kashmir, which Ghulam Nabi Azad initiated and during which Karan Singh spoke. There was one half-complete debate on demonetisation. If that debate had continued and the Prime Minister had yielded to the legitimate demand of the Opposition, I was scheduled to speak on that.

Q: What are your achievements as an Opposition?

A: We forced this government to retreat from distorting the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. Also, they are revisiting the GST rate; now the state finance ministers have agreed with me and said that the standard rate should not be more than 18 per cent.

Q: How do you think demonetisation has damaged the economy? How do you see the budget?

A: Demonetisation has damaged the economy by, at least, one per cent of GDP. This damage will affect next year’s growth rate and, I suspect, even the growth rate of 2018-19. The budget showed little empathy towards casual labourers and daily income earners, who suffered greatly by demonetisation.

Q: How do you rate Arun Jaitley as a lawyer and as the finance minister?

A: He is a very good lawyer. But going by the economic performance of the government and the budgets he has presented, I am afraid, that… they have done no structural reforms, they haven’t come up with any new idea and their implementation is poor.

Q: The Congress has been criticising Modi’s policies but why do you think his popularity is still increasing?

A: If you measure popularity by electoral success, well, the five state elections will be an immediate indicator of his popularity.

Q: What are the Congress’s chances in UP? Is the Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav magic going to work?

A: Clearly, the SP-Congress alliance will be the number one party in UP. UP’s shadow will fall on Bihar and Madhya Pradesh too.

Q: But can the two – SP and Congress stay together?

A: That will depend upon who gets what numbers in the elections. But the Congress will support Akhilesh to form the next government.

Q: Akhilesh has displayed his strength by revolting against his father. But Rahul is not taken seriously in politics. People call him “Pappu”. How would he fight this image?

A: These are your or your paper’s perceptions. Whoever uses the word, “Pappu”, that is his perception. They (referring to Ram Manohar Lohia) called Indira Gandhi, ” Goongi gudiya” (dumb doll). But later, (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee called her “Ma Durga”, after the Bangladesh war. Remember, what they said about J. Jayalalithaa when she came into politics and look at what they said when she passed away.

Q: What has been your role in the party in the ongoing elections?

A: I am not involved in the election management of these five states. But I did say, it will be wiser to have a tactical alliance with one of the major parties (not BJP) because we are in the fourth position among the four parties in UP.

Q: In your book, you say that the Congress must communicate its views to its cadres in other Indian languages, besides English and Hindi. Are Congress workers in the states going away?

A: What is said in Delhi must be communicated to the states in their languages. In the states where the Congress is weak, we are not attracting new talent. Some workers may have drifted to the regional parties, wherever the latter is strong.

Q: You have said the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) should be more humane. What efforts did you, as Union home minister, make to make it more humane?

A: I wanted AFSPA to be repealed. Since there was no consensus with the defence ministry on the repeal of AFSPA, I left behind an amendment of AFSPA. If you are not repealing AFSPA, at least amend it, make it more humane. The defence ministry said, if AFSPA is not there, it will deprive the armed forces of the much needed immunity. My argument is that this law allows you to work with impunity. This law gives you the right to kill. Anyone who believes in human rights cannot support that provision.

Q: You were the home minister when there were consecutive uprisings in Kashmir in 2009 and 2010. How do you think you failed as a home minister?

A: 2010 was a gross failure of the state police in containing the youth violence. We learnt our lessons and things were changed. From 2011 onwards and till 2015 (till the eighth month of the NDA government), it was the best period in Kashmir.

Q: In 2010, a three-member panel was set up to review the situation in Kashmir but nothing happened after that. Why?

A: Three interlocutors made a remark-able difference to the narrative of Kashmir. Their dialogue with people brought about a change. I think, (the former chief minister) Omar Abdullah tried but as it turned out, many of the recommendations were not implemented.

Q: You have said the number of incidents of terrorist violence in Kashmir has gone down from 4,522 in 2001 to 222 in 2014. But 2001 was the peak of militancy and 2014 wasn’t. Isn’t this a faulty comparison?

A: No, it isn’t. How did the number fall? It happened due to better border policing and treating the unrest among young people in the Valley with a more different and humane approach.

Q: Last year you said some people think that the Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s case may not have been correctly decided. But when he was hanged, your government didn’t even inform his family members in Kashmir.

A: I think it was poorly handled.

Q: Now that you have analysed where you went wrong on Kashmir, will the Congress (if it comes back to power) look at Kashmiris with compassion?

A: We must go back to give meaning and content to Article 370, and give Kashmir a larger degree of autonomy. Even if that means asymmetric devolution of powers, so be it.

Q: In 2015, you also said that the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses (1988) was wrong. Were you not in a position to influence the decision then?

A: I was a junior minister then. Decisions were taken by Cabinet ministers. But I am willing to concede that our understanding of authors’ rights then was limited.

Q: When you are in Opposition, do you have enough time to look back at your mistakes?

A: Of course, that’s reflected in the columns. Wherever I find that we have had made mistakes, I have candidly put them in my columns.

Q: How do you see the recent turn of events in Tamil Nadu?

A: It’s the right of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MLAs to elect their leader. It is the right of the people of Tamil Nadu to ask if that leader deserves to be the chief minister.

Q: In 2009, it was shocking to see a journalist hurling a shoe at you at a press conference. But don’t you think the language of protest in India has stooped to a new low, especially on social media?

A: It has happened because the language used by the ruling party is abusive and divisive; and that catches on. I can’t imagine Jawaharlal Nehru using a language that Narendra Modi used recently in the Lok Sabha. Those who are in high office must use language which is parliamentary, moderate and conciliatory, even when you criticise the Opposition.

Q: Lalu Yadav once said, I don’t see any reason for any politician not to aspire to become a PM. Do you want to become the PM too?

A: Not necessarily. In fact, once you are in public life, you must not aspire to become anything, you must accept whatever comes your way. When you are young, you can aspire. After a certain stage, you don’t aspire.

Q: Where is your way forward with the Congress going down? What is your plan ahead as a politician? Also, how do you see yourself two years later, in 2019?

A: I am not looking for any career advancement. I will continue to work for the party and the victory of the party in 2019.

Telegraph, February 12, 2017



For weeks before it voted yesterday, Punjab was on song. Sonia Sarkar reports on the jig-gigs that became the key campaign tool across the state

Aaja nach lae!”

– Old Punjabi folk refrain

  • NOTES FROM THE HUSTINGS: Performers at Jaago organised by AAP

As the sun begins to set, celebration time dawns around this market square in Jalandhar, 80 kilometres south of Amritsar. Men turn out in the traditional kurta and chadra (sarong) strike up a rhythmic beat of the dhol; women, dressed in green and violet shararas and carrying decorated earthen pots on their heads, lead out a dance troupe, their arms twisting in sync with the drumbeat. Passersby begin to tap their feet. ” Le gaya bai le gaya, jhaaru wala le gaya,” they sing in chorus, (Those who wield the broom have swept the scene.)

  • Nishawn Bhullar

The jhaaru is the symbol of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and these singers are exhorting the crowd to vote for H.S. Walia, who is contesting the Jalandhar Cantonment seat. From the busy market area, the troupe moves into the dusty bylanes and then to someone’s courtyard in the locality, as more and more people follow them. “Music is the only effective medium to reach out to people,” says AAP media co-ordinator Manpreet Randhawa.

This traditional Punjabi dance form, called ” jaago“, is a pre-wedding ritual but AAP has roped in local performers to turn it into a campaign instrument. “When a local form of art is used for political campaigning, everyone gets involved. People are ready to listen. These days, nobody wants to listen to politicians,” Randhawa adds.

Perhaps, true. In Punjab, the sight of the quintessential kurta-pyjama-clad politician with his palms pressed together, making promises and asking for votes, was rare this election season. Singers, musicians and folk artistes were hired by political parties to woo the voters, instead. Jingles, songs and short video clips were employed as tools by politicians to reach out to people – young and old.

AAP, the youngest kid on the poll block, wasn’t unique in turning to local performing arts as a canvassing method; all parties did.

The Congress’s chief ministerial candidate, Captain Amarinder Singh, who is taking on Akali veteran and incumbent chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in Muktsar’s Lambi, has come up with a foot-tapping number, ” Keh do ek bar, chahunda hai Punjab Captain di sarkar” to bring in hope for future – say it out once, it’s the Captain’s government that Punjab wants. “Our message is positive,” says Rishi Raj Singh, director at political strategist Prashant Kishor’s IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee), which is handling the Congress party’s campaign in poll-bound states.

The song, peppered with the exhort ” challo!” (let’s go!) after every stanza, touches upon the real issues of the state – drug trafficking and addiction, unemployment of the youth and farmers’ debts leading to suicides. “But the song will not make you sad. We are trying to tell people how Punjab will become great again under the political leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh,” Rishi Raj adds.

Political pundits have come to believe music helps politicians feel the pulse of the people. “We have a song for every occasion in our life. It’s music that keeps the people alive even in times of distress. Political parties have realised that music is the only effective tool to appeal to the masses,” says regional historian Raj Kumar Sharma, who is also the former principal of Government College, Gurdaspur.

  • Gurdas Maan

The Election Commission too has realised that music enjoys great mass appeal. It appointed celebrated singer Gurdas Maan as icon to spread awareness during the Assembly elections. Maan’s main role was to motivate the youth of Punjab to get enrolled in the voters lists and vote ethically. It’s a different story that his popular number, ” Apna Punjab hove, ghar di sharab hove,” promotes the locally distilled hooch, which has killed many young men in the state and is one of the burning issues in the polls.

For political parties, composing a catchy number is not enough. The lyrics should also strike a chord with constituents, especially at a time when rivals are using similar methods to woo voters. Kishor’s IPAC deployed 200 young men and women to push Captain Amarinder Singh’s case with the voter in March last year. The team spoke extensively with farmers, college students, businessmen and women to understand the mood of people. They picked up a series of local words and phrases, which were often used during long conversations and composed the theme song for him.

“People expressed their concern towards ‘ nasha (addiction)’ and ‘berozgaari’ (unemployment) but were also hopeful of a better future. So we picked up phrases such as ‘ kishan di khushhaali‘, ‘kheta vich bhangra’ and ‘ mund banjana nawab‘ that they used during casual everyday conversations and weaved them into the song,” Rishi Raj says. He hired Bollywood music director Sneha Khanwalkar of Gangs of Wasseypur fame to compose the peppy number. Sung by Bollywood singers Richa Sharma and Shahid Mallya, the song makes indirect references to AAP as “outsiders” too.

AAP, whose radio jingles became very popular during the Delhi elections in 2015, has mostly utilised its in-house talent. For example, Gurdev Mann, the candidate from Nabha, sang the party’s theme song, ” Jharu wala button daba dyon Punjabion… Badlan nyo sabak sikha dyo Punjabyon… (Press the broom button, teach the Badals a lesson).” AAP’s star poet-singer-cum-leader Kumar Vishwas wove out another song, “Ek Nasha”, slamming the ruling Badal family for all the evils in the state. The opening lines are hard-hitting – ” Saddi watt kha gaye, fasal kha gaye, khet kha gaye Badal, saddi sadak kha gaye, nahar kha gaye, ret kha gaye Badal (The Badals have eaten away our sand, our roads, our canals and our fields…)

  • Captain Amarinder Singh on the campaign trail

As a retort to AAP, Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) came out with a video, Lalkar, which accused AAP of misleading people through false propaganda. Apart from releasing Lalkar, SAD has also used folk songs to deliver its message to the masses. “We have used the tune of the popular folk songs and peppered them up with party’s message. For example, our songs talk about our ‘ aata-daal‘ scheme under which rice and lentil were supplied to BPL families at a cheaper price and they also mention the uninterrupted supply of water and power to farmers,” says Badal’s media adviser Jangveer Singh.

None of these songs became an instant hit. These songs were released many months before the elections, to small gatherings at first on an experimental basis. “We played our theme song for the first time in a gathering in May, last year. When we saw people tapping their feet, we realised that this will do wonders,” Jangveer says.

Some candidates have been inviting singers too to campaign for them. Last week, SAD’s Hardeep Singh “Dimpy” Dhillon, fighting from Muktsar’s Gidderbaha, invited singer Babbu Maan to sing for him. The next day, his Congress opponent, Amarinder Singh Raja, also invited Maan. On both occasions, huge crowds – gathered on terraces and watching from every available vantage point – roared as he belted out some of his popular numbers.

Some local singers, who have been composing songs on social issues, refuse to campaign for politicians, though. Nishawn Bhullar, whose satirical number Jugni is liked by more than 1 lakh listeners on YouTube, is one of them. “This song slams all politicians. The message is subtle but strong – let’s not vote for the corrupt and the incompetent,” says Bhullar, who turned away requests by politicians. “Nobody wants to hear the politicians because they have nothing new to say. People only listen to the messages we give through our songs. So it is important for us to be cautious about these politicians.”

Dalit singer Ginni Mahi, who too refused to sing for a BJP candidate, believes singing for politicians would mean fooling the people. “I sing about equality and humanity – the songs of Ambedkar saheb and Sant Ravidas. Political parties would claim to believe in their ideologies only before the elections but they would forget them soon after. Why should I help them to fool people?” Mahi asks.

As you read this, the people of Punjab have already given their verdict. Who’s to face their music?

Telegraph, February 5, 2017.

Bastar has contrary reasons to suspect the outsider


DARKNESS IS beginning to fall; I am in search of a hotel room in Jagdalpur. Two hotels have turned me away. They don’t give out rooms to single women. The third offers me a room, but with a rider. I am not to tell anyone that I am a journalist.

Why not? Journalists and professors come from Delhi and write “nasty things” about Bastar, is the reply. “We have been asked by the police not to entertain such people.”

There is no room – but there is growing disdain – for journalists, political and social activists, lawyers and academics among sections of the townspeople. Activist Bela Bhatia witnessed that recently, when a group of people threatened her and her landlady, and asked her to leave her ghar and gaon without delay. She had accompanied a human rights team to meet women who had alleged being sexually abused by the police. Delhi academics Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad have seen this, too. They were booked last year on charges of murdering a tribal.

The threats are real, but the police shrug them off. The Jagdalpur superintendent of police, R.N. Dash, is convinced that local people have their own reasons for wanting to keep journalists and others out.

“Because people from Delhi write bad things about Bastar, nobody wants their daughters to get married to local men. People living outside Bastar think that their daughters will not be safe here,” he says. “Those who refused you a room are most likely fathers who’d failed to get brides for their sons, all because of wrong reporting. It’s very natural for them to be angry at outsiders.”

But it’s not just the outsider who fears the police in Bastar. As I travel into the interiors of Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma, villagers complain about being threatened and intimidated by the police. Not surprisingly, they first treat me with suspicion, not convinced that I am a journalist. I may well be a police agent, they say.

“People have come to us posing as journalists and related our complaints about police torture back to the police. Then the police came and beat us up,” says a young Dantewada villager.

Once they are convinced that you are indeed a journalist, the villagers open up – their hearts and their doors. In a quiet village, I am offered a room by a teacher’s wife because the nearest town with a hotel is miles and hours away. She gives me dinner – a small helping of daal and chawal.

In Bijapur, a young man offers to take me to a village in the forests – to meet victims of police torture – on a motorcycle. My taxi driver, Chander, takes the wheel as the villager and I squeeze in behind him. He skillfully manoeuvres the bike through long stretches of pebbled road, dirt tracks, fields and underbrush. It even splutters its way through a small stream. And then, after a series of sharp twists and turns, Chander suddenly loses control of the machine. All three of us, along with the bike, plunge into a rice field. Chander, also a local, is more amused than hurt. “Take a picture, Madam, capture the moment,” he tells me in Hindi. “We will remember that we’d had a fall.”

Pictures and selfies taken, we get back onto the bike and the mud track. We are deep in the jungles now. The sound of the wind, the swish of the leaves and the chatter of the birds travel with us. Finally, we reach our destination after an hour.

For the people of Bastar, travelling for hours to cover short distances is nothing new. They are used to walking for miles when they have to catch a bus.

When we return to the highway on our way back, evening is just about to set in. A few villagers are waiting at fancy bus stops that flaunt stainless steel seats and huge photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Raman Singh. The wait is often a long one, for buses are rare on this route.

As the sun begins to set, I spot a dark-skinned woman, small and barefoot, carrying wood on her head. Soon I can’t see her anymore – she has vanished into the dark.

Like most people in Bastar, she is now invisible.

Telegraph. February 5,2017


fwThe government has made a slogan of the brave Indian jawan to settle political arguments. It has also left the same jawan ill-provided and restive. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

“An army marches on its stomach.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte

On paper, it sounds like a feast. Milk and eggs for breakfast. Four days a week, non-vegetarian dishes – chicken, mutton or fish – are to be served.

Border Security Force (BSF) jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav would scoff at that. “We sleep hungry,” he says in a video that has gone viral, pointing to the burnt paranthas and watery daal that he has just been served at a border post.

Jawans or soldiers have never been in the news as much as now. They make the emblazoned mascot for the Narendra Modi government, invoked over issues as wide ranging as demonetisation and student agitations. But a hollow, ill-fed mascot, the ranks of jawans would complain.

The jawan mantra has often been chanted. Tired of standing in ATM queues? Think of the jawans who stand on the borders. Kicking up a fuss over students’ rights? Think of the jawans. Shivering in the cold without power? Think of the jawans. “It’s when you (jawans) guard the border, people sleep without fear,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi extolled them last Diwali.

But Yadav’s video has put the arc lights on how the jawans themselves sleep – on an empty stomach. “Finally, someone had the courage to speak up,” a BSF jawan in Srinagar says. “Does the government want us to fight on an empty stomach?”

The government has taken some steps – the commandant and the second-in-command of the 29th Battalion, where Yadav is posted, have been moved to Tripura pending a probe into his allegations.

But the video has kicked up a cacophony of complaints. Jawans speak of low quality food, inadequate clothing, pay disparities and harassment by seniors. And the grouse is not just from paramilitary forces such as the BSF and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), they also come from the army.

Last week, CRPF constable Jeet Singh went public demanding parity in pay and other benefits for the central armed police forces with the army. In another social media message, an army jawan alleged harassment by superiors for writing about soldiers’ problems.

Clearly, for the government, which has been holding up the gut-wrenching symbol of the veer jawan, there is trouble afoot.

“It’s unfortunate the way the government is projecting the soldier as a symbol of nationalism. The government should have dealt with their problems first,” says C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a Delhi-based think tank.

Jawans have been at the wrong end of supplies and treatment for long. They seldom protested. But now that they are being daily lionised to serve the purposes of the government, they are speaking out. Access to social media sites has made it easier. “The PM has been advertising Digital India. So what’s wrong if soldiers use this platform to express their concerns?” a CRPF sub-inspector asks.

What troubles paramilitary jawans the most is the disparity in pay with counterparts in the army. But while parity seems like a distant dream, they are highlighting more pressing needs such as proper food and attire.

Adequate nutrition is essential to keep the soldier’s morale high, points out a 2008 paper authored by researchers at the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) and Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS).

A BSF jawan needs 3,850 calories a day, and a CRPF jawan, 2,900, states the government. In both the forces, mess committees comprising constables, sub-inspectors and fourth-class staffers decide the menu. The monthly ration allowance for the former is Rs 2,905 and for the latter, Rs 2,868.60.

But jawans complain of corruption that deprives them of their share of food. A retired CRPF jawan states that constables are often “forced” by their seniors to buy rations from designated shops, which offer 5-7 per cent of their profits to the seniors. “Even if these shops sell low quality daal or rice or artificially coloured spices, jawans have to buy from them,” he grumbles.

A senior BSF officer admits that there are cases of food being siphoned off canteens and sold to locals for money. “In Kashmir, some personnel may exchange a sack of rice with the bakarwals (cattle-rearing nomads) for a sheep,” he says.

The BSF sends tinned food to its jawans in places too remote for fresh supplies. The watery daal in Yadav’s video was part of tinned rations, supplied by the army because Yadav is posted on the Line of Control.

Satwant Atwal, IG, BSF headquarters, states that an enquiry will look at “any systemic aberrations” and suggest corrective intervention. “The welfare of the troops is of the highest priority,” she says. The forces do have redress mechanisms for jawans – such as complaining to their seniors.

But this is not the first time that food supplied to jawans is being questioned. In 2011, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said dry rations were consumed by army troops well past their expiry date. Over 74 per cent of fresh fruits and vegetables issued to units by supply depots also failed prescribed norms, it said. In 2007, high-calorie food items meant for soldiers in Siachen were seized from shops in Leh; irregularities were found in the procurement of meat in Ladakh.

The DFRL-DIPAS team writes that in the camps they visited, they found most jawans were dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of food. This was highlighted during the Kargil battle, too. “…they sent us puris and sabzi. At those heights puris and sabzi freeze to stone, you can’t eat any of it,” The Telegraph had quoted a young army officer at Drass as saying during the 1999 conflict.

Moreover, jawans are at times not adequately geared for harsh weather conditions. “When they move from moderate weather conditions to severe cold conditions, arranging special clothing such as snow boots, woollen socks and jackets is a problem. But we somehow manage,” says a BSF assistant commandant.


Security experts say that there is very little sense of ownership among the chiefs of the paramilitary forces because they are not the direct recruits. These officers come from the Indian Police Service, even if they have never been into any operational role before. Jawans feel that their chiefs never understand the real problems because they don’t know what it is to serve at the front.

Questions sent by The Telegraph to Kiren Rijiju, minister for home affairs, went unanswered. The army headquarters did respond. “The method chosen by the jawan to air perceived grievance was in violation of laid down rules and regulations and military discipline. A very effective and responsive grievance redress mechanism exists in the army, which, it is evident, the concerned jawan ignored to invoke. Specific complaints made by him are however being investigated,” said the army PRO, Col Rohan Anand.



But the issues are, of course, known. In a 2008 report, the Comptroller and the Auditor General had referred to problems relating to procurement of special clothing, mentioning the use of partly torn and recycled special clothing for winter. In 2007, high quality trousers, jackets and parachutes meant for the army at Siachen were found in Leh shops. The Telegraph had reported that soldiers deployed on the Kargil front were seen arriving at the frosty wind-blown heights in “canvas shoes and cotton jackets”.

Inadequate arrangements often lead to tragedy. In 2014, eight BSF personnel were found unconscious in the Paloura base camp because they had inhaled carbon monoxide caused by lighting a kangri in a closed room to keep warm.

Harassment by seniors is another common grievance. An army jawan is on a hunger strike in Madhya Pradesh in protest against the “menial jobs” he is forced to do for his seniors. An Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) constable has similar complaints. “I have even washed officers’ undergarments. Those who refuse to do such jobs are denied leave by the seniors,” he says.

Leave is a problem because most paramilitary forces are understaffed. “The CRPF, which is now filling 24,000 vacancies, is a reserved force, which should be deployed only when there is an exigency. But 80 per cent of our jawans are always deployed,” a CRPF officer points out.

Long working hours, living in harsh conditions and harassment by seniors can lead to fragging – killing of seniors or colleagues – or suicides. “Most jawans have rural backgrounds and join the force because of the social respect attached to the uniform. Their morale is affected on a daily basis when they are deprived of their basic rights,” says retired ITBP inspector Rajender Yadav. “Those who cannot cope commit suicide.”

Despite the rising discontent, the foot soldiers carry on. “When my jawan complains that he is doing everything for the country but the government doesn’t care for him, I tell him: ‘Desh ke liye kar rahe ho ‘,” a BSF officer says. Ask what you can do for the country, but not what the country can do for you.

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Telegraph | Sunday, January 22, 2017 |

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

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

You heard that right, it’s porcupine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • LADIES LAST: Irom Sharmila Chanu (centre)

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

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

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

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

  • Indira Oinam

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

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

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

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

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

  • Nemcha Kipgen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • M.C. Mary Kom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Published in The Telegraph, December 26, 2016.