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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: https://www.firstpost.com/politics/will-gadar-trump-darr-in-sunnys-border-town-battle-6644491.html

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.

placeholder://Images of hijab-clad women locking eyes with police officers, pointing fingers at them and asking them to go away, while making a human shield around their male classmate in India’s national capital, Delhi, went viral on social media last week. These women were students from India’s Muslim-majority central university, Jamia Millia Islamia. They were being targeted by the police for protesting against India’s new citizenship law that would endanger nation’s minority Muslims and destroy the country’s secular character.

In Hindu-majority India, Muslim women are perceived to be backward, illiterate and oppressed.  Even in popular literature and cinema, Indian Muslim women are largely portrayed as conservatives whose sole purpose is to get married and beget children. But these recent images of revolting Muslim women have rejected such age -old perceptions. Interestingly, not just students, thousands of hijab and burqa-clad women, mostly middle-class homemakers in the age group of 18-65 years from Muslim-dominated Shaheen Bagh area of south Delhi, have come out of their homes to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The Citizenship Amendment Act would fast-track citizenship to illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh if they can prove that they are persecuted in these countries. It would apply to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains but not Muslims.  

This law has created a sense of fear among Muslims because Indian minister of home affairs Amit Shah, who is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right hand man, also said on the floor of the Parliament that the government would implement National Register for Citizens—a survey of the citizenship status of all individuals in India —soon after the new law comes into effect. Those who cannot prove their Indian citizenship would be thrown out of the country. The citizenship law may still come as a safeguard for people of other religion but not for Muslims, who would fail to prove that they are Indians.

About 2000 Muslim women from Shaheen Bagh participate in the protest every day to register their dissent against this sectarian law.  More than two-third of them are homemakers. The others are students, teachers and some government employees.

Shaheen Bagh is closer to Batla House, where two terrorists were killed in a controversial encounter by police in 2008. It is one of the Muslim ghettoes which is often labelled as the “hideouts” of terrorists by the Hindu nationalist government for its large Muslim population. For all these years, women homemakers of Shaheen Bagh left it to the men in the family to be part of political rallies or protests. But now they assert that they are empowered enough to fight for their rights. They think, the time has come to mark their presence because they want the Modi government to count each one of them as citizen of India. They are now vocal about their rage and disenchantment.  These women are the new rebels on the streets.

On December 15, when students were ruthlessly beaten up by police in the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, two kilometres away from Shaheen Bagh, some of these women homemakers filmed the police brutality keeping their mobile phones under their transparent eye veil. On Fridays, they shield their men from police attacks by forming a human chain when the former offer afternoon prayers on the streets because Modi government has been particularly harsh on localities with large number of Muslim protesters.  At the protest site, these women feed their children and also shout slogans and take turns to sit overnight.

Ever since Modi has come to power, he has projected himself as the crusader against Muslim orthodoxy and portrayed himself as the saviour of Muslim women who have been “suffering” for too long because of stringent patriarchal Islamic laws. After India’s Supreme Court banned “triple talaq (instant divorce)” in 2017, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-dominated Indian parliament, this year, passed bill that criminalized the practice. According to the law, men found guilty of divorcing their wives using triple talaq would now face a jail term of three years. A section of Muslim women, indoctrinated by BJP’s parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),openly praised Modi for liberating them from the clutches of repressive Muslim men. But the real motive of Modi was to demonise Muslim men and not empower the women. This law allows anyone, not only the wife, to lodge a complaint against the husband, who would have to pay the maintenance to his wife even while he is imprisoned.   But Muslim women were never vocal against it.

They never came out on streets even when men of their community were falsely charged of luring Hindu women into marriages for “converting” them into Islam, which the BJP termed “love jihad.”

Now, these Muslim women have woken up from their slumber. They have realized that if they don’t step out of their homes now, then the day would come soon when the Modi government would throw them out of their homes.

 They have come out to protest in veil to assert their Muslim identity before the Islamophobic government especially after Modi said that the protesters could be recognized by their clothes, indicating a clear reference to Muslims.

It is their fight against the anti-Muslim bigotry that has been normalized in the democratic process of the country under Modi. It is their fight against Hindu nationalists who label Muslims as “anti-nationals,” and “terrorists.” It is their fight to reclaim their space in the Indian democracy.

 

ENDS

  • At a time when the students’ protests have been politicised by the government, volunteers of Khalsa Aid India strive to work for humankind, ‘irrespective of the tags’
  • The charitable trust’s recent act reiterated their aim to provide selfless service that transcends the realms of faith, religion and community
BY Sonia Sarkar for Mint Lounge

When Amarpreet Singh watched the videos of police attacks on students of Jamia Millia Islamia on social media on 15 December, he couldn’t stop himself. The next morning, he went to the campus to understand the ground reality. As he entered the campus, he spotted three students, who had suffered hand and leg injuries, sitting on the road in front of the university’s Gate No.7. Moved, Singh got out of his car to check if they had had some tea or breakfast. When he learnt they had no food or water, he decided to offer help. He bought water bottles and cups of tea. Gradually, students started gathering in large numbers to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. By afternoon, Singh had served tea to at least 2,000 students.

It didn’t end there. Singh and four volunteers—Gurpreet Singh, Nazia Kamboj, Inderjeet Singh and Kulbeer Singh—have been serving tea to the protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia and India Gate this entire week.

“Tea is the basic comfort drink of Indians, especially in extreme cold conditions. It is only an effort to give people the comfort of 2 minutes, since they are out on the streets all day for the protests,” says 29-year-old Amarpreet, the director of charitable trust Khalsa Aid India.

It is the same sentiment that prompted them to help the students of Jamia Millia Islamia. At a time when student protests are being politicized, volunteers of Khalsa Aid India are striving to help humankind, “irrespective of the tags”.

But Amarpreet admits that during such times, it is very difficult to deliver aid without being labelled.

“When we were serving the Rohingya refugees, we were called anti-nationals and Muslim appeasers on social media, but when we told them there were Hindu Rohingya refugees and Muslims alike, then everyone kept quiet,” Amarpreet says. “Our aim is to do selfless service that goes beyond the realms of faith or community, a service for the weak and marginalized.”

Amarpreet is based in Patiala, Punjab, but he moves around the country with his team—a total of about 23,000 volunteers and 15 employees.

They served water to protesting farmers during the long march in Maharashtra last year. They sent essential packs such as tarpaulin sheets, mosquito nets, medical kits and clothing during the Kerala floods, and renovated three schools there.

When Kashmiri students were attacked on various campuses after 40 paramilitary personnel were killed in Pulwama, Kashmir, in February, Amarpreet received frantic calls from students in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Haryana. “We arranged buses and vans to get 600 Kashmiri students to Punjab first, and then sent them to Kashmir under the protection of Punjab police. Students were so happy to be back home. We could never forget the smile on their faces and the trust they bestowed upon us,” Amarpreet says.

Apart from extending help for basic emergency needs, Khalsa Aid India also takes up long-term rehabilitation projects that require heavy investment, especially in places affected by floods or earthquakes. Their credibility is so strong that they have never faced a fund crunch, says Amarpreet. For example, Khalsa Aid India’s budget for the Punjab floods this year was 1.5 crore but they received 18 crore.

Amarpreet belongs to a family that has been involved in social work. After flying at least 100 hours as a trainee commercial pilot at the Patiala Aviation Club, at age 23, he decided to listen to his inner calling.

A graduate in psychology from Punjabi University in Patiala, he got in touch with UK-based Khalsa Aid International to understand the modalities of opening a chapter in India. In 2013, he registered Khalsa Aid India separately as a charitable trust—he does, however, execute some projects, such as building 1,100 houses in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, with funds from Khalsa Aid International.

Amarpreet remains hopeful. “Our principle of Sikhism that is welfare of all and selfless service is a big concept that was never taken out of the gurdwaras but we are spreading this message worldwide, and along with it, we are spreading love and harmony which would bring positive change one day,” he says.

A local goddess has been the unifying force between Hindu and Muslim communities in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. In recent times, however, threats to this tradition of syncretism have emerged

It was 9am when Alam Mia, a moule (honey collector in Bengali), went into the forest with six others to collect the reddish-amber padma modhu (lotus honey). He kept an eye on the movement of honey-loaded bees to spot the beehives. He didn’t really notice the tiger that grabbed him by the neck. The blood-soaked loin cloth fell off his body, the knife to cut the hive and the steel vessel to store the honey lay scattered. As his companions rushed to the boat to save themselves, a naked Alam was dragged deep into the forest by the tiger. When he regained consciousness, he was lying under a date-palm tree. He spotted a boat in the distance and crawled towards it. He was admitted to hospital. It took him six months to recover and return to the forest to collect honey.

Eleven years have passed and Alam has had two more close shaves with tigers. “But I am alive only because of Bonbibi,” says the 65-year-old from Kalitala in West Bengal’s 24 North Parganas district, the last village on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh, adjoining the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. “Nobody else has the power to save people from tigers except her. She listens to my prayers always,”he adds.

When Alam’s Hindu neighbour and another tiger-attack survivor, 67-year-old Sahadev Mandal, goes into the forest to collect honey and beeswax, he too relies upon Bonbibi. “Before we leave the boat, we remember Bonbibi and tell her that she is the only saviour. There is nobody else in our mind,” Mandal says.

In the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, encompassing an area of 25,500 sq. km and straddling India and Bangladesh, the mythological Bonbibi has traditionally been a unifying force between Hindus and Muslims. People of the two communities who collect honey, beeswax, crabs and fish venerate Bonbibi, who is believed to be the daughter of a Muslim fakir, Ibrahim, from Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Hindu majority of the Sundarbans, distributed over the North and South 24 Parganas districts, has set up temples to worship Bonbibi but Muslims too participate in the annual Bonbibi festival, generally held in January. Typically, Brahmin priests are not invited to perform prayers for Bonbibi. Forest dwellers, including Muslims, read out Bonbibijoburanamah—the holy script describing her acts of kindness.

It is Muslim women like Nadira Bibi of Gosaba village in South 24 Parganas who make the kheer-khairaat (rice pudding) offered to the deity during the festival. “My mother-in-law used to make it earlier, now I do it. It’s part of our culture,” says the 35-year-old.

Over the past four years, when communal harmony in West Bengal has been disrupted by a series of riots, the Sundarbans area has remained free of violence. Bonbibi, popularly introduced to the world beyond the Sundarbans by author Amitav Ghosh in his book The Hungry Tide, not only binds these two communities but also ethnic groups like the Santhal, Munda and Oraon. “These communities worship Bonbibi for self-sustenance and mutual existence,” says sociologist Amrita Sen, assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. In a paper titled Traditional Livelihoods And Survival Crisis: The Politics Of Biodiversity Conservation In Sundarban, West Bengal (2017), Sen writes that it is because of this “collective pursuit of protection” that Bonbibi “transcends communal barriers”.

But though the belief remains strong, there are signs of change, and cracks between the two communities. The villagers’ relationship with Bonbibi is seeing a shift as the local economy transforms from a nature-dependent one to a wage-based one. Locals have, uncharacteristically, started worshipping other deities, like goddesses Durga and Kali, and adopting the religious practices of “mainland” Bengal, such as offering coconuts. A small section of people have even renamed Bonobibi “Bonodebi”, given “Bibi” is the Islamic way of addressing Muslim girls, says Gosaba-based historian Dulal Singha. In May, a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader of Gosaba, Paritosh Mandal, even claimed that Muslims had never worshipped Bonbibi.

In most parts of the Sundarbans, however, Bonbibi still remains the glue between Hindus and Muslims. Bonbibi paalagaan, a traditional dramatic performance to invoke the deity’s blessings, has been influenced by both Hindu and Islamic cultures. “There are Muslim characters and iconography. Plus, Islamic terms are used in the narrative. There are many Muslim members in the various troupes,” says Kalitala-based singer Palash Mandal, a popular paalagaan performer.

Legend has it that Bonbibi, along with her brother Shah Jangali, was sent by Allah to protect the islanders from tigers. Bonbibi is said to have once saved a shepherd boy, Dukhe, from the clutches of Dokkhin Rai, a powerful demon king in tiger’s guise. After the defeat, Rai accepted Bonbibi as his mother. Since then, it is believed that Bonbibi can save people from tigers.

Locals have their own reasoning for tiger kills. According to media reports, 11 people were killed by tigers between December last year and July. “In one of the cases, a man locked in the animal’s jaws for about 10 minutes was rescued after the tiger fell into a pit. But the man couldn’t survive for long, he passed away in the hospital,” 65-year-old crab collector Riaqat Ali of Kalitala recalls.

“People who don’t offer prayers to Bonbibi before setting out for the forest face dangers,” says fisherman and honey collector Noor Ali Gazi of Kalitala, who claims to have once fought a tiger solely with the help of a wooden stick. Honey collectors say they maintain a certain discipline while extracting resources from the forest. For example, they always leave behind a considerable part of the hive so that the bees can make a new one within 14-15 days. Plus, they offer honey to Bonbibi after the first chunk of a hive is broken. Locals say only the rich and the greedy are punished by Bonbibi.

“Also, if someone enters the forest between 12-2pm, the time when Bonbibi goes for her Friday prayers, the person is likely to be killed by a tiger,” believes Alam.

Women have their own rituals to ensure the safety of their husbands. “For all the days that their husbands are away in the forest, the wives refrain from putting vermillion on their foreheads, combing their hair, washing utensils and entertaining guests,” says Sen. “This is a tradition followed to ensure that their husbands come back home safely.”

They are even falling back on Bonbibi to cope with new climatic and ecological challenges such as disappearing mangrove forests, rising sea levels, erratic rainfall and cyclones. Recently, cyclone Bulbul caused the maximum damage in the Sundarbans, leading to at least three deaths, according to media reports. A decade ago, Cyclone Aila had killed at least 78 people and destroyed thousands of hectares of mangrove forests. Upasona Ghosh, the co-author of a paper titled Living On The Edge: Climate Change And Uncertainty In The Indian Sundarbans (2018), says these ecological changes have had an increasing impact on the household income of the traditional agro-fishing communities. “The belief in Bonbibi has traditionally given islanders faith in their ability to withstand many changes, including floods and cyclones. It’s their traditional way of coping with tragedies.”

Delhi-based geographer Mehebub Sahana believes it is this deep faith and fear in Bonbibi that could be used to protect the islands from natural hazards and adapt to climate change. Since locals believe Bonbibi to be the custodian of the forests, there is a sense that its overexploitation would enrage her. “It (the belief) could be used to restore the mangrove in the degraded areas, protect river banks, encourage the reduction in the use of plastics and hazardous materials that could indirectly help to cope with the climate change effects in the islands,” says Sahana.

With livelihood patterns changing, nobody is sure how this will play out. Take Alam’s family. He started going into the forest at the age of 12 but his two sons, who are in their early 30s, have never stepped into the forest. Alam says he can earn only about 500-2,000 from each seven-day trip into the forest but his sons, who work as migrant daily wage labourers in cities such as Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai, earn about 5 lakh a year. “Plus, there is no risk to life,” says Alam.

Bonbibi is losing her stronghold in this livelihood transition,” Ghosh observes. Political factors such as the rising influence of Hindutva ideology across Bengal and India, Ghosh says, will also negatively “impact syncretism and indigenous beliefs”.

But Alam believes Bonbibi will save them from all evils.

“For Ma Bonbibi, we are all her children. She knows the colour of our blood is all the same. She would not let us fall prey to tigers or politicians,” he says.

 

(Published in Mint Lounge on 23 November 2019)

Is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

  • Published 22.11.19, 12:34 AM
  • Updated 22.11.19, 12:34 AM
  • 2 mins read
This April, an Israeli firm reportedly hacked into WhatsApp messages to spy on activists, journalists and political dissidents. Even though the Indian State claimed its innocence, the Israeli firm clarified that it only works with government agencies.Shutterstock

Social media is a boon as long as it can be used as a propaganda tool by the State. It is a bane when people use it to criticize the government. Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Singapore, Vietnam and China, which launched the digital revolution in the past few years, are giving the impression that they are allowing people to be a part of the global cyberspace. In reality, they are curtailing cyber freedom in the name of national security. India will join the bandwagon soon. After all, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party doesn’t like dissenters.

In Bangladesh, the government has used the Digital Security Act, 2018 to target people who called for reforms in government service recruitment and for better road safety measures through social media campaigns. The police invoked the law against demonstrators for allegedly spreading false propaganda online. The law also came down heavily on press freedom and was used to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order. This year itself, at least four journalists have been arrested for publishing “false information” online about the government and posting “provocative” status on social media.

Vietnam enacted its cybersecurity law this year to stave off cyberattacks and weed out hostile forces. The ruling communist government stated that Facebook violated this law, allowing Vietnamese users to post anti-government content, and delayed removing such content even after being requested to do so. Interestingly, in Vietnam, it is the government’s prerogative to decide what is ‘illegal’.

Similarly, Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which has come into effect, gives the government the power to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts that the authorities label false and damaging to Singapore’s interests. People fear that this would stifle free speech online and empower the ruling People’s Action Party to curb dissent. According to the law, individuals who post false statements that threaten ‘public interest’ on social media would risk up to five years in prison or a fine of 37,000 US dollars. In a country where the rhetoric of nationalism is shrill, there isn’t a clear indication of what is considered to be ‘public interest’.

China, characteristically, has gone a step ahead by blocking access to non-China based online communications platforms. As per the China Internet Security Law in 2016, network operators need to cooperate with Chinese security agencies and allow them full access to data on request. Again, this is being done in the name of national security and to safeguard public interest.

Picking up a cue from its ‘adversary’, India has proposed the personal data protection bill, which would allow the government to access encrypted messages on apps. The BJP, which used online platforms extensively to run campaigns such as #MainBhiChowkidar and #ModiHaiTohMumkinHai, has now turned against it. Once the law is enacted, the government would have the right to ask online platforms to remove content that it considers to be ‘false’ and against ‘national interest’. Such a legislation would give sweeping powers to the government to access personal data, thereby posing a threat to the people’s constitutional right to privacy. This could leave no place safe for people to speak freely in the world’s largest democracy.

Last year, the government had authorized 10 of its agencies to intercept and monitor information from any computer. This April, an Israeli firm reportedly hacked into WhatsApp messages to spy on activists, journalists and political dissidents. Even though the Indian State claimed its innocence, the Israeli firm clarified that it only works with government agencies. This is illuminating, given the BJP’s approach towards people’s freedoms and constitutional rights.

The question is this: is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

A local film and media collective called ChalChitra Abhiyaan is stirring up a quiet cultural movement in rural Uttar Pradesh

  • Published 15.12.19, 1:01 AM
  • Updated 15.12.19, 1:01 AM
  • 3 mins read
Collective step: The documentary ‘Printed Rainbow’ being screened in Kandhla earlier this yearCourtesy: ChalChitra Abhiyaan

The time: six in the evening of December 6, 2019. The venue: the chaupal or open-air space of Khandrawali village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district. Men, women and children of the village have gathered to watch Anand Patwardhan’s Ram Ke Naam. The 1992 documentary is about Hindu groups gearing up for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

“This film asserts that politicians want us to fight over temple and mosque because when we stop doing so, we would demand education and employment, which the government cannot provide,” says villager Monu Kumar. “Unfortunately, the situation remains the same so many years later,” the 26-year-old Hindu Dalit adds.

The screening of the film has been organised by the local film and media collective called ChalChitra Abhiyaan. The event has special significance because it is the 27th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It has also been a month since the final judgment of the Supreme Court on the issue — a Ram temple is to come up on the site and the government is to give the Sunni Waqf Board five acres someplace else to build a mosque.

The members of the collective — five Hindus and one Muslim each from Shamli and Muzaffarnagar — are stirring up a quiet cultural movement. In 2013, both districts had witnessed communal riots that killed 62 people — Hindus as well as Muslims. Again both places were put on high alert immediately before and after the Supreme Court verdict of November 9.

The ChalChitra Abhiyaan also runs a book club. Among its collection are the Constitution of India, B.R. Ambedkar’s speech titled “Annihilation of Caste”, Munshi Premchand’s Collection of Short Stories and Hanif Madaar’s Band Kamre Ki Roshni.

The collective also organises folk musicals to spread awareness of fundamental rights, caste oppression and communal harmony. “Our aim is to start a conversation with the people, to make them aware of their rights, the politics of the country, the wrongs that happen in society and question them,” says Mohammad Shakib Rangrezz, a member of the collective.

Rangrezz was barely 16 when his house in Shamli’s Lisarh village was burnt down by his Jat neighbours on September 7, 2013. Sensing trouble, the family had left the village the day before. Eight of them took shelter in his uncle’s house in Kandhla, about 10 kilometres away. Eventually, the family shifted to a rented house in Kandhla itself.

Rangrezz’s father, who once owned a cycle repair shop, took up a job as an assistant to a local doctor. Two years ago, they built a house in Loni, 100 kilometres from Lisarh, but could never go back to where they belonged. “It’s a chapter of our life that keeps haunting us,” says Rangrezz, who is studying Hindi at the Janta Vedic Degree College in nearby Baraut.

Two years ago, when Rangrezz joined ChalChitra Abhiyaan, he took it upon himself to do his bit to heal wounds. “When the Ayodhya verdict came out, people of these parts were charged up. There were lots of heated discussions but the onus was on us, as a cultural organisation, to channelise any energy to something positive,” he says. According to him, local Muslims who privately shared their disappointment over the verdict put a check on their reactions. After much discussion, some of them suggested the five-acre land should be used for building hospitals and schools.

Rahul Sherwal, 22, is a resident of Shamli and another member of the collective. He went to schools driven by anti-Muslim sentiment and temper. He says, “But when I became part of the collective, myths about Muslims, such as they keep four wives or they produce multiple children or they will capture this country, were dispelled.”

The collective produces documentaries, interviews and live broadcasts on issues such as farmers’ distress and Dalit oppression, which are uploaded on their website. One such story was on how 28 Muslim houses in Kairana in Shamli district were demolished in an anti-encroachment drive. “We want this space to become a vibrant cultural hub too, wherein people engage in conversations on a host of issues,” says Sherwal. But there are many challenges.

There are logistical problems. “Members of the local units of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have often disconnected the power supply before our film screenings,” complains Sherwal. But the biggest challenge, according to Rangrezz, is to convince people about the collective’s goal.

At times, ChalChitra Abhiyaan also works with a Left-wing association, the Naujawan Bharat Sabha. Together, they use folk songs to dispel myths about religion and caste. “Our songs talk about issues of farmers’ distress, discrimination against Dalits and unemployment. We keep reminding people that these are the real issues and not religion,”says Pravdendra Kumar of Naujawan Bharat Sabha.

Delhi-based filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney, who conceived ChalChitra Abhiyaan, says, “We have made a quiet cultural intervention and a transformation is taking place gradually and organically. But the real impact of such a movement would be understood only in the years to come.”

For now, Monu Kumar, who has witnessed migration of people from riot-affected neighbouring villages to his village, is happy to see Hindus and Muslims come together at the chaupal on the days films are screened. He says, “At least, people are ready to listen to each other, nobody is baying for each other’s blood.”

Published in The Telegraph : https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/bringing-about-a-cultural-intervention-for-unity/cid/1726944?ref=author-profile

 

Old Kochi is home to a small community of Kashmiri traders. The weather, the food, the culture, everything is different here. But it has one thing in common with home—the warmth of the people

The half-open grey windows of the white Jewish synagogue, partially visible from the entrance of the by-lane, entice you to explore more. The slanting tiled roofs, the curio shops exhibiting antique and vintage artefacts and the colourful walls, all sport old-world charm in the Jew Town of Mattancherry in Kochi.

Just as you are transported back some centuries, you hear the chants of azadi (freedom). A group of young men are watching a protest video, shot in August in Srinagar, on a mobile phone. A man asks in Kashmiri, “Protest kathaez gov—downtown haez (where did the protest happen—downtown)?” Nodding his head, a young boy replies, “Ahnaez (yes).”

Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town.
Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town. (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

It’s a dull day for business in Jew Town’s Synagogue Lane. The shops in this by-lane, which sell embroidered kurtaspashminas, papier-mâché boxes and hand-knotted silk carpets, are deserted. And the Kashmiri traders who own or work in these shops are catching up on news from home.

“This is the only place in India where we can live the way we want,” says 42-year-old Nasir Hussain, a Kashmiri who hails from Saida Kadal, Srinagar, and runs two shops in Synagogue Lane.

At a time when over eight million people have been through a lockdown in the Kashmir valley, after Article 370 of the Constitution was effectively revoked on 5 August, serene Mattancherry and adjoining Fort Kochi offer the comfort of home to about 500 Kashmiri traders, who own over a hundred shops here.

They first started shifting here when militancy gripped the valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following in the footsteps of Gulshan Khatai, the first Kashmiri businessman to open a handicrafts shop in Kochi in 1972. Another trader, Khursheed Geelani opened the first Kashmiri handicrafts shop in Jew Town in 1992. Over the years, many others left strife-torn Kashmir for a peaceful life in this southern port city, about 3,500km away. Everything is different here—the weather, food habits, culture and language. There is, however, one thing in common with Kashmir—the warmth of the people.

Hussain is one of the many Kashmiris who have settled here. As a 17-year-old from Saida Kadal, he says he wanted to escape the daily intimidation by security forces. “They frisked me every time I stepped out of home. They would not even let me put my hands inside the pheran (loose Kashmiri cloak) even in cold winters, as if I was carrying a gun under the pheran,” he recalls.

After he cleared class XII in 1999, Hussain left to work at a handicrafts factory in Madurai, without informing his family. In 2001, he was sent to Kochi when the company opened a unit there. Four years later, he opened his own shop on Princess Street in Fort Kochi. Today, he owns four shops—two each in Fort Kochi and Jew Town.

Hussain is married to a local Malayali, Mouhzeena Nibras. He met her in 2003—she was studying in a school close to his shop. Tasked with an assignment on the Shia Muslims of Kashmir, she sought the help of Kashmiri shop-owners like Hussain. They fell in love and married nearly seven years later, in 2010. Some local Kashmiris objected—Hussain is Shia and Mouhzeena, Sunni. “For us, religion and its complexities were never important. We were in love with each other and it was good enough a reason to get married,” says Mouhzeena.

“This is my home now,” says Hussain.

In August, an IAS officer from the state, Kannan Gopinathan, resigned from the civil service in protest against the lockdown in Kashmir. “People of India have failed Kashmiris, we didn’t stand for them, we never registered our protest against the lockdown. It is shameful that Kashmiris feel safe only in Kerala. The onus is on us, Indians, to build a safe environment across the country,” Gopinathan tells Lounge.

In today’s polarized India, this could sound like wishful thinking but Kerala, a state with 54.73% Hindus, 26.56% Muslims and 18.38% Christians, is a pluralistic society. Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, former Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies, have remained havens of tolerance, pluralism and multiculturalism. Yamini Nair, co-author of One Heart. Two Worlds. (2019), says the 5 sq. km radius of Mattancherry has traditionally been a multicultural space. It is home to at least 39 communities, including Jews, Sindhis, Konkanis, Rajasthanis, Tamil Vannans, Gowda Saraswat Brahmins, Dakhinis (from Hyderabad), Anglo-Indians (from Goa), early settlers from Yemen, and now Kashmiris. “It has always showered its warmth to all; it gave equal space to all,” Nair says.

She adds that historical evidence shows that the earliest Jewish traders, popularly known as Malabari Jews, landed in present-day Kodungallur as early as 970 BC. They dealt in spices, silk, pearls, ivory and animals. Apparently, they later shifted south to Kochi, owing to floods.

Jew Town is named after a later community of primarily European Jewish migrants, also called Paradesi Jews, who arrived from Spain in the 15th century. “The Hindu kings of Kerala warmly welcomed the Jewish settlers over the years and gifted them several pieces of land. The Paradesi synagogue in the Jew Town of Mattancherry is built upon one such piece of land,” Nair says.

You have to cross the Kashimir handicraft shops to enter the Paradesi synagogue.

“Interestingly, the clock tower of the synagogue itself is an example of the multiculturalism of this place: The numbering of the clock is done in four different languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Malayalam and Roman,” says Nair, adding that there are only five Jews left in Mattancherry. The others have left or passed on.

Historian Rajan Gurukkal says, “The contiguous existence of synagogues, churches and the temples and mosques accounts for the mutually complementary coexistence of communities.”

Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town
Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

This year, on Eid, when the Kashmiris went for morning prayers to a mosque in Fort Kochi, they prayed for peace in the valley. “This Eid, we were only worried about our families back home. For the first time, we had no celebrations for Eid, there were no guests or special dinner,” says 44-year-old shop owner Sajid Khatai, originally from downtown Srinagar. Usually, festivals in Mattancherry are occasions for communities to celebrate together and savour fusion cuisines such as the coconut milk curries of the Malayalis, the papadams popularized by the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins and the brown gram of the Gujaratis.

“Even though most Kashmiris avoided eating beef in Kashmir to not hurt the sentiments of their Pandit neighbours, they have taken to Malabar parantha and beef curry, the popular cuisine of Malayalis here,” Sajid says.

Kashmiri children go to local schools and speak fluent Malayalam. Hussain’s two children—a nine-year-old daughter and five-year-old son—have picked up Kashmiri during their annual visits to Kashmir. They are fond of Kashmir but often fail to understand the complexities of the conflict.

“This year, while stepping out of Srinagar airport, when my son gave a salute to the tricolour because he has learnt to do so in school, one of my relatives objected to it. My son was confused; he asked me the reason for their objection. I was not sure how to explain the strained relationship between the Indian government and people of Kashmir to a five-year-old,” Hussain says.

The lockdown in Kashmir has impacted business in Mattancherry too.

Hussain says he had ordered items such as carpets, shawls and papier-mâché boxes worth 10 lakh in June—these still haven’t arrived from Kashmir. “The labourers working in shawl factories were mostly from Bihar, and they left Kashmir. The colours required for papier-mâché are not available since the markets are closed. After having been stuck in their homes for about four months, people don’t know where to pick up their scattered lives from,” says Hussain.

About 150 unemployed men from Kashmir have arrived to work in their shops since the lockdown in August.

Parvaiz Ahmed Dar of Srinagar is one of them. Dar, 28, used to earn about 15,000 a month as a salesman at a handicrafts shop in Srinagar—but the lockdown changed that. Now the sole bread-winner for a family of eight, he arrived in Fort Kochi about a month ago. “Safety is the bonus here,” says Dar, who earns 12,000 a month now. “There is no frisking, no questioning and no detention by police.”

Of course, the local police do keep an eye on them. Sajid, who heads the Kashmiri traders welfare association in Kochi, routinely provides them an updated list of all Kashmiri shop-owners and workers. His strong connect with the place, however, remains intact.

“This is a truly cosmopolitan and secular place which welcomes everyone,” Hussain says. “It is India, yet not India.”

The story was published on 13 December 2019 in Mint Lounge : https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/the-kashmiris-of-jew-town-11576236697100.html

Is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

By Sonia Sarkar

Social media is a boon as long as it can be used as a propaganda tool by the State. It is a bane when people use it to criticize the government. Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Singapore, Vietnam and China, which launched the digital revolution in the past few years, are giving the impression that they are allowing people to be a part of the global cyberspace. In reality, they are curtailing cyber freedom in the name of national security. India will join the bandwagon soon. After all, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party doesn’t like dissenters.

In Bangladesh, the government has used the Digital Security Act, 2018 to target people who called for reforms in government service recruitment and for better road safety measures through social media campaigns. The police invoked the law against demonstrators for allegedly spreading false propaganda online. The law also came down heavily on press freedom and was used to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order. This year itself, at least four journalists have been arrested for publishing “false information” online about the government and posting “provocative” status on social media.

Vietnam enacted its cybersecurity law this year to stave off cyberattacks and weed out hostile forces. The ruling communist government stated that Facebook violated this law, allowing Vietnamese users to post anti-government content, and delayed removing such content even after being requested to do so. Interestingly, in Vietnam, it is the government’s prerogative to decide what is ‘illegal’.

Similarly, Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which has come into effect, gives the government the power to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts that the authorities label false and damaging to Singapore’s interests. People fear that this would stifle free speech online and empower the ruling People’s Action Party to curb dissent. According to the law, individuals who post false statements that threaten ‘public interest’ on social media would risk up to five years in prison or a fine of 37,000 US dollars. In a country where the rhetoric of nationalism is shrill, there isn’t a clear indication of what is considered to be ‘public interest’.

China, characteristically, has gone a step ahead by blocking access to non-China based online communications platforms. As per the China Internet Security Law in 2016, network operators need to cooperate with Chinese security agencies and allow them full access to data on request. Again, this is being done in the name of national security and to safeguard public interest.

Picking up a cue from its ‘adversary’, India has proposed the personal data protection bill, which would allow the government to access encrypted messages on apps. The BJP, which used online platforms extensively to run campaigns such as #MainBhiChowkidar and #ModiHaiTohMumkinHai, has now turned against it. Once the law is enacted, the government would have the right to ask online platforms to remove content that it considers to be ‘false’ and against ‘national interest’. Such a legislation would give sweeping powers to the government to access personal data, thereby posing a threat to the people’s constitutional right to privacy. This could leave no place safe for people to speak freely in the world’s largest democracy.

Last year, the government had authorized 10 of its agencies to intercept and monitor information from any computer. This April, an Israeli firm reportedly hacked into WhatsApp messages to spy on activists, journalists and political dissidents. Even though the Indian State claimed its innocence, the Israeli firm clarified that it only works with government agencies. This is illuminating, given the BJP’s approach towards people’s freedoms and constitutional rights.

The question is this: is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

Published in The Telegraph on 22 November 2019 –https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/the-eyes-have-it/cid/1720963?ref=comment_opinion-page