Tete a TeteTete a Tete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • AND LIFE GOES ON:  A garment shop in Karbala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A jewellery shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Men playing billards

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

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

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

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

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

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

War, clearly, is an unending metaphor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

  • Imaging: Sabyasachi Kundu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting by T.V. Jayan in New Delhi

Published in The Telegraph on February 21, 2016.


‘I have created a dot. That’s my corner’

Back in those days when television was a one-channel wonder, a man called Pavan Malhotra was quite a heart-throb. It transpires that in the era of multi-channel television, he still has a huge fan following, going by the number of people who landed up for a Pavan Malhotra retrospective in the capital recently. But that’s not surprising, for the man who is best remembered as Hari – the humble hard-working youth who ran a small shop for repairing bicycles in the television serial Nukkad – has reinvented himself. The 57-year-old actor who became a television star with his role in shows that included Circus and Zameen Aasmaan and later acted in films such as Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Bagh Bahadur has been appearing in regional cinema of late. He starred in the Telugu film Aithe and in two Punjabi films, Punjab 1984and Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe. On the sidelines of the retrospective Unmasking Pavan, he talked to Sonia Sarkar about his journey. Extracts:

Q: What are your future projects?

A: I am currently shooting for Rustom with Akshay Kumar, produced by Neeraj Pandey and directed by Tinu Desai. I am also doing a film with Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, the maker of the 2010 film Lahore, which will be released in the next few months.

Q: Tell us about your journey from theatre to television to films.

A: While I was studying in Class X, in Manav Sthali School in Delhi, a friend took me to Feisal Alkazi’s Ruchika Theatre during the summer vacations. I got a role as part of a crowd in the play Tughlaq . Then Feisal started giving me roles in various plays. But I mostly didn’t know what was going on. It took me a while to understand serious political subjects such as Marxism. Somebody had then jokingly said that Karl and Marx were two brothers – and I believed him. In another Hindi play, Father, I played the role of an orderly. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word. I knew nothing – but slowly I learnt. That was also when I got some backstage roles in programmes on Doordarshan.

Then one day, I got a call from a friend who said that the production team of Gandhi needed a wardrobe assistant. When they were shooting in Delhi, I worked with them. Then the crew moved to Mumbai and asked me to move with them. Soon thereafter, my theatre friends, Ravi Baswani and Sudhir Mishra, asked me to work as a production assistant for the filmJaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). It was around that time that I got the role of Hari in Saeed Mirza’s Nukkad . Then came cinema with Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.

Q: Did you – like many others – have to struggle in your initial days in Mumbai?

A: I can tell you 500 stories of struggle but I would never like to romanticise my story. If you change your city and you don’t have a permanent job, you should be ready for a struggle. When I was living in Delhi with my father, he made me sweep the floor of his office too. He used to say that if I didn’t learn this, I wouldn’t learn anything in life. He had also told me that if I wanted to work, I had to learn to keep my ego aside. I survived in Mumbai because of this lesson.

  • Always different: Pavan Malhotra in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

Q: Are your films watched only by one section of people?

A: Many years ago, Doordarshan was, one evening, showing Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar . I was watching it in my living room. I turned around and saw my house help watching it too with a lot of interest. So, basically, one has to tell a good story. I think most of my films had a good story – so people liked them.

Q: Every role of yours in every film – from Salim Langde … and Bagh Bahadur to Dilli 6 and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – is different. How do you manage to play different characters without casting the shadow of one over the other?

A: I work on the body language and voice of the character. And it is a conscious decision to play a different character in each film because the characters remain alive in the mind of the audience even if the actor is forgotten.

Q: After Salim , underworld dons contacted you…

A: One day, when I was standing with my scooter at a petrol station near Centaur Hotel in Mumbai, a man came up to me and said that Haji Mastan loved my acting. He asked me to call him. I didn’t. Again one day, someone came to my house to ask if I would like to visit Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai. He would make it easy for me in Bollywood. But I told him that I didn’t need a shortcut to success.

Q: How do you feel when you see your college junior Shah Rukh Khan, who acted with you in the television series, Circus , and is now a superstar?

A: I feel that it is important to talk to oneself and ask, “Do you want to do this? Are you enjoying this?” I feel in this whole film industry collage, I have created a dot. That’s my corner.

If I think that Shah Rukh has a bungalow and I should have one too, there will be no end to my desires. I will start eyeing someone’s island. It’s not possible to get everything in life.

Q: Television series were real during your time…

A: People have often told me, why can’t we make Nukkad again? I tell them, even if we make it, you will not watch it. These days, television works on advertising and advertising has nothing to do with content. It has to do with eyeballs.

Q: Recently, comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested for imitating Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. As an artiste, do you believe freedom of speech and expression is being compromised?

A: There are – and have been – problems in society. But we have to fix these problems. One has to keep fighting for the freedom of expression.

Muffler: check. Floaters: check. Radio spots: check. As Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal marks his first year in office, V. Kumara Swamy and Sonia Sarkar look at how he has been projecting himself as the man on the street

It was a busy Sunday for Visakhapatnam businessman Sumit Agrawal. He went around the neighbourhood collecting money to be sent to Delhi for what he believed was a noble cause. The neighbours did their bit, too, and a demand draft for Rs 364 was sent to the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, on Monday.

“I humbly request your good self to kindly accept this small contribution & use it to buy a nice pair of black formal shoes,” the businessman said in a letter to the CM.

The CM had worn his customary sandals to a reception for French President François Hollande at the Rashtrapati Bhawan last month. The choice of footwear troubled Agrawal. “You were representing the country that day… not staging a dharna at an Aam Aadmi Party rally at Ramlila Maidan or Jantar Mantar,” Agrawal wrote.

The businessman was mistaken. As Kejriwal marks his first year in office on February 14, it is clear that, at every opportunity, the leader of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would like to underline his man-on-the-street image. He is, at any point, holding a dharna – literally or figuratively.

But then he came to power riding dharnas. And though the quiet bureaucrat in the income tax office in Delhi who became a right to information activist before joining Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign had vowed that that he would never enter party politics, he did so with aplomb – and a great many sit-ins – in 2012.

“It’s difficult to understand Kejriwal’s style of functioning. Every day, he is into a fight with some agency or the other. He seems to be an unusual politician. It doesn’t really matter if he speaks or dresses up like a common man, it is important to see what this ‘common man’ has done for the thousands of other common men who voted him to power,” former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit says.

But if there is one thing that Kejriwal has worked hard on, it’s his image of the man next door. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes to dress up – a formal galabandh on one occasion, a heavily embroidered shawl draped carelessly over a kurta on another – Kejriwal sticks to his uniform. A muffler and sweater with trousers in winter, a plain shirt and pair of trousers in summer. Occasionally, a Gandhi cap. And, of course, his floaters – worn with socks when it’s cold.

It is this image that he seeks to highlight in government radio spots that flooded Delhi during and after a state government move to control pollution. The ads were about an experiment when cars with odd and even numbers were allowed out only on alternate days for a fortnight last month.

In the ads, Kejriwal approaches the listener like an old acquaintance, using words and pauses the way one would in a conversation. ” Haan ji… kaise hai” – Hi, how are you – he starts.

His aides hold that more than 80 per cent of the ads have been conceived by him and he writes his own script. “He knows how to convey the most complicated thing in the most simple manner,” AAP spokesperson Ashutosh says.

As a communicator, Kejriwal has outdone himself. But the question being asked is if the government has done any significant work for the one year it has been in power.

Government watchers say that some major steps have been taken. The government doubled the education budget for the state and major changes are taking place in teaching methods and curriculum in government schools. A call centre has been set up to register complaints against corrupt officials. And the odd-and-even experiment to control traffic congestion and ensuing pollution has largely been lauded.

But for much of the year, the government hurtled from one crisis to another. The CM picked fights with the lieutenant governor over distribution of power, hasn’t been able to cut through the bureaucratic thicket and hasn’t attempted to resolve a shortfall of over Rs 1,500 crore in municipal budgets which has led to non-payment of salaries and strikes. He has been under pressure over a CBI raid on his office over corruption allegations against his principal secretary.

But with no opposition to talk of – AAP has 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly – the failures are seldom talked of. Instead, he, or occasionally his deputy, Manish Sisodia, engages with the public directly on issues that would interest them – corruption, pollution or consumer rights.

The idea, AAP insiders say, is to move from one issue to another before discord sets in. “We monitor ads to check when people feel irritated and start abusing us for saying the same thing – is it after 7 days or 10 days? We keep a check on the saturation level,” says Delhi state unit convener Dilip Pandey, in charge of communication.

The strategy, on the face of it, seems to be working. “First it was electricity and water. Then it was corruption, which was followed by the odd-even scheme. People have been given a new issue every time something loses its novelty,” says former bureaucrat Shakti Sinha. “But I am not sure if these have been followed up and monitored closely,” the ex-finance secretary in the Delhi government adds.

For Kejriwal, clearly, a lot of the action is in the public arena. When his office was raided by the CBI, he took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley publicly. The last time he was in power – for 48 days in 2013-14 – he threw in the towel when he felt besieged. This time, Kejriwal has gone to town over the Centre’s alleged moves against him.

“People think he is confrontational but that’s not the case. Earlier, he was more impulsive, now he is calmer,” a close associate says. “His understanding of politics and society is wider now and more in-depth.”

Indeed, if there is one thing that Kejriwal has demonstrated this year, it’s the fact that he is, contrary to popular perception, an inveterate politician.

Consider the way he has tackled dissidence, or people who could challenge him.

During his days as a fledgling activist against corruption, Kejriwal had a print-out pinned on the wall in his office in Ghaziabad. It was a shot from the film Munna Bhai MBBS. The original poster had Sanjay Dutt on a motorcycle, and his sidekick, Arshad Warsi, in the sidecar. Dutt’s face was replaced by Anna Hazare’s, and Warsi’s by Kejriwal’s. The message was clear: Hazare would lead the charge while Kejriwal would be his loyal lieutenant.

But Hazare – who gave Kejriwal a boost – is now a closed chapter. Even the other stalwarts who were Kejriwal’s equals when AAP was being formed are out in the cold.

“From a consensus builder, he turned into some sort of a dictator. Only yes men got his ear. Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan were men with backbone – and it was only a matter of time before they were kicked out. He wouldn’t like a competitor,” a former associate says.

His political moves should not surprise his associates, for Kejriwal has shown on many occasions that he thinks like a clever politician. An AAP member recalls how, while campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections in Punjab, Kejriwal looked at a crowd of mostly traders at a rally, and asked one of his candidates to point out that he belonged to the same community.

“I was shocked that he wanted votes highlighting his caste. He is like any other politician now. And he is more concerned about the next election than anything else,” alleges Harinder Singh Khalsa, AAP member of Parliament from Fatehgarh, Punjab.

But then, politics is all about mining votes – and making alliances. In recent months, Kejriwal has voiced his support for state leaders Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee. Efforts are on perhaps to form an alliance to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress in the next general election.

Before that, though, he has to effectively rule Delhi. “In Delhi, a battle is being played out at a political level. Officials will not be motivated to work in an enthusiastic manner if this daily uncertainty continues,” says Shailaja Chandra, former chief secretary, Delhi government.

Chandra believes that citizens want predictability in their daily lives. “That is absolutely lacking because of these constant upheavals. Citizens are not interested in day-to-day politics which disturb their world,” she says.

Also, much before the next general poll is the Assembly election in Punjab next year. It was thought that AAP could give a good fight to the ruling Akali Dal and the opposition Congress, but there is dissent brewing in the AAP camp now.

“AAP has the same high command culture as any other party and the coterie around Kejriwal keeps him in a world far removed from reality,” Khalsa says.

As Kejriwal returns to the capital today after ayurvedic treatment in Bangalore, he will have his hands full. His aides expect him to promptly get back to his punishing schedule – up at 5am, yoga, and then a spate of phone calls before setting out. “He always returns calls but his timing is odd. He calls at 5.30am – and I often forget what I want to discuss,” an aide says.

And, of course, the battle with the Centre will continue. Kejriwal came fighting the Establishment. And so what that he’s the Establishment now?

  • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...

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