Archive for November 2012

Ram Jethmalani has been busy. He has been shuttling between New Delhi and Mumbai while taking potshots at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari. And just when he was in the midst of a political imbroglio, the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray last Saturday sent him rushing back to Mumbai to attend the funeral of his old friend. He is now back in Delhi — but ready to fly off to Mumbai again.

“He was like a younger brother to me but I disagreed with him on many subjects,” says lawyer-politician Jethmalani about his relationship with Thackeray. One of the issues the two didn’t agree on was Thackeray’s dream of a Maharashtra exclusively for Maharashtrians.

“While it is true that jobs should be reserved for domiciled residents of Maharashtra, it was sad that he was not mindful of the rights of Indian citizens to reside and settle in any part of India,” says Jethmalani, 89.

The maverick lawyer is not known to mince his words. Earlier this month, he kicked up a furore when he wrote a letter to BJP leader L.K. Advani demanding that Gadkari be removed as the party head because of allegations of corruption that had been levelled at him.

“When there are serious allegations against Gadkari, he should have stayed away, if only to raise his stature in the public eye,” says Jethmalani, nattily dressed in a white shirt and a black pin-striped suit.

Jethmalani went to town about Gadkari, but the BJP president continues to hold on to his post. Does that indicate that the BJP’s parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is said to be backing Gadkari, still controls the party? “I am sure the RSS is trying to influence the functioning of the BJP. After all, BJP leaders have grown up with the RSS,” he says.

Despite publicly speaking out against his party, why has no action been taken against him? “They would never do so,” Jethmalani says confidently. “I have told them (party leaders) that I have the right to change them but they should not try to change me,” Jethmalani says with a tight-lipped smile.

The one BJP leader that Jethmalani has no qualms about is Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. “I had asked Gadkari to promote Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate,” he says in his familiar baritone.

But what about Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his state? Pat comes the answer. “This is just a black spot on his otherwise immaculately clean dress. It can be easily washed away by sensible people who can speak the truth. I can do it for him,” he says.

Modi’s would-be campaign officer — an articulate and effective lawyer who has won several tricky cases — is clearly a political being. He won a Lok Sabha seat twice — once in 1977 as an independent candidate with the support of the Shiv Sena and then in 1980 on a BJP ticket. But in 1985, he lost to Congressman and former actor Sunil Dutt. He left the BJP the same year when he decided to defend Kehar Singh and Balbir Singh, charged with complicity in Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Ironically, we are sitting in his Akbar Road residence in Lutyens’s Delhi, which is right opposite the memorial of Indira Gan-dhi. Jethmalani was a staunch critic of Gandhi, and had exiled himself to Canada and the US during the Emergency.

His relationship with the Gandhis soured further when he defended the alleged assassins and won the acquittal of Balbir Singh. Jethmalani also defended three people accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

But then, he is known to defend the indefensible. Jethmalani works for 12 hours at a stretch and in his 70-year-old career as a lawyer has defended almost every high profile accused. Among them are the Hindujas in the Bofors case, Harshad Mehta in a security scam, underworld don Haji Mastan in smuggling cases, Sanjay Dutt in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, Lalu Prasad Yadav in the fodder scam, Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lal murder case and Kanimozhi in the 2G scam — to name just a few!

Known to be highly unpredictable, Jethmalani is also a man full of contradictions. For example, he initiated a PIL that led to investigations into the hawala scam in the mid-1990s, but a few years later he defended BJP leader Advani, who was one of the accused. Then, five years ago, he raised a few eyebrows when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released his book, Conscience of a Maverick.

“So what?” he retorts. “Even though Singh is from the Congress, he is a friend first,” he says, and then adds, “But he is too silent. He should have some control over his colleagues.”

Jethmalani’s political journey has seen many twists and turns. In 1988, he was an independent Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka. In 1989, he joined the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal and three years later wanted to be President, only to find that he had few backers.

In 1993, he parted ways with the Janata Dal and was re-elected to Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra with the support of the Shiv Sena. In 1995, he launched his own political party, Pavitra Hindustan Kazhagam, which he later dissolved. A former minister in the National Democratic Alliance-led government, he joined the Rajya Sabha with the support of the BJP and Shiv Sena in 2000, had a spat with the BJP, which he left, only to rejoin the party in 2010.

And while he weaved in and out of politics, his legal life continued to flourish. Though some find him cantankerous, Jethmalani is also seen as a fearless lawyer. In 1998, he sought to impeach Justice M.M. Punchhi for allegedly deciding on a case in which he had a personal interest. Two years later, he had a face-off with former Chief Justice A.S. Anand as he alleged that Anand has passed an order favouring someone from whom he had received a plot of land. This created a hue and cry, and Jethmalani — then law minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government — was asked to resign.

Is it true that his relationship with Vajpayee was anything but cordial? After all, in the 2004 general elections, he had contested against Vajpayee from Lucknow and lost.

“I respected him but he was very susceptible,” says Jethmalani.

On the issue of judges and corruption too, the MP remains adamant. “A large number of judges are corrupt,” says the author of Big Egos, Small Men, waving his fingers.

I notice three gold rings on his fingers. One of them is embedded with an emerald. What’s with the rings, I ask him. “These are gifts from my numerous girlfriends. I like the company of young girls,” says the flamboyant lawyer who plays badminton regularly to keep fit.

Jethmalani’s biography by Nalini Gera mentions his two wives — Durga and Ratna — and the numerous affairs that he is supposed to have had. I am reminded of the recent controversy that Jethmalani triggered by announcing that Ram was a bad husband, referring to the Hindu god. Or was he talking about himself?

“I plead guilty to being a bad husband. But avatars like Ram don’t do so. There is no trial for them. Who are they answerable to,” he asks.

Jethmalani has few regrets — but there is one fact that he rues. He grew up in Shikarpur in Pakistan’s Sindh, where his father was a lawyer. He himself became a lawyer at 18 — after a special resolution made that possible because the stipulated age for a lawyer was 21.

He made Mumbai his home in 1947 but regrets that he never got a chance to go back to Shikarpur. “I always wanted to revisit Shikarpur but the Pakistan government has never allowed me to do so for reasons unknown,” he says.

As he refers to Pakistan, I ask his opinion about the hanging of Pakistani terror convict Ajmal Amir Kasab. Jethmalani, who had often spoken against death penalty, has a different take on the issue.

“One should understand that my principle objection is that justice is fallible. There could be a case of wrong conviction too. In Kasab’s case, there was no doubt about his involvement. He deserved it.”

The interview has been carrying on for a while and I now see that visitors have queued up to meet him before he leaves for Mumbai the next day. “My body is in Delhi but my heart is in Bombay,” he says. This is the second time in our conversation that he has referred to Mumbai as Bombay. Has he taken the liberty of calling the city by its old name now that Thackeray’s gone?

“No, I always say Bombay when I am speaking in English. Sometimes, Bal used to object to it, but in good humour,” he says with a laugh.

Ramji was barely 14 when he landed in Imphal looking for employment. Originally from Bihar’s Sitamarhi district, Ramji, now 44, initially worked as a daily wage earner before starting his own cement shop in 1997. But he may have to wind up his business and go back to his village.

That’s because the Manipur government wants to introduce the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS), a mechanism which allows people from other states to stay in Manipur for a limited period of time and that too with a permit. In July this year, the Manipur Assembly passed a resolution to that effect unanimously.

The ILPS comes under the purview of a central law — the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR), 1873, legislation introduced by the British to control business in what was then called the Bengal Eastern Frontier. An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is also required by people from other states when they go to Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland (except Dimapur). The permit allows them to stay in the state for a period of 15 days to six months. The measure was introduced in a bid to protect the interests of the tribal communities in the region.

But the Union home ministry has rejected Manipur’s proposal to extend the ILPS to the state. In September, home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said, “Our Constitution will not allow such things.” A senior home ministry official adds, “There is no rationale for the state to seek restrictions on the entry of Indians under an outdated law.”

But locals allege that “outsiders” are marginalising the natives. “People are being robbed of land and employment by the settlers. We cannot let this continue any longer,” says Mutum Churamani Meetei, co-convener of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), a collective of 20 non-political groups advocating the ILPS.

There are about 9 lakh Mayangs or “outsiders” in Manipur out of a total population of roughly 27 lakh. Mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, they work as construction workers, carpenters and porters. There are also other communities such as Punjabis, Gujaratis and Marwaris, who have been settled in Manipur since the early 20th century and run businesses in hardware, cement, marble and so on.

The introduction of the ILPS would spell doom for people like Ramji. “Last year, around 25 Bihari labourers left in fear. But we will continue to stay,” says Ramji, who lives in Imphal with his wife and three children and earns about Rs 5,000 a month.

Although the Manipur government is in favour of slapping on the ILPS, constitutional experts say that according to Article 19(1)(d) and (e) of the Constitution, every Indian citizen has the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and also to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India.

A senior state government official also points out it’s the Centre that has to give the go-ahead for the ILPS. “We cannot implement the ILPS unless the Centre gives its nod.”

Not so, says advocate Khaidem Mani, stressing that the state is legally empowered to make its own laws without seeking the permission of the Centre. “Article 19(5) of the Constitution states that nothing shall prevent the State from making any law with reasonable restrictions in the interests of the general public,” he says.

But constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says that “State” should be read as Union of India, and not as a state legislature. Mani has a counter-argument. He says, “Under Article 12 in the Constitution, ‘State’ also means the government and the legislature of each of the states.”

While the debate rages, Kashyap warns that President’s rule can be imposed on Manipur if it doesn’t comply with the directions of the Centre. “Under Article 365 and 356 of the Constitution, if the President is satisfied that the state has failed to comply with the directions of the Union and a situation has arisen where the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution, he can impose President’s rule,” he cautions.

But clearly, the Manipur government has dug in its heels and is refusing to budge. The ILPS issue is likely to be raised again in the winter session of the state Assembly. And Manipur government sources say that chief minister Ibobi Singh will try and persuade the Centre to reconsider its proposal.

This is not the first time that migrants are being targeted in Manipur. In 2008, 14 migrant labourers were gunned down by militants. Government sources say that it’s the militant groups that have been pushing political parties to implement the ILPS in Manipur. In fact, this time too militants have set a December 31 deadline for the “outsiders” to leave.

Though the BEFR was never in place in Manipur, a different permit system for outsiders was, and it was abolished only on November 18, 1950. “That’s the reason we want to keep this as the cut-off date to decide the domicile status of the people. All those who entered the state after this date would require an ILP. They would have no right to purchase land or property in the state,” says Meetei. What’s more, land and property owned by people who came in after the proposed cut-off date would have to be handed over to the state.

However, some say this is an illogical demand. “Unfortunately, this anti-outsider sentiment is politically motivated. This is harming the image of Manipuris outside the state,” says Amar Yumnam, who teaches at Manipur University.

Social scientists too argue that the ILPS is out of place in a globalised world. “Many Manipuris are moving out of the state in search of work. It is infantile to close Manipur’s door to residents of other states,” says Bhagat Oinam, associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Oinam, however, believes that there should be some restrictions on people from other states wanting to buy land there.

Ironically, Manipur’s move comes at a time when states where the ILPS is in force are having second thoughts about continuing with it. “We don’t have the mechanism to keep a check on every migrant. Even though outsiders enter the state with an ILP, it is not always possible to know if they are overstaying,” says Nagaland chief secretary Lalthara. Another senior Nagaland government official admits that many benami (illegal) properties have also been bought by “outsiders”, which proves that the ILPS has not had much effect.

But in Manipur there is now a groundswell of sentiment in favour of the ILPS and few are willing to listen to the other side of the argument. “Only the ILPS can ensure that we are not swamped by outsiders,” asserts Manipur People’s Party leader Okram Joy Singh.

No wonder settlers like Ramji are afraid.

Anniversaries are always special. They hold great significance in one’s life. For scribes like us, it is crucial to remember anniversaries but we remember occurrence of events of a different kind. For example, we revisit the anniversary of IC 814 hijack or Gujarat riots or 26/11 attacks in order to ingeminate  stories of the victims and help them get justice.

Of late, a section of the media has added another date to this list, which is November 4.Twelve years back, on this day, Manipur’s Irom Sharmila Chanu sat on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – the law in force in the north-east and Kashmir that gives sweeping powers to the Army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. In 2010, Sharmila’s silent protest completed a decade. Curious to know what makes the Iron Lady of Manipur, as she is popularly known, this resilient, I had sought an appointment with her. Permission, however, was not easily granted. The request moved from one sarkari office to the other for nearly two months. Finally, I was allowed to meet her on December 20, 2010. Knowing well that even celebrated writer and activist Mahasweta Devi was denied permission, I considered myself lucky.

Before I met her, I had sketched an image of Sharmila in my mind by reading various newspaper reports that featured her struggle, her pain and her plight. They had made her look gloomy and exhausted. But my perception changed the moment I got the first glimpse of her when I lifted the green curtains of the ward for under-trials needing medical attention at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital. She looked frail but cheerful and welcomed me with a wide smile as I walked into the room. Her freshly washed hair smelled of a familiar brand of shampoo. The shiny wet curls of her hair were carelessly playing on her forehead. She looked calm and unencumbered, the fairness of her skin heightened by the pink top that she was wearing.

Strange though but of all things, we started talking about food. “As a child, I loved eating. After finishing my own meal, I used to eat off others’ plates. My mother often scolded me for this. It is an irony that my struggle is related to food – though it’s about not eating,” Sharmila had said. She spoke haltingly in English. Her voice was frail.

Born on March 14, 1972 in Kongpal Kongham Leikei in the east of Imphal, Sharmila loved eating freshly plucked raw vegetables – peas, cabbage and red spinach. Her other love was pastries.

In fact, a night before she started her fast, she bought two packets of pastries and cakes from a local bakery. “ I ate all of them to fill my stomach, and vowed that it is my last day of eating. I totally surrendered myself to God,” she recalled. Her fast was triggered by the Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, in which 10 people were killed by security forces on the outskirts of the capital Imphal. She consciously chose to fast because all other forms of protest such as demonstrations or strike would harm others unlike fasting that could harm only her, and not anyone else.

A day after she began fasting, the cops had charged her with the attempt to suicide under section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and had put her in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. Two and a half months later, she was shifted to the hospital, where she has been nose-fed thrice every day – at 10am, 2pm and 9 pm- since then.“I don’t feel hungry. The liquid diet keeps my stomach full,” she had said. The plastic tube through which she is fed was hanging close to her neck, but that has become a part of her body in these many years.

In 2004, Human Rights Alert (HRA), a collective of lawyers moved the Supreme Court (SC) to remove the charges against her as her intentions were not commit suicide. The SC had then asked them to file the case in Gauhati High Court in Manipur, which a year later ordered her release. But then the court was silent on whether such charges should be removed or not. Later, in 2006, Irom Sharmila’s supporters brought her to Delhi to pressurise the Centre to repeal AFSPA but it was all in vain. After being moved from one government hospital to another for six months, she was later forced to go back to Imphal.Every year, she is released for a day in March only to be arrested the next day and sent back to the hospital.

The youngest of nine siblings, Sharmila grew up a lonely child. She raised chicken, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. Never academically inclined, Sharmila joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after school. Before she went on a hunger strike, Sharmila also wrote columns in a local newspaper and worked in a non-governmental organisation. She had often joined demonstrations when protests spilled out on the streets, mostly revolving around army actions against civilians.She was close to her brother, Irom Singhajit, nearest to her in age. With their parents busy running their grocery shop when she was a child, it was Singhajit who took care of her. Their mother’s breast milk had dried up when Sharmila was born, so Singhajit would take his little sister to other mothers in the neighbourhood who breastfed her. In exchange, he did their household work.

Even today, Singhajit is by her side. He left his job as an agricultural officer in an NGO to garner support for his sister’s struggle. “He is like a guardian to me,” she told me. Sharmila, who is now seen as a symbol of resistance in India, stressed that she inherited her willpower from her grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi. Tonsija Devi, who died in 2007, was a part of the 1939 Nupi Lan movementa war women waged against the export of rice by the king, Maharaja Churachand, and the British government. “My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics,” Sharmila had said,sitting on the bed in her hospital room.

Her room was full of gifts– a wind chime, presented by a filmmaker who directed a short film on her, a red and white Assamese gamcha, a gift from a photographer, and a statue of Meera Bai, given to her by another nurse, were a few among them. She said that most of her time was spent in doing yoga and writing poetry. Two years back, Zubaan had published 12 of her poems in a volume called ‘Fragrance of Peace’. Books were lying heaped on an iron cot in the room. I had spotted a Khushwant Singh, a Kahlil Gibran and a Chetan Bhagat in the pile of books. “Most of these books have been gifted to me by my lover,” she said shyly.

This was the first I had heard of a man in her life as before this, I had never heard or read any reference to her love relationship. Initially I hesitated to ask more but Sharmila was clearly keen to talk about him. “His name is Desmond Coutinho,” she  said. A Britisher based in Kerala, he got to know about Sharmila after he read ‘Burning Bright’,  a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra. “He wrote me a letter after he read the book. We have been exchanging letters since then,” she  said smilingly.

Pointing her long skinny fingers at the plants – Chinese evergreen and ponytail, surrounding her bed, she had told me,“These are my friends. I water them, and tell them about my feelings for him.”

Minutes later, she had asked me if I could call him. I was a bit confused about what to say at the moment but couldn’t refuse her. I rang up a number that she remembered by heart. As I got to talk to Coutinho, Sharmila, like a teenager in love, had asked me to tell him that she loved him.  Coutinho expressed similar emotions for her and said, “Please tell her that I want to come and see her, but I am yet to get the permission.”

In another few minutes, we hung up. And then I  suddenly noticed Sharmila, her smiling face turning pale. She immediately covered her face with a book. I noticed tears in her eyes. “I miss him. I want them to grant him permission soon,” she told me. Two years later, the permission has not yet been granted.  But Coutinho had met her in the court in March last year while Sharmila was being produced before the judiciary – an annual ritual before she gets released for a day. However, Sharmila’s supporters beat him up because they do not approve of the idea of Sharmila having a romantic relationship with a Briton.

Despite such hurdles, their love for each other hasn’t faded away. “I fully intend to return to Manipur to marry Sharmila and I will live and die for her. I do not see any other end for us,” Desmond told me in a recent conversation. He had gifted her a wooden statue of the two legendary lovers, Krishna and Radha.“He says that he’s Lord Krishna, and I am his Radha,” Sharmila said. As a young woman, she used to ride a bike and had never behaved in a “stereotyped” manner in her younger days, her mother told me. But now, she has started talking of desires that any woman of “marriageable” age would do. “I want to get married. I want to be free,” she told me. “But,” she  stressed, “after my demand is met.”

Looking at the apathy of the Indian government towards people of north-east, it is anyone’s guess that her demand will not be met anytime soon.In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured that the central government would consider their demand”sympathetically.” Following which, a five-member committee under the Chairmanship of Justice BP Jeevan Reddy was formed which stated that this draconian Act should be repealed and the same should be replaced by a more humane Act.”

But the strong Army lobby will never let it happen. According to the Army,  replacement of AFSPA or any dilution could hamper its operational capabilities to effectively deal with militancy and insurgency.

But Sharmila’s mother Shakhi Devi has not lost hope yet. Every evening, she religiously holds the radio set closer to her ears only to hear some news on AFSPA and on Sharmila’s release. When I had met Shakhi Devi, she told me that she had heard on radio that the Centre plans to amend the Act but she wanted the government to scrap it. “Only if the law is scrapped, Sharmila will stop fasting. And I will get to see my daughter eating,” the ailing mother had said sitting in the courtyard of her house.

In these 12 years, the mother and daughter have met only once. Shakhi Devi had kept herself away for she feared that she may end up eroding Sharmila’s determination if they meet. Two years ago, when Shakhi Devi was admitted to the same hospital after an asthma attack, Sharmila had visited her at midnight. Shakhi Devi told Sharmila that she would live to see her eat one day – and they hugged each other and cried.

Even as the government cares very little about Sharmila but a section of civil society has recognised her sacrifice by giving her a few awards.But Sharmila said that these awards would merely help people across the world know about her, nothing beyond that. “I accept the respect that I get from people across the world but these awards don’t serve the purpose.How do they help repeal AFSPA?.”

In fact, last month, she refused to accept the “Activist India Nation 2012” award instituted by Kerala-based Kovilan Trust  According to Singhajit, who was invited in Calcutta to receive the award on her behalf, said that Sharmila had said no to any more awards till her demand is met.

A face of strong determination, Sharmila was born on a stormy night. Singhajit says that there will be another storm the day she would be released.“It will be her rebirth that day,” he said.

Till then, we would continue to revisit her and reiterate her demand only to remind the government that the struggle of Irom Sharmila shouldn’t go waste. It is about time that the government should understand that she is representing the people of our own country who live in trauma everyday because of the high-handedness of the armed forces in the name of security.