Archive for December 2012

Two Sundays back, precisely on December 16, I had barely started my evening walk in a neighbourhood park when the street lights went off. At half past eight in any winter evening in Delhi, parks are usually deserted. As the lights went off, I realised that I am left in the company of four strangers – a middle-aged male walker and a group of three young footballers.

As I conitnued to walk, I started having premonitions. “What if this man molests me, will these young boys be of any help?” “What if these boys join him in and all four gang-rape me?” “Will people from the neighbourhood come to my rescue?” “Will I be mentally strong enough to report to the police?” .

But I didn’t let these thoughts occupy my mind for long and continued to walk for next one hour.

Next morning, the news channels were flooded with the story of a 23-year old woman who was gang raped by six men in a bus around nine in the evening. She and her accompanying male friend were brutally beaten up with iron rods, and were thrown off the bus.

So, a rape did happen in my city the previous evening when I was thinking what if I get raped. The only consolation was that it was not my turn that day. But like other women in this city, I too was reminded, all over again, that Delhi isn’t safe for us.

After staying in this city for over eight years, incidents of rape don’t really surprise me anymore. But there was something about this incident. In no time, this news travelled like wildfire.People started demanding the arrest and faster conviction of these six men. There was widespread condemnation of the incident followed by nationwide protests demanding safety of women. Meanwhile the girl continued to battle for her life in Safdarjung hospital.

I couldn’t take my mind off this incident either. It was not just a story for me but it had started having an insidious effect on me.

The fear of getting raped grew more and more in me. I started imposing restrictions on my mobility. On my sister’s advice, not only I stopped taking a bus or a metro to work but I had also stopped driving late. I had stopped my evening walks. I had stopped meeting my friends late in the evening. I had stopped going for evening shows even at a nearby cinema hall, which is barely 300 meters away from my house. I must confess that these restraints had terrorised me internally. I was slowing becoming fearful and timid. I was turning into a coward, which I never was, I never wanted to be.

I came to Delhi in 2004 and like any other woman in the city, I too had my share of unpleasant experiences.

Travelling in Delhi buses was never a pleasure. I still vividly remember my horrifying experiences of travelling in  bus route number 883. On my way back from office at ITO, I used to take any Blue Line bus from ITO to Kashmere Gate and then take another connecting Blue Line of route number 883 from Kashmere Gate to North Campus, mostly post 9.30 pm, after work. There had been instances when male passengers ogled me – the only female passenger on-board. Often in crowded buses, men have tried to touch and grope. When I had asked them to move off, some silently obeyed but many rebelled and refused to budge with no remorse. Once, I had slapped a man who tried to fondle my breasts while getting off the bus that I was about to board. He was obviously using the wrong gate to de-board.

The anxiety whether I would return home safely or not had always preoccupied my mind. Every day, I told myself, “don’t take risks”  and “don’t invite trouble.” Yes, I was always alert but never a quitter.

But I must say that I had never found suggestions like “keep a knife or a pepper spray” feasible.I am yet not convinced if one can really use them at the perpetrator at the right moment. How is it possible to push the spray button in a crowded bus?By the time, I would have tried to do it, the shameless man would have already de-boarded the bus and hopped on to the other to harass another woman or to look for his next prey.

Recently, Delhi government  decided to deploy home guards in buses from 11 pm to 4am to ensure safety of women passengers. I wonder which girl has the courage to travel in a bus post 10 or 11pm? These home guards should be deployed post 7.30-8pm because the molesters often get active soon after the sun goes down.

But buses are not the only places where women are being eve-teased in this city.Like any other girl in this harsh and hostile city,I too have encountered bikers who would ask, , “chalti hai kya?” or “Hi baby,chal na hai?.” I have always avoided any confrontation with such  cheeky men on streets.

When one night at 11.45pm, I took a rickshaw from Vishwavidyalaya station to my house in Outram Lines, I was followed by a young man who had wanted me to respond to his advances and go with him in his car.I ignored him and had asked the rickshawpuller to speed up. He followed me till the gate of my colony but didn’t dare to go any further.

For the past year and a half, I have been driving. It has certainly minimised my chances of being sexually harassed but that doesn’t mean I am absolutely safe. Often, men have hurled abuses at me because I refused to jump a red light thus blocking their way t o overtake or took a little longer to park my car keeping them waiting in queue. It is a truth universally known that men in Delhi look down upon women drivers. But what had amazed me that many women take pride in their supercilious brothers and boyfriends and husbands who ridicule women drivers by saying, “ladkiyon ko gaadi nahin chalana chahiye”(girls should not drive), “yeh zaroor ladki chala rahi hai” and “yeh zaroor ladki ne park kiya hai. (taunting women for their ‘poor’ driving and parking skills).” I am sure such comments are not made at male drivers, no matter how bad or reckless they are.

But I must say that these unpleasant experiences have made me a fighter. They have made me learn how to survive in this city. Yet, the fear of getting raped hasn’t really gone off my mind.

But this fear is not really Delhi-centric. In fact, there have been times when I had felt intimidated and threatened by autowallahs and taxi drivers in Calcutta. Whenever I had any argument with them over issues of refusal or over-charging, I had feared that they would go violent, drag me into the taxi or auto and rape me just to show how powerful they are.

But the question is not about Delhi or Calcutta. As a woman, I don’t I feel safe anywhere in my own country.

For my work, I often travel to the obscure places of the country. Three years back, when I was in Bastar, I had to travel from Dantewada town to Sukma as a pillion rider with a local. It was a 10-hour journey both ways through the dense jungles. As the evening inched closer, I feared that the security forces especially the CRPF known to harass tribal women of the Maoist belt may be on the prowl. But thankfully, nothing unfortunate had happened and I came back to Dantewada town safely.

After Bastar, I have travelled to many other far flung areas like Churachandpur in Manipur, Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, Narayanpatna in Odisha, Kokrajhar in Assam  etc for reporting. But I have never travelled alone to these places. What has travelled with me is my fear – my fear of getting raped.

But something changed this Saturday morning, December 29. At 4.30 am, I was informed by a reporter friend that the 23-year- old- girl had passed away .Government had claimed that they had shifted her to a Singapore hospital for better treatment. Not that any of us was expecting any miracle but the news of her death forced me to pause and introspect my own apprehensions related to rape.

It is not rape that caused her death. She died because her attackers had damaged her intestines. If she would have recovered from her physical injuries, I strongly believe, she would have lived a normal life (or at least, would have tried to do so despite the society victimising her). She would have sent a strong message to those six men who wanted to “teach her a lesson”. She would have emerged out to be a fighter. She would have certainly proved BJP leader Sushma Swaraj wrong, who said rape victims are no less than “zinda laash”(living dead).

On Saturday, I also realised that my self-imposed curfew won’t really save me from any evil. Anything unexpected can happen anytime .A bomb blast can maim me. I may be detected with any terminal disease. Will the trauma or pain in these cases be any less than rape? Why can’t I treat rape just as a contusion, which has to heal with time? I understood, the healing would be faster if I turn all the more stronger mentally.

Of course, rape is one of the most heinous crimes but why should I believe rape is the end of life? Even though I strongly believe that rapists should get the harshest punishment(I consider imprisonment for entire life, and not 14 years, is the most harsh punishment. I don’t think death penalty will act as a deterrent), but why would I kill my peace of mind because there are perverts on the prowl? The fight against the rapist would be fearless for a survivor if she is mentally strong enough to think positive and move on.

So before I call for a change in the patriarchal mindset of men, who rape women because they think that it is the best way to  teach them a lesson or overpower them, I need to change my own thinking. I need to break free from the shackles of this constant fear of getting raped.

The process has slowly begun.I am not scared to drive late anymore. I would soon go for an evening show in the nearby theatre.  I have resumed my evening walks too. I, no more, live with the fear that it could be my turn today.

(You can mail your feedback at sonia_26)

The plastic roof of Anwara Begum’s shanty in Kalindi Kunj is scant protection against the bitter cold of Delhi. But Begum may not be able to retain even this 8ft by 6ft hut for long. She is one of the thousands of Rohingyas who have fled the Arakan area of western Myanmar over the past two years fearing atrocities by the state and have come to India seeking refuge.

“First, the police shooed us away from a Vasant Kunj mosque and then from Okhla. We may be asked to leave this place too anytime,” says Begum, who lives with her husband and five children in this hut.

Thirty kilometres away in north Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tila, Penba Dolma, a Tibetan, lives in a two-roomed house. Her two children go to a nearby Tibetan school and her husband runs a shop.

“Even though we are hopeful that we would go back to our country one day, India has become a second home now,” says Dolma.

Both Begum and Dolma are refugees in India. But the two lead very different lives. Begum feels like an alien here while Dolma has a sense of belonging to India. This is because India doesn’t treat its refugees alike as it does not have a standardised law for them.

India is home to over 4.5 lakh refugees from various countries, including Tibet, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. But refugees from different countries are treated differently here. For example, schools are set up for Tibetans and they have been offered acres of agricultural land in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala. Similarly, designated camps have been set up in Tamil Nadu for the Sri Lankan refugees. Bhutanese and Nepalese live in India under friendship treaties. Some refugees even get work permits. But refugees from other countries don’t enjoy these privileges.

“The status of refugees in India is governed by political discretion rather than any codified model of conduct. A law on refugees is an urgent need to ensure that uniform treatment is given to all,” says Delhi-based lawyer Aarthi Rajan, who deals with refugee-related cases.

Not only does India not have a special refugee law, it is not even a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, which was later amended to the 1967 Refugee Protocol. According to it, a refugee is a person who has left his or her own country because of fear of persecution for race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. Under the Convention, refugees enjoy rights pertaining to their movement, jobs, housing, public education and social security in the country of their refuge.

Experts say that India’s treatment of refugees is discretionary because it is not a signatory to this Convention. But the government points out that there is little to be gained by ratifying it. “Except for Afghanistan, none of the other south Asian countries is a signatory to it, so it doesn’t make sense for India to ratify the Convention,” says a senior ministry of external affairs (MEA) official.

At present, refugees, except for those from Tibet and Sri Lanka, register themselves as asylum seekers with the UN refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often confused. An asylum seeker is one who claims to be a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. But we conduct their interviews and grant them refugee status over a period of nine months,” says Nayana Bose, associate external relations officer, UNHCR.

But interestingly, India does not recognise the UNHCR’s grant of refugee status. This often leads to confusion among refugees.

An attempt was once made to frame a holistic law related to refugees. Former Chief Justice of India, P.N. Bhagwati, had drafted a model refugee law, based on which the Refugees and Asylum Seekers Protection Bill was framed in 2006. But the bill was never tabled in Parliament. According to security forces it gave too broad a definition of the term “refugee”.

The bill stated that the determination of an application for asylum should not be limited to fear of persecution by the government alone. The asylum seekers may also be victims of a non-government group that makes it untenable for them to live in their native country.

Security forces argued that this would pose a danger to national security as India shares porous borders with neighbouring countries. “This provision would have allowed illegal migrants to come to India under the garb of a refugee,” says a Border Security Force official.

A senior MEA official echoes a similar concern. “Since there is no clear differentiation between a refugee and an illegal migrant either in the convention or the model law, this would aggravate our problems of illegal immigration and insurgency,” says Rohita Mishra, under secretary, United Nations Economic Social Division, MEA.

Apart from the danger of illegal migrants posing as refugees, there have also been some instances of refugees being tried as illegal migrants. Recently, a Rohingya family, which was trying to make its way to the UNHCR office in Delhi, was arrested by the police. All the family members were tried and convicted under the Foreigners Act, 1946, for being illegal immigrants.

“Currently, refugees are being dealt with under the Foreigners Act, but this law does not deal with the term ‘refugee’. Here, the term ‘foreigner’ is used to cover aliens temporarily or permanently residing in the country. That’s the reason why India should formulate a law with a clear definition of a refu-gee to ensure that no refugee is apprehended as an illegal migrant,” says advocate Shubhodeep Roy, who has worked on cases related to refugees.

Rajan suggests that fugitives or persons fleeing from criminal prosecution for non-political reasons should be kept out of the ambit of the definition of refugee. The law should also have the provision for non-refoulement, “which means that a refugee cannot be sent back to the place from which he has fled so long as the compelling circumstances persist,” she adds.

Activists are also pushing for a law that will deal with harassment of refugees. “Cops often extort money from refugees. At times, even our children are subjected to abuse. We want a humane law that would safeguard our interests,” says Suraiya Ebadi, a refugee from Afghanistan.

The UNHCR too has been urging India to come up with a national law. “Building upon what is already being done for refugees in India, a national legal framework will formalise India’s tradition of hospitality and generosity towards refugees,” says Bose.

 Until that happens, people like Ebadi and Begum will continue to live in fear and insecurity.

(The Telegraph, December 26, 2012)Image.

Neha Taneja does not want to step out of her house. For almost a week, the 21-year-old Delhi student has stayed home, not willing to go to a pub or a movie. “I fear that if I go out, it will be my turn to get raped,” she says.

 Taneja’s concerns are real. Last Sunday’s incident of a brutal rape and assault have instilled a sense of fear in the minds of Delhi women. Six men raped a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus, beat her and her male friend with iron rods, and then threw them off the bus.

Spread over 1,482 square kilometres, Delhi — famous for its historical monuments, broad roads and butter chicken — is now being seen as a city that has no place for women. Not surprisingly, the media have started calling it the rape capital of India.

Statistics corroborate the fact that Delhi is unsafe for women. This year so far, 661 rape cases were reported in the city, according to National Crime Records Bureau figures. Last year, there were 572 reported rape cases — far higher than such incidents in Mumbai (221), Bangalore (97), Chennai (76) and Calcutta (46). According to government data, rapes per lakh population are higher in Delhi than in any of the metros. Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh has the highest rate (7.3) in the country, but experts say because the city is a small town with a smaller population than Delhi’s, the number of rapes in Delhi far exceeds those in the MP town.

“There has been a 20 per cent rise in the number of complaints related to sexual assault that we have received over the past two years,” says Nilanju Dutta, manager, violence intervention team, Jagori, a Delhi-based women’s organisation.

What makes Delhi so unsafe?

A combination of factors, say experts — the ever-expanding city has low police vigil and an ever growing migrant population. “The city is being stretched from every corner. It is not possible to set up police stations near every new colony,” says a senior Delhi police official.

The porous borders that the city shares with states such as Haryana and Uttar Pradesh also make it unsafe. “Many crimes are committed by migrant drivers coming from neighbouring states who get drunk and harass women,” says the police official.

But the blame cannot be blindly put on migrant workers because the city’s rich have a criminal record too. “A group of neo-rich has come up in the city. They have money but little education. Often, being intimidated by the English-speaking crowd, they pick up fights in pubs and nightclubs and vent their frustration by sexually assaulting women,” says the officer. And there are enough cases of rapes being committed by the powerful and affluent.

The city — with its vast fleet of vehicles (7.2 million, exceeding the combined vehicle population of Chennai, Calcutta, Lucknow and Mumbai) — is difficult to manage. Rapes are often conducted in moving vehicles.  In 2005, a student from Mizoram was gang-raped in a moving car in Dhaula Kuan and also in 2010, a 30-year old BPO employee from the north-east.was also gang-raped in a moving car. “But it is not always possible to keep a check on every vehicle,” says Dharmendra Kumar, commissioner, Special Commissioner of Police (Law and Order).

 Home to over 1.67 crore people, the city has also come up over the years as the workplace of diverse communities. In that sense, it’s unlike other cities which invoke a sense of regional pride. “There are many cities living together in Delhi without integrating with one another,” says social commentator Santosh Desai. “There is no sense of belonging. It is a users’ city where people come only for work opportunities with a strong sense of detachment,” feels Desai.

This detachment is often reflected on the streets, says criminal psychiatrist Rajat Mitra. “Women fight a lonely battle against harassment because Delhiites are mostly mute spectators,” he says.

The city has long stretches of lonely roads where the security cover is not adequate. One policeman is in charge of the security of 400 citizens and one public call response (PCR) van handles law and order over a 10-kilometre stretch.

“Further, the body language of policemen doesn’t generate confidence in women. The police also often refuse to lodge complaints of sexual assault,” says National Commission for Women chairperson Mamata Sharma.

There are others who believe the issue goes beyond the police. They say, the problem lies with the people of the city.

“The problem is with the patriarchal mindset of the people of north India. Also, traditionally, they lack sense of civility. They need to change their attitude towards women,” feels former additional commissioner of police Gautam Kaul.

Even though Kaul says that he is not stereotyping men of north India but he adds, “North Indian men don’t want women to be on par with them.Also, they cannot take rejection from women.”

In fact, in the recent rape case too, the accused driver Ram Singh raped the girl to teach her a lesson because she protested when Singh taunted her for being out so late with her male friend.

“Some men think that women are their property. They think they are entitled to sex and thereby control female sexuality at their will,” adds Supreme Court advocate Aarthi Rajan.

Some say that north Indian men are habituated to see docile women at home and therefore they expect similar behaviour from women on roads. “Women in north Indian households traditionally don’t protest. So men get aggressive and revengeful when a woman protests,” thinks Calcutta-based psychiatrist Dr Jai Ranjan Ram. He adds, “This is not a situation in a city like Calcutta or Mumbai.”

But the cops also say that these incidents get media coverage because they are occurring in the country’s capital. “Incidents like these happen in every city,” says the senior police official.

Kumar adds that Delhi’s track record is better than that of other cities. “The incidence of rape per lakh population is 52.8 in London and 10.6 in New York whereas it is 4.07 in Delhi.” Others, however, point out that rape has a wider definition in the West, where cases are also reported more often and taken more seriously.

But Kaul stresses that such incidents can be curbed if the law and order is improved. “Our past experience says that those who go scot free by doing petty crimes often get involved in ghastly acts like rape. The accused in this case too had a criminal background,” says Kaul.

Delhi is a city where people from across the country converge. But with increasing lack of security, not many would repeat the words made memorable by the 19th century poet Zauq: “Who could bear to leave behind the alleys of Delhi.” Who, a 21st century poet would write, would want to walk down dark alleys?

Despite a Supreme Court order questioning its efficacy, the investigation of rape cases often involves a clinical test that is humiliating for the victim. It is time to abolish the practice.

In August this year 21-year-old Malati Jha (name changed) was coming back home from her tutorial classes when she was allegedly raped by her neighbour in a dark bylane of east Delhi. A day later, she lodged a complaint with the police. She was taken for a medical examination that involved the per vagina (PV) or the two finger test. Though she twitched in pain, she didn’t have any option but to go through it.

“The doctor inserted her two fingers into my vagina. She said that this test was necessary to ascertain if I was raped. I wanted it to be over soon,” recalls Jha, who feels the test was almost as humiliating as the rape.

According to doctors, this medical test is done to check the level of vaginal laxity that determines if the victim is “habituated to sexual intercourse”.

But legal experts call this test “illegal” as the Supreme Court in 2003 had labelled it “hypothetical” and “opinionative”. Again, in 2010 Delhi’s additional sessions judge Kamini Lau had said that the test “traumatises the survivor and gives the defence… a stick with which to intimidate and demoralise her in court.”

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 24,206 rape cases were registered across the country in 2011. If the ongoing trend of medical examination is anything to go by, every rape victim is subjected to this test.

But there has been widespread condemnation of this practice. In 2010, a report titled ‘Dignity on Trial: India’s Need for Sound Standards for Conducting and Interpreting Forensic Examination of Rape Survivors’ released by international human rights group Human Rights Watch stated that defence counsel use the findings of the finger test “to shake the morale of survivors and challenge or discredit their testimony. In some cases, defence counsel even use the findings to claim that sexual intercourse was consensual.”

Legal experts dealing with cases of rape tend to agree with that. “The test violates the fundamental right to privacy of the victim,” says criminal lawyer K.T.S. Tulsi. He adds, “Plus, the act of determining if the victim is habituated to sexual intercourse or not is itself degrading for a woman. In a way, this means that rape of a woman habituated to sexual intercourse is justified. It questions the moral character and dignity of a woman and increases the prejudice which exists against a survivor.”

Activists say that the World Health Organization too stresses that the health and welfare of a survivor of sexual violence is “the overriding priority” and that forensic services should not take precedence over it. “It also says forensic examinations should be minimally invasive and that a purely clinical procedure such as the bimanual examination (which also involves the insertion of two fingers into the vagina) is rarely medically necessary after sexual assault,” says Raj Mangal, vice-president, programme, Pratidhi, a crisis intervention centre in Delhi.

But the police and government hospitals have turned a deaf ear to such observations. In fact, the forensic template that the police follow in rape cases asks the examining doctor to give an opinion on whether or not the hymen is intact. “And the finger test is necessary to see if the hymen is ruptured,” says a gynaecologist at Delhi’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital, who conducts the test on rape victims.

But forensic experts feel that the examination of the position of the hymen is of little consequence. “The hymen is a flexible membrane that partly covers the vaginal opening. The popular notion that there was no rape if the hymen is not ‘torn’ is wrong. At the same time, a hymen can have an old tear and its orifice may differ in size for reasons that are unrelated to sex. The assumption that a woman’s hymen can only be torn as a result of sexual intercourse is absolutely baseless,” says Dr Sudhir Gupta, associate professor, department of forensic medicine and toxicology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

He also adds that examination of the external injury of the victim, collection of vaginal swab, pubic hair and blood samples, are enough to prove if the complainant has been raped.

The government too seems to feel that the PV test should be done away with. Last year the Union ministry of health and family welfare made it optional. “We had stated that the PV test would be conducted only ‘if medically indicated’ and with the ‘consent of the victim’,” says a senior ministry official.

But victims say that they are not informed about the test beforehand. “The doctor asked if I would like to go for a medical test. I gave my consent but she did not specifically mention that the finger test is also a part of the medical test,” reveals Jha.

Several non-government organisations that act as crisis intervention centres in rape cases say that they are trying to make the medical examination more victim-friendly. For example, the Mumbai-based Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (Cehat), in consultation with doctors from across the country, has developed a rape examination protocol that leaves out the question on hymen rupture. But so far only three hospitals in the city have adopted it.

“Our proforma was overlooked. The proforma that is followed has scope for comments on the past sexual history of the victim,” says Padma Deosthali, co-ordinator, Cehat.

Legal experts also say that the government’s failure to comply with the Supreme Court order amounts to contempt of court. “A victim has every right to go to the court challenging the test. The court can always hold the medico-legal team guilty. State police and doctors should understand that apex court orders are not mere paper tigers,” says Tulsi.

He feels that India should have a rape shield law similar to the US which limits a defendant’s ability to cross-examine rape complainants about their past sexual behaviour. “I feel that a rape shield law would serve legitimate public interest in encouraging rape victims to come forward and prosecute the crime,” says Tulsi.

Pending that, at least the two finger test used to investigate rape cases ought to be dispensed with, argue activists. As Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, says, “Police, doctors and prosecutors — all should work together to stop the test from being administered. It should be a joint effort to standardise evidence collection to protect the rights of survivors.”

The Telegraph. December 12, 2012.

Actors and politicians aren’t quite known for their sense of time. So I am taken aback when actor-turned-politician Shatrughan Sinha starts apologising to me. He’s not late — I am early. But he is upset that I have had to wait.

The man oozes charm — all six feet, two inches of him, and clad as he is now in a grey shirt with a black jacket and a pair of black trousers. When I first met him in 2003, he was the Union minister of shipping and was great for a photo-op, but had little to say. Nine years later, he seems to have matured as a politician.

Sinha admits it too: the biggest lesson that he has learnt over these years, he says, is “speak only as much as required”.

And he truly means it. Otherwise candid, Sinha is today unusually reticent about the recent controversies that he has been drawn into.

Last week, he openly endorsed senior lawyer and BJP leader Ram Jethmalani who criticised BJP for questioning the appointment of new CBI director Ranjit Sinha.BJP has already sent a show cause notice to Jethmalani on this and he could be expelled too. There were heavy speculations that Sinha would meet the same fate too.

Is he worried about this, I ask him. “Are they still talking about it,” he retorts.

The political grapevine has it that Sinha’s proximity to BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley is delaying his suspension. But he dispels the rumours. “I always stand against injustice. But at the same time, I know that I have never crossed the line ofmaryada (decorum),” he says, fiddling idly with his red silk scarf.

Sinha, clearly, has decided that he is going to watch his words. Last month, he was among those who had demanded the ouster of party president Nitin Gadkari. Today he calls him a “dear friend”. I prod him a bit, and he says, “I am an honest politician and for me, no one is above the party and the nation.”

It’s this badge of honesty that he flaunts as he talks about his stint in BJP. Sinha is known to speak with courage and conviction “These are rare qualities in politics these days” boasts Sinha.

Hailing from Kadam Kuan in Patna, Sinha was inspired by the socialist leader Jayprakash Narayan. He came into politics at the peak of his film career.

“I intended to improve the lives of people and not to enjoy the unlimited glamour attached to power,” says Sinha whose oratorical prowess has contributed to his political success to a great extent.

Sixty-seven-year old Sinha, who was the Rajya Sabha member for two consecutive terms – 1996 and 2002, joined BJP in mid-80s, when the party was in opposition. “I always thought that the party will go a long way,” says the Lok Sabha member and former minister of health.

What does he think of the party now that it is being torn apart by corruption charges and dissidence? “It is just a phase that will pass. I see it as a form of churning.”

I try to provoke him, but he is now quite an astute politician. “Khamosh (silence),” he orders jokingly, recalling a popular expression from his 1974 film Badla.

But after a brief pause, he carries on, stressing that he has enormous respect for former party president L.K. Advani, whom he calls his political “guru”. Recently in Patna, he had announced that Advani would be the best candidate for the Prime Minister’s post. Does that mean he rejects the candidature of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi?

His answer is cryptic. “If Deve Gowda, who was not a popular leader, could be PM, then why not Narendra Modi? Nitish Kumar is also a good candidate as he is doing great work for his state. But then everything is decided by numbers. Advaniji may have the numbers,” Sinha says.

His association with Advani is an old one. It was Advani who coaxed him to fight a 1992 by-election against former superstar Rajesh Khanna after Advani had vacated his New Delhi constituency seat. But Sinha lost.

“Fighting the by-election was the biggest political blunder of my career, but then I couldn’t have said ‘no’ to Advani ji,” he says.

But does he regret the fact that his relationship with Khanna soured after the election? “He didn’t speak to me for years till I apologised to him,” says Sinha, who played second fiddle to Khanna in the 1982 film Dil-e-Nadaan.

Sinha’s career, actually, took off on second leads. The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate got his first break in Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari in 1970. But the film that released first was Mohan Sehgal’s Sajan. Subsequently, his role as Chhainu, a rough-edged street don, in Gulzar’s Mere Apne, won him critical acclaim. “People thought that I was a villain with a heart,” he chuckles.

But the scar-faced newcomer tasted his major success in Subhash Ghai’s thrillerKalicharan in 1976 — which went on to establish him as hero in successive Bollywood films.

But one movie that he is really fond of is ‘Kalka’ that was based on the plight of Dhanbad’s coal mine labourers. “Nobody was willing to shoot in Dhanbad because of the fear of coal mafias in erstwhile Bihar,” shares Sinha, who is glad to know that I belong to Dhanbad.

Sinha was one of the earliest actors from Bihar to make it big in Bollywood. He became popular as ‘Bihari Babu’ in the film industry. His physique, his cock-a-hoop attitude, his baritone and his style of dialogue delivery made him look grand on screen. He added a bit of colour to his dialogues by weaving in rustic expressions like “ghonchu” and “chapar ganju” into them.

As he was attaining stardom, a man called Amitabh Bachchan was making his presence felt. The two were initially close, and acted together in Bombay to Goa in 1972.

“We even dated together; sometimes the same girl,” he says with a smile.

But their relationship turned bitter over the years. “Some people had told me that Bachchan didn’t want me as his co-star,” says Sinha. The two, however, patched up in July this year after Sinha underwent a bypass surgery. “It was really nice of him to come and see me in the hospital,” says Sinha, who has lost some nine kilos in the past two months.

His journey from Patna to Mumbai and now Delhi is the stuff dreams are made of. His educationist father and homemaker mother pampered him, even though Sinha — the youngest of four brothers, Ram, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughan — was exceptionally naughty. A good mimic since childhood, he had a good sense of humour which made him popular. “But my father always complained because I wasn’t interested in studies,” he says.

He joined the Patna Science College, but soon dropped out to go to Calcutta, where he sat for his FTII entrance examination. “Calcutta is special because this is where I started my journey into films,” Sinha says. “I also love muri ghantor dal and begun bhaja.”

He reconnected with Bengal in 1987 when he was acting in Gautam Ghose’s Antarjali Jatra. He remembers the first day of shoot, “I had to cut my side locks and appear bare-chested. I was scared to do all this because I was a commercial hero. So I just left.”

But Ghose dissuaded him from doing so. “He told me, Tumi karte parbe (you will be able to do it),” says Sinha, speaking Bengali with ease. The role went on to win him critical acclaim.

But way back in 1965, when left his home to join FTII, Sinha had no idea what was in store for him. He vividly remembers his train journey from Patna to Pune. “I was crying because I’d parted from my family for the first time. But my mood lifted when I saw this extremely beautiful girl who was my co-passenger. While she was sleeping, I thought I’d touch her and see if she was real,” he says with a chuckle.

He befriended Poonam Chandiranami — who went on to become Miss India in 1968, a Hindi film actress, and then Mrs Sinha. “It was so filmy,” he laughs.

But Bollywood stars are never without their share of controversies. There was a time when cinema magazines whispered about his relationship with another actress, Reena Roy (who later married Pakistani cricketer Mohsin Khan).

“Reena is a very dear friend. I am a grown up man now, I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.

I take the liberty to ask him if he is amused when people mention the resemblance between Roy and his actress daughter Sonakshi. “It is stupid. Even when Dimple Kapadia came into films, many said she looked like Nargis. Sonakshi has traditional looks, so people compare her with many yesteryear heroines,” he says.

Though proud of Sonakshi’s success in films such as Dabangg and Rowdy Rathore, Sinha stresses that his twin sons — Luv, whose debut film Sadiyaan flopped in 2010, and Kush, an assistant director — are also promising. “Luv is to re-launch his acting career and Kush is ready for direction.”

And Sinha is getting ready for a session with his physiotherapist. The illness has taken a toll on him, and his worried wife has cajoled him into wearing a blue sapphire ring for good health. “Tandurust hoon. Chust hone mein thora time lagega (I am fit but I will take some time to be super-active),” he says.

He needs to be as chust as he can: to fight within the party and for it.

(The Telegraph, December 2, 2012)