Archive for February 2013

Manipuris who left the conflict-hit state for education and employment are returning home to set up businesses.
Homeward bound: Naoba Thangjam
Pic: Sonia Sarkar

Vikramjit Sharma is striking a business deal worth several lakhs over the phone. Sitting in his office in Moirangkhom Loklaobung in west Imphal, the 32-year-old co-owner of a software firm, GI Services, is also slowly finding his feet in a state that he left eight years ago.

“I had offers to set up software firms in Pune or Bangalore but I refused. I wanted to start something in Manipur,” says Sharma, who studied and worked in Bangalore before returning to Manipur two years ago.

Naoba Thangjam is expanding his business. The 25-year-old hotel management graduate left Manipur when he was eight but returned in 2009 to set up the state’s first three-star hotel in Imphal. The Classic is today a landmark in the city, and Thangjam is now planning a four-star hotel.

Kundo Yumnam (left) and Korou Khundrakpam

“I want to contribute to the growth of Manipur,” he stresses.

Thangjam and Sharma are among Manipuris who left the conflict-hit state for education and employment, but are now exploring business opportunities in their homeland. Not surprisingly, software firms, event management, advertising and graphic designing companies, retail chains and hotels have started coming up in Imphal Valley in the past three years.

“Earlier, we had just two industries — agro-based and handloom. But now other sectors have developed with young Manipuris exploring possibilities,” says Th. Dhabali Singh, president, Manipur Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

When they left Manipur, the state was in the throes of conflict. Four decades of insurgency had crippled businesses. Educational institutions too were often shut down for long periods.

“Children grew up witnessing bomb blasts, police encounters and blockades. Often, frustration pushed young Manipuris towards drugs. Parents wanted their children to move out so that they could lead a normal life,” says Professor S. Mangi Singh, political science, Manipur University.

Vikash Lourembam

Insurgency and blockades are still a part of Manipuri life, but many are keen to do their bit. “It’s about time we made things move,” says 28-year-old Harjeet Sinam, managing director, Kok Sam Lai Solutions, a software firm. Sinam studied computer science at Nagpur University and worked in Bangalore before he decided to return.

In a conversation over coffee at Imphal’s only coffee shop, the newly opened Rita Café, 28-year-old graphic designer Korou Kundrakpam stresses that troubled Manipur is drawing back its lost youth. Kundrakpam, who studied art and lived in Delhi for 16 years, returned because he wanted to experience the life he had turned his back on. “I thought I should face reality instead of running away from it,” says Kundrakpam, who runs Warakki Ways, which makes logos, designs and posters for companies.

The trigger for him was the 121-day economic blockade of 2011. Kundrakpam was then preparing to leave for Singapore for a course in painting but the crisis that Manipuris faced touched his heart. He decided not to go for the course and start a business in Imphal instead. With a capital investment of Rs 1 lakh, which he had saved up by selling his own paintings in Delhi, he started the graphic designing company.

He was joined by his friend Kundo Yumnam, a 30-year-old National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate, who too had lived away for 12 years. “I too wanted to come back but had no idea when and how to make a beginning. Then the two of us took the plunge together,” he says, adding that the company bags projects worth at least Rs 70,000 every month.

For some, the desire to return home followed the exodus of Northeasterners from the southern states in the aftermath of Assam’s ethnic violence last summer. Indira (name changed), who worked at a call centre in Bangalore, returned to Manipur in August and never went back.

“That was when I realised that no place in the world is as safe as your own motherland. Even if Manipur is riddled with conflict and corruption, it’s ours,” says Indira, who has now set up a retail store with her father.

The return of young entrepreneurs is slowly changing the face of Imphal. Working women are out on their scooties till 8.30pm, which was rare some years ago. People throng the city’s new departmental store for their groceries. Young men and women hang around in the two new restaurants that have come up in the past year.

Some other changes too are visible. Sixty private schools have come up in and around Imphal in the past two years. Manipur’s literacy rate, at 79.85 per cent, grew by 10 per cent during the past decade. And Manipuris hope that the young entrepreneurs will create jobs for the people, reducing the state’s current jobless figure of 7 lakh.

Big buzz: Imphal’s only departmental store, Vishal Mega Mart

“Most of my 180 employees have come back to Manipur after working in various places in India and even abroad. They are ready to work at lower salaries because they want to work here,” Thangjam says.

Initiatives are also being taken to develop Manipur as a tourist destination. The Manipur Tourism Forum, set up by young Manipuris, has been promoting trekking on the Leimaton range, boating in Lake Loktak, and white water rafting. In 2011-2012, 1,000 foreign tourists visited the state.

After Guwahati, we want Imphal to be on the commercial map of the Northeast,” says Vikash Lourembam, co-owner of GI Services, who worked in a healthcare company in California for four years.

But opening businesses in a state hit by corruption and insurgency is not easy. The entrepreneurs complain of a lack of basic infrastructure such as uninterrupted electricity and roads. “We had planned to start a call centre but couldn’t do so because of poor electricity supply,” says Joyremba Haobam, managing director, CubeTen, a software development firm, who also set up Imphal’s first NIIT in 2012.

Insurgents extorting money are another impediment. A young retailer in Imphal says militants called up and asked for money barely four days after the shop’s inauguration. “I had to negotiate with them, saying that I had to first run the shop well,” says this postgraduate in retail management.

Security forces also harass the entrepreneurs. “We are frisked while driving back home late night after work. Even if we want to make Imphal look like any other city, the forces repeatedly remind us that we live in a conflict state,” rues Roshan Samom, who runs the event management group Spotless Event, which organises music shows in Imphal.

Despite all this, Manipuris continue to dream. “We plan to get into real estate. Talks are on to build a complex that would house a discotheque, shopping malls and an IT park,” says Lourembam. “We want to sell dreams to the people of Manipur who never dared to dream before.”

Sharma’s dream is to be able to gift his one-year-old daughter a normal life in the city. “I will not let her run away as I did,” he says.

Asif Dar juggles his drum sticks listlessly. The 19-year-old drummer, confined to his Srinagar house for a week now, is not allowed to play his drums. “My parents are scared that people might just attack us,” Dar says.

Across the city, there is a sense of hidden gloom. A casual conversation with a group of teenagers over coffee comes to a standstill the moment you mention the word music. Young men and women who once strummed the guitar and sang songs of a new generation shy away from being called musicians.

Last week, the head of the Muslim clergy in Kashmir, Grand Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmed, issued a diktat against Kashmir’s sole all-girl Sufi rock band, Pragaash, asking it not to perform in public. After he called their music un-Islamic, the three band members said they would not play again. One has left for Jammu, and the other two are holed up in their houses in Srinagar, refusing now to talk to the media, or even to friends.

The development has created little ripples across Kashmir. The 40 home-grown bands that have been playing in and around the Valley have all hung up their instruments. Some are scared of fundamentalist backlash, others say they want to voice their support to Pragaash.

Kashmir is again in the throes of a conflict. This time, though, it’s not an armed strife that portends trouble, but a cultural one. If a great many youngsters of the previous generation took to the gun to express their angst, Gen X has found its voice through music. And efforts are being made — by some sections of fundamentalists — to stifle that voice.

“It is unfortunate that they have made music the casualty. They are creating an issue out of nothing,” says 22-year-old Adnan Mattoo, guitarist-cum-vocalist of Blood Rockz, Kashmir’s first Sufi rock band.

Mattoo, who runs his own music institute Band Inn in Srinagar, is also the mentor of Pragaash and many other rock bands in Kashmir. “It is sad that our own people are harassing us,” he says.

These youngsters represent a Kashmir that has been gaining ground over the last few years. Men and women roam freely on the streets today, sit in cafes and parks and shop in malls. Young girls are dressed in salwar kameezes and headscarves, and in jeans and T-shirts as well. Women ride a scooty and drive a car with ease. And they also offer their Friday prayers without a miss.

But there is another face of Kashmir — and that’s the one that frowns at all that the youth represents. “The tragedy is that some people are too much into moral policing in Kashmir. They politicise issues for personal publicity,” says Bashir Ahmad Dabla, professor, department of sociology, Kashmir University.

That’s not new in the Valley. Two years ago, a group of fundamentalists stopped Saim Bhat — who once sang for the band Vibrations and is now a Bollywood singer — from performing in Srinagar. Last year, separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani called a fashion show that a private college had organised an “attack on Kashmir’s culture”. A few years ago, Asiya Andrabi, head of the separatist Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith), said women should not sit in a park with men.

“We want our youth to know Sharia law and behave accordingly. This is ideal for them,” stresses Andrabi, who is among those who supported Bashiruddin’s statement on the rock band.

Culture has always been a bone of contention in troubled Kashmir. During its two decades of insurgency, artistes were often targeted, with radical militants treating cultural activity as violations of Islamic teachings.

Despite the constraints, today’s youth has openly embraced various forms of music, especially Western genres. The growing number of bands is a case in point. In 2005, Kashmir had two known bands — Mattoo’s Blood Rockz and Valley Youth X-pressions, headed by guitarist Ashraf Khan. Over the years, at least 38 other bands have come up — including Valley Boys, Tales of Blood, Dying Breed, Curse and The Sueen.

From punk and hard rock to progressive and metal, these bands experiment with a variety of genres. “Our idea is to do something different, something that Kashmir has not seen before,” says Mattoo, who has performed in several cities in India.

The number of rappers too is growing. MC Kash, MC Youngblood and Haze Kay are some who have made a name for themselves in the Valley. Most of these young musicians sing songs that relate to conflict. Take, for example, MC Kash’s I protest. It talks about violence on Kashmiris by the army. Or take MC Youngblood’s 16 Bars from Resistance — a hit song that speaks of freedom.

“But now I think we should also start writing songs against the fundamentalists in our state,” says Basit Fazli, the 19-year-old vocalist of the band Tales of Blood.

After years of strife, music burst into the Valley with the advent of satellite television, and the popularity of music channels such as Channel V and MTV. The channels were banned by militants in early 2000, but the Internet arrived, bringing with it open and easy access to the music of the world.

“When we got the Internet in 2006, we started watching Western bands on YouTube and slowly picked up their style,” says Abid Ali, a commerce graduate who sports what’s called a Korean hairstyle.

The fads of the youth in the West, clearly, are a part of the young Kashmiri’s life. Guitarist Ashraf Khan pierced his ears soon after he started his band. Members carefully keep their torn jeans — a sign of rebellion — in their wardrobe for their performances.

The Western music trend has been supported by event management companies that have come up in the Valley. “Traditional artistes never had to struggle to make a mark in society because Kashmiris were aware of their form of art,” says Mir Ajaz Ahmad, managing director of Kashmir Movie Tone, an event management company. “But these young men and women are trying something different. It is the responsibility of society to support them,” feels Ahmad, who has been organising shows for companies, giving a platform to young performers. Some of his music shows are also held in parks, shopping malls and college campuses.

The company has been organising contests too. Band Wars and Battle of Bands have been showcasing local talent since 2009. Pragaash, in fact, marked its debut in the Battle of Bands concert last December. And the audience applauded the performance of its three members — Aneeka Khalid, Farah Deeba and Noma Nazir, all Class X students of Srinagar.

“They were rocking that night. It was for the first time that Kashmir saw such promising young women rock singers,” says a music expert associated with the event.

But surviving solely on music is not yet feasible in the Valley. There are no jamming venues, so bands mostly rehearse at members’ homes. With only a few recording studios, most bands have to travel to Jammu or Delhi to record their music. Unlike in other cities, there are not enough performing arenas either.

Bands seldom earn more than Rs 2,000 for a performance. Getting sponsors for music shows is not easy. “The highest that we could collect was a sum of Rs 10,000,” says Khan, who also ran a dance academy for training children in contemporary Bollywood and Salsa moves, which he had to close because of a lack of funds.

But the artistes agree that fighting societal resistance is tougher than battling financial constraints. “People are always up in arms against others. It is not an easy place to live in,” says a young female singer, who refuses to be named.

What upsets the young is that the threat is not from old fundamentalists such as Bashiruddin Ahmed alone — even a section of their contemporaries is attacking them. Three young men were recently arrested for sending obscene messages to Pragaash on Facebook.

Rapper Gazanfar, 22, narrates an incident when fundamentalists hounded him on Facebook for composing the opening lines of one of his English love songs in Kashmiri. “Some Kashmiris ran almost a hate campaign against me. They wanted me to remove the Kashmiri line from my song but I didn’t give in,” says Gazanfar, who has just released an album called Resurrection.

But Kashmiris try not to despair. “These extremists will soon know that there is no place for them in Kashmir,” says Professor Dabla.

And once that happens, music will flow.

(Published in The Telegraph, February 10, 2013)

Song sung blue

The men look bored. Dressed in camouflage and armed with sophisticated guns, the militants of the Kuki National Army (KNA) roam aimlessly in a camp set against the Houpi hills at one end of Manipur, barely 60 kilometres from the Chin state of western Myanmar. They are waiting for their chief to lead them to action.

The chief, Paulun Soyang Haokip, is in a quandary. He is sitting in a friend’s house in Manipur’s Churachandpur town, waiting for a signal from New Delhi. “The government is not clear on its intentions on peace talks and our cadre doesn’t want to sit idle any longer,” says Haokip, president of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and supreme commander of the 17 major Kuki militant groups, including the KNA which come under the KNO.

Haokip’s men have been waiting for action for the past eight years — ever since the KNO signed the suspension of operation (SOO) pact, first with the Army in 2005 and then with the Centre in 2008. In November last year, the KNO refused to extend the SOO any further and insisted on holding urgent talks with the Centre for a separate Kuki state carved out of the Churachandpur and Chandel districts of Manipur with other Kuki-inhabited parts of the state in Senapati, Ukhrul and Tamenglong districts. The Kukis are one of 40 ethnic communities of Manipur.

But nothing, rues Haokip, has moved since then. The chief has given an ultimatum to the Centre — start talks by February, or face the consequences. If the government doesn’t respond in the next few days, he says a “Quit Kuki Land” movement will begin in right earnest.

“We will target Indian Army personnel first before we target civilians. I believe the sound of gunshots will definitely reach the ears of the Indian government. Only then will they pay heed to our demand,” stresses Haokip, who adds that his men killed 300 civilians and security men in a span of 10 years till 2010.

The 60-year-old leader says he feels “betrayed” by the Indian Army which he’d thought would help them negotiate with the Centre. “We have not attacked the Indian Army after 2005. We even protected the force from attacks by other ethnic groups but they never helped us with our goal,” he says.

He has resumed talks with old friends in the Myanmar-based militant group, the Kachin Independent Army (KIA). Haokip says the KIA will give fresh military training to his 1,200-member group. A core group of 25 militants of the KNA had been trained in guerrilla warfare by the KIA in 1988, the year the Kuki outfit had been set up to press for Zale’-gam — or the Land of Freedom.

Haokip had also pinned his hopes on Myanmar’s celebrated democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, convinced that she would support the Kuki cause. The Nobel laureate, however, hasn’t responded to the Kuki overtures. “I don’t think she can do anything for us,” he says.

Haokip, dressed in a formal grey suit and red tie, doesn’t match the general image of a fierce militant. Five-feet-and-four-inches tall, he looks like a government servant instead. Indeed, he once worked as a clerk at a nationalised bank. A teetotaller, he is known in his group as an introvert. Fluent in his local dialect Khochungte, he speaks haltingly in English — but doesn’t dodge a single question in the course of a three-hour long interview.

He was born into a middle-class family in Seimei in the Sadar Hills of Manipur. His father, Paulun, was a village chief, and his mother, Nemboi, a homemaker. When his family moved to neighbouring Nagaland, he studied at the Baptist English School in Kohima and later joined the Kohima College for a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Haokip says that though he belongs to a community whose men “love their guns more than their wives”, he has not been trained for armed battle. His knowledge of weapons is limited to the operation of a Ruger gun that he keeps for his own safety. “As a young boy, I had used a gun to hunt wild boars,” he laughs. The militant leader claims that he has killed only one person in his life — a militant who raped a woman.

Inspired by religious teachings, Haokip, a Christian, came close to the KNA because of his interest in religion. In 1994, when then KNA chief Thangkhulung was killed by KNO president Sokholung, Haokip’s cousin Vipin, a KNA militant, approached him. He was urged to help bring peace to the KNA through his teachings. Haokip succeeded in the mission and was appointed the head of both the KNA and the KNO.

“Since I am from the Kuki community, I realised that this could be an opportunity to serve my own people,” he says.

KNA started its operations in 1988 to fight the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah), which has been demanding Nagalim — a state comprising Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and parts of the Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel districts of Manipur.

“They are laying their hands on our areas. We will not let that happen at any cost,” he says.

Kukis allege that the Centre has always pampered their rivals. Haokip points out that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee met top NSCN (IM) leaders and heard them out. In 2010, the government appointed an interlocutor to facilitate the Naga peace talks. But the Kukis are still waiting to hear from the government.

“We have always been treated like a stepchild,” Haokip complains. “The government’s peace process in Manipur will be flawed if it doesn’t talk to us.”

Haokip also alleges that the NSCN (IM) gets regular funds from the government. All that the Kukis have received, he says, is a sum of Rs 10 lakh that was given to them in 2005.

Now they survive mostly on the money that they extort from contractors and traders, Haokip admits. “The money that we get from the government is not enough. So extortion is the only option left for my cadres to survive,” says Haokip, pointing out that the vocational training the government had promised his men never materialised.

Haokip, who is underground, flits from one country to the other in southeast Asia, using pseudonyms. He lived in Delhi for seven years in the late 1990s, when he wrote his book, The Kuki Nation.

These days, he has been frequently visiting Delhi and spending time with his cadre in Manipur. The men in the camp complain that they have hardly ever seen Haokip. One militant, who joined the organisation as a minor, says he met him only once in 19 years. He wanted to leave the organisation and sought permission from Haokip to do so. His request was turned down.

“We have to continue the fight till we get our Kuki state,” Haokip had told the young man.

Like this young man, many minors joined the Kuki movement during its heyday. “Children who have seen their family members being killed joined us and we never stopped them,” Haokip says.

Has he ever encouraged any of his children — two surviving sons and two daughters — to join the movement? “Once my son Mangtinthang wanted to spend some time in the camp. But I did not entertain his demand as the organisational rules wouldn’t have allowed him to leave,” he replies.

His younger son, Tongkhohao, is studying in Delhi University and his daughters — Lhaineithem and Neilhing — are married and live in Nagaland. His wife, whose name he doesn’t want to disclose, is an All India Radio employee in Imphal. “I meet my family only twice a year. I miss them a lot,” he says.

The one he misses the most is his eldest son, Lunminlen, who died in 2007 at the age of 25. Haokip blames himself for his son’s death. “My son was gay and I couldn’t accept him the way he was. He was depressed, took drugs and committed suicide,” says the grieving father, who admits that he is a bit “orthodox” in his thinking.

His traditional mindset is also reflected in his opinion on women cadre members who he believes “distract” their male counterparts. “I fear our male soldiers would end up fighting over women,” he says, adding that there are only 150 women in the cadre.

Haokip, clearly, is proud of the history of the Kukis, who declared war against the British in 1917 for the independence of Manipur. “During World War II, we also fought along with the Imperial Japanese Army and the Indian National Army against the British.”

But the militant leader does not support Maoist insurgents in the country. “I condemn their attacks,” he says. Stressing that his organisation, unlike some other Northeastern militant groups, has no links with the Maoists, he says: “The Maoists are like the al Qaida. They should not use guns for social reformation.”

But guns for a new state? That, clearly, is whole new ballgame.

Days after a high-level committee submitted a report on laws on sexual violence, the government framed an ordinance recommending death for heinous sex crimes. But the head of the committee, former Chief Justice J.S. Verma, tells me that worldwide studies have shown that capital punishment doesn’t curb rape

The ground floor of this white two-storey house close to the Golf Course in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, has become the media’s favourite hunting ground. I have an appointment, but have to wait outside till the clock strikes five — for only then will I be allowed inside. In five minutes, I am face-to-face with the man who’s the talk of the town.

“I am sorry — I slept for a while,” says Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India. He is late by five minutes, and is humbly apologising for it. “This is the third interview that I am giving today,” he adds, as he settles down on a brown sofa in his living room.

Justice Verma has just presented a 630-page report titled “Amendments to Criminal Law” for reforming the criminal justice system on sexual offences. In the aftermath of the December 16 gang rape of a young woman in a moving bus in Delhi and the ensuing national outcry, the government set up a committee headed by him, with advocate Gopal Subramaniam and Justice Leila Seth, to look into the issue of violence against women. And within a month, the committee was ready with its report, which it presented on January 23.

The report has won accolades across the country. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also wrote a letter to Verma, assuring him that his government would be “prompt in pursuing the recommendations of the Committee.”

But when Verma had wanted to present the report to Singh, he was told he couldn’t do so. “We were informed that the home minister would like to receive the report in his office. But I refused to do so because in my capacity as a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court I would deal only with the Prime Minister,” Verma says.

Later, a joint secretary in the home ministry was sent to Vigyan Bhawan to collect the report on the day of its release. Though security comes under the purview of the home ministry, minister Sushil Kumar Shinde did not contact the committee. Neither the Delhi police commissioner, Neeraj Kumar, who reports to Shinde, nor any of the state directors general of police, appeared before the committee during its public hearings.

“It clearly reflects their apathy,” Verma says.

He did get a list of suggestions from the Congress — but at midnight when an official sent by AICC general secretary Janardan Dwivedi knocked at his door. Later, of course, Congress president Sonia Gandhi apologised to him for this.

His report — which looks deeply into the law — has been commended for its thorough approach. His team of 15 young lawyers, academics and students worked tirelessly for a month to prepare the report. “The night before the day of its release, none of them slept,” he says. The committee received around 80,000 mails from various parts of the country, and from different walks of life and strata, suggesting effective police mechanisms, tougher laws and implementation of punishment for rapists.

Some were for the death penalty for rape — which the committee turned down, suggesting instead imprisonment for 20 years for rape and murder, and lifelong imprisonment for gang rape and murder. “Women’s groups were unanimously against the death penalty,” says Verma, whose panel also disapproved of chemical castration of rapists, calling it a “violation of human rights.”

The recent Ordinance on Criminal Laws, 2013 — approved by the Cabinet on Friday — suggested capital punishment in cases of aggravated sex crimes leading to death or a persistent vegetative state. But Verma is not among those who support capital punishment. “Studies worldwide have shown that the death penalty doesn’t decrease the number of rape cases,” he says.

The committee did not succumb to public pressure demanding lowering the age of juvenile perpetrators from 18. The demand had been gathering ground because the most brutal of the December 16 rapists was allegedly a juvenile. “We cannot change the law because of one incident,” he clarifies. “Also, even if the law is changed now, it will not be applicable in this juvenile’s case because he will be tried under the law that existed on the day the crime was committed.”

But Verma says that while he was overwhelmed by the huge public response to the December 16 incident, he was equally puzzled by the fact that these very people who were so agitated seldom acted to help the public in times of crisis. Few, for instance, came forward when the young woman and her companion were lying stripped and bleeding after they were thrown out of the bus. “They were lying on the road for 20 minutes. Many cars and autorickshaws passed by but nobody offered help. I hope people who came up with various suggestions on reforms would also be sensitive and help out others in crisis,” says Verma, who peppers his sentences with the Hindi wordsamjha — meaning, did you get it?

Dressed in a dark brown coat, a black sweater and brown trousers, Verma is 80, but looks younger and is certainly more energetic than most others of his age. He turned 80 on January 18, but there were no special celebrations for the big day as he was busy finalising the report. “I cut a cake which Gopal Subramaniam’s wife had ordered for me. It was the only five-minute break that we took from our work,” he says with a smile.

The work was all done with the help of Subramaniam’s office resources. All that the government did was provide them with a car which used to pick him and Justice Seth from their Noida homes and drop them at Subramaniam’s office in Jor Bagh. Earlier the committee sat in the government-run Vigyan Bhawan, but soon the members realised that it was better to work from Subramaniam’s office, since they were relying heavily on his staff and resources.

The report has raised eyebrows in some sections. The Army, for instance, hasn’t taken kindly to its recommendation of reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives sweeping powers to the Army, including the right to shoot at sight.

Ironically, Verma headed a nine-member bench in 1997 that upheld the constitutional validity of this very act.

“If it is coming from me — I who once upheld its validity — it is because there are more and more complaints of increasing misuse of the act,” he explains.

The report also said that Army personnel committing a rape should be tried under the ordinary law of criminal justice. So far, the home ministry, in consultation with the defence ministry, has not accepted this recommendation of the committee. “I don’t think any part of the official duty of Army personnel allows them to commit sexual offences,” says the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. “It explains the mindset of the people who are against it,” he says, referring to the criticism that the section on the AFSPA has evoked.

But Verma also admits that not all is well with the legal community either. Gender insensitivity is rife in judicial circles too. In fact, the day Verma presented the report, an Uttar Pradesh judge was accused of molesting a teenager.

Curiously, Verma’s 1997 judgment dealing with sexual harassment of women at the workplace was never implemented in the offices of the judiciary.

He is also “embarrassed” about corruption in the judiciary. Instances of judges taking bribes from petitioners for pronouncing judgments in their favour make him hang his head in shame, he says. “Every time these incidents happen, I feel demeaned because even one corrupt judge is enough for the judiciary to lose its credibility,” says the retired judge who lives in a rented two-bedroom house.

The son of a railway officer, Verma explains that the law was never his first choice of career. Born in Satna in Madhya Pradesh, he earned a BSc degree and then went on to do his law degree from Allahabad University. “I wanted to join the Army but my mother objected to it. My second choice was the civil services, but my brother objected to that,” he says. He finally became a lawyer, which was his father’s choice, he adds. And Verma would have done his father proud. Widely seen as a man of great integrity, he has pronounced many landmark judgments — including the Nathdwara Temple case in 1989 on Dalits being allowed into the Rajasthan temple.

But his observations on the Mumbai High Court’s decision on an election petition stirred up a furore. While hearing this appeal in 1995, Verma interpreted “Hindutva” and “Hinduism” as “synonyms of Indianisation”. Many saw it as a validation of the resurgence of Hindutva in the country.

Justice Verma holds that the judgment was “misconstrued and misused” by many and quoted out of context. “But I am not responsible for the mental capacity of everyone else,” he says tersely. “Politics and religion are a deadly mix. Nobody admits it but everyone practises it here.”

As we reach the last leg of our one-hour long conversation, his cellphone rings. I have been told that he gets annoyed by calls on his cellphone. But his landline doesn’t stop ringing either. “My wife, Pushpa, gets irritated by these calls. And I ask her to imagine my plight,” he says.

Verma is now ready to call it a day. He wants leisure time — he’d like to read his favourite author, Amartya Sen, and spend time with his granddaughter, Preetika, who is on a vacation from the UK and was part of the team that worked for the committee.

Clearly, Verma has done his bit. Now it’s the people’s turn.

 Published in The Telegraph, February 3, 2013