Archive for March 2014

Actor Biswajit Chatterjee, the Trinamul Congress candidate for the New Delhi constituency, talks to Sonia Sarkar on fighting an electoral battle without chief minister Mamata Banerjee around, and on why his son, actor Prosenjit, should not plunge into politics

There are no retakes here — the fight is for real. Actor Biswajit Chatterjee, who is the Trinamul Congress candidate for the New Delhi constituency, knows that well. So he is getting ready to give his best shot.

“There is no time left, I have to run in my constituency to be able to meet everyone,” he says. “I will try to win,” he smiles.

It’s going to be quite a fight because his rivals are Congress leader Ajay Maken, a two-time MP from the constituency, and BJP spokesperson and lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi.

But Chatterjee, 77, insists he is not intimidated by them. “We all know that there will be just one winner but I am not afraid to fight. In cricket, too, there is just one man of the match. And I will soon learn the tricks of the trade.”

Maken and Lekhi belong to the city. The actor, on the other hand, has spent his life mostly in Mumbai and Calcutta. Wouldn’t he have had a better chance of winning if he had been fielded from Bengal? “When it comes to chances of winning, contesting from Bengal would have been a better option for me,” he admits. “But it was Didi’s decision to field me from Delhi,” he says, referring to Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee.

Actually, the buzz goes that the party leadership had earlier decided to field him from Delhi South, under the impression that the Bengali-dominated Chittaranjan Park area was a part of the constituency. Later, when the party discovered that CR Park actually came under New Delhi, he was moved. Being a Bengali, it was thought that Chatterjee would vibe well with the Bengali voters.

But he insists he’s there not just for the Bengali electorate. “People in Delhi know me,” he stresses.

The actor has a Trinamul scarf draped around his neck and sports a stone-studded badge with Didi’s photo inscribed on it. He looks like a Trinamul loyalist, but he got to know Banerjee only in 2009 when she was the Union railway minister. He wanted permission to shoot a train sequence for a documentary he had produced and directed on Subhas Bose. “Not only did she give us the permission to shoot at the Sealdah railway station, she also instructed her officials to make us comfortable,” he says.

Since then, he has been quite a loyalist. He campaigned for her party in the 2011 state Assembly elections in Bengal. “I have great admiration for her. She feels strongly for the people of Bengal and gets whatever she wants,” he says, fiddling with his packet of Classic cigarettes.

It’s a cue for him to start listing her achievements. “She revived the Technicians Studio in the Bengali film industry. She brought many artistes and technicians under medical insurance cover. Since I am from the film fraternity, I count these as her achievements,” he says.

Her critics, he says, only see her “outer” self, which appears tough. “Yes, she doesn’t spare anyone for any wrong they do. But she is also very emotional. She is like anyone’s boudi (sister-in-law) or didi (elder sister) or mashima (aunt). Her softer side is adorable,” he says. “She gets angry only when people cross their limit. If I make a mistake, I would like to be told by her so that I could rectify it.”

We move back to the election in New Delhi, where the Trinamul has hardly any presence. Chatterjee admits that he feels a bit “isolated” in this political battle when the leader is not around. “Didi has to keep coming to Delhi to boost our morale. That would help the party make its mark at the national level,” he feels.

Chatterjee is the latest in a list of stars — actors, singers, theatre people and others — who have been fielded by her in the 2014 elections. The list includes actors Dev, Sandhya Roy and Moon Moon Sen and singers Indranil Sen and Soumitro Ray — all newcomers in the electoral field.

“She must think that we have popularity, so we can fetch votes,” he says, adjusting the white baseball cap on his head. “But for that, we need her to be around.”

Biswajit’s stature — or perhaps it’s naiveté — prompts him to step into areas seasoned politicians would steer clear of. “I have heard that nobody else other than Dev will do well in this election. But my best wishes are for everyone, even for the candidate from Varanasi,” he says wryly.

Speaking of Varanasi, what does he think of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi?

“I don’t know much about him. But yes, I have heard that he has done a lot for Gujarat,” he replies.

Who, in his opinion, would make a good prime minister? “I am not a political person, how do I know?” he retorts. After being prodded a bit, he opens up. “I would have liked Sardar Patel or Subhas Chandra Bose as a prime minister. But that’s not possible. I don’t think there is anybody in today’s political world who loves the country beyond his or her party.”

But for the present, he is busy planning his campaign. The actor, who sings well, seeks to liven up his meetings with songs from the films that made him famous — including Pukarta chala hoon main and Oh, my love. He also plans to ask some of his cricketer friends — such as Salim Durrani and Kapil Dev — to campaign for him. “They are good friends,” says Chatterjee, who has organised many charity matches.

His son, Prosenjit — a superstar in Bengal — is likely to campaign for him, too. The father and son fell out more than 30 years ago when Chatterjee left his first wife and Prosenjit’s mother, Ratna, to marry Ira. He regrets the fact that he couldn’t keep his family together.

“Bumba (Prosenjit) was around 17 then. He was immature and blamed me for our failed marriage. But he gradually understood that marriages do come apart only when his two marriages failed,” he says.

Now Chatterjee often goes to Calcutta and stays with his son. Like any other father, he advises him. Recently, when there was speculation that the Trinamul Congress was likely to give Prosenjit a ticket, he urged his son not to hang up his boots this soon.

“He is doing amazingly well in cinema. I told him that he should wait for some more years before taking the plunge into politics,” says Chatterjee, who gave his son his first role in 1968 with his home production Chhotto Jigyasha. “Also, he has to be mature enough to counter the unpleasant things that come in politics,” he adds.

Chatterjee is surprisingly fit, though his face looks drawn when he takes off his dark glasses. Yoga and a restricted diet are the secrets of his health, he says. “I eat very simple food,” he says.

Simplicity is a trait that he picked up as a child. Originally from Hooghly’s Uttarpara region, he studied at the Ramkrishna Mission Vidyamandir in Belur. His father, Ranjit Kumar Chatterjee, was a doctor in the Army; so as a child he also travelled to places such as Karachi and Lahore. Later, they moved to Coochbehar where his mother, Smritimoyee, died of brain cancer when he was 13.

He started taking an interest in theatre as a young man, following in the footsteps of a maternal uncle. Soon he had been offered — and had accepted — roles in Bengali films. After his first film, Daak Harkara in 1959, he acted in many other Bengali films, including the national award winning Dada Thakur in 1962.

Bombay beckoned when Guru Dutt offered him a role in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. Chatterjee couldn’t take that up because it meant signing a contract for five years, for which he wasn’t ready. But right then singer Hemant Kumar offered him a role in his production, Bees Saal Baad. Then, of course, there was no looking back. He acted in a series of films including Mere Sanaam, Kohra and Kismet. His last Hindi film was Inth Ka Jawaab Pathhar, which released in 2002.

He runs two production houses now — Biswajit Creations and Prima Films. In 2012, he produced Adorini, where Prosenjit acted with his half-sister Prima. He is now going to feature in a new Bengali film, Sandhya Naamar Aage. But the shooting has been suspended till the elections.

After all, a nail-biting production is opening soon in a theatre near you.


Schoolteacher Soni Sori is a Lok Sabha candidate from Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The Aam Aadmi Party member’s campaign will be different from that of many other aspirants: she will tell her own story.

Sori has just returned to her ancestral home in Palnar village in Dantewada district after three years in jail. Accused of being a Maoist accomplice and attacking a Congress leader in 2011, she has now been acquitted in five out of seven cases registered against her and granted bail in the remaining ones.

But she has filed a case too — alleging that a senior police officer oversaw her assault while she was in police custody in 2011. The Supreme Court is yet to decide on it.

In her complaint, Sori said the police officer verbally abused her and directed policemen to torture her.

“In a conflict zone like Chhattisgarh, there is no one to hear our plea,” she says.

With armed unrest rampant in parts of the country — from Kashmir to Chhattisgarh and Manipur — human rights activists are raising the issue of sexual violence by security forces against citizens. There are also numerous cases of sexual assault by armed men who have the government’s backing. In Chhattisgarh for instance, members of Salwa Judum, a civil militia group formed in 2005, face 99 charges of rape.

Tribal activists such as Sori often face the brunt of such attacks. In the Jadingi village of Odisha’s Gajapati district, Arati Majhi, 21, was marked as a Naxalite and allegedly raped by the police in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the activists have been urging India to sign a Declaration of Commitment to end Sexual Violence in Conflict. In September 2013, 122 nations endorsed the declaration that was tabled by the UK in the 68th UN General Assembly.

The declaration says that sexual violence in conflict areas must not be viewed as a lesser crime. It also calls for comprehensive, improved and timely medical and psychosocial care for survivors and funding for sexual violence prevention.

“Most victims never see justice for what they have endured nor receive the necessary assistance and support,” it says.

Former cop K.P.S. Gill, who fought terrorism in Punjab, agrees that sexual violence against women and children is common in every conflict zone. “India too has seen it for years. Our government authorities do make investigations about such violence but no comprehensive plan has been worked out to tackle it,” says Gill, president, Institute for Conflict Management, Delhi, a non-profit outfit which analyses internal security in South Asia.

Some experts fear that India will not back the declaration. The government, they believe, shies away from backing such a document as it would put the State under the international scanner, especially in places such as Kashmir where the problem goes beyond its borders.

“Even after alleging that the violence in Kashmir is instigated by neighbouring Pakistan, India doesn’t recognise Kashmir as an international armed conflict because that would mean allowing international investigations into the violence,” says Khurram Parvez, programme co-ordinator, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

“Endorsing it would mean India is open to international scrutiny, and it would never be acceptable to the government,” echoes Colin Gonsalves of Human Rights Law Network, a Delhi-based lawyers’ collective that fought Sori’s case in the Supreme Court.

But as more and more cases get exposed, the demand for steps to protect women is also on the rise. “Majhi and Sori belong to that unarmed population which is caught in the crossfire of Maoists and State forces… Such a declaration is an instrument for the people to take their fight forward,” advocate Shalini Gera, who fought Sori’s case at the Dantewada court, argues.

But far from supporting the declaration, the activists point out that the government has laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which give immunity to security forces, even when they commit sexual violence.

The human rights activists stress that steps have to be taken urgently, arguing that sexual violence against women is an old and continuing problem.

In 1991, security forces allegedly raped over 100 women over one night in Kunan-Poshpora in J&K’s Kupwara district. In 1992, soldiers in Shopian in Pulwama district were accused of gang raping at least six women. In Manipur, Thangjam Manorama Devi, 34, was allegedly raped by soldiers of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, in 2004.

“During conflict, women are particularly vulnerable to sexual attack by both State and non-State actors,” Human Rights Watch spokesperson Meenakshi Ganguly says.

Not everybody agrees that endorsing such a document is the answer to the problem. Supreme Court advocate K.T.S. Tulsi believes that it undermines India’s democratic process. “Endorsing it could subject us to trial in international tribunals, which is not right for our democracy,” he argues.

Tulsi also believes that India has enough safeguards to tackle such issues. “Our courts have taken suo motu cognisance of many such crimes in conflict areas. Our Constitution has the provision of giving fair trials to everyone,” he says.

But the activists argue that such declarations lead to the forming of effective domestic laws.

“International laws always help in the formation of domestic laws,” People’s Union for Civil Liberties general-secretary Kavita Srivastava maintains. “After India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1993, we got the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.”

But there is a feeling that unless the government wants change, joining such global efforts will not yield results. “India signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997 but it has not ratified it. The Prevention of Torture Bill that is related to the convention too is pending before Parliament,” Parvez says. “India signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2007 but it has not ratified it. Such half-hearted initiatives serve no purpose,” he adds.

Sori, for one, will be happy if the declaration leads to action. Because, she stresses, it’s not just her case that needs to be redressed. During her time in jail, she met many other women who had been sexually tortured in jail or custody. “It’s the fight of several others like me,” she adds.

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia fears India is distancing itself from its neighbour by supporting the government of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. In an exclusive email interview, the Opposition leader, however, stresses that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) believes in working closely with New Delhi. Would the BNP’s ties with India be affected if Narendra Modi came to power? “It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country,” she replies. Extracts from the interview:

Q: Why did you boycott parliamentary polls in January 2014?A:Our decision not to participate in the election was a principled one. It arose in response to the Awami League’s calculated move to annul the 13th Amendment, in May 2011, to the Constitution which provided for a neutral, non-party caretaker government to oversee general elections and replace it with the 15th Amendment one month later, which provided for elections to be held under a political government while members of Parliament were still in place.The BNP along with the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh opposed the Constitution’s 15th Amendment because of their firm belief that is was susceptible to widespread electoral manipulation. Suffice it to say that our stance was fully vindicated by the people of Bangladesh, who outright rejected the fraudulent election of January 5, 2014… More than half the total parliamentary seats was declared by the Election Commission to have been won “uncontested”, including those of the Speaker and the leader of the Opposition. Election for the remaining seats was a conspicuous sham with an abysmally low voter turnout, around 5 per cent according to reliable estimates.Q:But after boycotting the parliamentary elections, why is the BNP participating in the upazila council elections?

A:The reasons are simple. First, our demand for elections under a non-party caretaker government is for the parliamentary elections, not for elections to the local bodies. Second, elections to local bodies are non-party though the individuals concerned seek a measure of support from political parties. Third, because local body elections are smaller in dimension, scrutiny is easier. Importantly, local elections are not game changing.

Q: What’s your next challenge? Are you in favour of a dialogue with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?

A:The next big challenge, indeed, the paramount objective of the BNP and its future political programme, is to realise the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to exercise their right to vote and to freely choose their own representatives. How long can Sheikh Hasina continue to ignore such a deeply rooted public demand and still claim to speak for democracy? She must respond to the people’s demand or take refuge in mounting autocracy.

Q: It seems unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will go for a re-poll before her five-year term ends. Have you lost your chance of ruling Bangladesh?

A:The BNP has consistently and positively responded to all domestic and international calls for dialogue in the face of continuous stalling and intransigence by the Awami League. BNP, like the people of Bangladesh, believes it is imperative to hold meaningful dialogues between the major political parties for free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.

I may point out that neither my party nor I believe in “ruling” Bangladesh. We believe in serving our country and people.

Q: In India many believe that you are not a “friend”. Why is your image so anti-India?

A:Our party and I personally believe in maintaining friendly relations with all countries, especially with our neighbours. We also believe that such relations should be based on the universally recognised principles of mutual benefit and respect.

As our closest neighbour, our relation with India is of added significance and relevance. I had reiterated this to the political leadership of India at every level during my visit to New Delhi in November 2012 at the invitation of the Indian government, when I was warmly received. My impression is that my assurances of friendship and mutually beneficial co-operation were deeply appreciated.

Q: Yet the UPA government has supported Sheikh Hasina…

A:India, which has a long and proud history of democracy, should stand on the side of the people of Bangladesh, as it did during our glorious war of liberation in 1971. By extending support to a government that is in office through a fraudulent election and one which has seen the disenfranchisement of the public… India may distance itself from the people of Bangladesh.

Q: How do you see India-Bangladesh ties if BJP’s Narendra Modi comes to power?

A:Relations between Bangladesh and India should not be contingent on an individual or any particular political party. It should be based on the need to address the interests of the people of the two countries and be responsive to their perceptions of each other. It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country. We believe in working closely with the elected government for furthering our relations.

Q: The Hasina government alleges that your government has been harbouring Indian militants from the Northeast.

A:Sheikh Hasina’s remarks are baseless, false and clearly motivated. During my meeting with the Indian leadership in 2012, I had assured them that the territory of Bangladesh shall never be allowed to be used by anyone against the interests of India or for anything that could threaten India’s security. Bangladesh has never been nor will it ever be a safe haven for militants.

Q: But the Awami League party holds that the BNP and its key ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, are friends of al Qaida, which has threatened to wage an intifada in Bangladesh.

A:No terrorist threat should be taken lightly, nor should these be used for narrow political gains. The blame game is self-defeating. Global terrorism has to be taken seriously and there should be concerted efforts and preparedness to combat this threat. Terrorism or militancy can have no place in our pluralist societies.

The BNP has been consistent in condemning and acting resolutely against terrorism in any form and manifestation. This is evident from the manner in which the BNP government in the past has acted against terrorists. Between 2005 and 2006, the BNP government arrested 1,177 terrorists and extremists.

During the time of the Awami League government between 1996 and 2001 Bangladesh witnessed the presence of new terrorist groups and attacks on cultural events.

There are differences between the political philosophies of the BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Our relation with the Jamaat is an electoral alliance. There is, however, a history of political alliances between the Jamaat and other major political parties. The Awami League, for example, maintained very close alliance with the Jamaat going back to the 1980s and 1990s. It was also the Awami League that signed a memorandum of understanding with the fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Khelafate Majlish, in 2006. That MoU was aimed at legalising religious fatwa.

Q: There is a popular movement for punishing war criminals. How true is the general perception that those undergoing life sentences will be released and rehabilitated by the BNP if it comes to power?

A:We believe that anyone who has committed crimes against humanity should be held accountable and brought before the realm of law. The BNP will try all those who have committed crimes against humanity in Bangladesh through a process that is transparent and one that meets international standards.

Q: Recently, a “telephonic” conversation between you and Sheikh Hasina went viral. Didn’t it highlight the ego clash between Bangladesh’s two top leaders?

A:The telephone conversation was a privileged communication between the leaders of the country’s top political parties. It should have been treated as such. The act of making it public by the government was inappropriate, motivated as well as a breach of trust.

Q: What will the BNP focus on now?

A:Let me end by saying that for Bangladesh democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance are vital if we are to avoid chaos and political instability. A democratic, peaceful and a politically stable Bangladesh is not just in our interest — it is also in the interest of our region.