Archive for October 2014

It is prime time bulletin on Lotus News, a satellite news channel in southern Indian town, Coimbatore. Dressed in a dark brown silk sari, 31-year-old Padmini Prakash is all set to read out the day’s headlines. In matching brown lipstick, vermilion in the parting of her hairline and a bunch of white jasmine tucked in her black curls, Padmini sports a professional charm. Her Tamil pronunciation is clear. Her intonation is perfectly timed. In less than two months, Padmini has become one of the most popular news anchors of the television channel.  

But it wasn’t an easy journey for this first ever transgender television news anchor of India.

 “I never wanted to create any history. All I wanted was social recognition and a dignified life. I am happy that I have got it now,” a confident Padmini says.

Indeed, social recognition and dignified life are certainly rare for a transgender in India. Even as more than 4,90,000 transgenders live here, they are considered as outsiders. Known as ‘hijras’, transgenders are avoided, feared, despised or vilified. They have always been seen as menace to the society.

In India, they live in cramped ghettos. They are mostly unlettered and belong to the lower middle class. They could be spotted begging at bus stops, railway stations and traffic signals. They are often seen stripping in public to embarrass people into coughing up money.

They visit families on the occasion of child birth to confer blessings on the child and receive money, in return. Perhaps, this is the only time when they are allowed to enter someone’s house but only out of sheer fear that they will cast a spell on the new born if refused money. And many believe that the curse of a transgender is dangerous for the child. Of late, they have also been used as tax collectors by state governments. They sing loudly in front of the defaulters’ premises so that the defaulters are shamed into paying up out of embarrassment.

But reality kicks in when they have to fight a daily battle for survival. They are subjected to physical and sexual harassment on a regular basis. Human rights activists point out that they are also forced to prostitution which has led to high prevalence of HIV-AIDS in them.

If Padmini had not gathered the strength to stand against all odds in her life, she fears she would have faced a similar fate too. But she chose to fight against the discrimination and dejection with courage and conviction. She was disowned by her parents at the age of 13 as they couldn’t accept her sexual orientation. But she refused to give up. She took it upon herself to create a space of her own in this ruthless society that considers transgenders a “curse”. She enrolled herself in a Bachelors of Commerce course in an open university. She learnt to dance and also acted in soap operas before she got the job as a news anchor.

Padmini’s recruitment in the television channel has reflected the slow but significant changes that are taking place in the society in order to make dignified space for transgenders. A recent Supreme Court judgment has brought about these small social changes. In April this year, the apex court recognised transgender people as a legal third gender. Prior to the ruling, one was forced to classify oneself as either male or female on identification documents.

The government has been directed to recognise transgenders as an official minority. They have been directed to create a “third” gender box in all identity documents such as birth certificates, passports and driver’s licences.  The court also directed the government to allot quotas for public jobs and admission to educational institutions and for the provision of health care facilities.

Some states have already taken some progressive measures to this effect. For example, Tamil Nadu has offered special third gender cards, passports and reserved seats much before the apex court judgement had arrived. Even a television channel in the state had launched a show in 2009 which was hosted by a transgender.

Some IT companies, security companies and departmental stores across the country are hiring transgenders now. Reality shows on television channels invite them to participate. Talent hunts and carnivals have been organised exclusively for them. In fact, Padmini had won the title of Miss Transgender India in 2009. Padmini is certainly an inspiration for many other transgenders who are yet to defy their destiny.

But it is not the fight of transgenders alone. It is our fight to change our traditional mind-set towards transgenders. We have to believe that they are not despicable. We have to make a conscious effort to create space for them, in every possible way. In public transports, we need to sit next to them and not change our seats with a fear that they will embarrass us by stripping. Our schools need to allow a transgender child to sit in their classrooms. We need to teach our children not to look at them as an object of curiosity. Our Bollywood scriptwriters need to be a bit more creative and not use the word “hijra” as an abuse while penning down the most “revolutionary” dialogues for blockbusters.

We need to remind ourselves every day that the time has come to shape up a society which is equal and sensitive.

Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Ram Madhav represents the new face of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The six-footer from Andhra Pradesh tellsSonia Sarkar that the RSS is changing

There’s not an inch of space in room No. 26 in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi. Those queued up there include a distressed villager from Uttar Pradesh, a voluntary sector worker from Bangladesh and an elderly Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member from Bhopal. And they are waiting for a meeting with the man in the adjoining room — Ram Madhav.

The BJP general secretary is busy surfing the Internet on his iPad. It’s been a busy fortnight — Chinese President Xi Jinping has come and gone, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance has come apart in Maharashtra, where elections are to be held next month, and the BJP performed poorly in bypolls held in the states.

Have the people of Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP did phenomenally well in the general election, turned their backs on the party, which lost (along with an ally) seven of the 11 seats it held in the Assembly?

Madhav, 49, doesn’t think so. The results, he holds, were impacted by the fact that the Bahujan Samaj Party did not take part in the polls, turning the contests into virtually straight fights between the Samajwadi Party and BJP. “But to expect to win every election is not correct either, because each election has its own arithmetic and dynamics,” he adds.

Election results, however, must lead to analyses, he points out. “Every election result is a time for stocktaking. It gives us an opportunity to find out what is happening on the ground, so that we can prepare ourselves for the next election,” Madhav says.

The poll in Bengal has given the BJP reason to rejoice. The party now has a seat in the Bengal Assembly, won by Shamik Bhattacharjee, who defeated Trinamul candidate Dipendu Biswas in Basirhat by 1,568 votes. Of course, Bhattacharjee had led from the same Assembly segment in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls by 30,000 votes. The margin has come down drastically, but Madhav is not greatly troubled by that — he is happy that the party is making its presence felt in a “tough” state like Bengal.

“We have certainly emerged as a force in Bengal. In the next Assembly election, BJP will be seen as an alternative to the ruling party,” he says.

But the party’s dismal performance in the bypolls in many of the states — including Bihar and Rajasthan — has triggered a blame game in the BJP. Senior party leader and former deputy chief minister of Bihar Sushil Modi had put the failure in UP on Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath, who had accused Muslims of carrying out a “Love Jihad” campaign, in which Muslim men targeted Hindu girls for conversion to Islam by feigning love.

“This (Love Jihad) is a concern of local political leaders, including Yogi Adityanath. They have noticed this happening and have talked about it. So what’s wrong,” he asks.

Madhav shrugs off criticism of Modi’s second-in-command, Amit Shah. Some in the party have criticised Shah’s individualistic style of functioning and blamed it for the UP debacle.

“Shah is a capable leader. He has proved his political mettle and maturity in Gujarat. Probably, if we win two state elections — Maharashtra and Haryana — the whole assessment will change,” Madhav says.

It’s difficult to rile Madhav, who wears a smile on his face most of the time. Originally from Andhra Pradesh, the six-footer represents the new face of the RSS.

Technologically savvy, Madhav is active on social networking forums. A recent tweet, however, put him in trouble when, after the death of historian Bipan Chandra, he praised the academic’s contribution to history. Angry reactions followed, condemning Madhav for lauding a staunch critic of the RSS.

But Madhav is not troubled by the trolls. “We are a democracy. Everyone — even the last man on the street — is entitled to his views. I don’t disrespect anybody personally merely because he or she was critical of the RSS. I would rather defend the RSS with all my might,” he says.

And that’s not surprising, for Madhav’s links with the RSS are old. His father, Surya Narayan, was a member of the RSS, the state general secretary of the Jan Sangh and later a member of the BJP. His mother Janaki Devi, too, was active in the party.

Madhav, who joined the RSS when he was four, studied engineering and then political science from Mysore University — which is when he decided to became a full-time RSS pracharak.

“I had a great training in the RSS. Whatever I am today, it is because of the RSS,” he says.

He argues that the RSS is changing with time — and the belief that it’s stuck in a time warp is misleading.

“It adapts to changing times,” he says. “It has introduced so many new activities for the young such as exclusive shakhas where there are specific activities for IT professionals. I went to a shakha recently where youngsters were playing rugby.”

Many university students are joining the RSS, he contends, adding that “thousands of men” express their desire to join the RSS on its website. “So if there is membership through the website, you can imagine that young people are joining us,” he says.

He himself is one of the younger leaders of the RSS, which is generally seen as a body of greying men. Spokesperson for the RSS since 2003, Madhav, articulate and suave, was leased to the BJP in July this year, soon after the BJP rode to power at the Centre (and is now with the Prime Minister’s delegation to the United States).

With a foot in each camp, Madhav knows the equation between the parent body and the party. He dismisses stories about rifts between the RSS and BJP — and rumours that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no time for the RSS.

“The RSS and BJP share a very good equation. And it’s not correct that Modiji ignores the RSS. He is an experienced and visionary leader and he would have his own views. That doesn’t mean he is ignoring the RSS,” he says, with a broad smile.

But why is the RSS quiet? Shouldn’t it have stepped in when Modi’s team sidelined senior leaders such as L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi?

“I really don’t understand why people call it sidelining. They are such seniors and such fatherly figures for the party that nobody can sideline them. As far as responsibilities are concerned, they themselves have handed over responsibilities to younger teams,” he says.

There are many who believe that the “younger teams” took away their responsibilities, I point out. “It’s your interpretation,” he replies.

He reminds me that he has only a few more minutes to spare. So we move on to the subject of writing — an old passion of his. His recent book, Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after Fifty Years of the War, prompts me to ask him about Xi’s visit, and if it has improved ties between India and China.

“From the Indian side, we have always made sincere efforts to improve ties with China. Both Modi and Xi Jinping talk to each other without any baggage of history,” he says. “But what really plagues our relationship is that there is a huge deficit of trust between the two countries. I am sure the new leadership will bridge the deficit,” he adds.

Madhav says he is an avid reader. He is reading a book on Pakistan — but says he can’t remember the name. That nudges me towards Pakistan, and I ask him about the government’s decision to call off talks between foreign secretaries because the Pakistan high commissioner had met Kashmiri separatist leaders.

“The government’s stand on not appreciating the Pak envoy’s invitation to separatist leaders is a firm message to our neighbour that things have changed in India and they can’t take us for granted. We were used to a docile diplomacy. We think it is natural for separatist leaders to meet Pakistani officials here. We have allowed all this to happen for far too long. Good that things have now changed,” he stresses.

The BJP hopes to see change in Kashmir, too — where it has launched its Mission 44, a campaign with the help of which it seeks to form a government (with 44 seats in the Assembly) in Kashmir in the next election. Some people in Kashmir have accused the BJP of rolling out relief measures during the recent floods in the state mainly to woo voters.

Madhav doesn’t smile any more. “This is a wrong and irresponsible statement. This is a natural calamity and everyone should jump into flood relief measures. There is no political agenda in it,” he says.

I can tell that the few extra minutes are over. He gets up to leave for another meeting. The crowd in the adjoining room will have to wait some more.


Kashmir’s militants who’ve given up the gun have a new passion — business.Sonia Sarkar tracks their forays into the world of money

The apple trees in his 100-bigha orchard are in full bloom, and Abdul Qadeer Dar is gently plucking the fruits. The good ones are going to be carefully packed in wooden boxes and sold across the country.

“My clients have lot of respect for me,” he says. “It’s hard earned, and I cannot lose it by compromising on the quality of the fruit,” Dar says.

From ammos to apples, Dar’s journey has been a dramatic one. Dar took to the gun 25 years ago when he was 18. He was among 60,000 young Kashmiri men who walked to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan for armed training.

But many years and jail stints later, the former commander of north Kashmir of the militant organisation Al Jahad has found a new passion. In 2000, he went back to tending his ancestral land.

Over the last few years, he has bought more land and grown more trees. The fruits in the Baramullah orchard are now being sold outside Kashmir. Dar doesn’t wield the gun any more — instead he brandishes sprays for his apple trees.

The cry for freedom may still ring out from the Valley, but militancy has over the years been subdued in Kashmir, where elected governments have been in power for 18 years. For many of the men who had dedicated their youth to the militant movement for independence, life has taken new turns. They have given up the gun, and picked up the threads of their lives.

“I will not get back my youth. I have started from zero to give myself a normal life,” says Dar, who also runs Voice of Victims, an NGO that works for the rights of former militants.

Dar, 43, focused on horticulture because it was the only sector of the economy that ran successfully even when militancy was at its peak. Now Dar’s annual turnover from apples is about Rs 15 lakh.

Some, like Dar, deal with horticulture. Others are in real estate and businesses such as electrical goods and handicrafts. Sajjad Gul, a former senior commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, deals with electrical goods in Srinagar’s Maisuma Bazar.

Gul, 42, was barely 16 when he joined the militants in 1988. In 2010, when he was released following a year in jail after being arrested for the ninth time, Gul decided to give up militancy and start his business.

  • New innings: Sheikh Imtiyaz Ahmed with his son; (top) Abdul Qadeer Dar. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

“I realised that life had become a vicious cycle of killings and jail. I decided to get out of it and start a new one which would carry no scars of the past,” Gul says.

He took financial help from his brothers and started his shop with an investment of Rs 15 lakh. “Fortunately, I earned a profit of Rs 1 lakh in the first month itself. I told myself, I can do it,” Gul says. He lives in a four-storey house in Pantha Chowk on the outskirts of Srinagar, with wife Shaheeda, son, Sharif, 9, and daughter Zanam, 5.

But while many militants of the late Eighties and Nineties are looking at ways of redoing their lives, they complain that little help has come from the government. In 2010, the state government launched a rehabilitation package for militants but it was aimed at helping surrendered militants who had returned from Pakistan.

“The government did not provide us with any loans at subsidised rates to help us start a business,” says Mohammed Ayyub, a former commander of Al Jahad. The 43-year-old Srinagar resident now runs a real estate business.

The fact that Kashmir has been largely peaceful in the last three years has given a boost to the construction sector. “Wherever there is destruction, there will also be construction,” says Ayyub. “So this is the best business to be in now,” he adds.

Moving into business after years of unrest was not easy for the men, many of whom had dropped out of schools and colleges to fight for independence. Sheikh Imtiyaz Ahmed, 46, didn’t know what to do when he was released from jail in 1995. Ahmed, whose family members mostly held government jobs, knew that his record meant he couldn’t join the government. So the former district commander of al-Umar Mujahideen started an aluminium fabrication business in 1997.

“I took a bank loan of Rs 2 lakh and mortgaged my father’s house,” he says. Ahmed says his business has now an annual turnover of around Rs 25 lakh.

Till two years ago, separatist leader Shabir Shah, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, held a 25 per cent share in a hotel in Pahalgam, which he says he has subsequently got rid of.

Shah states that he invests money in various local projects, and the contractors share their profit with him in return. “This is my regular source of income,” he says.

Running their own businesses is not easy for the former militants, who allege that they are often harassed by government agencies. “I want to purchase material from Delhi but the police follow me everywhere I go. I get humiliated in front of my clients,” Ahmed says.

Gul adds that the initial years were difficult because his clients were worried about his past. “It was difficult to strike business deals. I had to convince people that I didn’t own a gun anymore,” he says.

But they have now been successfully expanding their businesses — Dar has started a transport business too, Gul plans to start a furnishing shop and Sheikh also deals with interiors.

The former militants want their children to lead happy lives. Dar dreams that his children — Suvaid, 10, and Sovan, 5, who go to an English medium school in Baramulla — will prosper. “I want a promising future for my children,” he says.

But even that is not always easy. Ahmed says his daughter wanted to go abroad for higher studies. “But the government held back her application for a passport because of ‘adverse reports’ on my past,” he adds.

Sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla says the government has to ensure that former militants and their families lead a normal life. “They have been tortured and are now out of jail. If they have been cleared of charges, it is the responsibility of the government to give them the space to lead normal lives,” the Kashmir University professor says.

For some of the former militants, activism has taken different forms. Dar and a former operation commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Zaffar Akbar Butt, who sat through the first ceasefire agreement with the Indian government in July 2000, are now distributing relief material to flood victims.

“It is important to tell everyone that we once had a bloody past but we have a heart too,” says Butt, who deals in real estate in Srinagar’s Chhanapora. “We have to prove ourselves daily.”