Archive for November 2014

The placard – raised in a stadium at an India-Pakistan match – had evoked considerable mirth. “Keep Kashmir, give us Madhuri,” said the sign put up by a Pakistani fan of the Bollywood actress, who had then just danced her way into the subcontinent’s collective heart.

The slogan seems set to change. “Take Kashmir, give us Fawad,” may well be the new message from this side of the border. Fawad Khan is a Pakistani actor who features in television series broadcast on an Indian channel devoted to Pakistani soap – and who has wowed Indian viewers.

An infiltration of a different kind seems to have taken place in India in recent months. The social face of Pakistan has captured the hearts of people across India. Zee TV’s Zindagi channel is a rage – and its Pakistani stars including Fawad, Mahira Khan and Samira Peerzada, are all talking points.

But that’s just one facet of the silent invasion. From Pakistani humour to textiles, from fashion to food and films, the social media platforms are brimming with comments from Indian fans of all that is Pakistani.

“Pakistan is the flavour of the moment,” agrees social commentator Santosh Desai. “Yes, a change is on its way. It may be subtle and it may be silent, but it’s definitely there,” stresses Pakistani social media commentator Alia Suleman.

The current interest in Pakistan has been triggered by the success of Zindagi, no doubt, but there have been several other recent developments as well. The Pakistan stall – with its onyx and textiles – at the ongoing International Trade Fair is besieged by visitors. Pakistani food and film festivals are taking place in the Capital, and eateries are serving Pakistani cuisine. A great many Pakistani comic videos are also being circulated in India on whatsapp and social sites.

“There is always a curiosity among Indians about Pakistan and its culture,” says an official at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.

Pakistani social commentator Bina Shah stresses that strained bilateral ties had always come in the way of easy relations. “But because of social media, it isn’t just jokes that are being shared – folks on both sides of the border can observe the latest trends and what’s hot in our respective countries, and share it,” she says.

And among all that’s hot is fashion. In a first for Lakme Fashion Week (LFW), four Pakistani designers were invited this August to showcase their collections. “So far only a niche category was aware of our brand. But now there’s a huge buzz around Pakistani fashion,” says Sania Maskatiya, one of the designers who debuted at LFW.

The market — from a tony South Delhi mall to the local dress material shop in West Delhi — is stocking up on cuts, prints and fabric either procured from Pakistan or replicated in a wholesale market in India. “We are attracted to their stylish cuts and lace,” writer-columnist Shobhaa De points out.

That there’s an overwhelming interest in Pakistani textile and fashion was evident at the Aalishan Pakistan exhibition held earlier this year at the Pragati Maidan. Organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and The Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, it showcased fashion apparel, home textiles, leather goods, furniture and marble handicraft.

About 100,000 people are believed to have visited the exhibition on its second day. “We marked sales worth Rs 15 lakh over four days,” says Muhammad Yasin of Pakistan-based clothiers Gul Ahmed.

Wardha Saleem, the chief executive officer of the Pakistan Fashion Design Council, a non-profit organisation which facilitates the promotion of Pakistani designers, says that most of the designers had sold off their stock in the first three days of Aalishan Pakistan.

“We presented buyers with fusion wear — shirts (kurtas in India) paired with trousers or palazzo pants or skinny pants or form fitting cigarette cut pants,” Saleem says. “Our flowy chiffons, cotton silk and chamois silk are very popular in India.” The Council has also opened an outlet in Delhi’s South Extension in association with an Indian retailer where Pakistani collections are sold.

The Pakistan High Commission has been facilitating the exhibitions, and has also helped organise food and film fests in Delhi. “Chapli kebab and Kabuli Pulao are the two most popular Pakistani dishes in India. Both come from Peshawar,” says Mazhar Allahyar, the general manager of Islamabad’s Monal restaurant, which will collaborate in another food festival to be held in Delhi next month.

Restaurants serving Pakistani dishes have also opened up in the city. “Indians are keen on Pakistani cuisine because of its variety. Each region of Pakistan has something different to offer,” says Sanjeev Verma, manager of the Hauz Khas Village restaurant Raas, which has a Pakistani menu.

Commentator Desai describes this interest in Pakistan as cyclical. Indeed, in the late eighties and early nineties, too, there was a deep interest in Pakistani television drama series. A decade or so ago, it was the age of Pakistani music as bands such as Junoon and Strings became popular in India. Then the last few years saw another invasion – of the literary kind. Pakistani authors — Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif and others – were lapped up in India.

But what’s given a boost to the trend is the growth of the social media.

“Social networking sites are abuzz with praise for Pakistani shows. In fact, there are continuous requests for repeat telecasts and that’s why we have also had re-runs of some of our popular shows,” says Priyanka Datta, business head of Zindagi, which Zee launched five months ago.

Apeksha Harihar, content head, Social Samosa, a Mumbai-based social media knowledge storehouse, says she has noticed a “fascination” for Zindagi channel shows on social media platforms. “Most tweets favour these Pakistani shows over Indian shows,” Harihar holds.

Indeed, Pakistan seems to have entered the lives of many people through their television sets. “Till now, whatever we read about Pakistan or watched on TV through news channels was political. But these dramas gave us a glimpse of Pakistan which we’d never thought about,” says an ardent Fawad Khan fan, Shipti Sabharwal. Sabharwal, who runs a boutique in West Delhi, adds that Pakistani long kurtis “sell like hot cakes” in her shop. A trader at the Pakistan stall at the trade fair points out that women buyers often ask him for specific designs or styles sported by Pakistani actors in the serials.

The channel already has over 90,000 followers on Twitter and 300,000 fans on Facebook. “The platforms are abuzz with discussions,” Harihar says, adding that viewers have also started fan pages.

Fawad Khan’s fan clubs include ‘_FawadKhanFan_’, ‘Fan_FawadAK_Fanatic’ and ‘Fawad Khan Fever’. With a fan base of the kind, Fawad has not surprisingly made his Bollywood debut. The actor starred in the recent release Khoobsurat. Another Pakistani actor who debuted in Bollywood in recent times is Imran Abbas Naqvi, who was paired with Bipasha Basu in ‘Creature 3D’.

Talks are on for a role for Mahira Khan, too. “I consider myself among the lucky few from Pakistan to have their work recognised and appreciated in India,” says the female lead star of ‘Humsafar’, the blockbuster serial which was premiered on Zindagi in September. “I recently joined Twitter and have experienced craziness since,” she says.

The use of Urdu words in the series may have sparked an interest in the language, too. Zindagi now runs a scroll that acts as a thesaurus for Urdu phrases — a word is explained in Roman letters every day. About 65 per cent of people who log on to an Indian website on Urdu poetry called Rekhta, launched in 2013, are from India.

“We have close to 7000 visitors every day, up from the 300 that we used to get last year. We are now planning a festival for which poets from across the border will be invited,” Rekhta founder Sanjiv Saraf says.

Back in Pakistan, too, the trend has been appreciated.

“The segment of the population that had begrudgingly viewed the influence of Indian culture in Pakistan, openly opposing the airing of Indian movies in our theatres and on TV, is now pleased that this influence is reciprocated on the other side of the border too,” Suleman says. “The segment that sincerely wishes to see the two ‘bullies’ finally call it a day sees this as a step towards that goal.”

Samira Peerzada, a popular character actor from ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hain’ and ’Dhoop Chhaon’, points out that she grew up watching Indian shows and films in Pakistan. “We always dreamt and hoped that the work of Pakistani artists also got the same kind of response in India. It seems the dream has come true.”

Suleman has noticed another outcome of the trend – a difference in attitude in her Indian relatives. “To them, Pakistanis had always appeared to be too ‘fast’, too ‘modern’, too ‘unreal’, and too ‘foreign’. But now, it is all changing.”

When she phones them in the evening, her Indian relatives tell her “somewhat irritably” not to call when they are watching Pakistani serials on TV. “For the first time, they want to hear about the other good serials, writers and actors, something they never wanted to do before… They are interested when I talk about Pakistani fashion for a change. For the first time, they are interested in me as a Pakistani rather than just a relative.”

So it’s not just India that’s rejoicing in this friendly invasion. This could well be the season of hope. After all, the twin siblings -– separated at birth, like so much of Bollywood — just shared the Nobel Peace Prize, too.

The environment ministry is proposing to make changes to the law so that development projects can be pushed through quickly. But will forest dwellers be short-changed in the process? Sonia Sarkar finds out

The Narendra Modi government may be concerned about “clean” India but does it have a somewhat blinkered view when it comes to green India? That’s what many environment experts are saying after the government proposed a series of changes to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or FRA.

The move has sparked a storm of outrage from activists who allege that it will deprive tribals and forest dwellers of their democratic rights to their own land. One of the proposals is to do away with a provision in the act that requires the “prior informed consent” of gram sabhas before their forests are cleared for industrial activities. A recent circular issued by the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) states that linear projects such as roads, canals, pipelines, optical fibres or power transmission lines are exempted from seeking the consent of gram sabhas.

Now district collectors will have the power to certify that the diversion of land is permissible for a development project. This is a dilution of the act, say activists. And recently, thousands of adivasis demonstrated in Gajapati in Odisha, against the proposal to make changes in the Forest Rights Act. It’s not just activists who are crying foul. Legal experts too say that such a change is tantamount to depriving tribals and forest dwellers of their legal rights and that this can be challenged in court.

“The powers are given to the gram sabha under Section 6 of the FRA to determine the nature and extent of individual and community forest rights. Therefore, the role of gram sabhas is very significant,” says Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Parikh, who fought for the rights of the Dongria Kondh in Niyamgari against Vedanta Resources.

He adds, “The proposed amendment will dilute the role played by the gram sabhas in doing justice to the scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers. In fact, the elimination of gram sabhas in the process will be a complete nullification of the act.” Adds forest rights activist Debjeet Sarangi, “Doing away with this provision would mean giving speedy clearances for projects, which is the ultimate aim of the government.”

However, that is exactly what voices from industry are happy about. Says Rita Roy Choudhury, senior director, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, “These steps have been taken to expedite the process of clearance of development projects. The government is keen on doing reforms and is trying to do away with unnecessary bottlenecks and delays that come up in projects.”

While many point to the scores of projects that were stuck during the tenure of the previous government owing to environmental clearances not coming through, others say the NDA government’s move is a blatant violation of the existing law. In a letter dated October 28, 2014, the MoEFCC declared that for plantations, notified as forests for 75 years after the FRA came into force on December 13, 2005 — and not having tribal population as per the 2001 and 2011 census — “no forest rights are likely to be recognised, even if the process is stipulated in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.”

Neema Pathak Broome, member of the Pune-based NGO, Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, points out that according to Clause 2(d) of the FRA, “forest land” means land of any description falling within any forest area and includes unclassified forests, undemarcated forests, existing or deemed forests, protected forests, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks. “The definition of forest land makes no distinction between plantations and other forests and includes non-notified unclassified as well as ‘deemed’ forests. It also includes all forests conforming to the ‘dictionary definition of forest’ as per the Supreme Court judgment of 1996 in the Godavarman case, irrespective of whether these are recorded or notified as forests or not,” she says. “The MoEFCC’s order violates the principal act, which is meant to undo the historical injustice suffered by forest dwelling tribal and non tribal communities,” she adds. Activists have also slammed another provision in the circular — that the FRA does not apply to forest dwellers who have not been living on that land for more than 75 years before the law was instituted. Experts say that this latest directive is contradictory to a letter by the ministry of tribal affairs sent to the MoEFCC earlier. The letter had said,

“There is no requirement in the act that for the purposes of recognition and vesting of forest rights, a person or community of other traditional forest dwellers must have been specifically located in a particular and identifiable location in the forest for 75 years. As long as they are able to establish that they have been primarily residing in and dependent on forests or forest land for bona fide livelihood needs for 75 years prior to December 13, 2005, they are to be considered eligible for recognition and vesting of forest rights under the act.”

A group of over 300 social environmental and tribal activists and organisations have sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi registering their protest against the proposed changes. The ministry of tribal affairs too wrote a stern letter to the MoEFCC, saying that no agency of the government has the power to exempt the application of the act in part or in full. And any action inconsistent with the act would not be legally tenable and is likely to be struck down by the court.

“We will ensure that rights of tribals and forest dwellers under the act are duly protected,” tribal affairs minister Jual Oram says. The MoEFCC, on its part, says it is not riding roughshod over the act.

“We are not doing anything arbitrarily. We are consulting the people concerned to see how developmental projects could be expedited,” says an official in the ministry who declined to be quoted. Advocate Parikh says that any changes to the law would mean that the government is going back on its commitment to abide by international declarations on environment protection. “All these laws were formed keeping India’s commitment to international declarations in mind.

Plus, there are several Supreme Court judgments that reinforce the commitment that India has made on sustainable development. It is legally not permissible to tinker with the environmental jurisprudence of the country,” Parikh stresses. Clearly there are two sides to the debate, and it remains to be seen if the government is able to reconcile the concerns of all stakeholders — not just the tribals and forest dwellers but also those who want to push through development projects in quicktime.

Published in The Telegraph on November 19, 2014

It ‘s poll time in Kashmir, and political parties are gearing up for another battle. The number crunching has begun, with pundits predicting how the people will vote. But there is one politician who insists that he is not interested in “political gains”. He would, he says, rather think about the people of Kashmir.

Meet Sajjad Ghani Lone, the chairman of People’s Conference, which is fighting Assembly elections — announced last week in the capital — after 27 years.

“As a political leader, I am ready for elections. But given the current situation, I think, it is very embarrassing and shameful to talk about votes,” Lone, 47, says.

Indeed, Kashmir is still to recover from the devastating floods that left 85 dead and 12.5 lakh families affected. The floods in September are believed to have led to losses worth Rs 8,000 crore.

Lone doesn’t believe that this is the time for elections. “The least that the people of Kashmir deserve is to be given the time to recover from homelessness. They are not in the frame of mind for polls. The flood was a big disaster and the other disaster will be holding elections now.”

He fears that money will play a crucial role in this election. “At this time, when thousands are homeless, elections will be linked to relief. One can imagine what the role of money will be. This will make a mockery of the elections,” he holds.

Lone is a new entrant in mainstream politics in Kashmir. A separatist leader till 2009, he opposed the electoral process. In May 2009, however, he contested for the Lok Sabha from Baramulla. With 70,000 votes, he lost his security deposit and the seat to Sahrifuddin Shariq of the National Conference.

He is ready to contest again — this time from Handwara constituency, which his father, the senior leader Abdul Ghani Lone, once represented. He also plans to field candidates for at least 35 seats across Kashmir for the polls to be held in November and December.

The time has come to boot out the two main political parties of Kashmir — the ruling National Conference and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — for they have done little for the state, he maintains. “They need to go. All of India is seeing a change, why not Kashmir,” he asks.

There is speculation in Kashmir about Lone being willing to take the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the elections. According to the BJP, it will win more than 44 seats in the 87-member Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and form the government in the state. Lone shrugs off talk of aligning with the BJP but discloses that in July he met senior BJP leader J.P. Nadda, who is the election in-charge of the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir.

“I had a fruitful discussion with him. He talked about developmental issues. I told him that there was a sense of isolation among the people of Kashmir,” he says.

Lone admires former BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, holding that it was his effort that led to a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan. Vajpayee was the only national leader who could “capture the imagination of Kashmiris,” he says.

Lone is also optimistic about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spent Diwali in Kashmir. “It is too early to judge Modi but I feel he can do something good for the people of Kashmir,” he says. And though Muslim-dominated Kashmir may still be wary of the man who headed a state which saw brutal anti-Muslim violence in 2002, Lone believes that the perception, too, may change.

“When Vajpayee came (to power), there was apprehension and suspicion about him. This was more so because L.K. Advani, known to be the biggest ‘hawk’ at that point of time, was the deputy Prime Minister. Now Advani is considered a moderate leader. I won’t be surprised if that metamorphosis takes place in Modi, too” he says.

Modi, he stresses, should carry forward the “rich legacy” left behind by Vajpayee. “It’s up to him how he wants to carry it forward. He has to talk of development here too. He has to understand that people here want a dignified co-existence with India,” he says.

And Modi, he adds, will also have to take a call on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — which gives the army special powers to rein in the people of the state. “The leadership in Delhi has to assess whether Kashmir is staying with India because of the AFSPA or because it wants to be with India willingly. To deal with Kashmir, Modi needs to show magnanimity, not pettiness.”

Lone is not new to centrist politics. His father represented the Congress in the 1967 election and was an education and health minister in the Congress government in Kashmir in 1972. He left the Congress and won from Handwara on a Janata Party ticket in 1977. But disillusioned with the party, he formed his own political outfit, People’s Conference, in 1978.

His son has nothing but criticism for the Congress. “Congress leaders believe it is important only to connect with the two dynasties here — the Muftis and the Abdullahs,” he says, referring to PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, and the chief minister, Omar Abdullah, and his father, Farooq. “They don’t know anybody else. They don’t want to meet anyone or talk to anyone,” he says.

Lone sounds like a seasoned politician but his entry into politics was accidental. When Abdul Ghani was gunned down — allegedly by a militant outfit — in 2002, the party named him the chief. In 2004, he was thrown out of the Hurriyat Conference, a body of separatist leaders, by his elder brother, Bilal, after he’d attacked the senior Hurriyat leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, for attending the funeral of Rafiq Ahmed Lidari, who had allegedly plotted the assassination of their father.

“I was like unwanted baggage in the Hurriyat,” he says.

Lone is harsh on separatist leaders and their movement even now. “There is a web of confusion in them. Are they Pakistanis? Are they Kashmiris? What are they? What do they want? This separatist movement has almost died in this confusion,” he says.

He is also critical of the section that he calls “opportunist” Kashmiris. “This minuscule section will advocate stone-pelting in seminars and newspaper editorials but will send their own children abroad for higher studies. They are the biggest problem here,” he says.

Lone’s sons — nine-year-old Emaad and Adnan — study in a school outside Delhi. He married their mother Asma, the daughter of Amanullah Khan, the founder of militant outfit Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, in Pakistan in 1999. His sons were born there.

He himself was born in Handwara in north Kashmir. A student of Srinagar’s Burn Hall School, he graduated in economics from Cardiff University in 1986.

When Lone returned to Kashmir in 1989 after college, he found that the scenario had changed drastically. “Within a month after I returned, my father was put in jail — and was there for two years. I was tied upside down in an interrogation centre. I kept wondering: why did I come back,” he says.

In 1992, Lone left for Saudi Arabia. He lived there for four years and then spent another three years in Dubai, where he ran a business in scrap metals. After his marriage, the family lived in Pakistan before returning to Srinagar in 2000. He flits between the city and Delhi, where his wife and children live on the outskirts of the capital in Faridabad’s upmarket Charmwood village.

“I don’t want my sons to grow up in this environment where I have to move around with security. I want a normal upbringing for them,” he says, as he lights up a cigarette — his seventh in two hours.

We are sitting in his 20,000-square-foot palatial house in Srinagar’s Sant Nagar. He has converted a part of the property into a commercial complex. “My father once told me, ‘If you ever want to do politics, make sure you have a regular source of income.'”

The room where we are sitting is minimalistic in its décor and furnishing. A photograph of the senior Lone is on the wall behind him. Two wooden shelves stand on two sides, stacked with books such as The Essential Rumi, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk and Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer.

“But my favourite book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The moral of the book is whatever happens in life, happens for a purpose,” says Lone, who is now reading Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir.

Lone says he gets philosophical when he reads a good book or sees a meaningful film. When he watched Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider recently, he started to relate the film — based in Kashmir — with his own life. “Haider cried in front of his father’s grave. I too cried in front of my father’s grave 10 days after his death.”

Thankfully, I have seen Haider, too, for Lone goes on to disclose the film’s dramatic end. “Even Tabu’s character symbolises Kashmir. The way she blew herself up at the end, I think, it is something Kashmiris did to themselves,” he says.

Strong words, these. And not quite an election slogan, I’d say.

Published in The Telegraph, Sunday, November 2, 2014